Kia Ora! Welcome to my ultimate guide to travel in New Zealand
Kia Ora! Welcome to my ultimate guide to travel in New Zealand. In this article you will find all the information you need to know about your trip to New Zealand. Before you go and while you are there. I’m a three time New Zealand traveler and heading back in fall 2019 for my fourth journey there. Over the past couple of years I gathered a ton of information about travel in New Zealand and I figured it was about time to made on big travel guide for New Zealand. It will be continuously updated and receive add-ons so bookmark this page and come back every now and then to see if any information has been added. Enjoy reading!
Know before you go!
New Zealand is a long way from home for most of us. Being from The Netherlands, it’s at least a 24 hour journey for me as New Zealand is basically on the complete opposite of the world. In this section of know before you go I will address all kinds of useful things to consider before going to New Zealand.
Is New Zealand safe?
New Zealand is one of the safest places in the world to travel to. I’ve been twice with a former partner of mine and in 2018 I spent three months solo traveling in New Zealand as a female. If you are going to travel to New Zealand solo there is absolutely no need to worry about your safety. Your biggest enemy is probably either their sandflies or the weather while hiking. Having said that, you should always take normal precautions while traveling, such as not leaving your belongings unattended, lock your vehicle, don’t drink and drive and be aware of where you are and what the rules are. In the past three months I traveled solo (well most of the time, a long-time friend from Holland came to visit for two weeks) and did not feel unsafe at all. Just take all the same precautions you would at home and you should be fine.
How long is the flight to New Zealand
As I mentioned before, New Zealand is quite far away for most of us. The main gateway into New Zealand is Auckland but you can also fly into Christchurch from a few cities in the world. Many people choose to fly into Auckland and out of Christchurch, saving you a long journey back up north. When coming from Europe it’s generally at least a 24 hour journey to travel to New Zealand, having one or more stops in the Middle East or Asia. Even though some low cost carriers offer cheap flights with plenty of stops, I usually travel to New Zealand as directly as I can with just one stop. It’s generally a bit more expensive, yet I also take into consideration that with taking less stops along the way you can easily reduce your carbon footprint with 50%.
As for my favorite options and routes, I guess it really depends on what value for money you are looking for. My personal favorite airline is Singapore Airlines as you can easily combine a flight to Auckland and from Christchurch with just one stop along the way. On my latest journey I took the KLM / Air New Zealand option on my way into Auckland (via Shanghai) and the Emirates flight out of Christchurch, via Sydney and Dubai.
Check Skyscanner for the best fares and options for your flight to New Zealand.
How much time do I need in New Zealand?
Let me answer this question with another question: how much time do you have? As the journey is usually quite long (unless you’re from Australia) I’d say that you’d need at least a month to get a good idea of what travel in New Zealand is like. Even though the distances seem quite short, especially on the South Island the roads are narrow and windy and driving always takes much longer than planned. Trust me on that. So basically just look at your options:
– How much time do I have?
– How much money do I have?
– Do I want to drive every day?
– Do I want to spend time hiking and or other outdoor adventures?
Generally said, if you have four weeks, then I’d say 1.5 weeks on the North Island and 2.5 weeks on the South Island. This will give you a good impression of what’s to see in New Zealand. However, I’ll never forget the following when I arrived in New Zealand for the very first time back in 2002. This phrase was written in the guestbook of my hostel in Auckland:
Please go to the South Island as soon as you can. It’s much more beautiful than the North Island.
Note: these words are not mine, yet I find them quite true. New Zealand’s North Island is beautiful and you can easily travel for weeks without seeing everything. If you are however looking for the snow capped mountains, fjords and glaciers that New Zealand is known for, the South Island is definitely your place to be!
What is the best time to travel to New Zealand?
The best time to travel in New Zealand really depends on what you are looking for. However, as New Zealand is in the Southern Hemisphere, they have the opposite seasons to North America and Europe. So their winter is our summer, making is the perfect place to travel to in my winter. I’ve traveled throughout all months from November until March and found December and January to be the busiest as the New Zealanders have their summer vacations then. Especially around the holiday season many families venture out into nature and campsites and hotels are well booked out in advance. Most recently I traveled from January until March and noticed that days were getting quite a bit cooler already in March and nights were rather chilly in the mountains.
If you want to travel in New Zealand outside of the high season (Nov-Mar) then realize that it will be more quiet, yet it will also be cooler and attractions may be closed. Some Great Walks can only be hiked in the summer season, which is something to consider. I never actually considered this until I went to New Zealand in 2011 and planned on doing some great hikes, some of which turned out to still be closed because of snow and ice.
