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How To Plan A Trip To New Zealand – The Ultimate Guide

If you’re looking for a good introduction on how to plan a trip to New Zealand, I’ve got you covered!

My home country of New Zealand is absolutely spectacular. I’ve explored New Zealand both as a local and as a tour guide for my husband when we first visited New Zealand together.

I’ve combined my years of experience working as a travel agent, travelling the world, and living and exploring New Zealand to put this guide together to help you plan the perfect trip to New Zealand.

In my ultimate guide to planning a trip to New Zealand, I’m spilling the beans on how I personally plan my trips. I cover the best times to visit New Zealand, the bucket list items you have to tick off, the regions you can visit, how to book flights, accommodation and activities and what to pack.

I hope this guide gives you a great introduction to planning a trip to New Zealand!

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>> Want this guide as an eBook? I’ve also included a bonus NZ packing list, foods to try checklist, NZ bucket list, and note pages to help you plan your dream trip. Print it off at home or download it to your phone. Grab it here!

**Please note**
The New Zealand border is closed to almost everyone except for returning citizens, their partners and dependant children. Temporary visas have also been suspended. I hope this article will be helpful for planning your trip to New Zealand once the border reopens!

How to plan a trip to New Zealand

When is the best time to visit New Zealand?

The best time to visit New Zealand is anytime from October to April.

My favourite months for exploring New Zealand are November, and mid-January to February. The temperature in November is pleasant, and the daylight hours are decent.

I am also a fan of November because this is when the A&P shows are on throughout New Zealand.

There also aren’t as many tourists around at this time. December to mid-January is often a busy period in New Zealand, with locals being off work and making their way to the beach to enjoy the summer sun, that’s why I recommend visiting from mid-January onwards.

The weather is superb at this time of year, being the peak of summer!

Many people also plan a trip to New Zealand in the winter to try our epic ski hills. The best time to visit for snow is in July and August.

Times to avoid visiting New Zealand

If you don’t like crowds, avoid visiting New Zealand from Christmas until mid-January. You should also try and avoid visiting during New Zealand school holidays and public holidays. You can view a list of public holidays in New Zealand here.

Average temperature guide

  • Spring [September, October, November]: 16°C (61°F) to 19 °C (66°F)
  • Summer [December, January, February]: 20°C (68°F) to 30°C (86°F)
  • Autumn/Fall [March, April, May]: 17°C (63°F) to 21°C (70°F)
  • Winter [June, July, August]: 12°C (54°F) to 16 °C (61°F)

Note: The above temperature guide is based on the temperature during the day. The temperature can get as low as -5 degrees in populated areas during the winter- for example, when I lived in Christchurch we would often have overnight lows of -2°C.

As a general rule, the climate is warmer the further north you go, and cooler in the South Island.

Roys Peak, Wanaka

Where should you visit in New Zealand?

Though it looks small on a map, New Zealand is actually quite a large country. Two weeks in New Zealand is barely scratching the surface; you could easily spend years here and there will still be plenty more to see.

Don’t let this put you off- no matter how much or how little of New Zealand you see, you will have the best time!

Here’s a brief overview of each region to help you decide where you should spend your time.

