So you have finally decided to visit Kiwiland and I’m sure you’re looking forward to seeing the vast array of landscapes and long miles of beaches that are very unique to this country. Every vacation needs to have some basic preparation; knowing what to expect can save you from confusion and allow you to focus more on creating memorable experiences in this breathtaking country. Before you get too excited planning how to explore Middle Earth, here are some important things I wish I knew before our NZ trip.
1. You can’t bring in (most) food in New Zealand.
New Zealand is very strict about letting in agricultural products because it might affect the biodiversity of the country. Their people are very careful because the effects on their economy can be huge if a careless visitor accidentally brought in infected items. They have a list of what they call “risk goods” which includes but not limited to fruits, vegetables, meat, cheese and animals (dead or alive).
My wife sometimes doesn’t finish her meals and snacks when we’re on long flights and she always end up taking them with her as we get off the plane. She said she doesn’t have the heart to dispose food especially that there are millions of children starving around the world. She has a very good point actually, so when we went to New Zealand, as expected, she didn’t finish her breakfast which is a plate of sausage, egg and potatoes, she also wasn’t able to eat her chicken sandwich and the snack box they gave us which has chocolates, crackers, granola bar, apple slices, dried fruit and chips was still sealed. She said she’ll eat them when we get to our hotel.
As we were leaving the aircraft, we saw big signs saying food and other risk goods should be disposed. Packaged food is ok but we have to declare it. Cooked food such as the one she has from the aircraft is definitely not allowed. When it’s time to finally toss them out, she gave me the saddest look and I just reminded her she can keep her leftover or we pay the hefty fine. It doesn’t make sense to still try to bring it in because they will confiscate prohibited goods no matter what. There’s really no going around this food policy in New Zealand and the only thing you can do is abide by their rules.
Regarding packaged food, there are some that you can bring in as long as it doesn’t have some ingredients they prohibit like honey. I highly suggest checking New Zealand's customs website for a comprehensive list of items you can't bring.
Declare all risk goods as well as any kind of food you have in your luggage or you will be charged with a $400 fine. My wife had some green tea and unopened cookies in her luggage which she declared and we had no problem in customs.
All in all, it’s just less of a hassle not to bring any food items to New Zealand. The good thing is that there is a large supermarket on the way out of the Auckland airport so you can just get everything you’d be needing there food-wise. If you can’t help but bring in some food essentials, always declare if you are not certain whether what you have in your luggage is allowed or not.
2. Make sure your hiking boots and camping gears are squeaky clean.
Aside from their strict food policy, NZ is very particular about any outdoor gear that has come in contact with nature as this may affect their agricultural industry. When you have these items in your luggage, ALWAYS DECLARE them and you will be directed to a separate line where a customs representative will inspect your items. If these are not clean, they will wash them out for you particularly the sole of your shoes.
There was an elderly couple ahead of us and they look like they’ve been to NZ before because when they were directed to a different line, their boots were in an easily accessible part of their luggage and they were inside a clear plastic bag so the inspector was able to check them in a few seconds.
Unlike my suggestion of not bringing in food because you can easily buy it when you land in New Zealand, I do not recommend purchasing hiking boots or anything similar in this country. I went to check out some of their hiking boots as well as some trail running shoes and they cost double compared to prices in the US.
3. Oncoming traffic is on the left and vehicles are right hand drive.
This can be a challenge at first especially when you’re used to driving on the right hand side of the road. Make sure you brush up your driving skills and read up on New Zealand traffic laws and policies before you pick up your rental car or camper van.
4. Roads, most especially outside of the city can be narrow.
There are times you have to pass by a single lane road especially when you’re driving in the countryside. Narrow roads can also mean sharp turns, so take caution when driving.
5. Plan ahead when traveling on the road.
This applies anywhere you go but I want to emphasize that taking a road trip in New Zealand means driving through very diverse terrains. When you look on your map or GPS, travel distance might appear short but because of roadside conditions and weather, travel time might be longer than expected.
6. GPS or map is necessary.
The country side made it hard to connect to internet most times. If you’re driving and not really familiar with the road, it will be too easy to get lost. I wasn’t initially planning on renting a GPS as we were picking up our rental car but my wife told me we might have some issues with our internet, and lo behold, we really did have some connection problems especially as we went further out of the city.
I’ve read some articles about others not having a GPS and they didn't have any problem and that’s really cool. Personally, I would want to have one with me or at least a map to give me peace of mind while driving in an unfamiliar territory.
7. Internet is not very reliable.
New Zealand doesn’t have the fastest internet speed. This is especially true in the countryside where internet reception is almost non-existent. We have a mobile hotspot (wifi) but the signal was just very weak (although I never had a problem using it in other countries). Thankfully, they have libraries offering unlimited and faster internet connection.
Not having internet connection in some areas especially when we’re out exploring was not really a bad thing because it became the perfect opportunity to disconnect and appreciate the splendor of this country.
8. The best time to go to New Zealand depends on the activities you want to do.
We went on April and it was really pleasant and sunny during the day but a little chilly in the evening. So we would dress light in the morning but we made sure to pack a jacket for the evening.