So if you are a hiker (like me, yay!) and you plan on doing some alpine hiking, make sure to not go much earlier than November … unless you’re an experienced winter hiker and know how to use crampons and an ice ax, of course. If you want to know more about hiking periods specifically, feel free to get in touch!
What is the weather like in New Zealand
Now this is another tricky question since New Zealand has all kinds of weather, all year long. Basically, you can expect any kind of weather on any kind of day. So pack long pants, shorts, a summer jacket, a foldable down jacket (if camping and/or hiking), warm boots, a hat, mittens, t-shirts and hoodies. Basically, you need to be prepared for all kinds of weather. Also remember that there is no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing. Good rain gear is essential if you want to experience New Zealand the proper way.
Is New Zealand expensive?
Yes, New Zealand is expensive. Sorry I cannot make it any different. I always make sure to save up well before heading to New Zealand because it always ends up being more expensive than I imagine it to be. Low budget travel in New Zealand is nearly impossible, unless you are hitch hiking, eating instant noodles every day and camping on DOC Campsites. New Zealand will be more fun if you carry a bit of cash and have a little to spend. Here are some prices for your idea:
– Bed in a dormitory room in a simple hostel: NZD 30/night
– Private room in a hostel with shared bath: NZD 60/night
– Overnight in a hotel room: starting at NZD 100/night
– Gas: NZD 2.30/liter
– Camping on a DOC campsite: NZD 12/night
– Camping on a private campsite: NZD 25/night (in Queenstown/Wanaka from NZD 50/night)
– A burger in a simple restaurant: NZD 15
– A coke: NZD 5
– A beer: NZD 7
– A glass of wine: NZD 10
Do I need to book my accommodation ahead?
If you are traveling in high season, the answer to this question is a definite YES! Especially in the South Island accommodation is scarce and not very cheap in many places. Accommodation in tourist towns such as Queenstown, Wanaka, Te Anau and Twizel are usually booked out in advance. I usually travel without a real plan but found it really hard to find affordable accommodation in those towns, for example. Even a bed in a hostel seemed hard to find at some times.
Do I need to book my campsite ahead?
If you are camping around the above mentioned towns, they it’s another yes. That is if want to stay in a serviced camp site with showers, hot water and electricity. If you’d like to stay in a basic campsite hosted by Department of Conservation (DOC) then it’s not possible to book ahead and it’s first come, first serve. However, they generally don’t have any facilities mentioned above and are quite basic and far away from the rest of the world.
Arrival in New Zealand – what you should know!
Now that we get all the preparations out of the way, there’s a few things to consider when you are arriving in New Zealand. First of all, most people will get a visa for three months, however please find out yourself whether you will need a visa or not. The government is incredibly strict about what you bring into the country as they want to keep out diseases wherever they can. You are not allowed to bring fresh food (such as fish, cheese, fruits) and all foods should be declared. Penalties for not doing this are very high. I usually take a bunch of trekking food with me (dehydrated meals and such) and they are generally fine, however I always declare it avoiding the risk of getting penalized. More information can be found here on the official New Zealand immigration wesbsite.
Another thing to consider is that all your outdoor gear needs to be cleaned thoroughly. This means the soles of your shoes, your tent (if you are bringing one), hiking poles etc. They always check and can clean it on the spot for you, however it will save you a lot of time if you clean it yourself beforehand. I used my shoes in Nepal a few weeks before and they double checked it before I got them back. If you make sure your gear is clean, you should have nothing to worry about, but I wanted to mention it anyway.
Jetlag after arriving in New Zealand
Is the jetlag real? Yes it is! For me at least. When from Europe not only will you spend at least 24 hours on a plane, but also you’ll jump ahead some 12 hours of time. That’s really insane when you think about it, right? I guess that a jetlag is a bit of a personal thing but I feel that the older I get, the harder it gets to adjust my body to new time zones. During both of my last journeys it took me several days (and even up to a week) to get into the new rhythm and sleep well during the night. When arriving, it’s always sure to have some time to acclimatize to the new timezone and take it easy for a few days.
Super Shuttle for your journey into town
Whether you fly into Auckland or Christchurch, I can recommend catching the Super Shuttle into town. They are much cheaper than a regular cab and do drop offs and pick ups in most places. In Auckland I paid 35 NZD upon arrival and in Christchurch I paid about the same upon departure. It’s a shared service so will take longer than when you take a cab but it’s good value for money.
