How to Drive Around the South Island of NZ

  • South Island NZ trip
  • south island road trip nz
  • South Island road trip Glenhope
  • Campervan Drivethrough

Self-drive holidays are definitely the best way to get the absolute most out of your trip to New Zealand - especially if you have the time to head off the main roads from time to time and explore what's really best about this country.

If you are thinking of coming to New Zealand and tossing up how much time to allow, your first thing to work out is whether you can fit in both the North Island and South Island of the country during one trip.

Most locals (including us) would advise you not to try and fit both main islands into one trip unless you have 3-4 weeks to make the most of it.

And of course we would suggest, that if you only have two weeks, why not focus mainly on the South Island. The scenery is diverse, the people are friendly, the mountains are awesome and we guarantee you will enjoy the experience!

1. Planning your Route

The Google Maps image above is just one way you might choose to travel around the South Island to see the maximum amount. According to Google that is 2,200km + of driving - and that doesn't include heading into the Southern Alps which you could do for example if you wanted to cut directly across the Island from Christchurch to Hokitika.

Our recommendation would be to fly directly into Christchurch International Airport and work your way back to either fly home from there or if you are including the North Island, fly domestically from Christchurch to whichever location you prefer in the North Island.

The most common points to fly to up north would be Wellington (our capital city) and Auckland, the largest city in New Zealand. You can also drive to the North Island by catching the Inter Islander ferry from Picton to Wellington then carry on your New Zealand experience around the North Island.

The ferry crosses Cook Strait which is a three hour trip normally and you can drive your vehicle onto the ferries, but you pay more to take a car or motorhome across than just buying passenger tickets.

Of course you might want to do something different than simply a circuit around the outside of the island - the mountains are mostly in the interior so for spectacular alpine views, head through the centre of the South Island via Arthur's Pass or Lewis Pass for example. 

2. Vehicle Options

Below are just a few of the options for self determined travel. Of course there are also bus options, escorted or chauffeured options, minivans for groups etc, but for the purposes of this blog, we will focus on the most popular options that we see here at the Park.

Self Drive Rental Car

Definitely one of the easiest and most common options is to simply book yourselves a rental car. The benefits of a car include the flexibility for parking in the cities in particular, and being able to easily get around within each city. They are usually more efficient on the road too, although motorhomes and campervans in New Zealand are likely to run on diesel fuel which is quite a bit cheaper per litre. Make sure you check when you are booking. Most rental cars in NZ will run on petrol however.

Self Drive Motorhome/Campervan (self contained)

Many of the rental companies offer self-contained Motorhomes and Campervans that include their own shower and toilet facilities. This is the ideal option as it opens up a lot more places where you can park up around the country.

Many campsites and "freedom camping" locations now prohibit any campervans that are not self-contained thanks to the issues with increasing numbers of tourists who are not taking care of the environment. We highly recommend this option to make the most of your trip. Check out the rules for self contained freedom camping here.

We recommend downloading an app that will tell you where the places are you can safely stop for the night - one option is the Camping NZ app

Self Drive Sleepervans (not self-contained)

The majority of "sleepervans" for hire in New Zealand, particularly the cheaper options are not self contained, so they don't have the facilities onboard you will require. Although the rental cost might be cheaper, this doesn't mean you will necessarily save money on your trip as you will most likely end up paying for campsites with more facilities.

Simply parking up in a carpark anywhere in the country and trying to use public toilets is likely to get you either a fine or else a very unhappy reaction from the locals. There are some options that are affordable - and still self contained though, like these vans from Affordable Motorhomes 

Bicycle or Motorcycle

If you prefer to do your travelling on two wheels instead of four, there are plenty of options for renting bikes - the people powered or motor powered variety. There are also options for electric bikes if you like to have a bit of an assist every now and then, especially travelling over some of our hill roads.

To get you started, here are a few of the bike hire sites: Natural High (pickup bikes in Christchurch or Auckland) or City Cycle Hire in Christchurch. Motorcycle rentals (Christchurch and Auckland). 

3. Accommodation Options

Holiday Parks

Holiday Parks (like our very own of course) are located around New Zealand and throughout the South Island. The TOP 10 Group has 20 parks in the South Island and the Holiday Parks NZ website will point you at the other options available.

Holiday Parks within the TOP 10 Group all have a reliable standard of accommodation and all offer a number of options, from fully serviced and self contained modern motel rooms, through to cabins that use shared kitchen and shower facilities, powered campervan or motorhome sites and tent sites (with or without power).

Usually they are located either conveniently near a town or city centre, or else at a popular tourist location like a beach or river. Don't forget to check out the loyalty options too if you are going to multiple locations around the South Island.

For example TOP 10 has our members Club Card that provides a 10% discount (up to a set amount) at each place you book, and they will also happily book you ahead to your next planned destinations. The Club Card also provides discounts on activities in whichever location you are staying in, so make sure you find out from each Park what discount deals they have in place before you book.

The benefits of Holiday Parks, apart from the multiple types of accommodation options, include ample free offstreet parking for your vehicle, great facilities for children including playgrounds, swimming pools etc, and a range of shared facilities that are usually free to use including BBQ areas, TV or media rooms, meeting rooms and more.

Motels

Motels are probably the most popular form of accommodation used by travellers to New Zealand who are on a driving holiday. They provide free parking, usually outside or very close to your unit, self contained kitchen facilities so you don't have to budget for eating out at every meal - a great benefit if you have children travelling with you and you are able to shop at local supermarkets or farmers markets and enjoy eating at a time that suits you all.

