Should I rent or buy a car or camper van in New Zealand?

New Zealand is a popular destination renowned for its breathtaking landscapes, abundant wildlife, and rich cultural heritage. And I can tell you after two trips of 5 and 3 months it is! 

When planning a trip to New Zealand, one critical decision is buying or renting a car or camper van. This choice can significantly impact the overall experience and cost of the trip, so it’s essential to consider the various factors involved. 

This article will explore the pros and cons of buying and renting a car or camper van in New Zealand and provide some helpful tips for making the best travel decision.

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Benefits of buying a camper or car in New Zealand

First, consider the benefits of buying a car or camper van in New Zealand. The most significant advantage of owning your vehicle is its freedom and flexibility. With your car or camper van, you can drive anywhere, anytime, without worrying about booking or reserving transportation. This allows you to make the most of your time in New Zealand and explore the country at its own pace.

Traveling anywhere is only possible with your own vehicle. Unfortunately, many rental companies won’t allow you to drive on dirt and gravel roads. And I can tell you without hesitation you will miss out on a lot. The most beautiful rides and destinations are only reachable by a gravel road. For example, the Matukituki valley in the Southern Alps is stunning and a must-go if you are an outdoor enthusiast or nature lover.

Freedom Camping Rasperry Flat Car Park
Raspberry Flat car park at the end of 36 kilometers gravel road at the Matukituki Valley

Additionally, owning a car or camper van can be a cost-effective option for travelers who plan to spend an extended period in New Zealand. If you’re staying for several months, as I did, buying a vehicle can be more cost-effective than renting one for the entire stay. The upfront cost of buying a car or camper van will typically be offset by the lower overall cost of ownership over a more extended period.

For example, the last time I stayed in New Zealand for three months (summer months), I bought a Toyota Lucida with a freedom camping certificate. 

It cost me 6700 NZD; I had no maintenance costs and sold it for 3000 NZD. My insurance was around 50 NZD monthly for comprehensive insurance with roadside assistance. So the total costs for three months were 3850 NZD (about 2400 USD). 

At the time of writing, a Toyota Estima Sleeper Van from Jucy Rental costs around 13,000 NZD for three months (summer months). Do the math! 

Toyota Estima Sleeper Van price for 3 months rental in the summertime

* Prices may vary throughout the years and seasons. Do some research before deciding to buy or rent a car. 

Disadvantages of buying a car or van in New Zealand

However, there are also some downsides to buying a car or camper van in New Zealand. The most significant of these is the upfront cost of purchase. Buying a vehicle can be expensive, and it’s essential to consider whether it’s financially feasible for your trip. Additionally, owning a car or camper van can come with ongoing costs, such as maintenance and insurance expenses, which can add up over time.

Another disadvantage of owning a vehicle in New Zealand is caring for and maintaining the car. It can be a significant undertaking, especially for those unfamiliar with mechanical tasks or limited time and resources. Furthermore, if something goes wrong with the vehicle, you must fix it, which can be a significant inconvenience and potentially a costly experience.

At the beginning of my second New Zealand adventure in 2019, I had trouble with my newly bought car. The petrol tank pipe was leaking. It is hard to get around New Zealand in that way. Fortunately, the company that sold me the car guaranteed every repair within a few days after purchase.

Lastly, you will have to sell your car at the end of your journey. Some car sellers will repurchase the vehicle at a lower rate. Or you can sell the car or van to another backpacker. You can use digital marketplaces, social media, and physical boards at backpacker hostels. 

Freedom Camping Northern Island
Sunrise at Karakau Beach in our Toyota Estima

Benefits of renting a car or van

Now, let’s focus on the benefits of renting a car or camper van in New Zealand. The most significant advantage of renting a vehicle is its ease and convenience. Renting a car or camper van eliminates the need to purchase and maintain a vehicle, and you can simply book the car you need for the duration of your stay.

Another advantage of renting a vehicle is the cost-effectiveness of shorter trips. If you are only staying in New Zealand for a few weeks or less, renting a car or camper van can be a more cost-effective option than buying one. This is because the cost of renting a vehicle is spread over a shorter period and eliminates the need for a substantial upfront investment.

Additionally, you won’t be responsible for the maintenance and repair of the vehicle, as this is the rental company’s responsibility. It eliminates the hassle and cost associated with vehicle maintenance and allows you to focus on the trip of your lifetime! Furthermore, rental companies often offer roadside assistance, so you can feel confident that you will be able to receive help if you encounter any issues while on the road.

Another benefit of renting a vehicle is the ability to choose from a range of different vehicles to suit your needs. Whether you need a compact car for city driving, a spacious camper van for road trips, or a 4WD for off-road adventures, rental companies offer a variety of vehicles to choose from. It allows travelers to pick the car that best suits their needs and preferences, ensuring a comfortable and enjoyable trip.

Freedom Camping Mt Taranaki
Mount Taranaki car park – Freedom Camping

The downside of renting a car or camper van in New Zealand

Although most rental car companies in New Zealand allow you to drive their vehicles anywhere in the country, there may be restrictions on driving in certain areas, such as on gravel roads or through National Parks. Therefore, it’s essential to check the terms and conditions of your rental agreement, as well as any restrictions that may be in place in the area where you plan to drive, to ensure that you can drive your rental car where you need to go.

Most rental companies have a list in their terms and conditions of roads that are off-limit for their rental cars, sleeper vans, and campers. See this example of Vroomvroomvroom, where they forbid you to drive the following routes:

  • Skippers Canyon, Queenstown
  • Ninety Mile Beach, Northland
  • Tasma Valley Road, Mount Cook
  • Port Jackson Road, Coromandel Peninsula
Vroomvroomvroom road restrictions example

Other rental companies won’t allow you to drive any gravel roads apart from short bits on your way to a campsite. 

Wilderness Motorhome Rentals will help you experience the ‘real New Zealand.’ Therefore, you are allowed to drive on unsealed roads. However, off-road driving is still prohibited.

My two cents on renting or buying a car in New Zealand

In conclusion, whether you should buy or rent a camper van in New Zealand depends on your individual needs and circumstances. If you are planning a long-term stay of multiple months in the country, have a decent budget, and are confident in your ability to maintain a vehicle, buying a camper van may be the right choice. It will give you the freedom and flexibility to travel at your own pace and explore the country on your terms.

On the other hand, renting a camper van may be the better option if you are planning a shorter stay or need more confidence in your ability to maintain a vehicle. Renting will allow you to experience the freedom and adventure of camper van travel without the long-term commitment of ownership.

Ultimately, buying or renting a camper van in New Zealand will depend on your personal preferences, budget, and travel plans. Consider your options carefully and make the decision that is right for you. Whether you buy or rent, exploring the stunning landscapes of New Zealand by camper van is an unforgettable experience.

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