Julie Itinerary, New Zealand 71 Comments

New Zealand…this is the land of fiords, volcanoes, black sand beaches, glaciers, glowworms, hot springs, and breathtaking landscapes. On this New Zealand itinerary, you can road trip through one of the most beautiful countries in the world. Along the way, go hiking, test your wits and go bungy jumping, go wine tasting, and much, much more.

It’s no secret that New Zealand is one of our favorite destinations in the world. New Zealand is the perfect blend of outdoor adventures, breathtaking landscapes, beautiful cities, and gourmet food.

One of the best ways to tour New Zealand is from behind the wheel of a car (or a campervan). This itinerary is designed as a 3 week road trip, starting in Auckland on the North Island and ending at Queenstown on the South Island.

I hope you enjoy New Zealand just as much as we did. And if you are like us, you will be dreaming about returning again someday.

About This New Zealand Itinerary

In 2015, we spent just over 3 weeks in New Zealand as part of our trip around the world. We started in Queenstown and ended in Auckland. This is our exact itinerary, only I wrote it in the opposite order. The North Island is wonderful but the South Island is literally jaw-dropping. Basically, the farther south you travel, the more beautiful New Zealand gets.

In 2023, Tim and I returned to New Zealand, for a 5 week road trip to both the North and South Islands. Since that trip, we have updated and added a lot more content to this article.

So, rather than starting off at the best part, I am saving that for the very end. Trust me, it will be worth it. Every day will be better than one before it, at least in my opinion.

On this New Zealand itinerary, you will spend about one week on the North Island and two weeks on the South Island. As you work your way south through New Zealand, every day will be better than one before it, at least in my opinion. This itinerary comes out at 22 days. If this is too long, along the way I let you know what I recommend skipping.

Also, if three weeks is too long, skip the North Island and spend two weeks on the South Island. It’s better to put all of your time in the South Island rather than quickly skipping through both the North and South Islands in just two weeks.

Getting Around New Zealand

This New Zealand itinerary is designed as a road trip. You will rent a car in Auckland and drop it in Queenstown. To cross from the North Island to the South Island, you will take a ferry across the Cook Strait.

Rental Car vs. Campervan

On both of our road trips, we elected not to travel by campervan for several reasons. On our first trip, we were a group of four people, so we would have needed a decent sized campervan. There was no real cost difference between either option (campervan vs. car with budget and mid-range hotels). Plus, we had concerns about Wi-Fi, and in 2015, the handy, reliable travel friendly Wi-Fi devices didn’t exist like they do now.

On our second trip, Tim and I preferred to spend the night in hotels. We also work quite a bit while traveling, answering comments and emails, and writing up everything we do so we can share it with you, so a reliable connection to the internet is a must for us.

However, if you are traveling solo or as a group of two, a campervan can be easier on the budget and gives you a little more freedom to travel without coming up with a detailed, pre-planned itinerary.

One Way Rental Fee

Since you will be picking up the rental car at Auckland and dropping it at Queenstown, there will be an additional drop fee. It can cost $100 NZD or more for this fee. The fee varies based on the rental car company and time of year you are visiting.

Paying the drop fee is almost unavoidable. You can avoid paying it by shortening your time on the North Island and then returning the rental car to Auckland. Then, fly to Queenstown or Christchurch and then pick up a second rental car from here. However, by doing this, you will miss some sites on the North and South Islands, end up spending valuable time backtracking through the North Island, and you will pay for an additional flight. It hardly seems worth it, both in time and expense, to try to avoid this fee.

Sometimes, the fee can be lower if you travel south to north. If you find that this is the case in your situation, you can do this itinerary in the opposite order.

3 Weeks in New Zealand Itinerary

This itinerary starts off with 9 days on the North Island followed by 13 days on the South Island. Here is an overview of the full itinerary:
Day 1: Arrive in Auckland
Day 2: Auckland
Day 3: Waitomo Caves
Day 4: Hobbiton
Day 5: Rotorua
Day 6: Taupō
Day 7: Tongariro Alpine Crossing
Day 8: Drive to Wellington
Day 9: Wellington
Day 10: Ferry to the South Island
Day 11: Abel Tasman National Park
Day 12: Abel Tasman National Park
Day 13: Marlborough Wine Region
Day 14: Kaikoura, Christchurch, Banks Peninsula
Day 15: Lake Tekapo, Drive to Mt Cook
Day 16: Aoraki / Mt Cook National Park
Day 17: Wanaka
Day 18: Drive to Te Anau
Day 19: Milford Sound
Day 20: Queenstown
Day 21: Queenstown



New Zealand Itinerary Days 1 to 9: North Island

How to Use This Map:  Click the tab in the top left hand corner of the map to view the layers (points of interest and the driving route). You can click the check marks to hide or show layers. If you click the icons on the map, you can get more information about each point of interest. 
If you click the star next to the title of the map, this map will be added to your Google Maps account. To view it on your phone or computer, open Google Maps, click the menu button, go to “Your Places,” click Maps, and you will see this map on your list.

Day 1: Arrive in Auckland

Arrive in Auckland and get settled into your hotel. Most likely, you will be dealing with some level of jet lag. If you have the energy, you can go out and see the town.

If you get in early and have lots of energy, spend the day touring Auckland. If your flight gets in late, or you arrive on a long overnight flight (like we did from the USA), most likely you will be feeling wiped out.

