April-June 2017


The Perils and Pleasures
of Renting a Campervan In New Zealand


Many travelers want to come to New Zealand and naturally there are all of the usual ways of accomplishing this; package tours of many types, cruising, Air B&B, backpackers’ hostels, tenting and others.  For those of us who prefer to travel independently, with a certain level of self containment and comfort - or at least personal space - touring in a motor caravan seems to be the best option.  The question then is whether to buy a vehicle and resell it when the time comes, ship in your own vehicle and then ship it out when you finish your travels, or rent a vehicle in NZ.

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Anyone familiar with our own travels knows that we prefer to ship our own vehicle and use it wherever we are traveling.  In this particular instance we decided to not do this but to rent a vehicle instead.  In retrospect this may not have been the best decision, but due to a variety of factors it made sense to us at the time and in many ways still does.

Let’s take a brief look at each option.  If you are planning to visit NZ for longer than three months, either buying and selling or shipping in your own vehicle makes a lot of sense.  Buying and selling a vehicle in NZ is not difficult in a legal sense and many people do it.  This option can work out very well but also carries some significant financial uncertainty.  When the time comes to sell it may be hard to find a buyer; or the currency exchange rate may have shifted enough during your time in the country to cause a significant loss when the sale is completed.  Another concern is that in order to minimize financial exposure travelers will naturally tend to buy an older vehicle, which may end up needing costly and time consuming repairs.  We know other travelers who have bought and sold a vehicle quite successfully, but also know folks who have experienced one or the other of each of the three less successful outcomes.

Shipping in a vehicle is also possible of course, though personally I probably wouldn’t consider this option for a stay of less than six months.  We looked into shipping our Tiger, but the time frames and shipping options from the US West Coast were not particularly attractive, at least in the limited time we had available for research.  Given more time and a more open ended overall travel schedule we would have liked to have been able to make this work.  The basic problem in our case is that our vehicle is too large to fit in a container and so must ship on a Roll On Roll Off vessel.  RO/RO shipping is relatively straightforward to Australia, but not so much to New Zealand.  Containerized shipping would have been much simpler in this instance.

Our overriding problem in working through the many issues involved was time; we were in something of a rush during the process and that is never a good thing.  After spending a number of months researching and preparing for a trip across Central Asia we decided instead to come to Australia and New Zealand; shipping our Tiger to Australia and visiting New Zealand while our Tiger was at sea and unavailable to us.  The lateness of this decision and our eagerness to hit the road and get on with traveling contributed to some of our later difficulties; but only some.

This brings us to the focus of this article, renting a van or motorhome for use in New Zealand.  Units of all types, sizes, ages and equipment levels are readily available from numerous rental companies as well as from individuals.  Here is a summary of our own experience, with the obvious caveat that others will have had different experiences and yours of course will inevitably differ as well.

RESEARCH:

A simple internet search for rental motorhomes or motor caravans in New Zealand will get you started with at least a dozen companies offering such rentals.  Many of them give online cost quotations while others ask you to email them for a quote.  There are also sites that can put you in touch with private owners who would like you to rent their own personal vehicle.  One resource we came across later but did not actually use in selecting a company to rent from is rankers.co.nz.  We mention them again in the summing up section at the end of this article and wish we had used their website in our initial research as well.

My first reaction to the rental quotes I was given was that the costs seemed to be all over the place, from enticingly cheap to scarily expensive.  Naturally it became clear after awhile that several factors were causing such a wide range of costs.  I’ll share the ones that seem most relevant to me, but there will be others as well.

1.  The most obvious of course is the age and type of vehicle.  Some companies only use new or nearly new units, say up to three years old, while others specialize in older units.  We learned later that the larger companies actually operate under multiple names with the newest vehicles offered by the main name and older units being passed down to subsidiary brands.  In addition of course is the size of the unit, whether two berth, four, six, etc.

2.  A related and very important factor is the level of self containment of the unit.  New Zealand has strict laws regarding what constitutes a “Self Contained” travel vehicle and this distinction will have a major effect on your ability to “Freedom Camp” as it is called in NZ.  Without the proper certification sticker on the vehicle, you will be legally unable to camp outside of a campground providing toilet and shower facilities.  With that sticker you will be allowed to free camp in many lovely and interesting locations that are off limits to non self contained vehicles.  This certification is to some extent linked to the age of the vehicle simply because many older units are not equipped in such a way to qualify for the certification.  What is required at a minimum is a toilet and a grey water holding tank.  You will immediately realize that many companies rent only “backpacker” vans that provide sleeping space in the back but not much else.  A caveat here is that the proper certification is a legal distinction only.  We certainly camped in many spots that were posted for “self-contained vehicles only” but had non certified cars and vans there as well.  We also read enough comments in the available site reviews to know that people do get ticketed and do indeed have to pay a large on the spot fine.

