Dreaming of a New Zealand road trip? Here is the ultimate South Island New Zealand itinerary by Kiwi travel blogger, Delilah Hart.
New Zealand is a name synonymous with adventure, mountains and the great outdoors. And the best way to enjoy its pristine nature is on a road trip. Thanks to its relative small size and great infrastructure, New Zealand is one of the best road trip destinations in the world.
The country is made of two main islands: the North Island and South Island. Both islands are unique in their own way, but South Island New Zealand definitely has more impressive sights and diverse landscapes that range from snow-peaked mountains to pristine beaches.
Having grown up in New Zealand, I’ve traveled all over the country and I’m incredibly proud to call this home. For first-time visitors to South Island New Zealand, I have put together the perfect 2-week South Island New Zealand itinerary and to help you see the country at its best.
Table of Contents
- South Island New Zealand Itinerary
- How to Get to South Island New Zealand
- How to Get around South Island New Zealand
- By Campervan
- By Car
- By Day Trips
- Best Time to Do a New Zealand Road Trip
- How Much Time for a South Island New Zealand Road Trip?
- Summary of this South Island New Zealand Itinerary
- New Zealand Itinerary Days 1-3: Explore Queenstown
- Where to Stay in Queenstown
- New Zealand Itinerary Day 4: Milford Sound Day Trip
- New Zealand Itinerary Day 5: Glenorchy Day Trip
- New Zealand Itinerary Day 6: Enjoy Scenic Wanaka
- Where to Stay in Wanaka
- New Zealand Itinerary Day 7-8: Heli-Hiking on Fox/Franz Josef Glaciers
- Where to Stay in Fox/Franz Josef Glaciers
- Itinerary Days 9-10: Explore Aoraki/Mount Cook
- Where to Stay in Aoraki Mount Cook
- Itinerary Day 11: Hike to Arthur’s Pass
- Where to Stay in Hokitika
- Itinerary Days 12-13: Kayak in Abel Tasman National Park
- Where to Stay near Abel Tasman National Park
- Budget: Marahau Beach Camp
- Midrange: The Honest Lawyer, Ascend Hotel Collection
- Luxury: Awaroa Lodge
- Itinerary Day 14: Head Home!
- How Much Does this South Island Road Trip Cost?
- Enjoy Your South Island New Zealand Road Trip!
- About the Author: Delilah Hart
South Island New Zealand Itinerary
How to Get to South Island New Zealand
Auckland Airport is the largest and busiest airport in New Zealand. Auckland is on the North Island, but you can easily rent a car and drive over to South Island. The Interisland ferry sails from Wellington to Picton and takes 3 to 3.5 hours. Check the website for timetable and fares.
This South Island New Zealand itinerary starts and ends in Queenstown, where you’ll find the biggest airport on the island. Domestic flights in New Zealand are affordable and they save a lot of travel time. A return flight from Auckland to Queenstown takes 2 hours and costs $150-200 return.
How to Get around South Island New Zealand
Hiring a campervan is the most budget-friendly way to see the country. I recommend hiring a campervan in New Zealand with reputable companies such as Compare and Choose. You’ll get the best deal, with prices starting from $75/day. That covers all your accommodation, transport and equipment (like picnic table/chairs).
Traveling by campervan gives you freedom and flexibility as you can go where the wind takes you. Plus, you’ll be able to reach places you otherwise wouldn’t get to on public transport. Imagine parking next to a glacial lake! Besides, New Zealand has many free or low-cost campsites.
Another way to do a South Island road trip is to hire a car in Auckland or Queenstown. The country is largely covered by nature and public transport in New Zealand is far from great. Car hire isn’t too pricey in New Zealand. Depending on the size and make of the car, car rental may be as low as $30 per day.
