This post has been updated in August 2018.
As somebody who absolutely loves road trips and has made many throughout the years, I can truly say New Zealand is one of the best countries in the world to make a road trip!
Planning your New Zealand road trip itinerary can be quite daunting. New Zealand is an incredible country with numerous things to see and do, therefore, choosing a realistic New Zealand self drive itinerary can be a challenge.
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New Zealand road trip
In this post you can find everything you need to know for the ultimate road trip around New Zealand:
- How to plan the ultimate New Zealand trip
- NZ budget
- How to travel in NZ
- When to visit NZ
- Where to camp in NZ
- Day by day NZ itinerary with best things to do
New Zealand travel guide
To help you plan your New Zealand itinerary, I wrote this detailed post about the 6-week road trip I made around the North and South Island of New Zealand.
For each day I list the itinerary, campsites and highlights, you can find them in the map below as well. Even if you have less time available to explore Kiwi Country, I hope my self drive New Zealand itinerary will inspire you, and help you plan your trip to New Zealand.
You can customize this New Zealand travel itinerary, make it shorter or travel just the North or South Island.
Don’t try to squeeze in too much, the last think you want is to feel rushed! Because one of the best things about New Zealand is being able to stay a little bit longer at that perfect secluded spot you found… Anyway, I digress, let’s dive into the nitty-gritty details of my 6 weeks in New Zealand!
How to plan the perfect New Zealand road trip
New Zealand travel budget
Aotearoa (the Maori name for New Zealand, meaning land of the long white cloud) can be an expensive destination but it is definitely possible to travel New Zealand on a budget. Check out a detailed breakdown of our New Zealand travel budget and read how to save money on your NZ road trip.
The best way to travel New Zealand
I traveled together with my husband; we started our trip in Christchurch and ended it in Auckland. We hired a small van, enabling us to explore the country at our own pace and via our preferred New Zealand campervan itinerary.
Check out my guide to renting a campervan in NZ to find out more about the costs and other tips how to make the most of your New Zealand campervan holiday.
The best time to travel New Zealand
New Zealand is beautiful any time of the year, however, when you want to go camping it’s best to travel between October and April.
We traveled New Zealand in January and February, which is the New Zealand summer. While temperatures are the highest during this period, so are the crowds and thus prices.
Even though we never had any issues finding a camp spot and it was in no way busy anywhere, I would probably travel either in late Spring (October/November) or early Fall (March/April) if I were to visit New Zealand again.
Keep in mind the climate of the North Island differs from the South Island. Plus it can be cold at night, even in summer. We woke up one morning to discover fresh snow on The Remarkables so make sure you are well prepared and pack properly (bring layers!).
Where to camp in New Zealand
Camping in New Zealand is great and there are lots of options (free and paid) available. The most important thing to do before parking your van somewhere for the night: check if it’s allowed! Because lots of tourists travel to New Zealand (and unfortunately not everybody behaves like they should) the government has put stricter camping regulations in place and those not obeying the regulations risk a 200 NZD fine. You can find all the campsites we stayed at in this post with a short description of every campsite.
New Zealand itinerary: our 6 week road trip
Summary of our New Zealand itinerary
- Week 1: Canterbury and East-Otago
- Week 2: the Catlins, Fjordlands and West-Otago
- Week 3: the West Coast, Canterbury and Marlborough
- Week 4: Tasman and Wellington
- Week 5: Hawke’s Bay, Taupo and Rotorua
- Week 6: the Coromandel Peninsula, Auckland and the Northland
New Zealand itinerary week 1: Canterbury and East-Otago
Day 1: exploring Christchurch
Itinerary: Christchurch International Airport – Christchurch city center – Jailhouse Accommodation
Practical information: Bus number 29 – Airport to City via Fendalton costs 8NZD per person and departs every 30 minutes.
