New Zealand has everything your adventurous soul can only dream about. Never short of options, people can drive through spectacular scenery, hike a glacier, swim with dolphins, go trekking, star gazing, sea kayaking, join some exhilarating activities, witness gorgeous sunsets and sunrises… really this country has it all. But how to road trip the South Island?
You know, like many people who visit New Zealand, we wanted to see as much as we could, but once there we soon realised that all we needed was extra time. Or perhaps, fewer plans!
Not only because the distances between towns are huge, but also because there is so much to do and see. If we go back and I hope we will, we will definitely focus on some specific areas rather than trying to see everything at once. Our Road Trip the South Island was amazing, we did have some wonderful experiences, but we definitely planned way too much and ended up being burnt out at the end of it. But NO regrets! Because we enjoyed every minute of it!
Road Trip the South Island – New Zealand
We spent 15 days driving from Christchurch to Picton, clockwise, and tried to see as much as possible. During the planning stage of the road trip we realised that it would be impossible to do it all. The Island has so many wonderful places, that we would need months to really explore it fully.
The truth is, we didn’t follow the original itinerary because we just couldn’t fit in everything that we had written down. We thought we could, but the weather, the roads, our mood, or sometimes just spending a few hours looking at the scenery around us, made us take it slow and appreciate it more.
Planning is difficult when you haven’t actually experienced the reality of it. Factoring in the amount of time to spend somewhere is just a fantasy as it will always change if you want to explore further or love somewhere so much you just have to spend more time there. Soon we realised that driving for more than eight hours a day wasn’t something that we were looking forward to do.
Our New Zealand itinerary is designed for people who choose to self-drive as this is the absolute best way to see and experience what New Zealand has to offer.
Photo credit: 100% Pure New Zealand
Trip Highlights: 1 – Christchurch; 2 – Lake Tekapo & Lake Pukaki; 3 – Oamaru; 4- Moeraki; 5 – Baldwin Street; 6 – Sandly Beach; 7 – Otago Peninsula; 8 – Tunnel Beach; 9 – Te Anau; 10 – Milford Sound; 11- Queenstown; 12 – Glenorchy; 13 – Wanaka; 14 – Fox Glacier; 15 – Hokitika; 16 – Punakaiki; 17 – Lake Rotoiti; 18 – Thorpe (staying in a Yurt); 19 – Motueka (Sea Kayaking); 20 – Picton (Ferry to Wellington)
South Island Two Week Itinerary
On the 29th February 2016 we landed at Christchurch International Airport in the morning. We picked up our rental car and got settled in.
Below is the exact South Island driving itinerary that we followed and the highlights of two weeks. Hopefully this travel guide will give other travellers an idea of what to do and see in the South Island.
Christchurch – Afternoon
- Christchurch Cathedral
- Cuba Street
1st night – Christchurch
Aoraki / Mount Cook
- Lake Tekapo
- Lake Pukaki
- Mount Cook
2nd night – Oamaru – public car park
- Town & Harbour
On route to Otago Peninsula
- Moeraki Boulders (make sure it’s low tide)
- Baldwin Street, the steepest residential street in the world
- Sandfly Beach
3rd night – Dunedin – public car park
On route to Te Anau
- The Arch at Tunnel Beach
- Southern Scenic Route
4th night – Lumsden – public car park
- Te Anau
- Milford Highway – Mountains & waterfalls cascades
- Mirror Lakes
5th night – Frankton (Queenstown) – public car park
- Gondola Skyline
6th night – Arrowtown
Top – Left to Right: Lake Tekapo; Church of the Good Shepherd | Bottom – Left to Right: Albatross Colony; Tunnel Beach
Left to Right: Moeraki Boulders; Glenorchy
7th night – Arrowtown
- Puzzle World
- Lake Wanaka
- Lake Hawea
- Lake Paringa (Through Mt Aspiring National Park)
8th night – Lake Paringa – Paid car park
- Fox River
- Gillespies Beach
9th night – Gillespies Beach (Fox Glacier)
On route to Hokitika
- Hokitika Town
10th night – Hokitika – public car park
Greymouth (Heavy rain through the whole day so we stayed in MacDonald’s, for free Wi-Fi and editing pictures & videos)
11th night – Greymouth Car Park
- Pancake Rocks & Blowholes
On route to Nelson
- Lake Rotoiti – Jetty
12th night – Alpine Hostel, St Arnauld
Top – Left to Right: Lake Wanaka; Mt Aspiring National Park | Bottom – Left to Right: Fox Glacier; Pancake Rocks
South Island Road Trip Recommendations:
The best suggestion I could give to a fellow traveller is to have their own transportation. Like us, we wanted flexibility, so going at our own pace was the best decision.
