Skip to main content

Getting Around in New Zealand: What to See and How to Get There

Julia visited New Zealand in March 2017, where she travelled all across the northern and southern islands.

A view overlooking Hobbiton from the top of "Bag End" in New Zealand.

A view overlooking Hobbiton from the top of "Bag End" in New Zealand.

Why New Zealand?

From the very first time I watched The Lord of the Rings, I thought, "I want to go there." "There" meaning Hobbiton, of course. The thing is, you can visit Hobbiton; it's a real place! But at the time, I just meant New Zealand (that being where the movie was filmed).

So many people asked me when I told them I wanted to go to New Zealand, "Why?" Why? Have they seen New Zealand? Have they seen The Lord of the Rings? And then there were the three people who said, "We want to go too!"

So we did.

A view on the way to Milford Sound, outside of Queenstown, New Zealand.

A view on the way to Milford Sound, outside of Queenstown, New Zealand.

Getting Around the Islands

For me, the decision to go to New Zealand was not a difficult one. But how to get around once you got there? That was a bigger question. Should we rent a car? Take a group tour? Ask a travel agent? Is it realistic to expect to see the Hobbit holes on the north island AND the little penguins on the south island?

This was the first big trip that I planned, so I didn't have any past experience to help me make decisions. I just picked the things I really wanted to do and then set about figuring out how to make them happen.

We used a variety of methods to get where we needed to be. Some of them worked great, and others I would have planned better if I had known better. So here is a list of all the activities we did in New Zealand, and how we got to each one.

Planes, Trains and Automobiles

A view of the mountains from the plane near Queenstown, New Zealand.

A view of the mountains from the plane near Queenstown, New Zealand.

Flying In

Of course, the very first thing you have to do is fly into New Zealand. We had three connecting flights, the longest one being 17 hours across the Pacific. It wasn't too bad though. That flight was not full, so we had plenty of room to spread out. We got lots of free food and had lots of free time to watch movies. It felt like a giant slumber party in the sky!

We finally landed in Auckland, where we had a Green Cab waiting to pick us up. I had booked the cab ahead of time with our flight information, but there are a lot of Green Cabs all over the place, and you can easily find one whether you booked it ahead of time or not. Most of our transportation to and from the airports was in the Green Cabs.

A Green Cab waits outside of a café in New Zealand.

A Green Cab waits outside of a café in New Zealand.

Waitomo Glowworm Caves

Our first stop in New Zealand was the Waitomo Glowworm Caves. Many people make the trip out there from Auckland, which is where our hotel was. It's about a 2.5-hour drive from Auckland.

There are no shortage of day trip tours that will take you from Auckland to the glowworm caves and back. Some also include Hobbiton in the same trip, which I personally think is too much in one day to really enjoy it. There are also multiple different tours you can choose within the caves once you get there.

You can take a boat ride under the glowworms, visit a museum, or take a walking tour. If you're like us and that sounds too straightforward, you can do blackwater rafting in the caves. It's essentially hiking through the caves while carrying an inner tube, and when the underground river gets too deep, you plop in your inner tube and float along.

We booked our tour directly with the company, which meant nobody was coming to pick us up. We could have booked a tour that included transportation, but this was so much cheaper. But then I was left with the common conundrum: how do we get there?

The easiest and most affordable solution is to rent a car. Considering we live in the United States and are not used to driving on the left side of the road, this was a bit intimidating. Luckily (since I managed to find three people who wanted to come to New Zealand with me) I didn't have to drive. But my friend who did said it was surprisingly easy to drive on the other side of the road. The hardest thing was that she kept turning on the windshield wipers instead of the turn signal!

But did we get lost?

Well...yes. I had written down directions, and we were going along rather nicely, until one turn came up too quickly and we missed it. We had to use my friend's international data to find where we were and get back to where we needed to be. Then, backtracking to go home, we got turned around and around (it didn't help to have three people yelling "Left!" to stay on the left side of the road, and "Right!" to turn right all at the same time). Again using the data, we finally ended up where we needed to be.

All in all, the whole rental car thing works great because you can get where you need to be when you need to be there, and you can stay as long as you want and stop wherever you want along the way. But just make sure you have a good idea of where you are going, good directions, and a way to figure out where you are if you get lost. I highly recommend the international data plan for your phone if you plan on driving yourself around.

Welcome to Hobbiton. The sign greets guest as they step off the bus and make their way into the "village" of Hobbiton.

Welcome to Hobbiton. The sign greets guest as they step off the bus and make their way into the "village" of Hobbiton.

Welcome to Hobbiton

The rental car behind us, we now had an easy day of relaxing and letting someone else do the driving. The tour we booked for Hobbiton included pick-up at our hotel in Auckland. It also included lunch on site, which was especially cool because the lunch buffet was blocked off and only allowed people who were on the list. We were on the list.

We booked our tour through Red Carpet Tours. Our tour guide was fantastic and very knowledgeable about the history of Hobbiton and all of the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings films. It is certainly possible to book your own tour of Hobbiton directly, rent a car and drive yourself there. But I really enjoyed all of the inside information we learned from our tour guide. He also provided background music (from The Lord of the Rings soundtrack of course!).

