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Ultimate New Zealand road trip itinerary: Tips and How to Plan

Tucked away from the rest of the world, New Zealand is one of the world’s best-kept secrets. Though set in a far away land, the beautiful country of New Zealand is incredibly majestic with luscious scenery, rugged trails, snow-capped mountains, and rolling hills. Just the name ‘New Zealand’ is enough to invoke a million emotions and light up the face of even the dullest of travelers. So, if you’re one of those travelers who is interested in exploring New Zealand, then you must be knowing for a fact that New Zealand can be best explored on-road. While it is very easy to get carried from one of the many New Zealand road trip itineraries that are available online, most of them don’t work practically and might not offer the greatest of experiences.

To make your work easier, we have created an ultimate New Zealand road trip itinerary with the necessary tips and planning insights.

Important things to check before New Zealand road trip:

  • The best time to go on a New Zealand road trip is during the Summer which runs from November till April.
  • You can drive in New Zealand up till 12 months with your respective country’s license. You do not need an international driving license.
  • It is not necessary to rent a 4 wheel drive, as the terrain in New Zealand is not as rough as Iceland.
  • From hostels to home stays to farms to camping sites, there are plenty of options to stay in New Zealand on the go. Alternatively, you can also rent a camper van.

Time to buckle up. Ready, set, and go!

Auckland – Ideal Start for New Zealand road trip

New Zealand road trip
Image credit – unsplash.com

Well connected with the major domestic and international airports, Auckland is the best place to get down at and begin with your New Zealand road trip. Once you are there, book for an accommodation and crash for a while to overcome the weariness of the long flight. Spend the rest of the day in sorting out a rental car and stuff it with groceries for your trip. The following day, start with exploring Auckland and then head south.

Things to do in Auckland:

Get to the top of the iconic Sky Tower to have an unparalleled view of Auckland, be inspired by the visual art experience on offer at the Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, lose yourselves to the rural paradise of Cornwall Park, learn the maritime and natural history of the country by visiting the New Zealand Maritime Museum and Auckland War Memorial Museum, have a fun time with your family at the Rainbow’s End amusement park, pack a picnic and unwind at the lovely green expanse of Auckland Domain.

Rotorua – Geo Thermal Wonderland

New Zealand road trip
Image credit – unsplash.com

Begin early from Auckland along the twisting roads of the Coromandel Peninsula riding towards Rotorua. Along the way, you will come across a handful of dramatic beaches – make a quick stop at the Cathedral Cove and carry on with your journey to reach Rotorua by afternoon.

Things to do in Rotorua:

Unpack your food by the serene lake of Rotorua and gorge on them as you soak in the pristine views. In case you are left with extra food, feed the adorable Black Swans and Sea Gulls that inhabit the place. Sit back and relax in the beauty of Rotorua at the perfectly laid-out Government Gardens. If that isn’t relaxing enough, treat yourself to the unique therapeutic spa experience at the Polynesian Spa.

Go on a walk to witness the surprisingly fascinating Waimangu Volcanic Rift Valley, be a part of the popular farm show on display at the Agrodome, explore the amazing wildlife at the Rainbow Springs Nature Park, and get closer to the local culture by taking a trip to the Tamaki Maori Village and Whakarewarewa – The Living Maori Village.

Taupo – The Little Lake Town

New Zealand road trip
Image credit – flickr.com

When you thought, the geothermal spots will end with Rotorua, it will continue along the Thermal Explorer en route Taupo. Dotted with one in a kind of complexes throughout the journey, the drive will be an interesting experience.

Things to do in Taupo:

Camp at the wonderful waterfront of Lake Taupo and wake up to the incredible views of the soaring mountains, painted with the fiery crimson. Rent a bike or trek to the crystal-clear azure waters of the Huka Falls, visit the deliciously exciting Huka Prawn Park, go through the exhibits on display at the Taupo Museum to understand the local history, and scan the lengths of the surreal landscape of the Craters of the Moon.

Wellington – City of Vibrant Culture

New Zealand road trip
Image credit – flickr.com

As you leave from Taupo, you’ll see the fuming volcanic surrounding soon giving way to a never-ending stretch of highway decorated with wildflowers, rugged mountains, postcard towns, and picturesque cottages. The drive is one of the longest in the road trip and it is necessary to make appropriate stops in between to bask in the setting.

Things to do in Wellington:

Explore the priceless treasures and discover the amazing stories of New Zealand at the innovative and the interactive National Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, ride on the tourist favorite Wellington Cable Car for a special experience, take a stroll across the uniquely landscaped Wellington Botanic Garden adorned with colorful, exotic florals and in the night, be mesmerized by the enchanting beauty of the glimmering sky in the Space Place at Carter Observatory.

If you are an animal lover, visit the over 100 years old Wellington Zoo which is nestled within the lush grounds of Wellington. For an engaging insight into the heritage of New Zealand, a trip to the Wellington Museum is highly recommended.

Kaikoura and Arthur’s Pass – Whale Watching & Unparalleled Beauty

New Zealand road trip
Image credit – unsplash.com

Wellington marks the end of the North Island and from there to South Island, you need to ride on a ferry. Plan your day in Wellington according to the ferry schedule and make sure to board the ferry on time. Leave your rented car at the Wellington terminal and pick up your second car when you get down at the South Island terminal. To make the whole process easier, share your New Zealand road trip itinerary with your car rental agency even before renting the car.

