Glacial mountains, turquoise lakes, active volcanoes, lush rainforests, and beautiful beaches. New Zealand packs a lot into a landmass that is slightly larger than half the size of California. The islands are teeming with unique native birds, glowing cave creatures, and abundant oceanic life. The best New Zealand road trip stops at all the must-see places on the largest islands in the nation’s archipelago. While travelers could easily spend years exploring this amazing country we’ve got the premier locations selected in our Best New Zealand Road Trip for those who are a bit more limited on time.
Best New Zealand Road Trip – Travel Guide
- How to Road Trip in New Zealand
- Direction/Where to Start
- How Much Time
- Best Time to Visit / Seasons
- Driving in New Zealand
- Gas & Food
- Backcountry Supplies
- Camping & Hotels
- Safety & Money
How to Road Trip in New Zealand
The best way to tour the islands is in a maneuverable campervan or small RV. This allows you to stay near the sites and travel with food and supplies. There are places on the Best New Zealand Road Trip where your choice of hotels, restaurants, and other services is slim to none. However, this country is tailor-made for those who enjoy camping. The nation has an abundance of campgrounds and boondocking sites around nearly every turn. Campervans are very common, especially on the South Island and there are numerous rental companies available. We found the Spaceships campervan rental to be right for us.
For most English-speaking nations you only need a current and valid driver’s license to take a road trip in the country. If you intend to stay longer than 12-months you will need to acquire a New Zealand driver’s license. Check out the official New Zealand Transit Agency for more details.
Direction/Where to Start the Best New Zealand Road Trip
The Best New Zealand Road Trip is a point-to-point journey from Christchurch to Auckland with many stops along the way. However, the recommended direction will depend on the time of year you choose to travel. The two islands offer many different unique activities based on seasonal changes. In general, we recommend starting in Christchurch and ending in Auckland. Most visitors to New Zealand often travel in the opposite direction and many of the rental companies give a discount to those who take their inventory back north.
How Much Time
The amount of time you choose to spend in New Zealand will depend on what you wish to do. This road trip that we have outlined should be undertaken with a minimum of 31 days in the country. If you cannot justify that much time off, we recommend road-tripping only one of the islands and returning for the other on a separate trip. It may seem crazy when reading this but 31 days for the best New Zealand road trip will feel rushed. A more ideal pace would be a 55 – 75 day journey. Either way, you will find yourself on an adventure you will remember for a lifetime.
The majority of New Zealand has 4 seasons. However, while the island nation only stretches for about 1,000 longitudinal miles (north to south) it has a large diversity of weather.
The southern tip of the island chain can be very cold year-round. Especially on Stewart Island (the third and southernmost island of the big three), which is kept cool by the current of the Southern Ocean. Meanwhile, the extreme north of the northern island can feel tropical for much of the year. Glaciers rest atop the highest peaks and warm beaches dot much of the northern coastline. The entire archipelago receives fairly consistent rainfall throughout the year with the southwestern corner of the nation being home to lush rainforests and one of the wettest climates on the planet. All this is to say that if you intend to take on the entirety of the best New Zealand road trip you will need to pack for every type of weather.
Keep in mind that the entire nation is found in the southern hemisphere making the seasons opposite to that of the northern hemisphere.
Best Time to Visit / Seasons
The best time to visit will depend greatly on what you prefer to see and do and how much time you can allot to your journey. In general, the warmer months of December and January tend to be the busy tourist season in New Zealand.
During the winter many of the roads on the best New Zealand road trip will be hazardous, especially on the southern island.
We recommend traveling during the shoulder seasons. While both spring and autumn have their advantages we recommend starting in early February (late summer). It will still be warm in the south and will be getting cooler as you travel north. This will allow for a more temperate journey. Although if you prefer a lot of beach days consider starting in the late spring (November) and as you reach the northern island the water should be very warm.
Driving in New Zealand
Another benefit of starting in Christchurch is it gives travelers time to become acquainted with New Zealand’s driving rules in a less populated area. Despite the fact that the South Island has a larger landmass than the North Island, it only has a total population of just over 1 million people. This accounts for less than a fourth of the country’s entire citizenry. If on the other hand, you start in Auckland, that city alone has more than 1.6 million residents crammed into it.
Starting in the south is especially nice for those of us who typically drive on the right side of the road as opposed to New Zealand’s lefthand traffic. The country also has a lot of roundabouts and Kiwi drivers actually use their blinkers to signal where they are going inside them (brilliant). Another highlight of driving in New Zealand is their single-lane bridges. These require paying attention to road signs that indicate who has the right of way as you approach them. One bridge found on the west coast of the south island is half a mile long making it an especially unique drive. If all of this sounds intimidating it is fairly easy to grow accustomed to and the airlines typically have instructional driving videos for passengers to watch on the long flights.
For more details on what to expect when driving in New Zealand check out the Transit Agencies general road code.
Gas & Food
There are long stretches found on the best New Zealand road trip where accommodation, food, and gas will be extremely limited. Make sure to fill up on gas and be well-supplied for food and water when exiting the major cities. This is especially true on the south island. The longest stretches are between the town of Dunedin to Invercargill and then on to Te Anau. Likewise, the drive from Queenstown to Fox Glacier is also fairly sparse, as well as almost all the roads that cut across the island. Most of the infrastructure is found along the coasts.
If you intend to partake in some of the amazing backcountry trails found across New Zealand you will need to locate backpacking supplies. At the very least you cannot start fires in most areas and you can not fly with butane canisters for your camp stove. The major cities like Christchurch, Auckland, Queenstown, and even Te Anu will have outdoor supply stores where you can find butane canisters as well as other gear to supplement your adventure. However, many of these stores carry only a limited supply of freeze-dried meal options and that is because the grocery stores in New Zealand typically carry this vital backpacking food group. Also, keep in mind that New Zealand has no large predators so you can leave your bear canister at home.
Camping while on the Best New Zealand Road Trip
CamperMate is a great app that helps travelers find accommodations while traveling in New Zealand. We used it exclusively for finding campgrounds and would not have had a successful trip without it.
For those who prefer a cozy hotel room with a private bathroom to a rustic campground experience, you will have some opportunities. But on a whole, many of the places found on the best New Zealand Road Trip are located in places where infrastructure is minimal to non-existent. The major cities found on each island will have a plethora of modern accommodations. Many of the other smaller towns scattered throughout the country will be limited to hostels and bed-and-breakfasts. The most remote areas will have no options at all and you will be doing well to find a campground with a toilet. It’s all part of the quintessential New Zealand experience—enjoy it!
Safety & Money – The Best New Zealand Road Trip
New Zealand is a first-world country making it an easy place to visit with little fear of identity theft or any other kind of criminal activities perpetrated against you. In fact, in 2021 New Zealand was ranked as the second safest country in the world on the Global Peace Index. ATMs are easy to find and use and most establishments and tourist destinations take VISA and MasterCard. Check out our post on the best banking options for travelers, including credit cards and debit cards to see how to eliminate foreign transaction fees while on the best New Zealand road trip.
The Best New Zealand Road Trip
Now that you have the basics for a successful trip through New Zealand let’s hit the open road and see all that this amazing country has to offer. Whether you dream of sunny beaches, snowy mountain peaks, lush rainforests, magical caverns, or otherworldly fjords the best New Zealand Road Trip has it all.
“Then something tookish woke up inside him, and he wished to go and see the great mountains, and hear the pine-trees and the waterfalls, and explore the caves” – The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien.
Let’s get going for New Zealand has all of this and more!