For many people I meet, New Zealand is an absolute dream destination. And it really is an ideal country to visit. It’s English speaking and familiar in the sense that it’s a Westernised country.
But, there are definitely a few unexpected and even (dare I say it?!) weird things that you should know about New Zealand before you visit. And I’m not just talking about how many sheep there are. You should know about that odd Kiwi lingo… How expensive New Zealand is… And so many things about driving in New Zealand…
It’s funny how there are some things you just take for granted when you live somewhere. For me, moving away from New Zealand and coming back to visit over the years has allowed me a unique view of what’s actually quite weird about this beautiful country.
So, as you prepare for your amazing Kiwi Adventure, take note of these surprising facts about New Zealand that you definitely need to know before you go!
PS – This post may contain affiliate links: That means that if you purchase through my link, I will receive a small commission at no additional cost to you. Of course, I only recommend products/services that I have used and believe are great! Please read my disclosure for more info.
1. The Language Is Different
Ok, yes, you got me. Kiwis DO speak English.
But, something you might not know about New Zealand is that there will be a lot of words that will confuse you. Many Kiwi words, slang and phrases are pretty different to anything you’ll have ever encountered before.
For example, do you wear “Jandals”? Can you get me a “fizzy drink” from the “dairy”? Is that new movie “sweet as”, or “choice”? Or was it “stink”?
Read More: Figure out exactly how to talk like a Kiwi in my handy post on understanding New Zealand slang
Also, it’s good to know that while English is the most widely spoken, there are actually three official languages in New Zealand: English, Māori and New Zealand Sign Language.
In fact, Kiwis are pretty proud of their Maori culture (even if they aren’t Māori themselves). So, a lot of Māori words are used regularly, and it pays to know a few. For example, Kia Ora (hello/welcome) and Aotearoa (New Zealand).
2. Mobile Phone Coverage Sucks!!
This is one thing you should definitely know about New Zealand before you go. Mobile phone coverage sucks big time!
It’s SO bad.
We were out of coverage more often in New Zealand than during our time in South East Asia! Which seems kind of ridiculous. And definitely unexpected.
Even in or near main centres where you would expect to be able to get decent phone coverage, there was none. So, don’t rely on mobile data to get you around!
On that note, internet isn’t always great either. Especially if you’re at campsites or similar, you might get a tiny amount of free internet (like 250 megabytes of data a day) or you might actually still have to pay for it!
3. New Zealand Is Incredibly Expensive
Yes, New Zealand is an incredible destination. But, don’t go to New Zealand expecting a budget holiday…
Almost everything is incredibly expensive in New Zealand! Food, drinks, accommodation, fuel, car rental… Actually, the only exception to this rule is wine! You can get some really great local wine for very reasonable prices. So there is that! 😅
Insider Tip: If you need something cheap, head to the Warehouse, KMart or better yet, do what the locals do and shop at the Opp-Shop (Opportunity Shop = second hand shop)
As well as that, there’s very often an additional charge for paying by credit card. This seems to be the norm actually, so cash and Eftpos (debit card) are the way to go.
Having said that, if you pay cash, the prices will be rounded as the smallest denomination in New Zealand is 10 cents. And, there are sometimes quite hefty fees (NZ$3-6) for withdrawing cash from an ATM using a foregin card… Ugh!
Bonus Tip: We travel exclusively with our Revolut card, and found that BNZ offers free cash withdrawals! Win!
On the plus side, sales tax (GST) is included in the prices you see so no maths required here!
4. But… Some Things Are Free!
Ok, so to completely contradict myself from Point 3, some incredible things in New Zealand are completely free!
For example, entry to all the National Parks, including their beautiful hiking trails, are free for all to use. The Department Of Conservation (DOC) in New Zealand maintains most of these and do an amazing job. The majority of New Zealand’s hiking trails are really well maintained.
Read next: The Best Day Hikes In The South Island
Also, if you travel New Zealand in a (self contained) campervan like we did, there are quite a lot of Freedom Camping areas where you are allowed to camp for a certain number of nights absolutely free! Which is pretty incredible. And great for travelling New Zealand on a budget!
5. Bring Your Passport To Buy Alcohol
You might already know that you’re legally allowed to buy and drink alcohol at 18 years of age in New Zealand. But even so, you’ll often be asked for ID, regardless of age.
The thing is that if you show them your foreign drivers licence, it won’t be accepted. So, if you’d like to try some of that lovely New Zealand wine, make sure you bring your passport to the store!
