How to do a New Zealand North & South Island Roadtrip in 9 days
New Zealand – North and South Island in 9 Days
Thanksgiving was around the corner so we pieced together a last min trip to spend our extra days off in coveted area of New Zealand. Between work obligations, dog sitters, flights, and packing we quickly made it happen by scooping up the last 2 seats on a directly flight into Auckland. It was an intense trip to say the least. We don’t know if/when we would be back so we opted to squeeze everything into one trip or at least as much as we could. So, 8 days and 2,500 miles later (anywhere from 4-8 hours or driving each day), the experiences and sights were well worth it.
With the high cost of excursions and transportation, we wanted to take advantage of ‘freedom camping’ which is allowed in most of the country. Freedom camping is when you stop anywhere in a public area and setup camp for the night or car camp. By cutting down on hotel costs, it allowed us to keep the trip at a reasonable price and still afford to do most of the excursions. We opted for a SUV type vehicle with seats that went flush with the trunk so we could layout the sleeping pads and sleeping bags side by side without much issue. Rodey is about 6’1” and had to lay a little bit on an angle but since Jenni is 5’4” it didn’t really impact her sleeping space. We slept like two peas in a pod. The vehicle we used was a Holden Trax (small SUV / extended sedan so it was less expensive and more fuel efficient yet still big enough for us to sleep in).
With that being said, we had to pack light and effectively — only carry-ons and no checked bags. We each had one carry on with our personal items and we also brought one bag with camping gear and one bag with video/photo gear — no checked bags means no lost bags and more ability to keep our things out of sight when we parked places to go on excursions (as to not tempt thieves). It was a light trip but all the essentials were covered.
Packing List for New Zealand 9 day Road Trip
- Sleeping bags
- Blowup sleeping pad for each
- JetBoil stove (no propane — can’t fly with propane. Stove should be cleaned (no residue) to make it into the country)
- 10 Mountain House freeze dried meals for 2 (all must be closed and sealed to make it through customs)
- 10 Granola / Energy Bars (all must be closed and sealed to make it through customs)
- Reusable Water Bottles
- Drone + Batteries + Charger
- DSLR + DSLR Charger
- Laptops (we each brought one)
- Car AC/DC converter (so we could charge batteries as we drove)
- Car charger for USB devices + USB cords for phones
- Swim suits
- 8 days worth of Socks + 12 days worth underwear
- Minimal toiletries (small soap / shampoo / conditioner / razor, deodorant, toothpaste, toothbrush, contact solution, sunscreen, hair gel, brush/comb, nail clippers)
- Cold weather coat ideally that can be zippered down to something lighter
- Outdoor clothing packed with layering intent (2 pairs of workout pants, 1 pair shorts, 2 tank tops, 2 short sleeve shirts, 1 long sleeve, 2 zip up top, scarf, gloves, hat
- Hiking shoes and flip flops
- 2 person tent and tarp
Score Card: 6.8/10
- Transportation: 5/10 (the weather in the winter can be dicey and public transit isn’t an easy option, but when you come to New Zealand you should be ready to road-trip (unless you’re on a private tour)
- Price: 4/10 (Nothing was cheap and the excursions are expensive, but they’re worth it)
- Safety: 9/10 (we felt safe just about everywhere along the way and didn’t see any signs of crime)
- Food: 6/10 (the options were limited between the major cities but some of the mom and pop shops were delicious, and the major cities had options galore)
- Culture: 5/10 (not many cultural experiences)
- History: 5/10 (we didn’t see many historical sites or historical stops)
- Excitement: 8/10 (there were many outdoor exciting experiences to take part in)
- Awe Inspiring: 9/10 (everything was so beautiful and pristine, the sights were unlike anywhere else)
- Technology Equipped: 3/10 (limited service between cities, make sure to cache a map)
- Female Friendly: 9/10 (It’s a safe and friendly city for women)
- Solo Travel Recommended: 9/10 (everyone is friendly and there are a lot of solo outdoor activities to take part in)
- Language Barrier: 10/10 (if you speak English you’re good to go)
Where to go in New Zealand:
If you click on the four corner icon to the right you can open it up in a new window and click on the icons to read the information for each location (pricing, hours, important details) as well as download it or save it to your My Maps for Google to reference during your trip.
New Zealand Road Trip Drive Times (North & South Island):
Note these are during spring months, snowy/icy months may take longer due to poor road conditions.