For a list of things to do, restaurants, and hotel recommendations, take a look at our article Best Things to Do in Auckland.

Auckland | 3 Week New Zealand Itinerary

Auckland | 3 Week New Zealand Itinerary

Day 2: Auckland

There are a bunch of different ways to fill your time in Auckland. You can stay in town and see the sights or you can leave the city behind and explore the nearby coast and islands.

Here are some of the top experiences in and around Auckland

For a full list of things to do in Auckland, take a look at our article Best Things to Do in Auckland. But here are a few of the top activities to do in town. Learn how to plan your time with our Auckland Itinerary, which has several ways to spend one day in Auckland, plus 2 and 3 day itineraries, if you plan to spend more time in Auckland.

Rangitoto Island. This island is a dormant volcano that can be seen from Auckland. Take a ferry ride here or, for more adventure, kayak to the island on a tour.

Waiheke Island. This is our favorite experience in Auckland. Go wine tasting and explore the vineyards on this island, just 40 minutes from Auckland by ferry. Plan your day trip using our Guide to Waiheke Island.

Visit a Museum or Two. The Auckland Art Gallery, the Auckland War Memorial Museum, and the New Zealand Maritime Museum are three of the best museums to visit in Auckland.

Cruise the Hauraki Gulf. Take a short ferry to Hauraki Gulf and along the way you may be able to spot whales and dolphins.

The Sky Tower. This is the best place to go in Auckland for 360° views over the city.

Stroll through Viaduct Harbour. This is a great spot in Auckland to get dinner and drinks. 

Visit the West Coast beaches. Just a short drive west of Auckland is the Tasman Sea. It is here that you can spend some time exploring the gorgeous black sand at Karekare and Piha beaches.

Viaduct Harbour Auckland

Viaduct Harbour | 3 Week New Zealand Itinerary


Karekare Beach

Karekare Beach | 3 Week New Zealand Itinerary


Man O War Vineyards Lunch

Lunch at Man O’ War Vineyards on Waiheke Island | 3 Week New Zealand Itinerary

Day 3: Glowworms and Waitomo Caves

Total Driving Distance: 300 km
Total Driving Time: 4 hours

Get an early start and drive to Waitomo. From Auckland, it takes two and a half hours to drive to Waitomo Caves.

Seeing the glowworms at Waitomo Caves is one of the most unique experiences to have in New Zealand. There are several different caves to visit in Waitomo to see glowworms and all require a tour of some sort.

If you visit Waitomo Glowworm Caves, by rowboat you will silently drift into a dark cave. Above your heads will be thousands of tiny glowworms, twinkling like stars in the night sky. These tiny glowworms, which are the larvae of adult insects, use bioluminescence to produce the light that attracts prey to their “web.”

If you visit Ruakuri Cave, you will hike through a cave to see glowworms. At Ruakuri Cave, you can also go blackwater rafting.

Tim and I just went blackwater rafting on our most recent visit to New Zealand and it is a blast! It combines tubing in a cave with some of the best views of glowworms that you can get in Waitomo. Learn more about blackwater rafting and your various options for seeing glowworms in Waitomo in our Guide to Waitomo Caves.

Blackwater Rafting New Zealand


Blackwater rafting in Ruakuri Cave | photo courtesy of Legendary Black Water Rafting

Once you are finished at Waitomo Caves, continue the drive to Matamata (1.5 hours, 103 km). Matamata is the location of Hobbiton, a movie filming set for Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. Sleep in Matamata or nearby.

Day 4: Hobbiton

Total Driving Distance: 67 km
Total Driving Time: 1 hour

Hobbiton is a fairytale world of colorful, child-sized houses and a restaurant/saloon called the Green Dragon. This was built as a movie set for the Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit movies, but the houses sparked such an interest that Hobbiton still remains open for tourism.

If you are traveling with kids or if you are a fan of the LoTR and The Hobbit movies, this is not to be missed.

A tour of the property lasts about 2 hours. You will walk the 12 acres, learn the history behind the movie sets, and end with a pint of ale at the Green Dragon.

Visiting Hobbiton | 3 Week New Zealand Itinerary

Hobbiton | 3 Week New Zealand Itinerary


The Shire | 3 Week New Zealand Itinerary

Hobbiton | 3 Week New Zealand Itinerary

We were told that morning is the best time for photos. Since you are staying near Hobbiton, you have the option the do the Second Breakfast tour of the film set, which is a special experience. Learn more about the tours on the official website.

Order your tickets in advance. Tours can sell out several weeks to even a month in advance, even if you are not visiting during high season. If tickets are sold out, you can also purchase them through GetYourGuide.

New Zealand Itinerary Modification: It is possible to combine the Waitomo Caves and Hobbiton into one day. Leave early from Auckland, take an early tour of Waitomo Caves, and then take the last tour of the day. You will need to book your tickets in advance. Visiting Waitomo Caves and Hobbiton on the same day is busy but it can save you a day of travel through New Zealand.

After your tour of Hobbiton, drive to Rotorua (70 km, 1 hour). Have dinner in Rotorua (we recommend Poco Tapas and Wine or Mitai Maori Village if you want to watch a cultural performance and take part in a hangi, which is a traditional Maori meal).

