Self Drive New Zealand South Island: Driving Essentials

Are you dreaming of an unforgettable adventure in New Zealand’s picturesque South Island? Look no further! Our comprehensive guide on planning your own Self Drive New Zealand South Island tour will tell you everything you need to know. This guide covers crucial topics like road regulations, driving situations, and essential advice to ensure a safe and enjoyable New Zealand self drive holiday.

Campervan on beach

Why Self Drive New Zealand South Island

Embarking on a New Zealand self drive tour grants you the freedom to set your own pace and design your itinerary as you please. To truly discover the wonders of the South Island, driving yourself is the way to go. The South Islands’ breathtaking views and hidden treasures are best experienced with you behind the wheel.

Unlike guided tours, self drive holidays in New Zealand enable you to immerse yourself in the beauty of New Zealand at your leisure.

There are self drive tours in New Zealand that offer vehicle rentals, accommodation, meals, entry fees to attractions, and pre-planned itineraries. These tours are ideal for those with a surplus of funds but need more time.

However, this article focuses on independent self drive New Zealand South Island tours, in which you rent or purchase a car or campervan and plan your own travel schedule. 

It will provide essential recommendations for preparing for your self drive South Island tour and suggest sample itineraries.

Furthermore, although it primarily concentrates on the South Island, featuring details about the South Island roads and specific itineraries for the region, much of this information also applies to the North Island.

No matter which type of self drive New Zealand tours you decide to take, it’s important to know the essential information about driving in New Zealand.

Keep reading for this information and tips for preparing for New Zealand South Island self drive tours.   

Preparing for the self drive New Zealand South Island Adventure

Driver’s License and Permits

To drive in New Zealand, you need to have a valid driver’s license and the necessary permits for driving in New Zealand. Your overseas licence needs to be in English. Otherwise, you must have an accurate translation or International Driving Permit.

Driving Rules and Regulations

Before driving in New Zealand, know these rules:

  • Drive on the left side. 
  • Everyone must wear seatbelts.
  • As a general guideline, speed limits are 50 km/h in urban, 100 km/h on open roads, and 110 km/h on some highways.
  • No mobile phone use without a hands-free device.
  • Alcohol limits apply – 250 micrograms of alcohol per litre of breath for drivers 20+; zero for drivers under 20.
  • Driving under the influence of drugs is also illegal.

It is essential to familiarize yourself with New Zealand’s driving regulations before embarking on a self drive New Zealand South Island tour.

Unfortunately, we have witnessed several accidents involving international drivers who did not know the New Zealand road rules. Therefore, we cannot stress enough the importance of being informed and alert while driving in New Zealand.

You must understand all the road rules and the road signs’ meanings. You can easily access online versions of the road code on the NZ Transport Agency website.

Self Drive New Zealand South Island Road Conditions and Challenges 

While the roads in New Zealand are generally well-maintained, some factors should be considered, especially when exploring the more remote areas of the South Island.

Narrow and Winding Roads

Many roads in the South Island, especially in rural and mountainous areas, can be narrow and winding. Exercise caution and be prepared for steep ascents and descents.

Unpredictable Weather

New Zealand’s weather can be unpredictable, and conditions can change rapidly, particularly in mountainous regions. Check weather forecasts regularly and be prepared for sudden changes in visibility and road conditions.


Watch for wildlife, especially when driving during dusk and dawn. New Zealand is home to various unique animals, and encounters with wildlife on the road can happen, particularly in rural areas.

One-Lane Bridges

In some rural areas, you may encounter one-lane bridges. These bridges are shared between both directions of traffic, and there are specific rules for giving way. Pay attention to signage and give way to oncoming traffic when necessary.

Essential Tips for a Smooth Journey

Plan Your Routes

Plan your routes and destinations before leaving on your self drive New Zealand South Island road trip. While spontaneity is exciting, having a rough itinerary will help you make the most of your time and ensure you don’t miss any must-see locations.

Take Breaks and Rest

Driving on the South Island can be tiring due to the diverse landscapes and long stretches between destinations. Take regular breaks to stretch your legs, relax, and enjoy the stunning scenery.

Fuel Up

Monitor your fuel levels, especially when travelling through remote areas. Some regions may have limited fuel stations, so it’s best to top up whenever possible.

