Best of the South Island: 10-day New Zealand road trip itinerary
One of the most spectacularly beautiful countries in the entire world, New Zealand is also perfectly set up for road trips, with well-maintained highways out to national parks, huge networks of campsites, and an insane concentration of natural sites all on a relatively small pair of islands. Several years wouldn’t be enough time to do NZ justice, but with just 10 days, you can still see some of the South Island’s most impressive highlights.
From the insane alpine views of Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park to the heart-pumping feeling of bungy jumping in Queenstown to the majesty of glacier-carved Milford Sound, this itinerary will jam-pack every minute of your schedule— and leave you dying to come back for more. Use this guide to help plan the ultimate 10-day South Island road trip around New Zealand, including heaps of helpful tips on car and campervan hire, campsites, budgeting, and more.
Got extra time & want to discover more? Check out my 3-4 week New Zealand road trip itinerary: THE ULTIMATE SOUTH ISLAND NZ ROAD TRIP: 3-4 WEEK NEW ZEALAND TRAVEL ITINERARY
Road trip logistics
Best time to visit
New Zealand is a wonderful year-round destination, with winter drawing snow bunnies to the slopes of popular ski resorts and summer bringing hordes of hikers, but for road tripping, late September to early April is probably the best time.
The shoulder seasons (spring and autumn) will be less crowded, much cheaper in terms of car hire, and can have some really beautiful colours as wildflowers or fall foliage bloom, but summer does still have the appeal of longer days, warmer temperatures, and better weather.
It should be said that New Zealand’s South Island is really cold. Even in summer, it’s not unusual for night temperatures in the mountains to dip down to 5C and I’ve even woken up to snow in the middle of January (twice)! The days can fluctuate wildly, with sunny afternoons in town approaching the high 20s and yet windy mountaintops still enough to make you wear 3 jackets and a scarf. It just means you’ll need to pack for all seasons, even if you are visiting in peak summer (December to February).
Getting to New Zealand
The best way to get to New Zealand for this itinerary, and indeed just about any visit to the South Island, is to fly into Christchurch Airport. This is the largest international airport on the island and flights tend to be cheaper here than Queenstown Airport (which only operates international flights from Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane, and Gold Coast anyway). You’ll also have a greater selection of hire car and campervan choices, since Christchurch is a larger city.
If you’re coming down from the North Island, there’s also the option to take the InterIslander ferry from Wellington to Picton. The journey takes 3.5hrs and costs about $60NZD per adult, $250NZD for 2 adults in a car, or $300NZD for 2 adults in a campervan. It’s actually a really beautiful trip across the Cook Straight, so I’d recommend a day sailing to experience all the awesome scenery!
Getting around New Zealand
The classic way to explore New Zealand is in a campervan, but unfortunately it’s not always the cheapest option. In peak summer months (December – February), campervan hire can range from $80-300NZD per DAY (including insurance), which is cost-prohibitive to a lot of travellers, especially considering this is already a really expensive country! If you’re determined to experience NZ in a campervan, I’d recommend either:
- travelling in the shoulder season (spring or autumn), when hire can easily be 50% of the summer rate, OR
- getting a self-contained campervan that will allow you to freedom camp rather than paying for DOC campsites or holiday parks every night ($15-25/person) and cook in your vehicle to save money on eating out.
Yep, only campervans with a “self-contained” sticker are allowed to freedom camp outside of official campsites, and the fines can be really big if you try to do this in a car or in a non-self-contained camper. It’s not really going to save you money on the hire costs (if anything, a self-contained campervan will be more expensive), but it will help you save on heaps of other expenses like camping and food, so it’s 100% essential.
- Download the Campermate app to find all the best freedom camping spots!
Most campervans will have a chilly bin or small fridge, some sort of sink or water storage, gas stove, cookware, and kitchen utensils, but the quality and extras will vary van to van.
There are an insane number of campervan companies in New Zealand offering anywhere from budget vehicles like Spaceships, to mid-range vans with some nice extras like Jucy and Madcampers, to really luxurious mini-RVs like Apollo and Maui with a price-tag to match. The best way to find a good deal is to book at least 3 months in advance (if travelling in the summer) and use a comparison site to shop around:
If the cost of campervan hire is just TOO much (or if you don’t really like the idea of freedom camping without showers and toilets), there’s always the option to hire a car and camp in a tent. There are some seriously amazing DOC (Department of Conservation) campsites, and tent camping is actually my favourite way to explore New Zealand!
