Time to plan your New Zealand Road trip! There is so much to do that planning can be overwhelming. Below is my guide to help you go step by step and decide where to go, define your itinerary and prepare for you trip to New Zealand.
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STEP 0 - Essentials to know before planning a New Zealand Road Trip
Let's start with a few essential facts to keep in mind before planning your road trip around New Zealand:
Be reasonable in your planning because:
- There are lots and lots and lots of places to see in New Zealand (see my best-of list)
- It is bigger that one imagines (because we always compare it to its huge neighbour Australia)
- Most roads are winding - especially in North Island - so plan extra time to get from point A to point B
- You will want to stop everywhere for the amazing scenery!
- Always check the road status - sometimes they are working on one-lane bridges which blocks the whole road and you would have to do a huge detour to get to your destination (see the NZTA website)
- There are one lane bridges, some of them are long - but generally it is easy to drive in New Zealand
- January gets really crowded when New Zealanders take their holidays, and the week of the Chinese New Year is also crowded. However crowds in New Zealand way way smaller than crowds in Paris 🙂
- Pack layers. With the mountains the weather can change, with storms and fog. Be ready for all types of weather.
STEP 1 - Decide your best time to visit New Zealand
When to visit New Zealand - the weather
New Zealand has 4 seasons :
- Spring - September to November - average temperatures 16 to 19°C (61 to 66°F)
- Summer - December to February - average temperatures 20 to 25°C (68 to 77°F)
- Autumn - March to May - average temperatures 17 to 21°C (62 to 70°F)
- Winter - June to August - average temperatures 12 to 16°C (53 to 61°F)
Good to know:
- Rainfall - The North of North Island gets more rain in Winter. However rainfall is evenly spread throughout the year on the South Island.
- Snow - Mountains are covered in snow in South Island in Winter.
- Changing weather - In South Island you have tall mountains, so weather can change rapidly and from one valley to the next. Once Lake Pukaki was totally clouded, but just 30min away at the beautiful Omarama Clay Cliffs I had a beautiful blue sky.
Best time to visit New Zealand - Other criteria
The other points to consider when deciding when to travel in New Zealand are:
- Crowds - we are not talking about huge crowds like in major cities in Europe, but the Summer months are the busiest with the New-Zealanders' holidays in January and the Chinese New Year
- Prices - Of course, during the Summer months, prices are up because of demand. And you should book early in big hubs like Queenstown because it fills up.
- Driving conditions - In Winter some of the mountain passes and the roads between Queenstown and Wanaka can be covered in snow, or worse black ice.
- Daylight - You will have longer days to drive around in Summer.
New Zealand Seasons - Summary
- Still some snow on the summits
- Spring flowers blooming
- Less tourists
- Can be quite cold in the South Island
- Autumn foliage
- Some snow appear on the summits
- Less tourists
- Can be quite cold in the South Island
- Touristic season
- Warm and long days
- January is the school holiday - very busy
- Ski Time!
- Short days
So when to travel to New Zealand?
There is no right and wrong answer. Summer is often there preferred season for longer days and warmer temperatures.
Shoulder months (November and April) would be enjoyable with still comfortable temperatures but less tourists around.
And if you like snow sports then Winter is for you.
STEP 2 - Where to go in New Zealand - Regions and Map
Overview New Zealand Road Trip Map
Let's start with New Zealand map to help you locate the various regions listed below:
North vs South island circuit
If you are limited in time for you road trip in New Zealand, you should select only one of the islands. But which one is better?
It is difficult to say.
You can check my complete article comparing both islands, but here is a summary:
- Less time driving - Tie
- Driving Ease - South Island
- Variety and beauty of Views - South Island
- Best Drives - South Island
- Most amazing Natural wonders - North island
- Most stunning Beaches - Tie
- Variety of Wildlife - South Island
- Interests of Towns - North Island
- Quality of Cultural attractions - North Island
- Better Climate - North Island
- Lesser Crowds - South Island
- Better Food and wine offering - Tie
- OVERALL = SOUTH ISLAND, but not by much
NZ road trip destinations - North Island
Below, I am not listing every corners of New Zealand, but I am showing you the most famous regions to consider for your circuit:
North of Auckland, the narrow area is famous for its beaches and forest.
- Cape Reinga and Te Paki sand dunes
- The Bay of Islands
- Tane Mahuta and the old Kauri tree forest
Auckland is the largest city in New Zealand. It is located towards the North where the land narrows. Often referred to as the City of Sails.
- The tower
- Cruising to the islands
- Climbing to the top of the Mt Eden volcano for great views
The Coromandel peninsula is located South East of Auckland. It is famous for its coastal cliffs and beaches.
- Cathedral cove, a giant archway and seastacks
- Hot water beach, where you can dig in the sand to soak in burning water
Rotorua - Taupo
The region of Rotorua-Taupo is in the heart of North Island. It is a geothermal wonderland combined with lots of Maori cultural experiences.
- All the geothermal valleys : Wai-o-tapu, Whaka, Waimangu, Orakei, Te Puia...
