New Zealand…this is the land of fiords, volcanoes, black sand beaches, glaciers, glowworms, hot springs, and breathtaking landscapes. On this New Zealand itinerary, you can road trip through one of the most beautiful countries in the world. Along the way, go hiking, test your wits and go bungy jumping, go wine tasting, and much, much more.
It’s no secret that New Zealand is one of our favorite destinations in the world. New Zealand is the perfect blend of outdoor adventures, breathtaking landscapes, beautiful cities, and gourmet food.
One of the best ways to tour New Zealand is from behind the wheel of a car (or a campervan). This itinerary is designed as a 3 week road trip, starting in Auckland on the North Island and ending at Queenstown on the South Island.
I hope you enjoy New Zealand just as much as we did. And if you are like us, you will be dreaming about returning again someday.
About This Itinerary
We spent just over 3 weeks in New Zealand during our trip around the world in 2015. We started in Queenstown and ended in Auckland. This is our exact itinerary, only I wrote it in the opposite order. The North Island is wonderful but the South Island is literally jaw-dropping. Basically, the farther south you travel, the more beautiful New Zealand gets.
So, rather than starting off at the best part, I am saving that for the very end. Trust me, it will be worth it. Every day will be better than one before it, at least in my opinion.
On this New Zealand itinerary, you will spend about one week on the North Island and two weeks on the South Island. This itinerary comes out at 22 days. If this is too long, along the way I let you know what I recommend skipping.
Also, if three weeks is too long, skip the North Island and spend two weeks on the South Island. It’s better to put all of your time in the South Island rather than quickly skipping through both the North and South Islands in just two weeks.
Getting Around New Zealand
This New Zealand itinerary is designed as a road trip. You will rent a car in Auckland and drop it in Queenstown. To cross from the North Island to the South Island, you will take a ferry across the Cook Strait.
Rental Car vs. Campervan
We rented a mid-sized car and stayed in budget hotels. You also have the option to travel by campervan.
We elected not to travel by campervan for several reasons. When we did this, there was no real cost difference between either option (campervan vs. car with hotels). Since we were a group of four people, we would have needed a decent sized campervan. Plus, we had concerns about Wi-Fi, and in 2015, the handy, reliable travel friendly Wi-Fi devices didn’t exist like they do now.
For more information to find out if a campervan or car + hotels is right for you, read this article.
One Way Rental Fee
Since you will be picking up the rental car at Auckland and dropping it at Queenstown, there will be an additional drop fee. It can cost $100 NZD or more for this fee. The fee varies based on the rental car company and time of year you are visiting.
Paying the drop fee is almost unavoidable. You can avoid paying it by shortening your time on the North Island and then returning the rental car to Auckland. Then, fly to Queenstown or Christchurch and then pick up a second rental car from here. However, by doing this, you will miss some sites on the North and South Islands, end up spending valuable time backtracking through the North Island, and you will pay for an additional flight. It hardly seems worth it, both in time and expense, to try to avoid this fee.
Sometimes, the fee can be lower if you travel south to north. If you find that this is the case in your situation, you can do this itinerary in the opposite order.
3 Week New Zealand Itinerary: North Island
Day 1: Arrive in Auckland
Arrive in Auckland and get settled into your hotel. Most likely, you will be dealing with some level of jet lag. If you have the energy, you can go out and see the town.
Where to Stay: We stayed at Abaco on Jervois. This highly-rated property is located just outside of the city center. We could walk to the city center in about 20 minutes, the property offers free parking, and we could also easily walk to a handful of restaurants. Visit Booking.com for more options.
Day 2: Auckland
There are a bunch of different ways to fill your time in Auckland. You can stay in town and see the sights or you can leave the city behind and explore the nearby coast and islands.
Here are some of the top experiences in and around Auckland
Rangitoto Island. This island is a dormant volcano that can be seen from Auckland. Take a ferry ride here or, for more adventure, kayak to the island on a tour.
Visit the West Coast beaches. Just a short drive west of Auckland is the Tasman Sea. It is here that you can spend some time exploring the gorgeous black sand at Karekare and Piha beaches.
Cruise Hauraki Gulf. Take a short ferry to Hauraki Gulf and along the way you may be able to spot whales and dolphins.
Sky Tower. There are lots of places in New Zealand where you can tie a rubber band to your ankles and throw yourself off of high spots, and the Sky Tower is one of them.
Walk the Coast to Coast Walkway. The Coast to Coast Walkway is an 8-mile walking route through Auckland that passes Mt. Eden, One Tree Hill, the Auckland Domain, shopping areas, and restaurants. For adults who want to see the city, this is a nice way to do it. However, Tyler and Kara weren’t big fans of this activity.
