Ultimate Guide: How to travel New Zealand’s South Island

A wild, beautiful landscape sets the scene for adventure in New Zealand. The stunning Southern Alps jut from the earth, their snow-covered peaks reaching toward the sky. Large open spaces dotted with plant and wildlife beckon while quaint littles towns offer up the very best food and beverage on offer. Adventure activities, indulgent experiences, incredible hospitality and a seemingly endless list of must-visit spots make New Zealand‘s spectacular South Island that much more appealing. While we may not be able to travel to New Zealand just yet, now is the perfect time to dream and plan for when the world opens up again! To help you get started here’s our ultimate guide to travelling New Zealand’s South Island. Fingers crossed, we see an Australia and New Zealand travel bubble soon.

Watch our video guide on how to travel New Zealand’s South Island:

How to get to New Zealand’s South Island

When it comes to travelling to New Zealand’s South Island, you can fly to Christchurch or Queenstown. Each time we’ve visited, we’ve chosen to take advantage of cheaper, sale airfares and fly to Christchurch. Coming from Brisbane, the flight time is a quick 3 1/2 hours! Flying into Christchurch allows us to add a road trip element to our visit by hiring a vehicle. This means we end up being able to see and do more, stopping at some of our favourite little towns along the way. Here’s a screenshot from Google Maps showing the layout of New Zealand’s North and South Islands as well as the location of and drive time between Christchurch and Queenstown.

How to get around the South Island

We’ve experienced the South Island a few different ways, from budget-friendly through to all-out luxury. When we’ve gone for a luxury experience, we’ve hired a car in Christchurch, taking a road trip down to Queenstown and back. When we’ve gone for a more budget-friendly experience, we’ve hired a motorhome/RV, also road tripping down to Queenstown and back. Personally, no matter our budget, we love having our own vehicle and the freedom it gives us. Read: 12 must-know tips for a New Zealand motorhome road trip, here.

Pro Tip: Before you rent a vehicle, it’s well worth checking your travel insurance policy as the excess may already be covered. If you don’t have cover for rental car excess, and your car is involved in an accident, is damaged, or stolen, you may have to pay the cost of the rental car excess yourself, which can cost you thousands of dollars. Our policy with Southern Cross Travel Insurance covers us for up to $5,000 for the excess, so we wouldn’t have to foot the bill if we had an accident.

Matt, Laker and I on our Motorhome Road Trip!

How much does a trip to the South Island cost?

For our budget-friendly, motorhome trip we hired a Maui Platinum River Motorhome from Motorhome Republic and loved it! We visited as a group of three, so having a 6-berth motorhome was the perfect size for us. If you’re on a tighter budget or travelling as a smaller group, you may like to consider hiring a smaller motorhome or similar vehicle to reduce costs even more!

Here’s a look at the costs of our 10-night adventure for 3 people, not including our flights or activities:

  • Motorhome Rental: NZ$1,600
  • Additional Motorhome Expenses (i.e. fuel, taxes etc): NZ$720
  • Holiday Parks: NZ$676
  • Food: NZ$1,033

Total cost for 10 nights for 3 people = around NZ$4,000 

For our other trips, we usually hire a car and stay in mid-range to luxury accommodation. Here’s a look at the costs for 2 people for a 10-night trip, not including flights or activities:

  • Car Rental (small vehicle): NZ$300
  • Additional Vehicle Expenses: NZ$300
  • Average hotel price for a decent place is NZ$200-$300 per night: NZ$2,000 to $3,000
  • Food: NZ$1,500

Total cost for 10 nights for 2 people = around NZ$5,000

To give you an idea of costs for flights and activities; our last trip saw us spend around NZ$1,300 per person on activities and NZ$1,200 on return airfares for two people. This means, per person, a 10-night Motorhome-style trip could cost you around NZ$3,200 and a 10-night mid-range trip could cost you around $4,500.

Read: This is how much a New Zealand motorhome road trip actually costs, here. 

The perfect South Island Itinerary

When it comes to planning your itinerary, there’s an abundance of wonderful towns and beautiful spots to visit. Our most recent 10-night itinerary looked like this:

  • Day one: Christchurch
  • Day two: Twizel
  • Day three: Wanaka
  • Day four: Wanaka
  • Day five: Queenstown
  • Day six: Queenstown
  • Day seven: Milford Sound
  • Day eight: Queenstown
  • Day nine: Queenstown
  • Day ten: Lake Tekapo
  • Day eleven: Christchurch

Pro Tip: If I could have my time again, I would’ve added an extra few days to our trip so we could’ve spent a little longer in Wanaka and Milford Sound. A few extra days would’ve meant less time spent on the road and more time spent at each destination to enjoy it that little longer. But, really, NZ is so beautiful you could spend a month exploring and still not have your fill!

