How Long Should I Spend In New Zealand?

How Long Should I Spend In New Zealand?

Let's face it: whether you can visit NZ for 7 days or 7 months, you'll relish every minute and wish you could stay for longer. But how long do you TRULY need for the ultimate New Zealand road trip? How do you make the very best of the time you have? The best amount of time to spend in NZ is as much time as YOU realistically have available.

Whether you have 7 days or 7 months, the advice below will help you to figure out how to spend the time you have.

How Long to spend in NZ

How Long Should I Spend in New Zealand?

Have you ever wondered how travel agents create your trip itinerary? The tips we share below will enable you to plan your own first-class, tailor-made New Zealand self drive holiday for yourself. Or for the 100% stress-free approach to travel planning, skip to the end and find out how to get someone else to do it for you - for free!

Tips from New Zealand's Travel Experts

With over 20 years experience designing New Zealand self-drive itineraries, the First Light Travel Team know how to craft a holiday to remember forever. And we're going to show you how we do it.

You'll discover the 4 key questions to ask yourself while planning your Kiwi road trip, and how to turn the answers into the vacation of a lifetime, whatever that may be for you.

This definitive holiday planning guide is packed with:

  • pro tips from New Zealand travel specialists
  • awesome itinerary suggestions for short and long stays
  • bucket-list-worthy destination ideas
  • wallet-friendly ways to maximise your stay and extend your budget

Are you ready? Let's plan your New Zealand dream trip!

The Basics: New Zealand 101

How big is New Zealand really?

  • New Zealand is made up of two long, skinny islands (the North and South Islands) and around 600 smaller islands.
  • NZ measures over 1600km (990 miles) from top to bottom.
  • It's similar in size to the UK, Japan, and the state of Colorado.
  •  Australia, our nearest neighbour, is 29 times bigger.

How long does it take to drive the length of New Zealand?

In theory you could drive the North Island from tip to toe in around 14 hours and the South Island in around 12 non-stop. But we hope you'll stay longer than that!

How long does it take to fly to New Zealand?

  • From the UK: around 24 hours
  • From West Coast USA: around 13 hours
  • From East Coast USA: around 21 hours
  • From Europe (Germany): around 23 hours

(These are minimum times: and will differ depending on dates, flight connections, and stopovers)

Now you have a better understanding of the geographical size of New Zealand and the travel times involved, what's next?

Graphic showing Flight Times & Routes to New Zealand

4 Simple Factors To Determine The Length Of Your NZ Stay

We would never use a one-size-fits-all approach with our travel clients - they are as individual as snowflakes, and you are too! Everyone's different: some guests already have a wish-list of destinations in mind; others ask for recommendations. Honeymooners, young families, Lord of the Rings lovers... we help a huge range of people, all of whom have a different New Zealand dream holiday in mind. How do we figure out what's the best option for each of them? And if you want to be your own travel agent, what information do you need from your client (ie: you)?

The most helpful questions you can ask yourself are:

  • How much time do you realistically have available?
  • What are your New Zealand must-dos?
  • What's your Travel Style?
  • What will your budget allow you to do?

Put the answers to these questions altogether and you can work out how long to spend in New Zealand and love every minute of it.

Key factor #1: How Long do you have available?

This seems obvious, right? If you have two weeks of vacation from work, then surely the answer would be two weeks? Well, not quite. It depends on where you're flying from. Unless you're visiting us from Australia, you have a long haul flight to factor in... and possibly the International Date Line.

Let's see how flight times can affect a 2-week vacation depending on where you live:

Example: Two Weeks in New Zealand from London

Start of trip: Fly to Auckland on Friday evening after finishing work
- Fastest flight time: 24 hours
- Time Difference: NZ up to 13 hours ahead
- Arrive in Auckland: Sunday Morning

End of trip: Leaving Auckland in time to start work in London on Monday:
- Fastest flight time: 25 hours time Difference: UK up to 13 hours behind
- Depart from Auckland: Saturday evening 
- Arrive in London: Sunday afternoon

You'll spend 13 days total in New Zealand. 
But if you want to relax on your arrival day before hitting the road (which we STRONGLY recommend), you'll only have 11 full days (and two half days) to play with.

How about travelling to New Zealand from Los Angeles? 

