Rhea of Rhea’s Travels traveled around the North and South Islands of New Zealand for 9 weeks—hitting all of the best spots, while traveling via camper van. She’s here today to share the ultimate New Zealand road trip itinerary!
New Zealand is a beautiful country located in the South Pacific famous for its varied landscape of breathtaking mountains, lakes, glaciers, and beaches.
I’ve been living in New Zealand for a while and recently spent two months traveling up and down the country. Therefore, I can tell you exactly what makes the ultimate itinerary for a New Zealand road trip.
From what to pack to what to budget, along with an itinerary for both the North Island and the South Island—here’s the ultimate New Zealand road trip itinerary!
The Best Time to Visit
When it comes to New Zealand there isn’t a bad time to visit. If you’re wanting hot, dry weather then December to February is the time to visit. This will give you the longest days in terms of sunlight but be aware this is also the most popular time to visit so things can be more expensive.
A less populous time that still offers good weather is during springtime—between September and November.
The best months to ski at resorts like Cardrona and Coronet Peak is July through to August. Another great time to visit is November to December for lupin season where the lupins decorate areas such as Lake Tekapo and Mount Cook.
What to Pack
New Zealand is known to experience four seasons in a day so packing can be tricky. I’ve experienced all seasons here and these are my packing tips.
First things first, you’ll need an NZeTA electronic visitor visa if you’re visiting for less than 3 months.
I’d recommend buying your toiletries in New Zealand to save room in your suitcase. The cost is similar to the UK/US except for sunscreen, so buy that back home.
Road Trip Essentials:
- Electronics (camera, chargers, adaptors)
- Reusable water bottle
- Day/evening bag
- Hiking backpack
- Eye mask + earplugs
Clothing For All Seasons:
- Workout tops
- Hiking shoes or boots (see options here!)
- Light rain jacket + fleece sweater/jumper
- T-shirts + jeans
- Underwear, socks + pajamas
- Swimsuit (even in winter for the hot springs)
- Microfiber towel
When it comes to autumn and winter, you’ll want to pack some additional add-ons, including a warm waterproof coat, gloves, scarf, woolly hat, and layers for top/bottom. Likewise for spring and summer—include pieces in your luggage to accommodate for warmer weather!
What to Budget for a New Zealand Road Trip
New Zealand is not a cheap travel destination even on the tightest budget but don’t let this put you off.
The approximate cost on a tight budget is $80NZD per day meaning you’d cook almost all of your meals, travel by cheap transport, stay in hostels and splurge on a few activities.
Here are my tips to save money here:
- Cook as much as you can — A meal out can easily cost you $30 so buy groceries at the cheapest store (PAK’nSAVE) and cook at your accommodation. If you do eat out, fast food chains are the cheapest.
- Stay in hostels — (use Hostelworld) or private rooms in Airbnbs. Costs for a dorm bed are $20-30NZD a night. If you’re traveling in a pair it can be cheaper to split a private hostel dorm or Airbnb room.
- Take advantage of free activities — such as hikes, museums, and botanic gardens.
- When it comes to transport — Use public transport such as Intercity to travel around. Travel between the North and South islands using Bluebridge ferries on foot, taking a vehicle across is expensive.
- Visit out of peak season — it’s much cheaper, for example, to hire a campervan in winter than it is in summer. If you’re traveling by campervan use the app Rankers Campers NZ which has an offline map and navigator to find nearby facilities/campsites.
Tips for Driving in New Zealand
Driving here is pretty special due to the stunning views but there are a lot of accidents caused by tourists. There are definitely helpful tips to keep in mind when driving in New Zealand.
First off, always drive on the left!
Go slowly where appropriate, there are a lot of tight windy roads so don’t take these too fast or wide. If there are cars behind you pull over safely to let them pass. New Zealand has lots of pull-in points for this reason. Follow the give-way signs where appropriate. The bigger arrow gives priority to that side of the road.
Make sure to take extra care in the winter months due to ice.
Lastly, park your car/camper facing the direction you are traveling. You can be fined for parking your car facing the opposite way.
10-Day North Island Itinerary
Day 1: Auckland
You’ll likely fly into New Zealand’s largest airport in Auckland just a 25-minute drive to the city center. I’d recommend getting an Uber for ease or a shuttle to save money. You can find all the airport transfer details here.
Now the fun begins! I’d recommend spending no more than a day in Auckland, it’s a nice city but there are glaciers, volcanoes and beautiful beaches to explore. Auckland highlights include a visit to the Sky Tower, Albert Park, Domain Wintergardens, and Mount Eden Summit.
Day 2: Paihia & the Bay of Islands
Leave Auckland early and head north to Paihia. Spend a few hours on Paihia Beach and take a boat trip to explore the Bay of Islands. Great Sights offer a great boat tour where you can see dolphins and head through the famous hole in the rock.