Waiheke Island. Go wine tasting and explore the vineyards on this island, just 40 minutes from Auckland by ferry.
The view from Mt. Eden
Day 3: Glowworms and Waitomo Caves
Total Driving Distance: 300 km
Total Driving Time: 4 hours
Get an early start and drive to Waitomo. From Auckland, it takes two and a half hours to drive to Waitomo Caves.
Seeing the glowworms at Waitomo Caves is one of the most unique experiences to have in New Zealand.
By rowboat, you will silently drift into a dark cave. Above your heads will be thousands of tiny glowworms, twinkling like stars in the night sky. These tiny glowworms, which are the larvae of adult insects, use bioluminescence to produce the light that attracts prey to their “web.”
There are several different ways to visit Waitomo Caves. We took the basic rowboat tour into the grotto. For the ultimate experience, go blackwater rafting, which is white water rafting in a cave. Blackwater rafting still on our bucket list, and if you have done this, let us know how it was in the comment section below!
Photography is not allowed inside of the caves so the souvenir photo is the only one I have to share.
Click here to get updated pricing, hours of operation, and to book your tickets in advance. Tours leave every 30 minutes and last 45 minutes.
Once you are finished at Waitomo Caves, continue the drive to Matamata (1.5 hours, 103 km). Matamata is the location of Hobbiton, a movie filming set for Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit.
Day 4: Hobbiton
Total Driving Distance: 67 km
Total Driving Time: 1 hour
Hobbiton is a fairytale world of colorful, child-sized houses and a restaurant/saloon called the Green Dragon. This was built as a movie set for the Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit movies, but the houses sparked such an interest that Hobbiton still remains open for tourism.
If you are traveling with kids or if you are a fan of the LoTR and The Hobbit movies, this is not to be missed.
A tour of the property lasts about 2 hours. You will walk the 12 acres, learn the history behind the movie sets, and end with a pint of ale at the Green Dragon.
We were told that morning is the best time for photos. However, you have the option to take the tour and lunch combo, which is the basic tour plus lunch at the Green Dragon. This tour lasts 3 hours.
You can also take an evening banquet tour, where you tour the Shire at dusk and end with dinner at the Green Dragon. This tour lasts 4 hours and is only offered several days a week.
Learn more about the tours and book your tickets in advance on the official website.
Once you are finished at Hobbiton, drive to Rotorua.
Where to Stay: We stayed at the Red Rock Thermal Motel. We had a one-bedroom apartment and had access to a washer and dryer. You can relax in the hotel’s mineral pool, a nice perk. For more options, visit Booking.com.
Day 5: Rotorua
Total Driving Distance: 82 km
Total Driving Time: 1 km
We liked to joke that Rotorua is New Zealand’s smelliest city. Rotorua is located in a geothermal area, and with the bubbling hot springs, the entire town smells like rotten eggs.
Here are the top experiences in Rotorua
Learn about Maori culture. Visit a Maori Village and watch a traditional Maori performance and dine on traditional Maori food.
Te Puia. Watch the eruption of Pohutu Geyser, the largest geyser in the southern hemisphere, and take a Maori led tour of the geothermal area.
Walk among Redwoods at Whakarewarewa Forest. Located just outside of Rotorua is a forest of California Redwood trees. You can also tour the canopies of these massive trees at the Redwoods Tree Walk.
Go White Water Rafting. Raft the Kaituna River, home to the highest commercial raftable waterfall in the world, the 7 meters high Tutea Falls.
Explore Wai-o-tapu Thermal Valley. This area of New Zealand is similar to Yellowstone National Park with its bubbling mud pots, geysers, and wet, crusty, multicolored landscapes. This is located south of Rotorua, along the drive to Taupo.
End the day with a drive to Taupo. Consider saving Wai-o-Tapu for the end of the day, since it is located between Rotorua and Taupo.
Day 6: Taupo
Total Driving Distance: 130 km
Total Driving Time: 1.5 hours
Taupo, the adventure capital of the North Island, is very similar to Queenstown on the South Island. Here you can go bungy jumping, jet boat riding, kayaking, hiking, paragliding, and skydiving.
We chose to go mountain biking, since we had already spent a small fortune in Queenstown. From the town of Taupo, we mountain biked through more Redwood forests to Huka Falls.
Drive to Turangi and get settled in your hotel.
Where to Stay in Turangi: We stayed in the cottage at Sportsmans Lodge. It’s a great value for the money. Many people stay here for fishing trips but it also works well as a nice home base for the Tongariro Alpine Crossing hike. For more options, check Booking.com.