New Zealand Fact

Example: Two Weeks in New Zealand from Los Angeles

Start of trip - departing on a Friday evening: 
- Fastest flight time: 12 hours 
- Time difference: Auckland up to 21 hours ahead 
- Arrive in Auckland: Sunday morning

End of trip: Leaving Auckland in time to start work on Monday: 
- Fastest flight time: 12 hours 
- Time Difference: Los Angeles up to 21 hours ahead 
- Depart from Auckland: Sunday night Arrive in Los Angeles: Sunday afternoon

So if you depart from LA you actually spend 15 days in New Zealand with 13 full days to spend on the road ... and you'll arrive home in LA earlier than you left New Zealand!

REMEMBER: Before you plan your New Zealand itinerary, make sure you know how long you REALLY have.

Key Factor #2: What Are Your New Zealand Must-Dos?

Perhaps you already know exactly what you'd like to do and see. Or perhaps you're not sure: you've watched "Lord of the Rings", fallen in love with its phenomenal New Zealand locations, and you're not sure where to find them.

Here are some suggestions to get you started...

Majestic Mountain Scenery: North Island: Tongariro Alpine Crossing, Mount Taranaki South Island: Queenstown, Wanaka, Kaikoura, Tekapo & Mt Cook

Gushing Geysers, Volcanoes and Geothermal Wonders: North Island: Rotorua, Rangitoto Island, White Island

New Zealand Wildlife and Wilderness: North Island: Tongariro National Park, Tiritiri Matangi Island, Waitomo, The Coromandel Peninsula, The Bay of Islands South Island: Fiordland National Park, West Coast, Stewart Island, Catlins Coast, Kaikoura

Hidden Bays and Beautiful Beaches: North Island: Northlands and the Bay of Islands, Coromandel, Hawkes Bay, South Island: Abel Tasman National Park, Golden Bay, West Coast, Catlins Coast

Stunning Lord of The Rings Scenery & Sets: North Island: Hobbiton (Matamata), Tongariro National Park, Wellington South Island: Mackenzie Country, Queenstown & surrounds, Fiordland National Park.

Ski-ing and Snowboarding: North Island: Taupo (Mt Ruapehu, Whakapapa) South Island: Christchurch region (Mt Hutt, Methven) Queenstown region (Remarkables, Cardrona, Coronet Peak)

How do you narrow your options? Here's some inspiration from our blog:

Blog: Top Tourist Attractions in the North Island
Blog: Top Tourist Attractions in the South Island 
Blog: Elizabeth (our customer service manager)'s Favourite NZ Spots
Blog: New Zealand Adventure Travel: What Not To Miss

Mountain Biking Rotorua

Key Factor #3: What's your preferred travel style?

Do you have a travel style? That's a trick question: you definitely do, even if you don't know it yet. What does your dream trip look like when you imagine it?

1) Always On The Go: The High Energy Traveller

Are you a whirlwind of energy, cramming every moment with adventure, excitement and shiny new experiences? If so, you'll thrive on an action-packed itinerary: you'll be surprised how much you can fit in, even in a week!

Itinerary suggestions for High Energy Travellers

7 New Zealand Natural Wonders in 7 Days self-drive itinerary 
8 Day New Zealand Quick Fix self-drive tour 
15 Day Golfers Dream Itinerary 
21 Day Ultimate New Zealand Driving Adventure

2) Relaxed Pace: The Traveller Who Loves To Linger

Do you prefer to meander at your own pace and throw the schedule out of the window? If so, DON'T be seduced by itineraries featuring everything but the kitchen sink: yes, you would cover more ground, but it'll feel hectic and stressful to you - the opposite of a relaxing getaway!

PRO TIP: Focus on spending a few days getting to know each beautiful new location instead of dashing around. You won't visit as many destinations as high energy travellers, but you'll make up for it by having time to chat with welcoming locals, learn the rhythms of each region, explore food markets and catch a local festival or two.

Sample New Zealand Itineraries for travellers who love to linger:

7 Day South Island Culture & Heritage Self-Drive 
9 Day Relaxing North Island Journey 
12 Day Relaxed Adventure in the Scenic South 
17 Day Relaxing New Zealand Itinerary

3) Short Stay Travellers

If your time in New Zealand is less than 7 days, focus on exploring fewer areas and making the most of them. Ideally, narrow it down to just one region.

PRO TIP: Queenstown's a great choice for short stays: it's gorgeous and within easy reach of so many great places if you fancy a day trip: peaceful Lake Wanaka, the Otago Rail Trail, Haast Pass, the Routeburn Track, Mt Cook National Park and Milford Sound, to name a few!

Sample Itineraries for Short Stay Travellers

4 Day Coromandel Caper 
4 Days of Dolphins, Whales & Nature 
5 Day Queenstown Luxury Self Drive Itinerary 
5 Day Bay of Islands Explorer Itinerary

4) Long Stay Travellers

Pretty much every route in New Zealand is dotted with scenic detours & surprises, so make the most of them! Get off the beaten track, bask in our remote hidden locations, and get an authentic taste of each place you visit.