- Maori villages
- Lakes, springs and forests
South of Lake Taupo lies the Tongariro National Park, around active volcanoes.
- Many hikes for different degrees of fitness
- The Tongariro Alpine Crossing, the most famous day hike in NZ
Another volcanic region on the West Coast, near New Plymouth. It centers on Mt Taranaki.
- The perfect volcanic cone of Mt Taranaki, with hikes on its slopes
- The black sand beaches
Capital city of New Zealand at the South end of North Island.
- Te Papa museum
- The cable car with great views over the city
- This is where the ferry to South Island departs
NZ roadtripping destinations - South Island
And now for the most famous regions on South Island:
Abel Tasman National Park
On the North Coast of South Island, the Abel Tasman National Park is a favorite for Nature lovers.
- Coastal forest and long sandy beaches
- Dolphins and seals
Located of the North East Coast, Kaikoura has a special situation tucked between a high mountain range and a deep sea canyon.
- Whale Watching
- Swimming with wild dolphins
- Walking around the peninsula where the land moved up over 1m after the last earthquake
In the center of South Island, the Lake Pukaki region has beautiful glacial lakes and high mountain peaks.
- Lake Tekapo and Lake Pukaki
- Hiking opportunities around Mt Cook
- Dark Sky Reserve to see the stars at night
Dunedin - The Catlins
Located on the South East Coast, the Catlins are often overlooked for shorter trip, but if you have the time it is worth driving all the way down.
- Victorian buildings in Dunedin and Omaru
- Wildlife experiences with Albatrosses, penguins, dolphins...
- Moeraki boulders
- Giant Cathedral caves
Probably the most famous town in South Island, known as the adventure capital of the world.
- The beautiful Lake Wakatipu
- Glenorchy and the view towards Mt Aspiring National Park
- Adrenaline activities: jet boats, bungee jumping ...
Fiordland is often a favorite for travelers. The towering cliffs and deep waters are fascinating.
- Milford Sound and the road to get there
- Doubtful Sound and its absolute silence
West Coast Glaciers
On the Central West Coast the high mountains end into the sea. It is a favorite spot to access glaciers.
- Fox Glacier
- Lake Matheson and its reflective views
- Franz Josef Glacier
Third largest island in New Zealand, located South of South Island.
- Slower lifestyle
- Nature bush walks
- Bird watching
You can find all the highlights listed above and more in my Digital guides to help you easily plan your road trip:
STEP 3 - How long to road trip around New Zealand
Well that is a difficult question...
Minimum time to visit New Zealand
Considering how far away New Zealand is, I recommend a minimum of 2 weeks unless you are flying from Australia.
However with 2 weeks, trying to do both islands is very intense. You have to really pick where you want to go. If you want to check out both islands and not feel rushed, then 3 weeks is better.
Time to tour all of New Zealand
For a circuit that cover all regions of both islands, visiting all the major highlights in each, I think you need:
- 2 months with an intensive itinerary, 1 month for each island
- or 3 months for a more relaxed paced, 1 month and a half for each island
- And, of course, if you want to go more in-depth in each region, then you need longer...
To give you a little bit of an idea, below is a map with the driving times (when not stopping).
Remember that New Zealand is full of volcanoes and mountains, so sometimes, even if it looks close-by, it can take a long time to reach a place.
Flight times in New Zealand
You can also road trip in the North and then take a plane and road trip in the South. Flight times are:
- Auckland to Wellington = 1h05
- Auckland to Christchurch = 1h25
- Auckland to Queenstown = 1h55
With mid-level accommodations, a rental car (with full insurance), quite a lot of driving, not much eating out and some activities, I spent (without the flights) 190 euros a day.
STEP 4 - How to get to New Zealand
Airports in New Zealand
The easiest way to arrive in New Zealand is by plane.
International airports are:
- Auckland (AKL) - largest airport, most international flights arrive here (unless you come from Australia)
- Wellington (WLG)
- Christchurch (CHC)
- Queenstown (ZQN)
- Dunedin (DUD)
Visa to visit New Zealand
Ferry between North and South islands on an NZ road trip
If you want to keep the same car during your complete NZ road trip, you can take the ferry between North and South Islands. It carries cars and trucks.
During summer period, it is advised to book as soon as you get your rental car and have your plate number.
Check out ferry options
STEP 5 - Rent your car for a road trip in New Zealand
If you fly in, it is now time to rent your car.
You can find all the international brands and some local brands at the big airports and terminal ferries.
Here are a few tips:
- Most cars are automatic - I don't have specific recommendations for size or motor. Driving is quite easy in New Zealand.
- You don't really need a 4WD, especially as most companies do not allow you to drive offroad even with a 4WD for insurance reasons
- Pick a company that has offices on both island, so that it is easier in case of issues
- Make sure you have a trunk big enough so that all your stuff can go inside and be hidden, so as not to tempt thieves
- Compare international brand car rental prices in New Zealand on Rentalcars.com
- Or choose a local company - I personally selected Snap rentals (and paid entirely) - they are not in the airport but do pick-ups and drop off. They were really nice and reactive, the car was in perfect condition. Plus they have these all-inclusive insurance package with AAA road side assistance which meant I did not have to worry (I think it is worth the price) - Get a quote
Or you can rent a van or a motorhome, if you want to have more freedom and combine housing with vehicle.