3.  Once you settle on an appropriate age, size and equipment level of a vehicle that will suit your needs, you will then see that the timing of your proposed visit also has a very strong effect on what you will pay for a rental.  Most companies will give - in the ‘show details’ link for the overall quote they provide - a weekly breakdown of rental fees that will show that the daily rental fee will vary considerably from week to week.  These variations are largely seasonal and holiday related, but also, I assume, reflect how many vehicles of a given type the company has available at that time.  What becomes frustrating during the research phase is that, as with plane fares and hotel rates, the online quotes you see will change frequently so that a quote you get one day may not the same the next day.  This leads to a sense of needing to lock in something attractive right away and can tend to rush your decision process.  I couldn’t tell whether this was more of a problem with some companies than others, but it certainly happens with some.  

4.  You will discover that a company’s policies - their Terms & Conditions - will also have an effect on their prices.  First, some companies provide a more complete package of accessories than others.  Things like lawn chairs and tables, electronic equipment and other items will be included by some and available at extra cost by others.  This is pretty minor; a nice touch but not a major cost factor.  Another factor you will find that varies between companies is the matter of extra charges; credit card fees, cleaning fees and things like that.  Some companies charge them while others don’t.  Also, watch for things like what happens if you want to change your travel plans.  How about if you want to change the pre-arranged drop off location for turning in your van at the end of the rental term.  Some companies do not charge for this while as we later found with our own rental such charges can be exorbitant.

5.  Most important in terms of cost is the insurance package and how it is charged.  This is a very big item in terms of the overall cost you will be paying and thus how you compare the quotations from various companies.  It will also affect your level of comfort as you are driving off in your unit.

Briefly, as it was explained to us, in New Zealand drivers are not required to have insurance.  In the event of damage, your vehicle is your responsibility and another driver’s vehicle is theirs.  So naturally the rental company will require you to insure their vehicle at your expense; the question is in how much exposure you carry personally and how much you pay to have them absorb.  You will find that the higher priced quotations you see will probably include much better insurance coverage already built in.  This is expressed by something like: “Insurance excess of $250”.  Insurance Excess is similar to what we would call in the US the ‘deductible amount’, or the maximum amount of money you will have to pay out of pocket in the event of damage to your rental vehicle, regardless of whether or not an accident is your fault or the fault of another driver.  In contrast, the lower cost quotes will have an “Insurance excess of $5,000” or something similar.  Obviously a big difference, but reducing that $5,000 down to $250 will cost you on the order of $50 per day of rental fee, so once again, a big difference.

Our Rental Experience:

We ended up renting from Apollo, one of the larger companies.  This happened somewhat by default rather than choice and based on our personal experience we cannot give Apollo a very high grade and cannot recommend them to other travelers without cautions.  As mentioned before, our problem was time; we ended up needing to make a rushed decision due to factors that were somewhat out of our control.  Because we were shipping our own vehicle to Australia and visiting New Zealand during the time our vehicle was at sea we could not lock in either our NZ rental date or our airline flights until we had a definite drop off date for our Tiger.  This constitutes an entirely separate and lengthy story we’ll tell at another time.  Suffice it to say for now that by the time we had a firm date for dropping off the Tiger we were within thirty days of when we wanted to arrive and pick up our rental and this time frame ended up limiting our options.  I also found that being short on time I tended to gravitate to websites that I found easy to use and that gave rapid feedback in terms of cost quotes and vehicle availability.

Our vehicle choice was a van called a Euro Camper by most companies.  It was a late model Mercedes Sprinter or VW Crafter van with a standard high top configuration; in other words a van and not a motorhome (motor caravan) with a wider body added to a van chassis.  It is longer than we’d like at 6.9 meters (22.5’) but otherwise is a good size.  In the time we had available we believed this to be the smallest fully self contained van available.  Since then we’ve learned that this is not true.  While this is a very popular size and is offered by most companies, there are smaller units available that are self contained and have the proper certification.  

The particular van we were given was newer than I’d anticipated, being a 2015 model with just 70,000 km of use.  It was clean, attractive and suited us quite well.  In the end, despite it’s low level of usage, we would have trouble with this vehicle.  About two weeks into our five week rental period both the furnace and the water heater would stop working, with the water heater actually leaking water onto the floor inside the unit.  To their credit, Apollo handled this problem just as they had said they would and supplied us with a replacement vehicle; sending a driver over 600 kms out to where we could meet up and do the exchange.  Prior to the exchange they informed us that the only available model like ours was a few years older and a VW rather than a Mercedes model.  The two companies share the same mechanical platform for their vans these days so the differences between them are not significant.  In terms of vehicles and their support policies and personnel we do not fault Apollo.

