If you’re planning a trip to New Zealand, you’ve likely searched for all of the best things to do in New Zealand.
On the flip side, you might also wonder what not to do in New Zealand!
After years of living in New Zealand, I’ve put together the most common tourist mistakes to avoid in New Zealand so you can have a fun, safe trip and be a conscious traveller in NZ.
So let’s dive in…here are 20 things you shouldn’t do when visiting New Zealand.
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Table of Contents
20 Things NOT to Do when Visiting New Zealand
1. Drive Unsafely
If you’re planning to road trip around New Zealand, you’ll want to take some precautions before hitting the road.
First of all, don’t drive right after getting off a long-haul international flight. Instead, give yourself a couple of days to get over jet lag before picking up your rental car or campervan.
You’ll find plenty of things to do without a car in Queenstown, so I often recommend that travellers start a South Island trip from there. Before beginning a North Island road trip, you’ll easily stay entertained for a day or two in Auckland without a car.
Once you’re on the road, there are some further things to take note of. For starters—and I know this might sound obvious—New Zealanders drive on the left side of the road. If you’re used to driving on the right side of the road, make sure you’re well-rested and alert before you embark on your road trip! It helps to have a road-trip partner to help navigate while you drive, and so you can take turns driving.
I also don’t recommend driving at night in New Zealand, especially not in winter. New Zealand roads are often not very well-lit. In winter, nighttime driving is not recommended due to potential ice on the roads. Plus, you’ll miss all of NZ’s epic scenery if you drive at night!
2. Forget to Put on Sunscreen
The sun in New Zealand is strong and harsh. New Zealand has a thinner ozone layer than other parts of the world, and you can get sunburnt easily, even on cloudy days.
To avoid getting a painful sunburn and looking like a lobster on your New Zealand holiday, make sure you apply sunscreen every day before heading out and reapply throughout the day as needed.
For extra sun protection, I also recommend wearing a hat if you’re planning to go on a hike or hang out at the beach.
3. Or Forget to Apply Insect Repellent
New Zealand might not have many dangerous creatures, but it does have an insect I consider my arch nemesis: the sandfly.
Sandflies are teeny black flies that bite you so quickly you don’t even know what’s happened. Until hours later, that is, when your skin erupts into painful red bites that can last for weeks.
While sandflies can be present on both the North Island and South Island, they’re much more common on the South Island. In particular, you might encounter swarms of sandflies on the South Island’s West Coast, Fiordland (including Milford Sound), and on all three of the major alpine passes (Lewis Pass, Arthur’s Pass, and Haast Pass).
To avoid getting sandfly bites that’ll ruin your whole trip, make sure you apply insect repellent before visiting a sandfly-prone area. It also helps to wear long pants/tops that cover your arms and legs.
Sandflies always seem to attack my ankles the worst, so if you’re an insect magnet like I am, cover up your feet and ankles with socks and plenty of insect repellent!
4. Be Disrespectful
Now, if you’re researching what not to do in New Zealand, you’re obviously a good human being. However, it’s worth mentioning that you should always treat the land and people of New Zealand with respect.
For starters, being polite goes a long way! A simple “please” and “thank you” never hurts. And if you’re at a cafe or restaurant, don’t snap your fingers to attract your server, and be patient if service is a bit slow. NZ is experiencing staffing shortages post-Covid, and hospitality workers are often under-the-pump.
It’s important to note that Māori culture is an integral part of New Zealand. One way to show respect for Māori culture is to learn how to pronounce a few words in te reo Māori. You don’t need to be perfect at it; just trying is better than not trying at all (I’ve lived in NZ for a while and am still learning, too!). You’ll notice a lot of Māori place names around New Zealand, and knowing how to pronounce them is helpful.
This resource is a good place to start.
Also, if a place is marked as being “tapu” (sacred; forbidden), or if a rāhui (prohibition) is put into place, don’t go there. For example, you can visit the summit of Mount Eden (Maungawhau) in Auckland, but you’ll see signage stating to not enter the crater because it’s sacred. It’s simple, really: just follow the rules and be respectful.
