Planning a road trip to New Zealand
Having just returned from a trip of almost a month on the South Island of New Zealand, I said to myself that it would be useful to gather everything you need to organize your road trip across New Zealand. I had already started to write about New Zealand more than two years ago, when I was lucky enough to discover the land of Kiwis during a beautiful itinerary on the North Island.
I finally realized afterwards that I couldn’t find any overview article that would allow you to know in one look what you need for a trip to New Zealand. I’ve already told you about driving, budget and even several specific areas on the North Island. Following this article, I’m going to write one about our itinerary on the South Island.
In this article, I would like to talk about the administrative formalities for a visit in NZ: how to get there, how to get around, as well as the weather and how long you need to visit this territory. I’ll tell you about activities, accommodation, driving, your bag, and also give you some ideas for itineraries on the two islands.
Because if there’s one place on the other side of the world where you can enjoy the great outdoors and majestic landscapes, it’s New Zealand. On the program of your trip, you can ask for: beaches, volcanoes, valleys, national parks, lakes, volcanic land, waterfalls, geothermal areas, hot springs, vineyards, fjords, glaciers and not forgetting thousands of sheep! Let’s go discover the land of the Lord of the Rings!
We’ll start with the basics, right? Actually, things are rather simple:
- You must have a passport valid for the duration of your stay (which is normal),
- Having a return or onward flight ticket (which proves that you are not going to stay in the country…),
- The famous NZeTA (New Zealand Electronic Travel Authorithy).
Indeed, since 1st October 2019, foreigners must get this authorization. You can either do it online or via a mobile app. I personally went through the “NZeTA” app (search on your mobile Store) and it worked perfectly. We received the applications within 24 hours for all three of us. You will of course need your passport to apply and also take a photo of yourself (with your phone).
With this NZeTA, you can go in and out of the country for 2 years and for a maximum stay of 90 days. It costs NZ$9 if you use the app and $12 if you do it online. Finally, since July 1st 2019, you must also pay an “IVL” (International Visitor Conservation and Tourism Levy) tax of $35. By getting the NZeTA, you pay for both at the same time (at least that’s the way it was for me, via the app).
How do I get to New Zealand?
Of course, the easiest way to get to New Zealand is by plane! Depending on where you live, you will be able to find good prices at times. From Europe, you will find really cheap flights by looking on flight comparators: from 700/800€. I recommend you use this flight comparator, the one I have been using for more than 10 years now.
From the United States, all the main cities offer flights to New Zealand, beginning at $700 from the west coastline of US, where flights seem to be cheaper than other parts of the country. It’s especially true if you’re flying out of San Francisco or Los Angeles, directly to Auckland. However, the cheapest flights from the United States to New Zealand are from Hawaii, with flights for under $400/500 round-trip.
For Canadians, you will find flights starting at $900 Canadian dollars, flying out of the major cities as well.
When to go to New Zealand?
This question might make you smile, but if I tell you that you can be camping by 4°C and not even in the middle of winter, the question on the best time to go to New Zealand isn’t finally not so stupid, isn’t it? The link above takes you to the full article I wrote about it. To sum up, I see it this way:
- The optimal season regarding the weather would be the hottest one. In the southern hemisphere, it is the opposite of Europe or US, from December to March overall. However, I can say that, even if I am used to hot places, you can still get freaky cold, even in the middle of January. I just got back from a month on the South Island between December 15th and January 15th and we had 12°c in Christchurch with an icy wind, and 6° in Milford Sound…you’ve been warned!
- But the hottest season is also the most touristic one, for both international and locals (New Zealand holiday). It was really crowded in some places and that affects: 1 – on the prices which are higher; 2 – on accommodations which are quickly fully booked so you need to book beforehand; 3 – on your trip since you find yourself with beautiful natural sites overwhelmed by tourists…
- If you want to do specific activities (alpine skiing, several-days hikes, biking etc.), you will have to be prepared for specific seasons. Some treks are closed in the middle of winter and ski resorts are closed in the middle of summer, so be careful. Also consider the traffic conditions which, in winter, can be difficult between snow, ice and freezing rain. Some passes are also closed… Finally, the days will be much longer in summer than in winter.
Then, I will recommend you travel slightly differently, as I did on my first trip to the North Island, either between September/October or April/May. Of course, it won’t be warm and you’ll have to bring some good clothes which protect from the cold and the wind, but I would think that your luggage will be the same or almost the same if you leave in the middle of summer (I’m talking about a guy who was wearing a Goretex jacket and a cap in the middle of summer…). A matter of taste!
How long to stay when visiting New Zealand?
It’s a wide debate but the majority of you will probably have little or no choice if you are employed with 5 weeks off (yes, I’m as annoyed as you are with this limitation…). Here again, it’s difficult to answer this question and everyone can think differently according to their way of travelling, depending on whether you like to take your time or if you prefer to “run from one tourist place to another”.
