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Exploring New Zealand: The best ways to travel between cities

There are more ways to get between cities than private cars. We break down the best ways to see New Zealand from ferries, trains, buses and planes.
By · January 8, 2024
Exploring New Zealand: The best ways to travel between cities

New Zealand is a country made for road-tripping. The highlights of our beautiful country can often be found at the end of a gravel road or out of the city limits. But how do you get to these far-flung corners of Aotearoa? The most popular way to see New Zealand is by private car. Whether you want to hire a car or buy your own, all you need is an international driver's licence and a little bit of confidence to drive on the left-hand side.

If you’re not up for driving in New Zealand, don’t worry. There are more ways to get between cities than private cars. We break down the best ways to see New Zealand from ferries, trains, buses and planes.

See New Zealand by car

The easiest way to get around New Zealand is by private car. There are several reasons for this. New Zealand is much longer than people think, and much of our country's land is relatively uninhibited. Add in a small rail network and population, and you’ll find that the options of where to stop are limited by train and air.

Hiring a car makes it easier to travel between destinations on your own schedule. While the country has a rail network, it’s not serviced as frequently as train services in Italy, the UK or even the US. If you want to get the most out of your time in New Zealand, hiring a car or buying one could be best.

Another reason for hiring a private vehicle is that it allows you to stop wherever you like. Want to freedom camp? Try hiring a self-contained van and sleeping (almost) wherever you please. New Zealand is a country full of hidden gems. There are thousands of kilometres of coastline, beaches, and bays around every corner.

A private car allows you to skip the most tourist hotspots and discover New Zealand on your own. Whether you’re looking for hidden surf spots or a beach with no one on it, you can do it all at your own pace.

How to explore New Zealand by car

When exploring New Zealand by car, there are two main options: hiring a vehicle or buying a car or van. While it may seem excessive to buy a car for a holiday, it’s actually an extremely popular option with backpackers and long-term travellers.

Travellers can pick up a second-hand van for under $15,000, while many cars and station wagons are in the $5,000-$7,000 range. If you are planning on travelling for more than three months, it may be cheaper to buy a car rather than rent one for the duration of your trip.

Foreigners are allowed to buy cars in New Zealand, and the process is relatively straightforward. Check out websites like TradeMe and Facebook Marketplace for second-hand vehicles. Once you’ve found one you’ll need an international driver's licence to be able to drive. Insurance is not compulsory in New Zealand. However, it is recommended that you take out third-party insurance to protect yourself while on the road.

See New Zealand by bus

One of the most flexible and popular ways to travel between cities in New Zealand is through hop-on-hop-off bus services. Like a private car, these buses allow travellers to explore at their own pace. Once you get on, you can get off at a range of scenic spots along the way. There are even more benefits of taking a hop-on hop-off bus.

If you’re not quite sure what you want to explore while you’re in New Zealand, these buses have well-planned routes that have done the hard work for you. They also pick up and drop off from central locations which can make getting on and off much cheaper and faster than getting to an airport.

Another pro of seeing New Zealand by bus is the social interaction. Hop-on-hop-off buses attract a diverse group of travellers from around the world. This creates a social environment where you can meet like-minded individuals, share travel stories, and potentially form lasting connections. If you’re looking to stay in New Zealand long-term, it’s a great way to make friends and learn more about the country from fellow travellers.

For budget-conscious travellers, hop-on-hop-off buses can be cost-effective. The ticket price often includes transportation and sometimes even discounts on activities or accommodations at certain stops, making it a convenient and economical choice.

Alternatively, you can travel throughout New Zealand by bus while on your own itinerary. This is a great way to save money and travel at your own time and pace while foregoing the more social elements of a hop-on-hop-off bus service.

How to explore New Zealand by bus

With a predetermined route, you don't have to worry about planning the logistics of getting from one destination to another. However, it’s still a good idea to research the cities, towns and tourist attractions you’ll be staying in.

Kiwi Experience and Stray are well-known companies offering extensive networks covering both islands. You can choose from a range of bus routes that explore tourist areas like the Bay of Plenty, Fiordland, Queenstown, or the Central North Island or travel extensively through one island.

There are even tours that will take you from Auckland to Christchurch, exploring the central north island, the west coast of the south island and everything in between.

