The Beginner's Guide to New Zealand

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Year Visited: 2017

Information Updated: 2022

New Zealand Country Overview:

New Zealand is famous for many reasons. Beautiful scenery, exceptional hiking, a plethora of movie locations, and their famous glowworms.

New Zealand is comprised of two main islands: the north island and the south island.

The capital of New Zealand is Wellington, and it is located at the very bottom of the north island.

The main popular cities to visit in New Zealand are:

  • Auckland - north island

  • Wellington - north island

  • Christchurch - south island

  • Queenstown - south island

  • Dunedin - south island

Things to Know about New Zealand

How long do you need to visit New Zealand?

You’ll need a week at the minimum to explore New Zealand.

My general standard for an overseas trip is 2 weeks, because I’d like to see as much as I can after flying 17+ hours to get there, but sometimes that’s just not possible.

My personal trip to New Zealand was about a week and a half. You can read the full itinerary here.

Do I need a visa to enter New Zealand?

(from the US)

If you are coming from a visa waiver country (including the United States), you do not need to get a visa before you visit New Zealand.

You DO need to get a NZeTA (AKA: New Zealand electronic travel authority). This is a fairly new requirement, that started in 2019. You just need to apply online for it before you go. Be sure to do this at least a few days ahead of time.

Does it cost money to enter New Zealand?

When I traveled to New Zealand in 2017, it was free to enter the country. However, at this time, there is a fee.

  • $9-12 for your NZeTA, depending on if you use the app or order online.

  • $35 for a Visitor Conservation and Tourism Levy, paid when you order your NZeTa.

What language do they speak?

The main language spoken in New Zealand is English.

  • The native people of New Zealand are the Maori, and they speak the Maori language. Although this language has been dying out, there is currently an effort to revive it.

What kind of outlets do they use?

New Zealand uses 230 volt outlets, so you will need an adapter to use electronics from the US.

  • This article compares the plugs from the US with those of New Zealand, complete with pictures!

  • Here are some power adapters you can get from Amazon to use for your trip.

Weather in New Zealand

Dressed for the weather in Milford Sound.

North Island

Because it is in the southern hemisphere, the climate in New Zealand is basically the opposite of the US. The north island was humid, and reminded me of Florida.

The seasons are also the opposite of the US. We were there in March, which was the end of summer/beginning of fall. The weather was in the 70’s (or the 20’s, if you speak Celsius).

South Island

The south island was more like the weather in New York. In Queenstown it was chilly in the morning (it took the sun a really long time to get up over the mountains), but then warmed up nicely to the 60’s in March (around 15 C).

In Dunedin, the weather varied throughout the day. It was very windy, and a lot colder than the north island, or even Queenstown. The weather there blew up from Antarctica.

Money in New Zealand

What kind of currency do they use?

New Zealand uses the New Zealand Dollar, which makes it easy to understand if you’re traveling from the US.

The only difference is that the USD and NZD are not worth the same amount. And New Zealand dollars are prettier. I saved a 5 dollar bill, just because it had a picture of a penguin on it!

You will also find dollar coins, instead of just paper money.

NZD compared to USD

1 US dollar is worth $1.47 in New Zealand dollars (in 2022. This does vary).

This is really great when you arrive in NZ, and get $100 cash from the ATM that ends up being $147! Not so much fun when you go back to the US, and return your money back to USD.

Is there a fee to convert your US money to NZD?

We stocked up on cash at the airport ATM when we arrived, and again halfway through the trip when we flew to the south island. There is an ATM fee, like you would find at any ATM that isn’t your own bank’s.

The best practice is to convert money at your bank before you leave, where you will have the smallest fee. You can also use credit cards that have no foreign transaction fees.

Can you use credit cards in New Zealand?

Yes, you can use credit cards in New Zealand. Keep in mind that some credit cards have foreign transaction fees, while others don’t.

Do you leave a tip at restaurants?

I honestly would never have thought to ask this, until we ate out in the Dominican Republic and got our bills. It looked like they had already applied a tip to our bill, so we wouldn’t have to leave one. Not knowing much more than “donde es al bano?” we had a hard time trying to figure that out.

So I always ask before I go to another country, to see what the custom there is.

