One of the first things you have to decide once your plane tickets are in hand is how you will get around. With so many options for public transit often this is a very good cost-effective option. However, some trips just are the same without your own set of wheels. Driving in New Zealand can sound a little scary at first. The signs are different, the rules are different, the way the lanes operate, speed limits, or lack thereof! So many things, it can seem overwhelming at first. Have no fear, I am here to tell you that it’s NOT THAT BAD! The rental car companies know you are not from around the area. They are happy to point out any glaring differences in the rules. In our experience, it hasn’t been all that different than driving here, other than it’s… well, foreign.

Driving in a new country can be pretty unnerving, especially when you have to also drive on the other store of the road! The majority of the world drives on the right side of the road. Save for the UK and Australia/New Zealand. Driving in New Zealand was the first experience we had with driving on the other side of the road. We were pretty concerned about this, there are so many horror stories about pretty bad accidents with tourists getting confused. After picking up our rental car and sitting in the seats for a few minutes, orienting ourselves with the car we started discussing ways to ensure we wouldn’t have any mishaps. 

Here are a few tips we came up with that we learned along the way that helped us and we hope will help you when driving in New Zealand too! 

1. Take your time when Driving in New Zealand! 

It’s much better to annoy someone driving slow or pausing too long at a stop sign than to hastily react and cause an accident. If you need to pull over to get your bearings, that’s ok! Just do so in a safe place, of course. This isn’t a time to worry about what others think! I know that getting to a new place is so exciting and that you want to just get going out of that dang airport and get somewhere cool but it’s more important to get there in one piece.

2. Familiarize yourself with your vehicle 

When you first get in the car it will likely feel really strange. For me, it was disorienting to sit in the “driver seat” and have no wheel! We decided to pretend like it was the first time we drove. David pointed out the gas and brake. Once the car was on he turned the indicators and wipers.

Fun fact. While the gas break and many other parts of the car remain in the same place no matter what side of the car the wheel is on, this is not the case for the indicator and wipers. We had two cars during our trip, the first car was European, the wipers and indicators were in reverse. Our second car was American and they were the same as they are in the states. 

3. Get gas often

This note is more of a word of advice for road trippers. I am sure you have seen that meme about being two kinds of people. The ones who think they are empty at a quarter tank and the ones that think that have at least 30 miles past the empty line. I am encouraging you to be the former when driving in New Zealand on a road trip. Gas stations are often few and far between so if you pass one, just stop. Leaving a big town? fill up. It may feel like a lot of stopping but it’s way better than being out of gas in the middle of nowhere and no cell service to boot!

4. The weather is unpredictable, be prepared for anything while driving in New Zealand!

The weather changes in New Zealand faster than a long yellow.  It rains sporadically at varying pressures, high winds may great you around any corner and some of the roads are so windy that it looks like someone picked up the road tied it up like an old slinky, and just stuck it back down. It’s important to have a car you can trust. Maybe locals can handle going 80 down a two-way mountain pass in a Miata but that is not you! (besides, I mean, you likely require more trunk space anyway) I recommend a smaller SUV when driving in New Zealand. It will handle the tight lanes well and it will also handle nicely in a variety of weather and road conditions.

5. Stay aware of your surroundings at all times!

It’s never a good idea to text/eat/whatever and drive but this is even more important when you are driving on the other side of the road. Further, read all signs and keep your eyes on the road. The Kiwis know there is a lot of tourist driving in New Zealand, so larger cities are very clearly marked with arrows and large text. If you stay aware of the signs and these markings, should you find yourself on the wrong side you should be able to quickly correct it. Another note about the signs. Unlike here in America where we spell things out, literally, in English on the majority of the signs. Most other countries use symbols and numbers only. They are basically the same shape and colors as the signs here though so it’s easy to quickly ascertain what they mean. 

6. The left lane is for passing. 

Ya, I know some of you are saying DUH! Well as a SoCal native, this was news to me, here, every lane is for driving. Not in New Zealand, or many parts of the world for that matter. The left lane is for passing only. Journey in the right late, when that driver who is newer than you ends up in front of you driving like a cold snail, use the left lane so safely pass them and other slowpokes ahead and then safely return to the right lane.