Other things worth noting are that you shouldn’t ever enter a Marae (a Māori meeting ground) without being invited to do so. You also shouldn’t sit on a table or countertop (basically, don’t put your bum anywhere where food is prepared or served).
5. Litter or Leave Waste Behind
This ties into the above point, and should go without saying: please don’t litter when you’re travelling around New Zealand.
You’ll find rubbish bins all over the country, but sometimes they won’t be available at remote beaches or trailheads. If you’ve packed something in with you on a trail or at the beach, make sure you pack it out, too, and dispose of it when you find a rubbish bin.
While we’re on this subject, I should also mention that you shouldn’t use the outdoors as your toilet. I wish I didn’t have to mention this, but unfortunately, it’s become a problem in New Zealand, especially with travellers who camp in spots they shouldn’t.
You’ll find public toilets all across the country, so please make use of them!
On a similar note, don’t bathe with soap or wash your dishes in New Zealand’s lakes or rivers. I see this happen way too often in Queenstown’s Lake Wakatipu (which I live by), so I do think it needs to be addressed.
6. Go Camping Wherever You Want
It’s a common misconception that you can camp anywhere you want in New Zealand.
The truth is, New Zealand has strict rules about where you can and can’t camp overnight.
Most “freedom camping” is limited to travellers in a certified self-contained campervan. Even if you’re in a self-contained campervan, though, you can’t just camp overnight wherever you want to. Instead, you’ll want to look for designated freedom campsites. The Campermate app is a good way to do this.
That being said, New Zealand actually has hundreds of paid campgrounds all across the country. Campsites range from basic DOC campsites to holiday parks with all sorts of amenities. Anyone can camp in paid campground, regardless of if you’re in a self-contained campervan, a tent, or a non-self-contained vehicle.
So, when you’re budgeting for your New Zealand campervan trip, I recommend setting aside some funds to pay for campsites across the country.
7. Head Out on a Hike Unprepared
It’ll come as no surprise that New Zealand is a hiker’s heaven. With incredible hikes (or “tramps” in Kiwi lingo) all around the country, you can hike to your heart’s content on a visit to New Zealand.
One thing you shouldn’t do in New Zealand, though, is head out on a hike without being prepared.
Before you tackle a trail, make sure you’ve checked the weather report, have the proper hiking gear and clothing for the conditions, and let someone know where you’re going. Even better, walk with a hiking buddy if you can rather than hiking alone.
You should also pack plenty of food and water with you before going hiking. While you can drink tap water in New Zealand, you shouldn’t drink water from lakes and rivers unless you’ve treated it first, because there’s a risk of giardia. So, always bring enough drinking water with you on a hike.
If you’re planning to go out on a particularly remote trail, you should bring a PLB (Personal Locator Beacon) with you. You can hire these at some DOC Visitor Centres across NZ.
8. Ignore Biosecurity Rules
New Zealand has extremely strict biosecurity rules to protect the country’s natural environment. These are just a few things you should not bring into the country:
- Dirty footwear or gear (including dirty hiking boots or tents)
- Meat and dairy products
- Fishing and diving equipment
When you arrive in New Zealand, you’ll want to declare any “at-risk” items on your Passenger Arrivals Card (which is usually handed to you by your flight crew). A digital version is also available for travellers arriving at New Zealand’s international airports.
For example, if you’re bringing hiking boots to New Zealand, make sure you’ve cleaned them really well. You should declare hiking boots, and Customs officers might inspect them.
You can get a hefty fine for not declaring items. If you’re not sure about whether or not you can bring something in, declare it to be on the safe side!
To find out more about what you can or can’t bring into New Zealand, I recommend reviewing the official guide from MPI.
9. Feed or Disturb the Wildlife
Now, this holds true for anywhere in the world, but one thing you should definitely not do in New Zealand is feed or antagonise the wildlife.
For example, there is a cheeky alpine parrot in New Zealand called the kea, a bird that’s commonly spotted along the drive from Te Anau to Milford Sound.
