Embarking on the adventure of planning a trip to New Zealand independently? Get ready for a compact country that packs a punch with stunning landscapes, friendly locals, and adrenaline-pumping activities at every turn!
Tucked away at the bottom of the world, New Zealand is a beautiful country worth being on everyone’s bucket list, especially those who love nature, adventure, and the Lord of the Rings.
However, before you start to plan a trip to New Zealand, you must first understand what it has to offer and what would be best for you. From epic adrenaline activities like bungee jumping in Queenstown, or visiting the famous geothermal region of Rotorua, your preference in activities is what will determine whether you visit the North or South Island of New Zealand– or both!
If you’ve been thinking about visiting New Zealand for a while but don’t know where to start when planning your trip, I’m here to help.
I’ve visited New Zealand four times and always find my way back there to explore more hidden gems. In this guide, I’ll give you the low down on the best time to visit, the best places to go, and what to do based on my experience exploring the country.
In a Rush? Here’s Your New Zealand Trip Planning Cheatsheet
Don’t want to pay a travel agent thousands of dollars to plan a trip for you? Fun, independent travel is easy, if you have the right tools and plan ahead. Below are the websites, apps, and resources that I use to plan my trips to New Zealand.
Tip: Bookmark these pages for the future.
9 Steps to Planning a Trip to New Zealand
To make it easier for you, this guide is broken down into nine steps to ensure you have and plan everything you need for your trip.
This guide includes the best time to visit New Zealand, the best places to visit, tips on finding out if you need a visa, and much more! Let’s dive into it!
Step 1: Choose the Best Time to Visit New Zealand
If you need to figure out the best time to visit New Zealand, it all depends on what you want to experience and the activities you want to do.
For example, if you want to spend warm days on the beaches in the North Island, the best time to visit is in summer. Or, if you want to go skiing on the snowy mountains or see the glaciers of the South Island, you might want to visit in Winter or Spring.
Here are the best times to visit New Zealand, depending on what you want to experience:
- Spending your days beach hopping: The North Island of New Zealand is known for being the warmest part of the country, with the far north being dubbed as the “Winterless North”. Some of the best beaches in the country can be found in the North Island, such as Cathedral Cove, Mount Maunganui, and Muriwai. If you’d love to spend your days beach hopping around the North Island, the best time to visit is in summer (December to March).
- Exploring winter wonderlands: If you’ve always dreamed of skiing in New Zealand or exploring Franz Josef Glacier or Fox Glacier, the best time to visit is winter and early spring (June to October). July and August are the peak months for skiing, as the snow is powdery and consistent.
- Hiking in the South Island: The Southern Alps and dense temperate rainforests of the Fiordlands are some of my favorite places to go hiking in the world. While you can hit the trails all year round, the best time is in Autumn (March to May) or Spring (June to October).
- Avoiding crowds and high prices: If you want to head to New Zealand when there are few crowds and low prices, the best time to visit is between the mid-end of April and May. During this time, the weather can be cold (however, considerably warmer than an autumn day in Northern Europe) and unpredictable, but it’s the time when airfares and accommodation prices are at their lowest.
- Exploring Milford Sound: Known as the eighth wonder of the world, Milford Sound is one of the most famous attractions of New Zealand, and many people plan a trip just to see it. Located in the deep south of the South Island, the best time to visit Milford Sound is any time of the year. However, the best chance to see gushing waterfalls is in summer after the snow has melted and the rain is consistent; just remember to bring a rain jacket!
- Seeing the Southern Lights: You’ve heard of the Northern Lights, but did you know you can catch a glimpse of the Southern Lights (Aurora Australis) in the very south of New Zealand? The best time to see the Southern Lights is between March and September when the nights are dark and long. Some of the best places to see the Southern Lights include Lake Tekapo, Aoraki/Mt Cook, and Stewart Island. Make sure you plan to spend a few days there, as the Southern Lights aren’t always guaranteed.