SFO to Auckland via airplane (15.5 hours)
Auckland (Fly into, pick up rental car)
Auckland to Waitomo Glowworm Caves (2.5 hours)
Waitomo Glowworm Caves to Wellington (6 hours)
Wellington to Pitcon via Ferry (3 hours)
Picton to Franz Josepf Glacier (8.75 hours)
Franz Josepf Glacier to Fox Glacier (0.5 hours)
Fox Glacier to Queenstown (4.75 hours)
Queenstown to Milford Sound (4.25 hours)
Milford Sound back to Queenstown (4.25 hours)
Queenstown to Christchurch (6 hours)
Christchurch to Hamner Springs (2 hours)
Hanmer Springs to Picton (6.25 hours)
Picton to Wellington via Ferry (3 hours)
Wellington to Wai O Tapu (5.5 hours)
Wai O Tapu to Rotura (0.5 hours)
Rotura to Auckland (3.25 hours)
Auckland to SFO via airplane (15.5 hours)
New Zealand Fun Facts:
- There are 4.5 million people in New Zealand and about 25 million sheep.
- New Zealand is known for its merino wool.
- The Monterey Pine accounts for 89% of the forestry in New Zealand. It was brought there in 1859 from North America and found to thrive in the rich soil and warm climate. The warm, wet conditions in New Zealand trick the tree into thinking it’s spring all year round so it reaches full maturity in 30 years opposed to double that in its native area of North America.
- The only native mammals to New Zealand are the bat and marine mammals. All others that inhabit the area now were brought there by man.
- Deer were brought over then took over much of the area causing the Fjord areas and other natural wonders to quickly get destroyed and erode from their hooves and trampling. This needed to be stopped to preserved the area so they created a deer farm industry. You’ll see tons of deer fenced in the same manner as (or often times with) sheep and cattle as you drive through the countrysides.
- Cache an offline map through Google Maps — cell service is spotty at best and without a cashed map you’ll lose service once you’re a few miles from most major cities. You’ll be able to use it to locate gas stations, food stops and stay on track when you’re driving.
- Bring sand fly spray (available at most major stores in NZ). They’re everywhere (especially on beaches), they bite and the bites not only hurt but have a long lasting itch that lingers for days.
- It rains, a lot. Be aware that if you have an outdoor adventure planned, it may get cancelled if there is bad weather (rain / clouds / snow etc.). If there is something weather contingent you want to do (like helicopter hiking on glaciers) stay in those cities at least 2 days otherwise you may get short changed if they weather isn’t in your favor as you won’t have an opportunity to re-book. In the winter it’s cold and rains even more than in the summer. Be cognizant of the weather for the time of year you plan on going.
- Earthquakes are frequent in the country, often times roads can be closed for months if an earthquake was bad enough. Be sure to leave enough time to drive alternate routes in the event an earthquake hit and you need a different way to get back or get out. Also, be familiar with earthquake protocol in the event you feel the earth move. Several struck while we were there but luckily they weren’t in the same city when we were. It did cause us to take a different alternate route back from Christchurch to Pittcon which set us back 2 extra hours.
- If you’re taking the ferry, if you book in advance you can get a better deal. Search for coupon codes as well as they sometimes yield a deep discount
- Find your favorite chain restaurants for accountable wifi and make them on the driving map so you can stop to do a bit of work if you can’t completely be off the grid
- We had a very tight schedule and there is a lot to do in New Zealand. We highly recommend at minimum doubling the trip duration (16 days) if you want to squeeze it all in as we felt very rushed. In that instance, drive every other day rather than everyday (and spend more time checking out the sights during the drive as we couldn’t stop that often. It would also give you more time for excursions and adventures in each city. A few of the things we wish we did was the Heli Hike in Franz Josepf, Hector Dolphin Swim in Akaroa Harbor, Kelly Tarlton’s penguin or shark experience, the shark dive in Bluff, the wineries in Picton, Bay of Islands, Hot Water Beach and
- Leave plenty of time to drive. The roads are mostly 2 lane, small, and squiggly which means you can’t drive too fast. Also, you will want to stop to take in the sights which will set you back. Even when we drove straight through, Goolge Maps estimated times weren’t accurate — it always took us longer to get there (even when we were driving ‘fast’).
- Cops are out, don’t drive too fast. It’s not worth a ticket. We saw many cops pull people over across the entire country
- There are very few people on the road past dusk to the point it’s a bit eerie. (Just a heads up)
- You don’t need a visa from the US but you do need a round trip purchased ticket otherwise they will not let you on the flight (someone on our flight wasn’t able to go because they didn’t have a return ticket booked)
- We were heavily questioned in customs (set us back 1.5 hours) and ALL of our belongings were hand inspected one by one as well as bio-x-rayed. They have a strict policy about bringing dirt/sand/bugs/food in from other countries so make sure you take this seriously and clean all your gear before you bring it into NZ. We were told because we booked our flight so last minute it caused us to be flagged in their system.