Money in New Zealand
Money matters are easy when in New Zealand. There are plenty of ATM’s all around the country so you should have no problems getting cash. As I bought my own car, I needed to withdraw a large sum of money at once, which led me to find out that I could withdraw up to NZD 800 per bank / day. I also used my credit card of payments every now and then, however it’s not as common to use your creditcard as it is in the USA for example. Always make sure to carry cash, especially when camping!
How to get around in New Zealand
There are plenty of ways to get around while you travel in New Zealand. I have gathered the most common ways below. I personally have always rented a car or even bought one, yet there are plenty of other ways, too. Note though that when you don’t have your own vehicle and travel by public transport, there are far less options to get to lesser known places or you’ll need to hitch hike at some point. When your budget allows, I’d definitely choose to have a vehicle where possible.
Renting a car in New Zealand
The most common way to get around in New Zealand is by car. You can choose either to buy or rent a car. When you are traveling for a month or shorter, renting a car is your best option as buying and selling a car takes a bit of time and you don’t want to spend too much time on it I suppose. Renting a car is relatively easy in New Zealand. When renting one you’ll usually have to let the rental company know whether you’ll take it to the South Island as well. Some companies will provide you with a new rental car upon arrival (meaning you’ll travel the ferry without a car) and some will allow you to take it with you.
If you are looking for a cheap rental car company, I can recommend Jucy Rentals. I’ve used them before and even though the car wasn’t super, it brought me everywhere I wanted to go. Alternatively, check out the best rental car rates here.
Buying a car in New Zealand
When you are traveling for a longer period of time, you may consider buying your own vehicle. It’s relatively easy (compared to what it’s like in The Netherlands) and as a foreigner you are entitled to buy and insure a vehicle without too much difficulty. You will need an international drivers license in order to do so, so make sure you bring one with you. I started browsing the internet for possible second hand cars shortly before my arrival in Auckland and within a few days I had bought one that suited me well. After filling out the necessary paper work with the previous owner I was ready to go. That same day I insured it with the AA in their office in Auckland and that was all. I can give you a detailed insight of the process, but instead I’ll recommend you to check the full guide to buying a car in New Zealand here.
Selling your car can be tricky, especially towards the end of the season. I there for chose to sell it at a bottom price in Christchurch. A New Zealand local bought it from me for some NZD 1.000 less than I had bought it for, so I drove this car for almost nothing compared to a rental car. I decided to sell it rather fast and cheap as staying in New Zealand isn’t too cheap either. I sold it within 24 hours, saving me about NZD 100 / day for staying longer. If you have a flight out at a certain time, make sure to start looking for potential buyers early enough if you want to sell it for a decent price.
Driving around with a camper van
There is a lot to be said about camper vans in New Zealand but I personally have never rented one myself, basically as I usually hike a lot of overnight trips to mountain huts and it’s not worth the money to rent a camper van because it’s empty many nights. New Zealand is perfect for driving your camper van however keep in mind that the freedom to camp everywhere is not as great as you think it is. You will find a great list with suggestions for freedom camping here. Also always remember to never leave anything but footprints. Dumping your garbage next to the road and making fires in non-designated areas is not OK!
Hitch hiking in New Zealand
Hitch hiking can be a great way to move around New Zealand but it requires some patience. I’ve only taken a short ride myself with a Kiwi family and picked up solo female hitch hikers twice. It’s legal to hitch hike but some roads don’t get a lot of traffic so I wouldn’t rely on this way of transportation if you are in a hurry or need to be somewhere at a specific time.
Bus travel in New Zealand
Another way to get around in New Zealand is by bus. However keep in mind that they will only bring you from one stop to the next and there’s usually no way to make the bus stop if you want to make a picture of a nice landscape. InterCity is the largest bus company and runs all over the country. You can find their schedules and rates here. Alternatively there are plenty of backpackers buses and tickets available, such as Kiwi Experience and Stray. They both offer hop on-hop off passes and rates vary throughout the season.
I would honestly never want to travel around New Zealand without my own vehicle. There are so many great stops and sights along the way that it’s a waste just to pass them by. But that’s just my humble experience of course.
Where to stay when traveling in New Zealand
New Zealand has plenty of accommodations for any budget. As previously mentioned, please note that accommodation generally is pretty expensive and when traveling in high season, make sure to book well ahead. Especially in touristic places such as the whole area between Wanaka and Queenstown, Te Anau and Kaikoura it can be tricky to find (affordable) last minute accommodation.