By Day Trips
For those who don’t drive, day trips are a good alternative. I always book my day trips on GetYourGuide as they have free cancellation and great customer support. The best place to base yourself on South Island is Queenstown. It is just a 1-hour drive from Wanaka and Glenorchy, 2 hours to Te Anau, and 3 hours to Aoraki/Mount Cook. Here are our recommended day trips:
- Milford Sound Nature Cruise
- Mount Cook Small Group Adventure Tour
- Shotover River Jetboat Ride
- Lord of the Rings Tour to Glenorchy
- Shotover Canyon Rope Swing
Best Time to Do a New Zealand Road Trip
New Zealand’s South Island gets quite cold during the winter months. Daytime temperatures in July, the coldest month, are around 8-12 degrees Celsius, and nighttime temperatures can drop below zero. For avid skiers, head to New Zealand from July to August.
The best time to do a South Island New Zealand road trip would be in the shoulder months, from February to April or September to November. This eliminates the peak season of December and January, where Kiwis set out on their own road trips during the school holidays but also avoids the cold, winter months.
How Much Time for a South Island New Zealand Road Trip?
In general, you’ll need around 2 weeks to do a South Island road trip if you want to see and experience it properly.
For a shorter trip, follow our Queenstown itinerary. You’ll still be able to experience Queenstown, Wanaka, Glenorchy, Milford Sound. These are amongst the best sights in the country and it will give you the opportunity for some of the best things to do in South Island New Zealand.
If you’re wondering if you should spend time on the North Island, it depends on how much time you have the entire trip. If you only have 2 weeks in New Zealand, it’ll be hard to pack in both islands. I recommend focusing only on South Island New Zealand.
Summary of this South Island New Zealand Itinerary
- Days 1-3: Queenstown
- Day 4: Day trip to Milford Sound
- Day 5: Day trip to Glenorchy
- Day 6: Wanaka
- Days 7-8: Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers
- Days 9-10: Aoraki/Mount Cook
- Day 11: Arthur’s Pass
- Days 12-13: Abel Tasman National Park
- Day 14: Fly home!
New Zealand Itinerary Days 1-3: Explore Queenstown
Queenstown is my favorite place in New Zealand. The adventure hub draws in outdoor lovers and sports enthusiasts from around the world and it’s just a hop away from many major sights.
Take the gondola up to the top of Bob’s Peak, then take the luge ride down. The luge isn’t just for kids! The view is spectacular and it’s a fun and exciting way to take it all in. Hike Queenstown Hill, visit the Kiwi Birdlife Conservation Park, eat Fergburger (one of the best places to eat in Queenstown) and take a relaxing dip in the Onsen Hot Pools.
Queenstown is the birthplace of the commercial bungee jump and there are no less than five bungee jumping sites around the city. I went on the Shotover Canyon Swing, the world’s highest cliff jump, and it was seriously the craziest thing I’ve done! Read about my experience. The Shotover River is also home to some of the best rafting in New Zealand, and I recommend signing up for a white water rafting trip here if you haven’t tried rafting before!
Where to Stay in Queenstown
Queenstown is a very walkable city: staying in the heart of Queenstown will allow you to walk to most attractions. For somewhere a bit more secluded, Lake Hayes is a great pick as it’s 1o minutes away from Queenstown, but a lot more quiet and relaxing.
Budget: JUCY Snooze Queenstown
The newly opened Jucy Snooze Queenstown is located in the heart of Queenstown. The funky budget hotel has unique pod rooms, a rooftop bar and cafe with stunning views of Lake Wakatipu. Check rates here.
Midrange: Heartland Hotel Queenstown
The Heartland Hotel Queenstown is within a 5-minute walk of Lake Wakatipu. The hotel features traditional alpine architecture and most rooms have spectacular views. Check rates here.
As one of the best hotels in Queentown, Hotel St Moritz is located in the heart of Queenstown, with views overlooking Lake Wakatipu and The Remarkables mountain range. Each room and suite is elegantly designed and features modern essentials. Check rates here.
