Two Weeks in New Zealand: A Driving Itinerary

New Zealand - 2 weeks driving itinerary

I recently spent two weeks solo driving around New Zealand’s North Island and South Island! If you have two weeks or more in New Zealand, I highly recommend renting a car and driving on your own. Don’t forget the handy GPS or switch out your sim card for a local sim card on your phone to use Google Maps.

How to get to New Zealand

It is REALLY easy to get to New Zealand. Major airlines offer direct flights to New Zealand from Australia, USA, Canada, China, Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Thailand and Chile. 

Most of the time, you will most likely fly in and out of Auckland or Queenstown. If you can, I recommend flying into Auckland and out of Queenstown (or vice versa), just so you don’t have to backtrack.

How to get around New Zealand

If you’re in the city, it’s easy to get around with Lyft/Uber, walking, and bus but if you’re exploring the entire country, I really only recommend renting a car and zipping around the country.

To get from North Island to South Island, I recommend a domestic flight and to fly to Christchurch since that’s a good starting point for your South Island journey.

Wanaka in New Zealand

Tips driving around New Zealand

  • People drive on the LEFT side of the road.
  • Traffic circles: Enter from the LEFT. Traffic goes clock-wise and take your time. It’s better to go around and around than take the wrong turn.
  • Include a GPS navigator with the rental car at the airport (it is worth it)
  • Before leaving the airport, take a moment to adjust all the mirrors and seat for your liking, practice turning on the blinkers, and the windshield wipers because that is ALL backward.
  • People drive FAST in New Zealand. Stay on the left and allow others to pass.

When to travel to New Zealand

New Zealand is a year-round destination so take your pick of when to go. During the summer (December – February because New Zealand is in the southern hemisphere!), it is extremely busy. Expect higher prices everywhere you go and crowds.

A word for the wise: Even in summer, the south island (especially Queenstown) is a chilly because we’re closer to the South Pole.

In winter, expect to ski, snowboard, and partake in New Zealand’s adventurous winter activities !

How long to travel New Zealand

How much time do you need in New Zealand? Oh man, MONTHS. However, if you don’t have months to spend, I suggest 2 weeks. 16 days, preferably because it’ll take 24-48 hours to get there and back so you’ll want 14 days of pure traveling at a pretty fast pace. If it’s possible, do 3-4 weeks and you can slow down a bit but also experience more.

Where to stay in New Zealand

There’s freedom camping all over the country as well as a plethora of hotels ranging from basic hostels to luxury hotels. Here are my recommendations:

Auckland

For overnights to Rotora, I suggest staying at the Novatel Airport Hotel so you can just walk back to the airport in the morning.

Rotorua

  • Regent of Rotorua Boutique Hotel
  • Black Swan Lakeside Boutique Hotel & Spa

Mount Cook

Wanaka

Te Anau

Queenstown

How to stay connected in New Zealand

I recommend purchasing a Sparks sim card at the airport and switching it out with your phone upon your arrival. It’s about $19 NZD for 4 weeks and you get about 1 GB a day. It’s easy to top it off as needed as well!

Wifi in available in most hotels in New Zealand but it can be fairly slow, especially in the rural areas. Some times the internet is included, sometimes you must pay separate.

If you’re driving, I recommend making sure the rental car comes with an external GPS so when there is no cell phone service, you can navigate.

Language in New Zealand

For English speakers, there will be no issues whatsoever. The only thing is that some of the local slang will be different of course!

  • Kiwi: New Zealanders, also a native bird
  • Togs: Swimsuit
  • Jandals/thongs: Flip flops/slippers
  • Buggered/knackered: Really tired
  • Jumper: Sweater or pullover
  • Tramping: Hiking
  • Mate: Friend or enemy (depending on the person’s tone)
  • Sweet as: Great, good, fine
  • Mackers: McDonald’s

Maori Words

  • Kia Ora (key-or-a): Hello
  • Haere Mai (high-reh-my) – welcome.
  • Haere Ra (high-reh-rah) – goodbye
  • Whanau (far-now): Family
  • Ka kite ano: See you later (commonly used by news anchors)
  • Mana: Respect
  • Kai: Food