- Use the Campermate app to find all the best tent camping spots around NZ, just make sure to filter out “self-contained only” sites.
Car hire can still be really expensive in New Zealand, so you’ll need to do some digging to find a good deal, but it’s definitely possible to get something as cheap as $40-80/day, depending on time of year. These prices reflect the absolute cheapest rentals available, so you’ll probably end up driving a 20+ year old compact car (the kind of thing that wouldn’t even be legal to hire in Australia), but it truly doesn’t matter if all you’re using it for is transport. Also note that these prices don’t include comprehensive car insurance and the excess on our shit-box hire car was $6,000NZD, so you’ll either need to pay extra for good cover, use the car insurance included with your credit card (which is what we did), or take a big risk.
I’ve personally used Bargain Rental Cars a few times and, although the opposite of glamorous, they are routinely the best price around. To compare other car hire options, I like to use Momondo.
Driving yourself is hands-down the best way to experience New Zealand, but if you just don’t want to brave the winding mountain roads on your own, there is also the option to travel on a hop-on/hop-off bus. By purchasing a bus pass, you can build your own itinerary around a series of existing stops, sort of blending the convenience of a tour with the flexibility of traveling solo.
I’ve never travelled NZ this way, but I have tested out hop-on/hop-off buses in Peru and Ecuador and, if it’s anything like that experience, it can actually be a good option for solo travellers who don’t want to join a guided group tour but also don’t want to hire their own car. The main companies are:
- Stray Travel: Their $785NZD Southern Circle ticket is relatively similar to my recommended 10-day itinerary, although you’d need to “hop off” some extra days in Queenstown to make the trip down to Milford Sound on your own.
- Kiwi Experience: There isn’t really a comparable option for this itinerary, but you can get to at least some of my recommended destinations on their $899NZD Passing Arthur ticket.
- Intercity: Use NZ’s national bus network to customise your own itinerary, buying a certain number of “hours” on a FlexiPass to travel around the country. You’ll need about 30hrs ($245NZD) to do this itinerary, but there doesn’t seem to be any option to get to Lake Tekapo, so you’d have to compromise on that stop.
Road trip budget
Transport costs vary widely depending on what kind of car or campervan you hire (I won’t even talk about hop-on/hop-off buses anymore), but expect to pay through the roof for fuel, no matter what. As of January 2020, fuel prices ranged from $2.30 to as much as $3.10 per litre… UGH. Here are some rough ideas of what you can expect to pay in terms of transport for this specific itinerary:
- Car hire for 10 days: $300-500NZD for a budget compact car, OR
- Campervan hire for 10 days: $1,000-2,00NZD for budget campervan
- Fuel: we spent about $350NZD on fuel for this itinerary
Accomodation costs can also vary widely depending on how you want to travel, but I’d budget for 1x night in a hostel (it’s pretty common for flights to arrive in Christchurch around 1am, so it’s nice to just crash in a bed) and then the other 9x nights at a mix of DOC and freedom campsites, depending on your car/campervan situation.
- Hostel: Jucy Snooze is right next to the Christchurch Airport and has dorm beds for about $35/person
- DOC campsite: typically $8-15/person, regardless of whether you have a tent or are sleeping in your campervan
- Holiday or caravan park: around $20-25/person for a tent or caravan site
- Freedom camping: FREE, but only for self-contained campervans
So, if you’re hiring a car and tent camping:
- expect to pay around $200NZD per person for this itinerary
And if you’re hiring a campervan for a mix of freedom camping and DOC campsites:
- expect to pay around $100NZD for half of your nights at DOC camps or holiday parks with showers, staying the remaining nights in free spots
If you’re staying in a self-contained campervan and preparing all of your own meals, you don’t need to spend much on food at all. Supermarket prices can be a little high depending on where you are, but still aren’t ridiculous. You can spend as little or as much as you want!