Hostels in New Zealand
The cheapest options for staying in New Zealand on a budget if you are not camping, is to stay in hostels or youth hostels. I’ve stayed in plenty all throughout my trip, basically also because regular hotel rooms are too expensive for me, especially since I don’t really mind camping. However sometimes I just found it convenient to stay in a hostel so I could charge my devices, get some laundry done, get to know other people and just having a normale bed compared to sleeping on a pad on the ground.
There’a a large variety in hostels around New Zealand. Some serve backpackers only (such as the BASE hostels) but some also have private rooms and attracts a bit older people. I guess it all just depends what you are looking for. Some hostels may also offer the option to camp in their garden yet use their facilities. Generally said, the YHA hostels attract the folks who have little more to spend on a hostel as well do the Haka Lodge hostels. Some may offer freebees to attract clients.
Over the past years I’ve stayed at plenty of hostels, mostly in dorm rooms but sometimes in private rooms as well. Some of my favorite hostels include:
– Taupo: Finlay Jacks
– Nelson: Tasman Bay Backpackers
– Hanmer Springs: Hanmer Backpackers
– Christchurch: Jailhouse or Haka Lodge
– Wanaka: Mountain View Backpackers
– Queenstown: Haka Lodge or Pinewood Lodge
Most hostels have a communal kitchen, laundry facilities and something the possibility to park your car. Some may have a cafe or bar, a quiet room or a breakfast area. One common thing about most accommodations is that wifi is generally poor or pretty expensive. Many hostels will including a small number or MB’s for free only.
Hotels in New Zealand
Hotels are generally expensive in New Zealand and I have only stayed at very few during my recent trip, usually for financial reasons. As I was traveling by myself I just couldn’d afford to spend more than 100 NZD a night on accommodation only. In high season (December – March) hotels book up early so please book well ahead. Check current rates and availability here!
Camping in New Zealand
The best affordable option for staying in New Zealand is camping. Apart from the limited possibilities to freedom camp, there are plenty of options for cheap camping on the sites that are maintained by DOC. Those campsites are usually first come, first serve and have no facilities other than running water and an outhouse. Some of my favorite DOC sites include Tapotupotu Campground near Cape Reinga, White Horse Hill Campsite in Mount Cook National Park and the campsite at Lake Mahinapua. Payment is usually in cash with an honesty box so make sure to bring plenty of cash with you. The price of a night on a DOC site will be around NZD 10 per night.
Alternatively, there are the privately owned campsites. They will usually have spots for RV’s / campers and for tents. There’s a reception, hot showers, kitchen facilities, sometimes a playground for kids and maybe a small shop. Prices will vary between 20-40 NZD per night. In addition there are the Top 10 Campsites which you’ll find in the major tourist hubs, such as Queenstown, Wanaka and Rotorua. Costs vary between 30-60 dollars per night, depending on the exact location.
As well as for lodging, campsites also need to be booked ahead in high season. When my friend from Holland came over to visit me, we had a really hard time finding space in both Wanaka and Queenstown.
Driving in New Zealand
Driving in New Zealand is generally easy. Keep in mind that they drive on the left which may take a little while to get used to. Otherwise, I found driving quite easy. It’s generally quiet on most roads especially once you get to the South Island. Basic rules include wearing seatbelts, stop when required, let faster vehicles pass (esp. when driving a large campervan) and don’t drink and drive. This is officially a crime in New Zealand. Also make sure to not go over the speed limit: it’s a limit and not a target. Penalties are high and I’ve encountered a lot of police checks along the way.
Whether you are driving your own car, driving a rental van or rented a car, always be careful on the road and take plenty of time for your journey as it’s beautiful!
Using a New Zealand sim card
Vodafone has the best mobile network in New Zealand and has 4G internet in many places, yet not everywhere. I bought a sim card upon arrival in Auckland and was good to go for some 40 NZD for a month including 4GB of 4G and some free social data. I had a decent connection almost everywhere, yet there were some place where I did not such as along the Milford Road, at Cape Reinga and near Punakaiki. You can find a list of prices and options here.
Wifi in New Zealand
I generally found the free wifi options to be rather poor. Better said, from all the countries in the world I have visited, New Zealand definitely has the worst wifi ever. As I had to work while traveling it sometimes got a little frustrating but after a while I found out that the best wifi can usually be found in public libraries. Sometimes you can use it for free, most of the time you’ll be able to use some MB’s for free and can afterwards set up an account for more data at a fee.
I found free wifi to be slow and unreliable in most places. Many hostels and campsites offer free wifi at a low speed or with a maximum of some 200 MB’s a day. It’s not amazing really and I definitely recommend buying a local sim card or finding alternative options if you are planning to use more GB’s.