- Botanic Gardens: Beautiful park, huge trees and a nice rose garden. Good place to sleep on a bench in the sun after two days of flying…
- Christchurch city center: it was nice to see that the city center was rebuilt (after the earthquake of 2011) in a very creative way. Because it was summer holiday the city center was completely empty!
Where to stay in Christchurch (on a budget)
Stay at the Jailhouse Accommodation: how often do you get to spend a night in a former prison! Don’t worry, you have your own key to get out whenever you want…
Day 2: the Banks Peninsula
Itinerary: Jailhouse Accommodation – Rental Car Village – Akaroa – Arundel Bridge Reserve
- Scenic drive over Summit Road: a beautiful winding road offering great views of the bay.
- Akaroa: a cute historic village (founded by French settlers in 1840!) with beautiful colonial houses.
Day 3: Peel Forest and Lake Tekapo
Itinerary: Arundel Bridge Reserve – Peel Forest – Lake Tekapo – Camping Lake McGregor
- Hiking in Peel Forest: lots of tracks to choose from, I did the ‘Big Tree Walk’ which lead to a huge Totara tree of 8,4 meter wide, the ‘Acland Falls track’ which took me to a mystic looking waterfall and the ‘Kahikatea walk’ leading me through a swamp forest. Read more about these hike here.
- Lake Tekapo: the drive to the lake (coming from Geraldine) is already stunning because of the snowy Southern Alps on the background. But Lake Tekapo is just out of this world. The beautiful blue color is something that you cannot catch on a photo and the surroundings are breathtaking. I loved this place, it was one of my favorite places of our entire trip.
- Church of the Good Shepherd: I don’t think there is a church anywhere in the world located on a spot more beautiful than this one. If you don’t believe in God, the view from the church might just persuade you.
- Stargazing at Lake McGregor: the area around Lake Tekapo is part of a UNESCO Dark Sky Reserve. I have never seen so many stars, it was incredible.
Day 4: Lake Pukaki and Mount Cook
Itinerary: Camping Lake McGregor – Mount John Observatory – Lake Pukaki Lookout – Mount Cook – Twizel – Campsite next to SH8, south of Twizel
- Hiking the Mt John track via lakeshore: three hour walk with a fantastic view over Lake Tekapo. There is a nice cafe at the top of Mt. John.
- Lake Pukaki and scenic road to Mount Cook: beautiful view over Lake Pukaki with Mount Cook, the tallest mountain of New Zealand, in the background. The 50km road to Mount Cook is a stunning drive, definitely worthwhile!
- Hiking the Tasman Glacier track: this was quite a steep track after already having hiked the entire morning! Nevertheless, it was worth the effort. The picture showing the difference in size of the glacier are impressive, it’s melting so fast…
Day 5: Elephant Rocks and Oamaru
Itinerary: Campsite next to SH8 south of Twizel – Elephant Rocks – Oamaru – All Day Bay recreation reserve
- Elephant Rocks: such crazy rock formations in the middle of farmland. I can totally understand why this landscape is used in the Narnia movies!
- Oamaru city center: I really liked this village with its steam punk art and historic buildings from 1860-1880.
Day 6: Mouraki Boulders and Dunedin
Itinerary: All Day Bay recreation reserve – Moeraki Boulders – Dunedin – Mosgiel Motor Camp
- Moeraki Boulders: crazy rocks, some of the boulders are up to 3 meters in diameter!
- Dunedin city center: Dunedin is the student city of New Zealand and is also known as ‘The Edinburgh of the South’. I visited Edinburgh and personally feel that might be pushing it, but it is a nice city nonetheless! I visited the Toitu Otago Settlers museum and learned a lot about the history of this part of New Zealand.
Day 7: Sandfly Bay, Nugget Point and the Southern Scenic Route
Itinerary: Mosgiel Motor Camp – Sandfly Bay – Nugget Point – DOC Purakaunui Bay
- Hiking at Sandfly Bay: a nice walk starting at the end of Seal Point Road and going down to the beach where lots of seals are chilling out. Sandfly bay is named after the fine sand being blown into the air by the hard wind, forming impressive dunes.