Tent camping is also pretty cost effective, especially if you’re happy to eat some freeze-dried mountain meals when campsites don’t have BBQ or kitchen facilities. These mountain meals are available in pretty much all supermarkets, including Four Square, Countdown, and New World, for around $15 per pouch. If you supplement with cheese and crackers or some other easy starter like soup, it’s possible to get away with one mountain meal between a couple. Obviously you need to bring a camp stove if this is your plan— I love my JetBoil!— and then buy gas in Christchurch when you land (there’s a huge Bunnings right next to the airport).
On nights you’re staying at holiday parks, like I’ve recommend in Wanaka, Queenstown, and Lake Tekapo (details below), you can plan to cook up a barbie or something easy like pasta to avoid eating out too much.
Rather than give you an overall budget for activities, since it can vary SO MUCH, here are some prices for specific tours and excursions that fit in well with this itinerary:
- Scenic helicopter flight around Mt Cook: $249-599NZD
- Heli-hiking on Tasman Glacier: $595NZD
- Skydiving in Wanaka: $299-469NZD
- SUP hire in Lake Wanaka: $20/hr
- Bungy jumping in Queenstown: $205-275NZD
- Half-day dual suspension e-bike hire: $89NZD
- Wine tasting in the Gibbston Valley: about $15NZD per winery
- Skyline Queenstown gondola + luge tickets: $61NZD
- Milford Sound scenic cruise: $85NZD
- Scuba diving (x2 dives) in Milford Sound: $345NZD
- Lake Tekapo star-gazing tour: $185NZD
Here’s a general idea of the total budget for a campervan trip and a camping trip following this 10-day itinerary around New Zealand’s South Island.
For a campervan trip where you mostly stay at free camping spots and cook in your van, you can expect to spend a total of $2,580NZD, or $258NZD ($240AUD) per day for 10 days. If opting to hire a car and tent camp instead, you can do this entire itinerary for $1,950NZD, or $195NZD ($182AUD) per day for 10 days.
Note that both of these options have quite a lot of included activities, so you can hack several hundred dollars off the overall cost of your roadtrip just by limiting pricy tours like a scenic flight or scuba diving (although it’s totally worth the money if you can swing it!).
Travel tips for New Zealand
After spending 2 months road tripping around New Zealand on a couple different trips, I’m keen to share all my first-hand knowledge, insider tricks, and best travel hacks! From passing the biosecurity inspection at the airport and getting a local SIM card to finding the best deal on a campervan and reserving Great Walks, here are the most useful travel tips for your road trip around New Zealand: 15 ESSENTIAL TRAVEL TIPS FOR ROAD TRIPPING AROUND NEW ZEALAND
*Overview: recommended itinerary
- Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park (2-3 days)
- Wanaka (2-3 days)
- Queenstown (3-4 days)
- Milford Sound (1-2 days)
- Lake Tekapo (1-2 days)
Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park
After touching down at the Christchurch Airport and grabbing your sweet new ride, hit the road towards Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park, a 4.5hr drive full of scenic stops like the lupin field near Lake Tekapo and Peter’s Lookout over Lake Pukaki. This is one of the most beautiful stretches of highway, particularly as Mt Cook comes into view, so just enjoy the journey.
Mt Cook Village (and the awesome DOC camp at White Horse Hill) is the perfect base to explore what is honestly one of the country’s finest and most breathtaking National Parks. Conveniently, all the park’s best hikes also depart right from White Horse Hill, making it possible to cram in several different treks per day without even having to get in the car.
If you have some time after setting up camp, set out on the Kea Point Track (easy, 30min return) or Hooker Valley Track (easy, 2.5hr return). The following day, tackle the incredible Mueller Hut Route (3.5hrs to the hut) with a summit of Mt Ollivier (1hr return) or even just head up to the panoramic half-way point at Sealy Tarns (2.5hrs return) for stunning views of Mt Cook and Mt Sefton. On the final morning, if weather cooperates, book in for a spectacular scenic flight or heli-hike on the Tasman Glacier to see the best of Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park from above.
