The Ultimate Guide to Road Tripping Around New Zealand

With 23 mountain peaks over 9,800ft high on the South Island and fascinating Maori culture on the North Island, where will your road trip take you?

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Photo © Marta Kulesza

Although many aspects of travel in New Zealand are straightforward, some can be daunting. For starters, there are so many incredible destinations, how are you going to fit them all in?

The two biggest pieces of advice I have are to book a holiday for as long as possible and don’t rush. If you try and fit in too much, you’ll spend more time driving around then exploring the best bits.

Oh, and take waterproof clothing. There’s a 96% chance it’s already raining.

Campervan vs Hire Car

After living in New Zealand, I discovered that the only real way to travel around is on a road trip in your own vehicle. The luxury of having a self-contained campervan (a campervan with an inbuilt toilet) means you can usually find a free car park that permits the overnight stays.

Smaller rental cars and non-self-contained campers are cheaper, but you’ll need to pay for campgrounds with facilities. If your budget allows it,  I’d recommend renting a self-contained campervan, as it allows that tiny bit of extra freedom.

Being the first person on a hiking trail with the whole mountain to yourself, or being the only person basking in the glory of one of New Zealand’s amazing waterfalls is an experience like no other.

If renting a self-contained van increases your chances of achieving this, then the extra cost is insignificant when weighed against the memories you’ll forge.

Taking a hike to the top of Roys Peak will be worth the sweat (and tears). Photo credit: Marta Kulesza

Freedom Camping and DOCs Campsites

Even though New Zealand is super relaxed, it still rightly enforces camping restrictions. Contrary to popular belief, you can’t just camp/park anywhere.

The joy of visiting New Zealand is found in its untouched beauty and innocence – attributes that wouldn’t last long without structure and rules. New Zealand’s Department of Conservation has numerous campsites on both islands, many of which cost US $9 (NZ $13) per person per night.

I’ve stayed in a lot of the DOC’s campsites, and because they’re government operated, they are always excellently located, have up to date and well looked after clean facilities, and plenty of space. 

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South Island Itinerary Ideas

The starting point for most people visiting the South Island is Christchurch International Airport. It’s conveniently located, but I always tell people that they shouldn’t waste their precious holiday time on cities when visiting New Zealand.

Leave as soon as you can and head toward the mountains! The most optimized route takes you into the heart of the island to Tekapo, Mount Cook, Wanaka and Queenstown. All amazing places with lots to see and do.

Milford Sound is a highlight, but unless you decide to take a scenic flight there, it’s a one way in, one way out drive. The drive is breath-taking so it’s not an indignation, but does take up precious time.

After Milford Sound, you can take the road up the west coast, through Otago and Mount Aspiring National Park, to Glacier Country, before taking the amazing West Coast Road through Arthur's Pass National Park back to Christchurch.

Walking around Lake Haewa, near Wanaka. Photo credit: Marta Kulesza

North Island Itinerary Ideas

Auckland is the largest and busiest airport in New Zealand, and unless you’re coming from Australia then chances are that’s where you’ll be landing.

The North Island has a rich cultural Māori history and a strong Māori presence, much more so than the South Island. 90% of all Māori in New Zealand live on the North Island.

The highlights on the North Island include the Coromandel, Cathedral Cove, and Hot Water Beach where you can dig your own hot-tub!

Then head south to the geothermal wonderland of Rotorua and the rolling hills of Hobbiton, only an hour away. The proximity of the Tongariro Crossing, one of New Zealand’s famous day hikes is also a possibility before swinging back round to Auckland via the Waitomo Glowworm caves if time permits.

Wherever you decide to go in New Zealand and however you decide to do it, I am certain that you’re going to have an amazing time. Just remember a little extra planning and research can go a long way.

Want to know more about New Zealand? Check out our podcast. We talk world-class diving, blood-pumping adrenalin, and road-tripping in a camper van.

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