A Guide to Planning the Best South Island, New Zealand Road Trip
This is a complete guide to planning the perfect New Zealand South Island road trip. it includes info on preparing for an NZ road trip, renting a campervan, and information on all of the best places to stop!
A guide to planning the best New Zealand South Island
One of the most popular ways to travel in New Zealand is in a campervan or motorhome. New Zealand’s stunning landscapes and many hidden gems make a road trip the best way to see and do as much or as little as possible on your holiday.
In this guide to planning the best New Zealand South Island road trip, I want to explain all the ins and outs of renting a campervan, preparing for your NZ road trip, tips and tricks as well as all the stunning places to stop and how long to stay!
This guide is not only intended to help plan your trip but also ensure you stay safe during your time in New Zealand and get the best value out of your trip. This is my complete guide to planning the best New Zealand south island road trip.
Included in this blog
- Are you freedom camping?
- Preparing for the road trip
- Renting the right campervan
- Some great rental companies
- The best places to stop on your South Island road trip
Are you planning on freedom camping?
Freedom camping is the act of parking in a public place either in place set out for freedom campers or just any public area. This can be done in pretty much all campervan rentals unless it is not certified self-contained.
Deciding whether or not you will be freedom camping is the essential first step in planning your New Zealand South Island road trip. Whether you are freedom camping will or not will affect your campervan choice and trip in a few ways, these include:
If you do plan on freedom camping then you may want to get a campervan or motorhome with a few extra creature comforts. This is because you will need to rely on the services in your vehicle to live instead of having the luxury to use holiday park facilities.
It’s much cheaper to freedom camp as it’s free. Staying in holiday parks will cost around $50 NZD per night for two people so this saving could be spent on a better campervan or experiences in New Zealand.
Let’s face it, if you decide to freedom camp for most or all of your New Zealand road trip, you won’t shower every day. This is something you need to know before you budget your trip around staying everywhere for free. If you are someone who needs a hot shower every day then freedom camping might be a bit of challenge for you.
Great places to shower for cheap are public swimming pools (we also use the spa and sauna and entry is around $5) and holiday parks (some will let you use the showers for a small fee of around $2). Alternatively, you can find cold showers at the beach or just swim in one of the stunning lakes.
Both freedom camping and staying in holiday parks come with there own planning challenges. With freedom camping, you need to do more day to day planning to find spots you like and where they are. In some areas, there can be very few spots and information on where to go can be hard to find. My number one tip is to check with i-sites (tourist information centres).
If you plan on staying in holiday parks then you need to plan more in advance. This is because, in summer, holiday parks in New Zealand book up in the most popular areas. Areas that book up in the South Island are Queenstown, Mount Cook, Lake Tekapo, Glenorchy, Wanaka, Franz Joseph and Fox Glacier.
For more information on what freedom camping is and if you can do it too, check out our freedom camping guide.
Another great article on freedom camping rules region by region is this one by NZ Backpacker Guides.
Make sure you have the right apps ready to go before your road trip! By far the most helpful app to take on your New Zealand South Island road trip is Campermate. This app contains many of the free and paid campsites in New Zealand and also lots of attractions. Other apps include Maps.me (for offline navigation and RankerNZ for campsites).
What to bring
Going on a New Zealand road means you need to pack for it. One of the biggest challenges with a road trip is you spend a lot of time outside. Some useful things to bring with you are:
Sunscreen – Sunscreen is super expensive in New Zealand so if you have room in your luggage bring a small bottle.
Good hiking pants – Some fast dry hiking pants are amazing! They are light, comfortable and can be worn in the hot or cold weather and dry super fast if they get wet! We bought our first pairs of fast-dry hiking pants here in New Zealand and now wonder how we ever lived without them!
Head fly net – This is a lifesaver in areas with lots of sandflies which New Zealand is famous for. It covers your whole head saving you from bad bites that can last for weeks if you haven’t been bitten much before. For going on long hikes or even just camping, a head net will come in handy!
Camera – New Zealand is stunning so bringing a good camera to make memories to look back on is a great idea. You can check out our “how to take better travel photos” blog for tips on taking the best photos!
Travel adapter – The plugs in your campervan or motorhome will be New Zealand plugs so having adaptors is handy. We love the ones with USB ports as well as the plug that is universal. We honestly have so many electronics from all over the world so we carry a couple of these universal adapters with us at all times!
Light long sleeve shirt – Perfect for the sun and the bugs! The ones by Underarmour are the best and have saved us from New Zealand’s notoriously harsh sun while keeping us cool. They are comfortable for hiking and fast drying. They also breathe and are lightweight making them easy to pack!
Travel Hammock – The ultimate comfort item. You can now buy hammocks that are seriously lightweight and small making them perfect for travelling or even hiking!
