Rental Cars in New Zealand
If you're planning to spend a day or two in Auckland or Christchurch before heading off around the country, try asking other backpackers that you meet at your hostel who they rented from and why, and what the service was like.
When should I book?
For travelling in Jan-Feb, the safest way is to book in advance online or on the phone. Two reasons, first is to be sure you can actually get a car, and secondly is to make sure you don't get gouged on price. We give the same price no matter what method you use to book or how far in advance you book - right down to the last car, but I know of a number of other rental car companies whose prices go thru the roof when they only have 5 or 10 cars left.
How do the rental companies differ?
Very broadly speaking, the NZ rental industry is split into two major groups, those that run new or very nearly new vehicles, and those that run older cars. It doesn't take a brain surgeon to figure out which group offer cheaper cars. Within the cheaper group, we split into those with larger fleets that have 2 or more branches over both Islands, and those that have a single pickup-return location. While there are some companies that will have a fleet full of rather old cars, many will have some standard late(ish) model tourist quality cars as well as some cheapies for backpackers.
Some companies have have expensive cars, and some have cheap ones, but the two things that all (legal) rental car companies in NZ have in common is that they MUST be approved by the LTSA (NZ transport authority), and each of their cars MUST have a certificate of fitness. A monkey could (almost) pass the tests required to get your rental service licence, but they do also do a police check on the directors to make sure their all above board.
Don't be fooled by other larger companies that advertise that they're "Police Approved" or "NZ Government Approved", as this isn't anything special - if they weren't approved they couldn't be in business at all.
What about getting between the island with a rental car?
As far as crossing Cook Strait, the decision on whether to rent with a company that allows you to change cars or one that requires you to take the car with you needs to be made on a case by case basis. Sometimes (usually on shorter hires) it works out cheaper to go with a company that allows you to swap cars, but often on a longer hire the reduced daily rate from another company will more than offset the cost of taking the car with you (NZ$143 with Interislander Ferry). It also means you don't have to unpack your car and check in your baggage separately.
So how much will it cost?
Most companies pricing is seasonal, and gets cheaper the longer you have the car. High season is December, January and February but November, March and April are still pretty busy. The cheapest time is May, Jun and Jul before ski season starts. When you get a quote, make sure that it is "All Inclusive". That is, including GST (NZ sales tax), unlimited kilometers, and insurance premium. Insurance excesses vary from company to company, and also vary depending on the age of the drivers.
Standard excesses are now up to $2000-3000, so if the company you call quotes you a lower excess that means they're actually taking the risk of the difference on themselves - so be nice and don't be offended if they ask about your driving experience!! You can often pay extra to reduce your liability right down to zero.
Remember to drive carefully, and if you get a parking ticket please pay it! For more information on New Zealand's Rules of the Road, take a look at our Buying a Car article.