We’ve learned from experience that creating a definitive schedule for a road trip is pretty silly, and since camping without planning is an easy thing do in New Zealand, we approached our 3-week campervan trip with no campground reservations and vague plans to explore the country from north to south. With the assistance of the Camping NZ App and recommendations from several local contacts, we decided what to do and where to stay as we went.
In the three weeks we spent in New Zealand, we drove entirely around both the North and South Island, experiencing some of the best New Zealand has to offer — without receiving a single infringement along the way. Here we share our guidelines for an unplanned, yet well prepared, campervan trip in New Zealand. And at the bottom of this post, you’ll find our “un-itinerary” — the unscheduled list of places we stayed and things we discovered along the way.
What You Should Book in Advance for Your Campervan Trip in New Zealand
While full trip freedom and flexibility would be lovely, you can’t avoid reservations for everything — especially if you’re on any sort of budget. You’ll save money and have the most options by booking these things several months in advance:
- flights to/from New Zealand
- accommodations for your first night
Once that planning part is out of the way, you’re ready to dive into the un-planning, which consists mainly of learning the essential do’s and don’t’s of camping in New Zealand.
What Not To Do When Campervanning in New Zealand
Knowing the things to avoid doing is the first key to successful un-planning. Here’s a basic list of what not to do:
- forget to pay your tolls within 5 days of passing through a toll zone
- drive over 100 km/h or other posted speed limits
- drive under the speed limit for an extended period of time without allowing traffic behind you to pass
- assume it’s okay to camp anywhere not listed here
- littering, dumping grey or black water where you shouldn’t, or any other jack-assery that should go without saying
Useful Things to Know About Campervanning in New Zealand
- Keep left! They drive on the left in New Zealand. That means everything from your turn signal and wiper control to the side of the car you’re sitting on is flip-flopped.
- There are loads of one-way bridges here. You’ll need to know how to interpret the giving way (yield) signs. If the arrow representing the direction you’re driving is red, then you need to yield to oncoming traffic.
- Designated “Freedom Camping” areas require a self-contained vehicle certification, which means the vehicle has a grey water tank and a toilet. Book a self-contained campervan to have the most flexible camping options on your trip.
- You should download the Camping NZ App and then download the entire offline map of New Zealand (ideally before your trip, on decent WiFi). This will be your go-to resource for determining where you can legally camp overnight.
- While freedom camping generally offers better views at a better price (free), you won’t have the luxury of power for your campervan or hot shower facilities. However, there are plenty of holiday parks with powered campervan sites and hot showers throughout New Zealand. They range in price from $13-$30 NZD per person, and we found the ratings and reviews on the Camping NZ App to be helpful and accurate when deciding which to choose. If you’ll be arriving after dark when the office is closed, you’ll want to call in a reservation during the day so you can get any codes necessary for WiFi and access to shower and toilet facilities. If you’re visiting in summer, you’ll almost definitely want a reservation, especially for a weekend or a popular destination.
- Speaking of calling, getting a local prepaid SIM card for your cell is neither difficult nor ridiculously pricey in New Zealand, and it will make it much easier for you to make camping reservations/inquiries as needed on the go. When we arrived in Auckland, Ian and I purchased a travel SIM plan from Vodafone, which we shared via cellular hotspot during our 3-week trip. We had pretty great coverage throughout our trip, only paying for campground WiFi a couple times.
- If you’re taking the Interislander Ferry between the North and South Island, you’ll find the lowest prices and most schedule options by booking online two or more days in advance.
- If you encounter any toll roads, fees are reasonable but need to be paid online within 5 days.
- Finally, you should absolutely flash your lights and wave at any oncoming campervans of the same brand you’re renting. At least all the Jucy vans do this, and it makes driving more fun!
Researching Things to See and Do in New Zealand
This would be the last piece of the preparation puzzle. Honestly, we spent little time on advance research and looked most things up as we went. We also had the benefit of several contacts in New Zealand eager to share their recommendations for things to do.
A quick Googling of “New Zealand must do” will give you a great start. You can also snag some ideas from our New Zealand itinerary below.