I don't have any company to recommend at this time.
STEP 6 - Create your New Zealand Itinerary
Now that you have dates and transportation, you "just" have to decide on your New Zealand road trip itinerary.
For some inspiration you can check my articles about:
And you can use the maps and planning info in my eBooks that help you easily plan you ideal road trip.
Be overwhelmed by the beauty not the planning !
New Zealand road trip itinerary planning - essentials
When planning your itinerary don't forget to consider the following essentials:
- DRIVING TIMES - Always plan more time to go from point A to point B than what Google says. You will want to stop all the time to admire the scenery and the roads might have animals or traffic
- DAYLIGHT HOURS - Check out the daylight time you have available when you are traveling - how long you have to see all the sites during the days
- CHECK OUT ROAD DIFFICULTY - In my eBook, I indicate the roads that are a little more difficult. If you are not purchasing one, read forums to make sure you feel comfortable driving there
- PLAN FLEXIBILITY - the weather can change quite fast. So plan to be flexible.
- CHECK TIDE TIMES - several attractions require a visit at low or high tide to be able to access to see specific events (eg. Cathedral cove, Cathedral caves, Tunnel beach, Moeraki boulders, Wharariki beach...) - So if those are very high on your bucket list, plan first to be there at the right tide and organize around it.
STEP 7 - Book your NZ Accommodations
NZ hotels and more
There is a very large choice of accommodations in New Zealand - You can find something for everyone's taste:
I personally like the practicality of motels. They are mostly quite good, with a minimum kitchen, easy parking, easy access.
You can find a lot of choice on Booking.com. This is where I booked almost all my stays.
Camping in New Zealand
Camping is also a popular option in New Zealand with tents, in a van or in a motorhome.
It does have the advantage that you are closer to nature. And it gives you more flexibility in your planning.
Plus in some regions of New Zealand, freedom camping is allowed.
Just note, that it can get cold during the night. Pack accordingly.
- Campsites and Holiday parks - you can find some great options near all the touristic attractions. They provide safe and well-equipped stays with powered and unpowered sites - You have to check in
- Camping areas managed by the Department of Conservation - Those 250+ campsites with very basic amenities and managed on a trust basis. There is a box to check in and pay.
- Freedom Camping - yes you can freedom camp in NZ but no you can't do it everywhere. There are 'no camping' zones and private land where you can't. Plus some areas allow freedom camping but only with an approved vehicle. Check out the website Freedomcamping.org
STEP 8 - Pack for a NZ road trip
Classic clothes. Nothing special to think about. Check my overall preparation and packing checklists to help you.
And don't forget:
- Layers for rain and for colder nights in the evening and in the mountains
- Sunscreen - you can burn quickly in NZ!
- Hiking shoes
And regarding electronics and other equipments, I recommend
- Photography equipment
- GoPro for swimming with dolphins
- An extra battery to recharge your phone - you will want to take many photos and videos!
- I also recommend binoculars to see the whales, penguins and albatrosses, as well as the glacier tongues - see my guide to help you choose your binoculars
STEP 9 - Get ready to drive in New Zealand
You just have to be aware that:
- Roads are almost never straight (except a few in the South island valleys)
- Animals can appear in the middle of the road, mostly sheep (although not as much as in other countries I have done road trips)
- Most bridges are just one lane. Make sure you check the sign to see who has priority.
- A few landmarks are accessible via gravel roads. They are mostly in good shape. Just plan some time in your itinerary to wash your car (e.g. after the Catlins). And know that your insurance may not cover breakdowns on gravel roads.
- The only driving difficulties I experienced were around Auckland. It is jammed all the time...
I will write a detailed article about driving in New Zealand.
STEP 10 - Get ready for your New Zealand trip
Knowing a few words in the local language is always appreciated. The official languages are English, Maori and the Sign language.
When meeting Maori people, it is always nice to know a few words
- Kia ora = Greetings / Hello / Good luck
- Haere rā = Goodbye / Farewell
- Kai = to eat
- Haka = to dance or perform
Lots of fish, lamb, barbecue, burgers and avocado and english style recipes (meat pies, fish and chips…)
Other tips for your New Zealand Trip
- Emergency number is 111
- Plug is 230V, Type I (angled 2 or 3 pins)
- Tap water is safe and good
- Tax is normally included
- Wifi can be found free of charge in many cafés and in public libraries
- Tipping is not mandatory – if the service was really good, you can add to the included service charge - taxi fares can be rounded up
Be overwhelmed by the beauty, not the planning!
Plan your perfect trip to New Zealand!
- 12 easy-to-plan Maps
- 200 scenic locations in NZ
- Tips to plan + make the most of your time
- 285+ large photos to decide where to go
- GPS coordinates direct to the carparks
Want to see more of NEW ZEALAND?
Ready for an unforgettable road trip?
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