Ultimate New Zealand 3 Week Road Trip Itinerary

Whenever I tell someone that I’ve travelled New Zealand, I’m always met with a kind of wistful excitement; whether it’s from someone who’s been there before or someone who hasn’t, the consensus is always that New Zealand is incredibly beautiful.

It seems that everyone wants to go there, but many feel like they never will.

It’s just so far away. I get it, I really do.

But, honestly, booking that flight ticket will be one of the best things you’ll ever do if you’ve always dreamed of visiting this incredible country.

While I spent almost two years in New Zealand on a Working Holiday Visa, I know that a lot of people may not have that option.

Editor’s note: New Zealand is one of the easiest countries to get a work visa.

However, I do recommend allotting at least 3 weeks for your trip to ensure you can see as much of the country as possible.

I put together this 3 week road trip itinerary for when a couple of my family members came out to visit me in New Zealand, so I’ve experienced everything here first-hand.

Because of the size of the country, there is a lot of time spent on the road. But, with views as incredible as these, it’s really no great hardship.

How to get around New Zealand

For this 3 week New Zealand itinerary, you’ll need to hire a vehicle.

When it comes to road tripping around New Zealand, I think it’s best to hire a campervan for complete freedom of travel.

You can either get a camper with a self-contained certification, which means that there is a sink and a toilet on board and allows you to freedom camp in a lot of locations, or you can get a non self-contained one.

You can still freedom camp in a non self-contained camper, but there are not as many sites which allow this.

From my personal experience with living in a non self-contained vehicle, I can tell you that I did not find it to be a disadvantage in terms of finding places to stay. The only downside was having to cook and wash up outside in the cold!

Many rental companies will allow you to pick up and drop off the vehicle in different locations, sometimes for an extra fee. This is very useful when you’re short on time because it allows you to see more without rushing to get back to where you started.

For this itinerary, we are starting in Auckland and finishing in Christchurch. You don’t have to have a separate return flight from Christchurch though, as it is very easy to catch a domestic flight between the two cities.

Before you start your road trip, make sure you download the Campermate app. This incredibly useful resource will show you where you can camp, find fresh drinking water, hot/cold showers, fuel stations and so much more!

What to pack for a New Zealand road trip

A rental campervan and a smaller camper car parked up at the side of a mountain.
A rental campervan and a camper car in New Zealand

The main thing to remember about living in a vehicle is that you’re pretty exposed to the elements.

So, if you’re travelling in the summer it could get very hot inside your campervan when the sun is up, while in the winter it could get very cold at night.

Here are a few essentials I recommend when you’re packing for New Zealand:

New Zealand 3 week road trip itinerary

Now that you know what to expect, let’s get into the trip! If you’re flying into Auckland early in the day, then you can use Day 1 for the day you land. If you’re landing at night, you’ll probably want to head straight to your accommodation and start fresh the next day.

Day 1: Arrival in Auckland

When you get through customs and biosecurity at Auckland airport, grab a taxi to take you to your campervan pick up point.

Most of these are conveniently located near the airport so the taxi fare shouldn’t be too expensive.

Once you’ve gone through all the details with the rental company and are the proud driver of your new home for the next few weeks, head to a nearby supermarket to stock up on some essentials.

There are three main supermarkets in New Zealand. From cheapest to most expensive, they are: Pak’n’Save, Countdown and New World.

Be aware of fridge space (if you have any). If you don’t have a fridge, buy a cool box or bag and aim for mostly long-life foods.

If you need to fill up your camper with fuel (this shouldn’t be necessary when you first pick it up), you can do so at most supermarkets.

As you’ve just got off a long flight and immediately had to get used to driving a new vehicle (on the LEFT side of the road), you’ll probably want to head to your accommodation/campsite and rest now, ready for tomorrow.

Day 2: Auckland

Grassy volcano crater in foreground with Auckland city in the background.
View of Auckland from Mt Eden

As we’re on a pretty tight schedule, there’s only time for one full day in New Zealand’s largest city, so we’ll have to pack in a few of Auckland’s highlights today.

First up is the iconic Skytower in the city center.