Thanks to New Zealand Travel Insider, I was able to easily decide when I want to visit New Zealand:
9. Wear clothes in layers or pack a sweater at least.
When I was researching about the temperature in New Zealand, I’ve read somewhere that you may experience all four seasons in one day. And it’s true, there have been times we checked the weather the night before and we’re expecting clear skies but then woke up to a very rainy morning. The weather can change from being cold to hot in an instant or vice versa depending on where you are and when you’re visiting. The good thing is that the temperature is not really extreme so outdoor activities can be done whatever the season is.
Ultimately, the weather was really nice when we went April of this year. It was sunny during the day so we’re able to wear shirts, tank tops and shorts. It got cold really quick though as soon as it got dark so we made sure we have a sweater or a jacket just in case we stay out late.
10. You don’t get taxed on your purchases.
Unlike California and many other areas around the world, there’s no surprises when you get to the cashier to pay for your items.
Edit: I was informed by a New Zealand resident that you still get taxed in this country but the tax is already included in the price. You will not notice the tax as it is not added as a separate item on the customer price.
11. Tipping is not customary.
I never really realized how true this is until we ate at a restaurant, particularly a Korean restaurant. We paid by cash and a few minutes later, the waitress came back saying we paid too much. We told her it’s her tip, and she said we just have to pay the exact amount. We still insisted on her taking the tip, and the Korean waitress was just too embarrassed, she was thanking us nonstop. We were honestly dumbfounded because most people will not turn down a tip. I highly suggest still leaving one if you had a fantastic service, but you’re not obligated to leave a tip in this part of the world.
12. The accent can be tricky.
I noticed that they speak shorter and quicker. When we checked in, the hotel reception asked if we can have two single beds. I requested to have just one king or one queen. The way she said bed sounds like “bid” and I initially thought we would have to bid to get a bigger bed which at that time I thought was the strangest setup. My wife was laughing the entire time once we realized where the confusion was.
13. New Zealand slang can be confusing.
When we were in New Zealand, my wife called the hotel operator at 3:30 in the morning and asked what time the café downstairs opens because she wanted some coffee and was feeling kinda hungry that time. The gentleman on the other side of the line said she can go to Macca’s which is just a few streets away. We thought this is a café and didn’t know it’s actually how they call McDonald’s. Here are some other slang words I’ve learned in NZ.
Buggered – tired
Fizzy drink – soda
Hot chips – French fries
Jumper – sweat shirt
Sweet as – no problem
I’m sure there’s a lot more to these but the ones above are what I’ve personally heard used in conversations during our trip.
14. Livestock is everywhere.
This is especially true when you’re going further away from the city and driving into the countryside. We stopped several times while driving to take pictures of sheep, cows and horses. A word of caution though: never get too close when photographing livestock or any other kinds of animals for that matter. If they start moving, you are getting on their personal space and that's not good.
15. Wear sunscreen.
According to www.teara.govt.nz, there’s an ozone depletion especially in the south of New Zealand and although it doesn’t pose a direct health risk, it’s still important to be proactive and take necessary precautions. Sun rays in this part of the world are quite powerful. Your skin might get burned easier than say you’re out tanning on the beach in another country. To be specific, the peak UV intensities in New Zealand are about 40% greater than other places in Europe that are in similar latitudes.
16. Food can be expensive.
I can’t really say it is super expensive as it is very comparable to food cost in California. A plate at a casual dining restaurant not including sides and drinks costs between 12 – 24 NZD (8.75 – 18.25 USD). It really depends on how you gauge food expense. When I was living in the Philippines I would have thought this to be outrageously expensive. But living in California for more than a decade, I'd consider this slightly above average cost-wise for a casual restaurant. If you’re planning on eating out for every meal, expect a big chunk of your budget going towards food. As with anywhere else, you can keep your food cost down by preparing and making your own meals.
17. They have amazing coffee and they have coffee shops everywhere.
I was initially not a coffee drinker but being married to one made me appreciate good coffee now. New Zealand boasts a lot of great coffee shops which I didn’t really expect.
18. You can drink water straight from the tap.
New Zealand has clean and safe drinking water and locals don’t usually buy the bottled kind.
19. Bring your passport if you want to buy alcohol.
Driver’s license from other countries is not accepted as a form of identification when buying booze at a supermarket or if you’re planning on going into a bar for some drinks.
20. Gas is expensive.
When we went to pump gas I saw the sign that reads NZ$1.87 and I told myself, Wow I hit a jackpot! I went to get a full tank and was surprised why my receipt showed 97 NZD (65.600 USD) for a small economy car. And then I asked one of the employees at the gas station and the price NZ$1.87 is actually per liter and not per gallon.
21. Voltage is 220 V 50 Hz
22. Outlet is Plug I.
Hence you need to bring a travel adapter.
23. It’s a cultural melting pot.
New Zealand has a very good Student+Work program making it an attractive destination for students who want an alternative to getting an education while gaining valuable experience at an amazing destination.
24. The people are very helpful.
I’ve been to some places where it’s hard to approach locals because you already feel they don’t want to be bothered. Not in New Zealand. I’ve asked for some info, directions and lots of other things and everyone seems to be genuinely accommodating and kind.
25. It is unbelievably beautiful.
There’s not enough words to explain how stunning the sceneries are in New Zealand. Pictures can better portray what I’m talking about here and a simple Google search can show you what I mean, but there’s nothing like seeing with your very own eyes the spectacle that is New Zealand.