Welcome to Aotearoa, the Land of the Long White Cloud. Māori people originally used this word to refer to New Zealand’s North Island, but it has since come to define the entire country— and it seems a perfectly mystical name for a positively magical place.
High alpine peaks and imposing glaciers border dense rainforests and wild beaches, while textured valley, vibrant lakes, and gushing waterfalls cut through it all. There are few places on earth with the same natural diversity, and it seems almost impossible that it should be packed into such a tiny area. But such is the beauty of New Zealand, a country that is constantly challenging you to go farther, climb higher, and jump from a taller bridge.
I’ve spent about 2 months in New Zealand across a couple different trips and, as you can probably tell, I am absolutely in love with the dramatic landscapes and contagious sense of adventure that lives in every inch of this country. This travel guide contains absolutely everything you need to know before visiting New Zealand, including how to get around, top sights, itinerary recommendations, health & safety, typical costs, applying for a visa waiver, a packing list & heaps more.
What's in this travel guide
Population: 4.8 million
Language: English & Māori— everyone speaks English in NZ, but you’ll notice that most signs display both languages and all natural sites in the country have a Māori name in addition to an English one
Currency: New Zealand Dollar (NZD)
Power:Type I plug with either 2 or 3 angled prongs at 230V (the same as Australia and most other Pacific Island nations)
Visa: Australians don’t need a visa for NZ, but citizens of some countries will have to apply for a NZeTA (electronic visa waiver) before their trip— read more about Applying for the NZeTA below
Good to know: New Zealand is made up of 3 main islands, the more populous North Island, the rugged South Island, and little Stewart Island at the very bottom
Planning your trip to New Zealand
When to visit New Zealand
New Zealand is a wonderful year-round destination, with winter drawing snow bunnies to the slopes of popular ski resorts and summer bringing hordes of hikers, but for road tripping, late September to early April is probably the best time.
The shoulder seasons (spring and autumn) will be less crowded, much cheaper in terms of car hire, and can have some really beautiful colours as wildflowers or fall foliage bloom. There also isn’t a need to book mountain huts or reserve Great Walks, which will give you more flexibility. On the other hand, summer has the appeal of longer days, warmer temperatures, and better weather. Also, all huts and trails are open and tours will operate with a greater frequency during these busier months.
It should be said that New Zealand, especially the South Island, is really cold. Even in summer, it’s not unusual for night temperatures in the mountains to dip down to 5C and I’ve even woken up to snow in the middle of January (twice)! The days can fluctuate wildly, with sunny afternoons in town approaching the high 20s and yet windy mountaintops are still enough to make you wear 3 jackets and a scarf. It just means you’ll need to pack for all seasons, even if you’re visiting in peak summer (December to February).
Getting to New Zealand
There are 2 main airports on New Zealand’s North Island: Wellington International Airport, which mainly hosts domestic flights and limited international flights from Australia, Fiji, or Singapore, and Auckland International Airport, which hosts domestic flights and international flights from all over Asia, North and South America, Australia, and the Middle East. From a geographical perspective, Auckland is also a bit better to fly into, as it’s located at the far north of New Zealand, allowing you to see the entire country as you travel south.
The best way to get to directly to New Zealand’s South Island is to fly into Christchurch International Airport. This is the largest airport on the island and flights tend to be cheaper here than Queenstown Airport (which only operates domestic flights or international flights from Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane, and Gold Coast). You’ll also have a greater selection of hire car and campervan choices, since Christchurch is a larger city.
Getting around New Zealand
Of course it’s possible to fly between cities in New Zealand, and there are a number of airports scattered across the islands, but it’s really not the best way to experience the country— so much of New Zealand exists between metropolitan areas, in the beautiful National Parks, alpine peaks, and untouched wilderness. There is absolutely nothing better than a road trip.
If you do end up flying, the 2 main domestic airlines are Jetstar and Air New Zealand, and you can typically find flights for $50-150.
If you’re travelling from the North Island to the South Island (or vice versa), I’d definitely recommend taking the InterIslander ferry from Wellington to Picton. The journey takes 3.5hrs and costs about $60NZD per adult, $250NZD for 2 adults in a car, or $300NZD for 2 adults in a campervan. It’s a really beautiful trip across the Cook Straight, so book a day-sailing to experience all the awesome scenery!
Intercity buses have improved dramatically in recent years and now connect many cities and popular towns, so it’s possible to travel by bus if you only want to visit a few main destinations like Queenstown, Wanaka, and Milford Sound.
You can purchase a FlexiPass which comes with a certain number of “travel hours” attached to it; for the 10-day road trip itinerary I put together, I’d estimate that 30hrs should be enough.