For the solo traveler, hitchhiking in New Zealand is very popular, we actually offered countless car rides. Oh and of course, make sure you have a camera and spare batteries to capture those unforgettable moments, because everywhere is “postcard perfect”.
Once we left, we understood why New Zealand is on many people’s bucket list and as much as you plan, one trip will never be enough!
- Get a Free NZ Map at the airport – The best one is YHA Hostel Guide (Google Maps will not always work due to bad reception)
- When planning your itinerary DO add a few extra hours per day for: Lunch/Dinner, stretching your legs, pictures/videos, looking for free car parks/accommodation
- Try not to drive more than 6 -7 hours per day. It’s not worth it.
- There are two long drives:
– Te Anau to Milford Sound – up to 2 hours one way
– Wanaka to Fox Glacier/ Franz Josef – up to 4.5 hours.
(Add some extra time, there are some beautiful spots on route. Make sure you fill up the tank before both trips).
- Bring insect repellent, at dusk sand flies are unbearable.
- Buy a USB car adapter so you can charge two devices at the same time.
- Stock up with bin bags. You will not find a bin that easily in some parts of the country side.
- We booked all our accommodation through Airbnb (use our code and get $25/£30 discount on your booking). It was the best way to get some beautiful houses, like the Yurt we stayed in Thorpe (picture below), meet the locals and enjoy the relaxed pace of life. If you are looking for accommodation in New Zealand, join Airbnb.
How much does a Road Trip in the South Island Cost?
Below is a breakdown of our costs:
Queenstown 2 nights – NZ$170
St Arnauld 1 night – NZ$69
Thorpe 2 nights – NZ$110
Camping Sites 9 nights – NZ$200
Total Cost for 15 nights: NZ$606/USD$440/GBP£335
Per night: NZ$40/USD$30/GBP£22
Per Day: NZ$28/USD$21/GBP£16
Heli Hike – NZD$798/USD$580/GBP£445
Sea Kayaking – Cost: NZ$150/USD$108/GBP£83
Total Cost: NZ$1,012/USD$734/GBP£563
Petrol – NZ$370/USD$265/GBP£200
Ferry from Picton to Wellington – NZ$138/USD$100/GBP£75
Total Cost for 15 days: NZ$1,183/USD$855/GBP£650
The total for 15 days in the South Island was NZ$3,231/USD$2,344/GBP£1,788
Per day: NZ$215/USD$156/GBP£119 – For two people
New Zealand is an expensive country, and there is nothing we could do about it.
We slept inside the car for 9 nights in car parks to save money but gave in a few times for a bed, the car hire was the cheapest we could find, and petrol is just ridiculously expensive, We only chose 3 activities and all our food (apart from the Fergburger in Queenstown and a meal at the hostel in St Arnauld) was from the supermarkets.
So looking at it, we did pretty well! We just can’t see where we could have saved more money. Ok, the Heli Hike! But that was something that we really wanted to do.
Overall we are very happy with the outcome, and hopefully it will give people an idea of how much money they will need to travel the South Island.
Further reading: Lonely Planet New Zealand (Travel Guide) is a complete and all-inclusive guide for those wanting to experience and explore New Zealand. We strongly recommend reading this guide as it helped us planning our own trip. Happy Travels!
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We are Thomas and Telma – the writers, photographers, videographers and founders of Blank Canvas Voyage.
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