North Island

  • Auckland – Home to the largest city in New Zealand, Auckland has a diverse culture and is a great place for nightlife and shopping.
  • Bay of Plenty – This region is known for its beautiful beaches and warm, sunny weather and has the most hours of sun in all of New Zealand. Also home to Rotorua, a popular tourist destination known for its geothermal activity and Maori culture.
  • Waikato – Known for being an agricultural area and the dairy industry hub of New Zealand. Also home to beautiful beaches and fishing in the Coromandel. Taupō is a popular holiday destination for locals, and home to New Zealand’s largest lake. A great place for kayaking, mountain biking, skydiving, sightseeing and also home to the highest water-touch bungy jump in the country.
  • Hawke’s Bay – Known for its warm sunny weather, food and vineyards. Also home to Splash Planet, a popular water park and the National Aquarium of New Zealand.
  • Gisbourne Located on the east coast, Gisbourne is the first city to see the sun in the world. Known for its forests, surfing, fishing and wineries. An off-beat place to visit in New Zealand.
  • Manawatu & Whanganui – A region known for its agriculture and also the region I grew up in! Palmerston North is the largest city and is home to the New Zealand Rugby Museum. An off-beat place to visit in New Zealand.
  • Northland & Bay of Islands – Known as ‘the winterless north’ thanks to its climate. Home to white sandy beaches and known for its great fishing spots and beautiful scenery.
  • Taranaki – A popular farming area and known for Mount Taranaki, its namesake volcano. This region is located on the west-coast of the North Island. An off-beat place to visit in New Zealand.
  • Wellington & Wairarapa – Home to New Zealand’s capital ‘Windy Wellington’, the city is vibrant, artsy and known for its cute cafes, thriving pubs and nightlife, and the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa. Castlepoint, a small beachside town, is also a popular place for swimming and fishing.

>> Read more: How to spend one day in Auckland

South Island

  • Otago – Home to the resort town and adventure capital of New Zeland, Queenstown. Otago has arguably the most beautiful scenery in New Zealand with its turquoise coloured lakes and dramatic mountain scenery. It is the true Lord of the Rings country.
  • Canterbury – Home to the South Island’s largest city, Christchurch, the region of Canterbury offers a little bit of everything: city life, beaches, lush rainforest, farmland, ski-hills [in the winter], hiking and jaw-dropping scenery. I lived in Christchurch for several years and loved it there.
  • Marlborough – Known for its fjord-like Marlborough Sounds and vineyards. A lot of New Zealand’s best wine comes from this region.
  • Nelson / Tasman – Known for its golden beaches, wine and fishing. A popular region in summer.
  • Southland – Located at the southern end of mainland, New Zealand and home to Fiordland National Park, which has some of New Zealand’s most notoriously difficult hiking but amazing scenery.
  • West Coast – The ‘Wild West Coast’ is known for its untamed natural environment and was once a popular gold-mining region. Franz Josef is a popular town for many tourists, who flock to see the glacier named after the town. The West Coast is one of the rainiest regions in New Zealand.

Islands

  • Chatham Islands – Located south-east of New Zealand, the Chatham Islands are known for their fresh seafood, marine and wildlife. Only 660 people live in the islands, and it’s a 2-hour flight from Auckland or Wellington to reach the islands.
  • Stewart Island / Rakiura – Located south of New Zealand, Stewart Island is one of the best places to see wild kiwis. You can catch a ferry to the island from Bluff or a fly from Invercargill.
  • Subantarctic Islands – Wild, isolated and beautiful, these islands are home to many birds, plants and invertebrates found nowhere else in the world. The islands are well known for their penguin colonies. Sprinkled south of New Zealand, they are a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Things to do in New Zealand

There are SO many things to do in New Zealand, but I won’t overwhelm you. Here are the top 10 must-see and do attractions in New Zealand.

10 must-do activities in New Zealand

  1. Waitomo Glow Worm Caves
  2. Visit the Hobbiton movie set
  3. Cruise Milford Sound
  4. Go on a winery tour
  5. Experience Maori Culture
  6. Franz Josef Glacier Heli Flight
  7. Hike the Tongariro Crossing
  8. Go whale watching in Kaikoura
  9. Visit a kiwi sanctuary
  10. Explore Cathedral Cove

When you plan a trip to New Zealand, make sure you add these to your bucket list:

  • Visit 1 city
  • Go to the beach
  • See glow worms
  • Go on 1-2 hikes
  • Try an outdoor adventure activity such as caving, kayaking or bungy jumping
  • Visit a kiwi sanctuary
  • Go for a walk through one of our native forests

If you need inspiration or ideas on things to do in New Zealand, read all my New Zealand blog posts.

>> Read more: Things to do in Hokitika

Food in New Zealand to try

New Zealand has amazing food- it’s one of the things I miss most about living in New Zealand! Every time I come home for a visit I always write a list of my favourite foods to sample on my travels [and stuff as many sweet tweets in my suitcase as possible].

