New Zealand: An American’s Notes

We took a driving tour through North New Zealand where we had fun visiting waterfalls, villages, hot springs and seeing the magnificent countryside we’ve always heard about. We met some great people and tried some new foods and drinks along the way. Here are some of the smaller notes we made while there.


Tipping and the real cost of eating out

There is no tipping which  can really throw you off with understanding what is expensive or not in the country. For example, you may find that you can get two burgers (2X$10) and beers (2X$5) for a total of $30 NZD. That sounds pretty pricey at first,  but it includes taxes AND tip.

In the U.S. before tax and tip you’d be looking at roughly $21.84 ($30-%20-%9.) Then, you have to consider the exchange rate on top of that which is currently $1.3USD=$1NZD. So the true U.S. equivalent would be a $15-$16 meal for two with alcohol before taxes and tip. Not bad at all.

Paying at the counter

This threw us off at first, and even though you are reading this it will throw you off too. When you’re done with your meal you must get up and go to the host, tell them where you sat, and pay your bill there. It’s easy to get comfortable relaxing after your meal and forgetting there is one more bit of effort expected of you before you can leave. A friend told me they see this in most countries, out of the 10+ countries we have visited so far only Australia and NZ worked this way.

Ordering all at once

When you are in NZ the idea of ordering drinks, then apps, then the meal (with time breaks in between,) is lost on many waiters. They expect you to consolidate your whole meal upfront and give your final order all at once. We had a few awkward moments where they were waiting for us to keep ordering and us waiting for them to leave.

Signature or Pin

I know much of the world has moved onto the chip and pin for credit cards but New Zealand had the hardest time understanding what do with my pinless card. It really confused them. Most countries have just run the card and handed me a pen to sign the receipt. I know it wasn’t a language issue, since we speak the same language. I visited many countries so far and the pinless card (even though it had a chip) confused NZ/AUS the most.

Lost In Translation

Between all the above customs our first few days in NZ felt a bit awkward at the restaurants. There were a couple times we clearly ordered one (with the one finger gesture) coffee for Jackie and we would still get two. Weird. Is it our accent???


Grilled cheese sandwiches are lovingly called “Toasties.”

Kiwi’s offer a lot of lamb, avocado,calamari, steak , and fish & chips in their menus.

McDonalds in Aukland
McDonalds in Aukland

We noticed that fast food joints like McDonalds or KFC were a bit more up-scale and modern looking, compared to our fast food teenage run shacks. I personally think the chicken at KFC was better – Jackie didn’t care for it. (I would agree that the biscuits and the mashed potatoes were sub-par).  There was far more variety at the McDonalds stops with a larger McCafe selection and tasty salads and lamb wraps.



We also thought the burgers in New Zealand were pretty bad. To each his own. I’m sure they say the same about us. BUT for other Americans out there, I’d try something else on the menu. The bread is crumbly and the meat is –  bits of chewiness. We tried burgers at local fast food joints as well as restaurants and they all had the same textures and flavours.I think it is the local preference. We did quite like the sides though. The Sweet Potato fries and Pumpkin Balls were great.  Also, the ribs were a bit off for me.

hqdefaultSavory Pie

Every country has a local favorite that gets replicated in every store, from 7-11 to, McDonalds, to a full blown restaurant. (In Japan for instance they had sushi at 7-11.) In New Zealand it was meat pies. We had a few, at the best and not so best places. I didn’t find a huge difference between the best and worst. It is basically a gravy rich chicken pot pie you ate with your hands. Meh.


The kiwis seem to prefer sparkling water so check the label. Yes every country has options for either but New Zealand leaned to sparkle.

Alcohol and Beers


We have ginger beer in the states but they are non-alcoholic. Ginger Beer in NZ and AU were mixed with vodka, others Rum etc. They were our favorite drinks. We couldn’t get enough.

The liquor store carried tons of premixed beverages. Almost every standard mixed 0002852_johnnie_walker_red_cola_375ml_cansdrink came pre-mixed and canned.  (eg. Johnnie Walker and Code, Rum and Coke)

If you like ciders than NZ and AU are great spots for you. They have a plethora of cider selections eg peach, pear, apple – you name it.

If you like India Pale Ale you are out of luck. Jackie loves the stuff and most Kiwi and Aussies had no idea what we were talking about when we asked for the stuff.

Street Talk

A few times we asked for directions. The person would tell us “it is a minute up the road.” It turned out to be 5 steps away. A minute was what we would call “a sec.”


In the U.S. our salutations usually go, “How you doin?” or “How’s it going?” In New Zealand it is merged into “How you going?” The U.S. response to “Thanks” is either “All good” or “No problem”, “you’re welcome” or even “no worries.” In New Zealand we often got “that’s alright” or “that’s ok.”