- Southern Scenic Route part 1: you have to drive this awesome road! Get the free ‘Southern Scenic Route Guide’’ and ‘Guide to the Catlins’ at an i-Site, these leaflets contain information about all the highlights in the region (there are a lot!).
- Nugget Point: impressive land tongue with a cute lighthouse at the end from where you have a stunning view over the rough ‘nuggets’ rising from the sea. I felt like I was at the end of the world.
- Watch for wildlife: when visiting the places mentioned above, we saw seals, baby fur seals, a sea lion, two yellow eyed penguins and a dolphin!
New Zealand itinerary week 2: the Catlins, Fjordlands and West-Otago
Day 8: attractions along the Southern Scenic Route
Itinerary: DOC Purakaunui Bay – Jack’s blowhole – Surat Bay – Purakaunui Falls – Cathedral Cave – DOC Papatowai
- Hike to Jack’s Blowhole: a very strange 55 meter deep hole, 200 meter from the sea. Sea water flows to the hole through an underground tunnel and pounds against the sides with deep thundering sounds.
- Surat Bay: short hike, seen another seal chilling on the beach but unfortunately no sea lions for which this bay is famous.
- Purakaunui Falls: beautiful falls, apparently one of the most photographed waterfalls of New Zealand.
- Cathedral Cave: these impressive caves located on Maori land can only be visited during low tide.
- Southern Scenic Route part 2: another day on the Southern Scenic route. And scenic it most definitely is. Winding its way through the dense forest while offering stunning ocean views every other corner, fantastic!
Day 9: more highlights along the Southern Scenic Route
Itinerary: DOC Papatowai – McLean Falls – Curio Bay – Slope Point – Invercargill – Colac Bay
- Hike to McLean Falls: a half an hour hike to one of my favorite falls in New Zealand. I don’t know why exactly I loved McLean Falls so much, I guess I was just really happy that day (I was extremely happy the entire time I was in New Zealand;-). The sun was shining, there was no one around, nature was beautiful, life in general was pretty good.
- Curio Bay: in Curio Bay you can find the Petrified Forest, which are ancient fossilized trees. If you are lucky you can see any Hector dolphins, as they visit this bay often.
- Slope Point: a fun place for a picture as it’s the Southernmost post of New Zealand (not counting Steward Island).
- Southern Scenic Route part 3: the last part of the Southern Scenic route. There are so many beautiful roads in New Zealand, but this was definitely one of my favorites. It just feels so remote… And there are gorgeous and really varied sightseeing spots every couple of kilometers.
Day 10: into the Fjordlands…
Itinerary: Colac Bay – Te Anau – Mirror Lakes – Milford Sound – DOC the Divide
- Scenic drive on Milford Sound Road: the road from Te Anau to the Milford Sound is absolutely breathtaking… There are many stops along the way so be sure take your time!
- Mirror Lakes: the wind is too hard to be able to see the famous mirroring effect but still very pretty lakes!
Day 11: the Milford Sound
Itinerary: DOC The Divide – Milford Sound – The Chasm – Campsite near Lumsden
- Cruise in the Milford Sound: the Milford Sound is one of the absolute highlights of New Zealand and should be included in any NZ trip. The Milford Sound is about 15 kilometers long and one of the best ways to explore to explore the Sound is by taking a cruise.
- The Chasm: it’s raining (like it does 182 days a year in the Milford Sound, so no surprises there) but that makes the Chasm all the more impressive because of the massive amount of water flowing below a natural bridge.
Day 12: Queenstown and Moke Lake
Itinerary: Campsite near Lumsden – Queenstown – DOC Moke Lake
- Drive over the Devil’s Staircase: excellent road with lots of twists and turns, hence the name. Drive carefully!
