Stranded Gasless in the Northland

The automated G.A.S. kiosk, a harbinger of our crisis.

It’s anyone’s worst nightmare on a road trip: getting stranded with an empty gas tank far from help because oops, it turns out that there wasn’t another gas station for a hundred miles. This is the sort of thing we futureproofed back home with a gas canister in the car trunk and a wary eye on the gas gauge during our two road trips across the States. So how did it happen to us in New Zealand?

We were prepared, but not in the right ways

Running out of gas was one of our worries when we first set out into New Zealand’s Northland, which is more sparsely populated than the rest of the North Island. To figure out how likely that was, we used both Google Maps and CamperMate (which was indispensible during our trip) to plot the number of gas stations on our route. To our relief, there were several, so running out of gas because of a lack of stations wasn’t an issue. Because we weren’t sure how extensive ATMs and credit card coverage was in the Northland, we also pulled out $200 NZD and stashed it for emergency. We double checked that our credit card worked here through some grocery purchases, and it looked like we were all ready to go.

The sparsely-populated Northland West Coast was where we hit trouble

The first half of our drive, which took us up the Northland East Coast through large settlements like Whangarei, Kawakawa, and Kerikeri were no problem. All of them had gas stations where we got gas without a hitch and continued on our way–some even had friendly attendants to pump the gas for us and pass the time with small talk. We grew used to this system, and so the first sign of trouble after our visit to Te Paki Sand Dunes didn’t raise alarm bells. We noticed the gas gauge was at a quarter-tank, so we found a G.A.S. station (it’s a brand in NZ) and pulled off. There was no sign of attendant, but we were happy to pump our own gas at the self-service kiosks, which seemed to only take credit cards. I popped my card in and the machine prompted me for a PIN.

For those in the audience wondering whether there’s a typo above, there isn’t. In Europe, Australia, and New Zealand, credit cards work on a chip-and-PIN system, meaning that you insert your card into the machine and then enter a series of numbers like you would at an ATM. In contrast, the U.S. credit card work on chip-and-signature, meaning we stick the card in the machine and it spits out a receipt for us to sign. Unsurprisingly, the two systems don’t always play nicely together. Since we in the States don’t have PINs for our credit cards, they don’t always work for purchases abroad.

I’d read beforehand about possible workarounds for the PIN problem, including hitting “Enter” without entering a number or simply typing “0000” and hitting “Enter”. I tried both of these combinations on the machine and both times it rejected my transaction and returned the card. “Huh, how annoying,” I thought to myself. We climbed back into the car and drove to the next station, only a few kilometers away. To our delight, this one had a convenience store attached to it, so when our credit card failed to work again we went in to ask what to do. The convenience store employee stared at us. “I have no idea what to do. I just work for the convenience store, and it’s not related to the gas station…” she told us. Oh dear.

Solving the problem and getting gas

We kept on driving for a couple hours, nervously watching the gas gauge edge down and stopping at every gas station to check if it was manned–none were, and every automated system rejected our credit card. Over debate, we settled on two possibilities: there was a small town coming up that might have a manned station. And if it didn’t, we were going to stop there and wait for someone else to come by and use the station, when we could ask to use their card in return for a cash payment.

The next town, unsurprisingly, also had an automated gas station. Station is a stretch of the word; it was really a single pump next to the town’s tiny harbour. I tried the usual actions with the credit card, it still rejected the payments. No cash accepted, either, so this was it. We settled in for a wait, gazing across the harbor at a few bobbing boats in the black-blue bay. We cleaned up our stuff scattered around the car a bit and made ourselves look as un-disheveled as possible (which is hard when you’ve been camping for four days). And we waited.

Twenty minutes passed before another car rolled up to refuel. As the woman wrapped up her transaction, we approached her and asked if we could pay her cash in return for buying gas on her card. She seemed baffled, but said sure and set the pump up for another transaction. We filled the gas tank to full, then handed her the receipt and cash. SAVED!

Preventing the problem in the first place

We didn’t encounter this problem for the rest of our New Zealand road trip because we rerouted ourselves to pass through a major city every other day and filled up whenever we encountered an attended gas station. But the feeling that we might run out of gas in a rental car hours from any help, coupled with the fear that help would break our travel budget, was pretty stressful. Here are three things you can do to prevent this problem in the first place and take a lot of stress off your shoulders:

  1. Call your credit card company and get a PIN – This one wouldn’t have worked for us, but some U.S. credit card companies will give you a PIN if you explain where you’re travelling and ask for it. It doesn’t hurt to try.
  2. Carry a full gas canister with you – This is what we normally do on road trips, but we didn’t see this as an option with our rental car. Ask about a spare gas canister and rent one if you can, since it’s worth the peace of mind during your road trip.
  3. Plan your route to hit a major city every X kilometers – Since you can estimate mpg and can look up the size of the gas tank, you can easily figure out how far the car will go before it needs a refill. Plan your route so that you’re near a city when you’re running low, since cities will have a plethora of gas options and at least some are manned.

In an ideal world, your credit card works around the world without a hitch because the financial systems all play nicely together. And barring that, in a secondary ideal world, whether a location requires credit cards with PINs or whether it’s manned with an attendant who can help would be neatly spelled out under each establishment’s description. But neither of these things has come to pass (yet), so save yourself the worry and make sure you’re road tripping prepared.

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