Kea are curious creatures and might approach you (or hop onto your car), and because of this, tourists sometimes think they should feed them. However, you definitely shouldn’t feed kea (or any other birds in New Zealand), as it’s bad for their health.
Another common mistake I’ve observed is when people approach marine life, especially New Zealand fur seals and sea lions.
It’s perfectly okay to view seals, sea lions, and other marine life from afar, but you should never, ever approach them. Leave a distance of at least 20 metres between yourself and a seal or other marine animal.
10. Underestimate Driving Times
While Google Maps works well in New Zealand, you should take estimated driving times with a grain of salt.
You’ll see signs about this across the country, and it’s true: roads in New Zealand are different.
Roads in New Zealand can be twisty and narrow, and many are two-lane roads (with one lane for each direction) rather than multilane highways.
Further, estimated driving times on apps like Google Maps won’t take into account any stops you’ll want to make. And I can tell you right now that you’ll want to make lots and lots of stops along most road trips in New Zealand! From hikes to waterfalls to local cafes, you’ll want to stop at lots of places when you drive around New Zealand.
Simply put, it can take a lot longer to drive from A to B in New Zealand than you might expect. So, don’t make the mistake of underestimating driving times in NZ, and give yourself plenty of extra time when planning out your driving days.
11. Try to See Too Much in a Short Amount of Time
A common mistake made by many visitors to New Zealand is trying to cram too much into their itinerary.
This isn’t helped by a lot of the itineraries you’ll find online, which often make it seem like you can see the whole country in a matter of two weeks.
The thing is, New Zealand is actually a lot bigger than you might expect. Two weeks isn’t enough to see the whole country; two months wouldn’t even be enough time to see it all!
That’s okay, though—you don’t need to see everything all in one go. Instead, you should narrow things down to what you really want to see, and then plan your itinerary around those things.
By doing less, you’ll actually get to see more. Instead of spending all of your days driving just trying to get from A to B, you’ll have more time to actually enjoy New Zealand’s epic scenery and attractions.
If you only have two weeks for your New Zealand trip, it’s worth considering visiting just the North Island, or just the South Island.
You can always return to New Zealand to see things you’ve missed! (And trust me, you’ll want to come back—it only takes one trip to New Zealand to get hooked on this place).
12. Stay Only on the Tourist Path
While you may have heard of common NZ tourist destinations like Queenstown and Rotorua, there is SO much more to New Zealand than you might expect. Some of the country’s most stunning scenery can be found in places you might not have heard of.
You should definitely do some touristy stuff—it’s popular for a reason! I mean, I live in the tourist mecca of Queenstown and 100% think that Queenstown is worth visiting. However, I think you’ll have a better experience in New Zealand if you mix in some touristy places with spots that are a bit off-the-beaten-path.
13. Confuse Australia with New Zealand 🦘🥝
Okay, so this one might sound silly, but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people mix up Australia and New Zealand.
I’m originally from the USA but have lived in New Zealand for over 7 years now. When I go back to the USA for visits, I still have people ask me how my life in Australia is 😂
I always gently correct people, but let’s just clear things up now: Australia and New Zealand are two completely different countries! You might offend a New Zealander if you refer to them as an Australian, so just…don’t.
14. Forget to Follow Commonsense Safety Practices
While New Zealand is a relatively safe country to visit, it does still have instances of crime, as do most places in the world.
If you’re travelling around New Zealand in a car or campervan, make sure to leave any valuables out of sight when you park your car somewhere (and lock your vehicle). Even better, keep your valuables on you or leave them in your accommodation if you can.
Car break-ins unfortunately do happen in New Zealand, so it’s better to be safe than sorry.
If you’re visiting a city like Auckland or Christchurch, especially at nighttime, take the basic precautions you’d take anywhere else. This includes staying in well-lit areas, not accepting drinks from strangers if you’re having a night out, and avoiding walking alone in unfamiliar areas.
While some people seem to think hitchhiking in New Zealand is fine, I personally would never do that, especially as a female.
15. Stick your Head Under the Water in Hot Springs
New Zealand is home to some incredible natural hot springs. In particular, the geothermal areas of Taupo and Rotorua have heaps of hot springs to enjoy, and many of them are free!