Highlights of the North Island
Now that we’ve been through all the practical stuff, it’s time to tell you a bit more about the highlights of New Zealand. There are plenty I can mention, however it’ll all really depend on where you want to go, what you are interested in what your budget is. Having been to New Zealand three times in the past couple of years I can still assure you that I haven’t seen everything and there will always remain highlights unmentioned. Having said that, I will share my experiences of the highlights below. If you’re an avid hiker like me, even further below I’ll tell you all you need to know about hiking in New Zealand.
Many people who travel in New Zealand will arrive in Auckland. It’s a large city with plenty of sights to visit during the first day or two. Make sure to take a stroll along the harbor side with the Ferry Building and visit the CN Tower, from where you’ll have stunning views all over the Bay Area. A bit further out of town you’ll find One Tree Hill which is well worth a visit. From Auckland I can recommend two fun day trips to amazing natural areas, Rangitoto Island and the Waitakere Ranges.
Rangitoto Island is a volcanic island located just outside of central Auckland. You can easily catch a ferry here, have a loo around for a few hours and take a boat back. From the water you’ll have stunning views of downtown Auckland and the climb of the Rangitoto volcano is definitely the easiest volcano climb you’ll ever get to experience. You can read my blog about visiting and hiking on Rangitoto Island here.
The Waitakere Ranges are located just outside of central Auckland, on the western coast. You’ll find amazing surf beaches here (such as Piha Beach) and can take endless walks in the hills behind it. The giant Kauri trees are found here and you can take several interpretive walks that explain more about New Zealand as well. There is not public transportation going to the Waitakere Ranges so you’ll need your own vehicle if you’re planning to visit. Read my full blog about the Waitakere Ranges here!
Whangarei & Bay of Islands
New Zealand’s Tropical North starts when you leave Auckland and stretches far north. The beautiful Bay of Islands is perfect for dolphin tours and relaxing for a few days as you recover from the long flight. Whangarei and nearby Whangarei Heads offers some great bushwalking and some pretty coastal walks as well. Curious how I got lost on the trail in Whangarei? Then read this blog with all my suggestions for the best Whangarei walks.
Cape Reinga is New Zealand’s northernmost point and is marked by a beautiful lighthouse and some way markers. Note that the drive is long, the weather can be horrendous and that you may end up disappointed because of the crowds. If you want to know if it’s worth the drive, then check this blog where I tell you all about my visit to Cape Reinga and if it’s worth the long drive!
Rotorua & Taupo
Rotorua and Taupo are to large towns that are located on the central North Island and offer amazing outdoor activities as well as visits to various volcanic and geothermal activities. In Rotorua you’ll find Pohutu geyser at Te Puia and Wai-o-Tapu is the largest geothermal area. In Taupo you can visit Craters of the Moon, bathe in hot streams, take a bungy jump and more.
Tongariro National Park and the Tongariro Crossing
The Tongariro Crossing is by far the most spectacular day hike you can make in New Zealand and located in Tongariro National Park. This park contains three large volcanoes: Mount Ngaruhoe which featured as Mt. Doom in Lord of the Rings, Mount Ruapehu and Mount Tongariro. Read all about the Tongariro Crossing hike here. If you don’t want to hike a full day, then there are plenty of short hikes you can do as well.
Wellington is called Windy City and that’s with good reason. Out of all three times I visited, I had violent storms twice. I there for never stayed long and basically used it as my gateway to the South Island as the ferry leaves from here. Well worth a visit though is Te Papa Tongarewa, New Zealand’s national museum. If the weather is good, make sure to catch a ride with the Wellington Cable Car to visit the Kelbrun Lookout.
10 day North Island itinerary
With all these sights it’ll be hard to come up with the perfect itinerary for the North Island. Ideally, you’d need at least two weeks to see all that I mentioned above. However, if I were to advise first time travellers to New Zealand, I’d suggest the following itinerary for the North Island:
Day 1. Arrival in Auckland
Day 2. Free day in Auckland
Day 3. Visit to Rangitoto Island or Waitakere Ranges
Day 4. Drive to Bay of Islands
Day 5. Free day around Bay of Islands
Day 6. Drive to Rotorua
Day 7. Free morning, drive to Taupo
Day 8. Free day Taupo, optional hike the Tongariro Crossing
Day 9. Drive to Wellington, free afternoon
Day 10. Departure to South Island
In case you have little time, make sure to check this 7 day itinerary as well!