Here are some of my favourite Kiwi foods you should try:

  • Fish and chips [bonus points if you eat them on the beach]
  • Chocolate Fish
  • Pinky
  • New Zealand Lamb
  • Crayfish
  • Steak and Cheese Pie or a Mince Pie from a petrol station
  • Twisties or Cheezels
  • Lollie Cake
  • Pavlova
  • Māori hāngī
  • L&P [drink]
  • New Zealand wine
  • Pineapple Lumps
  • Hokey Pokey ice cream
  • A barbeque
  • A Hāngī [a traditional Māori method of cooking food in a pit in the ground using heated rocks]

Booking flights to New Zealand

For finding the cheapest flights, I use Skyscanner to get an idea of what flight prices are and what airlines appear to be the most affordable, and which offer the most direct flights.

Flights usually come out 9-10 months in advance, and as a rule they’ll release cheaper seats first [unless you hang out for a sale]. Once I figure out which airlines fly the route I’m looking for, I’ll sign up to their email list to be notified of when they have a sale on.

It’s a good thing to note that most airlines have blackout dates that never go on sale- for example, Christmas and New Year holidays. If you’re flying during this time, I recommend booking as far in advance as possible.

A note about Covid19 – I highly recommend flying with reputable airlines during this time. Many airlines will show they have flights heading to New Zealand, however, they’re not actually flying! When we booked flights from the UK to New Zealand in November 2020 I did a lot of research on what airlines were the most reliable.

I recommend booking with the following airlines, ranked in order of preference:

  • Qatar Airways – has one of the quickest routes, excellent service and great food! My favourite long-haul airline
  • Singapore Airlines – slightly more expensive flights but one of the best airlines to fly long-haul with
  • Air New Zealand – has regular flights from the USA, excellent service and high-quality airline
  • Emirates – has well-priced flights, high-quality airline

There are three main cities with international airports you can fly to in New Zealand. They are Auckland [AKL], Wellington [WLG] and Christchurch [CHC]. I recommend searching for flights into all three cities to see which is going to be the cheapest/best route for you. As a general rule, Auckland Airport is usually the cheapest airport to fly into.

For example, if you were flying to New Zealand from the West Coast of the USA, I would recommend searching the following flights:

  • Los Angeles to Auckland
  • Los Angeles to Wellington
  • Los Angeles to Christchurch
  • San Francisco to Auckland
  • San Francisco to Wellington
  • San Francisco to Christchurch

Pro tip: Always search in Incognito mode.

Most commercial websites use Cookies to keep track of what you are searching on their website. Let’s say you’re flying from San Francisco to Edinburgh and you search for these flights in Google Flights or Skyscanner; now that website knows you are planning a trip there. Do you think they’re going to show you the cheapest prices anymore? Nope!

If you search while in Incognito however, you are able to browse the web without these Cookies tracking what flights you’re searching for, so you’ll always see the cheapest flights!

More helpful tips for booking flights

  • Flights come out 9-10 months in advance. Flights are usually cheaper at this time too!
  • Sign up for airlines email lists that fly to your destination so you are aware when they are having a sale.
  • As soon as you book your flights, you should book your travel insurance
  • There are two airlines in New Zealand you can use for local travel- Air New Zealand and Jetstar. Jetstar is a budget airline and you can find some good deals, however I prefer flying with Air New Zealand.

Do you need a visa?

Most visitors to New Zealand now need to apply for an NZeTA visa. It costs NZD12 online or NZD9 if you apply for it through the app, and it lasts for 2 years.

You must have your NZeTA visa before you arrive in New Zealand. Organise it no later than 2 weeks before your trip!

You can check if you require an NZeTA visa and apply for it here.

Finding the best accommodation in New Zealand

When looking for accommodation in New Zealand I use Booking.com as they have the largest selection of hotels online, plus they have a 24-hour cancellation policy! Once I find a place I’m happy with, I’ll also compare prices booking directly and also on Expedia to see which has the cheapest price.