- Queenstown city center: I think Queenstown is probably the most enviable city in the world. Next to Lake Wakatipu, with the Remarkables in the backdrop. The city center has all the facilities you need but is small enough not to feel like a big city. From and in Queenstown, you can do all sorts of amazing activities.
- Hike around Moke Lake: one of my favorite walks because the surroundings were stunning (as usual…New Zealand is so incredibly pretty) and we did not come across anyone else during the entire hike of 1,5hours.
Day 13: Arrowtown
Itinerary: DOC Moke Lake – Arrowtown – Luggate Cricket Club
- Chinese settlement in Arrowtown: a historic gold mining town where the Chinese workers created a little settlement with tiny houses made of wood. A Spartan life these people had…
- Scenic drive over the Crown Range Road: from Arrowtown we took the Crown Range Road to Wanaka. A turning and twisting road leading to a 1076 meter high pass,crossing the Cardona river 11 times!
Fun (Lonely Planet) fact: the Crown Range Road is the highest sealed road in New Zealand!
Day 14: Wanaka
Itinerary: Luggate Cricket Club – Wanaka – DOC Lake Paringa
- Beer tasting and tour Wanaka Beerworks: Wanaka Beerworks is a small local brewery that makes craft beers. You can tour the brewery and sample some of the beers.
- Scenic drive over Haast Pass: another drive through the astonishing landscapes of New Zealand.
New Zealand itinerary week 3: the West Coast, Canterbury and Marlborough
Day 15: the Fox Glacier and Lake Matheson
Itinerary: DOC Lake Paringa – Fox Glacier – Lake Matheson – DOC Otto/Mc Donald
- Hike to Fox Glacier: a 20 minute hike (and another 20 minutes to get back;-). I am again taken aback by the rapid shrinking of the glacier…
- Hike around Lake Matheson: a lovely short hike with beautiful views!
Day 16: the Franz Josef Glacier and Hokitika
Itinerary: DOC Otto/Mc Donald – Franz Josef Glacier – Hokitika – DOC Lake Mahinãpua
- Hike to Franz Josef Glacier: a 40 minute hike. Though we couldn’t get as close to the glacier as to the Fox glacier, we constantly heard rocks falling and see ice chucks breaking off.
- Sunset point: the perfect place to catch the sunset. But I guest that was pretty obvious because it’s actually named Sunset Point;-).
- Glowworm dell: in a small, dark and most dell hundreds of lights come alive one by one. The glowworms are like tiny stars and it’s a truly magical experience!
Day 17: the Great Coast Road
Itinerary: DOC Lake Mahinãpua – Hokitika Gorge – Pancake Rocks – Jack’s Gasthof
- Hokitika Gorge: another spectacular sight in stunning New Zealand. The glacier flour colors the water a vivid blue which contrasts with the bright white rocks, unbelievably pretty.
- Scenic drive over Great Coast Road: one of the most, if not the most, spectacular drives in New Zealand. Every bay is more beautiful than the last one.
- Pancake Rocks: there are so many phenomenal places to visit in New Zealand and the Pancake Rocks are definitely one of them. Strange layered rocks shaped and sculpted by wind and ocean below a perfect blue sky.
Day 18: from the West Coast back to Canterbury
Itinerary: Jack’s Gasthof – Westport – Carters beach – Alpine Holiday Park Hanmar Springs
- Westport: a cute town worth a stroll.
- Carters beach: too cold to swim, but a nice place to spend a couple of hours.
Day 19: soaking in Hanmar Springs thermal pools and spa
Itinerary: Alpine Holiday Park Hanmar Springs – Hanmar Springs thermal pools and spa – DOC Puhi Puhi Valley Kaikoura
• Hanmar Springs thermal pools and spa: in this Thermal Spa there are various pools with different minerals and temperatures. A perfect way to spend a (very relaxed) day.
