Your Ultimate New Zealand Road Trip Itinerary

road to mt cook pixabay

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For many of you, especially if you live in the Northern Hemisphere, New Zealand is as far away as it gets. So, if you make the effort and come all this way, you want to make the most of the time you’ve got here. Right?

We spent 12+ months tiki touring (Kiwi lingo for doing a chilled exploratory road trip) around New Zealand. We have now put together an itinerary for you that crisscrosses the whole country – from the very top of the North Island to the very bottom of the South Island, and from the very East to as far West as you can go.

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If that sounds like something you’d like to do, make sure you set aside at least one month per island (the longer the better, obviously). Even that means you’d be driving about 110 kilometres/68 miles per day, on average. So, either do set aside that amount of time (or reduce your wish list). Quality over quantity!

Don’t have that much time? Don’t fret. Pick the parts of the itinerary that you like the most and (if possible) come back for a few years down the track.

We’ve got you hooked? Awesome. Not convinced yet of the self-drive idea? Check out these important basics for a fun and safe road trip around New Zealand.

New Zealand Essential Travel Apps

Make the most of your time (and budget) while travelling around New Zealand with the help of these essential travel apps for your New Zealand road trip.

Your ultimate road trip itinerary starts in Auckland and finishes in Christchurch (or vice versa). Why? Both cities have airports with international long-distance connections. So, you are likely to enter the country through one or the other.

North Island

Your itinerary for the North Island will take you from Auckland to Wellington (or vice versa). The itinerary is made up of 15 stages, with driving distances ranging from 80 kilometres/50 miles to 350 kilometres/217 miles.

Assuming you collect your vehicle in Auckland, you first head up north for a loop around Northland (stages 1-3). After exploring Auckland and its surroundings on your return (stage 4), you head east, following the blue line on the map. After exploring the Coromandel and Bay of Plenty, the East Cape and Hawkes Bay (stages 5-10), you head back inland (stages 11/12) and west (stages 13/14). You complete your North Island itinerary in Wellington (stage 15), New Zealand’s capital and southernmost city on the North Island.

Recommended Travel Distance and Stay Duration

StageApproximate Driving DistanceSuggested Minimum StayDestination
Start of Journey: Auckland
1250 kilometres / 155 miles2 nightsBay of Islands
2200 kilometres / 124 miles1 nightCape Reinga
3230 kilometres / 143 miles1 nightWaipoua Kauri Forest
4250 kilometres / 155 miles4 nightsAuckland and surrounds
5250 kilometres / 155 miles1 nightCoromandel Peninsula
6200 kilometres / 124 miles2 nightsNorth-East Waikato
780 kilometres / 50 miles3 nightsRotorua
8310 kilometres / 193 miles2 nightsEast Cape
9280 kiloemetres / 174 miles1 nightMahia Peninsula
10180 kilometres / 112 miles2 nightsHawkes Bay
11160 kilometres / 99 miles2 nightsTaupo
12200 kilometres / 124 miles3 nightsTongariro National Park
13150 kilometres / 93 miles1 nightWaitomo
14160 kilometres / 99 miles2 nightsNew Plymouth and Egmont National Park
15350 kilometres / 217 miles3 nightsWellington and surrounds
End of Journey: Wellington (Continue to South Island by Ferry)
Total3,250 kilometres / 2,017 miles30 nights

Ferry Crossing Options

Both islands are connected by regular ferry services, which are provided by these two companies:

Each has slightly different fares and departs from different ferry terminals in Wellington. So, do pay attention to which one you booked. Both offer discounts (to students, families and seniors, and to members of automobile and motor caravan associations). Especially during the summer months, you may need to book your crossing (a few days) in advance.

island crossing ricardo helass pixabay

Ferry crossing between the South Island and the North Island, New Zealand | Photo by Ricardo Helass on Pixabay

While our crossing was super smooth, the Cook Strait can get very rough. So, if you easily get seasick check the weather forecast before you book and take tablets against motion sickness.

South Island

Your ultimate South Island itinerary is made up of 15 stages that loop around the South Island in an anti-clockwise direction, following the blue line on the map. Driving distances range from 30 kilometres/19 miles to 350 kilometres/217 miles.

The itinerary assumes you take the ferry across from the North Island. If you want to focus on the South Island only, it’s best to start and finish in Christchurch.

If you choose the latter, collect your vehicle in Christchurch and head north to Kaikoura (stage 15). From Kaikoura continue north to Blenheim (stage 1). Travelling from Christchurch to Kaikoura and on to Blenheim would add 100 kilometres/61 miles to stage 1 but reduce your overall travel distance on the South Island to 3,150 kilometers/1,957 miles.

Recommended Travel Distance and Stay Duration

StageApproximate Driving DistanceSuggested Minimum StayDestination - Click on links for more information
Start of Journey: Picton (Alternative: Christchurch via Kaikoura)
130 kilometres / 19 miles from Picton; 130 kilometres / 80 miles from Kaikoura1 nightBlenheim and the Marlborough wineries
2180 kilometres / 112 miles2 nightsAbel Tasman National Park
3100 kilometres / 62 miles2 nightsGolden Bay and Kahurangi National Park
4200 kilometres / 124 miles2 nightsNelson Lakes National Park
5280 kilometres / 174 miles1 nightWest Coast
6130 kilometres / 81 miles1 nightFranz Josef and Fox Glaciers
7350 kilometres / 217 miles4 nightsQueenstown Lakes District
8290 kilometres / 180 miles2 nightsFiordland
9330 kilometres / 205 miles3 nightsStewart Island
10180 kilometres / 112 miles1 nightCatlins
11110 kilometres / 168 miles3 nightsDunedin and surrounds
12320 kilometres / 199 miles2 nightsMackenzie Region: Lake Pukaki and Aoraki / Mt Cook
13110 kilometres / 68 miles2 nightsMackenzie Region: Lake Tekapo
14260 kilometres / 162miles3 nightsChristchurch and surrounds
15180 kilometres / 112 miles1 nightKaikoura
180 kilometres / 112 milesEnd of Journey: Christchurch
Total3,230 kilometres / 2,007 miles30 nights

Above ultimate itinerary does cover a big chunk of Aotearoa, but it can’t cover every single nook and cranny, of course. So if you have been here, and we didn’t mention your favourite sunrise/sunset spot, that epic hike or amazing surf break please share it in the comments below (or keep your secret :-).

Have you done an epic road trip around New Zealand?

Have you travelled around New Zealand? What other great places can you recommend? Send us your recommendations.

Author: <a href="" target="_blank">Sandra Rosenau</a>

Author: Sandra Rosenau

Sandra Rosenau is a Gen X gal from Germany, born and raised behind the Iron Curtain, with an unquenchable thirst to learn. Self-starter. Multi-lingual. Minimalist. Environmentally conscious. Financially and location independent. Energised by connecting with others and helping people succeed.