New Zealand is one of the best countries in the world to road trip by van. It’s small, beautiful, and filled with amazing attractions everywhere you look. From north to south you can drive along windy roads exploring small towns, panoramic viewpoints, and get lost in nature like never before.
I love exploring New Zealand so much I actually moved here! Yep, that’s right I’m not just remembering a trip from the past, in fact, you’ll often find me road tripping around New Zealand in my trusty van I call Bertha!
During all of the road trips I’ve done both as a local and when I rented a campervan on my first holiday here, I’ve learned a lot. From where to go, how long to stay, tips and tricks on getting around, and even where to stay (often completely free!)
The best part is, I’ll share it with you in this blog!
- Buying a Second-hand Van vs Renting vs Scoring a Relocation Deal
- Best Road Trip Destinations in NZ for Nature Lovers
- Best Road Trip Itineraries in New Zealand
- New Zealand Road Trip Tips
Buying a Second-hand Van vs Renting vs Scoring a Relocation Deal
Rent, buy, or relocate? Those are the three options visitors to New Zealand have when choosing how they’ll travel the country. I’ve personally done two of them, rent and buy.
When it comes to deciding, you’ll need to think of three key factors. Your budget, length of stay, and how comfortable you want to be.
If you’re on a really tight budget then buying a van or attempting to score relocation deals around New Zealand is your best bet. Although buying a van has the most upfront cost, when you sell your van you’ll likely get almost all your money back. You can buy campervans through Facebook groups and websites such as Trade Me.
With relocations, well, they’re almost always free, and sometimes they even pay you. You can find lots of relocation deals on a website called Transfer Car. On their website, you can put your start and end location and find relocation rental vehicles. Not all are campervans, in fact, most are cars. Look for the deals with the most extra days over the shortest distance, this is when you’ll get to explore the most.
Length of stay
Length of stay is a huge deciding factor when choosing how to road trip New Zealand. If you’re traveling for a really long time, say 3 months plus, renting a campervan in New Zealand will cost you $10,000 to $20,000 dollars. Seriously, you could buy an awesome van for that price and you’ll have the time to buy and sell it on either side of your trip.
On the other hand, if you’re only coming to New Zeeland for a few weeks then buying a van and selling it will be too much hassle and eats into your precious road tripping time! Even finding relocations will be difficult (you have to work to the company’s strict timeline) and should only be done if your budget simply won’t allow anything else!
Comfort is one of the most important things to consider when planning a road trip around New Zealand. For a young backpacker, roughing it out in a homemade campervan they bought for under $7,000 might be no issue. However, not everyone can handle that for weeks/months. The cost of buying a large, comfortable campervan is huge ($20,000+.)
If being comfortable is important, then renting a campervan or opting for a relocation is your best option. However, if you don’t mind roughing it a little, you can pick up some cheap campervans that come with a bed, kitchen, and portable cooking equipment.
Best Road Trip Destinations in NZ for Nature Lovers
Now that you have your wheels, it’s time to pick some of those must-visit places you want to see. To be honest, there are so many in New Zealand and I’ve been lucky to see most!
Below are 14 awesome destinations in New Zealand if you’re going on a road trip. The first seven are the South Island followed by my seven favorites on the North Island!
Queenstown is one of the most popular tourist destinations in all of New Zealand. For those on a road trip around New Zealand, it’s a great place to either begin or end your journey and there’s plenty of amazing things to do in Queenstown. In your van take a road trip to Glenorchy, camp under the stars at Moke Lake or Twelve Mile Delta, and even explore New Zealand’s highest main highway Crown Range Road!
Only a short drive from Queenstown is the scenic town of Wanaka. As far as beautiful places to visit on the South Island go, Wanaka just about takes the cake. Nearby in the surrounding mountains, you can hike to the famous viewpoint called Roy’s Peak or even take a scenic drive up the West Coast and visit the Blue Pools. Regardless, there’s no shortage of things to do in Wanaka.
3. Mount Cook National Park
By far the most spectacular national park in New Zealand is Mount Cook. From the moment you enter the boundary of the park, you’ll be blown away by the views. Within the park, you can hike the Hooker Valley Track, Mueller Hut Route, watch the sunrise at Tasman River, and more. The best part is, you can camp at Whitehorse Hill Campground for only $15 NZD per person in your campervan or motorhome!
4. Marlborough Sounds
To the very north of the South Island sits the Marlborough Sounds. These river-carved valleys are home to lots of unique and interesting wildlife including dolphins, whales, seals, and lots of rare birds. You can join a cruise of the sounds or just take your campervan and road trip around the coastline, it’s stunning!