Day 20: hiking in Kaikura
Itinerary: DOC Puhi Puhi Valley Kaikoura – Kaikoura – Donovan House B&B
• Kaikoura Peninsula Walkway: nice three hour hike (the first hour is not that interesting, I suggest starting at the parking lot at Point Kean viewpoint instead of in the town itself) with beautiful views over the bay.
Day 21: the Queen Charlotte Drive
Itinerary: Donovan House B&B – Picton – Maitai Valley Motor Camp
- Picton Village Bakery: pick up some delicious baked goodies…
- Scenic Queen Charlotte Drive: another gorgeous drive, 35 kilometers of twists and turns and beautiful bay views between Picton and Havelock.
New Zealand itinerary week 4: Tasman and Wellington
Day 22: exploring Nelson
Itinerary: Maitai Valley Motor Camp – Nelson – Kina Beach camp
- Nelson Farmers Market: eating our way around the farmers market, jummie.
- Nelson city center: I found Nelson a very relaxed city with a lively atmosphere and a couple of nice buildings.
Day 23: Abel Tasman park
Itinerary: Kina Beach camp – Abel Tasman park – Uruwhena Bridge
• Kayaking at the Abel Tasman park: kayaking at Abel Tasman park was another New Zealand highlight for me! It was a lot of fun and the scenery of this National Park is stunning.
Day 24: Farewell Spit and the Te Waikoropupū Springs
Itinerary: Uruwhena Bridge – Collingwood – Farewell Spit – Uruwhena Bridge
- Hike around Farewell Spit: 12km hike over the beach and through the dunes. I have never seen so many different kinds of birds in a single day.
- Pupu Springs (or Te Waikoropupū Springs): this was such an unexpected highlight and the most beautiful pool I have ever seen in my life. 14.000 liter of water per second bubbles from underground vents which creates a unique underwater environment and crystal clear water.
Day 25: exploring Picton
Itinerary: Uruwhena Bridge – Motueka – Waitohi domain Picton
- Picton city center: I did not expect much of Picton; perhaps that is why it exceeded my expectations. There was a nice harbor, a boulevard and a park to relax in the sun.
This was our last day on the South Island of New Zealand, we spent day 26-43 on the North Island. Also check out this 2 week South Island itinerary if you are short on time.
Day 26: crossing the Cook Strait
Itinerary: Waitohi domain Picton – Cook Strait – Camp Elson Poriru
- Cook Strait: crossing the Cook Strait is as much a necessity if you want to get to the Northern Island, as an activity in itself. The ferry sails through the Marlborough Sounds, which are very beautiful. Unfortunately, the weather was not great so we stayed inside most of the journey.
Day 27 and 28: exploring Wellington
Itinerary: Owhiro Bay, Te Kopahou reserve – Wellington – Owhiro Bay, Te Kopahou reserve
- Te Papa museum: Te Papa means ‘container of treasures’ which is definitely true, I spent a day and a half in this museum and still hadn’t seen everything.
- Wellington Cable Car and Botanic Gardens: the famous red cable car takes us up to the top of a 120 meter high hill with beautiful views over the bay. We walk back down to the city through the Botanic Gardens.
- Old Saint Paul’s: a church completely made of all kinds of New Zealand woods and build in just 9 months!
New Zealand itinerary week 5: Hawke’s Bay, Taupo and Rotorua
Day 29: going LOTR crazy
Itinerary: Owhiro Bay, Te Kopahou reserve – Clifton Motor camp Te Awanga
- Weta Cave: being LOTR and movie fans in general, we decide to visit Weta Cave where they make all the costumes and design complete virtual words for LOTR, the Hobbit, Avatar, King Kong and many other blockbusters.
Day 30: exploring Napier and Hastings
Itinerary: Clifton Motor camp Te Awanga – Napier – Hastings – Glenfalls campsite
- Napier city center: very pretty town rebuild completely in Art Deco style after being destroyed completely by an earthquake in the 30’s.
- Hasting evening market: dumplings, pizza and tortilla chicken wrap, delicious.
