New Zealand holiday options: From self-drive, motorhome camping to escorted tours
There are multiple ways to explore the spectacular country of New Zealand. No matter which you choose, a self-drive excursion, exploring by motorhome or an escorted tour, it’s bound to be an experience of a lifetime.
Here’s what you can expect when it comes to each type of holiday, the type of accommodation available in New Zealand and some of the top destinations that can be experienced in order to choose the best option most suited to your needs and desires.
A self-drive tour is a great way to enjoy exploring at your own pace, with lots of flexibility to stop where you want, when you want. Provided you have a valid driver’s license in your home country, you can legally drive in New Zealand for up to one year, just keep in mind that you’ll be driving on the left which can take a little time to get used to. By familiarising yourself with the driving requirements and signage before you go, it’s usually not too difficult.
The key is to spend your first day or two in your arrival city, recovering from that long flight and jet lag before getting behind the wheel. Driving times can be longer than you might think too, with narrow winding roads – and, with such jaw-dropping scenery, you won’t want to miss stopping for numerous photo-ops. You’ll have a wide range of vehicles to choose from, including compact Swift and Gertz cars that are highly fuel efficient, economical to rent and insure, and easier to drive when navigating those mountain roads. Typically, the smaller the car, the more fuel efficient it will be, although hybrid and electric cars which come in everything from compact to sedans and SUVs, are becoming increasingly available for hire.
One of the primary advantages of this type of travel is that you’ll be in control – perhaps you’ve planned to spend two nights in Queenstown, for example, but decide once you arrive that you really need another day to join a thrilling jet boat adventure or flightseeing tour above Milford Sound. On a self-drive excursion, you’ll have the flexibility to do so if you wish, pursuing any activity that catches your interest you may not have considered before making your plans.
If you have the time, you can easily travel from one island to the other via the inter-island ferry, driving right on to continue your journey or dropping off the vehicle first and hopping on as a passenger, picking up the next once you’ve reached dry land.
Exploring by motorhome
Exploring New Zealand by motorhome makes for the classic holiday option here, providing all the flexibility of a self-drive without having to pack and unpack at every new destination. You’ll have everything you need with you and can enjoy waking up to million-dollar views without the high cost of a luxury resort. It’s like driving an apartment on wheels, with total freedom to explore even the most undeveloped parts of the country, staying in locations that most appeal to you. There are thousands of places to camp across New Zealand, with a variety of amenities, whereas someone staying in B&Bs, hotels, resorts and the like are often limited to higher traffic areas. As most of these vehicles come with a kitchen, you’ll easily be able to make your own meals which cuts the cost of having to dine out for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
There are multiple vehicle options to choose from for a motorhome holiday too, from the more compact that sleep up to three to those that can sleep as many as six, ideal for larger families or friends travelling together. For example, the Safari is a great 4-wheel drive available with room for as many as five people – it comes with a slide-out kitchen and a portable handheld solar shower. The fleet of premium motorhomes offer lots of luxuries, from full kitchen facilities and slide-out BBQs to DVD players with LCD screens as well as extra-spacious living and sleeping areas. All come equipped with kitchen equipment, including pans and crockery, cleaning items, linens and bedding.
When choosing a motorhome holiday, you’ll also get a personal kit that includes a road map noted with the top attractions in New Zealand, a guide for what to see and do, and a campground/hotel guide.
An escorted tour is an ideal way to make the most of the time you have in New Zealand, which in all reality, will never be enough. For many, the most attractive feature of this type of tour is the pre-planned itinerary and the services of an expert tour guide. You may get to enjoy some exclusive experiences that you probably couldn’t take part in on your own, perhaps a behind-the-scenes tour of a winery or a cultural dance performance. By booking an escorted tour, you’ll get to experience many of the top destinations in the country, but best-kept secrets that only locals know about.
