I went on a road trip in New Zealand with a friend a couple years ago and had an amazing time. We started in Christchurch, spent the first three weeks on the South Island and the last week exploring the North Island. It was my first time in New Zealand and also my first road trip. When we reached our campground near Lake Tekapo on the first evening, I knew: this had to be the most beautiful country on Earth!
And this was only the beginning! The very next day I found myself crying at the foot of the Tasman Glacier Lake (yes, the beauty of Mother Earth gets me all emotional). That is also how it continued the following weeks: driving, hiking, crying, repeat.
I wrote this article for all you gals out there dreaming of a road trip in Middle-earth, providing you with a lot of crucial and helpful information to plan your trip in New Zealand, specifically the South Island.
BEFORE YOU GO
WHEN TO GO TO NEW ZEALAND
Most people recommend traveling to New Zealand in the summer which is December to February. However, since that’s when most people go, camper van prices are going to be at their peak (if there are still some available that is – so book early if you insist on going during high season!). However, if you want to escape the crowds, I recommend going during springtime between September and November. Camper vans are cheaper, the roads are empty and camping sites have plenty of free space. On top of that, it’s waterfall season, nature is in full bloom and your chances of seeing baby wildlife are the highest!
WHAT TO PACK
We traveled the South Island from mid-October until mid-November and came prepared for a mixture of weather. During springtime, temperatures are generally cool to moderate and the nights are cold. We experienced mostly bright and sunny days and some rain in mountainous areas (e.g. Milford Sound, Franz Josef).
Here’s a list of must-have items:
- Light clothes (T-shirts, shorts) as well as warm clothes (jacket, beanie, scarf, a pair of jeans).
- Hiking boots for New Zealand’s many amazing hiking trails.
- Don’t pack a lot of valuables – all your stuff stays in the car while you explore and hike.
- Insect repellent and/or long-sleeved clothes to protect yourself against sandflies.
DRIVING IN NEW ZEALAND
In Europe, we drive on the right side of the road, so I prepared myself for our road trip by reading the most important rules for driving in New Zealand and even took a test to see if I could trust myself with driving. I highly recommend this to anyone who’s still an inexperienced driver and/or not used to driving on the left side of the road (with the steering wheel on the right side of the vehicle). Driving in New Zealand can be pretty demanding and it’s easy to get distracted by the beautiful landscape, so it’s good to have an idea of the kind of challenges you might face.
CREATE AN ITINERARY
In order for you to avoid stress and have a good time, set up a loose frame of what you would like to see and do on your road trip. Let’s say you arrive in Christchurch on 1 October and need to return the van on 30 October. I recommend excluding the first and the last two days, so in this case, there would be 27 days for traveling.
Once you know how much time you have, make a list of the places you would like to visit and set up a route. Be generous with time and make sure to take into account the distances you have to drive! We calculated 2-3 days for every town we were going to visit – this way we were able to enjoy the town and surroundings without feeling rushed and were even able to stay longer in places that we really liked.
ROUTE IDEA FOR 3 WEEKS ON THE SOUTH ISLAND
Although three weeks doesn’t sound like a lot of time to explore all the South Island has to offer, it was enough time to see the most beautiful places without ever feeling stressed. This was our itinerary:
- Starting point: Christchurch, drive to Tekapo, Lake Pukaki and Mount Cook
- Drive to Oamaru, Moeraki and Dunedin
- Exploring Otago Peninsula
- Queenstown and Glenorchy
- Drive to Milford Sound
- Back to Queenstown
- Wanaka, Lake Hawea and Franz Josef
- Hokitika and Ruby Bay
- Abel Tasman National Park
- Marlborough Sound
- Drive to Picton
In each of these places we stayed 1-3 nights, went sightseeing, hiking or did other activities (e.g. Skydiving in Wanaka while staying in Queenstown).
BOOK A VAN
The itinerary is set up and you know your starting and ending point – now it’s time to book a camper van. You can find companies renting cars specially equipped for camping for 1-2 persons and bigger campervans if you need more space. We found a good deal with the camper van hire company Wendekreisen. One of their friendly employees picked us up at Christchurch airport and drove us to their office where we were shown the van and given a lot of useful information (we were camper van newbies!). All vehicles available at Wendekreisen can be taken onto the ferry connecting the South with the North Island and they also have an office in Auckland where the van can be returned (that’s what we did).
Another option is to buy a car and resell it afterwards, although I would only consider doing this if you stay a longer period of time in New Zealand.
ARRIVING IN NEW ZEALAND
- CamperMate – We were using this app all the time – it provides information on where campgrounds, petrol stations and dump stations are located. It also provides discounts on campground offers and delivers information about facilities (e.g. availability of showers, electricity, etc.).
- Rankers – Helps you book campervans, compare reviews and save on activities.
- Google Maps – Download offline maps for the places you are going to in case your phone loses signal.
New Zealand is expensive, so we took every opportunity to save a couple of dollars here and there. In addition to using discounts with the CamperMate app, we got a savings card for the supermarket Countdown and a Mobil fuel savings card. We made great use of the cards as both Countdown and Mobil have stores and stations almost everywhere we went. On top of that, the Countdown Onecard can be used at all BP and Caltex petrol stations.
NEW ZEALAND ROADS
Routes on the South Island are longer compared to those on the North Island. Be sure to take this into account when setting up an itinerary and check for road and weather conditions. In the south of the South Island, it sometimes happens that some roads (e.g. the Milford Road) are affected by, or even closed due to, bad weather. During our stay in New Zealand the important State Highway 1 connecting Picton in the North with Christchurch was closed because it had been badly damaged during an earthquake.
OTHER HELPFUL INFORMATION
- If you go in late spring or summer, book campgrounds in advance using the apps listed above, especially in places like Queenstown and Milford Sound where there are very few campgrounds.
- Some campgrounds are pretty remote – buy groceries and refuel before driving there.
- Drives on the South Island are pretty long – it’s good to have a travel buddy who can take over the wheel from time to time.
- The i-SITE visitor information centres are located all over New Zealand and provide heaps of information!
- Even the smallest towns have free public toilets!
RETURNING THE VAN
I recommend arriving at your final destination one day early. This way you have plenty of time to prepare the van without being rushed. Check the address where it needs to be returned and what else you need to get done beforehand, such as refuelling, changing or refilling the gas tank and emptying the van at a dump station. This is not the situation you’re going for on your last day:
“I don’t get it, we should’ve arrived in Auckland an hour ago!”
THE SOUTH ISLAND – A ROAD TRIP HEAVEN
Road tripping the South Island of New Zealand was hands down one of the most memorable trips of my life. Getting around in a campervan is so easy and the perfect way to explore the country without missing anything. You have the freedom to pull over wherever you please (well, almost…) and to spend the nights in the most beautiful places surrounded by nature. The South Island is a total must for road trip lovers!
We hope that this article has inspired you to take a road trip around the South Island in New Zealand. If you have any questions about the destination or have your own travel tips to share please leave these in the comments below.
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Our Top Places To Stay In New Zealand’s South Island:
- Fiordland Lodge
- High Leys Lodge
- Radfords on the Lake
- Find the best price on hotels in New Zealand
- Sign up to AirBnB with this link and receive a US $35 off your first booking
Read More About New Zealand
- 6 Travel Tips for New Zealand
- A Guide To Roadtripping Around The North Island, New Zealand
- Wellington, New Zealand: The Perfect City Break
- One Day In Queenstown, New Zealand
- Finding Myself In New Zealand
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