Step 2: Choose Where in New Zealand to Visit
Some of the best regions to visit in New Zealand include:
- Northland/Bay of Islands: Occupying most of the North Island’s northern peninsula, Northland and the Bay of Islands is known as the “Winterless North”, where rain and cold temperatures are rare. In Northland, you’ll come across beautiful beaches, stunning islands, and plenty of opportunities to fish, hike, and cycle. Some of the best places to visit in Northland/Bay of Islands include Paihia, Kerikeri, and Russell.
- Coromandel Peninsula: A couple of hours south of Auckland (New Zealand’s biggest city), the Coromandel Peninsula is another fantastic region in the North Island for beach hopping. Dotted along the peninsula are plenty of beach towns to stay in and explore. Some of the best beaches on the peninsula include Cathedral Cove, New Chums Beach, and Hot Water Beach.
- Tasman: If you’re looking to visit a place that has gorgeous beaches and countless hiking trails, then Tasman is the place to go! Located on the tip of the South Island, the Tasman region is home to Abel Tasman National Park, the smallest national park in the country. However, what it lacks in size, it makes up for with beauty and activities. You can spend countless days exploring Abel Tasman National Park via foot, bike, kayak, or boat.
- Canterbury: If you love lakes, mountains, and hiking, Canterbury is a must-visit while in New Zealand’s South Island. Canterbury is the biggest region in New Zealand and is home to some of the most beautiful landscapes in the country. Some of the best places to visit in Canterbury include Aoraki/Mount Cook, Lake Tekapo, and Arthur’s Pass.
- Glacier Country: Located on the Western Coast of the South Island, Glacier Country is most famous for Franz Josef Glacier and Fox Glacier. If you’d love to do a glacier hike or scenic flight, Glacier Country won’t disappoint. With stunning surrounding towns and landscapes to explore, Glacier Country can’t be missed!
- Fiordland/Southland: If you’re heading to New Zealand to explore Milford Sound and the surrounding areas, Fiordland/Southland is the place to be. Located in the deep south of the South Island, Fiordland and Southland boast stunning fjords, the Southern Alps, and plenty of stunning alpine towns and villages, including Queenstown and Wanaka.
Don’t Know Where to Go? – Consider an Organized Group Trip
Still aren’t sure you want to plan your own trip to New Zealand? If you find it overwhelming to plan trips, especially to places like New Zealand that have so much to do, why not join a group trip? Below are some of the best-rated tours rated by Reddit users.
1. South Island Lick 7 Days
7 days of pure New Zealand magic: from the rebirth of Christchurch and celestial stargazing in Tekapo to crafting your own jade pendant in Franz Josef. All in the comfort of high-end hostels and the guidance of an expert tour manager.
2. Mt Cook & Lake Tekapo 2 Days
Discover Lake Tekapo and Aoraki Mt. Cook in just two days without the fuss of self-driving. Journey from Queenstown through jaw-dropping landscapes, enjoying short walks and sweeping views, all in an intimate group of maximum 16 travelers.
3. Kapiti Island Overnight Tour 2 Days
Immerse yourself in an exclusive overnight adventure on predator-free Kapiti Island. From spotting elusive kiwis under the guidance of local Māori to savoring a chef-cooked meal in your choice of luxury accommodation, it’s a holistic New Zealand experience—ferries and permits sorted!
Travel Independently or on a Group Trip?
Organized group trips are fantastic as they take all of the stress off of you. From accommodation to food and activities, everything is already planned for you! All you need to do is book your flights.
There are many benefits to joining an organized group trip, but the two ones are you make new friends and have an experienced and knowledgeable local guide. If you’re planning a trip to New Zealand by yourself, an organized group trip is a fantastic way to meet like-minded travelers from around the world.
Also, by joining a group trip, you’ll be led by an informative guide who will teach you things about New Zealand that you may not learn on your own.
Step 3: Plan Your Budget, Trip Length, & Itinerary
While New Zealand may be a small country, there is so much to see and do. Therefore, you can’t explore the entire country in one week. Or at least, you won’t have that much fun!
If you’re traveling to New Zealand, the best way to enjoy your time is to focus on one island. For example, it’s best to spend one week to ten days exploring the North Island or South Island.