You can ascend the tower in the lift for $29 and get panoramic views of the whole city, including Harbour Bridge and Rangitoto Island. This is a great way to get a feel for Auckland on your first day.

Plus, if you want to see how the views change at night, you can go up a second time on the same day for only $8!

Next, we’re heading a little way out of the city to Mt Eden for your first taste of New Zealand’s volcanic activity.

There are a few trails from the base to the summit at 196m and these range from 10 to 30 minutes to walk, depending on your fitness level.

From the top you’ll have a different vantage point of the city, as well as the huge crater, which is sacred to the Maori and forbidden to enter.

Our final destination of the day is on the other side of the harbour, meaning you’ll get to cross the impressive Harbour Bridge in your campervan.

Devonport is a lovely area located on Auckland’s North Shore. Its gorgeous Victorian buildings house many cute cafes and restaurants, and the waterfront is a beautiful place to take a stroll.

If you’re not too tired already, you can climb one or even both of the small volcanoes here: Mt Victoria and North Head. There are fascinating wartime artefacts at the top of both, as well as some more beautiful views of Auckland.

You can either eat dinner here or head back to the city, but be prepared for your first long drive tomorrow!

Day 3: Hobbiton

A round door in the side of a grassy hill and a garden gate with a paper sign stating "no admittance except on party business".
The hobbit hole at Bag End in the Hobbiton movie set

In my opinion, no trip to New Zealand is complete without a visit to Hobbiton.

However, if you’re not a fan of the Lord of the Rings franchise, feel free to skip this one and head straight for Rotorua and Day 4 (having an extra day to spend somewhere is never a bad thing).

Hobbiton is located in the rolling green hills of Matamata, and is around 2 hours 15 minutes from Auckland.

You will need to book your tickets for Hobbiton ahead of time, and there are a few different options you can choose from.

I took the lunch and afternoon tour option, which started with a buffet of delicious food in a marquee with long tables, followed by a guided walking tour of the hobbit holes and a complimentary drink in the Green Dragon pub!

Check out Campermate for a couple of lovely campgrounds in the area.

Day 4: Rotorua

Hot steaming water shoots out of the ground which is covered in white and grey minerals.
The Pohutu Geyser at Te Puia, Rotorua

Rotorua is the center of the North Island’s geothermal activity and it is a lovely town, if you can get used to the eggy smell of sulphur!

It’s located only an hour from Matamata, so you won’t have too much driving to do today.

There are many geothermal parks in the area, but today you’ll be visiting Te Puia, which is located in the Whakarewarewa Valley and is home to the largest geyser in the Southern Hemisphere!

Pohutu Geyser erupts up to 30 meters many times a day, so you’re pretty much guaranteed to see it if you buy a day pass to the park. In addition to this, there are bubbling hot pools and steaming lakes scattered over a large area which you can walk around.

Te Puia also offers the chance to experience Maori culture up close, and I highly recommend the cultural demonstration which takes place inside a traditional marae (meeting house) and includes the infamous haka.

You can also see some incredible Maori carving in process at the on-site NZ Maori Arts & Crafts Institute.

Of course, one of the iconic symbols of New Zealand is the kiwi, and at Te Puia you’ll get your chance to see one or two of these beautiful nocturnal birds in their Kiwi Sanctuary.

There are a few campgrounds in the area, so you can have dinner in the town or make your own.

For a beautiful and cheap campground outside of the city, drive about 15 minutes to Boyes Beach on the shore of Lake Okareka. The views here are gorgeous and the lake is wonderful for a swim in the warmer months.

Day 5: Taupo

Huge rock carving in the shape of a face with tribal Maori designs.
The Maori rock carvings at Mine Bay, Taupo

Another 1 hour drive will get you to the town of Taupo on the shore of a lake with the same name.

Lake Taupo is a huge body of water right in the center of New Zealand’s North Island, and is the result of a huge volcanic eruption from around 26,500 years ago.

The first activity of the day is a boat trip out onto the lake to see the incredible Maori rock carvings at Mine Bay. Ernest Kemp Cruises offers the cheapest option and this trip is excellent value for money.

The cruise can take up to an hour and the captain provides a lot of information about the area, as well as the carvings themselves.