From my personal experience, I travelled a month on the North Island and I couldn’t see everything. I then followed this up with 3 weeks on the South Island, and likewise, we certainly did the island tour, but at a pace that was far too fast for me. We travelled with a baby (one and a half year old the first time and 4 years old the second time) so clearly this also affects the tempo of the trip (even if their adaptation capacities are better than ours sometimes). So, this is how I see it:
- I wouldn’t come for less than 15 days from Europe or US to New Zealand,
- Planning to visit both islands in 15 days seems like a suicide mission or almost, unless you want to take a flight between Auckland and Christchurch (about 1h15) to avoid the road. But you’ll then have only one week on each island and you will see 2/3 places maximum,
- A trip of 3 weeks, or even 1 month to do both islands already seems to be a little more adapted, even if I think it’s still too short, and you’ll have choices to make about what you’re going to see,
- To do a whole tour of New Zealand, I think that it would take 2 months, and again you will be on a very steady pace, and drive several hours a day every day (what we did in both trips),
- To take your time and if you can afford it, I would advise 1 month and a half on each island!
Booking your transport to NZ
Here too, once again, everyone will think differently, but there are two major opposing schools of thoughts. To simplify a bit:
- Those who rather rent a car and then choose their type of accommodation (campsites, Airbnb, motel, etc.),
- Those who prefer to rent a camper or a van and sleep in it.
From my experience and what I have seen while travelling 2 months in New Zealand, I would say that renting a car is always cheaper than renting a van or a campervan. We chose to rent a car and to sleep in a tent, and this is in my opinion the cheapest solution (by far!). If you’re not a fan of camping, you can always rent a car and book your Airbnb or accommodation on Booking as you travel.
Quite a few people also prefer to rent a motorhome and van. The main advantage I see is that you have more space and comfort than when you are in a tent. But on the other hand, renting for 3 weeks or 1 month will be much more expensive than a simple car. You are going to tell me that you can sleep for free in “free camp” with a “self-contained” motorhome and it’s true. However, I would say that only backpackers with a limited budget will choose this option. For others, you’ll simply find yourself (with us!) in campsites so you can enjoy all the facilities. In the end, you pay more for the campsite pitch and more for your rental (but you have the comfort). So, it’s again a matter of taste! Indeed, Matthieu wrote a full article on this subject on our blog.
Which accommodation during your road trip?
There is something for everyone and for all budgets here. From the most expensive to the least, I would say: hotels, motels, seasonal rentals, Airbnb, hostels, campsites and finally free nights in specific sites (camping tent or camper van). You can have a look here for that.
We have been camping a lot in New Zealand (full article on the subject by the way). More recently, we also alternated (my wife being 5 months pregnant during our last road trip) with Airbnb. You can find really cheap Airbnb, around 50€ per night, which is still more expensive than campsites, but it allowed us to rest in a “real bed” as my son would say, haha!
For bookings apart from Airbnb, we simply used booking.com website, which is very handy to find good deals, sometimes even at the last minute.
Book your activities for your road trip in NZ?
In short, we are not the best to advise you on activities during a trip. We rarely do any, to tell the truth, and we prefer for sure our autonomy. For our road trip in New Zealand, we did not change our rule! The only activities we have personally tested are:
- The visit of Hobbiton (see our opinion on the subject),
- A cruise in Milford Sound,
- The Queenstown Skyline by day.
But honestly, it is really easy for those who want to book quite a few activities, either before your trip or a few days before doing it, depending on the route. Some of the most popular and most booked activities are also:
What itinerary to choose for your trip to New Zealand?
Well, I have to say that I could write a lot about this. I’ve already written an article about my itinerary on the North Island of New Zealand, when we went there at the end of 2017. So, I’m not going to repeat everything here, it would be useless. Remember the following:
- There is no ideal itinerary on either the North or South Island,
- The majority of travellers logically consider the most famous and touristy spots,
- Your itinerary in New Zealand will essentially depend on the time you have there and on how you plan your road trip (focus on a small part of the country only and see more details or drive from place to place every day, for example).
I rather suggest you remember the “places to see” on both islands. I will soon write a full article on our itinerary on the South Island of the country.
For the unmissable / well-known places:
- On the North Island, the must-sees are: Auckland, Cape Reinga, Bay of Islands, Rotorua, Orakei Korako, Wellington, Hobbiton, Lake Taupo, Tongariro National Park, Coromandel (Cathedral Cove/Hot water beach/Waitomo glowworn caves).
- On the South Island, the classics are: Christchurch, Kaikoura, Akaroa, Lake Pukaki, Lake Tekapo, Moeraki Boulders, Omarama Clays Clifs, Dunedin, Te Anau, Milford Sound, Queenstown, Wanaka, Doubtful Sound, Abel Tasman National Park, Punakaiki, Franz Josef Glacier, Arthur’s Pass, Lake Wanaka.