Recommended time: 2-3 days
Highlights: Enjoy amazing scenery of Mt Cook, Mt Sefton, and the glacier lakes on the Sealy Tarns Track, Mueller Hut Route, Mt Ollivier Summit, Kea Point Track, and Hooker Valley Track; take a scenic flight or helicopter ride around Mt Cook and enjoy a snow-landing on the Tasman Glacier
Getting there: Drive 4.5hrs from Christchurch Airport to Aoraki/Mt Cook Village
Where to stay: For $15/person, pitch your tent directly in front of Aoraki/Mt Cook at White Horse Hill Campsite. This is one of my very favourite campsites in all of New Zealand, both for the incredible scenery and the convenience of literally being the trailhead to half a dozen different hikes in the National Park.
Read more: THE BEST OF AORAKI/MT COOK: SEALY TARNS & MUELLER HUT TRACK (UPDATED 2020)
After a few days of stunning alpine scenery and beautiful trekking around Mt Cook, head 2.5hrs south to Wanaka, a charming little lake-front town that is quickly emerging as an adventure and adrenaline hotspot on the South Island. Framed by the Southern Alps and nestled between Lake Wanaka and Lake Hāwea, this is the perfect place to wind down, maybe hiring bikes to explore the waterfront or paddle boards if you’re feeling a bit aquatic, and let your legs have a breather— before setting out tomorrow to do it all again.
Nearby Mt Aspiring National Park offers some truly incredible tramping routes, with scenery that is every bit as beautiful but markedly different than Aoraki/Mt Cook. The most popular trail is Roy’s Peak, but if you fancy a similar view without all the crowds and fuss, Isthmus Peak (5hrs return) is the perfect choice.
Recommended time: 2-3 days
Highlights: Hike up to the summit of Isthmus Peak or Roy’s Peak for panoramic views of the Southern Alps, Lake Hāwea, and Lake Wanaka; drive around Lake Hāwea, stopping on the side of the road for awesome views of the bright blue water; hire bikes and pedal through town; hang out on the shores of Lake Wanaka; snap a photo of #ThatWanakaTree; check out RedStar Burgers for some delicious bites in town
Getting there: Drive 2.5hrs from Aoraki/Mt Cook Village to Wanaka
Where to stay: The Camp has great tent sites located right on the shores of Lake Hāwea ($20/night per person). It’s about 10min outside of Wanaka, but the setting is beyond gorgeous and actually closer to some of the best hikes in the area.
Read more: ISTHMUS PEAK, THE BEST ALTERNATIVE HIKE TO ROY’S PEAK IN WANAKA
From Wanaka, it’s just a quick 1hr drive to New Zealand’s long-standing adventure capital, Queenstown. Set against the spectacular backdrop of The Remarkables and bright Lake Wakatipu, this is a lively, backpacker-filled resort town whose incredible landscape and palpable energy are absolutely contagious. It’s truly impossible not to fall in love, so just know that a few days is never going to be enough.
While in Queenstown, spend your days doing all sorts of crazy things, like giant canyon swings, the world’s first bungy jump, white water rafting, mountaintop luge, or canyoning. There are also countless trails to explore, either in hiking boots or on the seat of a mountain bike, and every hill offers a better view than the last.
If you need a break from all the pumping adrenaline, hire a kayak or aqua bike to explore Lake Wakatipu, take the gondola up Skyline Queenstown, hire an e-bike to go wine tasting in the Gibbston Valley, or take a scenic drive along the lake to Glenorchy. There are seriously more things to do in Queenstown than I could possibly list (although I do list my favourite 15 things to do in this post), but suffice to say that, whether you’re an adrenaline junkie, avid tramper, mountain biker, wine lover, photographer, or party animal, there won’t be a single dull moment here.
Recommended time: 3-4 days
Highlights: Get your adrenaline up on a bungy jump or giant swing; walk or take the gondola up to Skyline Queenstown for a breathtaking view of the Remarkables and Lake Wakatipu, plus an awesome luge track; queue for a burger at the insanely-popular Fergburger in town; hike to the summit of Ben Lomond, or even just the easier Queenstown Hill, for great views of the region; go wine tasting in the Gibbston Valley on a bike
Getting there: Drive 1hr from Wanaka to Queenstown
Where to stay: Queenstown Holiday Park & Motels Creeksyde is located right downtown, an easy walk to anywhere in Queenstown, and is well-equipped with a communal kitchen, lounge, and decent WIFI. Powered sites are $65/night for 2 people.
