Road to Mt Cook, New Zealand | Photo courtesy of Pixabay

Your Ultimate New Zealand Road Trip Itinerary

Sandra RosenauFirst Published: Last Updated: New Zealand Leave a Comment

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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.

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 kilometers/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 more 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.

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 kilometers/50 miles to 350 kilometers/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 surrounds 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 - Click on links for more information
Start of Journey: Auckland
1250km/155mi2 nightsBay of Islands
2200km/124mi1 nightCape Reinga
3230km/143mi1 nightWaipoua Kauri Forest
4250km/155mi4 nightsAuckland and surrounds
5250km/155mi1 nightCoromandel Peninsula
6200km/124mi2 nightsNorth-East Waikato
780km/50mi3 nightsRotorua
8310km/193mi2 nightsEast Cape
9280km/174mi1 nightMahia Peninsula
10180km/112mi2 nightsHawkes Bay
11160km/99mi2 nightsTaupo
12200km/124mi3 nightsTongariro National Park
13150km/93mi1 nightWaitomo
14160km/99mi2 nightsNew Plymouth and Egmont National Park
15350km/217mi3 nightsWellington and surrounds
End of Journey: Wellington (Continue to South Island by Ferry)
Total3,250km/2,017mi30 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 depart from different ferry terminals in Wellington. So, do pay attention to which one you booked. Both offer discounts (to backpackers, 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.

Ferry crossing between the South Island and the North Island, New Zealand | Photo by Ricardo Helass on 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 kilometers/19 miles to 350 kilometers/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 kilometers/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)
130km/19mi from Picton; 130km/80mi from Kaikoura1 nightBlenheim and the Marlborough wineries
2180km/112mi2 nightsAbel Tasman National Park
3100km/62mi2 nightsGolden Bay and Kahurangi National Park
4200km/124mi2 nightsNelson Lakes National Park
5280km/174mi1 nightWest Coast
6130km/81mi1 nightFranz Josef and Fox Glaciers
7350km/217mi4 nightsQueenstown Lakes District
8290km/180mi2 nightsFiordland
9330km/205mi3 nightsStewart Island
10180km/112mi1 nightCatlins
11110km/68mi3 nightsDunedin and surrounds
12320km/199mi2 nightsMackenzie Region: Lake Pukaki and Aoraki / Mt Cook
13110km/68mi2 nightsMackenzie Region: Lake Tekapo
14260km/162mi3 nightsChristchurch and surrounds
15180km/112mi1 nightKaikoura
180km/112miEnd of Journey: Christchurch
Total3,230km/2,007mi30 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 :-).

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Fodor's Essential New Zealand (Full-color Travel Guide)
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Lonely Planet New Zealand (Country Guide)
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The Rough Guide to New Zealand (Travel Guide)
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Have you done an epic road trip around New Zealand? What other great places can you recommend? Please leave a comment below.

Feature photo by Pixabay

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Ultimate New Zealand Road Trip Itinerary
Ultimate New Zealand Road Trip Itinerary
Ultimate New Zealand Road Trip Itinerary

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