Here are two general itineraries for exploring the North Island and South Island. I believe that the best way to follow these itineraries is on a road trip. You can pick up a rental car at most of the major airports, or a van at Travellers Autobarn campervan hire Christchurch or Auckland locations.
10-Day North Island Itinerary
- Days 1 & 2: Explore Auckland and Waiheke Island
- Days 3 & 4: Beach hop along the Coromandel
- Day 5: Relax in the Bay of Plenty
- Day 6: Explore the geothermal wonders in Rotorua
- Days 7 & 8: Tongariro National Park
- Days 9 & 10: Wander through the streets of Wellington
10-Day South Island Itinerary
- Days 1 & 2: Abel Tasman National Park and Marlborough
- Day 3: Wander through the glorious Hanmer Springs
- Day 4: Explore the city of Christchurch
- Day 5: Soak up your surroundings in Lake Tekapo
- Day 6: Explore Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park
- Day 7: See the Wanaka Tree in Wanaka
- Day 8: Get your adrenaline fix in Queenstown
- Days 9 & 10: Overnight cruise in Milford Sound
New Zealand can be a very expensive country to visit, which is why it’s a great idea to budget accordingly and book as far in advance as you can to get good deals. Here is what you can expect to spend per day in New Zealand, depending on your traveling style and budget:
- Budget: 65 USD per day
- Mid-range: 130 USD per day
- Luxury: 350-400 USD per day
Step 4: Consider Your New Zealand Visa Requirements
One thing to consider before planning a trip to New Zealand is whether you need a visa. Remember, visa requirements change constantly, so you will need to check the relevant authorities before planning your visit.
As of 2023, when traveling to New Zealand, you’ll either need an NZeTA or a Visitor Visa (if you’re an Australian citizen, you don’t need either).
You’ll need to obtain an NZeTA (New Zealand Electronic Travel Authority) only if you’re traveling on a passport from a visa-waiver country or if you’re an Australian permanent resident (non-citizen). The NZeTA is valid for two years for travelers and costs 23 NZD.
If you are not traveling on a visa-waiver passport or want to visit for more than three months, then you must apply for a visitor visa. A typical visitor visa allows you to stay in New Zealand as a tourist for up to nine months, and the cost is 200-245 NZD.
Step 5: Book Your Flights to New Zealand
Once you have decided that you’re going to take the leap and visit New Zealand, the first step is to book your flight! Unless you’re visiting from Australia or Asia, New Zealand is a long way away. Therefore, you want to ensure your journey there is as quick and comfortable as can be.
Skyscanner is a fantastic tool for booking flights as it compares the best prices, stopovers, and duration for flights to New Zealand. Auckland is the main international airport in New Zealand and has direct flights from Dubai, Doha, Los Angeles, and New York City.
Step 6: Plan & Book Your Accommodation in New Zealand
Once you’ve booked your flights to New Zealand, the next thing to do is book your accommodation. On average, two million tourists visit New Zealand each year, so you can expect there to be a range of accommodations to choose from.
In the big cities, such as Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch, and Queenstown, you are guaranteed budget, mid-range, and luxury accommodation. However, the smaller the cities and towns, the less range of accommodation there will be. Therefore, if you’re planning to visit some smaller towns in New Zealand, it’s best to book your accommodation in advance to get the best deals before they become fully booked.
The best way to find accommodation in New Zealand is on Booking.com, a website that compares all accommodations in the area. You can set filters to just see accommodations that are four stars or accommodations that are solely hotels. Seeing all of the different accommodations in one place makes it easy for you to compare the prices and choose the best one for you.
Below is a useful map that you can use to explore prices across both islands.
Step 7: Book Your Tours & Experiences in New Zealand
From jet boating in Queenstown to flying over Franz Josef Glacier, there are so many things to do in NZ!
If you’re looking at booking some unforgettable experiences such as a Milford Sound tour, the best place to book is GetYourGuide or Viator. These two websites boast a range of experiences and tours where you can compare prices, reviews, and inclusions.