7. Round-a-bouts

These things are EVERYWHERE outside the states it seems, New Zealand is no exception. Here in San Diego, we think we are so edgy and European with our little baby round-a-bouts. They are really just a step up from a stop sign, you yield and then enter, which if you are familiar with the “California stop” then you know we just do that anyway. The round-a-bouts just make it safer and legal. They sure don’t prepare you for the ones overseas though.

The round-a-bouts in New Zealand often replace full intersections and are even controlled by traffic lights. They can have as many as 6 exits off of it also. At first, I’ll admit, I was not a fan of these suckers. They seemed confusing and weird but after like 30 of them I came around. In smaller rural areas, these are instead of stop signs. It is so nice to not have to stop when there is NO ONE around. It keeps things moving really nicely. In the bigger cities, the larger ones actually keep traffic moving really well. Though the first time entering and exiting a two laner on the 3rd exit will leave your knuckles white!

If you aren’t familiar with round-a-bouts I suggest looking them up and getting the basics down. We just kinda winged it and we held up traffic a time or two on the bigger ones. Once we got the gist though, we were flaying right alone like a local. Sad when we returned home to standard ol’ stoplights everywhere. 

8. Don’t leave it up to the driver. 

This one is to the copilots. Yes, the driver is, well, the one driving. That doesn’t leave you off the hook! It may have been a while since you learned to drive, but try to remember when you were first learning to drive. How many things do you have to remember? How overwhelming it was. Driving on the other side of the road first the first time is similar to that. So even though you are not the one behind the wheel it’s important you stay alert and awake and help the driver in any way you can, especially at first. 

9. Remember this mantra when driving in New Zealand!

This is my favorite tip! We came up with this little mantra: “short left, long right”. It’s to remind you that when you turn left you turn into the closest lane and when you turn right you turn out to the farther lane. Which is the opposite of the states, where we have short rights and long lefts. Anytime we approached an intersection we would say this together right before we made a turn. It helped so so much.

After a few hours, we felt totally comfortable driving about this country, we hope these little tips will help you stay safe when driving in New Zealand and on the other side of the road!

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Show 18 Comments


  1. These are wonderful tips and can really apply to driving anywhere that you are unfamiliar with. I have never driven in a country that I was visiting, but I might someday!

      • Christa

        There are so many great tips here. I hope I can put them to use one day as New Zealand is a trip I really want to take.

  2. I haven’t been to New Zealand (yet) but I remember how odd it felt to drive around in Dublin where everything is opposite of the US too. I like the “short left, long right” mantra!

    • admin

      Yes! We went to Ireland after New Zealand. It was handy we had done it before. So weird. But also weird how it becomes so normal so quickly.

  3. Bree

    The tip about short left, long right, is very useful! I had no idea that was a thing in New Zealand!

  4. Fran Jorgensen

    This is one of my favourite corner on this earth! I had the opportunity to visit new zealand last year and now I really want to go back!

  5. Taking your time would be so important when driving in a unfamiliar place. I love your tips, especially about how it’s not just the driver who needs to pay attention.

  6. All these tips make a lot of sense especially #3. There’s nothing as bad as getting stranded in the middle of nowhere.

  7. Christa

    There are so many great tips here. I hope I can put them to use one day as New Zealand is a trip I really want to take.

  8. Great tips! I have never been to New Zealand!But I have bookmarked it so that when I plan to visit this place I can go through these tips again ☺

  9. These are all great tips! i hope to travel to New Zealand some day, so I will keep these in mind. Love your beautiful pictures too!!

  10. The weather of New Zealand looks so beautiful! I am surprised to hear that it is very unpredictable. Your tips will help one enjoy long drives in New zealand. 🙂

  11. Melanie williams

    I am loving all these tips. Not been to New Zealand before, but it looks lovely from all your piccys xx

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