One thing I’m really glad we did was making the effort to drive to Milford Sound and stay overnight. Fiordland National Park was beautiful and a highlight from our trip. Read: How to drive from Christchurch to Queenstown, here. 

New Zealand’s Fiordlands

Must-know tips for visiting New Zealand’s South Island

Here are some things you really need to know before you go:

  • The snow season usually runs from around mid-June through to September. If you’re planning to visit New Zealand’s South Island in the winter and want to visit the snowfields, you may like to plan your trip outside of NZ school holidays for smaller crowds. A quick google search will help you find the local school holiday dates for the year of your visit.
  • When driving in New Zealand, it’s best to allow more time than you think you’ll need to get between each spot. We found drive times were longer than we planned and we often found ourselves wanting to pull over to take photos and enjoy the scenery, especially in our motorhome.
  • Freedom Camping and Campable (think of it as Airbnb for motorhomes/campers) are great for summer! We visited in winter and gave Campable a shot but found we preferred staying in Holiday Parks instead so we could have a constant power hook up, wifi, water refilling stations and use the shower blocks for nice, hot showers at the end of the day.
  • If you aren’t used to driving in winter conditions like they have in New Zealand, you absolutely must take the time to learn about black ice and how to properly fit snow chains. You should also familiarise yourself with local road rules, like what to do at a single-lane bridge crossing.
  • New Zealand’s border control and bio-security laws are very strict! It’s important you don’t pack any food, wood or plant items and that your shoes, clothes and any other items you’re bringing into the country are free from mud or dirt. To put it into perspective, my friend had her wooden-handled hairbrush taken at the border. Be sure to read this great resource so you understand what you need to declare!
  • Read: 34 Things to know before you visit New Zealand in winter, here, and What to Pack for a trip to New Zealand in winter, here.
Milford Sound

Pro Tip: New Zealand is a hub of fun activities and endless adventure so, of course, travel insurance is incredibly important. Matt and I have an annual insurance policy with Southern Cross Travel Insurance. We started getting an annual policy a few years ago as it saves us time and money, as well as giving us peace of mind on our travels. Honestly, there have been a few times on our travels that the unexpected has happened and we have really needed travel insurance. Two of those actually occurred in New Zealand when we accidentally ran over our GoPro and when Matt had a really bad allergic asthma attack at airport security and had to be taken to the hospital. At that moment, I was so grateful I didn’t have to worry about the costs and could focus on Matt.

For us, having travel insurance just means we get to travel and have fun without any stress or worry on our adventures around the world. One tip for anyone visiting NZ in the winter, you can add ski and snowboarding cover to your policy. Something our friend Laker found most useful after fracturing a couple of ribs! For us, the peace of mind and support have been invaluable so make sure you’re covered for your trip to NZ!

Exploring the walking trails of the Fiordlands

Must-try activities

You’ll definitely want to pack your itinerary with loads of fun activities, here are a few of our favourites:

  • For snow-based fun, you can easily visit The Remarkables and Coronet Peak from Queenstown, Cardona and Treble Cone from Wanaka and Mt Hutt from Christchurch.
  • Get your adrenaline pumping with a skydive, jet boat ride, gondola, canyon swing, bungee jump or zorb!
  • Take a scenic helicopter flight all the way up to a glacier or do a vintage tiger moth flight
  • Make the most of New Zealand’s incredible scenery with a hike, allowing you to immerse yourself in nature
  • The region is renowned for producing fantastic wine, including some absolutely exceptional Pinot Noir. I recommend joining a guided wine tasting tour so you don’t need to worry about driving and can have a local expert take you to the very best spots!
  • Read: 31 of the best things to do in Wanaka this winter, here, and 18 of the best things to do in Queenstown, here.
Laker and I at Coronet Peak

If you found this free travel guide useful and are considering booking a trip to New Zeland or anywhere else in the world, be sure to use our affiliate links below. We’ll earn a small commission at no additional cost to you and your generosity helps keep our business running and our website ad-free.

Watch our New Zealand RV Travel Guide series:

This post is generously sponsored by Southern Cross Travel Insurance and we’re grateful for their support! As always, the opinions and advice within this guide are our own. 

Useful travel resources for your trip to New Zealand

As always, our guides are completely free. If you found this post (or anything we do) useful, we’d be grateful if you considered using the affiliate links below. We’ll make a small commission at no extra cost to you. Rest assured, these are the services we love and use ourselves. Thanks for your support! XO Phoebe and Matt.

Agoda – for booking hotels
Airbnb – for booking apartments
Booking.com – for booking hotels
Motorhome Republic – for booking RVs
RentalCars.com – for car rentals
SCTI – for travel insurance
Skyscanner – for booking flights
Surfshark – for online security and VPN
TourRadar – for booking tours
Uber – for ground transport

 

Little Grey Box

I'm a writer and presenter and my husband Matt is a videographer. Together, we run Little Grey Box; an award-winning travel blog and YouTube channel.

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