Sleep in Rotorua. Get hotel recommendations in our article Best Things to Do in Rotorua (coming soon).

Day 5: Rotorua

Total Driving Distance: 82 km
Total Driving Time: 1 km

We liked to joke that Rotorua is New Zealand’s smelliest city. Rotorua is located in a geothermal area, and with the bubbling hot springs, the entire town smells like rotten eggs.

Here are the top experiences in Rotorua

Learn about Maori culture. Visit a Maori Village and watch a traditional Maori performance and dine on traditional Maori food.

Te Puia. Watch the eruption of Pohutu Geyser, the largest geyser in the southern hemisphere, and take a Maori led tour of the geothermal area.

Walk among Redwoods at Whakarewarewa Forest. Located just outside of Rotorua is a forest of California Redwood trees. You can also tour the canopies of these massive trees at the Redwoods Tree Walk.

Skyline Rotorua. Ride the gondola to Skyline Rotorua. Kids will love riding the Luge. Have lunch and do a wine tasting at Volcanic Hills Winery while enjoying panoramic views over Rotorua.

Redwood Forest | 3 Week New Zealand Itinerary

Whakarewarewa Forest | 3 Week New Zealand Itinerary


Redwoods in New Zealand | 3 Week New Zealand Itinerary

Rotorua | 3 Week New Zealand Itinerary

Orakei Korako Thermal Valley | 3 Week New Zealand Itinerary

Mid to late afternoon, drive to Taupō. On this drive, you will pass several geothermal areas, including Waimangu Volcanic Valley, Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland, and Orekai Korako (our favorite of the three), so you could pick one of these and visit it on the drive. Check closing hours before you go to make sure you have enough time here.

Where to Stay in Taupō: For hotel and restaurant recommendations, take a look at our Guide to Taupō. Take your pick from highly rated apartments, small hotels with a pool or thermal spa, or one of the resorts in town.

Day 6: Taupō

Total Driving Distance: 130 km
Total Driving Time:1.5 hours

Taupō, the adventure capital of the North Island, is very similar to Queenstown on the South Island. Here you can go bungy jumping, jet boat riding, kayaking, hiking, paragliding, and skydiving.

On our first visit to Taupō, we chose to go mountain biking, since we had already spent a small fortune in Queenstown. From the town of Taupō, we mountain biked through more Redwood forests to Huka Falls.

However, there are a lot of great things to do here. Visit the geothermal areas, relax in a thermal pool, take a boat tour of Lake Taupō to see the Maori Rock Carvings, or do one of the many adrenaline-filled activities mentioned above. For a full list of things to do, plus recommendations on where to eat and where to stay, read our article Best Things to Do in Taupō.

Lake Taupo Maori Rock Carving

Maori Rock Carvings | 3 Week New Zealand Itinerary


Wairakei Terraces Thermal Spa

Wairakei Terraces & Thermal Spa | 3 Week New Zealand Itinerary

Where to Stay

Tonight, you have two options on where to stay. You can stay in Taupō, but be aware that it will be a longer drive to the trailhead tomorrow morning. However, if you don’t plan on hiking the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, Taupō is the better place to stay. There are a LOT of highly rated hotels here, some with swimming pools and/or thermal spas, plus a handful of great restaurants. In our Guide to Taupō, we have a list of recommended hotels and restaurants.

Option #2 is to stay in Turangi. This small town is located much closer to the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, so you’ll have a much shorter drive in the morning. In Turangi, we stayed in the cottage at Sportsmans Lodge. It’s nothing special but it is worth considering if you are traveling on a budget. Many people stay here for fishing trips but it also works well as a nice home base for the Tongariro Alpine Crossing hike. Creel Lodge and Braxmere get better reviews so it’s worth checking out these properties too.

Day 7: Tongariro Alpine Crossing

Total Driving Distance: 66 km
Total Driving Time: 1 hour

The Tongariro Alpine Crossing has been labeled as the world’s greatest single day hike. This hike climbs up through volcanic terrain, past old lava fields, near several giant calderas, and even past a smoking volcano that recently erupted.

Hike New Zealand | 3 Week New Zealand Itinerary

3 Weeks in New Zealand

Tongariro Alpine Crossing | 3 Week New Zealand Itinerary


Tongariro Alpine Crossing

It is 19.4 km in length and since it is done as a point-to-point hike, you will need to arrange transportation to the start or the finish of the hike. We parked at Ketetahi car park and had a shuttle take us to the start of the hike at Mangatepopo.

Get the full details of how to arrange the shuttle and what to expect along the hike in our article about hiking the Tongariro Alpine Crossing.

Sleep in Turangi.

Day 8: Wellington

Total Driving Distance: 325 km
Total Driving Time: 4 hours

Today you drive south to Wellington. Wellington is the capital city of New Zealand and the second largest city after Auckland, but even so, it feels wonderfully small.


Wellington | 3 Week New Zealand Itinerary

Here are some of the top experiences in Wellington

Enjoy the View from Mount Victoria. For the best view over Wellington, walk or drive to the Mount Victoria lookout.

Visit Te Papa. Learn about the history and culture of New Zealand at Te Papa, the national museum of New Zealand.

Ride the Wellington Cable Car. This funicular connects the central business district with the Wellington Botanic Garden and a lookout point over the city.