I was surprised to find that tipping at restaurants is not common in New Zealand. It is not necessary to leave a tip, though if you think your waiter did an excellent job, you are always welcome to leave some.

How to Get Around New Zealand

New Zealand is pretty similar to the US in terms of transportation. There are not a lot of trains connecting places like there are in Europe. The easiest and most common way to get around is to drive.

Rental Car:

The easiest way to get around New Zealand is either to rent a car, or to book a tour with hotel drop off/pick up. We usually opted for the latter, but we rented a car for one day in New Zealand to drive from Auckland to the Waitomo Glowworm Caves.

Things to note about driving in NZ:

  • They drive on the left hand side of the road.

  • They have a lot of roundabouts.

We asked at the front desk about renting a car, and they referred us to an agency right downtown that we could easily walk to from our hotel. You can also book online ahead of time.

Green Cabs:

When we went to NZ in 2017, the green cabs were everywhere. We always rode them from the hotel to the airport and vice versa. I booked ours online ahead of time, but you can also just find them at the airport.

Currently, the green cab company only works out of Queenstown, on the south island. But you can easily find a cab/shuttle service at the airport to get you to your hotel.


As mentioned above, the easiest way to get from place to place is to just book a tour. This is especially helpful if you don’t want to drive in a foreign country. I also enjoy tours because you get inside knowledge from the tour guide that you wouldn’t get on your own.

Our tour to Milford Sound from Queenstown was with a whole bus full (that included roll call after all of the many bathroom breaks), but all of the rest were just our small group, so it was still able to be customized to what we wanted, and not overcrowded.


We flew from Auckland on the north island to Queenstown on the south island, and then we flew from Dunedin back to Auckland before flying home. We flew on Air New Zealand and Jetstar, and I would definitely 100% recommend Air New Zealand (NOT Jetstar!).


There are not a lot of trains in New Zealand. In fact, the one we rode was more of a sightseeing trip than transportation, but it worked to get us from Queenstown to Dunedin on Dunedin Railways.

The train actually just takes passengers from Dunedin to Pukerangi (a train stop in the middle of nowhere, but with very pretty views) and back. But they offer a “Queenstown transfer,” which means they will hire a green cab to either take you from Queenstown to Pukerangi (a 3 hour drive), or vice versa.

  • Note: They no longer offer the Queenstown Connection. Dunedin Railways just runs scenic day trips.


The cheapest way to get around New Zealand is to take a bus. The busses run between cities, so if you want to travel from Christchurch to Queenstown, you can take a bus.


We did not do this, but you can take a ferry to get from the north island to the south island (and vice versa).

  • Visit New Zealand has lots of information about taking a ferry or a water taxi in New Zealand.

Camper Vans:

If you want to drive yourself around and have the convenience/freedom of waking up anywhere, you can rent a campervan to tour around New Zealand.

Things to Do in New Zealand

New Zealand has so many things to do! From mountain climbing, to blackwater rafting, to visiting famous movie locations, there is something for everyone.

There are absolutely so many amazing things to do in New Zealand.

Check out a map of all the places mentioned:

Map thanks to Wanderlog, a road trip planner on iOS and Android

The North Island

Hobbiton - Matamata

Hobbiton is without doubt the most popular attraction in New Zealand. Of course, that means it is insanely crowded, but if you’re a fan of Lord of the Rings, a trip to Hobbiton is a must.

Waitomo Glowworm Caves - Rotura

Before Hobbiton existed, the glowworm caves were the number one tourist attraction. There are a lot of different ways to view the glowworms, including blackwater rafting, on a boat, or just walking in. Be sure to check out all the different tour options available. You can even visit Hobbiton and Waitomo on the same tour, though it makes for a long day.

Cathedral Cove

Cathedral Cove is a famous site for kayaking. It was used as a filming location for Cair Paravel in The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian. Its beautiful and iconic rock formations are easily recognizable.

Weta Workshop - Wellington

We unfortunately did not visit Wellington, but there is certainly plenty to do in this capital city! One of the best attractions (especially for LOTR fans!) is the Weta Workshop, which showcases iconic movie props and costumes. You can even sign up for a workshop and make some of your own movie magic!