Of course, you won’t have to worry about getting behind the wheel. exhausted after travelling and perhaps having to battle weather extremes along with the winding, narrow roads when you choose an escorted tour. Instead, you’ll be able to gaze out at the scenery and capture beautiful shots as you go. With most coaches equipped with free Wi-Fi, you’ll can even share them with your friends and family back home immediately. Not to mention, there’s no worry about bathroom stops as there will be one right onboard. Your guide will show you the country through the eyes of a local, which means you’ll have the perfect source for all the information you need, and to answer questions that might come up while taking in all those magnificent sights as guides are handpicked from their experience, and their passion about this beautiful country.
This type of tour also brings the benefit of being able to meet like-minded travellers from around the world. For those travelling solo, this can be a big perk for the best of the worlds – plenty of opportunities for alone time and the possibility to make a friend for some companionship while taking in all those unforgettable travel experiences. You won’t have to worry about searching through reviews to try and find the best places to dine, as that’s been taken care of for you too, with itineraries designed to provide a good mix of places with varied menus that include some of the local specialties, while accommodations are searched out to ensure a top-notch experience too.
While you might think an escorted tour would be a lot more expensive that can actually be quite cost-effective due to the discounts tour operators get through bulk buying. Everything will be taken care of from your itinerary to accommodation, along with many meals and activities. That can take a lot of the worry about spending out of the equation since you’ll have a much better idea of the cost.
Sample itinerary option of New Zealand’s top destinations
Ideally, you’ll need at least a three-week trip to experience the highlights of both the North and South Islands. For example, you might fly into Auckland, the capital and main international air hub and then travel north to the Bay of Islands to enjoy sailing, dolphin and whale watching, or dig your own natural spa bath at Hot Water Beach along the east coast of the Coromandel Peninsula. Experience the geothermal centre around Rotorua, including the Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland with its geysers and bubbling pools, and stroll through the Hobbiton film set, especially popular for ‘Hobbit’ and ‘Lord of the Rings’ fans. End your time on the North Island in Wellington, the ferry departure point, enjoying Cuban-inspired cuisine and street performers along Cuba Street and hopping on the cable car to take in a dazzling bird’s-eye view.
Crossing the ferry from Wellington, you’ll step on land again in Picton on the South Island and then head to the east coast to visit Kaikoura, renowned for its wildlife, particularly sperm whales which can be spotted year-round, though there are opportunities to see many other whale and dolphin species. Explore Christchurch with a ride on its heritage tram taking in highlights like the Canterbury Museum and sampling the hip cafes, bars and restaurants housed in historic buildings on New Regent Street. Mount Cook National Park offers one of the most awe-inspiring sights in New Zealand. From the shores of Lake Pukaki’s milky turquoise waters you can gaze up at soaring Mount Cook. Check out ‘Lord of the Rings’ scenery in Twizel and in Dunedin, look for the yellow-eyed penguins among the wealth of wildlife, including the world’s only mainland royal albatross breeding colony.
Discover more than a dozen fjords in Fiordland National Park, including Milford Sound, cruising across while surrounded by jaw-dropping scenery and watching for animals like dolphins, seals and penguins. The ‘Adventure Capital of the World,’ Queenstown, is an itinerary must with its dramatic mountains and countless lakes. Enjoy everything from hiking and flightseeing to four-wheeling, water sports and even bungy jumping. In the town of Franz Josef, you can hop on a helicopter flight to soar over a glacier before hiking right across it. Returning to Christchurch is best accomplished via train. The Tranz Alpine Scenic Train follows along the island’s west coast and is considered one of the world’s most spectacular rides.
Combining a stopover for the ultimate holiday
As flights to the remote paradise of New Zealand take upwards of 23 hours with at least one connection, it brings the ideal opportunity to take advantage of a long stopover. Breaking up your journey can also help relieve some of that jetlag once you arrive. While there are many different options, if you’ve dreamed of visiting Fiji, now is the perfect time. It may be the ideal way to relax, made up of more than 330 islands with stunning white palm-lined beaches in the gorgeous South Pacific, and can be reached three hours before Auckland or four hours before you land in Christchurch. While you could spend your days lounging on those powdery sands, you might want to book a four-night cruise that will reveal many of the islands’ highlights while providing a wide range of activity options, like water sports and opportunities to delve into the culture with an authentic Fijian feast and traditional kava ceremony.