Also, something not many people know about New Zealand is that if you’re in a group of people and even just one of you is under 18 years of age, they won’t sell you alcohol. It doesn’t matter if you are 80 and have valid ID, everyone in your group must be over 18.
6. Don’t Expect Receipts
Receipts aren’t given out automatically for purchases in New Zealand. Whether you’re in a shop or a restaurant, you’ll find that quite often you won’t even be asked if you want a receipt!
Since we keep a pretty detailed travel budget, it’s always been important for us to get receipts. But, in New Zealand we always had to remember to ask for it! And even then, it often seemed like the sales assistant was surprised and at times even a little bit put out by the request!
Speaking of budgeting… Read How We Afford To Travel as much as we do!
7. Eating Out – Pay Before You Eat!
This is something that will be particularly weird to you Americans out there… In New Zealand, most cafes will expect you to come up and order at the counter and pay for your order before take a seat. Like, not just at a fast food restaurant, but basically everywhere.
Even at quite fancy restaurants, you’ll likely go up to the counter to pay after you’ve finished your meal.
On the plus side, at least you will be served at your table.
It’s also completely normal to split the bill and each pay for your own portion.
Insider Tip: On Public Holidays, there will generally be a 10-15% surcharge on your total bill. (This covers the higher wage paid to employees on those days). On that note, tipping is not expected in New Zealand.
8. The Food Is Different
Speaking of food, you’ll find food and snacks in New Zealand that you won’t find anywhere else.
For example, Jaffas and Pineapple lumps are the epitome of New Zealand sweets. What are they like? Well… You’ll just have to try them I guess!
You’ll also find that Kiwis like to put a slice of beetroot on their burgers! (And yes, you can get this “Kiwiburger” at MacDonalds).
If you’re lucky, you might get to try a Hangi, which is a traditional Māori way of cooking meat and vegetables over hot rocks underground.
And, when it comes to drinks, L&P (Lemon And Paeroa) is “World Famous In New Zealand” and only available here! It’s essentially lemonade but again, you’ll just have to try it!
9. Customs Are Strict (But Not As Strict As You Might Think)
Coming in to New Zealand, you need to declare certain items. Especially food.
As you come off the plane, there are signs everywhere about how much you’ll be fined and the risk of a prison sentence if you don’t declare these items.
Essentially, the rule is simple; Don’t bring any fresh food into the country. Fruit and meat are big no, no’s! Also, if you have dirty camping or hiking gear (shoes or tents and similar), you’ll need to declare that too and they may get taken away for decontamination.
But, you are allowed to bring sealed food in. So, if you have certain snacks that you just can’t live without, you should be ok.
My advise is this: Declare everything! Then, you can have a chat with the customs officer and they’ll soon tell you whether it’s ok or not. I have brought in muesli bars, muffins, chocolate and dried spices without any problems. In my experience, the customs officers are a friendly bunch and would rather you over-declare if you’re unsure.
And, do respect the rules because New Zealand has a really fragile environment. Non-native species can easily harm the native New Zealand wildlife and plants.
10. Fuel Prices Are Nuts
This kind of carries on from my third point, but fuel is expensive. More frustrating though, prices fluctuate A LOT. And, prices vary wildly from place to place. Even within the same town. Heck, even the same street!
Insider Tip: Make sure you download the Gaspy app and sign up for loyalty cards and/or use discount vouchers from supermarkets to save yourself a bit of money here and there!
Side note – If your car takes Diesel you need to pay additional road user charges separately! Go to the local post office or an AA or VTNZ office. Fill in the relevant form to get your ticket to display on your dashboard.
11. Road Signs Are Overwhelming
Simply put, there are quite simply too many road signs in New Zealand! To the point of being distracting.
Big Arrows. Speed limits. Bridge names. “Drive Safely” messages. “Drive Left” messages. “Look For Motorbikes”. “Share The Road”.
Worse, some signs are in ridiculous places. Like, a “Tired? Pull Over And Take A Break” sign, when there isn’t anywhere to safely pull over for miles in either direction. “Queue behind you? Let them pass!” when there is absolutely no opportunity for you to do that.
Planning to rent a car in New Zealand? Check out my handy NZ self-drive guide for more tips!
12. There Are Strange Speed Limits
Keeping with the driving theme (there are so many driving related things to know about New Zealand!!), speed limits in New Zealand quite often make ZERO sense.
Coming up to a super windy and narrow mountain pass? 100km/hr.
Straight main road from Auckland to Tauranga? 80km/hr.