5. Franz Josef
You can’t explore the South Island on a road trip without visiting glacier country. Franz Josef town is in the middle of it all and from a holiday park or freedom camping spot you can explore the entire area. Hike the Franz Josef Glacier viewpoint trail, watch the sunrise and Lake Matheson, or relax in the Franz Josef Hot Pools for a much-needed soak. Regardless, you’ll be amazed at the region’s beauty!
6. The Catlins
One of my favorite road trips of all time was through the Catlin’s on the very south of the South Island. On this road trip, you’ll explore hidden waterfalls, view rare wildlife at Curio Bay, visit the Cathedral Caves, and freedom camp at some of the most amazing campsites in NZ (such as the one in Fortrose.)
7. Arthurs Pass
Few road trips in New Zealand are as spectacular as the one over Arthurs Pass. Aside from the breathtaking views in every direction you look, you’ll be able to do things that include hiking Avalanche Peak and the short walk to the Devils Punchbowl – a huge 131-meter-tall waterfall. Be sure to spend a night in a nearby town such as Hokitika or Springfield before setting off, that way you’ll have time to properly explore.
8. Coromandel Peninsula
A place everyone visiting the North Island needs to visit is the Coromandel Peninsula. Home to many famous attractions such as Hot Water Beach and Cathedral Cove, the Coromandel Peninsula is an adventure lover’s paradise. If you have a self-contained campervan you can even camp for free at Waihi Beach parking lot right on the beach. Talk about a place to stay with an epic view!
Northland is a huge region at the very north of the North Island. It’s a local’s playground, and unfortunately for most visitors, it doesn’t make their NZ road trip itinerary. However, for those who do explore this amazing region, you’ll get to enjoy some of the best coastal towns and beaches in New Zealand.
From Whangarei all the way to Ninety Mile Beach you’ll love this road trip. What’s even better is the huge number of freedom camping spots around including my favorite one at Sandy Bay Beach.
10. New Plymouth
The city of New Plymouth isn’t much to look at, however, it’s not New Plymouth you’ve come to see. Instead, head out to one of the many freedom camping spots along the coast and take off to explore Mt Taranaki. This huge volcano is right next to New Plymouth and is home to lots of hiking trails and viewpoints.
You can summit Mt Taranaki and enjoy unmatched views from the top, but I will warn you, it’s hard! For an easier trail hike and spend the night at the Pouakai Hut. Near the hut is the Pouakai Tarn and from there you’ll get that famous reflection shot of the volcano!
11. Auckland and surrounds
The most common place to start a road trip on the North Island is Auckland, so it’s likely you’ll visit at some stage. Don’t worry though, Auckland is a cool city to explore and the surrounding beaches and attractions are some of the best in NZ.
For a beach day drive to the west coast and explore Piha Beach, Bethells Beach, and Muriwai Beach. All are volcanic sand beaches and the greenery and steep landscapes are breathtaking. For something a little different, take a day trip to Matakana Village where you can check out vineyards and more!
In the city itself, take a drive up to Mt Eden crater for an epic view or enjoy a day trip out to one of the nearby islands such as Waiheke.
On a visit to Taupo, you’ll begin to understand New Zealand’s volcanic landscape. Not only is Taupo on the Thermal Explorer Highway, but the most popular part of the highway begins in Taupo and ends nearby in Rotorua.
Along this stretch of road, you’ll enjoy rotten eggs smells (from the sulfur), wander the Crater of the Moon geothermal area, swim at the warm Kerosene Creek, and even freedom camp along Lake Taupo (which is actually a volcano crater!) Also, don’t forget to visit Haka Falls!
Raglan is New Zealand’s hippy surf town that’s become a backpacker haven. When visiting the town, you can expect beach days, warm weather, cute cafes, and plenty of surfing. Of course, for those that don’t surf you can still explore the area and take a trip out the Bridal Veil Falls. On top of that, just enjoy this bustling town and head out for dinner and drinks. You can also freedom camp in Raglan in most areas just outside of the town limits.
Wellington is New Zealand’s capital. Built on steep mountains along the coast, getting around Wellington can be tiring. Although a large city there’s just so much to see and do both in and around the city.
One of the most famous nearby attractions is the Putangirua Pinnacles which were used when filming the Lord of the Rings. Another is Red Rocks where you can spot New Zealand fur seals. Within the city you can take the cable car up to the botanical gardens or even take a hike up Mount Victoria for an epic view of the city.
Wellington is also where the ferry to the South Island leaves from, so it’s a common stop for those on a road trip in New Zealand of both islands!
Best Road Trip Itineraries in New Zealand
Depending on how much time you have, here are the top road trip itineraries for an epic New Zealand road trip:
Road trip itinerary for 1 week in NZ
With one week in New Zealand, you’d be best sticking to just one island. Traveling from the North Island to the South Island involves a lot of driving and wasting a day catching the ferry.