Day 3: Cape Reinga
Head north again to the most northern point of New Zealand, Cape Reinga. Here you can see the famous lighthouse and watch the Tasman Sea and the Pacific Ocean meet.
Take a 20-minute drive south-west to the Giant Sand Dunes and hire toboggans to surf down the dunes.
Day 4: Drive towards Cathedral Cove
It’s an 8-hour drive to Cathedral Cove so stop for rest breaks or stay overnight at the halfway point. Popular spots to stop include 90-Mile Beach, Kai Iwi Lakes, Muriwai Beach, Te Henga Walkway, Bethells Beach, and Piha.
Day 5: Cathedral Cove
Cathedral Cove is one of my favorite beaches in New Zealand, with its soft white sand and clear blue water, the buzz of a few hours here is unbeatable. It’s a popular spot so if you’re hoping to beat the crowds get here for sunrise.
I recommend taking a kayaking tour for a unique way to reach the beach.
Other sights nearby include Shakespeare Cliff Lookout and Hot Water Beach where you can rent a spade and soak in the thermal water.
Day 6: Hobbiton
Begin the 2.5-hour drive to Hobbiton and stop by the breathtaking Owharoa Falls for a rest stop.
Spend the afternoon in Middle-earth enjoying a guided walking tour of Hobbiton. This is a must-do whether you’re a Lord of the Rings fan or not. It’s spectacular to see the detail that went into this set.
Make sure you book ahead as this is one of the most popular tourist activities in New Zealand.
Day 7: Waitomo
Next head to Waitomo, just an hour away, and head to the underground caves where you can see glow worms. I spent 5 hours doing the Black Abyss Tour where you abseil, zipline, climb, and tube through the caves. If confined spaces aren’t your thing, you can take a 45-minute boat ride through the caves to see the glowworms this way.
If you’re looking for a place to stay and relax overnight I highly recommend Waitomo Hilltop Glamping.
Day 8: Rotorua
Two hours east is the popular town of Rotorua. There’s a lot to see here but my top picks are Redwoods Treewalk, Polynesian Spa, Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland, and an evening at the Tamaki Maori Village (voted one of the best things to do in New Zealand).
If you want to hike the famous Tongariro Alpine Crossing, I recommend staying nearby the night before at either the National Park Village or Taupo. If you drive through Taupo make a quick stop at Huka Falls.
Day 9: Tongariro Alpine Crossing
Tongariro Alpine Crossing is known as New Zealand’s best day hike and for featuring serving as the location of Modor in The Lord of the Rings—making it a must-do for any hiker.
This 19.4km hike features a volcanic landscape with emerald lakes and takes between 6-8 hours to complete so I recommended you start early to avoid hiking in the dark. You’ll be tired after this hike so take the evening to relax your feet.
Day 10: Wellington
It’s a 4-hour drive to Wellington but I’d recommend stopping to see the capital which is also my favorite city in New Zealand. Wellington has a bit of everything; the beach, harbor, parks and great places to eat. Take the cable car or hike to Mount Victoria Lookout to see views over the city.
Visit Cuba Street to explore shops, restaurants, and cafes (try Midnight Espresso for coffee, 1154 Pastaria for lunch, and Olive for dinner) and take a tour of Weta Workshop to see how the props and costumes from your favorite movies are made.
10-Day South Island Itinerary
Day 1: Travel to the South Island
There are two ways to get to the South Island. The pricier option is to fly from Wellington to Christchurch which takes an hour or to save money, take the ferry from Wellington to Picton in 3 hours.
If you’re short on time, I’d recommend flying to Christchurch. Spend the day at Riverside Market, the Botanic Gardens, Punting on the Avon and Quake City to learn about the Christchurch earthquakes.
Day 2: Tekapo
Rent a car/camper and drive to Tekapo stopping at viewpoints around the lake. Enjoy a soak at Tekapo Springs or hike 90 minutes to the Astro Cafe for a delicious meal with stunning views of Lake Tekapo.
Around 10 PM head to the Church of the Good Shepherd to see the incredible night sky.
Day 3: Lake Pukaki
Enjoy the short drive to Lake Pukaki stopping at viewpoints around the lake. Here’s the time to pick up groceries and top up your fuel for the next two days.
Then it’s time to drive to Mount Cook, my favorite place in New Zealand. Places to stay if you’re on a budget include Glentanner Holiday Park and YHA Aoraki Mt Cook Backpacker Accommodation or a more luxury option is Aoraki Court/Mt Cook Village.
Try and get an early night as I’d recommend getting up early to hike the following morning.
Day 4: Mount Cook
There are many hikes to choose from (see here) but my top recommendation is Hooker Valley, an easy 3-hour return hike that offers stunning views throughout. Be aware, if you’re scared of heights and bridges, there are three on this hike.