Bends often also have suggested speeds which never seem to be quite right. More often than not, the suggested speed is too slow. But, sometimes it’s too fast. And, of course, sometimes there is no sign at all when really there should be one.… Sigh.
13. One Lane Bridges Are Everywhere
This one was Omer’s absolute pet peeve… There are SO MANY one lane bridges. As the name suggests, these are narrow bridges where there is only room for one car, and one side has to give way. Which is fine, although you do have to wonder how cost effective it is to put up all the signs for this vs. simply building a wider bridge. But, I digress.
At least, there will always be a sign to indicate who has right of way (In this case, I admit, the signs are necessary). But! The direction of the right of way seems to have no rhyme or reason either.
Worst of all, one lane bridges in New Zealand are very often on blind bends. Meaning that it can be extremely hard to see if there is any traffic coming the other way… More than once we witnessed near misses on these spots!
14. Pedestrian Crossings Are Nowhere
Unfortunately, New Zealand is not pedestrian friendly. Zebra crossings are lacking big time! Quite often there are none at all. And, drivers won’t stop (usually) when there is no official crossing.
On that note, drivers are not very conscientious towards pedestrians, so do take extra care!
15. Park Your Car The Right Way
Always park your car in the same direction that traffic is going. It’s the law! If you park in the opposite direction, you risk being fined and/or having your vehicle towed away.
Oh yeah, and just to confirm (I’m sure you already know this), they drive on the left in New Zealand. So, parking the way traffic is going basically means parking on the left hand side of the road (unless it’s a one-way street).
16. Expect Roadworks All The Time
While this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, because good roads are great and all, roadworks will really delay your road trip around New Zealand.
I swear you won’t go a day without coming across roadworks somewhere along the way. I honestly don’t think I’ve ever come across quite as much work and maintenance on the roads anywhere else!
17. You’ll Burn To A Crisp In The New Zealand Sun
This is one thing all Kiwis will tell you – Always wear sunscreen in New Zealand! Even on a cloudy day. You’ll literally burn to a crisp in the New Zealand sun, even if you normally don’t burn easily.
You see, the ozone layer above New Zealand (and Australia) is much thinner than anywhere else in the world meaning the UV rays are stronger. Omer and I both tan easily and rarely burn in Europe, but got sunburnt very easily in the New Zealand sun!
Insider Tip: Be prepared for four seasons in a day! Kiwi’s seem to be quite proud of the fact that the weather can change in seconds 🤷♀️
18. Beware Of Sandflies!!
This is something nobody seems to tell you before going to New Zealand. But, sandflies are rife in New Zealand.
These pesky little bloodsuckers are worse than mosquitos.
So. Much. Worse.
Do not underestimate these tiny little buggers! And, don’t let the name fool you. They are everywhere. All the time!!
These incredibly irritating little insects might be small, but they have a mean bite! It hurts. And then it itches. We’ve found that insect repellent only goes so far with sandflies. You’ll want to suit up and put long sleeves and pants on, especially in the mornings and evenings. And, stock up on Mortein (fly spray).
19. There Are Lots Of Weird Bugs (But Nothing Deadly)
The one thing I absolutely hate about New Zealand is the fact that there are cockroaches. I know in some countries this equates to a lack of cleanliness, but in New Zealand, cockroaches are just a way of life.
Also, there are other big insects like crickets, which will come into the house from time to time. And praying mantis, which are actually kind of cute!
Oh, and that incessant noise you hear? Those are Cicadas.
You’ll often find that homes in New Zealand have fly screens to keep all those insects out. And, as above, invest in some Mortein!
On the plus side, there are no deadly insects in New Zealand, so while they might be gross, you’re pretty safe!
Full disclosure though; There are three types of spiders in New Zealand that can bite, but in all my time in New Zealand, I’ve never come across them. As well as that, while they might be capable of giving you a nasty bite, they aren’t lethal.
20. People Don’t Wear Shoes
You’ll often see people without shoes. Kids coming home from school. People getting their weekly shop at the supermarket. Groups of friends playing a game of tag rugby in the park.
The lack of shoes has nothing to do with poverty though. It’s quite simply the Kiwi way. Similar to how many Kiwis will wear shorts all year round (even when it’s bloody freezing!)
It’s completely acceptable to go shoe-less, but it’s definitely one of those weird things you wouldn’t know about New Zealand.
So there you have it!
These are 20 of the weirdest things to know about New Zealand before you go. Even for someone who lived there for eight years, these things boggle the mind!
What strange things have you come across in New Zealand? Or elsewhere for that matter? Let me know in the comments below!
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