It may say “yield to pedestrians” but no car yields for pedestrians. We would almost get run over on designated crosswalks and plenty of distance for the car to slow down and stop. We would get edged off the cross walk. Rude drivers overall I’d say across the country.

Public Holidays

The rules for stores and restaurants vary greatly on public holidays. Some areas are shut down, some are not. We were around for easter and many spots (if open) had rules that a customer couldn’t drink without ordering food. The amount of food required varied greatly as well. Some places demanded multiple meals, others just allowed an appetizer. 

Supposedly, from what we heard, drinking rules are strict – they post measurements of how to rate the intoxication level of customers (eg. by talkativeness, slurring, and posture) on the bars. 

Internet Scarcity

Don’t get me started on this. It was hard as hell to get internet in New Zealand and Australia. If we got it it was limited, if it wasn’t capped it was slow as molasses. Upload and download speeds were faaaaar below 1Mb/s. Hotels would often give us a 50 MB vouchers that we could use for free while there. Gee thanks. :-/


When you turn on the telly you might be surprised with some of the sports you see. I don’t think snooker or rugby would surprise anyone, but there is one game called Netball where people run around with a version of a basketball (without dribbling) and shoot a into a hoop without a backboard from a few feet away.


Other micro notes

We noticed the Kiwis were pretty chill about rules. A few cents here or there were no problem. If something was misunderstood about an agreement or rule the business didn’t put up a fuss. 


Get a camper or suv if you can swing it. The higher view over fences as you drive would have been worth it for us.

We heard that all emergency care is completely covered by the government whether you are a resident or foreigner. So, that’s nice 🙂


I know this is a small thing, but I started to notice that all the lights were set as down being on and up being off. Subtle, but noticeably different.

Tokyo Tips & Cliff Notes

You can check out a more detailed description of Tokyo and Kyoto here. For a quickie on Tokyo notes read on.


  • Most of the time, public transportation was between $2-5 USD one way
  • Ramen was about $5-8
  • Sushi $2-$5 per nigiri
  • You can spend $45 for a single sushi plate easily at a casual place if you aren’t paying attention.
  • Banana $1-3 but then $5-10 other places. here is a story we read as to why.
  • Big Mac $3.14


Things we noticed

  • Separate slippers were provided to you, after you take off your shoes, for the bathroom at the hotel and some restaurants
  • Shops and restaurants are on each level of building – explore up.
  • Lots of Department stores. Basement always had good food.
  • McDonalds highlighted chicken teriyaki burgers
  • Many Ramen shops used vending machine to dispense ticket to hand to chef at resturant
  • Strong posture in workers/waiters/hostesses. All very helpful.
  • Public transport was awesome. Not nearly as complicated as people described. If you know your final destination you can use displays to get around. If not, staff was helpful.
  • When people highlight Tokyo there is so much over characterization. Much of the city is very typical of any other big city. Strange things were tucked away, like most strange things usually are.
  • People really do wear kimonos out and about.
  • Alleys and main streets all had amazing restaurants – no bad places really.
  • When it comes to numbers – Arabic numbers seem to be used universally over native characters.
  • Major city intersections often all “all way” crossing. Where pedestrians can go diagonal, or across intersections at the same time. First all cars go, then all people go etc.
  • Some fruit is outrageously priced. Fruit is a big gift giving item. Cantaloupe $100. Single Strawberry $5
  • Uniqlo is full of departments stores



  • Sumo – Buy months in advance.
  • Common Words: Sumimasen (excuse me – use before asking for help ), Arigato (demo or guy may), Konichiwa, Ichi/Ni
  • Google Translate is awesome – use the card feature and just show it after you say hi and or excuse me
  • Japan Rail Pass (JRP) is awesome. If you plan to go between cities (Kyoto/Tokyo) get it. It works in local Tokyo as well. Remember: You NEED to exchange the pass for a ticket when you enter Japan for the first time. Then as a pass you just show between stops.
  • Careful of subway day passes if touring around and not sure where you will end up – many are only for one line
  • Even if there is English in signs, and even when many people “speak” English – taxis do not. Don’t expect it. Get a picture of the destination in native language to show.
  • Even if you’ve tried sushi at home and didn’t like it tries it again here – changed my mind on some items
  • Keep an open mind on what you eat. If people next to you order it at least you know it isn’t a agag 😉
  • Ask your hotel to make reservations for you in advance. Many popular places need it.

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Things We Did

With so many things to check off I ended up making a Google Spreadsheet list to track what we wanted to do and where. You can copy it and use it yourself, or use it to get an idea of things to do. Remember though, one of the biggest lessons I learned in Tokyo was that I should just stumble into places as much as possible.

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