Once you’re back on dry land, take a wander along the shoreline. The views across the lake are beautiful and there are lots of cafes here if you’re feeling hungry.

If you walk right down to the water’s edge, you’ll find lots of pumice stones scattered around; another product of the volcanic eruption.

Next, drive out of town to Huka Falls, where you can watch 220,000 liters of water per second rush through a small ravine, creating an impressive foamy, bright blue waterfall.

From Huka Falls there is a lovely walk which follows the Waikato River back towards Lake Taupo, ending at Spa Village: an area where a hot stream meets the cold river and you can soak in the wonderfully warm water.

There is a beautiful free campsite near Huka Falls as well as some lovely holiday parks in Taupo itself.

Day 6: Mt Taranaki

This is the first very long drive of the trip, as you’ll head right over to the western corner of the North Island to see Mt Taranaki.

You’ll need an early start for this 4 hour drive across the island!

If it’s a clear day, you’ll be able to see this huge volcano long before you reach it, as it juts out of the flat terrain and into the sky.

It is possible to hike to the summit of Mt Taranaki; however, you will need a full day and a good level of fitness to attempt this, as it often takes up to 12 hours to complete the trek.

As you will not have a full day here, you can head to the Egmont National Park visitor center and do one of the many shorter hikes around this majestic mountain.

Alternatively, if you’d rather not do any hiking, you can head to New Plymouth and spend the day in this beach town in the shadow of Taranaki.

Even though there is not enough time to climb to the summit, it is definitely worth seeing the almost perfect cone of this 2,518m high volcano.

Day 7: Koitiata

A large black sand beach which is littered with lots of driftwood.
Koitiata Beach

We’re now starting our journey towards Wellington, which we won’t do in one day as it is too far, so we’ll make a nice stop along the way.

Koitiata is something of a hidden gem in New Zealand; it’s definitely not on the tourist trail.

After your long drive yesterday, you can have a bit of a rest this morning. Once you’re ready to get going, you can start the two hour drive to Whanganui.

This is a lovely town located on the Whanganui River, and is a great place to stop and relax. There are some beautiful gardens and river walks here as well as markets and historical attractions.

Koitiata is another 25 minutes south of Whanganui and is a small village right by the beach.

Koitiata Motor Camp is the only campground here, and you can be on the beach within 5 minutes of walking.

The reason I’ve included this spot on the itinerary is because the beach is a huge expanse of black sand, which is completely covered in driftwood! It really is quite spectacular.

The waves crash against the beach and grass grows on the black sand dunes. You’ll likely see very few people except for a local or two.

It’s a beautiful, quiet spot to pause away from the tourist trail and reflect on everything you’ve seen so far.

Day 8: Wellington

Statue of man leaning forward with arms behind him over the water and city buildings behind.
Wellington waterfront

To start the last day of your time on the North Island, you’ll be making your 2 hour 30 minute journey down to New Zealand’s capital city: Wellington.

There are plenty of things to do here but as you only have this one day, you should go and check out Te Papa: the Museum of New Zealand.

Entry is free and exhibits cover everything from Maori culture, to natural history, to tales of war and art galleries.

A few hours spent in this museum will teach you a huge amount about the country that you’re visiting.

Lord of the Rings fans can also head out to the Weta Cave, which is part of the Weta Workshop, where the movies were made.

The Weta Cave is the gift shop, which has a wide range of LOTR related souvenirs, as well as other movies made by Weta Studios.

If you’ve got some time, you can even take a tour of the workshop, but just be aware that it will be all about the most recent movie made there rather than Lord of the Rings.

There is a campground near the Weta Cave called Camp Wellington, which is right by the sea and has beautiful views of the sunset. The owner is very friendly and the facilities are comfortable, but the best part about it is that penguins nest under the floor of the conservatory!

If you’re watching at the right time, you can see them emerge from the water and walk to their nesting space, and if you’re inside the lounge at the time you might hear them rustling around under the floor.

Day 9: Ferry to the South Island

Woman on deck of ferry taking photos of the mountains and water.
Admiring the view from the Bluebridge ferry

It’s an early start this morning as you drive to the ferry port to catch your ferry to the South Island!