Once again, I’m repeating myself but you won’t be able to see all of these places in only 2 or 3 weeks. It is impossible. You will need much more time than that and you will surely have to make choices (as always!).
In my opinion, and based on the two months spent in the country in total, I would recommend the following points:
- For a 2 weeksNew Zealand tour (very intense): Auckland -> Coromandel -> Rotorua/Taupo area then Tongariro -> Wellington -> Christchurch/Akaroa -> Lake Pukaki/Tetapo -> Te Anau -> Milford Sound -> Queenstown -> Fox Glacier
- On a 3 weeks trip in the country: you can add to the trip the Cape Reinga (North Island) or on the South Island a detour through Dunedin and then the Catlins.
Of course, these are “on the run” itineraries as I said above. You will ride very easily 3/4h per day, or even more sometimes. It’ s up to you to see if it’s worth it or not. Personally, I would tend to advise you to see less things but the best ones, but that’s just our way of travelling – slower…
Generally speaking, if I had to give my own personal opinion, I would say that it’s quite tricky to really travel off the beaten track. The majority of people (myself included) only do “the most beautiful sites” in the country, to make the most of the must-see sites.
Tips for driving in New Zealand
I have also written a comprehensive guide on how to drive in New Zealand. Here are some of the things you should keep in mind, in a nutshell:
- Driving times are often longer than you think,
- Remember, we’re driving on the left, right? (Experience of having crossed a tourist in the wrong direction at 120km/h),
- Beware of the one-lane bridge (you will see it written on the ground “One lane bridge”). It’s dangerous and often in the curves, I still haven’t understood why they keep doing only one lane…
- Sometimes you’ll have to drive on gravel roads to get to places like the Catlins or Abel Tasman National Park to see the beautiful sandy beaches of the north of the South Island.
Packing for a trip to New Zealand
Some will tell you not to bring anything special for a New Zealand trip, but I don’t quite agree. It’s one of the countries I’ve visited where the weather is the most changeable and capricious. Even in the middle of summer (January), we had some rain and cold weather (6° in Milford Sound, 12° in Christchurch), and a perpetual wind. In addition to the basics that you bring usually on a trip, I would advise (between October and March):
- A good lightweight Goretex jacket of this type (for ex) that protects very well from wind and rain,
- Light trekking/small trekking shoes that dry quickly (e.g. Adidas).
If you come during low season or in winter, you will need some warm clothes (under sweater and pullover). For those wondering: yes, it is possible to buy all your camping equipment locally (they offer good gear).
For activities and photography fans, I particularly recommend a pair of binoculars (bird, dolphins, whales, penguins) and a go-pro that will be useful for the same reasons (swimming with wildlife for example, perfect for extreme sports too like water rafting).
What is the final budget for the trip?
The question of budget is always very delicate to discuss on a blog because it depends on too many factors such as your road trip duration, your transportation, accommodations, the activities you will do, how you will eat, etc. You can refer to my full article on the budget to travel in New Zealand.
To save money on your budget, you will have to rely on:
- Finding cheap flights from where you live,
- Choose self-drive car rental + camping,
- Make your own food,
- Privilege hiking, walking, snorkeling, animal observation (birds, seals), etc. to paid activities,
- Limit distances (perhaps limit yourself to a particular island or region).
Other interesting aspects good to know
I finally conclude this long article for your road trip with a few points not to forget.
- You can buy upon arrival at the airport a local SIM card that will allow you to call and have internet everywhere (at least, where there will be 3G/4G). We personally bought a New Zealand Vodaphone card for NZL $100 upon arrival at Auckland airport. This was more than enough to call during 1 month of holidays, and the same for internet (social networks were free in the package),
- Outlets are not the same as in French Polynesia (where we live). I recommend you to buy a universal plug of this type for travelling,
- Also, very practical for your road trip, an adapter for the car that you can plug into the cigarette lighter and outputs two USB, perfect for charging iPad or iPhone,
- To find your way, I do not advise to get a GPS (which you often have to pay for), but to have with you an iPhone or even better (what we had) a cellular Ipad. This allows you to put the local SIM card and have continuous internet on your Ipad. You just have to download the classic apps for a road trip in New Zealand: Rankers, CamperMate or Trade Me. Not forgetting of course, the classic Maps.me which allows you, once the maps are downloaded, to have a free GPS offline. It’s very practical and it works perfectly.
- Other interesting apps for a trip to New Zealand: Wikicamp (for accommodations), Arrival (for activities), Met Service NZ Weather (for weather) or GeoNet (for earthquakes…).
That’s it, I’m coming to the end of this article. I think you have now everything you need to plan your road trip in New Zealand. The country is perfect for this kind of trip and it’s still quite nice to walk in these breathtaking landscapes! If you have already done a road trip in the country, do you see things that I would have forgotten here? And if you are currently preparing your trip, go and have a look at the things to do on the Coromandel Peninsula!
Have a good trip!