Tour Weta Cave. Weta Workshop is the company that produced the props, costumes, and digital effects for the LoTR and Hobbit movies. While on tour here, we also learned that Weta Workshop has worked on other movies such as Avatar, Narnia, and Spiderman.

Eat & drink your way through Wellington. Wellington is known as the craft beer capital of New Zealand. There are also quite a few coffee shops, bars, and excellent restaurants to sample while you are here.

Get the full list in our article Best Things to Do in Wellington.

Where to Stay: We recommend The InterContinental, the Intrepid Hotel, Ramada by Wyndham, and the Marion Hostel.

Day 9: Wellington

Spend a second day in Wellington. This gives you enough time to see all the main sites in town. I read that there are more bars and restaurants per capita in Wellington than in New York City. This city is filled with phenomenal restaurants. So, why not have a leisurely day and end it with a nice meal tonight?

New Zealand Itinerary Modification: If you need to save some time, or if you would rather spend more time in the country than in the city, consider eliminating this day from the itinerary.

New Zealand Itinerary Days 10 to 21: South Island

Day 10: Travel to the South Island

Total Driving Distance: 180 km + the ferry crossing
Total Driving Time: 2.5 hours driving, 3 hours on the ferry

In the morning, take the ferry from the North Island to the South Island.

The Cook Strait separates the North Island from the South Island. It takes 3 to 3.5 hours to travel from Wellington on the North Island to Picton on the South Island.

Interislander Ferry View


The two main ferry companies are Interislander and Bluebridge. The Interislander ferry is larger. Since it is a larger ship, it is less likely to get cancelled in the event of bad weather, plus, there is plenty of room to get up and move around.

We sailed with Interislander twice and thought it was wonderful. We could get up and walk around as we pleased. The ferry felt enormous, with multiple decks, cafes, TV’s and I even think it had a movie theater!

Here are the links to both companies. Check ferry prices and availability. I recommend booking your tickets in advance because they do sell out.

Once in Picton, drive to Motueka or Nelson and get settled in your hotel. This will be your home base for exploring Abel Tasman National Park.

Where We Stayed: We stayed at Chalets @ Terraced Gardens in Motueka. This place is fabulous! Upon arrival, we were offered a bottle of wine or a jar of homemade jam. Our chalet was clean, quiet, and came with a kitchenette and private bathroom. From here, it was just a short drive to Kaiteriteri.

Days 11 & 12: Abel Tasman National Park

Abel Tasman National Park is New Zealand’s smallest national park.

Located on the northern coastline of the South Island, Abel Tasman is home to one of New Zealand’s multi-day walking tracks, aptly named the Abel Tasman Coast Track. This is one of New Zealand’s Great Walks. At 51 km, it takes 3 to 5 days to walk the entire track. You can do this, by adding time onto this itinerary or by swapping the full day in Wellington for a third day at Abel Tasman. Learn more about the Abel Tasman Coast Track here.

If you don’t have the time or the desire for a multi-day trek, you can still have a wonderful time at Abel Tasman. You can day hike sections of the Coast Track or explore the coast by kayak.

Our original plan was to spend one day kayaking and one day hiking part of the Coast Track. Unfortunately, a solid day of torrential rain kept us indoors.

With our one precious day, we hired Wilsons for a combination cruise and hiking excursion. We cruised along the coast for one hour and then hiked 6 miles from Medland’s Beach to Anchorage. It was a great day and this part of New Zealand, with its lush, tropical foliage and dense forests, looks and feels a lot different from the rest of New Zealand.

Abel Tasman National Park

Abel Tasman National Park | 3 Week New Zealand Itinerary


Abel Tasman with Kids

There is more to do from Motueka and Nelson. You can walk along Wharariki Beach, hike to Wanui Falls, or explore Kahurangi National Park. Click here to learn more.

In the evening, drive to Blenheim so you have one full day to explore the wine region tomorrow (2.5 hours, 160 km from Motueka).

Where to Stay: We recommend the Ellena Court Motel and 14th Lane Urban Hotel in Blenheim. For something unique, check out Wine Barrel Cabins. For dinner, go to Gramado’s, a highly rated Brazilian steakhouse.

Day 13: Marlborough Wine Region

The Marlborough wine region is New Zealand’s premiere wine region. This area is famous for its white wines, mostly Sauvignon Blancs, but it also produces some lighter reds as well.

You can tour the Marlborough wine region by car, by bicycle, or on a tour.

On our first visit, we thought it would be more fun to tour the region by bicycle, especially since this would let Tyler and Kara burn off some energy in between wine tastings. We rented bikes from Wine Tours by Bike and went on a self-guided tour through the wine region. The shop owner gave us a map and recommendations on wineries. We spent all day cycling from winery to winery.

Marlborough Wine Region

Forrest Wines Marlborough

Framingham Wines Charcuterie Board

This was fun for our whole family. Tim and I loved tasting the wines. Tyler and Kara loved touring the wine region by bicycle. We dined on cheese and crackers at the wineries. And when we did this, it was April, so New Zealand was ablaze in fall colors. It is still one of my favorite memories from New Zealand.

Tim and I returned to the Marlborough Wine Region in 2023, touring it by car. Since that visit, we have written a Guide to the Marlborough Wine Region, which has recommended wineries, restaurants, and advice on how to plan your time.