You’ll need to have booked your ticket in advance with either Interislander or Bluebridge ferries, and I recommend you catch one of the sailings around 8am.

The ferries are huge and carry lots of vehicles; they have cafes, restaurants, lounge areas and sometimes even a cinema on board!

The journey takes 3-4 hours and ends in Picton, a little town in the Marlborough Sounds.

I recommend that you go to the outside viewing deck once the ferry enters the sounds as they are so beautiful. You might even see a few dolphins or seals!

Once you disembark, stop in Picton for a spot of lunch and to admire this lovely town before starting the 2 hour drive down the east coast to Kaikoura.

There is an abundance of marine life off the coast around Kaikoura, and there will be a few opportunities to stop on the way down where you could spot seals, dolphins, penguins or maybe even whales!

There are a few different camping options in Kaikoura, so park up, get some rest and prepare yourself for tomorrow!

Day 10: Whale watching

As I mentioned earlier, Kaikoura has a huge amount of marine life in its waters thanks to a giant canyon just off the coastline.

Sperm whales feed off the rich source of fish, so no matter what time of year you visit, you’re almost guaranteed to spot one!

You can also spot humpback whales, orca, southern right whales and, if you’re really lucky, maybe even a blue whale!

Make sure you book your ticket in advance with Whale Watch Kaikoura and take one of their morning boat trips out to sea.

The sea can be quite choppy so, if you’re prone to seasickness, make sure you take anti-motion sickness pills or other precautions before you go out. There are a few different options in the gift shop.

You’ll be out on the water for around 2 hours to give you the best chance of seeing a whale.

Once your incredible whale watching tour is over, head out to the Kaikoura peninsula and spend your afternoon hiking the Kaikoura Peninsula Walkway.

This fairly easy walking trail takes you around the peninsula and is one hour from end to end. You can either walk along the clifftop or down at ground level, or both if you do it both ways!

You’ll pass a seal colony and a seagull colony, plus you’ll have stunning views of the area.

Spend another night in Kaikoura; you’ll be moving on tomorrow!

Day 11: Arthur’s Pass

Road bridge passes through a dramatic valley with snow-capped mountains.
View from the Otira Viaduct Lookout, Arthur’s Pass

Believe it or not, you’re halfway through your trip already!

It’s another long 4 hour drive today as you head south towards Christchurch and then west to Arthur’s Pass.

Make sure you leave early so that you have some time in the little village and the surrounding mountains.

The road through Arthur’s Pass is absolutely stunning; you’ll see lots of braided rivers and majestic mountains as you climb to the mountain village.

There is a Department of Conservation campground here as well as a couple of lodges and guesthouses. The walking trails here are incredible and I highly recommend the hike to the Devil’s Punchbowl Falls, which is near to the camp.

You will likely hear the call of the mischievous Kea, an alpine parrot that is known for picking the rubber parts out of cars!

There are some lovely little shops and restaurants in Arthur’s Pass village, so once you’ve had a walk you can relax with a cooked meal and a nice beverage.

Day 12: Hokitika

View out to sea from beach with large driftwood letters spelling out "Hokitika".
Driftwood sign at Hokitika Beach

On your way out of Arthur’s Pass towards Hokitika, make sure you stop at the Otira Viaduct Lookout for a stunning view of the road winding through the imposing mountains. It’s also common to see Kea up close here.

Hokitika is a town on the west coast of the South Island, and it was the main hotspot for prospectors during New Zealand’s gold rush era.

These days, it’s a lovely beach town that’s worth stopping in for the night.

Just north of the main town, near the road, is a spot called the Glow Worm Dell. Head out here after dark for a magical display of these beautiful lights, one of the many free glow worm spots in New Zealand.

There are lots of accommodation and camping options in Hokitika, the most unusual of which is the Seaview Lodge and Campground. This building has a lovely vantage point on top of the cliff, just above the Glow Worm Dell, but it has a pretty spooky atmosphere as it used to be a mental asylum!

Day 13: Franz Josef Glacier

The next stop on New Zealand’s west coast is Franz Josef Glacier, which is about 1 hour 40 minutes south of Hokitika.

