I was eager to visit New Zealand after missing out on traveling there when I visited Australia in 2001. Leading up to my trip, friends and family constantly told me about dream locations there that I had to visit. While it was great to know where to sightsee, I wish I’d known about the following practical matters before I visited.
Here are nine things to know before taking off on a dream trip to New Zealand.
1. It’s Expensive, And There Are Lots Of Tourists
New Zealand has proved to be even more expensive than Europe (except perhaps Iceland). New Zealand is a small country, and the towns I was told to visit are the same ones that all the other tourists want to visit. Not only are the prices insanely high -- even for youth hostels -- but everything books up well in advance.
I arrived in Christchurch at the end of February able to book only two nights in an affordable accommodation, and I had no idea where I’d end up. (Happily, I met a lovely woman at dinner on my first night in town, and she took me in for almost a week! No matter what you do and where you go, you will find yourself surrounded by an amazingly kind and laid-back group of people, ready to look after you.)
Food is the other high-cost challenge. One day I went to the supermarket to buy breakfast supplies for a few days at a youth hostel. I bought bread, butter, Marmite, and four mandarins. It cost the same as an expensive dinner in New York City. I was, frankly, shocked. If I were in New York, this same assortment would have cost under $10, with only the Marmite, an import, raising the price. I was told that the high prices are due to New Zealand importing most of its food. The country apparently makes more money exporting its own produce and buying back what it needs from other countries.
Pro Tip: When it comes to transportation, make sure to compare the costs of InterCity, the InterCity FlexiPass, and the train. I found an online sale for my train ride from Christchurch to Picton. It was cheaper than the bus and a lovely ride, complete with a viewing car. The seats on buses are comfortable, and you can pay more for the Gold seats on certain lines, which are better. Truth be told, nobody seems to monitor where you sit, so you might be able to choose a Gold seat without paying extra.
You can save money on tours at Bookme, a website and mobile app.
2. Don’t Ask For The Bill -- Just Pay It
This concept took some adjustment. The first few days, I’d order some food, enjoy it, and then, when done, wonder why the waiter didn’t come back and see if I wanted more, so I could ask for the bill. I began to wonder if they didn’t like me -- or if New Zealanders even ate dessert. Then I learned that it’s expected that patrons head to the cash register and pay when they’re done eating. It’s a system based on trust -- you could easily walk out the front door without paying!
Most of the time, however, especially if you’re eating at a less expensive place, you’ll head to the counter to place your order, pay up front, get a number, and then head to a table to wait for your meal. Even at sit-down cafes, table service is reserved for meal delivery.
If you pay by credit card, you may incur a small fee. To use your card, you’ll need to specify whether your card is credit or debit, and sometimes, if you want to pay in New Zealand dollars or in your home currency. Visa and Mastercard are widely accepted, but American Express is sometimes not.
Another thing to note? There’s no tipping in New Zealand! Employees are just well paid.
3. Food Portions Are Smaller Than What You’re Likely Used To
Especially if you’re from the United States, you might find food portions in New Zealand to be rather small. At first, I felt hungry after meals, but I eventually adjusted. The upside is that I can happily say my jeans fit better!
The food is delicious, but if you’re on a budget, it probably won’t fill you up. You can certainly save money buying a sandwich or meat pie at the grocery store, but those less-expensive options are neither as good nor as healthy as others. Some meal choices give you the option to add items, such as two pork chops, or two pieces of fish with a fish and chips meal. If you can’t bear being hungry, be ready to pay more to upsize your portions.
4. It’s Hilly, And You’ll Get Your Fair Share Of Exercise
Many towns on the South Island are located on top of hills. It seemed I was always walking up, never down. Cashmere in Christchurch and Queenstown were two of the steepest places I went, though Dunedin boasts the steepest street in the world. This fact, coupled with the small portion sizes, means you can ditch your gym trainer for two weeks here and still get firm thighs, tight glutes, and a smaller waistline!
You’ll notice that New Zealanders love exercise and can be quite adventurous, which must be why Queenstown offers lots of bungee jumping and other heart-pounding sports.
5. The Lamb Is Not What You’d Expect
New Zealand lamb chops have an excellent reputation, at least back in New York. I love lamb, which is one reason I couldn’t wait to visit New Zealand.
Shockingly, they don’t serve lamb chops in restaurants. I was dismayed until I tried the lamb rump. Unlike any lamb I’ve previously eaten, there’s almost no fat in these cuts, and they’re tender and perfectly cooked. Lamb shank falls off the bone and also has little fat. My taste buds literally melted the first time I tried lamb ribs, a delicacy I’d never heard of. Though higher in fat content, they are fabulous. Mine were served with a divine lemon butter.
6. The Doors Lock ‘The Wrong Way’
You probably know that New Zealanders drive on the left side of the road, which some of us call “the wrong side of the road.” You might not know, however, that door locks also turn “the wrong way.”
This may not strike you as much of a problem until you find yourself in a public restroom, first unable to lock the door, and then unable to open the door, panicking, realizing there’s no cell service and not sure anyone will hear your cries for help, and then feeling completely silly when you realize you just had to turn the lock the other way. (Yes, I speak from experience!)
7. The Public Restrooms Are Spotless
On the subject of restrooms, New Zealand’s public restrooms are perhaps the most spectacular in the world. First of all, they’re plentiful -- you won’t need to duck into a cafe or restaurant, because every few blocks there’s a sign pointing to the closest public facilities. The floors, toilets, and sinks always look like they were cleaned moments before you entered, and there is always enough toilet paper.
There are almost always amusing signs explaining that you shouldn’t squat on the toilet seats or throw your used toilet paper in the waste bin.
8. Almost Everyone Owns A Cat
If you’re trying to save money, you’ll end up in a hostel, an Airbnb, or a bed and breakfast. Most of the owners of these establishments will have cats. If you’re allergic to cats like I am, make sure to bring plenty of allergy pills with you.
9. The Sun Is Unnaturally Strong
The rumor about a hole in the ozone layer is true, and the hole is over New Zealand. Be sure to wear lots of sunscreen, especially on your exposed skin. I wish I’d known this before visiting, or I wouldn’t have let my arms roast in the sun for over an hour without protection from UVA and UVB rays. They burned to a literal red crisp, and even my scalp suffered. Even if it’s cloudy, wear sunscreen, and definitely wear a hat all day long if it’s sunny out. The sun is strong every moment it’s up.
For more on New Zealand, see this page.