The South Island

Adventure sports - Queenstown

Queenstown is the adventure capital of the world! Or at least of New Zealand. There are so many epic things to do in Queenstown! Here are a few:

Milford Sound - near Queenstown

Milford Sound is famed as the most beautiful place in New Zealand, which is a pretty impressive title to earn. It’s not far from Queenstown, so a lot of people day trip from there (although the road is so windy, it takes several hours to drive there!).

  • Read more about Milford Sound (and IF it IS the most beautiful place in New Zealand).

Meeting Penguins-Dunedin

There are several places to see wild penguins in New Zealand, but Dunedin is the best place to base yourself. We were able to see the little blue fairy penguins and the yellow eyed penguins.

Visit Filming Locations

There are a lot of filming locations to visit all across New Zealand!

We took a Lord of the Rings themed tour with Nomad Safaris, which meant we went on an epic drive down limited access roads and through rivers to see some amazing scenery, as well as LOTR filming sites.

This was definitely fantastic (my favorite thing!) even if you don’t like LOTR. But they also have other safaris available.

Swimming with Dolphins-both islands

This is another thing that we did not do, but is very popular in New Zealand. You will find more swimming with dolphin experiences on the south island, but there are places on both islands.

Hiking in New Zealand

I love this picture because it looks so epic, like, “Look at me! I biked to this awesome view!”

I don’t know who the biker is… He got in the picture on accident.

Hiking (and camping) (and mountain biking!) are very popular activities to do in New Zealand, but I am not the person to ask about them!

  • So here is a link to one of my favorite travel blogs, with lots of great information about hiking in New Zealand.

What to Eat in New Zealand


I actually don’t like McDonald’s at all. But my travel buddy, who always insists on eating local (not chains!) said the one restaurant we had to eat at was McDonald’s! I was surprised, but she informed me that they have different (and often better) cuisine all over the world. I had a meat pie and a Cadbury Mcflurry.

Savory Meat Pie

I love pie! I’m particularly fond of pumpkin pie, but I am perfectly happy to indulge in a savory pie too. This is also a popular food in Britain, and maybe that’s where it comes from, but it’s definitely all over in New Zealand (to my great delight!).


Lamb is absolutely delicious, and I doubt you could find much better lamb than you will in New Zealand. I didn’t have any fancy lamb dishes, but I did have it in a meat pie, which was of course delicious.

Fish (and chips!)

I don’t really care for fish, so I had a chicken sandwich… but my friends were very excited to try fish (and chips) in New Zealand. You can definitely find some of the freshest fish here.

Cadbury Chocolate

Keep an eye for any kind of chocolate actually! You will see lots of delicious Cadbury products (unfortunately the Cadbury Factory in Dunedin closed down), but you will also find unique flavors of other brands, such as kiwi Kit Kats.

Wildlife to Watch Out For in New Zealand


When I think of New Zealand, I think of sheep. You will likely see some grazing in the fields along the road at some point during your trip. If you’re lucky, they’ll turn around and pose for you just when you get out your camera!


There are lots of places to see dolphins around New Zealand. As mentioned above, you can swim with them in some places. We saw dolphins on our cruise to Milford Sound.

Fur Seals

Fur seals are another common sight in New Zealand. While dolphins and especially penguins are elusive, fur seals are everywhere! You’ll see them lying on rocks, lying on a cliff side, or just lying on the beach.

The Royal Albatross

(And lots of other birds!) If you’ve ever seen The Rescuer’s Down Under, you should be really excited about this. The Royal Albatross is another species that can be quite elusive, but we did spy one (just before giving up!) at The Royal Albatross Centre on the Otago Peninsula.


I was so excited to see penguins (my favorite animal!) in the wild in New Zealand. They have several species of penguins, including the world’s rarest, and the world’s smallest.

Movies to Watch

Click here for my list of movies to watch before going to New Zealand. I always love to learn more about a place, see something that was filmed there, or just get in the “New Zealand” mood (or wherever) before traveling somewhere.

Further Reading:

This article is a fabulous introduction to New Zealand by some of my favorite travel bloggers.

Got any other questions about visiting New Zealand?

Don’t hesitate to send me an email with any other questions you might have!

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