Small, incredibly isolated, and home to about 6-times as many sheep as humans, New Zealand may not seem like the perfect road trip destination—but it is undoubtably one of the world’s finest. From soaring alpine peaks and blue-ice glaciers to lush rainforest and pristine beaches, NZ is dominated by natural beauty and ruled by a wild spirit, kiwis and international travellers alike enchanted by the contagious sense of adventure waiting around every bend in the road. There’s only one way to describe it: magic.
It’s true that too much is never enough with New Zealand, but 3-4 weeks is still an awesome amount of time to cram in all of the South Island’s most popular attractions, as well as some of the hidden gems that really make this place special. Use this guide to help plan the ultimate 3-4 week South Island road trip around New Zealand, including heaps of helpful tips on car and campervan hire, campsites, budgeting, and more.
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, but summer does still have the appeal of longer days, warmer temperatures, and better weather.
It should be said that New Zealand’s 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 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
The best way to get to New Zealand for this itinerary, and indeed just about any visit to the South Island, is to fly into Christchurch Airport. This is the largest international airport on the island and flights tend to be cheaper here than Queenstown Airport (which only operates international flights from Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane, and Gold Coast anyway). You’ll also have a greater selection of hire car and campervan choices, since Christchurch is a larger city.
If you’re coming down from the North Island, and this is actually really easy for this itinerary since you can start near Abel Tasman, there’s also the option to take 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 I’d recommend a day sailing to experience all the awesome scenery!
Getting around New Zealand
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), which is cost-prohibitive to a lot of travellers, especially considering this is already a really expensive country! If you’re determined to experience NZ in a campervan, I’d recommend either:
travelling in the shoulder season (spring or autumn), when hire can easily be 50% of the summer rate, OR
getting a self-contained campervan that will allow you to freedom camp rather than paying for DOC campsites or holiday parks every night ($15-25/person) and cook in your vehicle to save money on eating out.
Yep, only campervans with a “self-contained” sticker are allowed to freedom camp outside of official campsites, and the fines can be really big if you try to do this in a car or in a non-self-contained camper. It’s not really going to save you money on the hire costs (if anything, a self-contained campervan will be more expensive), but it will help you save on heaps of other expenses like camping and food, so it’s 100% essential.
Download the Campermate app to find all the best freedom camping spots!
Most campervans will have a chilly bin or small fridge, some sort of sink or water storage, gas stove, cookware, and kitchen utensils, but the quality and extras will vary van to van. Do your research and stop off at Countdown or Bunnings in Christchurch to pick up anything additional.
There are an insane number of campervan companies in New Zealand offering anywhere from budget vehicles like Spaceships, to mid-range vans with some nice extras like Jucy and Madcampers, to really luxurious mini-RVs like Apollo and Maui with a price-tag to match. 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. It’s especially good for this itinerary, since you’ll be staying in mountain huts or DOC campsites along the Abel Tasman Coast Track and the Routeburn Track, and this way you aren’t paying for an expensive campervan when you’re not even able to use it every night. There are also some seriously amazing DOC (Department of Conservation) campsites, and tent camping is actually my favourite way to explore New Zealand!
Use the Campermate app to find all the best tent camping spots around NZ, just make sure to filter out “self-contained only” sites.
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. These prices reflect the absolute cheapest rentals available, so you’ll probably end up driving a 20+ year old compact car (the kind of thing that wouldn’t even be legal to hire in Australia), but it truly doesn’t matter if all you’re using it for is transport. Also note that these prices don’t include comprehensive car insurance and the excess on our shit-box hire car was $6,000NZD, so you’ll either need to pay extra for good cover, use the car insurance included with your credit card (which is what we did), or take a big risk.
I’ve personally used Bargain Rental Cars a 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.
Road trip budget
Transport costs vary widely depending on what kind of car or campervan you hire, but expect to pay through the roof for fuel, no matter what. As of January 2020, fuel prices ranged from $2.30 to as much as $3.10 per litre… UGH. Here are some rough ideas of what you can expect to pay in terms of transport for this specific itinerary:
Car hire for 25 days: $500-1,000NZD for a budget compact car, OR
Campervan hire for 25 days: $2,000-4,000NZD for budget campervan
Fuel: we spent about $800NZD on fuel for this itinerary
Accomodation costs can also vary widely depending on how you want to travel, but I’d budget for 1x night in a hostel (it’s pretty common for flights to arrive in Christchurch around 1am, so it’s nice to just crash in a bed), a majority of nights at a mix of DOC and freedom campsites (depending on your car/campervan situation), and a few mountain huts on the trail.