There are so many third party booking platforms to choose from, but in my experience, the cheapest and most reliable third party platforms are Booking.com and Expedia.

Booking short tours and attractions

I try and book most of my tours and attractions with Get Your Guide.

Get Your Guide is great because once you’ve purchased your tickets and booked your tours you can download their app, and all your tickets are in one place. They have a QR code system in the app so when you arrive the tour operators just scan your phone. It’s also super easy to make bookings on your mobile phone via the app or on their website.

They also have free cancellation up to 24 hours before your activity in case your plans change, and 24/7 customer service. I had to cancel a tour once and getting a refund was super quick and easy!

I also like Get Your Guide because ticket prices are the same as purchasing direct but you can keep all your tours and activities in one place on the app.

One day & multi-day tours

Seeing New Zealand via a group or private tour is also a fantastic, and sometimes a more affordable way to travel.

Sometimes it’s a whole lot easier to sit back and relax while the experts take you to all the must-see locations and hidden gems in New Zealand!

If you’d like to go on a tour in New Zealand, here are a few different tour companies I recommend:

  • Haka Tours – Cleaning up some of New Zealand’s most prestigious tourism awards, Haka Tours are NZ owned and operated, and offer a vast range of multi-day tours throughout New Zealand. Best for adventure tours.
  • MoaTrek – Owned and run by a mother and son team, MoaTrek offers small group tours throughout New Zealand. Suitable for mature travellers aged 40+
  • Flying Kiwi – Top rated by National Geographic, Flying Kiwi offer multi-day tours for students and all ages. They focus on outdoor and active adventures.
  • Stray Travel – One of the most popular Hop-On, Hop-Off tour companies that offer tours in New Zealand, Stray have multiple options for multi-day tours throughout the country. Suitable for age group 18-35.
  • Kiwi Experience – Provides Hop-On, Hop-Off tours and a variety of small group multi-day tours throughout New Zealand
  • Cheeky Kiwi Travel – Award-winning day tours departing Auckland, Queenstown and Christchurch

Hiring a car in New Zealand

It’s definitely worth hiring a car if you’re visiting New Zealand- you’ll get to see so much more! There are plenty of rivers, beaches, and hidden gems worth exploring.

There are also some great scenic drives in New Zealand, including Arthur’s Pass and Lewis Pass, and of course- driving through central Otago!

Here are some car hire companies I recommend:

  • Apex – New Zealand owned and one of the more affordable options
  • Thrifty – comes highly recommended from my friends and family
  • Transfercar – if you’re wanting to do a one-way trip, for example pick up in Auckland and drop off in Wellington, Transfercar has some excellent deals. Sign up to their newsletter to be alerted when they have transfers available.

New Zealand travel tip

Something else to consider is the cost of fuel. If you’re visiting New Zealand from Canada or the USA, take into account the price of fuel is more expensive in New Zealand. The reason for this is because there is a fixed-tax included in the price. It’s essentially a user-pay system, with the tax going toward road maintenance, upgrading roads and improving safety. As I write this, the cost of petrol/gas is sitting at around NZD2 per litre [USD1.42] and diesel is around NZD1.20 per litre [USD0.85].

Public transport in Scotland

Travel by Bus

Bus travel is the most common public transport in New Zealand. It’s a great way to travel if you’d prefer not to drive- just sit back and enjoy the view!

InterCity is New Zealand’s number one bus company. They offer a couple of different bus pass options useful for travellers. Skip is also another bus network that operates throughout the North Island.

If you travel by bus, be sure to ask the bus driver which side of the bus you should sit on for the best views!

Travel by Train

Travel by train is not as common in New Zealand as it is in other countries, such as the United Kingdom and Europe. New Zealand has a small train network, but they are scenic train rides rather than to get from point A to point B.