Sleep in Blenheim.

Day 14: Kaikoura & Christchurch

Total Driving Distance: 310 km
Total Driving Time: 4.5 hours


Today you work your way down the South Island. The day ends at Christchurch and the Banks Peninsula. Along the way, you have the option to make a pitstop at Kaikoura.

Kaikoura is located almost 2 hours south of Blenheim. This is one of the best spots in New Zealand to get out on the water and go whale watching, fishing, or swim with dolphins.

Kaikoura Beach

Kaikoura | 3 Week New Zealand Itinerary

If you want to swim with dolphins while in New Zealand, this is the place to do it. Three species of dolphins are found in the water near Kaikoura, including dusky dolphins, Hector’s dolphins, and common dolphins. Orca can also make an appearance from September to April.

Dolphin Encounter runs tours all year. You can either simply view the dolphins or, for about double the price, swim with dolphins.

In the afternoon, visit Christchurch or Akaroa on the Banks Peninsula.


Christchurch is the largest city on the South Island. Earthquakes hit Christchurch in 2010 and 2011, severely damaging the town. During our visit in 2015, we could still see the mark the earthquakes left on this city and on our second visit in 2023, could see that the city make a remarkable recovery.

In Christchurch, learn about the earthquakes at Quake City, go Punting on the Avon, visit the International Antarctic Centre, see if you can spot a Kiwi at Willowbank Wildlife Reserve, and ride the Christchurch gondola for panoramic views of the city.

For a full list of things to see and do, read our Guide to Christchurch.

Christchurch New Zealand

Christchurch | 3 Week New Zealand Itinerary

Banks Peninsula & Akaroa

Just south of Christchurch is the Banks Peninsula. The drive from Christchurch to the town of Akaroa is beautiful. Green, rolling hills dotted with literally thousands of sheep…it is gorgeous.

With a limited amount of time on the Banks Peninsula, your time will be limited to a scenic drive on Summit Road, a stroll through Akaroa, a visit to the Giant’s House, and maybe a quick tour to see the Shamarra alpacas. The Akaroa Harbour is the best place in New Zealand to see Hector’s dolphins (the smallest dolphins in the world), so you could skip the dolphin experience in Kaikoura and spend more time in Akaroa, instead.

For the full list of things to do in Akaroa, plus where to eat and where to stay, take a look at our article Best Things to Do in Akaroa and Banks Peninsula.

Banks Peninsula

Banks Peninsula | 3 Week New Zealand Itinerary


Shamarra Alpacas

photo credit: Shamarra Alpacas

Tonight, you can stay in Akaroa, Christchurch, or, if you really want to stay somewhere unique, check out SiloStay in Little River. These silos have been transformed into eco-friendly, one-bedroom apartments. How often do you get the chance to sleep in a silo? And it’s surprisingly luxurious. 

SiloStay New Zealand itinerary

SiloStay | 3 Week New Zealand Itinerary

Day 15: Drive to Aoraki / Mt. Cook National Park

Total Driving Distance: 380 km
Total Driving Time: 5 hours

Today is one of the longest driving days of this itinerary. To get to Aoraki / Mount Cook National Park, it is a 380 km drive that takes just under 5 hours.

About an hour before you reach Mount Cook Village, you will arrive at Lake Tekapo. This is a great place to grab a bite to eat and go for a lovely stroll along Lake Tekapo. If you are doing well on time, you can also add on the quick detour up to the Mount John Observatory for panoramic views over Lake Tekapo (well worth it when the weather is good, this adds on about 20 km and 45 minutes, which includes time for photos).

Lake Tekapo

Lake Tekapo | 3 Week New Zealand Itinerary

Continue the drive to Mount Cook Village. The final leg of the drive takes you along the edge of Lake Pukaki. From overlooks along the road, enjoy those iconic views of Aoraki / Mount Cook with the lake and the winding road.

Lake Pukaki New Zealand itinerary

Lake Pukaki

If you are doing great on time, you can do a short hike. I recommend hiking in Tasman Valley or even doing the Hooker Valley Track if skies are clear (you get spectacular views of Aoraki / Mount Cook from this trail).

Check into your hotel and have dinner (we recommend dinner at the Hermitage Hotel since the dining room has an awesome view of Aoraki / Mount Cook). You will stay in Mount Cook Village for two nights.

Day 16: Aoraki / Mt Cook National Park & Wanaka

Total Driving Distance: 210 km
Total Driving Time: 2.5 hours

Spend the morning at Aoraki / Mount Cook National Park and in the afternoon or evening (depending on how much time you spend at Aoraki / Mount Cook), drive to Wanaka.

Here are some great ways to spend your time at Mt. Cook

Walk the Hooker Valley Track. If you do one thing while you are here, it should be to walk this hiking trail. At 5 km in length and almost completely flat, it is perfect for all ages and ability levels. The trail is a mix of gravel paths and boardwalks. It takes 3 to 4 hours round trip and along the way you are treated to beautiful views of Mt. Cook.

Hooker Valley Track

Hooker Valley Track


Hooker Valley Track

Hooker Valley Track


Tim Tyler Kara Mt Cook

Take a Scenic Flight Over Aoraki Mt. Cook National Park. For the best view of the park, take a flight by helicopter or airplane. Flights leave from Lake Tekapo Airport or Mt. Cook Airport.