The classic way to explore New Zealand is in a campervan, but unfortunately it’s not always the cheapest option. In peak summer months (December – February), campervan hire can range from $80-300NZD per DAY (including insurance)! The best way to find a good deal is to book at least 3 months in advance (if travelling in the summer) and use a comparison site to shop around:
If the cost of campervan hire is just TOO much (or if you don’t really like the idea of freedom camping without showers and toilets), there’s always the option to hire a car and camp in a tent. There are some seriously amazing DOC (Department of Conservation) campsites, as well as holiday parks, and tent camping is actually my favourite way to explore New Zealand!
Car hire can still be really expensive in New Zealand, so you’ll need to do some digging to find a good deal, but it’s definitely possible to get something as cheap as $40-80/day, depending on time of year. I’ve personally used Bargain Rental Carsa few times and, although the opposite of glamorous, they are routinely the best price around. To compare other car hire options, I like to use Momondo.
I’ve already written a dedicated post to the top 13 destinations across New Zealand, not to mention countless posts on specific National Parks and cities, so this is just a brief idea of where to go (listed from north to south) and what you might do on your trip. Links to more detailed posts are provided throughout.
This adventure-centric town in the North Island is situated on the shores of the country’s largest lake, an enormous volcanic caldera, and has an insane number of high-adrenaline activities on offer. From bungy jumping to white water rafting to world-class trekking in Tongariro National Park, it’s impossible to get bored of Taupō.
Few travellers come to New Zealand for the cities, but the country’s compact capital is surprisingly delightful and a worthwhile addition to any North Island itinerary. With all the feel of a small town, enjoy a few days in Wellington and explore its inner-city beaches, charming waterfront shops, and trendy local breweries.
On the far north tip of the South Island, Abel Tasman National Park is truly spectacular, with long stretches of untouched coastline, protected marine areas pumping with sea life, and the country’s most popular Great Walk. Whether you explore in a kayak or on the trail, this is one of the coolest spots in New Zealand.
In addition to its dramatic namesake peak rising over the Hooker Valley, Aoraki/Mt Cook is home to an incredible concentration of glaciers and high-alpine trails. And as possibly the country’s most stunning National Park, there is so much to do here for trekkers, climbers, and photographers.
Lake Tekapo and its impossibly turquoise water is one of the most colourful places on the South Island, surrounded by wild fields of pink and purple lupin that bloom against the backdrop of the snow-capped Southern Alps. Best for relaxing on the water and just enjoying the scenery, this is my favourite way to start or end a long road trip around New Zealand.
This charming little adventure town sits on the shores of a large lake, within a few minutes of popular snow resorts, and is surrounded by tall peaks perfect for tramping. Between chilling out at Lake Wanaka and exploring nearby Mt Aspiring National Park, there is no shortage of fun to be had in Wanaka.
My absolute favourite town in New Zealand, the incredible landscape and palpable energy of Queenstown are truly magnetic. With alpine peaks perfect for tramping in summer and skiing in winter, beach access onto countless lakes and rivers, endless biking trails, and the world’s first commercial bungy jump, this is somewhere that you’ll want to keep coming back to again and again, each time discovering something new to fall in love with.
Milford Sound is one of the most spectacular natural attractions in all of New Zealand, its dramatic landscape drawing millions of visitors every year to Fiordland National Park at the far tip of the South Island. Whether exploring the soaring mountains and sparkling fjord from the surface or venturing below to discover the ethereal Piopiotahi Marine Reserve, this is a highlight of any trip around NZ.
After spending a lot of time exploring the country, I’ve designed 2 different super-comprehensive road trip itineraries for New Zealand that pack in non-stop amazing views, the best tramps, the most scenic National Parks, and my favourite adventure activities. Whether you’ve got just 10 days or a full month, these itineraries will help you get the most out of your journey. You can also use this post to extend and customise either itinerary!
It’s easy to pay for nearly everything in New Zealand with a credit or debit card, and every restaurant or retailer will also have PayWave for quick transactions.
It’s still a good idea to pull some NZD out of an ATM, though, because DOC campsites require cash payment. Unless a ranger happens to be around when you’re paying, you’ll need exact change, so try to break larger notes in town.
Trip budget for New Zealand
New Zealand is very expensive. That doesn’t mean the average budget traveller won’t be able to visit, but it does mean that you need to plan carefully and be smart when it comes to your spending. Even coming from Australia, which is often considered to be one of the most expensive places to travel (which I strongly disagree with, but anyway), New Zealand is shockingly worse. Just to give one example, fuel can easily cost $3NZD PER LITRE (for my American friends, that’s more than $7USD per gallon)!
So obviously, trips to New Zealand can vary wildly depending on whether you’re staying in Airbnbs & hotels, camping at DOC sites and mountain huts, or freedom camping in a campervan. Even the difference between hiring a compact car or a campervan and eating out or cooking all your own meals makes for a dramatic difference.