Vehicle Selection for your self drive New Zealand South Island holiday

Choosing the right vehicle is crucial for a smooth trip. Opt for a sturdy and reliable car, such as a 4WD, especially if you plan to venture into the more remote areas of the South Island. 

A small car can be cheaper. However, many people opt for a campervan. For the ultimate flexibility and freedom, experiencing the South Island with a campervan allows you to travel at your own pace and then park up for the night wherever you please (in designated camping areas.)

Both options can be cost-effective as a campervan allows you to save accommodation costs.

Please remember that the insurance provided with your car rental fees in New Zealand typically comes with a substantial excess. We strongly advise you to opt for a zero-excess policy. In case of any damage, such as a rock hitting your windscreen (not uncommon on South Island roads), having a zero-excess policy will give you peace of mind.

Additionally, you can rent from one location and return the vehicle to a different one, providing more flexibility.

Read Next – Discovering the Best South Island Campgrounds. 

Green campervan at Mt. Cook campground

Self Drive New Zealand South Island Itineraries 

Numerous self drive tours begin in Christchurch, providing various options to explore the stunning region by creating a loop that combines diverse landscapes and exciting experiences. 

Although there are countless routes to discover, several popular ones lead to some of the South Island’s most remarkable treasures. 

These road trips offer a taste of South Island’s diverse beauty, showcasing its awe-inspiring landscapes, adventures, and unique experiences.

Here is a sample of a few self drive New Zealand South Island tours.

Christchurch to Greymouth to Franz Josef Glacier

Drive from Christchurch, crossing the majestic Southern Alps with breathtaking mountain vistas. From Greymouth, travel along the highway to Franz Josef Glacier. Explore Hokitika Gorge, and walk to the glacier terminal face for a spectacular view.

This road trip promises an unforgettable adventure through the mesmerizing landscapes of New Zealand’s South Island. It is one of our favourite road trips on the South Islands.

Christchurch to Queenstown

Travel from Christchurch to Queenstown through stunning landscapes, including Lake Tekapo with its iconic Church of the Good Shepherd. Enjoy activities like stargazing at Mount John Observatory and soaking in Tekapo Springs. Continue to Wanaka for scenic views, then reach adventure-filled Queenstown for bungee jumping and the scenic Skyline Gondola.

Dunedin to Queenstown

Start in Dunedin, explore its historic architecture, and visit the Otago Peninsula for wildlife encounters. 

Journey through the stunning Southern Lakes region, surrounded by picturesque mountains and pristine lakes. Finally, arrive in Queenstown, the adventure capital, where thrill-seekers can indulge in adrenaline-pumping activities. 

Queenstown to Fiordland

From Queenstown, drive to Te Anau, the gateway to Fiordland National Park. Cruise on the intriguing Doubtful Sound, hike the Kepler Track and visit the famous Milford Sound for awe-inspiring views.

This road trip promises an enriching experience through the heart of New Zealand’s South Island. We consider it a must on every self drive New Zealand South Island road trip.

Wellington to Picton to the West Coast

Another of our favourite NZ self drive holidays starts from Wellington in the North Island.

You’ll start with a picturesque ferry ride across the Cook Strait from North to South Island, where you can enjoy stunning views of the Marlborough Sounds. 

If you already have a car rental on the North Island, you can bring it to the ferry. Just check with your rental company first, as not all allow multi-island rentals. Alternatively, you can rent a car in Picton.

As you drive through Blenheim and Marlborough, explore renowned wineries and indulge in the region’s gastronomic delights. Continue to Murchison, where lush forests and captivating rivers await. From there, venture to the rugged West Coast, with its stunning coastal landscapes and lush rainforests. Witness the incredible Pancake Rocks in Punakaiki before arriving in Greymouth, the gateway to the majestic Southern Alps. 

Read Next- Ferry to the South Island New Zealand.

With these insights and tips, you’re now well-equipped to embark on an extraordinary self drive New Zealand South Island tour. Enjoy the freedom of the open road, create unforgettable memories, and immerse yourself in the beauty of this breathtaking destination. Happy travels!

To explore other transport options, please read our article on Transport NZ: Travelling Around New Zealand.

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