A few of the things our guide told us we heard again on the bus ride from the gift shop to the actual "Hobbiton." All guests meet at the gift shop and then ride the bus into Hobbiton. There are constant tours running through the village, so there are always people around somewhere. It is hard to get photos without somebody in them. I missed a lot of what our tour guide said as I patiently waited for people to move out of my photos, only to have people from the group behind me walk into them. Finally, two photographers from their group asked if I was waiting to take a photo, and then offered to block the path for me! That was so nice of them, even though I ended up deleting the photo later! Just be prepared that, although super cool, Hobbiton is also super crowded!

The jeep we rode in around the mountains of Queenstown, New Zealand.

The jeep we rode in around the mountains of Queenstown, New Zealand.

The "Lord of the Rings" Safari

From Auckland, we took a small flight down to Queenstown on the south island. Queenstown is the adventure capital of New Zealand, full of activities like bungee jumping, parasailing, and jet boating.

Now we're not quite that adventurous, so we stayed with the very safe, off-roading vehicle tour. We booked our tour with Nomad Safaris, whose shop is right in downtown Queenstown. Queenstown is a very easy town to walk around in, so it was no problem at all to walk down the hill from our hotel to the shop where our driver met us.

They have all sorts of tours, not just Lord of the Rings themed ones. We drove through rivers, small towns, and to the edges of cliffs to see spots where the films had been shot, pan for gold, or just see a gorgeous view. This was one of my very favorite things we did in New Zealand.

One way in, and one way out. One of the most dangerous roads in New Zealand.

One way in, and one way out. One of the most dangerous roads in New Zealand.

Milford Sound

Also based out of Queenstown, New Zealand, was our tour to Milford Sound. Milford Sound is a gorgeous area carved out by a glacier (which technically makes it a fjord), and is not far from Queenstown. At least by helicopter. But if you take a bus, like most of the tourists, it is a full day of driving, sightseeing, boat riding, and more driving.

Again, you can rent a car, but I certainly would not want to drive on that road. It twists and turns around the mountains, and is one of the most dangerous roads in New Zealand.

We met our bus driver at a parking lot in downtown Queenstown, where we were dropped off again 12 hours later. The drive in took about 5 hours, but that included stops for pictures and for food. Once there, we road a boat around the sound for an hour and a half, and then back on the bus to drive home.

The Dunedin Railways train picking us up in Pukerangi.

The Dunedin Railways train picking us up in Pukerangi.

Dunedin Railways

From Queenstown, I wanted to get to Dunedin. Just like when I told people in America I wanted to go to New Zealand, when I told people in New Zealand I was going to Dunedin, they said "Why?"

Dunedin was awesome, by the way.

The reason we had to visit Dunedin was because the penguins were there. And I love penguins almost as much as I love Hobbits.

Dunedin Railways runs a scenic train out of Dunedin to what I would call "the middle of nowhere," but what they call Pukerangi. The train just takes tourists out of the city and back. However, if you want to go to or from Queenstown, they will have one of the Green Cabs pick you up at your hotel and transfer you to the train station, or vice versa.

Our cab, which was said to arrive sometime between 7:00 am and 8:00 am, arrived at 7am sharp, and drove us for several hours into the middle of nowhere. We had to stop at a café 20 minutes before the train station to use their bathroom, since the train station was literally a box that said "Pukerangi." After plenty of time to take pictures, the train arrived and brought us into the far southern city of Dunedin, New Zealand.

The little blue fairy penguins come back to shore after a day at sea.

The little blue fairy penguins come back to shore after a day at sea.

Chocolate, Penguins, and the Otago Peninsula

Our last day in New Zealand was spent in Dunedin. We had the morning free and were staying right in the middle of downtown, which put us in perfect walking distance to the Cadbury Chocolate Factory. All I knew about Dunedin was that there were penguins, so the visit to the chocolate factory was a fun surprise.

Being right downtown, we could easily walk to a lot of places, including the chocolate factory, the train station, the (free) history museum, and a famous pancake restaurant. I will say that Dunedin is very hilly. And when I booked a hotel that was a five-minute walk from the train station to save money on cabs, Google Maps didn't tell me that.

The penguins were not within walking distance, however, and I figured the easiest way to get to them would be to book a tour. So I booked a tour through TripAdvisor, which turned out to be fabulous. Our tour guide picked us up right at our hotel and drove us all around the city to all the best spots before out to the Otago Peninsula and the penguins. He was very friendly, informative and knowledgeable. I definitely think it was worth it to have a guide take us to all the inside spots (including a secluded beach with a sleeping seal) and do all the driving for us.

One more cab to the airport, a cheap flight back to Auckland, a cheap hotel with an airport shuttle and we were on our 15-hour flight back home. It was certainly more crowded and less fun than our flight out, but we had a good trip and managed to see all that I wanted to see in New Zealand.

© 2019 Julia Rexford