The Best of New Zealand Road Trips
New Zealand is arguably one of the best countries for road trips. It’s relatively small so you can cover a lot of ground easily and holds a huge variety of different landscapes from deserts to mountains, forest to fjords, beaches to cities. Tourism is big business in New Zealand, so you’ll never be far from good accommodation, campsites, bus links or car/campervan rental. There is a lot of choice in how you get around and what type of experience you are after, be it holidaying in luxury or backpacking around the country. All you have to do is decide what you want to do in the time that you have.
This article will give you suggestions for an express two week highlights trip and a more detailed three week South Island tour, as well as general tips on where to stay, how to get around and local attractions. Both of these trips are tried and tested by me and my road trip buddies – we aim to get the most out of the country on a limited time and a reasonably limited budget.
Planning a road trip
How to choose your destinations
Starting to plan a trip of an entire country is daunting, especially if you only have a short amount of time there. You want to see as much as possible whilst being efficient with your time. This is why I recommend NOT just throwing pins on a map. This is how we started until we realised there weren’t always roads where we needed them. Sure, have your map, but actually look at it – you don’t want to waste time doubling back on yourself or spending a whole day on the road. You also need to think about how long to spend in each place. Draw up a list of major sights you want to see or activities you want to do, find out where they are and base your route off that. There’s no point spending time in a place that has nothing of interest for you; equally you want to give yourself enough time somewhere that has heaps of activities you’re keen on. Theming your trip can also be a good way to help you decide on a route i.e. adventure tourism, top wildlife spots, best hikes etc. My first road trip was decided by a combination of Lord of the Rings filming locations and wherever I could see native wildlife.
Where to stay?
New Zealand is a popular tourist destination so there is always somewhere to stay (even in the mountains and the bush there are Department of Conservation Huts). All of the destinations in the itineraries suggested below will have campsites (some may be slightly outside the town), hostels and hotels to suit your needs and budget. My recommendation is to use a nation-wide hostelling company like YHA or BBH. For a small membership fee, you get discounted room rates and often free WIFI at clean, comfortable hostels across the whole country. We chose YHA as their hostels are more standardised whereas BBH can vary (we had one great stay with them and one awful one, while YHA has never let us down yet). Rooms are affordable, varying from unisex and mixed dorms to private rooms with ensuite. The size of the hostel itself may vary depending on whether you are in a tiny town or big city, but all have shared kitchen and common rooms and plenty of information at the front desk – many are manned 24hours and can book up your next hostel for you – and most have WIFI access.
Ask the locals
Use the reception staff at your accommodation or the I-site (tourist information centre) in each town for local information, maps and discounted activities. Chatting to the locals saved us a lot of money and provided ideas for hikes and activities which we hadn’t heard of in our own research. Don’t be shy; it pays to ask!
On the road
There are plenty of rental companies for cars and campervans if you want to self-drive (note: NZ drives on the left), which can be a cheaper option if you are part of a small group as you can split costs. Check your route and the weather with this option – some roads are 4x4 only and some require you to carry tyre chains in winter. Alternatively, bus companies like InterCity and Naked Bus offer hop-on-hop-off or pre-planned itinerary options to get you round the country in cheap, comfortable coaches. Just make sure you research where they stop and what times they pick up so your travel plans don’t interfere with your activities. Other coach companies like Kiwi Experience and Stray offer hop-on-hop-off guided tours or set itineraries if you would rather book a package. Choose what’s best for you either by looking at convenience or based around which buses stop where you want to go.
When to go
The summer period is November to April (October, May and June aren’t too bad either), but winter brings with it ski season and plenty of snow for your photographs! Travel any time but be mindful that the vast majority of New Zealand’s attractions are outdoors so some may become unavailable in bad weather due to health and safety or risk of flooding and avalanche.
Here I’ve laid out two road trip routes that cover what I believe to be the major sights of New Zealand to give you an idea of what you can fit into a short space of time. You can tailor them to suit your own tastes and budget or copy them; the important thing is you get inspired to plan your perfect New Zealand road trip!
Note: Most international flights go to Auckland or Christchurch; domestic flights are cheaper between Auckland and Christchurch than Auckland and Queenstown.
Express New Zealand Highlights (approx. 2 weeks)
Auckland – Waitomo – Rotorua – (optional extra: Taupo) - Matamata - Auckland – Christchurch – Tekapo – Mt Cook – Dunedin – Te Anau – Milford Sound – Queenstown – Wanaka – Auckland (optional extra: Wellington)
1. Begin in Auckland city (hostels in the CBD are the best accommodation option) with plenty of transport from the airport to pick up a car or board your coach. One or two days here should be enough. Highlights include the Sky Tower, black sand beaches on the west coast and extinct volcanoes across the city and in the harbour.
2. Waitomo (just under 3 hours drive from Auckland). No need to stay here, just visit the glow worm caves on the way through to Rotorua. Other activities include black-water tubing in the caves and a Hobbit film location tour in nearby Piopio.
3. Rotorua (2 hours drive from Waitomo). Visit a Maori village in the evening and add on a night-time kiwi experience. The next day, go up the gondola for the luge and views of the lake, visit a colourful geothermal park and soak in a natural spa. Other options for longer stays include mountain-biking or hiking in the Redwoods, rafting, zorbing and more geothermal parks and wildlife parks.