Below is a small list of some of my favorite tours that I’ve done over my several visits. You’ll notice that they are all on the South Island, because (spoiler) that is by far my favorite island to explore. If you’re visiting the north, you’ll find more recommendations on GetYourGuide or Viator.
Love hiking? Don’t Miss:
The Mueller Hut Route in the South Island
Step 8: Organize Your New Zealand Travel Insurance
I never travel without travel insurance. As you can imagine, mishaps can end up quite expensive in a place like NZ. So, when planning a trip to New Zealand, make sure to safeguard yourself from unforeseen travel mishaps like accidents, cancellations, delays, and loss of your personal items.
I’ve used both SafetyWing and HeyMondo on my trips to New Zealand. For shorter trips, HeyMondo offers peace of mind travel insurance at super affordable rates and has an excellent, easy-to-use app to manage claims.
Tip: We Seek Travel readers get 5% OFF
Step 9: Pack Your Bags!
Now that you’ve booked your flights and accommodation, it’s time to pack your bags!
Depending on the time of year you visit New Zealand, you’ll either need to pack for cold, wet weather or warm, sunny weather. However, to make it easier for you, our packing list has everything you need to ensure you don’t forget anything for your unforgettable trip to New Zealand!
More Things to Know About Visiting New Zealand
Are you ready to visit one of my favorite countries on the planet? Here are some useful things that I’ve learned on my visit, that I think every traveler planning a trip should know.
The Weather is Moody
New Zealand’s weather can be a bit unpredictable. Pack layers— a rain jacket, sunblock, and a sweater, just in case.
You’ll want to use MetService as the best resource to plan around the weather. I find the 3-day radar charts very useful when planning multi-day hikes and before booking weather-dependent activities like a glacier helicopter flight.
Drive on the Left
Kiwis drive on the left side of the road. If you’re renting a car or campervan, keep that in mind. Don’t worry, you’ll have big, open roads to practice on!
“Kia Ora” means hello in Maori, which is the indigenous language and of of the three official languages of New Zealand alongside English and New Zealand Sign Language.
New Zealand is the birthplace of bungee jumping! If you’re an adrenaline junkie, you’re in for a treat. AJ Hacket in Queenstown is the place to go.
The Great Walks
There are several “Great Walks” in New Zealand. These are well-managed multi-day hiking trails in some of the most beautiful regions of the country. My favorites are the Routeburn Track and the Kepler Track.
Don’t miss out on trying some classic Kiwi dishes like Hangi (a Maori feast cooked underground) or a classic meat pie.
Make sure to follow the “Leave No Trace” principle and be a responsible traveler.
Predator Free 2050
The NZ Department of Conservation is at war with pesky introduced predators including possums and rats. You’ll likely see traps set up on hiking trails or next to viewpoints, don’t be alarmed.
Campervans & Van Rentals
New Zealand is one of the best places on earth for a road trip. I’ve done two big road trips via convenient campervan hire and loved the availability of free camping sites throughout the islands. for campervan hire New Zealand, check out Travellers Autobarn.
Campervan tip: If you’re planning on extending your trip beyond New Zealand, Travellers Autobarn also offers options for campervan hire Australia, Campervan rental USA, and campervan rental Japan. I’ve personally rented vans with them in New Zealand and in the USA and they offer great bang-for-buck.
Watch out for New Zealand’s notorious sandflies, especially prevalent in regions near water bodies and forests such as the West Coast and Fiordland regions of the South Island.
These tiny terrors are more than just annoying; they’re known for their painful bites. Don’t forget to pack a reliable insect repellent to keep these persistent pests at bay while you enjoy the great outdoors in these areas.
More New Zealand Travel Guides & Inspiration For Your Trip!
From choosing when to visit, where to stay, and what to do, planning a trip to a new country is always exciting! So, I hope you’ve found this article on planning a trip to New Zealand helpful and has got you excited to visit this gorgeous part of the world.
If you are looking for more inspiration on things to do in New Zealand, check out our other guides below.