On the North Island I recommend beginning in Auckland and making a loop to the Coromandel, down to Taupo via Rotorua, and then up to Raglan visiting Hobbiton and the Waitomo Caves along the way. This will still be somewhat rushed as one week is not a long time, but you’ll get to see some great highlights!
On the South Island, begin in Queenstown and be sure to take a tour to Milford Sound. Then, start making your way up the West Coast via Wanaka to Franz Josef. From there, continue north and take Arthurs Pass before finishing in Christchurch.
New Zealand road trip route if you have 2 weeks
With two weeks to road trip New Zeeland you could either explore one island really well or get a taste for both.
If you plan on traveling both then a great itinerary is to start in Auckland and drive to the Coromandel. Then head down to Taupo and after to New Plymouth. From there, finally arrive in Wellington to take the ferry to the South Island. This should take a week.
Once you reach the South Island, explore the Marlborough Sounds and choose one of two routes south. The first heads along the West Coast (Franz Josef) all the way to Wanaka, and the other via Kaikoura and Christchurch to Mount Cook and Lake Tekapo and finally to Queenstown. Unfortunately, you won’t have time to do both as you’ll want ample time to explore each town.
If you stick to one island then you’ll be able to explore the one you choose in depth. You could visit every spot mentioned above (on the island you choose) spending two days in each town and enjoying lots of beautiful landscapes!
Best self-drive route for 3 weeks in NZ
In my opinion, 3 weeks is the minimum time you should allow to road trip New Zealand. More time is better but 3 weeks is the sweet spot to see lots and not get sick of living in a van! In three weeks you can tour both islands and visit many of the places I mentioned above.
My ideal 3-week itinerary would involve starting in Queenstown and driving up the West Coast via Wanaka to Franz Josef. From there, head over Arthurs Pass to Christchurch and down to Mount Cook National Park. You’ll then need to back track (there’s no other way to see both the West Coast and Mount Cook) back up north via Kaikoura to Picton where the Marlborough Sounds are.
From there, take the ferry to Wellington and head north to New Plymouth. From New Plymouth, drive to Taupo and then onto the Coromandel Peninsula via Rotorua. After, drive to Raglan making a detour to Hobbiton and Waitomo Caves before finishing in Auckland. You’ll get to see a lot of New Zealand and at a good pace!
Itinerary for one month New Zealand road trip
If you have one month then you’re going to have plenty of time to explore both islands. For this itinerary start by doing a full loop of the South Island visiting every destination I mentioned above. This will take around 16 days but it’ll be one amazing adventure. Remember, wherever you finish you’ll need to backtrack up to Picton to take the ferry, but you can pretty much get anywhere on the South Island in one full day of driving.
Once on the North Island, you’ll be at around day 17 with 11 days to explore. You can pretty much follow the above North Island itinerary section and add on a few days in Northland. That will bring you to the end of your trip – and what a month it will be!
New Zealand Road Trip Tips
In addition to general New Zealand travel tips, these road trip tips will help ensure you have a great time cruising around NZ!
Sort your documents in time – Don’t leave the important stuff until the last-minute and arrange your international driver’s license, health examinations, travel insurance, etc. well before departure. You can start by applying for your eTA New Zealand tourist visa here.
Don’t try to see too much – One mistake a lot of people make is trying to see too much in a short amount of time. Whatever Google maps says for driving time, add a little more time in between destinations as the roads in New Zealand are windy and single lane. For reference, this guide on road trip itineraries gives a great outline of the time it takes to explore.
Visiting in winter – If you plan on visiting in winter allow even more time. Road closures are common due to the weather, so be prepared.
Leave room in your schedule – It’s likely you’ll come across places I myself have not even visited or meet people you want to travel with. So, leave some flexibility in your plans for a more spontaneous trip.
Spending more on your campervan might save you money – The more comfortable you are the more likely you are to take advantage of free or cheap campsites. This will save you lots of money in the long run, so spending a little extra on your van or motorhome isn’t always more expensive.
Read up on the road rules before you go – New Zealand has some funny road rules. For example, they have pull over bays along the highways that are single lane and you’re supposed to let cars pass by using them. They also drive on the left-hand side of the road! Be sure to read up on them before you go!
Download the apps Camper Mate and Rankers – Both of these apps are great road trip companions. They have loads of freedom camping spots on them with reviews from other travelers.
Road tripping around New Zealand is the best way to explore this beautiful country. You’ll have the freedom to go where you want at your own pace and be able to camp in some of the most beautiful locations in the country. Seriously, the free and cheap campsites are the most breathtaking so enjoy!
Bailey is a travel blogger from Canada who moved to New Zealand in 2018. Since then, she has been exploring the country while living in Queenstown. Bailey documents everything she does in her blog, My Queenstown Diary, in hopes to help other travelers explore her new backyard!