Planning Your New Zealand Campervan Trip
Campervan Trip: The Ultimate New Zealand Holiday
There is nothing quite like coming around the corner in a campervan to find a hidden lake nestled beside a primeval rainforest or losing your breath as you crest the brow of a steep hill and take in the sweeping beaches that seem to last forever. Getting off the beaten track in a Wilderness motorhome is one of the best ways to explore on your New Zealand holiday.
Because everything is relatively accessible and packed into a land area a little larger than Britain, it’s ideally suited to the self-drive New Zealand holiday. Forget about being loaded into a train or tour coach with other travellers, once you’ve got the keys to your campervan, you’re on your own. When you leave the major city you arrived in, you’ll also notice there aren’t many people around. New Zealand has a population of just over four million so you can expect to travel for miles through rolling hills and not see a soul on your New Zealand holiday.
On the whole, the roads are well maintained and easily navigable giving you access to craggy coastlines, expansive beaches, ancient forests, snow-capped mountains, bubbling volcanic pools, fast-flowing rivers and glacier fed lakes. Stretch your legs on a windswept beach or take a more adventurous hike up a mountain pass during your New Zealand holiday. Try your luck at catching a trouton the edge of a forgotten river or jump off a bridge into the river (with bungy cord tied around your legs of course) – New Zealand holidays provide endless opportunities to interact with the landscape.
When you’re ready for a rest, there are campsites dotted all over the country. Most of these were originally setup to cater for the large number of locals who love to camp.
Camping is the typical New Zealand holiday. In fact, New Zealanders have been camping in caravans (camping trailers) or motor caravans (campervans) since these were first invented. Thousands of New Zealanders have bought or built their own campervans and many spend months each year touring the country. In fact, the New Zealand Motor Caravan Association has the largest membership of any recreational organisation. The first campsites were setup to cater for this popular activity. As many international tourists have discovered the freedom of campervan touring for their New Zealand holiday the number campsites has multiplied. From the 5-star holiday resort to the basic wild camping site, the places to camp are as numerous as the breath taking views.
Although it is only 2050km (1274 miles) in length, New Zealand is a very big small country. You could tour for years without seeing everything. It’s tempting to look at the map and assume you can see the whole country in a couple of weeks during your New Zealand holiday. While it may be humanly possible, it’s not advisable. Because we have arguably the most diverse landscape in the world packed into a land area about two thirds the size of California, there is so much to see. As Disneyland is to a young child, New Zealand is to the adventurous traveller.
Then there’s the terrain. Unlike California, we have very few long straight roads - most are winding, hilly, and narrow. But that’s what you get with stupendous vistas around every corner.
The secret to getting the most out of your New Zealand holiday is to not bite off too much. Our motto is “drive less, see more”. Whether you’re planning a mini break, relaxing getaway, or lengthy sojourn, we recommend travelling no more than 200km/day on average. If you are bringing children with you on your New Zealand holiday, you should do less (if you want happy children that is).
If you’ve got a bit more time to explore during your New Zealand holiday, you should consider a one way trip between Auckland and Christchurch. New Zealand’s geography is perfectly suited to one way travel as the country is long and relatively narrow. You don’t need to back track and therefore you spend less time driving and have more time to stop, experience the wonders of our country and meet a few Kiwis on your New Zealand holiday. If you have some flexibility with your pick up or drop off location, you may be able to save money on your New Zealand holiday if you head in the opposite direction of other tourists. You’ll need to budget on ferry tickets for getting yourself and your campervan across Cook Strait, the passage of water between the North and South Islands. If you do a one way trip, you can save by purchasing one way ferry tickets only.
Check out our suggested itineraries for some ideas of where to go and what to do on your New Zealand holiday.
Our New Zealand travel guru Scott Cook is adamant that the return trip covering both North and South Islands should be saved for the 24 days or longer epic New Zealand holiday - and we'd agree. You’ll have plenty of time to explore the more remote locations like Taranaki and the East Cape – the places you usually only see locals touring.
Planning a significant visit to New Zealand is complicated, no doubt about it. There are SO many choices to make about when, where, and how long to visit because New Zealand has such an astounding variety of natural, cultural, and adrenalized activities to choose from. Nowhere else in the world will you find such a variety of must-see natural features clustered into such a small land area.
It’s impossible to make one set of recommendations that will fit all travellers. Everyone is faced with similar “up-front” decisions like when to visit and how long to stay so I’ll address those first. Then you can get into the fun part of individualizing your own itinerary according to your personal travel desires.
- Avoid the North Island during the crazy three weeks in mid-summer when all the locals are on holiday.
- The shoulder season is the best time to visit the South Island as you’ll avoid the crowds and are likely to be bothered less by the irksome bugs.
- If you are travelling on a budget, consider trading off the balmy weather for a great deal on your campervan hire. Winter rental prices are about a third of summer prices. Prices are also lowered in the shoulder season.
The major exception to the feeling of widely-scattered tourists on the North Island is during the New Zealand Christmas/New Year Holiday period (about December 26 until January 10). The kids are out of school for their summer holiday from mid-December until about the end of January and many businesses close for staff to take their vacation so the cities empty out. And where do they all go? Camping of course! During these three weeks, virtually all the best holiday spots on the North Island are crowded with vacationing Kiwi families. Popular beach campgrounds see hundreds or even thousands of campers, whereas in early December or mid-February the same campground may have only 10-20 campers.
