Our 40-day Australia and New Zealand Tour
We share our experiences and what we learned during our Australia and New Zealand Tour, to help you plan your own getaway down under.
In the fall of 2017, we did an epic 40-day Australia and New Zealand tour. We had a combination of planned and unplanned time, booking some tours and attractions in advance, but leaving a few days in between to let us wander a bit before reaching our next destination. Both countries are huge with a wide diversity of landscapes and activities, with friendly, open people who went out of their way to chat and guide us along the way.
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Our first priority on the trip was New Zealand, a place we wanted to explore for many years, even before the Lord of the Rings movies. We love the outdoors and the landscapes in New Zealand seemed otherworldly. We knew we’d have fun but we had no idea what to expect.
Australia, or not?
We also debated whether or not we should go to Australia at all. Mark had already been to Sydney and Melbourne. We didn’t really think that we had time to properly do both places. In the end, we decided it would be silly to go all the way over across the world and skip Australia, so, with the help of our daughter (in-law) who had done a similar trip a few months before, we did a 10-day “Taste of Australia” trip – Sydney, Jervis Bay, Canberra, and Melbourne. Obviously we missed a lot, so we plan to return to see more someday.
It also worked out that we flew directly from Melbourne to Queenstown, New Zealand, in the South Island, rather than to Auckland in the North where most Americans start their New Zealand journeys. Because we worked our way up to Auckland, we were able to fly directly back to San Francisco at the end of our trip.
Planning the trip, the first thing we figured out is that it would be really difficult to see both Australia and New Zealand properly without a car. We have traveled to Europe and Asia a lot, and generally we avoid renting cars because we figure we can get most places using public transportation. We have taken trains, subways and busses all over the world and by now are pretty comfortable getting around no matter the language or the weather.
But when you start reading the guidebooks and searching online, you realize that even with forty days to play with, you need a car to really be able to explore the landscape. We went back and forth discussing it, and decided that we would take advantage of trains and ferries when we could, but we would rent cars as well. Of course, we would have to drive on the left side of the road too…yikes. In big cities like Sydney, Melbourne, Auckland and Wellington, we skipped the car, but in smaller locations we rented, with no regrets.
Some things we learned along the way
- Renting a car is necessary if you want to get out of the big cities. If you rent a car, make sure you check with your car rental and credit card company to learn about the insurance coverage. The rules are different from what we’ve experienced in the US and Europe. We found out that our American Express Platinum card did not cover us for accidents or damage, but our bank credit card did. And we did wind up having to make a claim in the end.
- Driving on the left takes some getting used to, but is fine. The roads in New Zealand were a lot narrower than Australia but we managed. One of the hardest things to remember is that cars will pass you on the right instead of the left.
- Lots of people in New Zealand rent motorhomes or small campers to explore the area. This wasn’t our thing but if it appeals to you there are lots of companies to serve you.
- Since New Zealand is so sparsely populated, there are a lot of self-serve gas stations. We tried to use a couple of them without success – none of our credit cards worked. If you’re driving, plan to get gas during the day in the larger towns.
- There is no tipping in Australia or New Zealand. In some of the bigger cities like Sydney or Auckland you may see a line on your credit card receipt for a tip, but don’t feel obligated to use it. In both places servers are paid good wages and do not expect a tip. There were a couple of times we tipped for especially good service, which was definitely appreciated, but it was nice to do that because we wanted to, not out of obligation.
- Also dining related, no one brings the bill to you at a restaurant in either country, no matter if it is a walk-up cafe or a fine dining restaurant. Whenever you are finished you walk up to the counter and they give you your bill by your table number. This surprised us the first few times and we sat around waiting for our bill. The waiters and other staff kept bringing water or coffee but no one suggested we leave. This was a nice change of pace, you could stay as long as you wanted in the restaurant without being rushed.
- New Zealand customs is serious. They really strive to protect their country from people bringing in foreign plants, animals and other non-native species that can threaten their environment. It’s not too different from traveling to Hawaii, but a lot more strict. Australia customs was more of a free-for-all for us, at least in Sydney.
- If you are flying to New Zealand on a separate ticket from your return to your home country, make sure you have your return ticket information handy when you check in or they won’t let you board your flight. We learned this at 5:30 a.m. when we were leaving Melbourne, and we were glad we had taken the time to print out our entire itinerary just in case.