There is a lovely little township here with a great visitor center, and of course the main focus is the glacier itself.

You can book a trip to go up onto the glacier, or you can walk one of the trails which give you a fantastic view of it.

The trail which leads along the valley floor takes about 30 minutes to walk, and there are information boards along the way to show how far the glacier has retreated.

There are multiple campgrounds in Franz Josef township, but I highly recommend staying at the Orange Sheep Campervan Park; it has wonderful native bushes surrounding each plot with a great view of the mountains. It is also the cheaper option in Franz Josef.

You may also wish to see Fox Glacier, which is only a 25 minute drive away. It would be best to do that today as there is another long drive planned for tomorrow!

Day 14: Wanaka

Silhouetted willow tree growing in lake with rowing boat tied to it.
That Wanaka Tree

It’s an early start this morning as you’ll be taking on the 3 hour 35 minute drive south to Wanaka.

The route follows the west coast down for a while, before heading inland through Haast’s Pass, which is particularly stunning.

Eventually, you will reach the top of Lake Wanaka and drive along the water’s edge for a while, before going through a small valley called The Neck and emerging on the edge of the beautiful Lake Hawea. Stop at the lookout to take some photos.

You’re not far from Wanaka at this point so keep going until you reach the town and find somewhere by the lake’s edge to park up and admire the view!

If you walk around the left side of the lake you’ll eventually come across what is possibly the most famous tree in New Zealand.

“That Wanaka Tree” is a willow that grows straight out of the water. You will likely encounter lots of other people here trying to get the perfect Instagram shot!

Depending on how tired you’re feeling by this point, you can either spend the day relaxing by the lake and wandering around the town, or you can drive a little way out for a 3 hour hike.

Wanaka’s Rocky Mountain is a stunning walk, which starts at the Diamond Lake Conservation Area car park. It takes around 3 hours for the return trip and involves some climbing, but the views from the summit are truly spectacular.

When you’re ready to camp up for the night, head back into Wanaka or to the nearby Albert Town.

Day 15: Cascade Creek via Te Anau

Hit the road early for your drive to Te Anau, which should take around 2 hours 45 minutes and will take you past Queenstown. Don’t worry, we will be coming back here!

Te Anau is the gateway town to Milford Sound and is extremely beautiful. Make the first stop when you arrive here to be to book your Milford Sound cruise for the next morning; there are plenty of companies offering this but I recommend Go Orange.

You’ve got another 50 minute drive to your campsite for the night but, for now, take some time to explore Te Anau. There is a bird sanctuary just outside of the town, which is well worth a visit for the chance to see the very rare Takahe, plus many other native birds including a Morepork.

If you fancy eating out for dinner, you’ll need to do it before you leave Te Anau, as after this you’ll be heading out into the wilderness.

Cascade Creek campsite is the last Department of Conservation camp before Milford Sound. There are mountains all around a waterfall cascading down from one of them. Just watch out for the sandflies!

Day 16: Milford Sound and Queenstown

In my opinion, the road to Milford Sound is one of the best drives in New Zealand. It takes about 30 minutes to get there from Cascade Creek and the huge mountains surrounding you are incredible.

You’ll drive through the Homer Tunnel, which is quite an experience in itself!

Once you arrive at Milford Sound, check in with your cruise company and head out onto the water. The cruises are fantastic and a highlight of any New Zealand trip.

Once your morning cruise is over, hop back in your vehicle and retrace your steps all the way back to Queenstown. This should take around 3 hours 20 minutes, although you may want to stop at some of the viewpoints along the way.

Queenstown has a few holiday parks where you can set up camp and enjoy the facilities.

Day 17: Queenstown

View from mountain top of town by large blue lake with mountains surrounding it.
Queenstown from the top of the Skyline Gondola

You might be relieved to know that there is no driving on the itinerary for today, so you can take your time to explore Queenstown.

Take the Skyline Gondola up the mountain for an incredible view over the city, the lake and the surrounding mountains. While you’re up there you can have a go on the luge or even do a bungy jump!