Food in New Zealand

The food in New Zealand isn’t exactly a culinary adventure but there are some yummy dishes you must try. I really enjoyed:

  • Hokey pokey ice cream: vanilla ice cream with bits of honeycomb
  • Pavlova
  • L&P: A type of soft drink or soda. It’s less sweet than regular coke.
  • manuka honey: highly sought-after honey on the international markets, manuka honey is acclaimed for its medicinal purposes. The purer the manuka component of the honey is, the healthy (and more expensive) it is. 
  • Meat pies: I loved meat pies – their flaky buttery crust surrounding usually pork, beef, or chicken. Sometimes, they even had cheese with them. It was great food for on-the-go and filling too.
  • Lamb: With lamb and sheep everywhere, you can’t go to New Zealand without trying their delicious roast lamb
  • Fish & Chips: Another classic – easy to eat dish.

Cost of Travel in New Zealand

At the time of writing this, the US dollar was a bit strong compared to the New Zealand dollar. People like to say New Zealand is expensive but I found it to be just as much as any big city here. Honolulu, SF, NYC, and DC were about the same amount for food and drinks as well as gas or petrol.

With hotels, car rental, gas, food, adventures, and shopping: The trip was about $4-5k + airfare. The cost would be much less if you do cheaper hotels or camping but I tend to prefer my creature comforts and do mostly 4-5 star hotels, if possible. I also said, “yes” to everything – including bungee jumping, a glorious heli-hike experience, glow worms, Hobbiton, etc.

What to Pack in New Zealand

LAYERS. I cannot insist more than anything else, you need layers. The weather in New Zealand during summer gets to be pretty hot in the day but chilly in the mornings and evenings.

Essentials to bring:

  • Shorts and pants to hike in
  • Tank tops and long-sleeves
  • Windbreaker/waterproof jacket
  • Fleece
  • Hat
  • Sunscreen
  • Durable hiking shoes or trainers/sneakers
  • Flip flops/sandals
  • Water bottle (refill your bottle with the tap, you’ll be totally fine)

My two week solo driving itinerary

This itinerary is for flying in and out of Auckland and driving from North to South Island.

Day 1: Arrive in Auckland

Sleep. If you’re flying into Rotorua, I suggest staying at the airport hotel so it’s easier to catch your flight the next morning.

Day 2: Fly into Rotorua

Day 3 & 4: Spend the day in Rotorua

There are plenty of things to do in Rotorua including seeing:

  • Glow-worm caves & tubing: Waitomo caves are a must-do. If you’re daring and adventurous, explore the caves in a wet suit and a tube. If not, a solid boat ride in the dark will be enough. No cameras are allowed.
  • Wai-O-Tapu: The geological thermal “wonderland.” It really is amazing to see all the boiling and bubbling mud pools and florescent neon green lakes. If you’re keen to avoid the touristy part, don’t go see Lady Knox geyser – they put soap in it to allow the geyser to shoot up in the mornings. Go early to avoid the crowds (while they’re waiting for the geyser).
  • Rainbow Mountain: Do the Summit Track and you’ll get to see Mt Tarawera, Lakes Tarawera, Rotomahana, Okaro and Rerewhakaaitu to the north. Look south to see Lake Taupo and the fantastic volcano Mt Tongariro.
  • Polynesian Spa Center: Swim in the hot springs and relax before getting a massage. I recommend going in the morning or right before it closes and if you book a massage, you can skip the line to just use the pools. It’s a bit busy so if you really need to get away from people, this isn’t the spa for it.
  • The Redwoods and/or the Redwoods Treewalk: Experience the redwoods of Rotorua with a tree walk in the treetops. If you go at night, the trees are lit with pretty little lights.
  • Hobbiton: The more overpriced tourist attraction ever but I didn’t regret it one bit.

Day 5: Fly from Rotorua to Christchurch and drive to Mount Cook

The drive from Christchurch and Mount Cook is BEAUTIFUL. Be sure to take your time and stop at all the lakes.