For the 2 itineraries I built, these are the essential costs I estimated:
10-day road trip
Car hire for 10 days: $300-500NZD for a budget compact car, OR
Campervan hire for 10 days: $1,000-2,00NZD for budget campervan
Fuel: we spent about $350NZD on fuel for this itinerary
Tent camping: $200NZD per person, OR
A mix of freedom camping and DOC/holiday parks: $100NZD
Eating out in New Zealand isn’t necessarily super expensive, but it can still chew through your budget quickly, so I’d recommend cooking a majority of your own meals. Most campervans have kitchen equipment (like a gas stove, cookware, fridge, etc), but so do many holiday parks, which is great if you also want to save money by hiring a compact car. Even bringing a stove from home like a Jetboil and cooking porridge, soup, and dehydrated mountain meals out of your tent is an easy way to save on at least some meals.
If you’re in a campervan, limit the holiday parks you’re staying at to a bare minimum. Campervan hire is extremely expensive, so the only way it makes financial sense is if you’re taking advantage of the opportunity to freedom camp (which is something you can’t do in a car). Use the Campermate app to find great free (or low-cost) campsites around New Zealand.
If you’re in a car, 100% bring a tent. This is my favourite way to enjoy New Zealand and opens your options up exponentially to stay at inexpensive DOC camps (usually $8-15NZD) or holiday parks (usually $20-25NZD) rather than expensive Airbnbs and hotels.
Hike or bike somewhere rather than paying for expensive tours every day. There are some really amazing adventure activities in New Zealand that you should absolutely do, but spreading costly tours like scenic flights or bungy jumping out between cheaper outings will stretch your budget farther. And there are awesome trails here!!
Consider traveling in the shoulder season rather than peak summer. Campervan and car hire can easily be half of the summer rate during this time, and it’s not unusual for campsites, backcountry huts, and even Great Walks to similarly discount their prices in autumn and spring.
Practical considerations for New Zealand
Applying for the NZeTA
As of 2019, citizens of many countries, including the USA and UK (but obviously NOT Australia), are now required to apply for a visa waiver before travelling to New Zealand.
While the NZeTA isn’t an actual visa and doesn’t require a lot of effort to get, it’s still important to apply at least 3 days before your trip to ensure everything is processed in time. The easiest way to do this is using the NZeTA app (you can also apply online, but it’s $3NZD more expensive).
Use your phone to scan your passport ID page and then confirm all the details are correct
Take a passport-style selfie against a white background— the app will guide you on how to frame your face in the shot and how close to be to the camera
Answer a few quick questions, including your reason for visiting, criminal history, and country of birth
Pay the NZeTA fee + International Visitor Conservation and Tourism Levy (IVL)— the total cost is $44NZD
The app will display a receipt with your reference number and you’ll also get an email receipt for the application within a few minutes
Anywhere from a few hours to a couple days later, you should receive your NZeTA confirmation via email— screenshot this or the NZeTA app page where it lists your status as “issued”, because the airline staff will ask to see it before you board your flight to NZ
* Note: In addition to viewing a valid NZeTA before letting you fly, airline staff will also ask for proof of an outbound flight from New Zealand. I was able to check in online just fine, but the system wouldn’t let me use the self-service bag drop at the airport, which meant I had to go to the counter and show my NZeTA and flight details before getting my bags through.
Communication & connectivity in New Zealand
Local SIM cards
For road tripping around New Zealand, a local SIM card is absolutely essential, as it will allow you to use Google Maps and look up points of interest along the way. Arriving into the Christchurch International Airport, there are Vodafone and Spark kiosks available to sell you a SIM and pre-paid credit (no contract or commitment) on the spot.
For $29, Vodafone will set you up with a SIM, 1.5GB of data, some calling and text credit, and unlimited use of WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger (valid for 1 month). There are larger options, but this is honestly plenty for a road trip, as long as you’re not watching Netflix or posting heaps to Instagram, and the staff will set everything up for you in under 5 minutes.
The best places to find FREE wifi in New Zealand are i-SITES, the local tourist information offices in every major town, or McDonald’s, which are also common. Auckland and Wellington city centres even have their own free wifi networks, although usage is limited to 30 minutes.
Just about any hostel or hotel in New Zealand will offer free wifi for guests, as will most holiday or caravan parks. The connection tends to be pretty poor, so I’d always recommend getting a SIM card and using that to do any online booking or route planning rather than relying on campsite wifi, though.
Health & safety in New Zealand
New Zealand is both an incredibly healthy and incredibly safe country, which means you don’t need to get any dedicated vaccines or medications before visiting and you should feel completely comfortable travelling around as a solo woman. Kiwis also have some of the cleanest tap water, so no need to purchase plastic water bottles on your trip.
The only 2 health-related items I’d strongly recommend packing are sunscreen, as the UV index is insanely high down here, and bug spray with DEET, because the sandflies are absolutely out of control and it’s pretty common to get an allergic reaction to the bites.
Packing list for New Zealand
This is far from a comprehensive packing list, but here are just a few essential items you MUST have for New Zealand:
Down jacket (yes, even in summer)
Hiking boots (for pretty much any trek in New Zealand longer than a couple hours, you’ll want these)