See New Zealand by train

While New Zealand does not have an extensive inter-city passenger train service you can still see New Zealand by rail. In fact, travelling by train is one of the best ways to see unique and hidden parts of the country that you can’t view by road.

Rail travel in New Zealand will take you past some of New Zeaand’s most beautiful and stunning scenery. From alpine views to glacial lakes, native forests and rolling farmland, it’s a stress-free way to see the country.

How to explore New Zealand by train

To book tickets for these iconic trips, you can visit the official New Zealand Railways website. New Zealand has three main scenic train journeys:

Northern Explorer:

The Northern Explorer is a 12-hour, 648km train journey from Auckland to Wellington. The scenic route takes passengers through the volcanic heart of the North Island, passing the UNESCO World Heritage site of Tongariro National Park, home to three volcanos. Travelling in winter? Enjoy the picturesque snowy peaks while you’re tucked up cosily inside. In summer, the landscape transforms into a rocky terrain unlike anything you’ve ever seen before. Highlights include the Raurimu Spiral, towering viaducts, cliffs covered in native bush, and rural farmland.

Coastal Pacific:

Enjoy a six-hour train journey along the east coast of the South Island. The Coastal Pacific is one of the best ways to get between Picton and Christchurch without a car. The route offers stunning views of the Kaikōura Ranges and the Pacific Ocean. Travelers pass through Marlborough, renowned for its wines, and the salt fields of Lake Grassmere. The journey also includes a stop at Kaikōura, famous for seafood and whale watching. The Coastal Pacific crosses the Canterbury Plains, featuring 22 tunnels and 175 bridges, offering glimpses of seals, penguins, and various marine life.

TranzAlpine:

Regarded as one of the world's great train trips, the TranzAlpine is a five-hour journey across the South Island from Christchurch on the East Coast to Greymouth on the West Coast. This magical trip crosses the Southern Alps, and includes stunning vistas of Arthur's Pass National Park. Enjoy breathtaking scenery, including snow-capped mountains, gem-coloured lakes, braided rivers, and lush native forests. Travellers will see the beauty of a part of New Zealand that very few people get to experience.

See New Zealand by ferry

New Zealand’s most well-known ferry service connects the North and South Islands and is popular with locals and travellers alike. Bluebridge and the Interisland are two ferry services that run from Picton to Wellington, return and take around 3.5 hours each.

Not only is this a great way to travel, especially if you need to take your car with you, but you can also enjoy stunning views of the Marlborough sounds, including secluded islands, the stunning coastline of the South Island, and even dolphin sightings during the journey. Between June and September, you may even see a humpback whale as they travel across the Cook Straight.

Bluebridge also offers overnight sailings from 2 am for travellers who want to maximise their time.

How to explore New Zealand by ferry

The Cook Straight isn’t the only place to explore by ferry. Many cities, including Auckland and Wellington, have water taxis and small ferries that connect seaside towns, suburbs and islands to their main centres.

You can explore Auckland’s Hauraki Gulf by taking ferries to the following destinations:

  • Devonport, 12 minutes

  • Rangitoto Island, 25 minutes

  • Motutapu Island, 35 minutes

  • Waiheke Island, 40 minutes

  • Tiritiri Matangi Island, 75 minutes

  • Rotoroa Island, 75 minutes

  • The Coromandel, 2 hours

You can also explore other parts of New Zealand by ferry:

Stewart Island: Not only can you get to Stewart Island from Bluff via ferry, but there are local ferry services that can take you to smaller, uninhibited islands off the mainland.

Bay of Islands: Explore the Bay of Islands in Northland with a regular ferry service between Opua and Okiato.

Abel Tasman: Abel Tasman National Park has several ferry services which allow walkers and hikers transportation to and from many of the bays along the track. These are perfect for taking day trips to secluded areas or for using as transportation during your hike.

Wellington: Wellington’s East by West ferry service connects the central city with the eastern bays. Leave Queens Wharf and arrive in Day’s Bay in just 25 minutes. You can also explore Mātiu/Sommes Island for a unique day trip.

Milford & Kepler Track: Explore Fiordland’s most famous tracks with the help of water taxis. Get to the start of the Milford Track via water taxi or simply use one for a unique day trip to the area.

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