That being said, you should know something before soaking in a natural hot spring in New Zealand: don’t stick your head under the water!
The reason for this is that you risk contracting amoebic meningitis, a brain-infecting amoeba called Naegleria fowleri that almost always results in death.
Amoebic meningitis is extremely rare in New Zealand, but it’s worth taking precautions to avoid it.
Now, I know this sounds scary, but honestly, the solution is simple: just keep your head above the water in a geothermal pool. Don’t dunk your head in a hot spring, don’t dive into a hot spring, and don’t go swimming underwater in a hot spring.
If you keep your head above the above in a geothermal hot spring, you’ll be just fine.
16. Go Swimming Without Knowing What You’re Doing
With 15,000km of coastline and hundreds of lakes and rivers, New Zealand has no shortage of swimming opportunities.
However, before you set out for a swim in the sea or a cold plunge in a lake, make sure you’re a confident and able swimmer.
Sadly, multiple drowning deaths are reported every year in New Zealand, especially in the summer months. So please, please take precautions and only go swimming if you know what you’re doing!
In particular, if you’re swimming in the ocean, make sure you know how to look for rip currents and avoid them. Many beaches around the Coromandel, Auckland, and other popular summer destinations will have lifeguards on duty and a designated swimming area between red and yellow flags to show the safest area to swim.
Safeswim is a good resource for finding lifeguarded beaches around New Zealand.
17. Rely on Public Transportation
Public transportation in New Zealand is, generally speaking, pretty lacking.
While you’ll find good public transportation options in cities like Auckland, Wellington, and Christchurch (and in Queenstown!), travelling around the country via public transport can be a challenge.
Instead, you’re best off renting a car or campervan to travel around New Zealand.
18. Wait for the Bill at Your Table
When dining out at a cafe or restaurant in New Zealand, you’ll either pay at the counter when you order your food, or you’ll go up to the counter to pay at the end of your meal.
If you wait around for someone to bring you your bill, you’ll be out of luck: it’s not a common practice in New Zealand.
Also, while we’re on the subject of going out to eat, I should mention that tipping is not customary in New Zealand (which comes as a shock to most Americans, I know!). Instead, the price you see on the menu is the price you’ll pay.
19. Forget to Fill out Your NZeTA ✅
As of October 2019, visitors to New Zealand from visa-waiver countries need to have an NZeTA (New Zealand Electronic Travel Authority).
When my mom last visited me in New Zealand from California, she noticed some people panicking at the San Francisco airport because they didn’t realise they needed an NZeTA before boarding their flight. Don’t let that be you!
You can find more out about the NZeTA on the NZ immigration website. Beware of scam sites that will try to rip you off (as they unfortunately do exist), and only use the official NZ immigration site to apply for your NZeTA!
20. Not be Prepared for Natural Disasters
Natural disasters can occur in New Zealand, as they can anywhere in the world.
In particular, New Zealand is prone to earthquakes, tsunamis, cyclones, and flooding.
I recommend always checking the weather report before heading out on a road trip, or before embarking on a hike or other outdoor activity. I use Metservice to keep an eye on the weather forecast.
For example, there will sometimes be strong wind warnings around popular destinations like Aoraki Mount Cook. If the weather report says it’s not safe to be on the road, don’t be on the road! Campervans can blow over in gale-force winds, so don’t risk it.
As for earthquake and tsunami risk, know what to do in case one occurs while you’re travelling around New Zealand. Being aware of your surroundings is a good first step.
In addition, I recommend having travel insurance in case your travel plans are disrupted due to a natural disaster.
Wrap-Up: Things Not to Do in New Zealand
I hope this list has helped you prepare for your trip to New Zealand.
Before I go and worry you with all of these things not to do in New Zealand, you should know that New Zealand is a great country to travel to. New Zealanders are kind and friendly people, and the country is very welcoming to tourists.
If you’re a respectful visitor and use common sense, you are going to have an awesome time in NZ.
As for any Kiwis reading this…did I leave something off this list that you think is important to mention? If so, feel free to let me know!