Go Heli-Hiking. For the ultimate adventure, take a helicopter flight to the Tasman Glacier and go hiking.

Hike the Tasman Glacier View Track. This hike is 1.15 km/0.7 miles round trip, easy, and takes about 30 minutes. It’s a great hike for all ages and is an easy way to get to another stunning viewpoint in Aoraki / Mount Cook National Park.

Hike to Mueller Hut. The Mueller Hut Route is 10.4 km/6.5 miles out-and-back with 1,000 meters of elevation gain. It is rated as challenging and takes 6 to 8 hours. The views from the hut are some of the best in the national park.

Drive to Wanaka

In the afternoon, drive to Wanaka (210 km, 2.5 hours).

For dinner, we recommend Bistro Gentil (wine bar and French food with views of Lake Wanaka) or Big Fig (healthy Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cuisine).

Spend two nights in Wanaka. We recommend Wanaka Homestead Lodge & Cottages, Wanaka Heights Motel, and Wanaka Top 10 Holiday Park.

Day 17: Wanaka

Spend the day in Wanaka.

If you are a hiker, we recommend Roys Peak Track and the Rocky Mountain Track to Diamond Lake. On the Wildwire Via Ferrata you will climb a waterfall and there are several options depending on your adventure level, experience, and how much time you want to dedicate to this experience.

In Wanaka, you can also go wine tasting, see #ThatWanakaTree, go for a cruise on Lake Wanaka, and watch a movie in Cinema Paradiso. Tonight, sleep in Wanaka.

Roys Peak Track New Zealand

Roy’s Peak Track | 3 Week New Zealand Itinerary


Rocky Mountain Track Wanaka

Rocky Mountain Track and its view of Wanaka | 3 Week New Zealand Itinerary

Day 18: Drive to Te Anau

Total Driving Distance: 225 km
Total Driving Time: 3 hours

The Milford Sound is one of New Zealand’s must-see sights. It’s located 4 hours south of Queenstown, so it is possible to visit it on a day trip from Queenstown, but it’s a long, long day. Instead, base yourself in the quiet, much closer town of Te Anau.

Today you will drive right past Queenstown to get to Te Anau. It may sound strange to go right to Te Anau, but there are reasons for this. Doing it this way will save you an additional hotel reservation and another day packing and unpacking. Plus, your trip will end with several memorable days in Queenstown.

From Wanaka, it only takes 3 hours to drive to Te Anau. You will drive right past Queenstown on the way. So, if you want, you can stop into Queenstown for lunch, or even go bungy jumping or jet boat riding midday. Another nice idea is to spend part of today in Arrowtown, a charming town that is just a short drive north of Queenstown.

Drive to Te Anau New Zealand itinerary | 3 Week New Zealand Itinerary

On the drive between Queenstown and Te Anau | 3 Week New Zealand Itinerary

There is not a whole lot to do in Te Anau. You can visit the Te Anau glowworm caves, which is worth it for those who really like to see glowworms. But since you already did this at Waitomo, I think your time is better spent doing something else.

Here is how I recommend planning your day. In the morning, spend more time in Wanaka OR a few hours in Arrowtown OR leave Wanaka in the late morning, visit one or two wineries in Cromwell midday. Spend the afternoon driving to Te Anau.

Tonight, sleep in Te Anau. Recommended hotels include Annies on Milford (we stayed here and it’s one of the highest rated properties in town), Fiordland Lakeview Motel and Apartments, and Bob & Maxine Backpackers. For dinner, we recommend Redcliff Restaurant & Bar.

Day 19: The Milford Sound & Key Summit

Total Driving Distance: 240 km
Total Driving Time: 3.5 hours

The Milford Sound is New Zealand’s most famous tourist attraction. Today, you will go on a scenic drive to the fiord, cruise the fiord, and repeat the same scenic drive to return to Te Anau. On the return drive, you have the option to add on the Key Summit Hike.

Here is how to plan your time. You can see this in more detail, and get links on recommend tours, in our Guide to the Milford Sound.

8:00 am: Drive from Te Anau to the Milford Sound
11:00 am: Milford Sound cruise (these last 1.5 to 3 hours)
2:00 pm: Drive to The Divide
2:45 pm: Key Summit Hike (optional)
5:45 pm: Drive to Te Anau
7:00 pm: Dinner in Te Anau

On a day trip from Te Anau, you have plenty of time to do a longer cruise of Milford Sound and/or add on the hike to Key Summit. We liked the Key Summit hike more than the cruise of the Milford Sound so it’s worth adding on to the day, if you like hiking.

Driving Te Anau to Milford Sound | 3 Week New Zealand Itinerary

Driving to the Milford Sound from Te Anau | 3 Week New Zealand Itinerary


Road to Milford Sound

Milford Sound | 3 Week New Zealand Itinerary

Milford Sound | 3 Week New Zealand Itinerary


Milford Sound Waterfall | 3 Week New Zealand Itinerary

Milford Sound in April | 3 Week New Zealand Itinerary

Key Summit Hike | 3 Week New Zealand Itinerary

Key Summit Hike | 3 Week New Zealand Itinerary

Read more about the Milford Sound Cruise, hiking Key Summit, and the drive between Te Anau and the Milford Sound: The Perfect Day Trip: Te Anau to the Milford Sound

You can sleep in Te Anau or drive all of the way back to Queenstown. From the Milford Sound, it is a 290 km drive and takes almost 4 hours. We slept in Te Anau.