- Many car rental companies will allow you to rent a car in Auckland, return the car in Wellington and pick up another rental in Christchurch, drive around south Island, return it back in Christchurch then pick it up in Wellington and return it in Auckland (if that makes sense) — all under the same reservation. If you don’t think the wineries near Picton or skydiving near Tasman Abel interest you — I would save time and fly from Wellington to Christchurch. This will easily save you a day in each direction and only costs about $100 RT for the island hopper flight if you plan in advance. When taking in account the cost of the ferry with a vehicle and gas it’s more advantageous to fly between islands.
AJ Hackett Nevis Bungee
Description: A 440′ suspended bungee over a gorge with a stream
Location: Departs Queenstown (South Island) and takes you on a 45 min ride to the bungee location
Cost: $193 USD for the Nevis Bungee, $35 for the spectator (you get to go over to the main pod and watch), $31 for the video
Hours: 8am-8pm but it’s best to book in advance and it may be cancelled if weather is bad (but still goes off if it’s raining)
Website / Tickets: http://www.bungy.co.nz/
Notes: Allow 3-4 hours from arrival at their man location to ground transport to the bungee location and back. Also, parking nearby is difficult, feel free to pop into their main office and they’ll give you information on how to access the nearby (paid) parking lot. Ticketing happens on those streets in Queenstown often so do not park illegally or forget to pay the meter.
Waitomo Glowworm Caves Tube It Tour
Description: Glowworms are rare in the world and most abundant in the Waikato area caves, take a trek and see the creatures up close and personal.
Location: Waitomo (North Island)
Cost: $98 per person usd
Website / Tickets: http://www.caveworld.co.nz/tubeit
Notes: We picked this because it seemed more unique and had availability upon walking in. Looking back, it was a great choice — we felt lucky. The Tube it Tour is family owned and operated on their farm land (the cave entrance is on one edge and takes you under the ground and their farm stretches for acres above. They do small group tours (around 10 people), suit you up in thick wet suits, give you a tube and a headlamp. You’ll be taken down into the caves where they provide a guided tour with great information and some adventure including 2 small watersides and water up to your shoulders in parts (if you’re short — just float through it by holding onto your tube). You’ll start off walking in the dry area then wading in the water as it gets deeper then being tugged on your tube through the ins and outs of the cave all while the glowworms glimmer from above.
Milford Sound Nature Cruise
Description: A boat cruise next to all the large waterfalls and a guided tour throughout the sound with a focus on all the animals (penguins, whales, dolphins, etc.)
Location: Milford Sound (South Island)
Cost: $62 per person usd
Website / Tickets: https://www.realjourneys.co.nz/en/experiences/cruises/
Notes: We signed up for this same day. The weather was very rainy and there were waterfalls everywhere but during dry times they only have a few permanent waterfalls cascading over the cliffs. If it was dry out, we would have done a longer experience or something more immersive. We saw lot of different animals in their natural environment and the guides were very knowledgeable.
Riverjet Boat Tour and the Squeeze
Description: The riverjet boats were invented in New Zealand as a way to go through the shallow rivers (and were the precursor for the jetski — similar technology) as they only need 4″ deep water! This tour takes you on the riverjet boat through a historical area of Rotorua then into a secret spot where you need to squeeze through tight cliffs in order to access an area filled with thermal activity and waterfalls to play in.
Location: Rotorua (North Island)
Cost: $69 per person usd
Website / Tickets: http://www.riverjet.co.nz/
Notes: The weather was iffy but took a turn for the better so we booked this tour the same day and were pleasantly surprised. The tour guide had a great sense of humor and the experience was information, fun, and different. They will take photos during the adventure but then make you pay for them in the end if you want them (so be sure to bring a waterproof camera if you want your own). Also, although the boat goes fast and they’ll do spins to showoff it’s technical prowess (it can turn on a dime, literally), things don’t get too knocked around so bring whatever essentials you want (sunglasses, hair clips, water bottles, etc.).