Things to do in Kaikoura and Arthur’s Pass:

Indulge in whale watching at Kaikoura. Considered as one of the top spots to go whale watching in New Zealand, Kaikoura is also home to seals, rare birds, and flora. One of the important things to keep in mind while booking is that whale watching tours are liable to get canceled due to bad weather. So, do not book in advance.

As you drive from Kaikoura to Arthur’s Pass, you will soon be awestruck by the captivating scenery. From Alpine villages to blooming flowers to glacier views to spell bounding forests, the sheer glory of Arthur’s Pass will keep you tied.

Wanaka – Home to Alpine Wilderness

New Zealand road trip
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From Arthur’s Pass to Wanaka is where things get exciting. With prominent tourist destinations like Fox Glacier, Lake Matheson, & Franz Jozef Glacier popping up on the way, it is hard for one to just carry on with the journey. Stop for quick photos and considering the tiring drive on the cards, you might also spend the night in one of the three spots.

Things to do in Wanaka:

Hike the fabulous terrain of the Mount Aspiring National Park to have an experience of the remote wilderness of New Zealand. A part of the world heritage, Mount Aspiring National Park is a walker’s paradise and is a great place for mountaineers. In New Zealand with your family, then head to the amusement center of Puzzling World. Filled with optical illusion rooms, multi-level outdoor maze, and challenging puzzles, Puzzling World is for all ages.

Add a little snow to your New Zealand road trip by heading to the South Island largest ski area of Treble Cone and when you are tired of making snowmen, indulge in rocky mountain walks around the Diamond Lake and bask in the spectacular views from the top.

Queenstown – For the love of Canyon

New Zealand road trip
Image credit – pixabay.com

Once you have soaked in all of Wanaka, head to Queenstown which is in close proximity. While it doesn’t take much time to get to Queenstown, the drive offers a wonderful scenery to relish in. So, make sure to enjoy.

Things to do in Queenstown:

Cruise along the blissful Lake Wakatipu in a steamship and appreciate the amazing beauty of the Alpine scenery, go skiing at the exciting ski resort area of Coronet Peak, take a tour through the winding roads leading to the Skippers Canyon, unleash your adventurous side by trying your hands at free-falling swing ride & zip line over sheer river canyon walls at the Shotover Canyon Swing & Canyon Fox. To bring down your adrenaline levels, unravel at the lovely Queenstown Gardens. Make a visit to the hidden gem of a sanctuary of Kiwi Birdlife Park and try befriending the Kiwis.

End your stay in Queenstown on a high by taking a trip to the naturally precious Milford Sound. Brimming with towering mountain peaks, dark waters, and rippling cascades, Milford Sound has a special something for every traveler and is one of the must visit places in New Zealand.

Otago – The Perfect Wine Stop

New Zealand road trip
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Set yourselves free from all the adventure in Queenstown and head to the wine destination of Otago via Arrowtown. No, I am definitely not making this up, Arrowtown really exists! Populated by Chinese settlements and gold mines, Arrowtown is worth exploring. But remember to escape to Otago as soon as you can and pack your bags with some intoxicating wine bottles.

Things to do in Otago:

Be fascinated by the regional history and the culture on offer at the Toitū Otago Settlers Museum which is presented in an entertaining way, test your limits by riding a bicycle at the fantastic Otago Central Rail Trail, be updated on the Polynesian heritage & history at the Otago Museum, catch a spectacular sunset at the distinctly amazing Moeraki Boulders, glimpse through the eye-catching work of art at the Dunedin Public Art Gallery, go on a picnic by the plants at the Dunedin Botanic Garden, and escape to the sprawling wineries in the region.

Christchurch – The Final Stop

New Zealand road trip
Image credit – flickr.com

Now that you have soaked up enough of the country with the help of this New Zealand road trip itinerary, it is time to go back to your hometown and the right place is to make the transition easier is to head back to Christchurch & catch a plane. Spend the last day at Christchurch exploring every bit of New Zealand, till you come back for one more interesting holidaying experience.

Things to do in Christchurch:

Feel the Antarctic come alive at the International Antarctic Centre, get wild with your kids at the Willowbank Wildlife Reserve, drop by the interesting Canterbury Museum, wander around the world class Christchurch Botanic Gardens, be enlightened at the Air Force Museum of New Zealand and if you have time, do check the Orana Wildlife Park and Hagley Park.

Intrigued by the unparalleled beauty of New Zealand?

Here's your Itinerary!

  • Suman Basak

    Well, it would be really helpful if the approximate total budget and daily basic expenses can also be pointed out.

    • Shefali

      Hi Suman! Thanks for the feedback. We would love to put in a daily budget, but it is a highly variable amount and depends from person to person. Hope you got a chance to try out our product (www.pickyourtrail.com) and make your own itinerary? This would give you quite a detailed costing. Mail us at planners@pickyourtrail.com if you need any help! Happy planning!

  • Dean Harborne

    Whole of New Zealand? Pretty sure there are more than 4 towns in the
    North Island… and more than 2 in the South Island, the others being
    regions. Did you even visit the country?