Days 20 & 21: Queenstown

With two days in Queenstown, you have just enough time to go crazy and indulge yourself in all of the heart-racing, thrilling activities that this town has to offer. On the list are bungy jumping, jet boat riding, paragliding, mountain biking, skiing, and hiking. Have a burger at Fergburger, take the Skyline Gondola for amazing views over Queenstown, and then hike higher for even better views. Day trip out to Glenorchy or Arrowtown.

Queenstown is a blast and it’s a great way to end a road trip through New Zealand.

Julie Rivenbark | 3 Week New Zealand Itinerary

Bungy jumping at Kawarau Bridge | 3 Week New Zealand Itinerary


Kara Paragliding

Paragliding | 3 Week New Zealand Itinerary


Queenstown New Zealand itinerary

The view over Queenstown | 3 Week New Zealand Itinerary


Shotover Jet New Zealand itinerary

Shotover Jet | 3 Week New Zealand Itinerary

Where to Stay: We stayed at Absoloot Value Accommodation Hostel on our first visit to Queenstown. The four of us had a 4 bunk room with a private bathroom. We really liked this place and if you are on a budget, this is a great place to consider. For more options, take a look at our article Best Things to Do in Queenstown.

How to Modify This New Zealand Itinerary

With Less Time

To make this itinerary shorter, you can eliminate the full day in Wellington and combine Waitomo Caves and Hobbiton in one day. You also have the option to spend less time in Abel Tasman or Taupo and Rotorua, or eliminate the day in the Marlborough wine region.

With More Time

This itinerary takes you to the highlights of New Zealand but there is still so much to see and do. With a few extra days, you can hike one of New Zealand’s Great Walks (the Routeburn Track is one of the most beautiful hikes in the world), add on places like Glacier Country (Franz Josef and Fox Glacier), the Southern Scenic Route (Dunedin, Otago Peninsula, the Catlins, Cathedral Caves, and Invercargill), the Coromandel Peninsula, the Bay of Islands, and Cape Reinga.

When to Visit New Zealand

We have visited New Zealand twice, both from late March through early May. It was autumn, a gorgeous time to visit New Zealand. Plus, the crowds were relatively low. We did have to deal with some rain but it didn’t impact our schedule too much.

The busiest time to visit New Zealand is during the summer months (December through March). Expect large crowds, sold out accommodations, and more expensive prices.

Are you planning a trip to New Zealand? Comment below if you have any questions about this New Zealand itinerary.

More Information about New Zealand

BEST OF NEW ZEALAND: In our New Zealand Bucket List, we cover 50 epic experiences to have in New Zealand.

OUR FAVORITE EXPERIENCES IN NEW ZEALAND: All four of us went bungy jumping in Queenstown which was a blast. The Tongariro Alpine Crossing is our favorite hike in New Zealand, followed by Roys Peak Track and the Routeburn Track. We also love Waiheke Island (a great day trip from Auckland), Queenstown and visiting Franz Josef (Glacier Country).

SOUTH ISLAND: On the South Island of New Zealand, visit Milford Sound and Doubtful Sound, spend a few days in Wanaka, hike the Routeburn Track, drive the Southern Scenic Route, visit the Marlborough Wine Region, and visit Franz Josef and Glacier Country. For the full list, read our article Best Things to Do on the South Island.

NORTH ISLAND: Top experiences on the North Island include the Tongariro Alpine Crossing (one of the best day hikes in the world), spending a day or two in Auckland, visiting Waiheke Island on a day trip from Auckland, touring Hobbiton, a visit to Taupō, and seeing the glowworms and blackwater rafting in the Waitomo Caves. For the full list, read our article about the Best Things to Do on the North Island.

NEW ZEALAND WITH KIDS: Put Hobbiton, the movie set for The Shire in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogies, on top of your list. Kids will also love The Luge and the jet boat rides in Queenstown, sleeping in a silo, and spending some time on the North Island.

TRAVEL ITINERARIES: For more travel itineraries for destinations around the world, take a look at our Travel Itineraries page.


We have TONS more information about New Zealand in our New Zealand Travel Guide, including Auckland, Queenstown, Wanaka, Aoraki/Mount Cook, Franz Josef, Christchurch, Wellington, Taupō, and the Milford Sound.



3 Week New Zealand Road Trip Itinerary

New Zealand Itinerary and Road Trip Guide


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Comments 71

  1. Avatar for Sudhir

    If I had only 14-15 days and want to do North and South and willing to fly from North to south….what would you recommend I drop from this itinerary….Thanks! I love to your website and used it for my trip to Iceland!