Head torch – When you are camping a head torch will come in REALLY handy once the sun goes down. It is a necessity for late night walks to the toilet and is also is great to bring on hikes (especially at sunset or sunrise!)
Toiletry organiser – Having one bag to keep all of your toiletries in will come in handy when camping and using public bathrooms so often!
Lifestraw bottle – Most of the tap water in New Zealand is safe to drink, but at many of the freedom camp spots it is not – making your Lifestraw bottle a lifesaver!
Renting the right Campervan
Now that you’re packed it’s time for the most important part of your road trip – the campervan (AKA your new home!) Renting the right campervan or motorhome for your trip is extremely important. There is a fine-line balancing between comfort and affordability and losing only one of these could really affect your holiday!
Campervan – A van that has been converted to a self- contained camper.
Motorhome – a specifically built vehicle for the intended purpose of living in it.
Let’s be honest, living in a van or motorhome is not always super comfortable. Picking the right size vehicle is important. If you are more of a luxury traveller then steering away from a campervan is a great idea as motorhomes would likely be more suitable.
Even with 4 birth campervans, you will simply not have the space or comfort compared to a motorhome. In my opinion, if you travel in a group of 4 then a 4 birth motorhome is the best option. There are 4 birth campervans offered by companies like Jucy, however, please be aware that these have very limited space!
In a two-person group, a campervan will be fine for most travellers. If you do decide to go with a campervan, some things to look out for in terms of keeping it comfortable are:
A high roof – this is a lifesaver! Being able to stand is your van makes it feel much much spacious! It also makes cooking and doing the dishes easier as well.
Long Wheelbase – There are two types of vans, standard and long wheelbase. A long wheelbase is around 0.8m or just over 2 feet longer than a standard wheelbase. It may sound like nothing but it makes all the difference!
Kitchen location – It can rain in any month of the year in New Zealand with spring being by far the wettest months. Having a kitchen in the back is fine when it’s sunny but when it rains (and it can for long periods of time) you’re going to wish you could cook inside the van.
Second battery – If you plan on freedom camping then a second battery is a great feature. Having the power to charge phones, laptops, or run lights and small fans (in the summer) can really change your level of comfort.
In short, motorhomes are more expensive than campervans. Its also worthy to note that insurance excesses will be higher as well as the cost of insurance. This is due to the fact that a motorhome can cost $100,000+.
If keeping your spending to a minimum in New Zealand is a priority for you, then consider getting the most basic self-contained campervan. However, if you have a bit of money to spend then upgrading to a more luxurious campervan or motorhome would definitely be worth it!
When buying insurance for your vehicle be aware that they often come with high excesses. To protect yourself from this expense, consider getting excess insrance as well! These insurance companies insure you for your excess meaning you do not have to pay ridiculous amounts to either reduce your excess or pay the massive standard excess should you get in an accident. To get a quote click here!
Some great rental companies!
There are a few companies that stand out in New Zealand compared to the rest. In all budget ranges, you can find a great company with a really good reputation to rent a campervan from. Below are our top choices!
Low to Mid Budget (campervans)
Higher budget (motorhomes)
The best places to stop on your New Zealand South Island Road trip
Mount Cook National Park (Mount Cook Village) – 1 night
Mount Cook National Park is my favourite place in New Zealand. It’s one of the most pristine and beautiful areas in New Zealand. We recommend spending at least 1 night in the national park to truly experience it.
Where to camp in Mount Cook National Park:
Located in the national park is a campground for all vehicles and tents. The campground is located where you start the Hooker Valley Trail from. Prices are $13 per night per adult, children 5 – 17 are $6:50 and under 5’s are free. If you would like more information on this site check out the official DOC website here! There is no freedom camping allowed within the national park.
Some things to do in Mount Cook are:
- Hooker Valley Trail
- Tasman Lake Viewpoint
- Sealy tarn or Mueller hut day or overnight hike
- Scenic Heli flight
For more information, check out our guide to Mount Cook!
Lake Tekapo – 1 night
Lake Tekapo is located around a 2-hour drive from Mount Cook National Park. These two places are always visited one after the other. Lake Tekapo is one of the bluest lakes in New Zealand and a vibrant town to visit on your New Zealand South Island road trip.
Where to camp in Lake Tekapo:
In the town, there are several holiday parks with powered and not powered sites that you can book here. However, outside of Lake Tekapo, you can freedom camp in a self-contained vehicle. A great place nearby is at Lake Alexandria. It’s around a 15-minute drive from Tekapo and is accessed through a closed farm gate on a gravel road. There is a sign instruction on where to freedom camp.
