The New Zealand media has been very busy recently with stories of scary situations and accidents on our roads, caused by visiting drivers. Exponential growth in visitor numbers has filled New Zealand roads with inexperienced, nervous and distracted drivers, and the number of incidents and crashes have increased in kind. I’ve been taking most of the news stories and opinions with a grain of salt until recently. I was driving a family around New Zealand, and our day trip to Milford Sound coincided with Chinese New Year. Some of the driving I saw was genuinely scary. I counted at least half a dozen cases of very dangerous passing manoeuvres, tailgating and cutting (blind) corners. In most cases, these didn’t look like the moves of confident and aggressive drivers (which would still be inexcusable). Instead, these drivers were twitchy, inconsistent and unpredictable.
I’m not trying to talk people out of renting cars to drive themselves around New Zealand. This is still the most popular choice for independent travellers, and I hope it stays this way. I’m offering an alternative. For those with the budget, there are many reasons why you will have a much safer and more enjoyable time in New Zealand by hiring a local, professional driver/guide.
#1. In New Zealand, cars drive on the left.
That isn’t to say that many incidents aren’t caused by native left-side drivers. News stories indicate that a large number of Australian, Indian, and British drivers get into wrecks as well. The majority of crashes, both fatal and non-fatal seem to involved people who aren’t used to keeping left. Often a driver will panic, and their instinct is to swerve right. A local driver’s instinct is to swerve left, which means oncoming traffic will be pointing at the same space in the road.
#2. Professional guides understand the conditions.
Our roads can be narrow, hilly and extremely winding. At home you may be used to a journey of 100km taking one hour. In New Zealand, due to the terrain, weather and road conditions, this could easily become a two hour journey. In remote areas, we have many one lane bridges, and sometimes even share those bridges with train tracks. It can be quite intimidating for a driver who isn’t used to these things. Especially if you’ve just arrived in New Zealand from a long journey, tired and jet-lagged.
#3. We know the best route – GPS may not.
When you rent a car, you can choose to get a GPS provided as part of the hire. I’ve had so many people tell me that the GPS kept taking them off the main road in favour of a smaller, more difficult road that added nothing to their New Zealand experience. (If you are driving yourself, my experience has been that google maps works at least as well as a standalone GPS – you will still have to pay attention to signs and our surroundings. It’s not perfect and can still get you lost.) A local professional has most likely travelled these roads before, and knows the best route, where the best photos and rest stops are, and how long to allow for each leg of your trip. There are many hidden treasures on New Zealand roads, and the best guides will know which ones are worth an extra 10-30 minutes of your day.
#4. Why not enjoy the view?
No matter how many people in your party, at least one of you will be too busy driving to fully enjoy the view. The front seat passenger often also works as navigator, so you could both be missing out on breathtaking scenery. I’ve seen drivers weaving all over the road while trying to take a photo from behind the wheel. If you hire a driver, you can let them do the boring stuff, while you safely enjoy the view.
#5. Professional New Zealand Drivers are highly regulated.
To be a professional driver in New Zealand, you must meet many legal requirements. (If you do decide to hire your own driver/guide, it’s important to check their credentials before parting with any money.) In addition to holding a New Zealand Driver Licence, professionals must pass an additional theory test, clear police background checks (and have a fit and proper character). Make sure your driver is operating a licensed commercial vehicle, possesses a “Passenger Endorsement” in addition to their Driver Licence. Whether independent or working for a larger company, drivers should be operating under a “Passenger Service Licence”. For smaller groups, drivers need a “Class 1” driver licence, larger vehicles (typically 12-25 seats, but the licence is more dependent on the weight of the tour vehicle) require a “class 2” driver licence, while a full sized tour coach driver (usually 40-50 seats) requires a “class 4” licence. All professional passenger drivers are required to maintain a log book and must take short breaks after so many hours on duty, and must take a 24 hour break after so many days on duty.
The point is, you should reasonably expect a licensed New Zealand tour operator to be driving at a higher standard than other road users.
#6. We are usually pretty nice people!
Tourism professionals in New Zealand typically love their job, and the country they work in. You are gaining a local expert, a travel companion, and in a lot of cases – a friend for life. We all have our favourite spots to visit each trip, we know people in different areas and we are generally experienced. Once again, checking your guide’s credentials prior to booking should help weed out the cowboys.
Don’t be afraid to shop around for the right guide for you. Look for enthusiasm and energy, a proven track record, and all the legal requirements mentioned above. Make sure they carry commercial insurance, but also make sure you have your own comprehensive travel insurance.
Have you hired a personal guide in New Zealand? Driven yourself in New Zealand? Leave a comment below to share your experience on the roads in New Zealand.