Assembling an itinerary

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Now that you know why you might want to come here and getting here and around, let’s talk about itineraries.


This can be a tough one to piece together but once you’re there the rest is like icing a cake.

Hopefully you will have assembled your own list of must-see attractions. You can use these to work out the skeleton of your itinerary, then add on whatever takes your fancy along the road.

For many people, touring NZ means hiring a vehicle, but the distances involved are long, and the roads unforgiving. (Driving notes.) Take it easy and enjoy the scenery, that’s the Kiwi way.

The fundamental questions we think you should ask yourself are:

  • How much travelling within NZ do you want to do?
  • If you’re driving, how much slack do you want in your schedule? (You may want to allow flexibility in your schedules for discoveries made while on the road.)
  • What’s more important: the journey, or the destination?
  • What sort of accommodation are you looking for? Hotel, motel, backpackers? Or would you prefer to stay in a tent or drive around in a campervan?
  • Do you prefer to eat out or cook for yourself?

Tour packages exist, where you get bussed around on a fairly tight schedule and rarely spend more than a night or two in the same bed. We have nothing against them, but they don’t suit us.

Accommodation and facilities

The full range of accommodation is available, from camp sites and hostel bunk beds to posh hotels. (Note that full-service hotels can only be found in the main cities and a small number of tourist destinations.)

Most places are fairly priced, meaning that you’re unlikely to find really cheap deals. If you want to pay less, you’ll have to be prepared to lower your standards.

Motels are a traditional Kiwi way of holidaying, and review/booking sites like AA Travel are a great way of both researching in advance and finding what accommodation is available on your chosen dates. We’ve found that it’s not essential to book ahead in many places (peak periods and tourist hotspots excepted). Be aware that motel quality varies from the modern to those that were built 30–50 years ago and have not been refurbished. If this is important to you, we suggest looking closely at the listings and reviews.

If you’re looking for unusual accommodation that’s not quite as spartan as camping, then you might enjoy glamping or a farmstay. These can be found all over the place but they’re generally not listed on the main booking sites, so you’ll have to get googling.

Be prepared for a lack of services when you get outside the main towns and cities. There may be long distances between food and petrol stops, particularly in remote areas. Beware that many settlements shown on the map are mere hamlets with few or no services available.

People with restricted diets will want to plan ahead. We suggest you find out when the local food/general store (often a 4 Square) closes as they set their own hours.

Many Kiwis keep early hours, so eateries in villages and suburbs often close by 8pm – don’t get caught out. 24 hour establishments do exist but are very rare.

Many services, including restaurants, apply a surcharge on public holidays. This is because they have to pay their staff extra.

The overall shape of the trip

Single-airport tour

This is the easiest to plan. Fly to the airport closest to your destination (Queenstown, Auckland, Christchurch, whatever), then tour from there.

Touring both islands

If you plan to see both islands, your options are:

  • Treat it as two separate trips. Fly to A, tour from A; fly to B, tour from B; fly home.
  • Make it a one-way trip. Fly to A, make your way to B, fly home.

One-way tour

If you are hiring a vehicle, be aware that while one-way vehicle rentals can be arranged, they come at a price. It’s relatively expensive to take a vehicle on the inter-island ferry, but the major car rental chains have a neat set-up to keep the cost down: you can arrange to “return” the car at one ferry terminal, take the ferry as foot passengers, then pick up another car on the other side.

There are often deeply discounted one-way rentals available, if you are happy to go in the opposite direction to most tourists. Most one-ways run north to south, so if you’re happy to pick up in Christchurch and return the vehicle to Picton or Auckland, you might be onto something. We haven’t used Transfercar but they seem to be the one-stop shop for brokering one-way rentals. When we looked at that site there weren’t many campervans listed there, so if you want to one-way a campervan you might be better off checking the campervan hire companies’ websites directly.

Another option for one-way trips would be to hybridise your transport: tour from A, return the car, fly/bus/train/ferry to B, tour from there.

South Island

SI is relatively easy to plan because there just aren’t all that many roads here. Geographically, this island is split by the Southern Alps, with only a handful of passes crossing them. (If you’re visiting in the winter, be aware that they can become blocked by snow.) The mountain roads are all magnificent drives in their own right with plenty of vantage points.

Google Maps is mostly your friend in planning road travel, though we have found its duration estimates to be on the optimistic side. As we said in the driving article, your average speed is likely to be closer to 80kph in many/most places.

The West Coast and Fiordland are a really different place, well worth crossing the Alps for. It’s mostly a temperate rainforest with its own flora and fauna; so much so that it’s sometimes said that SI is two islands stuck together. You will need insect repellant there.

Shaping your trip

As soon as you get out of town, pretty much the entire South Island is remote, with fuel and food stops few and far between. Petrol is expensive in the boonies, with a 10% or more loading compared to the city price.

Christchurch is the main airport; you can also fly to Dunedin or Queenstown, with a handful of regional airports in the mix.

Tourist trains run between Christchurch (east coast) and Greymouth (west coast), and Christchurch and Picton (ferry terminal for Wellington). There’s one train daily each way, and fewer in winter. That’s it. There are no other passenger trains. (Update June 2018: The Christchurch-Picton line has been closed for repairs due to the November 2016 earthquake. The tourist train may resume late in 2018.)

If you’re flying into and out of a single airport, we think the most interesting itineraries make a loop.

If you’re flying into Christchurch and out of Queenstown or Dunedin (or vice versa), we suggest a C-shaped route via the West Coast.

If you’re coming over on the Wellington–Picton ferry, you’re presumably going to be flying out of an airport several hours drive to the south. Your immediate question is whether to include the Marlborough Sounds area, and its wineries, at this point in the trip. From there you need to choose whether to head down the West or East coast. (Our take: East is a faster drive, West is more interesting.) (Update June 2018: Since the November 2016 earthquake, the east coast road – State Highway 1 – between Blenheim and Kaikoura has reopened, but is still subject to restrictions overnight and in case of severe weather. Check with the NZTA website for up-to-date information. The diversion route is via Murchison on highways 63, 6, 65 and 7. Yes, it’s a long diversion. No, there is really no alternative route.)

If you want to visit Milford Sound, we recommend the day trip bus+boat packages departing from Te Anau or Queenstown (the latter makes for a 12-13 hour day). It’s a high-crash road, and you will likely prefer to spend lots of time staring at the scenery.

North Island

This one is a bit more of an open book. The population is about twice that of South Island, despite being smaller in area. There are more roads, more traffic, more places to stay, more tourist attractions. There is still a fair amount of wilderness, if that’s your thing, but you have to work a bit harder to find it.

Petrol prices in North Island are more variable due to competition. It may pay to ask around in case there’s a discounter nearby.

Shaping your trip

You will most likely be flying into Auckland. It’s an obvious move to include the Bay of Islands and Far North first or last, if they’re on your list, as you can’t go anywhere from there except back through Auckland.

We recommend you be selective in your travels; a grand tour of the whole island would be quite an undertaking. It’s a long way from north to south.

You might consider a one-way journey, or perhaps a more narrowly-focussed tour of parts of this island. Or even blend these strategies: self-drive around (say) the north part of North Island, then take the train to Wellington. When you’ve seen all that the capital has to offer, hop on to the ferry or plane, and pick up a hire car in Picton or Christchurch to continue your wander.

Cover image: Spaghetti Junction, by Chris Gin, CC-BY-NC-ND-2.0