Ferry to the South Island
Do you need to book your ferry ahead? I sure would! There are two operators: Blue Bridge and Interislander. I took both of them before and all three times had a good journey. Deciding which you want to book I guess depends on the rates and availability. I booked only a few days ahead and paid quite a large sum of money so once you know the date, I’d definitely make an advance reservation. Also make sure to book your Picton accommodation ahead since options are limited and especially if you take a later ferry, you can’t make it all the way to (for example) Nelson in one go as the area is too pretty and you’ll make plenty of stops along the way!
I stayed at Sequoia Lodge during my two most recent visits, a really cozy and charming little hostel.
Highlights of the South Island
As I mentioned before, the North Island is beautiful but the South Island is even better. You’ll need at least 2.5 to 3 weeks to see it all without making too many stops for an optional multi-day hike. On New Zealand’s South Island you’ll find golden sand beaches, lush green forests, magic fjords and tons of ice and glaciers. Here is my list with the highlights of New Zealand’s South Island, followed by a 2.5 week itinerary suggestion.
The Marlborough Sounds
One of my favorite areas in the South Island is the Marlborough Sounds. In the past I hiked a section of the Queen Charlotte Track here and driving through this region from Picton to Nelson is always a great pleasure. If Nelson is your next destination and you have some time, make sure to drive the scenic route via Anakiwa, it’s one of the most scenic in the country for sure!
Nelson & Nelson Lakes
One of my favorite places to stay in the South Island is Nelson. This easygoing town is a great place to prepare for your next adventure and surrounded by stunning nature. From here, make sure to take a trip to Nelson Lakes National Park. Often overlooked, this is in my humble opinion one of the most amazing pieces of nature New Zealand has to offer. The adventurous can even take an overnight hike to Angelus Hut, one of the most scenic back country huts in New Zealand.
Abel Tasman National Park
Abel Tasman National Park is another favorite of mine. I hiked the multi-day Abel Tasman Coast Track a few years ago and more recent did a day walk from Anchorage back to Marahau where I parked my car near the national park’s visitors center. You cannot access Abel Tasman NP by car, the best options are on foot or by sea kayak. In Marahau you’ll find plenty of options for adventure companies that can take you out onto the water.
The West Coast & Westland National Park
New Zealand’s West Coast is rough and has plenty of awesome sights you shouldn’t miss. Some things you definitely shouldn’t miss are Punakaiki (the Pancake Rocks), Hokitika Gorge and the glaciers in Westland National Park. I should be honest though: they are not the best glaciers I’ve ever seen and receding quickly. If you’ve been to other glaciers in the world (as in Iceland or Patagonia for example) then I’d definitely skip both Fox and Franz Josef as you’ll most likely end up disappointed.
Wanaka & Mount Aspiring National Park
Wanaka is one of those places everyone wants to visit with good reason. Its location is stunning but be aware of the tourists, I got really sad when I noticed how Wanaka has changed for the worse over the past couple of years. Do not worry though, the area is still stunning, however be prepared for plenty of tourists attempting the same hike as you do. Roy’s Peak is probably the most famous. The walk up is incredible steep and rather boring so if you only have one day in Wanaka, hike to Rob Roy Glacier instead.
There’s a lot to be said about Queenstown. Apart from that it’s extremely busy, it is still extremely gorgeous in my humble opinion. There are plenty of options to camp away from the crowds these days and there is no real need to stay downtown if you don’t want to. Located on the shores of Lake Wakatipu, Queenstown is New Zealand’s Adventure Capital and you can do anything here from bungy jumping to jet boating to hiking and more. If you’re a fan of burgers, then make sure to grab one at famous Fergburger. Queues are long but if you order by phone, you can usually pick up within minutes!
Outside of Queenstown
As mentioned, there are plenty of sights outside of Queenstown and even amazing places to stay. If you don’t mind basic camping, then the DOC site at Moke Lake is perfect for you. Alternatively, you can take the scenic drive up to Glenorchy and camp at Mrs. Wooly’s Campground. From Glenorchy there are plenty of amazing hikes you can do, as well as day hikes on famous tracks as the Routeburn Track. More on that below in my hiking section!
Te Anau and Fiordland National Park
Many people on a tight schedule visit Milford Sound on a day trip from Queenstown but please … don’t! It’s a horrible quick drive and you’ll miss out on all the best things that Fiordland has to offer. Sure, the boat ride on Milford Sound is nice but there are many other amazing sights that you’ll miss out on during this quick tour.
Te Anau is a bit of a sleepy town and the main gateway into Fiordland National Park. Make sure to stock up on fuel and food before you set off towards Milford Sound and note there is no cell phone connection after Te Anau. The Milford Road is stunning and offers plenty of amazing camp sites and hikes.