Hostel: Jucy Snooze is right next to the Christchurch Airport and has dorm beds for about $35/person
DOC campsite: typically $8-15/person, regardless of whether you have a tent or are sleeping in your campervan
Holiday or caravan park: around $20-25/person for a tent or caravan site
Freedom camping: FREE, but only for self-contained campervans
Mountain huts: ranges wildly from backcountry huts like Crow Hut ($5) and Mueller Hut ($45) to Great Walk Huts on the Routeburn Track ($130/night)
So, if you’re hiring a car and tent camping, with some mountain huts:
expect to pay around $700NZD per person for this itinerary
And if you’re hiring a campervan for a mix of freedom camping and DOC campsites, with some mountain huts:
expect to pay around $550NZD per person for this itinerary
If you’re staying in a self-contained campervan and preparing all of your own meals, you don’t need to spend much on food at all. Supermarket prices can be a little high depending on where you are, but still aren’t ridiculous. You can spend as little or as much as you want!
Tent camping is also pretty cost effective, especially if you’re happy to eat some freeze-dried mountain meals when campsites don’t have BBQ or kitchen facilities. These mountain meals are available in pretty much all supermarkets, including Four Square, Countdown, and New World, for around $15 per pouch. If you supplement with cheese and crackers or some other easy starter like soup, it’s possible to get away with one mountain meal between a couple. Obviously you need to bring a camp stove if this is your plan— I love my JetBoil!— and then buy gas in Christchurch when you land (there’s a huge Bunnings right next to the airport).
On nights you’re staying at holiday parks (which I do recommend intermittently for showering!), you can plan to cook up a barbie or something easy like pasta to avoid eating out too much.
Rather than give you an overall budget for activities, since it can vary SO MUCH, here are some prices for specific tours and excursions that fit in well with this itinerary:
Here’s a detailed breakdown of the total budget for this exact 25-day itinerary around New Zealand’s South Island, either for a campervan or tent camping trip. Both options include the hikes discussed in this itinerary and an assortment of activities, so the main differences accounting for price will be van/car hire, the ability to freedom camp/only staying at paid sites, and the ability to cook in your van/over a camp stove.
For a campervan trip where you mostly stay at free camping spots and cook in your van, you can expect to spend a total of $4,950NZD, or $198NZD ($185AUD) per day for 25 days. The best way to cut down some of this cost is to find a super great deal on a campervan by booking early!
If opting to hire a car and tent camp instead, you can do this entire itinerary for $3,700NZD, or $148NZD ($138AUD) per day for 25 days. It’s equally essential to book early to get a good deal on car hire, and you can also shave some money off this itinerary by opting to cook inexpensive camp meals like pasta or doing a BBQ rather than eating only dehydrated food.
Note that both of these options have quite a lot of included activities, so you can hack even more money off the overall cost of your roadtrip just by limiting pricy tours like a scenic flight or scuba diving (although it’s totally worth the money if you can swing it!).
Travel tips for New Zealand
After spending 2 months road tripping around New Zealand on a couple different trips, I’m keen to share all my first-hand knowledge, insider tricks, and best travel hacks! From passing the biosecurity inspection at the airport and getting a local SIM card to finding the best deal on a campervan and reserving Great Walks, here are the most useful travel tips for your road trip around New Zealand: 15 ESSENTIAL TRAVEL TIPS FOR ROAD TRIPPING AROUND NEW ZEALAND
*Overview: recommended itinerary
Kaikoura (1-2 days)
Abel Tasman National Park (3-4 days)
Arthur’s Pass (2 days)
Franz Josef Glacier (1-2 days)
Wanaka (2-3 days)
MilfordSound (2-4 days)
RouteburnTrack (3 days)
Queenstown (4-5 days)
Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park (2-3 days)
LakeTekapo (1-2 days)
Begin your South Island road trip by driving up the east coast to beautiful Kaikoura, a tiny mountain-framed town known for its tranquil beaches and abundant marine life. This is actually one of the best places, not only in New Zealand but in the world (!!), to see giant sperm whales, as well as humpbacks, dolphins, albatross, and huge colonies of adorable fur seals (best at Ohau Point Seal Colony).