Day 7: Tongariro Alpine Crossing
Total Driving Distance: 66 km
Total Driving Time: 1 hour
The Tongariro Alpine Crossing has been labeled as the world’s greatest single day hike. This hike climbs up through volcanic terrain, past old lava fields, near several giant calderas, and even past a smoking volcano that recently erupted.
It is 19.4 km in length and since it is done as a point-to-point hike, you will need to arrange transportation to the start or the finish of the hike. We parked at Ketetahi car park and had a shuttle take us to the start of the hike at Mangatepopo.
Sleep in Turangi.
Day 8: Wellington
Total Driving Distance: 325 km
Total Driving Time: 4 hours
Today you drive south to Wellington. Wellington is the capital city of New Zealand and the second largest city after Auckland, but even so, it feels wonderfully small.
Here are some of the top experiences in Wellington
Enjoy the View from Mount Victoria. For the best view over Wellington, walk or drive to the Mount Victoria lookout.
Visit Te Papa. Learn about the history and culture of New Zealand at Te Papa, the national museum of New Zealand.
Tour Weta Cave. Weta Workshop is the company that produced the props, costumes, and digital effects for the LoTR and Hobbit movies. While on tour here, we also learned that Weta Workshop has worked on other movies such as Avatar, Narnia, and Spiderman.
Cuba Street. Lined with bars, cafes, and boutique shops, this a vibrant area of Wellington that is not to be missed.
Day 9: Wellington
Spend a second day in Wellington. This gives you enough time to see all the main sites in town. I read that there are more bars and restaurants per capita in Wellington than in New York City. This city is filled with phenomenal restaurants. So, why not have a leisurely day and end it with a nice meal tonight?
3 Week New Zealand Itinerary: South Island
Day 10: Travel to the South Island
Total Driving Distance: 180 km + the ferry crossing
Total Driving Time: 2.5 hours driving, 3 hours on the ferry
In the morning, take the ferry from the North Island to the South Island.
The Cook Strait separates the North Island from the South Island. It takes 3 to 3.5 hours to travel from Wellington on the North Island to Picton on the South Island.
The two main ferry companies are Interislander and Bluebridge. The Interislander ferry is larger. Since it is a larger ship, it is less likely to get cancelled in the event of bad weather, plus, there is plenty of room to get up and move around.
We sailed with Interislander and thought it was wonderful. We could get up and walk around as we pleased. The ferry felt enormous, with multiple decks, cafes, TV’s and I even think it had a movie theater!
Here are the links to both companies. Check ferry prices and availability. I recommend booking your tickets in advance because they do sell out.
Once in Picton, drive to Motueka or Nelson and get settled in your hotel. This will be your home base for exploring Abel Tasman National Park.
Where We Stayed: We stayed at Chalets @ Terraced Gardens in Motueka. This place is fabulous! Upon arrival, we were offered a bottle of wine or a jar of homemade jam. Our chalet was clean, quiet, and came with a kitchenette and private bathroom. From here, it was just a short drive to Kaiteriteri.
Days 11 & 12: Abel Tasman National Park
Abel Tasman National Park is New Zealand’s smallest park.
Located on the northern coastline of the South Island, Abel Tasman is home to one of New Zealand’s multi-day walking tracks, aptly named the Abel Tasman Coast Track. This is one of New Zealand’s Great Walks. At 51 km, it takes 3 to 5 days to walk the entire track. You can do this, by adding time onto this itinerary or by swapping the full day in Wellington for a third day at Abel Tasman. Learn more about the Abel Tasman Coast Track here.
If you don’t have the time or the desire for a multi-day trek, you can still have a wonderful time at Abel Tasman. You can day hike sections of the Coast Track or explore the coast by kayak.
Our original plan was to spend one day kayaking and one day hiking part of the Coast Track. Unfortunately, a solid day of torrential rain kept us indoors.
With our one precious day, we hired Wilsons for a combination cruise and hiking excursion. We cruised along the coast for one hour and then hiked 6 miles from Medland’s Beach to Anchorage. It was a great day and this part of New Zealand, with its lush, tropical foliage and dense forests, looks and feels a lot different from the rest of New Zealand.
There is more to do from Motueka and Nelson. You can walk along Wharariki Beach, hike to Wanui Falls, or explore Kahurangi National Park. Click here to learn more.
In the evening, drive to Blenheim so you have one full day to explore the wine region tomorrow (2.5 hours, 160 km from Motueka).