If you want to get a bit more off the beaten track, then make sure to visit Doubtful Sound, which is much harder to get to and there for receives less visitors. I haven’t been myself but heard it’s as stunning as Milford Sound.
During my most recent trip to New Zealand I finally got to see The Catlins. This is the southernmost part of the South Island. This area receives little visitors as it’s a bit out of the way for most. However if you are looking for wildlife (penguins as well as marine animals), stunning waterfalls, lighthouses and the southernmost point of the South Island at Slope Point, then The Catlins are definitely well worth a visit!
Christchurch is an amazing city and I totally felt at ease there, despite the fact that the city center still looks destroyed after the massive earth quake a few years back. They are doing their best to rebuilt the city and make it attractive which seems to be going well. I found plenty of nice food stalls, shops and cafes to hang out while sight seeing and enjoyed strolling around the Container Mall.
Also check this post on the Christchurch to Wanaka roadtrip
If you want to see whales, then Kaikoura is your spot. However if you are not planning to do a whale watching cruise, it’s not really worth visiting in my humble opinion. Accommodation is expensive and the mountains are not as high as the rest of the South Island. You can easily visit Kaikoura on a day tour from Christchurch which is what I did previously.
Mount Cook / Aoraki National Park
One of my favorite spots in New Zealand is definitely Mount Cook / Aoraki National Park. Here you’ll find glaciers, fast flowing alpine rivers and New Zealand’s highest mountain: Mount Cook. Make sure to check out the Hooker Valley hike (yes, you can avoid the crowds!) and camp at Glentanner for the best sunrise views of Mount Cook from afar. Nearby Lake Pukaki and Lake Tekapo offer great photo opportunities so make sure to plan quite some time in this area!
Arthurs Pass National Park
Another place often overlooked by visitors to New Zealand is Arthurs Pass National Park, located in the central South Island. I stayed here during a massive storm so couldn’t do all I planned, yet it’s well worth a visit for those who enjoy strenuous hiking. Their Devils Punchbowl waterfall is easily accessible though and well worth the sturdy walk up. Avalanche Peak is the most famous day hike and said to compete with Tongariro Crossing for New Zealand’s best hike, but due to weather I didn’t make it all the way to the top so can’t say of own experience.
2.5 week South Island itinerary
Jamming all those sights into a 2.5 week itinerary will be hard but I’ve done my best. It mostly covers nature and ends in Christchurch, which is the best option to fly out of when leaving New Zealand. If you have less time, also make sure to check out a 10 day South Island itinerary by the Exploring Kiwis.
Day 1. Arrival in Picton
Day 2. Scenic drive to Nelson
Day 3. Visit Abel Tasman National Park
Day 4. Visit to Nelson Lakes, drive to Punakaiki
Day 5. Drive to the glaciers
Day 6. Free day at Fox and Franz Josef
Day 7. Drive to Wanaka via Haast Pass
Day 8. Free day in and around Wanaka
Day 9. Short drive to Queenstown
Day 10. Free day in Queenstown
Day 11. Drive to Te Anau
Day 12. Day trip to Milford Sound or Doubtful Sound
Day 13. Drive to Invercargill
Day 14. Roadtrip in The Catlins
Day 15. Drive to Mount Cook / Aoraki
Day 16. Free day in Mount Cook National Park
Day 17. Drive to Christchurch
Day 18. Free day in CHC or visit Kaikoura
Day 19. Depart from Christchurch
Hiking in New Zealand – all you need to know!
As the final section of this article about travel in New Zealand I’d like to talk to you about hiking in New Zealand. Note that I will link to various of my articles below for more in depth information about specific hikes in New Zealand.
Hiking is also called ‘Tramping’ in New Zealand and it seems to be the national sport. A Kiwi friend of mine who lives in The Netherlands told me he joined a tramping club when he was young and has been hiking ever since. You will find suitable trails for your liking all over the country and DOC will gladly provide you with any information you may need about hiking in New Zealand.
But first: safety!
Each year, travellers need to be saved from the New Zealand trails. This is because they were ill prepared, were not fit enough for certain hikes or overestimated their abilities. Keep in mind that you will be hiking in an alpine environment and weather in New Zealand can change rapidly. Always make sure to check with DOC if the trail is open before setting out, you’ll find DOC offices in most towns and national parks.
I solo hiked in New Zealand most of the time and always made sure to leave my intentions behind with someone. Also make sure to read my safety tips for solo hiking as a female. Always make sure to bring appropriate footwear, a rain jacket, a first aid kit and enough drinking water, no matter where you go. Don’t think ‘yes I can do this’ when DOC describes a trail as strenuous and you’re an unexperienced hiker. Even I felt uneasy at times on strenuous hikes, and I’m an avid and well experienced hiker.
