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How to Create the Perfect New Zealand Road Trip Itinerary

Tourism NZ - Miles Holden

The Ultimate New Zealand Road Trip Planner!

Experience 10 holidays in one with a road trip around New Zealand! New Zealand is a country packed with breathtaking landscapes from snowcapped mountains to golden-sand beaches; jungle-like rainforest to fertile vineyards. On top of that, there’s a huge array of experiences to be had, whether you’re an adrenaline junkie, a foodie or a nature-lover. Exploring New Zealand on a self-guided road trip is one of the best ways to see the country independently, but the fun doesn’t start until you have planned the perfect New Zealand road trip itinerary. In this guide, we’ll show you how to create a New Zealand road trip yourself and the alternative option of using an online travel agent as your New Zealand road trip planner.

First, we’ll go through a step-by-step process of planning your own itinerary, with all the aspects you need to think about and book to make sure your trip is the one you’ve always dreamed about. Finally, we’ll show you a New Zealand road trip planner, First Light Travel, that just might make you think twice about going through the hassle of planning your own itinerary.

Plan it yourself or use a New Zealand road trip planner?

Most of us would think that planning a self-guided tour means planning everything alone and hoping for the best. But there are two options to planning a self-guided trip around New Zealand while sticking to your budget: planning your full itinerary yourself or using a free travel agent.

When to plan a trip yourself?
  • You’ve been to New Zealand before and have good knowledge about the country.
  • You prefer spontaneous trips with no bookings – just seeing where the road takes you.
  • You’re basing yourself in one place which makes deciding on activities and accommodation easier to do yourself.
When to plan a trip with a travel agent?
  • You haven’t been to New Zealand before.
  • You have a brief idea of what sort of experiences you want – you just need the logistics organised.
  • You want a personalised itinerary planned and booked as quickly as possible.

In the article below, we’ll go through a step-by-step process on how to plan an awesome New Zealand road trip itinerary yourself, as well as how to use the alternative option of using a travel agent as your New Zealand road trip planner.

Working Holiday Insurance

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Step 1 – Choose the best time to visit New Zealand

There are reasons to love New Zealand all year round! However, if you want to chase the sun, hit the ski slopes, or avoid the crowds, then you’re going to want to pick the right time of year to visit New Zealand. New Zealand experiences four distinct seasons which, due to being the Southern Hemisphere, may be very different to what you experience at home.

Summer (December – February)

December to February is when New Zealand experiences its warmest weather, with highs usually reaching 25°C. These months are also when New Zealand is at its peak season so get in quick with booking vehicle rentals, accommodation and activities.

Autumn (March-May)

During New Zealand’s autumn season, the temperatures are at a comfortable 6°C-20°C, depending on which parts of the country you are visiting. March to May is considered the shoulder season in New Zealand when rentals, accommodation and activities are easier to book.

Winter (June–August)

Temperatures can be anywhere between -3°C in alpine areas or in the south of the South Island and 15°C in the north of the North Island. While most of the country is quiet during the low season, ski field towns experience a busier season. Car and campervan rentals, accommodation and activities are generally easier to book and are at their lowest prices. However, some activities and accommodation may be closed for the low season.

Spring (September–November)

Temperatures rise again, yet prices are still pretty low during this shoulder season until November.

For more information on the New Zealand weather, see Guide to The New Zealand Climate.

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Step 2 – Plan around the time you have in New Zealand

New Zealand’s activities and landscapes are diverse and spread across the country. For this reason, it’s a place that you will want to travel around! Although New Zealand is a small country, the winding roads and mountains make the travel times a little longer than you might be used to. You need to weigh up whether you want to see more attractions and spend more time driving, or make the most of fewer locations and keep the driving to a minimum. Everyone has their own unique travel style, so that’s where personal itinerary planners like First Light Travel can help you strike the right balance.

Here’s what most travellers like to do with limited time in New Zealand.

  • 1-2 Weeks in New Zealand – Choose three to four regions of one of the main islands, the North Island or South Island, to explore by car or campervan.
  • 3-4 Weeks in New Zealand – Choose to travel either just the North Island or South Island to have more time to do all-day activities and experiences, or travel both the North Island and South Island while doing shorter stops.
  • Just over a month – This should give you enough time to see the highlights of both the North Island and South Island on a self-drive tour.
  • 2 Months+ – Consider buying a car or campervan, or using a rental company with a buy-back scheme, and travel both islands.

Miles Holden - Tourism NZ

Step 3 – Check out the things to do in New Zealand

New Zealand is certainly a country that knows how to give you a good time! Whether you’re into the great outdoors, experiencing intriguing cultures, or trying local cuisine, there’s something to suit in New Zealand. Start with taking a look at Top 10 Things to Do in New Zealand for an idea of some of the once-in-a-lifetime experiences to be had.