Day 13: Marlborough Wine Region
The Marlborough wine region is New Zealand’s premiere wine region. This area is famous for its white wines, mostly Sauvignon Blancs, but it also produces some lighter reds as well.
You can tour the Marlborough wine region by car or by bicycle. We thought it would be more fun to tour the region by bicycle, especially since this would let Tyler and Kara burn off some energy in between wine tastings.
We rented bikes from Wine Tours by Bike and went on a self-guided tour through the wine region. The shop owner gave us a map and recommendations on wineries. We spent all day cycling from winery to winery.
This was fun for our whole family. Tim and I loved tasting the wines. Tyler and Kara loved touring the wine region by bicycle. We dined on cheese and crackers at the wineries. And when we did this, it was April, so New Zealand was ablaze in fall colors. It is still one of my favorite memories from New Zealand.
Sleep in Blenheim.
Day 14: Kaikoura & Christchurch
Total Driving Distance: 310 km
Total Driving Time: 4.5 hours
Today you work your way down the South Island. The day ends at Christchurch and the Banks Peninsula. Along the way, you have the option to make a pitstop at Kaikoura.
Kaikoura is located almost 2 hours south of Blenheim. This is one of the best spots in New Zealand to get out on the water and go whale watching, fishing, or swim with dolphins.
If you want to swim with dolphins while in New Zealand, this is the place to do it. We skipped this and now I regret it. On the day we drove through Kaikoura, it was windy, overcast, and chilly, and the kids and I weren’t thrilled about jumping into the water, even if we could get up close with dolphins. Guess we will just have to go back someday…
For a full list of everything there is to do in Kaikoura, take a look at this article.
Christchurch is the largest city on the South Island. Earthquakes hit Christchurch in 2010 and 2011, severely damaging the town. During our visit in 2015, we could still see the mark the earthquakes left on this city.
We didn’t spend much time here, other than a quick drive through the city on our road trip along the coast. Instead, we spent our time on the beautiful Banks Peninsula.
Banks Peninsula & Akaroa
Just south of Christchurch is the Banks Peninsula. The drive from Christchurch to the town of Akaroa is beautiful. Green, rolling hills dotted with literally thousands of sheep…it was gorgeous.
We spent an afternoon in Akaroa, dining on fish and chips and exploring the town and the tiny harbor.
Tonight, you can stay in Akaroa, Christchurch, or, if you really want to stay somewhere unique, check out SiloStay in Little River. Brand new silos have been transformed into eco-friendly, one-bedroom apartments. How often do you get the chance to sleep in a silo? And it’s surprisingly luxurious. Read all about it here.
Day 15: Drive to Aoraki Mt. Cook
Total Driving Distance: 332 km
Total Driving Time: 4.25 hours
This may look like another long driving day, but you will get to see some beautiful sights along the way. Lake Tekapo is gorgeous and this is a great place to get out and stretch your legs.
Another view of Lake Tekapo
As you approach Mt. Cook, the drive along Lake Pukaki is also very beautiful.
Get settled in your hotel at the Mt. Cook Village.
Here are some great ways to spend your time at Mt. Cook
Walk the Hooker Valley Track. If you do one thing while you are here, it should be to walk this hiking trail. At 5 km in length and almost completely flat, it is perfect for all ages and ability levels. The trail is a mix of gravel paths and boardwalks. It takes 3 to 4 hours round trip and along the way you are treated to beautiful views of Mt. Cook.
Take a Scenic Flight Over Aoraki Mt. Cook National Park. For the best view of the park, take a flight by helicopter or airplane. Flights leave from Lake Tekapo Airport or Mt. Cook Airport.
Go Heli-Hiking. For the ultimate adventure, take a helicopter flight to the Tasman Glacier and go hiking.
Go Stargazing. Aoraki Mt Cook is located in the Mackenzie Dark Sky Reserve, one of the best places in the world for stargazing.
Where to Stay: We stayed at the Aoraki Mt Cook Alpine Lodge in a quad room with four bunk beds. There is a living room and kitchen that is shared with other guests. The view from the windows to Mt Cook is gorgeous. For more options, check Booking.com.
Day 16: Aoraki Mt Cook & Wanaka
Total Driving Distance: 210 km
Total Driving Time: 2.5 hours
Spend as long as you like at Mt. Cook and then drive to Wanaka. Once in Wanaka, get settled into your hotel.
Day 17: Hike Roys Peak Track
For one of the best views over Wanaka and Mount Aspiring National Park, hike to the top of Roys Peak. It’s a tough, uphill hike but you are rewarded with jaw-dropping views.
The hike is 16 km round trip and takes five to six hours. It’s best done on a clear day so that you can enjoy the views.