    1. Avatar for Julie Post

      Hello Sudhir. Combine the Waitomo Caves with Hobbiton, take out Rotorua, take out a day in Wellington, fly to Christchurch and then continue the itinerary. That should put this itinerary within your time frame. And if you haven’t seen it yet, our New Zealand Travel Guide has lots of information to help you plan your trip. Let me know if you have any other questions. Cheers, Julie

  2. Avatar for Ellie Sibilia
    Ellie Sibilia

    Hi, my husband and I are going to be traveling to New Zealand for 23 days in November. We are flying into Auckland and flying out of Christchurch. My first question is, should we spend any time in Auckland? We were thinking of going straight to Waiheke island over night pick up our car in Auckland? then to Bay of islands we love snorkeling and kayaking, maybe a overnight kayak trip? . Then head down the other side ending up in Wellington. We love water sports ,hiking,biking, spa thermal suggestions on. Routes and places to stop . We like quaint authentic beauty but also want to see key spots worth visiting. Also thinking of stopping in Raglan? Suggestions on places to stay, we like nice , glamping , farm stays B&Bs. Do you suggest leaving our car at North Island getting on the ferry and then picking up another car on South Island? Which route would you suggest on south island and ending up in Christ church. How many days in each place? Any suggestions and guidance would be greatly appreciated.

    1. Avatar for Julie Post

      Hello Ellie. Auckland is nice but with 23 days, you might want to put your time into other places. However, we loved Waiheke Island so that is worth one day of your time. We have not been to Raglan. As far as renting a car and where to drop it, price it both ways and go with the cheaper option. Usually it is cheaper to have one car for the North and one car for the South Island. We have lots of different itineraries to follow, which you can see in this North Island Itinerary Planner and several multi-day South Island itineraries. You can see all of them in our New Zealand Travel Guide. If you still have questions after looking through these, please let me know. Cheers, Julie

  3. Avatar for NP

    Your detailed information is amazing thank you. Is it possible to share your budget for the 3 week itinerary? Thanks

    1. Avatar for Julie Post

      We don’t have a budget for this trip. We visited New Zealand twice, both during shoulder season, and prices for mid-range accommodations ran about $150 to $200 for a double hotel room. Meals cost $15 to $25 per person, more if you add alcohol (we generally ate dinner in a restaurant and put together a picnic lunch from grocery stores). Rental car prices can vary a lot so I can’t give an estimate for this. And then there will be additional fees for things like entry fees, cable car rides, and if you do any activities such as bungy jumping, paragliding, etc. Cheers, Julie

      1. Avatar for NP
  4. Avatar for Rasa

    We planing 15 day trip to NZ, on our itineraries is North and South Islands. Starting trip from Aukland and heading to Queenstown. But my question would be how book a flights since we flying from US. Should we back to Aukland? Or just look for flights back from Queenstown?

    1. Avatar for Julie Post

      To get back to the US, most likely you will fly from Auckland. You can either fly from Queenstown to Auckland the day before your flight home or see if you can book a multi hop where you fly to Auckland, change planes, and continue to the US. Cheers, Julie

  5. Avatar for Su Mei
    Su Mei

    Hello! I have been following your website and it really helped us in our itinerary planning to Switzerland two years ago.
    We are now planning for a 3 weeks trip (we could also add in a few more days) to New Zealand from mid November. We are travelling with our 8 year old girl. We will fly in to Auckland and could fly out via Queenstown or Christchurch. But flying out from Queenstown seems to be cheaper for now.

    We hope to do some glacier walks. How would you suggest we add in Glacier Country as it’s not in this itinerary?

    Our daughter wanted to try a campervan or motorhome but we might not want to drive one for the entire 3 weeks. On which leg of the trip do you suggest we drive a camper van or motorhome?

    Thank you!

    1. Avatar for Julie Post

      That’s very exciting that you are planning a trip to New Zealand and have so much time! If you haven’t seen it yet, take a look at our New Zealand Travel Guide. This has links to all of our New Zealand content, including a few more road trip itineraries on the North and South Islands. To go glacier hiking in Glacier Country, you will have to take a flightseeing tour with a glacier landing. One thing to confirm is the age minimum. Sometimes glacier hikes/landings have a minimum age and this can depend on the country (I’m not sure what this is in NZ).
      Because of Glacier Country’s location, it can be hard to include it on a South Island itinerary. But it is an amazing place to visit so don’t let that discourage you. With a little over 3 weeks in NZ, and if you also want to visit the North Island, you may have to give something up on the South Island, such as Aoraki/Mount Cook, Te Anau and the Milford Sound, or something else. One week on the North Island is sufficient, in my opinion, starting in Auckland and ending in Wellington. But if you followed the South Island portion of the itinerary in this post, there are 2 ways to add in Glacier Country and end in Queenstown. Option #1 would be to drive down the west coast of the South Island after Abel Tasman, spend 2 full days in Glacier Country, then visit Aoraki Mount Cook NP, Wanaka, and Queenstown, skipping Christchurch and the east coast. Option #2 is to follow the itinerary on the South Island until day 16. After Aoraki Mount Cook, drive to Glacier Country (it’s a surprisingly long drive), spend 2 days here, then drive to Wanaka and resume the itinerary. This option is longer but you don’t miss anything. You could price out the campervan for the North Island and the South Island and pick the option that works better with your budget. You’ll also spend more time on the South Island, so that could influence your decision too (if you really like the idea of a campervan, the South Island will be better because you’ll be here longer). I hope this helps and let me know if you have any other questions.
      Cheers, Julie

      1. Avatar for Su Mei
        Su Mei

        Thanks for getting back to us! I think we will keep to this itinerary and skip Glacier Country as we can also visit Tasman Glacier. We will just add a day or two somewhere and have a more relaxed trip:)

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