Some things to do in Lake Tekapo are:
- Swim in the lake (if you dare)
- Visit the church of the Good Shepard
- Star Gazing tour
- Visit the hot springs
- Ride on a high-speed jet boat
Queenstown – 2 to 3 nights
Queenstown is the most popular tourist destination in New Zealand. This small town is super vibrant and offers so many things to see and do. We recommend 2 or 3 nights to give you enough time to explore the area and use this destination for some much-needed rest during your road trip.
Where to camp in Queenstown:
In Queenstown, there are a few holiday parks that offer powered and non-powered sites. Lakeview Holiday Park, for example, is right in the town centre and has great facilities! However, it’s best to note that in summer these holiday parks book up, so if you want to stay at them it is best to book in advance.
Alternatively, you can freedom camp near Queenstown. You must drive outside of town to freedom camp. There are signs stating “freedom camping is allowed past this point.” Alternatively, go to the visitor centre and ask them where you are allowed to freedom camp!
Some great freedom camping spots near Queenstown are towards Glenorchy or up at Coronet Peak Ski Field road (in summer). If you would like to stay at a cheap designated spot, the 12-Mile Delta Campsite is a great option as it is a DOC campsite meaning it costs $12 NZD per person per night.
Some things to do in Queenstown are:
- Adventure activities such as skydiving, bungy jumping, rock climbing, jet boating and more!
- Hiking the Queenstown Hill, Ben Lomond, or Crichton Loop
- Eat at awesome restaurants
- going out on the town for a few drinks
- Go on a day trip to Milford Sound
- Go on a tour such as a Lord of the Rings tour or a wine tasting tour
For more ideas of what to do in Queenstown, check out our blog on 101 things to do in Queenstown!
Glenorchy – day trip from Queenstown or 1 night
Glenorchy is another small town (home to 200 residents) located near Queenstown. A visit to Glenorchy makes for a great 1 night or day trip from Queenstown. It’s not just the town of Glenorchy that makes this trip so worth it, it’s also the road between the two towns. To say the least it’s stunningly beautiful.
Where to camp in Glenorchy:
In Glenorchy, there are two campsite options. One has powered sites and the other non-powered. However, they are rather expensive so I recommend freedom camping along the road from Queenstown to Glenorchy or just visiting for the day. But nonetheless, a trip to Glenorchy on your New Zealand South Island road trip should not be missed!
Some things to do in Glenorchy are:
- Hike part or all of the Routeburn Track
- Visit the Glenorchy animal farm
- Hike the Greenstone trail
- Take a scenic drive around the area
Wanaka – 1 to 2 nights
Wanaka is another beautiful town located only 1 hour from Queenstown. It is, however, is much smaller and has a more relaxed vibe that makes it a perfect stop on your road trip. Wanaka is also located on a stunning lake called Lake Wanaka.
Where to camp in Wanaka:
In Wanaka, there are a few holiday parks that offer both powered and unpowered sites (you can book those here.) However, there are also designated freedom-camping spots located near Wanaka. However, in my opinion, I found some of the sites dirty and very unpleasant.
My top choice is the DOC campground right on the lake. It’s $8 a night for adults and $4 for children 5- 17 (under 5 are free). Cars, campervans and tents are allowed here. You can see the official campground website and location here.
Some things to do in Wanaka are:
- Hike Roy’s Peak or do the Diamond Lake walk
- Go Skydiving
- Check out the Wanaka Lavender Farm
- Relax on the lake
- Visit the Wanaka Tree
Te Anau – 1 night
Te Anau is another beautiful place to stop on a South Island road trip. It’s the gateway to Milford Sound and a great place to break up the long drive to Milford Sound from Queenstown. There are also some great things to do and see in Te Anau.
Where to camp in Te Anau:
In Te Anau, there are a few options for powered and non-powered sites that you can book here. Freedom camping is heavily restricted in Te Anau and there are no DOC campsites in town. However, there are some on the road between Te Anau and Milford Sound. There is a full map of all the spots with info in this link
Some things to do in Ten Anau are:
- Hike all (bookings essential) or part of the Kepler Track
- Take a scenic flight or drive to to Milford Sound
- Go for a walk around the lake
- Explore Fiordland National Park
Milford Sound – full day to 1 night (if possible)
Milford Sound is a truly magical place and if you’re on a New Zealand South Island road trip you have the perfect opportunity to do what many don’t…spend the night! During the day Milford Sound packs out with visitors, but after4 pm they all leave and it becomes silent. If you stay the night, not only can you do a cruise during the day, but you can also head to the shores and watch the sunset with a cold drink in hand at night! Doing this is one of the best experiences I have had in New Zealand!
Where to camp in Milford Sound:
There are no freedom camping areas in Milford Sound, just some that are close. However, if you book in advance (only necessary in the summer) you can get a powered site at the Milford Lodge for a great price. It’s so worth it!