PRO TIP: With such a long itinerary, you'll be happiest if you allow for 2-3 nights in most locations This gives you at least one full day to soak up your surroundings in each place.

Sample Itineraries for Long Stay Travellers

22 Day Ultimate New Zealand Family Holiday
28 Day Road Less Travelled Itinerary
32 Day Full Monty North to South Itinerary

REMEMBER: There is no right or wrong way to travel New Zealand, but to enjoy your trip to the fullest, give your travel style the attention & respect it deserves.

Waiheke Island

Key Factor #4: Your Budget

Unless you're celebrating a lottery win, your travel budget will play a big part in deciding the length of your New Zealand stay. Here are some ways to see more for less:

1) For Cheaper New Zealand flights, travel in Spring or Autumn

Because New Zealand is a major summer AND winter destination, travelling outside of these periods, in spring or autumn (fall), is cheaper.
Autumn is from March to May, while spring is from September to November.

PRO TIP: If you travel in late spring or early autumn, you'll see some seriously stunning seasonal scenery.

Check out gorgeous pink & purple lupin flowers lining the shores of Lake Tekapo in November, or the forested Queenstown mountainsides turning red when the leaves change colour in April.

Find out more about New Zealand Seasons

2) Wallet-friendly accommodation: book early for high season stays

You'll get more for your money by booking accommodation early. Demand is sky-high from December to February, which coincides with the New Zealand school summer holidays.

PRO TIP: The busiest (and most expensive) times to travel are Christmas, New Year, public holidays and late January / early February.

National and regional New Zealand Public Holidays

3) Queenstown Accommodation: Getting More For Your Money

Expect to pay more for accommodation in Queenstown because demand is high all year round. Avoid disappointment by booking as early as you can.

PRO TIP: Beat the big prices (and the crowds) by staying out-of-town.

Frankton is only a 10-minute drive from Queenstown, is well-served by public transport, has sensational lake views and is considerably cheaper. Now you can afford to splash out on that scenic flight to Milford Sound!

4) Food and Drink

Eating out for every meal can cause your budget to spiral dangerously out of control. If you love restaurant dining, try having your main meal at lunchtime: lunch prices are often cheaper than in the evening, and the food is equally tasty.

PRO TIP: Even on a tight budget, you can eat like a king by trying fresh local produce wherever you go.

Central Otago cherries, Hawkes Bay apples, green-lipped mussels in Havelock, West Coast whitebait, Bluff oysters... the list is endless!

5) Save Money on Car Hire

If car hire quotes are eating up your budget, try to plan a circular route where you pick up and drop off the car in the same town.

Why? Because car companies need to pay a driver to return the car to the city where you hired it. This cost sneaks into your hire fees.So 8 days of car hire from Christchurch to Christchurch is much cheaper than 8 days of car hire from Christchurch to Nelson.


Building Your Dream Trip

So you've figured out how much time you have available, your must-see attractions, your travel style, and your budget. It's time to get the map out!

PRO TIP: Make Friends with Google Maps

You can plan your trip with a regular map, but Google Maps makes trip planning easy - you can create your own New Zealand map in the "Google My Maps" section and add places of interest as you go along. It's easy to tweak the route, change your mind and try out different options.

Research Driving Distances & Times

This is important because your eyes can deceive you...

Here's an example:

Lake Tekapo and Franz Josef Glacier look pretty close together on a map of the South Island. It looks around the same distance as Lake Tekapo and the town of Timaru, right?

Nope - not even close.

Driving from Lake Tekapo to Timaru takes around 1.5 hours non-stop. Lake Tekapo to Franz Josef? A bare minimum of 5.5 hours non-stop. What's the difference? Well, those spectacular, towering mountain ranges you have come here to admire are sitting right between Tekapo and Franz Josef. And there's simply no way to drive across them.

So how can you figure out New Zealand's driving times and distances?

PRO TIP: Use driving distance calculators (with caution) 

Online driving distance calculators are super handy - but here's what they DON'T take into account:

·    Scenic lookout spots (these are everywhere!)
·    A long, lingering lunch at that gorgeous-looking winery you just passed.
·    Sheep on the road (they're generally not in a hurry to get off the road)
·    Driving carefully and slowly on our winding roads during rain / snow.