It’s my experienced opinion that the North Island doesn’t deserve the bad press it gets as a tourist destination for being more crowded. Because many travellers begin their visit in Auckland and often around the Christmas/New Year time, they are immediately confronted with crowded campgrounds and attractions for their week-long North Island stay. They then assume that this situation is typical of the entire summer. It isn’t. Once the Kiwi holiday weeks are finished all the Kiwis go back to work leaving virtually the entire island as an uncrowded paradise…especially after the end of January when the kids return to school.
|New Year's Day||1 January||1 January||1 January|
|Day after New Year's Day||2 January||2 January||2 January|
|Waitangi Day||6 February||6 February||6 February|
|Good Friday||14 April||30 March||19 April|
|Easter Monday||17 April||2 April||22 April|
|ANZAC Day||25 April||25 April||25 April|
|Queen's Birthday||5 June||4 June||3 June|
|Labour Day||23 October||22 October||28 October|
|Christmas Day||25 December||25 December||25 December|
|Boxing Day||26 December||26 December||26 December|
While summer on the North Island means long warm sunny days (for the most part), summer weather on the South Island is often no better or worse than in the shoulder-season (October, November, and April). Almost all my time exploring the South has been in the summer months and usually it felt fairly wintery to me—coat, winter hat, and heaters on in the camper. But it can be scorching hot on the east side of the Southern Alps so really “Anything Goes”. So, why visit the South Island when tourist numbers are at their peak? Here are some more reasons to visit the South Island between April and November:
- It’ll cost you much less. The airfares are cheaper, the campervan rates are cheaper, the hotels, motels, and campsites are cheaper.
- You’ll feel a lot less like a “tourist”. You won’t have to join a line-up at the popular spots. You’ll feel less pressured to “see it all”. Hopefully, you’ll allow yourself more time and have a more realistic expectation of how many “must-sees” you’ll actually see.
- You won’t need to pre-book. You can just cruise around worry-free doing and seeing whatever Mother Nature chooses to entertain you with.
- The sandfly menace! A less-mentioned but very important consideration. The sandflies are no less prevalent in the shoulder seasons but if the weather is generally a bit cooler then you’ll be wearing pants, shoes and socks, and longer sleeves and thus be less prone to their privations upon your privates. Let me tell you, when I get pure warm sunshine on the West Coast, I actually dread it because I know that I’ll be swarmed by sandflies the entire time yet the heat will make me want to wear shorts and sandals….and then I pay the price, first with a daily dousing in DEET then with weeks of itching when I let my guard down.
Give the shoulder seasons some real thought when planning a trip to the South. The island, unlike the North isn’t about warm-water beaches, tanning, and relaxing in the warmth. The South, for almost everybody on a limited holiday timetable is about squeezing in as many must-sees as possible, often at a break-neck pace…no time for sunny beaches. This further reinforces my advice to treat the islands as separate destinations. Plan one holiday on the South for a shoulder-season then follow it up with another holiday on the North during the welcoming warm heat of mid-summer. This is how to get the most out of New Zealand---you have to plan both the weather and the tourism game at once….and when you do…UNFORGETTABLE!!!
By contrast, the popular holiday destinations in the South Island don’t experience the same mid-summer crush. Since only one third of the country’s population live in the South, there are a lot less Kiwis to visit the South’s attractions over the Christmas/New Year’s holiday. On the whole, the South doesn’t seem that much more crowded over Christmas/New Year’s than the rest of the summer (except the hottest hot spots such as Milford, Queenstown, Wanaka, and Abel Tasman National Park).
So if your travel time must include a portion of the Kiwi holiday period, it may be best to plan to be on the South as much as possible during those three weeks to avoid the crowds at North Island campgrounds and attractions. Plan to do the North Island portion of your trip either before December 20 or after January 10.
The other reason to finish in the North is because it’s less hectic. The North Island may have more residents than the South but this North population lives in the cities and goes to work every day, leaving all the beaches, lakes, rivers, and forests to the visitors most all the time. The South, on the other hand, has WAY more tourists who are not at work, but rather at the same attractions you are trying to see, thus making more of the South’s attractions feel significantly more crowded than on the North Island (except the North’s few “Greatest Hits” hot spots (Bay of Islands, Hot Water Beach/Cathedral Cove, Rotorua, Taupo/Tongariro, Waitomo).
- You will constantly be in a huge hurry. That doesn’t sound like a relaxing way to spend your vacation.
- You will have little or no flexibility with your itinerary. The unpredictable NZ weather will inevitably scuttle many of your plans because you haven’t allowed any flexible time to change plans according to the ever-changing weather.
- You will be driving like mad, spending a heap on fuel, and also incurring the time, cost, and planning needed to make the ferry crossing.
- You will miss some of the best. Generally on this type of hurry-up itinerary the North Island gets shorted the most, and thus sometimes you’ll leave NZ without even feeling like you had any “summer” on your trip, and your final days may be solely devoted to the North’s most-crowded “Greatest Hits” attractions (Tongariro Crossing, Waitomo Caves, Rotorua, Hot Water Beach/Cathedral Cove, Bay of Islands/Paihia).
Don’t do it---you’ll end up exhausted and frustrated/disappointed from “trying to do too much” and then missing out on stuff because the weather hasn’t cooperated or you were too burned-out from all the hustle-bustle hurry-hurry. Plan at least 24 days to try see both islands… or only choose one to visit!
The best van + the best plan = UNFORGETTABLE!!
So now you know roughly what you're doing, it's time to get into the nitty-gritty of where to go. Check our itineraries page for lots of ideas.