The reasons why we won’t be recommending them to others have to do with their Terms & Conditions and our experience at the time of picking up the vehicle.  While the people we dealt with were friendly and helpful, there was a very strong sense of wanting to up-sell our rental contract by convincing us to buy various products whether we thought we needed them or not.  The biggest effort was to try to frighten us about the hazards of driving in New Zealand, primarily with all the other tourist drivers out in their own rental vans, in order to sell us the insurance upgrade as I’ve described above.  This would have added about one-third to the cost of our rental so we did not want to do it.  We managed to finalize our contract without the benefit of this upgrade, but it was apparent that the staff person dealing with us was disappointed in our choice.  When we subsequently had to return our van in Auckland and pickup a new van for our use on North Island I witnessed the same kind of tactics being employed with another couple so this is clearly company policy and not an example of one over-eager employee. 

Another major item for us was that when we learned that our Tiger would be delayed arriving in Australia we needed to extend our rental in New Zealand.  This became an issue due to Apollo insisting that since we’d originally arranged to return our rental in Auckland on May 6th, we would still have to do that even though we were going to be extending the rental by five weeks.  We would have preferred to be able to spend another week or two on South Island, but doing that would have cost us an additional $800 because we would be changing the point of return  for our van.

Other things that Apollo does, such as applying a 2% credit card surcharge and actually charging the $5,000 Insurance Excess amount instead of just placing a hold on your card as other companies do added to our sense of a company that tries too hard to get as much money from their customers as they possibly can.  On top of this, they continue to hold that amount for up to 21 working days after the vehicle is returned; that means they hold your money for a full month after you turn in your rental!  In our case, they ended up sitting on our deposit until I pestered them about not having received it six weeks later.  Finally, to add insult to injury, when we turned in our rental we found that we had to pay a $75 cleaning fee.  This I had not noticed before.

Having reviewed the Terms & Conditions of several companies online before finalizing our own rental, we knew many of these things going in; so why did we choose Apollo anyway?  Two reasons: first, because of our short time frame, companies we would have rather dealt with were already all booked for the type of van we wanted; and second, Apollo’s basic rental rates were among the cheapest I could find.  Ultimately, the bottom line is very important to us and I am satisfied that overall we got a good price from Apollo; it’s just the frustration of dealing with them that has been the issue.

When doing your own research take note that Apollo may also be listed under Star Alliance RV. 

So… Pleasures?

Absolutely!  While we found the rental experience to be filled with difficulties and even some disappointments, we fell completely in love with New Zealand and will never regret making the effort to come here.  As always, the pleasures of travel come from the travel itself and the difficulties come from the myriad arrangements that must be made and the obstacles that must be overcome in order to allow the travel to happen.  

In retrospect I absolutely wish that we had made a greater effort to ship our own vehicle to NZ and to have planned on a much longer stay.  We travelers tend to think of New Zealand as a small place and surely a month or two should be sufficient time to see everything.  Not true.  I would now say that even six months might not be enough to really see New Zealand, let alone simply to slow down enough to enjoy it in the way that it deserves.

New Zealand is an extraordinary place.  It is beautiful and much more varied than we had anticipated.  The secondary roads, while narrow, are almost always smooth and well maintained and signage is generally excellent.  We found that at the time of our visit in April and May 2017 the most well known sites were crowded with tourists, mostly Asian these days, but it was never difficult for us to find places to stay the night that were free, attractive and readily accessible.  As always, we feel sure that to a large extent this is due to the fact that we never attempted to actually stay the night in any of those best known and therefore crowded places, but always stayed a ways away from them.  Also, despite some warnings from other travelers, wild camping is still alive and well in New Zealand and we spent only a few nights in places with a fee attached.

Final Thoughts:

We need to stress here that we can only report on what we experienced in our dealings with one of the many rental companies available from which to choose.  Others may be worse and certainly we assume that others are better.  The important lessons we learned have to do with the effect of a company’s Terms & Conditions and the resulting effect these have on their customer relations and ultimately with customers’ satisfaction with their rental experience.

By all means plan your travels for shoulder seasons and avoid the southern hemisphere’s summer vacation months of December to February.  We’ve heard many tales of over crowding of both campsites and destination sites you’ll want to visit during those months and peak season rates are much higher for everything.  As we traveled around in April and May, which is the autumn in the southern hemisphere, we were constantly delighted with beautiful and ever changing fall colors.  By starting on South Island on April 1 and ending on North Island in early June we were able to see the full gamut of trees and foliage putting on their colorful display.  It was grand.  Another particular advantage for us was that when we needed to extend our time due to shipping delays, our second five week rental period cost only about forty percent of the original period of the same length.

An excellent source we’ve come across for choosing a rental company as well as many other handy things is rankers.co.nz.  I wish I had used them more as a resource in the earliest days of my research into rentals.  They also have a wonderful free app that quickly became our primary resource for finding not only camping sites of various types but dump stations, water supply points and many other helpful bits of information. 

© Rick & Kathy Howe 2001-2017