Optional extra: You may like to drive 40mins south to Taupo for mountain views over the lake that now fills a volcanic crater, or go skydiving. If you have time, do the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, a day hike across three volcanoes and stay in Taupo, Tongariro or Ohakune which all border the National Park.
4. Matamata (just under 1 hour from Rotorua). Stop at the Hobbiton movie set tour, then carry on to Auckland.
5. Fly Auckland to Christchurch and check out the gondola, container mall and go punting on the Avon river. You can stay the night or head straight to Tekapo depending on your time frame.
6. Tekapo (just under 3 hours from Christchurch). Hike around the lake and surrounding area, drive or walk up Mt John to the observatory, visit the Church of the Good Shepherd and the hot springs. Make the most of the dark-sky reserve and spend the night star-gazing.
7. Mt Cook (1 hour drive from Tekapo). Stop at Lake Pukkaki along the way for great roadside views. Walk the Hooker Valley Track for the best views of Mt Cook and visit the Tasman Glacier. One day is all you need but be aware the weather is changeable. There are plenty more hikes in the area if you want to stay longer.
8. Dunedin (4.5 hours from Mt Cook). I would recommend stopping along the way at the Moeraki Boulders. Dunedin itself has great wildlife spots on the Otago Peninsula for seals, sea lions and penguins, a small castle and a very famous train station, as well as a pretty cathedral and a Cadbury factory. One day is enough unless you want longer.
9. Te Anau (3.5 hours drive). You can either stay here to be closer to Milford Sound or just go straight to Queenstown and get a day tour to Milford. Te Anau itself is tiny but has a lake and glow worm caves.
10. Milford Sound (just under 2 hours from Te Anau). It pays to book onto the earlier cruises as they are quieter. Milford Sound is best seen from boat or kayak and there are plenty of hikes in the area, although these tend to be longer ones. Accommodation is very limited; better to stay in Te Anau or Queenstown. Be mindful of the weather as the Milford Road often closes in winter due to avalanche warnings.
11. Queenstown (3.5 hours from Milford Sound). Can easily spend at least three days or longer here as there is so much to do – hiking, luge, ski fields in winter, lake cruise, bungy, jet boat, paragliding, skydiving, horse trekking in nearby Glenorchy, Lord of the Rings location tours and a great night life. You name it, Queenstown has it, and is popular both in summer and winter. Glenorchy is a wonderful little town just 40 minutes away to stay for a night for hiking, river activities and horse trekking.
12. Wanaka (drive 1 hour). Hike to Roys Peak or the Wanaka tree around the lake, get lost in Puzzling World, or do a jet-boat/hike/flight experience over nearby Mt Aspiring National Park. One or two days is enough if you are on a tight schedule, but be sure to visit the unique Paradiso Cinema in the evening!
13. Drive back to Queenstown and fly back to Auckland, or if you have time, fly to Wellington and spend a day or two exploring the capital with its craft beer scene, Weta Cave, Mt Victoria, native bird reserve and museum.
South Island tour (approx. 3 weeks)
Christchurch – Tekapo – Mt Cook – Dunedin – Queenstown – Milford Sound - Glenorchy – Wanaka – Fox/ Franz Josef – Greymouth – Christchurch – Hanmer Springs - Kaikoura – Abel Tasman – Golden Bay – Picton – Wellington (alternative route: Greymouth – Nelson – Abel Tasman – Kaikoura – Christchurch)
Begin in Christchurch and follow steps 5-12 in New Zealand Highlights itinerary then add on the following, spending approximately one night in each place:
1. Fox/ Franz Josef (drive 3.5 hours from Wanaka). Take a walking tour or a heli-hike onto either Fox or Franz Josef glaciers, stopping at Lake Matheson for mountain reflections. Accommodation is available at either town.
2. Drive up the West Coast to pick up the Trans-Alpine train which crosses the mountainous heart of the South Island back to Christchurch (4.5-5hours).
3. Hanmer Springs (just under 2 hours from Christchurch). Spend the day relaxing in the hot pools or hiking and mountain biking in this geothermal alpine village.
4. Kaikoura (just under 2 hours drive). Top spot for wildlife where the mountains meet the sea. Go whale, dolphin or seal watching and dine on delicious sea food. One day here should be enough.
5. Abel Tasman (drive 4 hours or stop in Nelson after 3 hours). Abel Tasman National Park is a coastal paradise full of golden beaches, hiking, kayaking and seal watching. No roads go through the park itself so stick to staying in towns along the edge like Motueka and walk or catch a water taxi deeper into the reserve.
6. Golden Bay (1 hour from Motueka). This town is the gateway for the northernmost tip of the South Island. Visit Farewell Spit and Cape Farewell, and take a drive and a hike or horse trek down to wild Wharariki Beach – seal pups shelter here between March and May.
7. Drive 3.5 hours to the coastal town of Picton to pick up the ferry across the Cook Strait to Wellington on the North Island.
Alternative route: If you want to skip the Trans-Alpine train, carry on up the West Coast from the glaciers to Westport (3.5 hours), stopping at the Pancake Rocks along the way. Either stop here or carry on a further 3 hours to Nelson. From here, you can head up to Abel Tasman then back-track down to Kaikoura and onto Christchurch in order to catch either a domestic or international flight.
Now it’s your turn!
I hope I have given you plenty of food for thought to ignite that wanderlust within you, and enough practical advice to give you the confidence to plan your own New Zealand road trip. Best of luck, and I hope to see you out here soon!