The main New Zealand attractions include:

  • Outdoors activities – think hiking, biking, kayaking, boating, fishing and more!
  • Adventure activities – think bungy jump, white water rafting, skydiving, canyoning and more!
  • Wildlife activities – see marine wildlife like seals, whales and dolphins or New Zealand’s unique bird life like the famous kiwi bird.
  • Scenery – Mountains, beaches, forest and grassy plains can all be seen through hikes, scenic flights, boat trips or simply while you are driving.
  • Maori cultural experiences – Maori are a Polynesian culture that called New Zealand home hundreds of years ago.
  • Wine and craft beer – New Zealand is rich in fertile lands producing some of the most mouth-watering food, and local favourites, craft beer and wine.

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Step 4 – Choose where to visit in New Zealand

While we also recommend getting off the beaten track if you can, some of the highlights include…

North Island
South Island

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Step 5 – Choose how you are going to get around New Zealand

Your next priority is choosing a vehicle to take you on your self-guided adventure! Renting or buying a car or campervan is the best way to experience ultimate freedom and flexibility when travelling around New Zealand. Choosing a good vehicle rental company with fair rates and reliable vehicles takes a bit of research, so you will need to put some time aside (or again, ask the advice of a free travel agent). Alternatively, if you are buying a vehicle, time needs to be taken when you are in New Zealand to inspect vehicles, buy a vehicle and sell it at the end of your trip. Here’s more information on your options:

Renting a car

There is a wide variety of rental companies in New Zealand to choose from, especially around the international airports of Auckland, Christchurch and Queenstown. Honestly, there is a real mixed bag of rental companies when it comes to the service they provide and their vehicles, so again, research is needed to separate the good from the not-so-good. Also, take into consideration the type of vehicle you want to rent, While a small 2WD car may be a good budget option for a solo traveller or couple, it will make for an uncomfortable road trip for groups of friends or families. For more information, take a look at Travel By Car in New Zealand: The Ultimate Guide.

Renting a Campervan

Renting a campervan is an extremely convenient way to get around New Zealand while always staying in the same accommodation – no packing and unpacking in hotels; just more time to enjoy the important things. Travelling by campervan or motorhome is another extremely popular way to get around New Zealand and there are enough rental companies to provide. The type of campervan you hire is extremely important for the comfort of the trip, as well as the ease of getting around. If you have never driven a campervan or a motorhome before, then you will want something smooth and easy to drive, while motorhome veterans may want to treat themselves to a luxury ride with all the bells and whistles. Find out more in our What is the Best Type of Vehicle to Rent in New Zealand? Plus, add the cost of holiday parks and campgrounds to your budget, as parking up somewhere for free – known as freedom camping in New Zealand – is restricted in many parts of the country, which you can find out more about freedom camping here.

Buying a car or campervan

Are you lucky enough to be staying in New Zealand for two months or more? Then buying a car or campervan usually works out much more cost-effective with the idea of selling the vehicle at the end of your trip. Remember to plan some time to buy and sell a vehicle at either end of your trip. Get more advice at our 10 Tips for Buying a Secondhand Car in New Zealand.

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Step 6 – Choose your accommodation

There are accommodations in New Zealand to suit all styles, budgets and moods, from backpacker hostels to luxury hotels and lodges. There are hostels, motels, hotels and holiday parks in most of the large towns and cities around New Zealand, but there are some real hidden gems scattered around the country which are worth searching for. Remember, if you are travelling during the busier seasons in New Zealand (see above) booking your accommodation in advance is a must! Especially in small but popular locations like Milford Sound and Lake Tekapo. Once you know what type of accommodation you want to stay in, it makes the search so much easier to find the experience for yourself or to describe what you want to a travel agent. Here’s a quick description of each accommodation type:

  • Luxury hotels & boutique lodges – High-quality accommodation with restaurants or other forms of catering
  • Apartments – self-contained accommodation with private rooms and kitchen facilities
  • Backpacker hostels – dorms and a selection of private rooms with all the essential communal facilities
  • Motels & budget hotels – private or self-contained rooms at affordable prices
  • Campervans – use your vehicle as accommodation
  • Campsites – camp in a tent or vehicle for free or up to NZ$15 per night in a public campsite
  • Holiday parks – a huge range of budget accommodation for camping to self-contained motel units
  • Couch surfing – sleep on a local’s sofa or spare room for free
  • Bed & Breakfast – stay in a local’s home or cottage with breakfast provided
  • WWOOFing – otherwise known as working for accommodation for those with a work visa
  • House sitting – stay in a local’s home for free for at least a week in exchange for looking after their pets
  • House exchange – list you home on home exchange websites and stay in a New Zealand home for free

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Or, skip all these steps…

Just because you are travelling New Zealand independently, doesn’t mean you need to plan your road trip independently. Use the expertise of First Light Travel, a free online travel agent specialising in New Zealand and Australia. The 6-step process discussed above gets reduced to a 3-step process:

  • Send First Light Travel your enquiry filling up their simple online form
  • Get your personalised itinerary within 24 hours
  • Review the itinerary, make any changes where you want, and First Light Travel will organise the rest including the bookings.

First Light Travel have access to more than 20,000 travel products at their fingertips, creating a well-catered itinerary to meet your needs while opening your eyes to dream travel experiences that you may have never heard of. What’s more, their service is free to use, they only receive a commission from the travel companies you decide to book with – keeping your costs to a minimum. Plus, they only work with companies where their past clients have had positive experience in the past.

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