The Cook Islands are another great stopover option in the South Pacific, 4.5 hours from Auckland. Made up of 15 islands, unwind before continuing your journey surrounded by warm, crystal-clear azure waters that offer some of the world’s best snorkelling, relaxing on soft, pristine white sands. Photos can’t truly capture how astoundingly beautiful Aitutaki really is, and while it offers plenty of tourist facilities, they’re low key enough that they don’t intrude upon the island’s tranquil nature. Stay in a luxurious beachfront bungalow or over-the-water room by booking the 7-night Aitutaki Lagoon Resort & Spa and you’ll be guaranteed to feel refreshed and relaxed by the time you reach New Zealand.
Just a few of the other stopover options include Sydney and Melbourne in Australia, Dubai, Bangkok, Hong Kong and San Francisco or Los Angeles.
Accommodation: What to expect
New Zealand offers a wide range of accommodation options from hotels and luxury lodges to boutique hideaways. You can expect to find some great stays no matter which destinations you plant to visit.
For the ultimate in luxuries, the country boasts some spectacular lodges, like The Lodge at Kauri Cliffs which has been named the No. 1 resort in all of New Zealand and Australia by Travel + Leisure. It boasts sweeping views of the Pacific in a gorgeous retreat that sits across 6,000 acres near Matauri Bay on the North Island. Guests can enjoy teeing off at its clifftop golf course, relaxing in the spa and taking advantage of beautiful beaches. All rooms include a private porch with a breath-taking ocean view and an open fireplace. The Owner’s Suite features a private infinity pool and a kitchen.
On the South Island in Queenstown, Azur Lodge is set on a hillside along Lake Wakatipu, providing tranquil oasis that’s just two miles from the heart of the adventure capital. Its luxury villas come with many upscale details, including double spa baths, and private balconies that showcase an uninterrupted view of the lake and the Remarkables mountain range.
Browns Boutique Hotel is a small luxury hotel in Queenstown in a quiet location just a few minutes’ walk from the centre, complete with magnificent views of the lake and the mountains. Every room has French doors that open to Juliet balconies to take in those views and the fresh air, while the lounge offers a wonderful open fire for relaxing with a glass of wine. The Peppertree is an elegant Edwardian villa surrounded by farmland, olive groves and gardens in one of New Zealand’s top wine-growing regions. It hosts just five suites for an intimate romantic stay overlooking the gardens and picturesque surrounding landscape.
There are plenty of outstanding hotels too, from value options to unique and lavish accommodation like the five-star Farm at Cape Kidnappers in Hawke’s Bay. The sprawling 6,000-acre property is a working cattle and ship farm that enjoys stunning ocean views and has its own vegetable garden that provides ingredients for many dishes on the menu. There’s also an 18-hold golf course, heated infinity pool, Jacuzzi and gym. The Millennium is an affordable yet very clean and comfortable hotel on beautiful Lake Rotorua with pools, a spa and multiple dining options onsite. Many of its rooms include balconies with lake views.
Travel Inspiration Travel Guides
- Planning for an incredible New Zealand adventure
- Tailor-make the ultimate New Zealand holiday experience
- Stopover options for travelling to New Zealand
- New Zealand holiday options: From self-drive, motorhome camping to escorted tours
- Exploring New Zealand's North Island regions
- Exploring New Zealand's South Island regions
- The most swoonworthy stays in New Zealand
- When is the best time to travel to New Zealand?
- Popular experiences to enjoy on your holiday in New Zealand
- Top 10 most photogenic wonders in New Zealand
- Exploring New Zealand's Maori culture
- From north to south - an unexpected journey in New Zealand
- A beginner’s guide to self-drive holidays in New Zealand
- Head out on one of these day trips from Auckland
- Head out on one of these day trips from Christchurch
- Top 10 things to do in Christchurch
- Discover New Zealand’s magnificent wonders & wildlife
- Head out on one of these day trips from Queenstown
- Head out on one of these day trips from Wellington
- Getting around Queenstown and where to stay