Afterwards, spend the rest of the day in Wanaka. Photograph #ThatWanakaTree, spend some time down by Lake Wanaka, or watch a movie and eat warm cookies at Cinema Paradiso.
Day 18: Drive to Te Anau
Total Driving Distance: 225 km
Total Driving Time: 3 hours
The Milford Sound is one of New Zealand’s must-see sights. It’s located 4 hours south of Queenstown, so it is possible to visit it on a day trip from Queenstown, but it’s a long, long day. Instead, base yourself in the quiet, much closer town of Te Anau.
Today you will drive right past Queenstown to get to Te Anau. It may sound strange to go right to Te Anau, but there are reasons for this. Doing it this way will save you an additional hotel reservation and another day packing and unpacking. Plus, your trip will end with several memorable days in Queenstown.
From Wanaka, it only takes 3 hours to drive to Te Anau. You will drive right past Queenstown on the way. So, if you want, you can stop into Queenstown for lunch, or even go bungy jumping or jet boat riding midday. Another nice idea is to spend part of today in Arrowtown, a charming town that is just a short drive north of Queenstown.
On the drive between Queenstown and Te Anau
There is not a whole to do in Te Anau. Visit the glowworm caves or spend some time by Lake Te Anau.
Where to Stay: We stayed at the Alpenhorn Motel and loved it here. This place is great for families, with a bedroom for the kids, a kitchenette with microwave and cooktop, and a living area with TV, DVD, and free movies to borrow from the office. It was clean and quiet and conveniently located in Te Anau. For more options, check Booking.com.
Day 19: The Milford Sound & Key Summit
Total Driving Distance: 240 km
Total Driving Time: 3.5 hours
To drive from Te Anau to the Milford Sound takes almost 2 hours. Along the way, there are various viewpoints to visit. We gave ourselves 3 hours to get to Milford Sound, allowing extra time to stop at these viewpoints.
Driving to the Milford Sound from Te Anau
There are several companies that offer cruises of the Milford Sound. We used JUCY because of their low cost. All of the cruises make the same loop through the fiord, so what you get see on the cruise is almost identical, regardless of the company you choose. However, some companies also offer kayaking trips.
Cruises last 1.5 to 2 hours. Before or after the cruise, you can walk the short, easy trails along the sound.
On the drive back to Te Anau, you have the option to hike to Key Summit. This is a 3-hour hike that walks a portion of the Routeburn Track. Honestly, we liked this hike more than the Milford Sound Cruise.
You can sleep in Te Anau or drive all of the way back to Queenstown. From the Milford Sound, it is a 290 km drive and takes almost 4 hours. We slept in Te Anau.
Days 20 & 21: Queenstown
With two days in Queenstown, you have just enough time to go crazy and indulge yourself in all of the heart-racing, thrilling activities that this town has to offer. On the list are bungy jumping, jet boat riding, paragliding, mountain biking, skiing, and hiking. Have a burger at Fergburger, take the Skyline Gondola for amazing views over Queenstown, and then hike higher for even better views. Day trip out to Glenorchy or Arrowtown.
Queenstown is a blast and it’s a great way to end a road trip through New Zealand.
Bungy jumping at Kawarau Bridge
The view over Queenstown
Where to Stay: We stayed at Absoloot Value Accommodation Hostel. The four of us had a 4 bunk room with a private bathroom. We really liked this place and if you are on a budget, this is a great place to consider. For more options, check Booking.com.
Day 22: Fly Home
Time to pack your things and fly home (or continue on to your next destination). If you are like us, you’ll be dreaming of a return visit someday!
How to Modify This New Zealand Itinerary
With Less Time
To make this itinerary shorter, you can eliminate the full day in Wellington and combine Waitomo Caves and Hobbiton in one day. You also have the option to spend less time in Abel Tasman or Taupo and Rotorua, or eliminate the day in the Marlborough wine region.
With More Time
This itinerary takes you to the highlights of New Zealand but there is still so much to see and do. With a few extra days, you can hike one of New Zealand’s Great Walks, add on places like Franz Josef Glacier, Invercargill, the Bay of Islands, Coromandel, and more.
When To Go
We did this trip in April 2015. It was autumn, a gorgeous time to visit New Zealand. Plus, the crowds were relatively low. We did have to deal with some rain but it didn’t impact our schedule too much.
The busiest time to visit New Zealand is during the summer months (December through March). Expect large crowds, sold out accommodations, and more expensive prices.
Are you planning a trip to New Zealand? Comment below if you have any questions about this New Zealand itinerary.
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