Day 5: Queenstown
Queenstown, otherwise known as the adventure capital of New Zealand, is full of activities. I’d recommend skydiving with NZone or bungy jumping with Aj Hackett.
If extreme sports aren’t your thing, visit Skyline Queenstown and take a ride on the gondola where you can enjoy luging or a drink whilst you take in the views.
Foodwise, try Bespoke Kitchen for delicious healthy food, Fergburger for an extreme burger, and Cookie Time for the best milkshake of your life.
Other notable activities include a trip to Onsen Hot Pools and hiking the Ben Lomond track.
Day 6: Glenorchy
The road from Queenstown to Glenorchy is one of the most beautiful drives in New Zealand. Take your time and enjoy stopping off at Bob’s Cove and Bennets Bluff Lookout. Grab a coffee at The Trading Post and take a photo of the world-famous shed by Glenorchy Wharf.
I’d recommend spending the night in Queenstown or Te Anau for a trip to Milford Sound the next morning.
Day 7: Milford Sound
Milford Sound is a breathtaking fiord famous for its waterfalls and Mitre Peak. Being one of the wettest places in the world, make sure you pack waterproofs.
If you’re driving yourself there is a car park at $10 an hour (payable by card only). Otherwise, there are several tour operators (see here) who offer day trips to Milford from Queenstown and Te Anau. Tours often include a boat cruise to explore deeper into the fiord.
Day 8: Wanaka
An hour’s drive from Queenstown, Wanaka is a beautiful town famous for the Wanaka Tree, Lavender Fields, and the infamous Roys Peak day hike.
This hike is not for the faint-hearted, it’s a 6-hour return climb but the views are worth it. Take enough water and snacks and wear the appropriate clothing. You won’t be disappointed!
Day 9: Mount Aspiring National Park
An hour north of Wanaka is the stunning Mount Aspiring National Park. Walk the 1.5-hour return Blue Pools Track and stop at Fantail Falls and Thunder Creek Falls. Head to Franz Josef to stay overnight and make sure you stop at Lake Matheson along the way.
Day 10: Franz Josef/Fox Glacier
The final day of your New Zealand road trip should be at Franz Josef or Fox Glacier. These West coast towns are famous for their heli hikes and heli landings. Try a Heli Hike with The Helicopter Line or Franz Josef Glacier, and Glacier Helicopters for a heli landing. It won’t be cheap but it’ll be worth it!
If you’re on a budget, head on a hike such as Alex Knob Track (8-hour return) or Roberts Point Track (the 5-hour). Both offer spectacular views of the glaciers but make sure you wrap up warm.
- Mount Taranaki — I was disappointed to miss this stratovolcano; head here for an unforgettable sunrise/sunset
- Abel Tasman National Park — Explore beautiful beaches in the warmer months.
- Nelson Lakes National Park — These lakes offer incredible views of the surrounding valleys and mountains
- Blenheim — for its wineries
- Kaikoura — for whale or dolphin watching
- Kia Ora means hello in the native Maori language
- Hiking is often referred to as tramping
- There’s no expectation to tip
- There are strict laws about what you can bring in to the country. You can see all of the prohibited items here to avoid a fine at the airport
- If you look under 25 you’ll need your passport for ID when purchasing alcohol
- iSite’s are in every town/city and are full of information on things to do in the area
New Zealand is an incredible place to travel and there is so much to see and do. You might spend quite a bit of time driving to see the best bits but it’s worth it. Whatever you do here, I’m sure you’ll have the best time.
You can see more in-depth posts on my blog about where to skydive in New Zealand, visiting Hobbiton, hiking Tongariro Alpine Crossing, glamping in Waitomo, and visiting Onsen Hot Pools.
Leave a comment
The wife and I are going to go to New Zealand, Bali, and Phuket for our 40 anniversary. I have found your web site most helpful of all that I have read. The (2) 10 day road trips is what I think we will use a a guide in New Zealand. One question is over-night accommodations for the most part, has been left out. Are there recommendations for each place that we could book well in advance?
We plan on going Feb of 2023 so we have some time, but i feel that time will fly by as we plan.
Thank you and stay well
Hi Jim! Rhea of Rhea’s Travels contributed this post — I would recommend reaching out to her. I believe a lot of the accommodations are camping/parking/hostels along the way to keep it very budget-friendly. That said, I’m sure there are a lot of other accommodation options, depending on what you’re after.
I wanted to ask what’s the quality of roads like in New zealand? I’ve tried to find out from many sources but no one seems to know, or talk about it.
Hi Rahm! I’m sure it depends on where you are, some roads might be very well taken care of and others might not be. Depends where you’re driving.