  • Church of Good Shepherd: That very photogenic beautiful little chapel sitting close to the shore of Lake Tekapo. Be warned though, it’s very popular. If you want the best shots, arrive at dawn and be prepared to wait and snap that photo at a moment’s notice when someone gets out of the way.
  • Lake Pukaki: Personally, my favorite lake with all the blue glacial water. I went at high-noon and it was epic.

Day 6: Spend the day in Mount Cook

  • Hooker Valley Trail: is one of the most popular hikes at Mt. Cook and for good reason. The three suspension bridges along with the glacial river and the surprise ending at the end make it all worthwhile. The three mile out & back track/hike is straight-forward with little incline. I suggest water, a hat, sunscreen, and a light jacket even if you’re hiking in the summer due to the elevation and the winds.
  • Governor’s Bush Walk: It’s a 45-60 minute walk and it’s great for families. There are also facilities near here as well.
  • Red Tarns Track: A bit of a steep hike but the viewpoint offers a beautiful panorama of the valley and Mount Cook. The tarns were named from the red pond weed that grows in them.
  • Tasman Glacier Lookout: A short and easy walk to get to the different lakes.
  • Sealy Tarns: The Sealy Tarns is accessible from the Hooker Valley and Mount Cook Village hikes. The nickname is “stairway to heaven” with its 2,200 steps and it’s a whole lot of stairs. Expect 3-4 hours on this hike.
  • Mueller Hut: This hike can be done in a long day hike but recommend it as an overnight. The hike is a bitch though!
  • Heli Hike on a Glacier: This is a must-do! If you’re going to indulge in anything in New Zealand, a heli hike is a must-do. Hop in a helicopter and then a short ride away, you land on a glacier. With your expert guide, we learned a ton about glaciers (climate change is real people) and discovered ice tunnels and caves underneath.
hooker valley in new zealand

Day 7: Drive to Wanaka

Take your time and stop at all the stops on the highway!

Day 8 & 9: Spend the day in Wanaka

WAnaka in New ZEaland
  • #ThatWanakaTree: The infamous willow tree that’s growing in the middle of the ocean. It is best to go during sunrise or sunset because of the glare of the sun. A lot of locals will be exasperated because it is just a tree “growing in the lake” but stilll
  • Roy’s Peak: The infamous hike with the typical person at the end of the peak. What you don’t see is the long lines waiting for that exact photo. haha.
  • Via Ferrata: This is a little different than hiking but just as amazing (or even more) because you’re hiking waterfalls via iron rungs. If you’re afraid of heights, just don’t look down.
  • Isthmus Peak: This is a long day hike but well worth it! Just being everything that you’ll need, including water, sunscreen, and a jacket.
  • Wanaka Lake: Wanaka is all about the lakes so enjoy all the lakes you can!
  • Mou Waho Island: Get to an island on a lake that’s on an island. Confusing right?
That Wanaka Tree - New Zealand

Day 10: Drive to Te Anau and stay there for the night

Day 11: Milford Sound or Doubtful Sound

  • See Milford Sound. I liked going with Trips & Tramps because it’s a small group and so I didn’t have to worry about driving there. What’s awesome is that there’s also time to hike the Routeburn Track of Key Summit. Truth be told, it wasn’t that impressive but I don’t want people to miss out on it if I didn’t recommend it.

Day 12: Drive to Queenstown

Stop at every scenic photo spot. You won’t regret it.

Day 13: Spend the day in Queenstown

bungy jump in queenstown new zealand
  • Explore downtown
  • Bungy Jump: The bungy jump capital of the world is in Queenstown. There’s three places to bungy jump with AJ Hackett in Queenstown. You can read about my bungy jump at the bridge here.
  • Go-Karting
  • Gondola rides
  • Other extreme activities

Day 14: Fly back to Auckland

Mt Cook - New Zealand

Day 15: Spend the day in Auckland until your flight back home

  • Explore the city’s sparkling harbor, stunning beaches, historic buildings, leafy parks, Victorian suburbs, and bustling shopping areas. 
  • Visit the Coromandel Peninsula. An easy day trip from the city!
  • Waiheke Island: Get drunk in wine country before your flight
New Zealand - Wanaka