Should you rent a car in New Zealand?
Learn whether it is a good idea to rent a car in New Zealand, whether you really need a car, and whether you could travel without a car reservation.
You should most definitely rent a car if you can drive and have a driver’s license but there is one exception…
New Zealand is a country that does not have many large cities. The three biggest cities in New Zealand are Auckland, Christchurch, and Wellington.
Therefore, it should not come as a surprise to hear that these cities also offer public transport.
So if you are staying in one of the larger cities in New Zealand that offer public transport such as buses and trains, you could do without renting a car in New Zealand.
However, this is assuming that you will be visiting and staying in one of those cities and not going anywhere else.
Advantages and disadvantages of not hiring a car
You can extend your mobility past city boundaries by making use of the services of coach or tour bus companies and trains – so not the usual public transport.
There are several advantages to using the services of such companies. Here are a few:
- You are driven around, so you won’t get tired having to drive yourself.
- You can drink alcohol because you are not the one who is driving. Some companies may restrict this, though.
- You do not have to waste time or get smelly hands at the gas station.
However, the biggest advantage is that it is much cheaper than renting a car. For example, a bus trip from Christchurch to Queenstown may cost anywhere between $50 and $100.
If you rent a car, that amount would only cover the cost of gasoline to get from Christchurch to Queenstown and would exclude the cost of renting the car itself and paying for insurance.
The biggest disadvantage is that you are stuck to fixed routes and timetables.
In addition, long routes like, for example, from Christchurch to Queenstown are generally not serviced by buses throughout the entire day.
So if you miss the last bus, which departs pretty early in the morning, you’ve missed it; try catching another bus the next day.
[Photo: Bus stop in Wellington (28 KB)]
The main benefit of renting a car in New Zealand
If you want to see the rest of New Zealand at your own pace and on your own time, I highly recommend renting a car.
Most remote and gorgeous parts of New Zealand are not on the routes of buses or trains that run between cities and some areas are not even covered by such intercity transport.
Besides, having a car gives you the freedom to go wherever you want – with some restrictions, of course, and making short day trips from main cities like Christchurch or Queenstown.
The disadvantages of renting a car in New Zealand
The extra cost of gasoline
The downside of renting a car is that it will not only cost money to actually hire the car but also to fill the tank regularly. And I should disclose that gas prices have risen tremendously in the last couple of years here in New Zealand.
For example, if you are driving from Christchurch to Queenstown, you will probably have to refill the tank at least once before you reach your destination.
If we take a medium-sized car like a Toyota Corolla, it could cost anywhere between $50 and $80 to fill the tank, so you should budget for such costs when planning your trip.
You will have to pay for any damages to the car
While you can choose to include insurance when you rent a car, if you damage the car – whether it’s your fault or not – the amount you would have to pay on top of what you have already paid for insurance is usually not zero dollars. Prepare to pay anything above $300 extra.
Note that there are some car rental companies that reduce the excess to zero dollars, so make sure you ask how much the excess is that you would have to pay before you sign on the dotted line(s).
You cannot drive everywhere in New Zealand
You are not allowed to drive on all roads in New Zealand. Roads that are considered to be narrow and dangerous, a couple of gravel roads, beaches, and unmarked roads are among those on the list of forbidden roads.
Read the fine print on the contract you get from the car rental company well before you drive off; the forbidden roads should be listed on it.
You can also visit the websites of some car rental companies and find the fine print there so that you can read it before you arrive in New Zealand.
Doing this is important because if you drive on a road that is prohibited and you damage the car, it will make your insurance void and you will then have to pay more than the excess.
[Photo: Rental car at Lake Tekapo (49 KB)]
You need to be fit at all times to drive
New Zealand’s roads are not all long and straight. Oftentimes you will be driving on winding roads that may rock you asleep or get you in trouble. You may also have to cross mountain passes like Lindis Pass, especially on the South Island of New Zealand.
Having to drive long distances can be tiring and may cause back pain or cramp in your legs. So you need to make sure that you take enough breaks during such long trips.
As the driver, you must be fit to drive at all times. This includes not drinking and driving as well as staying awake behind the wheel.
You will have to drive on the left side of the road
New Zealanders drive on the left side of the road. If you are not from the United Kingdom, Australia, or a few other countries where left-hand traffic is the norm, driving on the left side of the road may feel like a handicap to you.
It is not as scary as it sounds, though, and most rules that apply overseas can also be applied in New Zealand. Just read about driving in New Zealand before you come over, and you should be fine. And remember to stay left!
How old do you have to be to hire a car in New Zealand?
Most major car rental companies in New Zealand have 21 as the minimum age to rent a car. There are car rental companies that may let younger people rent cars but not unless they have a valid full driver’s license.
Also bear in mind that car rental companies may charge extra if you are younger than a certain age. The age depends on the car rental company but is generally set around 25 years with some places having 30 years as their cutoff age for dropping surcharges.