New Zealand Itinerary Day 4: Milford Sound Day Trip
Next on this South Island New Zealand itinerary is a day trip to Milford Sound, one of the most famous sights of New Zealand. The roads are quite windy and slippery in wet conditions and it’s a 3-hour drive, so I would recommend taking a full-day tour if you’re not a confident driver. These tours include transport from Queenstown, as well as a cruise through the sound.
Milford Sound is a spectacular fjord flanked by cascading falls and lush rainforests. It is most well known for the towering Mitre Peak, and waterfalls like Stirling and Bowen falls. If you’re not going on a cruise, you can also rent a kayak to see it from the water. You might just spot fur seals and penguins!
If you have some time, visit Milford Discovery Centre and Underwater Observatory for a glimpse of rare black coral and other marine life in these centres.
New Zealand Itinerary Day 5: Glenorchy Day Trip
Travel New Zealand’s most scenic highway from Queenstown to Glenorchy (1-hour drive) and head deep into Middle‑Earth. Visit the landscape that inspired Peter Jackson’s film locations for The Lord of the Rings trilogy.
On the way to Glenorchy, stop at Bennett’s Bluff lookout point. It’s hard to miss: you’ll see many parked cars at the side of the road. Glenorchy may be just a small town, but there are many things to do in Glenorchy. Movie fans should definitely sign up for the Lord of the Rings tour around Glenorchy. Otherwise, do your own tour around Paradise, which was used for scenes involving Isengard and Lothlorien.
Then visit the Glenorchy Wharf, which is part of the Glenorchy Lagoon Boardwalk. I would recommend visiting at sunrise to see the stunning light (and it gets busy later in the day). My favorite thing to do in Glenorchy is the Lake Sylvan Hike. It’s a short and flat hike so it’s great for all ages, and the viewpoint in the middle of the walk is stunning.
New Zealand Itinerary Day 6: Enjoy Scenic Wanaka
Again just an hour’s drive from Queenstown is Wanaka, an up-and-coming adventure hub. What draws people to Wanaka is the hike up Roy’s Peak. The view is spectacular and the hike is challenging but interesting, with surprises at every corner. It usually takes 5-6 hours to hike up and down.
Don’t miss a walk along Lake Wanaka. The Wanaka Tree, a lonesome withering tree in the middle of the lake, has become somewhat of a popular photo spot. You’ll most probably recognise it from photos on Instagram.
Where to Stay in Wanaka
We recommend staying in Wanaka for the night, as it’s a 3-hour drive to your next destination. There are several beautiful hotels on the banks of Lake Wanaka for some beautiful scenery. Another great area to stay is just further up from the town, nearer to Rippon Winery for the best views of Wanaka.
Budget: Hawea Hotel
Just a 15-min drive from Wanaka is this guesthouse that is set on the lake front of Lake Hawea. All guest rooms feature beautiful lake and mountain views. Prices are lower here than YHA Wanaka. Check rates here.
Midrange: Wanaka Hotel
Located in the center of Wanaka, Wanaka Hotel is a 1-minute walk from the lake and town center. Most accommodations offers views over the lake and mountains. Check rates here.
Luxury: Wanaka Haven
A hot favorite among couples, Wanaka Haven is a luxurious property within a 5-minute drive from Wanaka Lakeshore and the town center. It has an outdoor pool and hot spring (pictured). Check rates here.
New Zealand Itinerary Day 7-8: Heli-Hiking on Fox/Franz Josef Glaciers
The next stop on this South Island New Zealand itinerary is the highlight for many! Heli-hiking on the Fox Glacier and Franz Josef Glaciers is one of the most exciting adventure activities in New Zealand. If you’re an adrenaline junkie, you can’t miss them.
You will need to book a tour to go on the glaciers. I did this heli-hiking tour (read about my experience here) and even thou it was expensive, it was well worth it! You’ll first fly over the glaciers and admire the sheer scale of them. Then you’ll land on the snow and start your hike. These guided tours provide you with crampons, but you’ll need to come in the right winter gear.
Where to Stay in Fox/Franz Josef Glaciers
Both Fox and Franz Josef villages have great places to stay in the mountains. Backpacker hostels here have high standards and many come with hot tubs and lively bars.