Day 31: Taupo and the Huka Falls
Itinerary: Glenfalls campsite – Taupo – Huka Falls – Urchin campsite
• Huka Falls: nice hike to the Huka Falls, which is more a giant rapid than a waterfall, pretty spectacular.
Day 32: hiking the Tongariro Crossing
Itinerary: Urchin campsite – the Tongariro Crossing – Reid’s Farm reserve
- Tongariro Crossing: hiking the Tongariro Crossing was one of highlights of our trip around New Zealand, the scenery is absolutely breathtaking! While not part of the official Tongariro Crossing route (it is an official side trip), we made it to the summit of Mount Ngauruhoe, also known as Mount Doom from the Lord of the Rings movies.
Day 33: a rest day…
Itinerary: Reid’s Farm reserve – Willowhaven Holiday Park
- Not moving a muscle after hiking the Tongariro Crossing the day before…
Day 34: Whakarewarewa thermal village in Rotorua
Itinerary: Willowhaven Holiday Park – Whakarewarewa – DOC Dickey Flat
- Whakarewarewa thermal village: a very interesting Maori village build around the hot pools and geysers and one of the highlights in Rotorua.
Day 35: Goldmine Waihi
Itinerary: DOC Dickey Flat – Tairua Holiday park
- Goldmine Waihi: I was thoroughly impressed by the sheer size of this mine!
New Zealand itinerary week 6: the Coromandel Peninsula, Auckland and the Northland
Day 36: exploring the Coromandel Peninsula
Itinerary: Tairua Holiday park – Cathedral Cove – Coromandel Town – Carpark Hauraki District Council, Ngatea
- Cathedral Cove: a 45 minute hike over the cliffs leads us to Cathedral Cove, an impressive natural bridge. The constant pounding of the ocean against the white rocks illustrates perfectly how this bridge was formed.
- Scenic drive road 309: a famous gravel road crossing from the West side of Coromandel Peninsula to the East side. 21 kilometers of driving slowly and carefully while enjoying the beautiful surroundings.
Day 37: exploring Auckland
Itinerary: Carpark Hauraki District Council, Ngatea – Auckland – i-site car park Whangarei
- Auckland city center: we did the Lonely Planet city walk and see some nice buildings, parks and the revamped boulevard with quirky cafes and art.
Day 38: the Bay of Islands
Itinerary: i-site car park Whangarei – Whangarei Falls – Paihia – Forest Pools campsite
- Dolphins cruise in the Bay of Islands: even though we don’t get to swim with the dolphins, it is still very impressive to see them swimming and jumping around the boat.
Day 39: relaxing at the Karikari peninsula
Itinerary: Forest Pools campsite – Karikari peninsula – Utea Park
- Beach Karikari peninsula: we find our own private bay where we relax on the beach.
Day 40: a beach day
Itinerary: Utea park (the first day we did not drive a single mile!)
- Enjoying how simple life can be. Breakfast in the sun, a good cup of coffee, reading a book. What a wonderful life:-)
Day 41: climbing Mount Manaia
Itinerary: Utea park – Whangarei Heads – Waipu Hotel
- Mount Manaia: steep climb (400 meters!) but with a rewarding view from the top.
Day 42: Mangawhai Clifftop Walk
Itinerary: Waipu Hotel – Mangawhai – Erin Pools
- Mangawhai Clifftop Walk: a brilliant hike with such varied landscapes: beach, hills, tropical looking forest and steeps cliffs. A good way to end our hiking adventures in New Zealand.
Day 43: goodbye New Zealand…
Itinerary: Erin Pools – Rental Car Village Auckland – Ibis Budget hotel Auckland Airport
- Handing in our beloved van and saying goodbye to New Zealand: I always have a hard time saying goodbye. And bidding farewell to the most beautiful country in the world was even harder… But no time to despair, because we went on to our next adventure in the Philippines!
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