Read more: 15 AWESOME THINGS TO DO IN QUEENSTOWN, NEW ZEALAND (UPDATED 2020)
At the chilly, distant tip of the South Island, Fiordland National Park is home to some of New Zealand’s most spectacular landscapes, perhaps none more breathtaking or better known than Milford Sound. It’s a bit of a slog to get down here, but it is SO worthwhile.
From Queenstown, drive 2hrs to Te Anau, the nearest town to Milford Sound, or 3hrs to Cascade Creek, the nearest DOC camp (just 45min from Milford Sound). There are heaps of cool ways to experience the fjord the following day, whether it’s on a classic scenic cruise, a splurgy helicopter flight, or, my personal favourite, a scuba diving tour. In a fjord reaching depths of up to 500m, there’s so much happening beneath the surface— this lesser explored, shockingly vibrant marine area is home to species of sharks that predate dinosaurs and coral trees typically only found at 1,000m. Descend Dive is the only operator running dive tours in Milford Sound, and I can’t recommend them highly enough.
On the drive back to Cascade Creek or Te Anau, stop at all the amazing lookouts along the side of the road, like Pop’s Viewpoint, The Chasm, and Monkey Creek. Unless you’re doing the Milford or Kepler Track, you really only need one full day to see Milford Sound, but try to pack in as much as possible because it really is breathtaking.
Recommended time: 1-2 days
Highlights: Take a scenic cruise through the fiord to see waterfalls, NZ fur seals, penguins, dolphins, and heaps of amazing mountain scenery, like 1700m Mitre Peak; scuba dive in Milford Sound with Descend Dive; splurge on a scenic flight over the mountains and glaciers of Milford Sound; walk the spectacular Milford Track, Kepler Track, or Routeburn Track; enjoy the scenic drive from Te Anau to Milford Sound, stopping off at Pop’s Lookout, Monkey Creek, and other awesome viewpoints within the park
Getting there: Drive 2hrs from Queenstown to Te Anau, the nearest town to Milford Sound. From here, it’s a further 2hrs to the water.
Where to stay: There are a number of hostels and motels in Te Anau, the nearest town to Milford Sound, but if you’re in a campervan or tent camping, Cascade Creek is an awesome place to stay. This is the closest DOC campsite to Milford Sound, which means your morning drive will only be 45min rather than 2+ hours from Te Anau. It’s a large site with heaps of space (no bookings), $15/person for the night paid on arrival with cash.
Read more: DEEP WATER EMERGENCE: SCUBA DIVING MILFORD SOUND WITH DESCEND DIVE
Set against the snowy Southern Alps and wild fields of lupin in every shade of pink and purple, Lake Tekapo and its impossibly turquoise water is one of the most colourful places on the South Island. And at only a few hours from Christchurch Airport, it’s the absolute perfect way to wrap up and wind down from a spectacular trip around New Zealand.
It’s a long drive from Te Anau up to Lake Tekapo, backtracking through Queenstown and Twizel over about 5hrs, but once here, you can just relax by the lake shore, do some gentle hikes (like the short walk up Mt John), and visit the lupin fields, if you weren’t able to stop at the start of your road trip. It will be genuinely hard to leave, but I’m sure you’ll be back.
Recommended time: 1-2 days
Highlights: Hike up to Mt John Observatory for sprawling views of Lake Tekapo; frolic through endless fields of lupin and foxglove in every shade of pink and purple; go for a swim in the chilly waters of Lake Tekapo; hire a stand up paddle board from the beachfront; stop off at Peter’s Lookout over nearby Lake Pukaki for amazing views of Mt Cook; star-gaze in one of the best locations on the entire planet, said to have some of the lowest light pollution and one of the most vibrant night skies
Getting there: Drive 5hrs from Te Anau to Lake Tekapo
Where to stay: Grab one of the lakeside tent sites for $50/night (per 2 adults) at Lake Tekapo Holiday Park. Enjoy BBQs, kitchen facilities, hot showers, and laundry in a convenient location.
Read more: ADVENTURES ON THE SOUTH ISLAND: 11 OF THE BEST HIKES IN NEW ZEALAND (UPDATED 2020)
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