Budget: Ivorytowers Backpacker Lodge
A great option for budget travelers, Ivorytowers is a clean and fun lodge complete with an outdoor terrace and hot tub. It’s just a 4-minute walk from Fox Glacier Village. Check rates here.
Midrange: Scenic Hotel Franz Josef Glacier
Akin to a modern upscale ski lodge, this stylish hotel (pictured) has gorgeous rooms with alpine design. It’s located in Franz Josef village, on the edge of Westland World Heritage Park. Check rates here.
Luxury: Franz Josef Treetops
Located in the heart of Franz Josef, this 3-bedroom home is perfect for families especially with young kids. The house is surrounded by native plants and is within walking distance from restaurants and grocery stores. Check rates here.
Itinerary Days 9-10: Explore Aoraki/Mount Cook
Prepare for a long day as you’ll be continuing your South Island road trip with a 6-hour drive to Aoraki/ Mount Cook. Break up the long drive with a lunch stop in Haast, a small town in the heart of Te Wāhipounamu World Heritage Area.
Have an early night and rise early the next morning to visit Aoraki/Mount Cook, New Zealand’s tallest mountain at 12,217 ft (3,724m). It lies in the Southern Alps, the mountain range which runs the length of the South Island. Here you’ll see the quintessential New Zealand landscapes that most of us dream of.
The most popular walking trail within the national park is Hooker Valley Track. The endangered kea, one of the most intelligent birds, can sometimes be heard along the track. At only 3 miles (5 km) length, the well formed track is perfect for all ages and fitness level — it’s a flat walk that takes most people 3 hours to go and return. Bring a picnic with you and spend the day there.
Where to Stay in Aoraki Mount Cook
There is a small selection of places to stay in Mount Cook village. Although prices are high here, most lodges have spectacular views of the mountains.
Budget: YHA Mount Cook
The cheapest option in town is YHA, which has an old-school ski lodge feel. There is a lounge area with a fireplace where guests can enjoy TV programs/movies. Check prices here.
Midrange: Aoraki Mount Cook Alpine Lodge
Located in Mount Cook National Park and offering beautiful mountain views, Aoraki Alpine Lodge is a comfortable lodge with lovely views and a communal dining area. Check rates here.
Luxury: The Hermitage Hotel Mt Cook
Set in Mount Cook National Park, The Hermitage Hotel is the best hotel in the area (pictured). Almost every room opens up to majestic mountain views. Kick back and enjoy a cocktail by the log fire in their lounge or restaurant. Check rates here.
Itinerary Day 11: Hike to Arthur’s Pass
Next on this New Zealand road trip is a 5-hour drive to Arthur’s Pass, the highest and most spectacular pass across the Southern Alps. On the way to Arthur’s Pass, stop by Lake Tekapo. The lake contains the bluest water I have ever seen. Spend a couple of hours here walking by the lake and the lavender fields.
Climbing to more than 3000 ft (900m), Arthur’s Pass is one of the most scenic routes in the country. Feast on views of steep gorges, snow-capped peaks, yellow tussock. Once you reach Arthur’s Pass village, I recommend hiking the Arthur’s Pass Walking Track. The 4.2 mile (6.8km) trail is an easy hike that takes around 3 hours return.
Located on the coast, Hokitika Gorge is less than two hours away from Arthur’s Pass. Stop by to view the gorge and then stay the night at in Hokitika village, juut 30 minutes from the gorge.
Where to Stay in Hokitika
Suitable for families with young kids, this holiday park has a big playground and lots of family-friendly amenities. Check rates here.
Midrange: Hokitika Beachfront Hotel
Located right on the beach, this new, modern hotel is just a few steps from the ocean. Many rooms have a private balcony or courtyard with ocean views (pictured). Check rates here.