Also remember you may find snow on many trails well into December. The first time I wanted to hike the Routeburn Track, parts of it were still closed and people needed to be flown over the snow covered section because of avalanche danger. If you are not experienced with hiking in snowy conditions and are hiking in alpine sections, do not travel before January!
The best hikes in New Zealand
New Zealand offers some amazing hikes and you shouldn’t leave the country with at least trying some of their best trails. In this blog you’ll find my extended list with the best short and day hikes in New Zealand but some of the best shorter hikes you cannot miss are Cape Foulwind, Lake Matheson, the Hooker Valley track and Key Summit.
If you’re looking for an overnight hike, then New Zealand is paradise for you. DOC has some 1.000 mountain back country huts under its wing and they will vary from large with certain facilities to super tiny with space just for two or four.
The most famous overnight hikes are called the Great Walks of New Zealand. There are nine different ones and I’ve hiked five of them. The Milford Track, Routeburn Track and the Kepler Track are probably the most famous ones, lesser known are the Heaphy Track and Rakiura Track for example.
Those Great Walks are well maintained and the trails aren’t too difficult. Note that all overnights, whether staying in a hut or camping, should be booked well in advance as they always end up sold out. Getting a spot on the famous Milford Track is nearly impossible and it never worked for me as I simply cannot book a year in advance. The Routeburn Track is the second most famous one, if this one is full I recommend to do the Kepler or Greenstone Caples Track as an alternative.
If you are hiking an overnight track, you have to bring all you need yourself. Backcountry huts usually have running water and mattresses, but nothing much else. Some Great Walks have stoves but not all do. I always bring my own stove as I don’t feel like waiting in line in order to cook my meal.
You’ll have to bring everything else: food, a sleeping bag, clothes, toilet paper, toiletries, hut shoes and anything else you can think of. Payment is made in advance for the Great Walks or by hut tickets in smaller huts. Those tickets can be bought at DOC stations all across the country.
If you plan to stay in a few backcountry huts that don’t require bookings, then getting a Backcountry Hut Pass may be a good option for you. However, I found out that many non Great Walk huts also require reservations nowadays and therefor do not accept the Backcountry Hut Pass as a payment. Eventually I used it just for some 5 nights during my journey, making it not worth the money.
As the Great Walks are getting extremely busy and crowded, more and more people seek great alternatives. Some are the Greenstone / Caples Track, Angelus Hut, Mueller Hut hike and the Hump Ridge Track. I hiked all of these myself as well but required reservations well in advance.
Rules for hikers
Rules for hikers are simple yet I still wanted to mention them here. It’s obvious you leave nothing but footprints, carry out what you carry in and bury all your human waste. In addition, on busier trails it’s general rule of thumb that hikers on their way up have the right of way. Don’t play loud music, scream or be a nuisance to other hikers who come to enjoy their time in nature. It’s just not okay!
I would also like to address illegal camping and overnighting in huts on Great Walks. I’ve seen this happen a lot of times and trust me: we don’t like you! I camped while hiking the Abel Tasman Coast Track and each night a guy would sneak into the campsite after the warden had passed through to check reservations. The same happened to me more recently on the Routeburn Track, some folks sneaked into the hut during the night, checking for last-minute free beds and not paying the fee. It sucked.
Having said all this, I am sure you will get hooked to New Zealand as a hiking destination. As we speak I’m already planning my fourth trip to New Zealand for some amazing hiking later this year. I generally feel very safe and happy as a solo traveler and cannot wait to go back and explore New Zealand’s trails further.
Recommended guidebooks and maps for New Zealand
I personally always enjoy the Lonely Planet guidebooks most. Also get the Road Atlas beforehand. On the spot, you can find free roadmaps at the AA Stores (if a member) and DOC sells hiking brochures of most destinations for a couple of dollars. I never used topographic maps for my hikes as most trails were well marked and I didn’t find it necessary to bring one.
Conclusion and disclaimer
I’ve now come to the end of this extensive guide to travel in New Zealand. If you’ve made it all the way through, then congratulations! You’ve just gotten through more than 8.000 words about what it’s like to travel in New Zealand. I hope I’ve made this the best guide possible for you but if you feel like you’re missing something, feel free to leave a message for me below.
In addition, I’d like to mention that this blog contains affiliate links and that I may earn a small commission at no extra cost to you if you decide to make a booking or purchase through my website.
Safe travels and see you in New Zealand!