Back at ground level, take a wander around the Queenstown gardens and the lake, and don’t forget to try a delicious burger from the famous Fergburger!

Day 18: Aoraki/Mount Cook

Mountain covered in snow behind blue lake with floating icebergs.
Aoraki/Mt Cook

As there are only a few days left of your New Zealand road trip, there will continue to be a lot of driving as you gradually make your way over to Christchurch.

Today, though, you’re going as far as Mt Cook, which is the highest mountain in the country and a 3 hour drive from Quenstown.

You’ll see lots of different types of terrain along the way as you drive through a gorge, along a lake and start ascending into higher altitudes.

Eventually, you’ll see the almost unbelievably blue water of Lake Pukaki with the majestic Mt Cook at the end.

The bright blue colour of the water is caused by very fine silt in the water, and it has almost a milky look about it.

You can stop at the viewpoint near Lake Pukaki for the iconic road shot of Mt Cook – just watch out for any cars!

Keep going along the road until you reach the visitor center where you can read all about the tallest peak and the people who’ve climbed it over the years.

When you’re done here, head out to the White Horse Hill campground. From here you can start the Hooker Valley Track, which is only 5km long but is one of my favourite hikes!

The trail takes you through the valley to Hooker Lake, directly below the beautiful mountain. There is even a glacier at the far end of the lake and there are usually icebergs floating in it! Admire the view for as long as you like: you’ll be camping at White Horse Hill tonight.

Listen out for avalanches in the surrounding mountains!

Day 19: Lake Tekapo

Staying in the region of beautiful mountains and lakes, today you’ve only got 1 hour to drive to Tekapo.

Most of this time will be spent heading back along the shores of Lake Pukaki, before you leave it behind.

Lake Tekapo is another beautifully blue lake, although the colour is not as intense as Lake Pukaki. A lot of lupins grow in the area, attracting many photographers hoping to get a great shot of the flowers with this stunning backdrop.

Another popular photo opportunity is of the Church of the Good Shepherd, which was built in the 1930s and sits at the lake’s edge.

There are, of course, lots of hiking opportunities in the area and some wonderful stargazing if the weather is clear at night.

Spend your day relaxing in this gorgeous location before your final drive to Christchurch tomorrow.

Day 20: Christchurch

It’s time to return to civilization, and the drive to Christchurch is 3 hours long. Take your time and enjoy your final long journey in your campervan.

When you arrive, you can explore the city with its mix of old and new buildings, intersected by the river.

If you’d rather spend some more time away from the hustle and bustle of the city, head out to New Brighton beach and feel the sand between your toes.

Find yourself one final place to camp for the night and reflect on everything you’ve done over the past 3 weeks!

Day 21: Vehicle drop off

The final day will likely be spent packing and getting ready to leave New Zealand.

Whether you’re catching an international flight or heading back to Auckland, you’ll likely be going to the airport.

The drop off point for your vehicle will, once again, probably be near the airport so that you can go through those formalities and then easily catch a taxi the rest of the way.

Final thoughts

It’s hard to pack so much into such a short amount of time; however, I think this 3 week road trip itinerary covers a lot of the must-see places in New Zealand without being too overwhelming.

There is a lot of driving on this trip, which is necessary to get to all these awesome places, but do feel free to skip a couple of the items if it’s too much and you’d prefer to relax a little more.

I know I’ve said it before, but New Zealand is truly stunning in so many ways, and I hope that this itinerary is the perfect guide to help you get the most out of your trip.

What did you think of the itinerary? Do you plan to visit New Zealand sometime? Let me know in the comments!

Share

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on pinterest
Share on whatsapp
Share on email

We want you to know! Some links on this page may be affiliate links. We may earn a small commission from what you buy. 
It will never cost you extra, or make us bias, but helps us run this blog and occasionally get a good cup of coffee. 
As an Amazon Associate we earn from qualifying purchases.

Sarah
Sarah
Sarah started travelling on a budget in 2012 and hasn't looked back since! Exploring new destinations is what she lives for and she shares her experiences and budget travel knowledge on her blog to help her readers fulfil their travel goals.
Do you want to contribute?
Publish your guest post on Etramping!

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *