To many people, New Zealand seems like a faraway land to get to. If you are coming from North or South America, Europe, and Africa, it can be a long trip to New Zealand. But I assure you, it’s all worth it. The distance of travel is something to consider for sure, this is why 3-weeks in New Zealand is perfect.
If you are looking for a destination to spend your annual holiday, New Zealand is a great choice. There are so many places that can only be found in this country. Are you a LOTR or Hobbit fan? Well, you can visit the filming location of Bag End. Do you know that you can pay with hobbit money in New Zealand?
Been dreaming of seeing the famous kiwi animal? Perhaps you have been looking forward to seeing Dunedin, the town with the steepest road (slope of 19 degrees) in the world. How about exploring the country which was the last place to be inhabited by humans?
There are so much more reasons to visit New Zealand and spend your vacation here. In this article, I will show you my 3-weeks in New Zealand itinerary from North Island to South Island. If you are not familiar with those terms, that pretty much covers the entire country.
BASIC TRAVEL TIPS FOR NEW ZEALAND
Not only you should remember that New Zealand is south of the hemisphere (which means summer in Europe is winter here), but you should also know these basic things about New Zealand. These things will help you plan your travel itinerary and figure out which places you want to see the most and which one can be on the “maybe or plan B” list.
If you don’t know much about New Zealand or travelling with someone else, perhaps you can discuss this destination better with these interesting facts about New Zealand which are also suitable if you’re travelling with young children. Learning about these things will also help in planning or writing your itinerary.
New Zealand is on GMT+13 or UTC+12. That’s 3 hours ahead of Los Angeles, 12 hours ahead of Paris, and 5 hours ahead of Singapore.
If you are coming from the West, going to New Zealand means you are losing hours and going home means you are gaining hours or maybe even a day. This is why I only made this itinerary for 18-20 days. This will give you plenty of free time to prepare before you leave or time to relax once you get home from New Zealand.
Rent a car or not
Just like the UK, New Zealanders drive on the left. If you don’t mind this and are up for adventure in a car I recommend you rent a car for the duration of your trip. Having your own transportation also gives you the freedom to go and leave whenever. This will also save you so much more time.
If you don’t want that idea, you can also take public transportation. There is a decent train system in New Zealand and they are usually on time, they are also affordable. In cities, there are buses. Some buses also go from city to city.
Around $30 a day is the cost of a rental car in New Zealand. You can even do a one-way car rental. For example, pick up the car in Auckland, and drive it all the way to Christchurch where you can take your flight out of the country.
Don’t worry, there is a ferry that takes cars in when crossing the Cook Straight also known as Wellington to Picton. If for some reason, you started with a car and want to give it up in the middle of your trip or want to get one, just head to major cities like Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch, and Queensland. Even the small town of Picton has an Avis car rental centre.
If you do plan to drive or rent a car in New Zealand, make sure that you have a valid international driver’s license. Check that New Zealand is recognising your international driver’s license and for how long are they valid during your visit.
When is the best time to go to New Zealand
If you are looking for a sunny and warm holiday, planning to go snorkelling, swimming on the lakes, hiking, and outdoor activities, December to March is the best time to go to New Zealand. However, you should also remember that during this time, school is on the break which means, the crowd is bigger in popular places. Price hike in accommodation and other holiday or tourism business is possible.
On the other hand, if you want to go skiing, hiking in the snow, and other winter activities, June to September is the wintertime in New Zealand. While for the locals it could still be a holiday break, there are not as many tourists.
For those who want to see the famous aurora borealis, don’t worry, it’s all year round. However, the best time to see the sky lit green is from March until September.
TOP TIP: How to pack for a 3-week vacation
Visa and COVID-19 Policy
New Zealand provides free visas to travellers with passports from Malaysia, South Korea, Japan, North America, most of South America, most of Europe, and some Middle East. Australian visitors have free movement for an indefinite time.
New Zealand borders are currently closed unless you received a special permit to enter such as students, working holiday visa holders, and experts with job offers. However, starting May 1, 2022, New Zealand will allow tourists from visa-free countries will be allowed to enter as long as they are fully vaccinated.
The government expect the country to be fully open by October 2022. Read the government’s site for more information.
Other travel tips
Planning a trip can be time-consuming and overwhelming, but it doesn’t have to be. When I start planning a trip, I make sure to use travel sites that have flexible cancellation and also offer a wide selection in terms of price, location, and comfortability.
Here’s a list of my favourite travel tools and services where I book my travel arrangements. From hotel, flights, tours, cruises, = and even travel insurance and airport pickup to ensure my trip is hassle-free and with little to zero issues.
TOP PLACES TO SEE IN NEW ZEALAND (pinned map)
Click the expand icon on the top right to have a larger view of the map. Credit: Map data: Google
3 WEEKS-IN IN NEW ZEALAND ITINERARY
Unlike its very close neighbour Australia, New Zealand can be travelled and explored in 3 weeks. In 21 days, you can visit the southernmost capital city – Auckland. Visit Wellington, Nelson, Christchurch, and Queenstown.
Along the way, you will see not only beautiful glacier lakes, reserved natural parks, do fun water activities, do lots of hiking, and learn about New Zealand’s biggest ethnic group – Maori.
When you look at the map of New Zealand, it’s pretty easy to say that there are 2 major islands which are called North Island and South Island. There’s a big chance that your flight will land in Auckland which is located on the North Island. If you are arriving in Christchurch, then that will be South Island.
Don’t worry though, my itinerary can easily be rearranged that fits your arrival destination. This travel itinerary for 3-weeks in New Zealand is here to help you visualise and plan your own. You don’t have to follow everything I write. But read through as I will highly how many days to spend in each location, attractions to see, how to get around, and food to eat during your visit.
RECOMMENDED READ: 3-weeks in Australia itinerary
North Island for 8-10 days
North Island is the home of Auckland, the capital city of New Zealand. It is also where you can find many villages and towns that are home to ethnic groups. In this region, you can do so many things, perhaps assigned about 10-12 days here. With that, you will have plenty of time to explore the entire island.
Auckland and surrounding: 4 days
Auckland is a coastal city and most likely the city where your flight will arrive. It has a major harbour that connects the capital to many islands such as Great Barrier Island, Little Barrier Island, Waiheke, Rangitoto, and Ponui Island. The price ranges from NZ$20 to $100 for one way and you can even bring your vehicle (for an extra fee).
In the city itself, spending around 2-3 days is enough. If you want to visit the islands and the northernest point of New Zealand, Cape Reinga and Rainbow Waterfalls, add an extra 3-4 days.
Best places to see and things to do in Auckland and around:
- Explore Auckland – join a group tour for a full-day exploration
- Cape Reinga
- Hobbiton Movie set – book a day trip
- Rainbow Waterfalls
- Kamo Wildlife Sanctuary
- Kiwi North: Museum
- Sky Tower – get your ticket in advance
- Auckland War Memorial
- Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki
- Day trip to Waitomo Caves – book a full-day trip
- Auckland Zoo
- Sea Life Kelly Tarlton’s Aquarium
- Auckland Domain
- Rainbow’s End
- MOTAT Museum of Transport and Technology
- Mission Bay Auckland
- Tandem Skydive – book this exciting tour
- Achilles Point
- Auckland Lookout
- Oakley Creek Waterfall
- Great Barrier Island
- Waiheke Island – Waiheke Wineries or Zipline and Native Forest Adventure
Accommodations in Auckland:
- Affordable: HIT Hostel or Kiwi International Hotel
- Mid-range: Roomie Apartment Hotel or Holiday Inn
- Luxury: Grand Millenium or Ohtel Auckland or The Grand
Taupo/Rotorua: 4-5 days
After enjoying Auckland, I recommend you decide between Taupo and Rotorua. Both these places are home to rich Maori culture. These two small towns have so much to offer that is so different from the rest of the countries. To be honest, it won’t matter which. You will need either of these spots to be your base to stay at while exploring this region. There are over 10 must-see attractions here (including the Hobbiton Village) and coming from Auckland is a long way.
Here is a list of places to see around Taupo or Rotorua:
- Hobbiton Village – sign up for a popular guided tour
- Hell’s Gate Geothermal Reserve and Mud Spa
- Huka Falls – check tour options
- Rainbow Springs Nature Park
- Redwoods – Whakarewarewa Forest
- Lake Taupo – book a cruise to see the rock carvings
- Waimangu Volcanic Valley
- Taupo Skydive – check the price
- Craters of the Moon
- Tongariro National Park
- Orakei Korako Geothermal – book a self-guided tour
- Waitomo Glowworm Caves
- Tongariro Alpine Crossing Trail – Ketetahi side
- Pouakai Circuit – Henry Peak Lookout – optional as it’s really out of the way, located on the west side of the island)
- Tukino SkifieldCape Kidnappers – take a stopover here on your way to Wellington
Accommodations in Taupo and Rotorua:
- Affordable to Mid-range: YHA Finlay Jack’s Backpackers or Acacia Lake View or Taupo Debretts Spa Resort
- Luxury: The Village Resort or Suncourt Hotel
Wellington/Nelson: 3-4 days
3-weeks in New Zealand is not complete without a visit to Wellington. A harbour in the south of the North Island. It also has an international airport where flights go directly to Australia and many countries in Southeast Asia. While Nelson is a quiet little town in the north of the South Island.
Personally, I didn’t find many exciting things to do in Nelson, however, from here, it’s only an hour’s drive to Split Apple Rock and Abel Tasman National Park. Nelson is also an awesome place to simply chill and probably process the places you have seen so far. You can get from Wellington to Nelson by taking the 3.5-hour ferry to cross the Cook Strait.
You will arrive in Picton which is an hour from Nelson. You can take your car on the ferry too. The ticket cost from Wellington to Picton without a vehicle is between NZ$60 to $75. With a car, the price starts at NZ$200 up to $300 (depending on how long the car is, that includes motorhomes). With a motorbike, the ticket costs from NZ$120 to $175. The price is also different if you are travelling with a pet. Check the ferry prices.
When you arrive in Picton, you can rent a car there if you came to South Island without a car. It’s a tiny harbour town though and I don’t recommend you stay there since there’s not much to do.
Here is a list of must-see places in Wellington:
- Zealandia Te Māra a Tāne – check this exciting tour to Zealandia
- Wellington Museum
- Wellington Cable Car – get your ticket in advance
- Kapiti Island – book a day tour
- Wellington Zoo
- Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa – join a tour with a guide
- Mount Victoria Lookout
- Weta Cave
- Massey Memorial
- Do a full-day tour that highlights all the top attractions of Wellington – check the itinerary
Here is a list of must-see places near Nelson:
- Pic’s Peanut Butter World
- Split Apple Rock
- Abel Tasman National Park – check tour prices
Accommodations in Wellington:
- Affordable: The Marion Hostel or Trek Global Backpackers or Cambridge Hotel
- Mid-range to Luxury: Rydges Hotel or Apollo Lodge Motel or Bolton Hotel
Accommodations in Nelson:
- Affordable: The Prince Albert Backpackers & Bar or The Palace Backpackers or Bridge Backpackers
- Mid-range: Joya Garden & Villa Studios or The Beachcomber Hotel
- Luxury: Trailways Hotel or Chelsea Motor Lodge or Palazzo Motor Lodge
South Island for 8-10 days
South Island offers a very different experienced compared to the North Island. From unique landscapes to beautiful animals – South Island is a great destination. Now, you can base yourself in Christchurch and explore the West coast, which is about a 3.5-hour drive. Then you can head to Queenstown, where you can enjoy the Fjords of New Zealand.
Christchurch: 2 -3 days
Being in Christchurch will remind you of Europe, England specifically. It has deep roots in English heritage and historic buildings. In 2010 and 2011, a massive earthquake destroyed many historical places in Christchurch, however, there are still many areas you can visit. From here, you can also visit the famous Franz Josef which offers beautiful glaciers.
Here is a list of must-see places in Christchurch and around the area:
- International Antarctic Centre
- Willowbank Wildlife Reserve
- Aoraki/Mount Cook – check tour price
- Kea Point
- Glacier Explorers
- Book a combo tour for TranzAlpine Train, Arthur’s Pass, and Castle Hill
- Orana Wildlife Park
- Quake City
- Franz Josef Glacier Hot Pools
Accommodations in Christchurch:
- Affordable: Jailhouse Accommodation or Urbanz Hostel
- Mid-range: Hotel Give or Carnmore Hotel
- Luxury: Crowne Plaza or Wyndham Garden
It’s about a 6-hour drive from Christchurch to Queenstown. To save some time, you can head to Aoraki on the way to Queenstown. Remember to leave Christchurch early so you won’t come to Queenstown too late. This place works best if you are driving since you have to keep your belongings in your car while exploring some attractions.
Queenstown: 6 days
Queenstown is a “shore city”, it’s located right on the lade of Wakatipu. It is a popular destination for dozens of outdoor activities which is very famous during the summer (Christmas) season. Queenstown is a small town but depends highly on tourism, so don’t worry, there are plenty of accommodations to choose from.
Here is a list of must-see places in the Queenstown area:
- Queenstown Gardens
- Shotover Canyon Swing – check the price
- Lake Wanaka Lookout and Wildwire Wanaka
- Shotover River and Kawarau River Jet Ride – compare this tour and this one
- Skyline Queenstown Cable Car/Gondola
- Lake Wakatipu – join a catamaran cruise
- Queenstown Hill Walking Track
- Queenstown Helicopter Tour with Alpine Landing – book this tour or this one – check which one has better reviews
- AJ Hackett Kawarau Bungy Centre
- Fiordland National Park – check the tour itinerary
- Skippers Canyon – try a jet boat tour
- Roys Peak
- Milford Sound/Piopiotahi – full-day tour or a helicopter ride or a cruise and lunch picnic
- Treble Cone Ski Area
- TSS Steamship – board a scenic cruise
- Mount Aspiring National Park
- Queenstown Tandem Skydive – book this thrilling adventure
- Enjoy the local wine and food – signup for a fun tasting tour or a vineyard tour
Accommodations in Queenstown:
- Affordable: Tahuna Pod Hostel or Southern Laughter Backpackers
- Mid-range: Pinewood Lodge & Apartments or Wyndham Gaden
- Luxury: Hilton Resort & Spa or Heartland Hotel or Swiss-Belsuites Pounamu
If you have time, I recommend you see Oamaru Blue Penguin Colony which is east of Queenstown and of course, Stewart Island or Dunedin which are two popular spots for the Southern Lights.
EXTRA TIPS FOR YOUR TRIP TO NEW ZEALAND
Here are more tips when writing your own travel itinerary. It will include places you can skip and destinations that you definitely want to visit:
I’m not saying these are not worthy places to see. Depending on the things you want to do or the place you are very eager to see, perhaps, you can free up time in your itinerary by skipping these areas.
- Unless you really want to see the city, I recommend you skip Christchurch
- You can skip the north part of Northern Island
- Ski locations unless you are doing any winter activities
- Skip island or water activities tours unless it’s summer
Spend more time in/Must-sees:
- Spend more time in Taupo and/or Rotorua – there is just so much to do and see, if you like hiking, take your time doing Tongariro Trail
- Spend more time in New Zealand Fjords – it’s a massive area and simply stunning
- Visit the kiwi birds
- Definitely don’t skip Hobbiton Village
- See Aurora Borealis
- Visit the penguins at Oamaru, Dunedin, or Stewart Island – these penguins are so different from African Penguins
New Zealand is such a perfect destination for seasonal travellers to spend their 3-week holiday. It offers stunning glaciers, must-do hiking trails, amazing and diverse culture, and very unique experiences.
I hope this 3-weeks in New Zealand itinerary helped you plan your own itinerary to make sure you make the most out of your holiday.