Train trips are also quite expensive in New Zealand compared to other countries. If you’d like to experience New Zealand by train, here are the main routes:

  • Northern Explorer – the Northern Explorer is a long-distance scenic train service running between Auckland and Wellington, stopping at Palmerston North, Ohakune, National Park and Hamilton.
  • TranzAlpine – arguably the most famous railway in New Zealand, the TransAlpine begins in Christchurch and travels to Greymouth.
  • Coastal Pacific – The Coastal Pacific follows the Pacific coast between Picton and Christchurch. On this trip you’ll see rugged coastlines, remote beaches, and dramatic mountains.

Travel by Ferry

Travel by ferry is a popular way to travel between the North and South Islands, and other islands surrounding New Zealand.

The two main ferries which travel between Wellington and Picton are the Interislander and Bluebridge. They both travel across the Cook Strait, and you’ll have the chance to experience the Marlborough Sounds on your way in or out of Picton.

You can also travel by ferry from Auckland to Waiheke Island, Rangitoto and Great Barrier. In the South Island, the ferry is a popular way of travelling to Stewart Island.

There are also lots of tours by ferry throughout New Zealand, which is a fantastic way to experience New Zealand’s coasts and waters.

Packing for a trip to New Zealand

The weather is changeable in New Zealand, and vary the length of the country. One of my best New Zealand packing tips is to pack layers! It’s easy to take a layer off when it’s warm or add a layer when it cools down.

Because most people plan a trip to New Zealand during the summer, here is what I recommend you pack when you visit:

  • Sunscreen [or sunblock- whatever you call it where you’re from]
  • Hat
  • Swimsuit
  • Jandals/thongs/flip flops
  • Shorts
  • T-shirts
  • Light rain jacket
  • A warmer jacket for evenings
  • For low-level walks and hiking, trainers with good grip should be fine
  • For serious hiking, I recommend these Scarpa Terra hiking boots for women. You can find the men’s version here.

Packing for New Zealand really depends on what time of year you plan to visit. Obviously, if you’re visiting in the winter to hit the slopes, you’ll need to pack differently. I recommend checking out this post on what to pack when visiting New Zealand in winter.

A quick guide to money in New Zealand

The currency in New Zealand is the New Zealand Dollar [NZD]. It is the only currency accepted in New Zealand, and tax is included in the price of whatever it is you purchase.

Coins come in these amounts: 10 cents, 20 cents, 50 cents, $1 and $2.

Notes come in the following amounts: $5, $10, $20, $50 and $100.

Tipping is not a thing in New Zealand, however if you receive exceptional service and want to say thank you- go ahead and pass along a tip.

There are plenty of ATM’s throughout New Zealand where you can withdraw cash. Just check with your bank what the fees are for withdrawing cash and spending in New Zealand.

I use Monzo and the Haggis has a Revolut card which both work well in New Zealand. What I love about these cards is that they use the current exchange rate and do not charge any fees.

Most credit cards are accepted throughout New Zealand. If you hear someone use the term ‘eftpos’ don’t be alarmed- eftpos cards are common in New Zealand and they are similar to a debit card, however they cannot be used online.

Recommended New Zealand itineraries

I’ve written several guides and itineraries for travel in New Zealand. My guides cover all the must-sees, and I’ve also included my favourite off the beaten track experiences too!

If you’re planning on going to any of these areas, make sure you give these itineraries a try.

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Helpful Links

Skyscanner – to find cheap flights and compare prices with different airlines
Google Flights – another flight comparison website
Air New Zealand – My recommendation for booking local flights within New Zealand
Jetstar – Budget airline for local flights within New Zealand
Booking.com – for booking accommodation
Expedia – for booking accommodation
Get Your Guide – for tours and activities
Grabaseat – Has great deals on local flights within New Zealand
Interislander ferry – For travel from the North Island to the South Island and vice versa
Department of Conservation – for hiking and tramping inspiration
The Great Journeys of New Zealand – travel by train in New Zealand

>> Did this guide help you plan your trip to New Zealand? Drop me a comment below and let me know what you are most excited about doing when you visit New Zealand!