Our 3-week New Zealand Un-Itinerary
Days 1-3: Auckland, 3-night stay
- Arrive at Auckland airport in morning
- Super Shuttle to Airbnb
- Check in to Auckland Airbnb
- Get New Zealand SIM card for phone
- Explore Auckland
Stay: Auckland Airbnb
We made it to New Zealand! Check out this view from our #Airbnb. 8th floor private studio with balcony for just $67/night! Get $35 off your first booking ($50NZD) with our link: airbnb.com/c/dsouthern • • • #homeawayfromhome #newzealand #auckland #NeverStopExploring
A photo posted by Diana Southern + Ian Norman ? (@northtosouthtravel) on Sep 13, 2016 at 8:32pm PDT
Day 4: Drive to Bay of Islands
- Check out of Airbnb
- Pick up Jucy Condo campervan in Auckland
Stay: Waitangi Holiday Park (Bay of Islands)
Day 5: Drive to Cape Reinga (top of North Island)
- Tourist Drive
Stay: Tapotupotu DOC Camping Ground (Cape Reinga)
A photo posted by Diana Southern + Ian Norman ? (@northtosouthtravel) on Sep 19, 2016 at 1:09pm PDT
Day 6: Drive to Kauri Coast
Stay: Kauri Coast Top 10 Holiday Park (Kaihu)
Day 7: Drive to Rotorua
- Hobbiton Movie Set Tour in Matamata
Stay: Affordable Willowhaven Holiday Park (Rotorua)
Rainy day on the North Island ? by @inorman We didn’t manage to try the luge in Rotorua like I’d hoped today, but we did find this awesome geothermal area to explore. Gorgeous coloring and very different from what we’ve seen in Yellowstone and elsewhere in the U.S. Plus there was hardly anyone else there! ?Waimangu Volcanic Valley, Rotorua, New Zealand
A photo posted by Diana Southern + Ian Norman ? (@northtosouthtravel) on Sep 21, 2016 at 12:43am PDT
Day 8: Drive to Paihua
Stay: Carnival Park Motor Camp (Paihua)
Day 9: Drive to Wellington and Ferry to Picton
- Ngawi (near bottom of North Island)
- Interislander Ferry from Wellington to South Island
Stay: Picton Campervan Park (Picton)
A photo posted by Diana Southern + Ian Norman ? (@northtosouthtravel) on Sep 27, 2016 at 3:19pm PDT
Day 10: Drive to Wharariki (top of South Island)
- Walk from holiday park to Wharariki Beach
Stay: Wharariki Holiday Park (Wharariki)
Days 11-12: Drive to Punakaiki, 2-night stay
Stay: Punakaiki Beach Camp (Punakaiki)
Always make time to relax! ••• These hot pools were exactly the break we needed from the rainy day blues. I guess NZ has to get green somehow, but it sure has been raining a lot on this trip! ? Glacier Hot Pools, Franz Josef Glacier, NZ ? by @inorman
A photo posted by Diana Southern + Ian Norman ? (@northtosouthtravel) on Sep 26, 2016 at 11:31pm PDT
Day 13: Drive to Franz Josef*
- Monsoon Bar
*Spend another day here to take a helicopter ride to tour the glacier.
Stay: Rainforest Holiday Park (Franz Josef)
Day 14: Drive to Wanaka
- That Wanaka Tree
Stay: Wanaka Kiwi Holiday Park and Motels (Wanaka)
A photo posted by Diana Southern + Ian Norman ? (@northtosouthtravel) on Oct 7, 2016 at 6:31am PDT
Days 15-16: Drive to Queenstown, 2-night stay
Stay: Queenstown Holiday Park and Motels Creeksyde (Queenstown)
Days 17-18: Drive to Milford Sound, 2-night stay
- Sea kayaking with Rosco’s Milford Kayaks
Stay: Milford Sound Lodge (Milford Sound)
Sea kayaking in Milford Sound! This was one of our favorite New Zealand activities. It’s better than a cruise because you can get closer to the waterfalls and wildlife. We saw the cutest fur seals twisting their necks around to look at us, and we even saw a penguin! (I didn’t even know there were penguins here.) Our guide, Ricky from @roscosmilford was friendly and knowledgeable, and we had a truly memorable afternoon out on the water. Unfortunately @inorman and I got a little over excited about the penguin and nearly capsized our kayak and my #sonyRX100iii went for a little swim, but this whole experience made it worth it. Time to go camera shopping when we’re back in the States!
A photo posted by Diana Southern + Ian Norman ? (@northtosouthtravel) on Oct 4, 2016 at 5:26pm PDT
Day 19: Drive to Dunedin
Stay: Leith Valley Touring Park (Dunedin)
Day 20: Drive to Tekapo
- Astrophotography at Lake Tekapo
Stay: Lake Tekapo Motels and Holiday Park (Tekapo)
Mt. John Observatory, Tekapo, New Zealand. Wow! We had an amazing time with our guide @lastquarterphotography at the @earthandskynz tour of the observatory sitting above Tekapo. We got to look through some big scopes and even spent some time shooting wide fields with one of their equatorial mounts. We were super lucky to have perfectly clear skies on our only night in this amazing dark sky reserve. It was amazing to see a community so proud of their night sky. Even the local gas station had a selection of post cards featuring astrophotography from the area. Diana (@northtosouthtravel) and I are finishing up our time here in New Zealand. We’re flying to Melbourne tomorrow and will be there for a couple weeks! Sony a7S, Batis 18mm/2.8 @ f/2.8, 12*20s, ISO 3200 #milkyway #newzealand #lonelyspeck #astrophotography
A photo posted by Ian Norman (Lonely Speck) (@inorman) on Oct 4, 2016 at 10:23pm PDT
Day 21: Drive to Christchurch
*This would be a great place to spend at least one night.
Stay: Amber Kiwi Holiday Park and Motel (Christchurch)
Day 22: Return van in Christchurch, check in to hotel
- Dropped off Jucy campervan near airport
- Uber back to city
- Checked into hotel
- Central Business District
- Beers with friends
Stay: Hotel 115 (Christchurch) — booked via Hotels.com
Day 23: Depart Christchurch
- Victoria Street walk and cafe time
- Camera shopping
- Uber to airport
- Depart from Christchurch airport in evening
This place is crazy beautiful! We almost didn’t come to #MtCook but we squeezed in a last-minute day trip here between Tekapo and Christchurch. These are definitely some of the coolest mountains we’ve ever seen, and it’s on our list of places to spend more time in next time we come to #NewZealand! ? Mt Cook, New Zealand
A photo posted by Diana Southern + Ian Norman ? (@northtosouthtravel) on Oct 4, 2016 at 1:12am PDT
Find this post useful? Have questions about what you should do or see in New Zealand? Let us know in the comments below!