Other restrictions apart from age may be the length of time you’ve had your driver’s license. Some places may charge extra or may impose extra conditions if you’ve had your driver’s license for less than one or two years.
The moral of the story is the following: If you are very young or have just got your driver’s license, inquire about surcharges due to your age or the newness of your driver’s license.
[Photo: Rental car at Lake Aviemore on the South Island (36 KB)]
How to rent a car in New Zealand
Renting a car in New Zealand is as easy as contacting a car rental company or person who has a car or cars for rent. Generally what I do is book rental cars via the Internet.
All you need to have is a valid full driver’s license and a credit card to be able to rent a car. If you are booking online, some companies may ask you to enter credit card details.
Car rental companies generally do not charge your credit card when you make a reservation unless they have stated that there is a booking fee, a cancellation fee, or that you have to pay (part of) the rental charges up front. This varies from company to company.
These days you may also have an option to pay up front and pay less instead of paying at the counter and pay the normal rental charges. Note that some companies may also add a credit card surcharge to your bill.
If you are visiting New Zealand from overseas, it is always handy to carry an international driving permit just in case you are asked for it and definitely if your current driver’s license does not have English text printed on it.
When I used to live outside New Zealand and had a European driver’s license, I used to always get an international driving permit before leaving for any English-speaking country such as the U.S.A., Canada, and New Zealand. However, I was never asked to present it.
It is always good to carry one along with you in case you are asked for it in addition to your current driver’s license.
[Photo: Dirt road on the South Island of New Zealand (38 KB)]
How much does it cost to rent a car in New Zealand?
The cost of renting a car in New Zealand depends on the following:
- The car rental company you are renting the car from.
- The amount of days you want to rent the car for.
- The period of time (read high season or low season) you are renting the car.
- The type of car you would like to rent.
- Whether you include any extras such as insurance, GPS, ski rack, snow chains, road assistance, etc.
- The car rental location.
- Your age in some cases.
The best way to get an idea how much it would cost to rent a car in New Zealand is to visit the websites of a couple of renowned car rental companies in New Zealand, enter details for the period for which you would like to rent a car, select the type of car you would like to rent, and whether you want any extras included, and then click the Submit button.
This should give you a basic idea of the car rental cost. You can expect to pay anywhere from $50 or higher per day to rent a car. Some car rental companies may go below that amount, but you need to be careful what you are getting yourself into when a deal sounds too good to be true.
And just like with anything else, it is always a good idea to shop around – compare prices and car rental conditions – before you reserve a car.
Any good car rental company should have their car rental conditions somewhere on their website. If they don’t, you can contact them and ask them what their car rental conditions are. Like with anything, read the fine print before you purchase.
[Photo: A Toyota Corolla rental car at Lake Wakatipu near Queenstown (53 KB)]
Travel to New Zealand without reserving a car
There are two main things you need to look at when you are considering traveling to New Zealand without booking a car in advance and then looking to rent one on the day you arrive in New Zealand:
- The car rental location.
- Whether it is peak season or off season in New Zealand.
Larger airports and cities in New Zealand tend to have a larger supply of cars. In addition, during the off season in New Zealand, more rental cars are expected to be available than during the peak season in New Zealand.
While New Zealand does not have clear-cut high and low seasons because New Zealand is busy throughout the entire year, you can see summer and winter as the peak seasons and late autumn and early spring as the off seasons.
New Zealand is a relatively small country if you compare it to the U.S.A. or Canada, so the supply of rental cars will naturally be low. Therefore, it is recommended to make a car reservation before you arrive in New Zealand.
But if you decide to travel to New Zealand without a car rental reservation, make sure you have a backup plan.
For example, if you are flying to Christchurch Airport, remember that you might be able to rent a car at a location other than the airport in Christchurch. This means that you could catch a bus or a taxi to Christchurch city center and pick up a car there.
If it does not occur to the car rental attendant you speak to at the airport to inquire about the availability of cars at any of their other car rental branches that are not located at the airport, specifically ask whether they could inquire for you at their local city center branch (if they have one) and check whether there are any cars available.
The airport is not the only place you can rent a car, and you can always try a different car rental company at the airport, especially at an airport like Christchurch Airport because there are several car rental companies at Christchurch Airport or that will take you to their off-airport location.
[Photo: A Toyota Rav rental car on the South Island (44 KB)]
Final words on whether to hire a car in New Zealand
Whether you rent a car or not in New Zealand is really up to you. You need to look at how much freedom of movement you want and whether you can afford the costs and responsibilities that go along with renting a car.
If you are not on a tight budget, I would definitely recommend renting a car in New Zealand because it can make your trip so much more enjoyable.
This article falls under Travel Guide.
Note: This article was accurate when it was published. Please confirm all details
directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.