Book a whale watching cruise for amazingly close encounters with the sea life here, and then spend a quiet afternoon wandering along the Kaikoura Peninsula Walkway for even more sweeping views. Although slower-paced than many of the South Island’s most popular destinations, there’s an undeniable charm to this peaceful stretch of coastline, making for the perfect introduction to NZ and all the natural beauty still to come.
For more spectacular coastal scenery, secluded beaches, and impossibly turquoise water, drive several hours north to Abel Tasman National Park, a sparkling gem set on the wild Tasman Sea. Large populations of New Zealand fur seals, penguins, and dolphins inhabit the waters around Tonga Island Marine Reserve and water-access-only campsites take you away from everyone and everything to enjoy the most magical spots.
Although NZ’s smallest National Park, Abel Tasman is home to the most popular Great Walk in the country, the 60km Coast Track winding from Marahau to Tōtaranui. It’s possible to explore on a series of smaller walks or 1-day kayaking tours, sure, but there is truly nothing better than kayaking the first 2 days of the Abel Tasman Coastal Walk and tramping the remaining 1-2 days along a sandy trail, experiencing the length of the park on an epic adventure. For novelty alone, this is one of my all-time favourite treks.
Recommended time: 3-4 days
Highlights: Tackle the Abel Tasman Coastal Track, NZ’s most popular Great Walk, with a mix of trekking and kayaking; paddle along the shores of the National Park, discovering some of the best water-access-only campsites, like Mosquito Bay; explore Tonga Island Marine Reserve to see New Zealand Fur Seals, penguins, and dolphins
Getting there: Drive 4hrs from Kaikoura to Marahau on the eastern border of Abel Tasman National Park. This is the perfect place to start your exploration of the park and is the trailhead for the Coast Track.
Where to stay: Use the DOC booking platform to reserve campsites along the Abel Tasman Coast Track in advance. I’d highly recommend water-access-only sites when you’re kayaking, as these are amazingly untouched and beautiful.
Swapping coastal landscapes and friendly marine life for a panorama of alpine peaks, make the 5-hour drive from Abel Tasman National Park down to Arthur’s Pass National Park. It’s a pretty long slog, but you can detour along the west coast to explore wild beaches or stop off in Nelson Lakes National Park for the afternoon to break up the drive; neither one of these options adds more than one hour to the journey.
Less popular than other National Parks in the region, it’s not hard to lose the crowds and get off-piste in Arthur’s Pass, which makes this an excellent place to explore the dramatic beauty of the NZ wilderness. The most popular hike is up Avalanche Peak, but I recommend tacking on an additional section from Avalanche Peak to Crow Hutto make this an overnighter. The trail is no joke and it’s definitely an adventure!
Between summiting peaks and challenging yourself on rugged backcountry tramps, mingle with the many local kea who have made Arthur’s Pass their home. These cheeky alpine parrots are known for picking zippers and nibbling holes through just about any material, but it’s not a trip to New Zealand without a few alarming encounters. Keep those snacks close.
Recommended time: 2 days
Highlights: Climb steeply to the summit of Avalanche Peak for amazing views of the surrounding mountains; stay overnight in backcountry Crow Hut; walk out to Devil’s Punchbowl Falls, a spectacular 131m waterfall just outside of the Arthur’s Pass township
Getting there: Drive 5hrs from Abel Tasman National Park to Arthur’s Pass
Where to stay: Camp at Klondyke Corner for $8/night; the Avalanche Peak Track (Crow Hut Route) conveniently finishes here.
In Westland Tai Poutini National Park about 3hrs south of Arthur’s Pass, New Zealand’s most famous glaciers, Fox and Franz Josef, are sandwiched between the rugged, wind-whipped beaches of the west coast and the icy Southern Alps. The result is an incredibly varied and dramatic landscape quite unlike anything else in the country.
Spend the next couple days exploring jurassic-era rainforests with gigantic ferns, trickling waterfalls, and the blue-ice glaciers of both Franz Josef and nearby Fox Glacier. The tiny townships of the same names don’t have a lot going on (especially Fox Glacier), but short walks, scenic flights, heli-hiking tours, and skydiving offer insane views of the glaciers and will more than occupy your time. Just go easy on your budget.
Getting there: Drive 3hrs from Arthur’s Pass to Franz Josef Glacier township.
Where to stay: Franz Josef township is slightly larger than Fox, so I’d recommend staying at the Franz Josef Holiday Park for $50/night (for 2 people). Alternatively, Okarito Campground about 25min away is an absolutely lovely place to stay if you want to escape the crowds; $15/person for a tent or caravan site.