Costs: $3633 for 2 people for an 8 night / 9 day New Zealand trip that covered the North and South Island (all prices in USD)
- $499 RT flight from SFO to AKL x 2 people
- $196 glowworm cave tour for 2
- $439 total spent on automobile gas
- $195 Ferry from North Island to South Island for 2 and car
- $6 propane
- $193 Bungee Jump at AJ Hackett ticket
- $35 Bungee Jump spectator ticket
- $31 Bungee Jump video
- $160 Ferry from Picton to Wellington (South to North Island) for 2 people and 1 car
- $458 car rental for 8 days
- $124 Milford Boat cruise for 2
- $40 Hanmer Hot Springs for 2
- $106 Hotel in Milford Sound for 1 night
- $138 Jetboat + Squeeze Tour for 2 people
- $45 Wai O Tapu Tickets for 2 including Geyser Eruption
- $40 Zorbing for 2
- $100 for GoPro wrist strap
- $329 spent on food and misc. over the coure of the trip (didn’t eat out much)
- 9pm arrive at airport
- 10:45pm depart SFO to AKL
- Sunday (lost a day due to time change and flight time — flight was 15.5 hrs)
- 8:55am arrive in Auckland
- 11:30am finally out of customs
- 12:30 pick up rental car and pack it up,
- 3pm Glowworm cave tour in Waitomo
- 5:30pm hit the road
- 9:30pm picked car camping spot, made dinner and arranged sleeping space
- 5am packed up the car and ate breakfast
- 5:30am hit the road
- 8:30am ferry to South Island out of Wellington
- Noon arrived in Picton
- 12:30 grabbed food for dinner and snacks from a local grocery store and fueled up gas
- 1pm hit the road
- 9:30pm arrived in Franz Josepf, found a spot to sleep and made dinner
- 8am Tried to heli hike at Franz glacier but it was cancelled
- 9am grabbed lunch and gas
- 10am went to Fox Glacier
- noon Ate at the nearby lake with sweeping views of Fox Glacier
- 2pm Tried to heli hike at Fox Glacier, was cancelled
- 4pm Hiked Fox glacier
- 5pm Hit the road
- 10:30pm Stopped just outside Queenstown and setup sleeping arrangements / made dinner
- 6am Packed up the car and drove into Queenstown
- 7am Went to McDonalds cafe for breakfast and free wifi (caught up on work)
- 8:30am Went to AJ Hackette and checked In
- 9:10am Left for the Nevis Bungee
- Noon Arrived back from Nevis Bungee
- 1pm Ate lunch at Winnie’s in Queenstown for pizza and walked around downtown Queenstown
- 3pm blew a fuse in the car (charging too many things at once), searched and found a shop that carried a replacement fuse
- 4:30pm Left for Milford Sound
- 9:30pm arrived in Milford Sound, grabbed the last hotel spot and treated ourselves to a comfy nights sleep and a hot shower
- 8am Woke up, used the internet, checked out, then filled up gas
- 9am Went to the main lodge and signed up for a boat cruise and grabbed breakfast
- 10am Took the Milford Sound Nature Cruise
- 12:30pm Left for Queenstown
- 5:30pm arrived in Queenstown, filled up gas, grabbed dinner
- 6pm Headed for Christchurch
- 10:30pm found a spot to stop, made dinner and went to bed
- 8am woke up, packed up, headed out
- 10:30am arrived in Christchurch, dolphin excursion was cancelled so headed toward Picton (*Had to take the long way, earthquake took out roads near Kaikoura)
- 11:30 Stopped at a nearby beach
- 12:30 grabbed lunch
- 1:30 Hit the road
- 4pm Stopped in Hanmer Springs for hot-spring action and grocery shopping
- 5pm headed toward Picton
- 9pm packed up for the night and made dinner
- 5:30am woke up and finished the drive to Picton, stopped to take photos as there were rainbows everywhere
- 9am checked in for the Ferry
- 9:30am Ferry from Picton to Wellington
- 1pm arrived in Wellington
- 1:30p grabbed lunch just outside of Wellington then headed toward Wau O Tapu
- 4:30pm Stopped in Taihape to fill up gas and check out their gumboot throwing exhibit
- 8pm Made it to Wai o Tapu and checked out the bubbling pits that were outside the park
- 9pm found a spot to sleep, made dinner, setup the car
- 8am woke up and packed up the car, headed into town to fuel up and grab breakfast
- 10:15am Wai O Tapu Lady Knox Geyser eruption
- 11am Riverboat and Squeeze tour in Mihi
- 1:30 back to Wai O Taipu to check out the thermals
- 3pm head toward Rotoura
- 4pm Zorbing
- 5:30pm Drove toward Auckland
- Stopped in Hobbiton for some photos
- 9pm Made it into Auckland
- 9pm Grabbed a sushi dinner & fueled up
- 10pm found a spot to sleep
- 8am left to see some of the Auckland sights
- 9am hiked nearby hills
- 10am Grabbed Lunch
- 11am Filled up Gas
- 11:30am Returned rental
- Noon Went to the Airport
- 2:10p Flight took off from AKL
- 6am PST Arrived in SFO (gained a day due to time change and flight time — flight was 15.5 hours)
- It’s like a magical wonderland with little pockets of just about everything you could want in nature and adventure opportunities. Visiting New Zealand allows you to enjoy so many earthly experiences in one (small) country from skydiving to bungee jumping to shark diving to dolphin swimming in the wild to geysers to zorbing to spelunking to waterfalls to penguins to hot springs to glaciers to wineries to forests to rainbows and more. Words and photos will never do it justice.
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