New Zealand motels often have a Qualmark rating so you can look out for that to give you an indication of quality, however don't confuse the Qualmark stars with the usual hotel star ratings you might be familiar with. A Qualmark 5 star property will be immaculate, good quality accommodation but it won't be the sort of luxury you would expect from a 5 Star Hotel.

Pricing for motel accommodation would normally range from around NZD$100 per night up to as much as $400 per night, but the average price for most mid range motel rooms would be around the $150 - $200 mark. Pricing will also be seasonal and you can expect cheaper rates outside of the school holiday periods and over the winter months, May through to July/August.

Hotels

New Zealand has many independently owned and operated hotels, but also has large hotel chains like the Accor Group which includes the Ibis, Novotel, Peppers and Sofitel brands. Other groups to look out for are Scenic Circle hotels which have a number of properties around the South Island in particular.

As with anywhere in the world, hotels in New Zealand are generally more expensive than motel or holiday park options, and are usually not fully self catering as they usually have a restaurant and bar onsite. In room facilities would normally include a small fridge with mini-bar, tea and coffee making facilities and in some cases, there may be a microwave. 

Freedom Camping

As mentioned above, "freedom camping" - ie parking your campervan or motorhome for the night and not paying for the privilege, is increasing in popularity with visitors to New Zealand, but is not always very popular with the locals in the places you may wish to stay.

Follow our tips above and ensure your holiday is as stress free as possible - and always make sure you have some paid options for your night's accommodation up your sleeve if the free spots are all taken or unsuitable.

Paying for your night's accommodation (assuming you are driving in a campervan or motorhome) means you have access to power, ability to empty your tanks, use shared cooking and bathroom facilities and use the wifi in your location. So planning some nights in paid sites is a great way to de-stress and ensure you are in good shape for a few free nights without facilities that might lie ahead on your trip.

DOC campsites

The New Zealand Department of Conservation, otherwise known as DoC, has campsites across the country where visitors are welcome. Usually these sites are in National Parks or Reserves, so there is a requirement to follow the rules of the location you are staying in. 

Generally that means, no littering, taking away your rubbish, ensuring you use the toilet facilities provided or else your own self contained toilet, no lighting fires unless you are given express permission (over the summer months there can be a total fire ban in place, so look out for any signs indicating this and take the time to google for any information about high fire risk. Summer 2019 in New Zealand was very dry so many areas of the country were under water restrictions and total fire bans.)

Find out more about the DoC sites through their website here. 

B&B

Bed and Breakfast options are popular with many visitors who are looking for a slightly more personal experience than staying in a hotel or motel. B & B providers are normally welcoming guests into private homes, although some have built self contained wings onto their existing homes for example.

In some cases, the accommodation might be separate from the main house. Of course, the best known B & B option currently is AirBnB and there are many of these available in locations around the South Island. 

Hostels

If you are going the budget route and either travelling by bus or train, or backpacking around the South Island, you might want to check out the hostel options. The best known hostels are run by the Youth Hostel Association (YHA), but there are plenty of other backpacker accommodation options in most locations across the South Island. 

4. Places and Things Not to Miss - Tourism Sites

There are plenty of websites with information about what parts of the South Island you should make an effort to see - to get you started, check out Tourism NZ's site and then to delve a little more in the different regions, visit the Regional Tourism sites for each part of the Island.

To make it easy for you to navigate, here they are (from North to South) plus a map showing the regions. 

regional tourism map of New Zealand

Nelson Tasman Tourism

Marlborough Tourism

West Coast Tourism

Christchurch and Canterbury Tourism

South Canterbury Tourism

Mackenzie Country (including Mt Cook/Aoraki and Lake Tekapo)

Dunedin Tourism

Queenstown Lakes District Tourism (including Wanaka)

Fiordland Tourism

5. NZ Driving Tips

Drive on the left

In New Zealand, the first thing to be aware of is that we drive on the left hand side of the road - and all the vehicles you hire will of course be left hand drive. you might want to take this into account when you are planning your flights into the city - for example, landing at midnight and then picking up a rental vehicle immediately might not be the best idea. We recommend planning to book a night's accommodation at least in the city before you pick up your vehicle, and start to get adjusted to the traffic (if you normally drive on the right). 

The Automobile Association website is a great reference site for information about roads and conditions, especially in the winter months when some roads might be closed due to snow or flooding. 

6. Seasons and NZ Weather

Metservice is the "go-to" site to check short range and long range forecasts. You can also follow Weather Watch on their social media channels and through their website for warnings of any upcoming weather you should be aware of.

New Zealand's weather can change very rapidly and unpredictably, so don't assume just because the skies are clear and blue in the morning that the weather is going to stay that way all day. 

Seasons

Given we are in the Southern Hemisphere, our seasons run the opposite of Northern Hemisphere countries, and we do have clearly defined seasons, unlike Pacific countries closer to the equator. Having said that, there is a significant temperature drop as you head south, so temperatures in Auckland will on average be higher than those in Queenstown or Invercargill for example. And in the winter, the lower half of the South Island will often have snow, but not to the extent that parts of Europe or North America experience it.

Summer: December to the end of February

Autumn (Fall): March to the end of May

Winter: June to the end of August

Spring: September to the end of November

7. Enjoy your holiday!

If you would like any help with planning your South Island trip, or booking activities in the Canterbury region, get in touch with us through the site using our contact form or messaging system.