Luxury: Rimu Lodge
Overlooking the Hokitika River and the surrounding mountains, Rimu Lodge is a cosy family-run lodge with excellent views and welcoming owners. It’s a 10-minute drive from Hokitika town center. Check rates here.
Itinerary Days 12-13: Kayak in Abel Tasman National Park
End your New Zealand road trip with a bang, at one of the most famous national parks in the country! The park is renowned for its white sand beaches, turquoise water and sculptured granite cliffs.
The best way to explore the park is by kayak or boat. Abel Tasman Kayaks offers everything from guided tours to “freedom” rentals, where kayakers can explore the park on their own. The headland at Separation Point is home to New Zealand fur seal colonies. Little blue penguins, bottlenose dolphins and seals inhabit the Tonga Island Marine Reserve.
Marahau Water Taxis and Abel Tasman Aqua Taxi both offer options for day and overnight trips, including scenic boat tours. They also offer transit to Awaroa Lodge, the only lodge accommodation in the park.
Where to Stay near Abel Tasman National Park
The closest villages to stay in are Marahau and Kaiteriteri. The nearby towns of Nelson and Picton are also great places to stay when visiting Abel Tasman National Park. Both are picturesque and quaint.
Budget: Marahau Beach Camp
The most affordable accommodation is at Marahau Beach Camp, a kid-friendly holiday park with chalets and communal facilities. It’s also a short walk to the beach. Check rates here.
Located in Nelson, this charming hotel has a distinctive Old English look and feel. Featuring wooden ceiling beams and authentic wooden fireplace, this place is full of character. Check rates here.
Luxury: Awaroa Lodge
Set within Abel Tasman National Park and accessible only by water taxi or helicopter, Awaroa Lodge is an exclusive yet rustic lodge surrounded by pristine, lush nature (pictured). It is a 1.5 hour journey by boat from Marahau and Kaiteriteri. Check rates here.
Itinerary Day 14: Head Home!
Sadly your South Island New Zealand road trip has come to an end. From Nelson, catch the Interisland ferry over to Wellington on the North Island, or drive back to Queenstown if you need to return your car rental there (it’s a 10-hour drive).
Alternatively, I recommend dropping your car rental in Nelson and flying back to Auckland. Direct flights from Nelson to Auckland take around 1.5 hours and cost just US$100-150 round-trip. Be sure to book an early flight with enough time to catch your flight home.
How Much Does this South Island Road Trip Cost?
Unfortunately New Zealand is one of the more expensive countries to travel to, especially when it comes to accommodation and food. For this South Island New Zealand itinerary, expect to spend around $3000 (total for transport, accommodation, food and activities).
Car rental costs around US$40-70 per day, depending on the car type. Currently, gas prices are at approximately US$1.40 per litre. Accommodation prices are around ranges from $70 for a 3-star hotel to over $200/night for a luxury suite.
As mentioned, renting a campervan will help you cut cost. We hired a campervan for the entire trip and spent around $2000 on our 2-week New Zealand road trip. We saved money by cooking in the van and sleeping at free campsites (they call it freedom camping!), so the campervan rental was our main expenditure.
Enjoy Your South Island New Zealand Road Trip!
And that’s a wrap! I hope our South Island New Zealand itinerary will help you plan your own adventure. Feel free to bookmark it or print it out and bring this itinerary with you on your road trip.
In our opinion, this is the best New Zealand road trip you can do. It’s perfect for outdoor lovers and nature buffs looking for a mix of adventure and fun, while getting to know New Zealand beneath the surface.
Have a blast in South Island New Zealand! Be sure to leave a comment below if you have any questions. We’ll be happy to help in any way we can!
About the Author: Delilah Hart
Delilah Hart is a traveller, photographer, and writer from New Zealand. She has combined her three passions to create a travel blog, Our Travel Mix, which aims to help people travel the world better.
You’ll find her going for long walks, taking photos of the landscape and eating food from all over the globe, especially in Southeast Asia. Her favorite places in the world are Hoi An in Vietnam, Queenstown in New Zealand, and Luang Prabang in Laos.
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