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Seniors on the Go: New Zealand for seniors: Getting around

By Ed Perkins, Tribune Content Agency

New Zealand is a fantastic destination for travelers of any age — and especially for seniors. Traveling as a senior myself, I just returned from a great two-week exploration. You have three reasons to justify going that far for a trip: Fantastic scenery, great people and reasonable accommodations and meals costs. I don’t need to go into details; for that, get a good guidebook. The main challenge is transportation, both getting there and getting around once you’re there.

Getting There. New Zealand is a long schlep from the United States or Canada. Nonstops to Auckland take 13 hours from Los Angeles or San Francisco and 14 hours from Vancouver, all currently available only on Air New Zealand. Leaving from any other North American city requires a connection, either in one of those gateways or in Honolulu, where you can catch flights on Hawaiian — and maybe stay over a day or two. Alternatively, you can fly from several U.S. and Canadian gateways to Sydney, Brisbane or Melbourne, from which you can catch a bunch of flights to most big New Zealand cities.

I did my trip on frequent flyer miles, which meant the best itinerary was a nonstop on Virgin Australia to Brisbane and from there to Auckland. That connection involved a 10-hour layover in Brisbane, and because I elected to spend the day exploring Brisbane a bit, I needed an Australian visa — no big deal; it’s available instantly online for about $5.

Fares are also high, at least compared with other intercontinental destinations. For travel in mid-November, which is early summer in New Zealand, nonstop fares from the West Coast are a tad over $1,400; connecting fares from the East Coast start at around $1,800. As is so often the case, you can knock as much as $400 off the West Coast nonstop price by taking a connecting flight, changing in either Honolulu or Australia. United just announced new flights from San Francisco to Auckland, starting next July 1; you might check for introductory promotions. Air New Zealand also has a terrific premium economy option, but it’s one of the world’s highest markups over regular economy, at more than $3,000.

Getting Around. New Zealand’s rail system runs only three long-haul trains, all designed for sightseeing: linking Auckland and Wellington three times weekly; linking Picton, the South Island port for ferries from Wellington, with Christchurch, daily during the summer season; and daily over Arthur’s Pass linking Christchurch with Greymouth. I can recommend any or all of them if you have the time.

But if you really want to get around, you have three options: Fly, take a bus or rent a car. Air New Zealand does a pretty good job of flying from just about everywhere in New Zealand to just about everywhere else. But flying is still a hassle, and that leaves you with the problem of getting around once you arrive at a local airport. Because of limited rail service, New Zealand has developed a robust bus system. InterCity, NakedBus and several local operators connect most of the main centers, with low advance-purchase fares. But buses, too, leave you with a local problem.

I chose to rent cars, both for an excursion to the geothermal area on the North Island and to do a West Coast loop on the South Island. Yes, New Zealand drives on the wrong side of the road, but I’ve never found that to be a problem, although I always choose an automatic transmission when renting in a keep-left country. Rental rates are low: I paid a tad over $200 a week on the South Island for a small but adequate automatic car, and encountered no problems. If you’re squeamish about wrong-side driving, however, your best bet is probably to take one or more local tour packages that include intercity transport, as well as local sightseeing.

However you do it, don’t let the transportation barriers discourage you, especially from doing a super-scenic West Coast loop on the South Island. New Zealand is worth the effort.

Oct. 13, 2015

(Send e-mail to Ed Perkins at eperkins@mind.net. Also, check out Ed’s new rail travel website at Rail-Guru.com.)

(c) 2015 TRIBUNE CONTENT AGENCY, LLC.

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