After a few days of stunning alpine scenery (and possibly some big splurges) around Franz Josef Glacier, make the 4hr drive south to Wanaka, a charming little lake-front town that is quickly emerging as an adventure and adrenaline hotspot on the South Island. Framed by the Southern Alps and nestled between Lake Wanaka and Lake Hāwea, this is the perfect place to relax, maybe hiring bikes to explore the waterfront or paddle boards if you’re feeling a bit aquatic— and then get right back out on the trail.
Nearby Mt Aspiring National Park offers some truly incredible tramping routes, with scenery that is every bit as beautiful but markedly different than the cool ice of Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers. The most popular trail is Roy’s Peak, but if you fancy a similar view without all the crowds and fuss, Isthmus Peak (5hrs return) is the perfect choice and one of my very favourite treks in New Zealand.
Recommended time: 2-3 days
Highlights:Hike up to the summit of Isthmus Peak or Roy’s Peak for panoramic views of the Southern Alps, Lake Hāwea, and Lake Wanaka; drive around Lake Hāwea, stopping on the side of the road for awesome views of the bright blue water; hire bikes and pedal through town; hang out on the shores of Lake Wanaka; snap a photo of #ThatWanakaTree; check out RedStar Burgers for some delicious bites in town
Getting there: Drive 4hrs from Franz Josef Glacier to Wanaka, breaking up the drive by stopping off at the beach or lakefront in Haast.
Where to stay:The Camp has great tent sites located right on the shores of Lake Hāwea ($20/night per person). It’s about 10min outside of Wanaka, but the setting is beyond gorgeous and actually closer to some of the best hikes in the area.
At the chilly, distant tip of the South Island, Fiordland National Park is home to some of New Zealand’s most spectacular landscapes, perhaps none more breathtaking or better known than Milford Sound. From Wanaka, drive 3hrs to Te Anau, the nearest town to Milford Sound, or 4hrs to Cascade Creek, the nearest DOC camp (just 45min from Milford Sound). As you continue through Fiordland towards the water, be sure to stop off at all the amazing lookouts along the side of the road, like Pop’s Viewpoint, The Chasm, and Monkey Creek.
There are heaps of cool ways to experience the fjord, whether it’s on a classic scenic cruise, a splurgy helicopter flight, or, my personal favourite, a scuba diving tour. In a fjord reaching depths of up to 500m, there’s so much happening beneath the surface— this lesser explored, shockingly vibrant marine area is home to species of sharks that predate dinosaurs and coral trees typically only found at 1,000m. Descend Dive is the only operator running dive tours in Milford Sound, and I can’t recommend them highly enough.
Highlights: Take a scenic cruise through the fiord to see waterfalls, NZ fur seals, penguins, dolphins, and heaps of amazing mountain scenery, like 1700m Mitre Peak; scuba dive in Milford Sound with Descend Dive; splurge on a scenic flight over the mountains and glaciers of Milford Sound; walk the spectacular Milford Track or Kepler Track; enjoy the scenic drive from Te Anau to Milford Sound, stopping off at Pop’s Lookout, Monkey Creek, and other awesome viewpoints within the park
Getting there: Drive 3hrs from Wanaka to Te Anau, the nearest town to Milford Sound. From here, it’s a further 2hrs to Milford Sound along winding mountain roads.
Where to stay: There are a number of hostels and motels in Te Anau, but if you’re in a campervan or tent camping, Cascade Creek is an awesome place to stay. This is the closest DOC campsite to Milford Sound, which means your morning drive will only be 45min rather than 2+ hours from Te Anau. It’s a large site with heaps of space (no bookings), $15/person for the night paid on arrival with cash.
Winding through forests, past serene alpine lakes, and across swing-bridges in New Zealand’s stunning Southern Alps and Te Wāhipounamu World Heritage Area, Routeburn Track is an undemanding but overwhelmingly beautiful hike, and one of the best ways to experience classic New Zealand tramping. Thanks to the DOC’s amazing hut network, the trail is accessible for nearly all levels of walkers, even those without overnight backpacking experience.