Some things to do in Milford sound are:
- Milford sound scenic cruise
- Kayaking trip in Milford Sound
- Scenic flight
- Relax on the shores at sunset or during the day
- Hike to Lake Marian
For more information ,check out our guide to the perfect road trip from Queenstown to Milford Sound!
Franz Josef or Fox Glacier – 1 night
The two towns of Franz Josef and Fox Glacier are only around 30 minutes apart so staying at either is fine. These two spots are the perfect stopover on your road trip as you navigate through the stunning West Coast. These towns are also home to two of New Zealand’s glaciers that you definitey will want to check out!
Where to camp in Franz and Fox Glacier towns:
Freedom camping is also permitted on any DOC land unless signposted otherwise (however I found this confusing while there so it’s best to ask at the visitor centre for exact spots for freedom camping).
Some things to do in Franz Joseph and Fox Glacier are:
- Visit Lake Matheson
- Hike to one or both of the glacier viewpoints
- Do New Zealand’s HIGHEST skydive! Can you imagine jumping out of a plane at 20,000ft!?
- Take a tour to and on one of the glaciers
- Visit the FranzJosephh hot pools
- Visit the Franz Josef Wildlife Center and see a Kiwi
There are many great stops on New Zealand’s West Coast- check out our New Zealand West Coast guide!
Punakaiki – 2 nights
Punakaiki is one of the most northern towns on New Zealand’s classic West Coast road trip. This small town is nestled in a stunning region surrounded by beautiful forest areas and pristine coastline. Its home to Blue Penguins, ancient rock formations, and much more.
Where to camp in Punakaiki:
In Punakaiki, there is a really nice holiday park located right where the river meets the ocean. This place is very well priced and has great facilities (you can check it out here!)
Freedom camping in the area is very restricted. However, there is a spot not far from the town on Mcmilan Road. Here there is a carpark set out for freedom camping. You can find it on the app Campermate.
Some things to do in Punakaiki are:
- Visit the Pancake Rocks
- Walk the Truman track
- Visit the blowhole
- Go kayaking on the river
For more information, check out our blog about all of the different things to do in Punakaiki.
Catlins region – 2 nights
The Catlins region is located in the very south of the South Island. This region is filled with quaint towns, stunning waterfalls and beautiful nature walks. The Catlins sits between Invercargill and Dunedin making it easy to explore on a New Zealand road trip.
Where to camp in the Catlins:
Throughout the area there are very relaxed freedom camping rules and a quick visit to the visitor centre will clear up where you can and can’t sleep. Also dotted around the region are many holiday parks that offer powered and non-powered sites.
One of the best holiday parks in the Catlins that is truly worth visiting is in Curio Bay. In the holiday park, it is common to see Blue Penguins walking around at night and is also possible to see the Yellow-Crested Penguin – one of the rarest penguins in the world!
Some of the things to do in the Catlins are:
- Visit a range of stunning waterfalls
- Watch for dolphins, penguins and seals in Curio Bay
- Visit Slope Point – the southernmost part of New Zealand.
Christchurch – 1 to 2 nights
Christchurch is the South Island’s largest city. It’s one of the cheapest places to fly into and for most, is the start of their New Zealand South Island road trip! The city is filled with a rich culture, surrounded by beaches, and a vibrant bar and restaurant scene.
Where to camp in Christchurch:
In Christchurch, there is one cheap DOC campsite located at Godly Head, other than that there are some freedom camping spots (big carparks) located around the city. There are also some holiday parks to choose from,
Some things to do in Christchurch are:
- Take a graffiti tour around Christchurch
- Visit the Botanical Gardens (or go on a sightseeing tour of the city)
- Explore the Canterbury Museum
- Go to Quail Island
Book Cheap Flights to Christchurch!
Marlborough sounds – 1 to 2 nights (Picton)
For nature lovers, Marlborough Sounds is one of the best places to visit in New Zealand. This ancient landscape made up of stunning sounds is filled with rare and unique wildlife including many bird species and marine life. It is also home to a few predator-free islands where Kiwi birds are raised before being introduced to the mainland. – this ensures survival rates are much higher.
Where to camp in the Marlborough Sounds
In the town of Picton in the Marlborough Sounds, there are many places to freedom camp or holiday parks to stay at. A detailed list of places can be found here.
Some things to do in the Marlborough Sounds are:
- Take a nature cruise on the Marlborough Sounds
- Hike the Queen Charlotte track
- Relax at one of the many beautiful beaches
- Go kayaking
- Go on a wine tour
A New Zealand South Island road trip is the sure way to see as much of the South Island as possible. It gives you the freedom to explore in more depth and move at your own pace depending on the amount of time that you have.
However, it’s not just because the stops along the way are so amazing but because of the drive along New Zealand’s windy roads which makes it simply stunning. There are thousands of spots to discover for you and have a truly unique experience!
June 3, 2019