Have a play with First Light Travel's New Zealand Travel Time & Distance Calculator

REMEMBER: It's the little things that will make your trip special. To experience New Zealand to the fullest, always allow more time than you think you will need.

The Best Places to Break Up Your New Zealand Journey

Are the bucket-list destinations on your map spaced widely apart? Avoid travel burnout by sneaking some clever breaks into your itinerary:

Driving from Picton to Christchurch (minimum 5 hours): Add a 1-night stay in beautiful Kaikoura (and make time for a whale-watching tour)

Driving from Christchurch to Queenstown (minimum 6 hours): Spend a night at Lake Tekapo surrounded by Southern Alps views.

Driving from Nelson to Franz Josef Glacier (minimum 6 hours): Add some West Coast rainforest splendour & cracking ocean views with a 1-night stay in Punakaiki

Driving from Christchurch to Dunedin (minimum 4.5 hours) Don't miss out on all the stunning coastline between Christchurch and Dunedin - spend a night in quirky Oamaru, and watch world's smallest penguins swim to shore in the harbour.

Help! I can't fit in everything I want to do!

Sacrificing a bucket-list location is heartbreaking. But don't panic - these time-saving suggestions might help in a pinch:

Fly between the North and South Islands: A flight from Wellington to Christchurch saves you 1-2 days of driving.

Fly from Wellington to Auckland: This saves 1 day of driving. If you're visiting both the North and South Islands this is an awesome way to save time

Fly from Auckland to the Bay of Islands: this only saves 3-4 hours of driving, but you may be on the road a lot in the Bay of Islands visiting widely-spaced attractions, so it's more relaxing if you can fly.

The major rental car agencies all have outlets at these airports, making car hire a breeze.


Time-Saving Tips For Major Bucket-List Activities

Milford Sound
The long way: 12 hours by road from Queenstown 
The short way: A half day scenic flight from Queenstown

The long way: a half day excursion from Rotorua 
The short way: save driving time by visiting Hobbiton on your drive from Auckland to Rotorua - you'll only need 2 hours for the tour itself.

Franz Josef Glacier
The long way: Allow half a day for a Glacier Heli Hike 
The short way: A 35 minute scenic helicopter flight (you still get to land on the glacier and look around!)

How long to allow for other popular bucket-list activities:

Allow A Full Day For: Cape Reinga road trip, Tongariro Crossing Alpine Hike

Allow A Half Day For: Skydiving, White Water / Black Water Rafting, Canyoning, Whale Watching / Swimming with Dolphins, Nevis Bungy Jump in Queenstown, TranzAlpine Scenic Rail Journey, Hole In The Rock Scenic Cruise

Allow 3 Hours or Less For: Bungy Jumping, Jet Boating, Scenic Flights, Glow Worm Cave Tour, Weta Cave Lord of The Rings Tour

PRO TIP: Be An Early Bird

Time your activities to take place in the morning, so you can drive to your next destination in the afternoon.
Skydiving and Hot Air ballooning activities offer some seriously early departures, you can even be back before breakfast!

80+ Sample New Zealand Itineraries To Inspire You

Whether you're coming for a romantic honeymoon, a winter ski break, family fun or a Lord of the Rings pilgrimage... you name it, First Light Travel have created it.

We have over 80 New Zealand Self-Drive Itineraries on our website, each of them created by our very own NZ travel specialists:

1-7 Day Self Drive Itineraries 
8-14 Day Self Drive Itineraries 
15-21 Day Self Drive Itineraries 
22+ Day Self Drive Itineraries



The 100% Stress-Free Option: Let Us Plan Your New Zealand Trip!

Finally, if the DIY approach feels like hard work, why not take the stress-free route and give the experts a call?

Believe it or not, using First Light Travel’s Itinerary Planning Service doesn’t cost you any more than doing it yourself: we get paid out of commission to the companies we use,  so you don’t need to pay us a penny for our assistance when you book with us.

While you're busy getting on with life, First Light Travel will custom-design a bespoke self-drive itinerary just for you, an itinerary which:

  • Fits your budget

  • Blends seamlessly with your timeframe & travel style

  • Puts your bucket list items front & centre

  • Offers exceptional, handpicked accommodation to suit your wallet

  • Immerses you in NZ's incredible beauty and diversity

We'll work with you to fine-tune the itinerary until you're 100% happy, then take care of every booking and offer 24/7 support while you are exploring New Zealand.

Are you ready? Let's plan your New Zealand dream trip! 

Our Service saves you time and money. Head to our Itinerary Planning Service to get started!

Marianne Davies
: 12 Dec 2018 (Last updated: 4 Mar 2024)

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