Traditionally, this 32km tramp is walked from (near) Glenorchy towards Fiordland National Park as a one-way, necessitating the use of a shuttle or bus to make the extremely circuitous journey back to your car. Instead, I’d recommend walking the first half of the walk as far as Harris Saddle, and then returning the way you came. You will miss some of the Fiordland scenery, but this itinerary is a lot less stressful, much cheaper, and still affords phenomenal views on the Glenorchy side of the trail. Stay both nights in the Routeburn Falls Hut and enjoy a leisurely trip through some of NZ’s finest wilderness.
Recommended time: 3 days
Getting there: Drive 2hrs from Wanaka to the Routeburn Shelter, the trailhead for the Routeburn Track. It’s fine to leave your car parked here while you go off tramping for a few days.
Where to stay: Stay in DOC mountain huts along the Routeburn Track. During the Great Walk season (October – April), these huts are $130/night booked in advance through the DOC.
From the Routeburn Shelter outside of Glenorchy, it’s just a quick 1hr drive to New Zealand’s long-standing adventure capital, Queenstown. Set against the spectacular backdrop of The Remarkables and bright Lake Wakatipu, this is a lively, backpacker-filled resort town whose incredible landscape and palpable energy are absolutely infectious. It’s truly impossible not to fall in love, so just know that a few days is never going to be enough.
If you need a break from all the pumping adrenaline, hire a kayak or aqua bike to explore Lake Wakatipu, take the gondola up Skyline Queenstown, hire an e-bike to go wine tasting in the Gibbston Valley, or take a scenic drive along the lake to Glenorchy. There are seriously more things to do in Queenstown than I could possibly list (although I do list my favourite 15 things to do in this post), but suffice to say that, whether you’re an adrenaline junkie, avid tramper, mountain biker, wine lover, photographer, or party animal, there won’t be a single dull moment here.
Getting there: Drive 1hr from the Routeburn Shelter to Queenstown.
Where to stay:Queenstown Holiday Park & Motels Creeksyde is located right downtown, an easy walk to anywhere in Queenstown, and is well-equipped with a communal kitchen, lounge, and decent WIFI. Powered sites are $65/night for 2 people.
Leaving the intense adrenaline of Queenstown behind, set off for Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park, the crown jewel of the South Island. If you aren’t already brimming with excitement (which you should be), the drive will get you there— this is one of the most scenic stretches of highway in the entire country, Mt Cook looming large on the horizon and viewpoints like Peter’s Lookout over Lake Pukaki offering plenty of excuses to pull over.
Mt Cook Village (and the awesome DOC camp at White Horse Hill) is the perfect base to explore what is honestly one of the country’s finest and most breathtaking National Parks. Conveniently, all the park’s best hikes also depart right from White Horse Hill, making it possible to cram in several different treks per day without even having to get in the car.
Getting there: Drive 3hrs from Queenstown to Aoraki/Mt Cook Village.
Where to stay: For $15/person, pitch your tent directly in front of Aoraki/Mt Cook at White Horse Hill Campsite. This is one of my very favourite campsites in all of New Zealand, both for the incredible scenery and the convenience of literally being the trailhead to half a dozen different hikes in the National Park.
Set against the snowy Southern Alps and wild fields of lupin in every shade of pink and purple, Lake Tekapo and its impossibly turquoise water is one of the most colourful places on the South Island. And at only a few hours from Christchurch Airport, it’s the absolute perfect way to wrap up and wind down from a spectacular trip around New Zealand.
Cruising away from Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park, catching the final glimpses of Mt Cook in your rearview mirror, arrive at brilliantly blue Lake Tekapo to relax by the shore, do some short hikes (like the easy walk up Mt John), and visit the amazing lupin fields. It will be genuinely hard to leave, but I’m sure you’ll be back.
Recommended time: 1-2 days
Highlights: Hike up to Mt John Observatory for sprawling views of Lake Tekapo; frolic through endless fields of lupin and foxglove in every shade of pink and purple; go for a swim in the chilly waters of Lake Tekapo; hire a stand up paddle board from the beachfront; stop off at Peter’s Lookout over nearby Lake Pukaki for amazing views of Mt Cook; star-gaze in one of the best locations on the entire planet, said to have some of the lowest light pollution and one of the most vibrant night skies
Getting there: Drive 1h from Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park to Lake Tekapo. From Lake Tekapo, it’s only 3hrs to the Christchurch Airport. Until next time, New Zealand!
Where to stay: Grab one of the lakeside tent sites for $50/night (per 2 adults) at Lake Tekapo Holiday Park. Enjoy BBQs, kitchen facilities, hot showers, and laundry in a convenient location.