SouthIsland New Zealand Road Trip Planning

How to plan a New Zealand South Island Road Trip

A confession. I’ve been travelling and living in New Zealand for over a year now, and yet…I’ve never once set foot on South Island. If you’ve ever been to New Zealand, I’m sure you’ll appreciate how remarkable that is. South Island is the home to the most staggering scenery. Ice-blue lakes, mist-laden fjords, snow-capped mountains. In a nutshell, it’s extraordinary.

We haven’t yet set a date for our South Island travels, but that hasn’t stopped me putting plans in place for when we do finally take the ferry down south!

If you’re thinking about making a trip too, settle in and enjoy my guide to New Zealand South Island road trip planning…

1. Gather recommendations

New Zealand South Island Road Trip - Lake Pukaki - Photo by James Wilkinson

Lake Pukaki – James Wilkinson

The roads and trails of South Island are well worn by other travellers, so it makes sense to make their recommendations your first port of call.

Where to look

I like to start with a guidebook (from the library, I’m on a budget 😉 ) to give me the bare bones of where I should go, supplemented by advice from friends and online research.

Travel blogs and Pinterest are my favourite online resources, providing a great mix of inspiring photography and insider knowledge.

Another, slightly unexpected, resource I used was the AA. They have a list of New Zealand Must Dos that I found really helpful.

Compile your recommendations

I usually note all of the recommendations down as I go. For New Zealand, I started a spreadsheet full of ideas before we left the UK. Unfortunately, this document quickly became unwieldy and therefore impractical to use on its own. I rarely consulted it while we travelled North Island and, given that I spent quite a bit of time on the research, that was a big fail/lesson learnt for me. Enter step 2…

2. Get your bearings

Mt Cook Road – Pablo Heimplatz

In order to better visualise and plan a route, I find it useful to plot locations on a map.

Alternatively, you could explore recommended itineraries (from guidebooks and blogs) to get your bearings and understand the relative proximity of your destinations and suggested routes/start points/end points.

This isn’t necessary for everyone. If you only have a handful of destinations in mind the logistics should be straightforward enough for you to skip the plotting step. But since I usually research a country to death and have tons of places to pinpoint, I like to physically mark each one off on a map!

What to use

Map Data © 2017 GBRMPA, Google

Much as paper maps have my heart, Google’s My Maps feature is my favourite tool for this. You can search for a location with perfect precision and then (if you have a bit too much time on your hands like I did) colour code each one and add symbols and notes. You can even draw a few routes between places, which I used to mark off specific road trips I’d read about. It really is a travel planning dream.

Tip: I love My Maps for planning activities on a smaller scale, too. In a given city, visualising the location of each site allows you to more easily plan the ideal route and minimise travel time.


3. Narrow down your “must sees”

New Zealand South Island Road Trip - Fjordland - Photo by Sam Ferrara

Fjordland National Park – Sam Ferrara

I like to keep everything on the table initially, and then pare it back to must-see highlights by moving those locations into a My Maps layer of their own. That way you can toggle the visibility of rest of the markers and view only your main highlight destinations at a glance.

Naturally, decisions about what’s a “must see” will be influenced be numerous factors, including the duration of the trip and your own interests.

My South Island “must sees”

I have many more “really want to see” destinations on my list, but these are the key locations I’m prioritising for the moment:


Abel Tasman National Park

Franz Josef Glacier

Mount Cook (& Lakes)

Doubtful & Milford Sound

The Catlins

Kaikoura by Blake Lisk, Abel Tasman by Tyler Lastovich, Franz Josef by Cassie Matias, Mt Cook by Neil Hamilton-Ritchie, Milford Sound by Antoine Barres & ‘Nugget Point Catlins’ by Trevor Klatko.

4. Determine your ideal route

New Zealand South Island Road Trip - Franz Josef - Photo by Esaias Tan

Franz Josef – Esaias Tan

The large majority of South Island destinations fall in a neat loop, making it very easy to adapt no matter where you’ll start or end your journey. Since many travellers fly into and out of Christchurch, the typical route goes full circle:

New Zealand South Island Road Trip - Map and Route

Note: the route shown here reflects road closures on SH1 north of Kaikoura

  • Head north from Christchurch up to Blenheim (with the road closures after the earthquake last year, you do need to weave in land rather than taking SH1 north of Kaikoura), then across to Nelson and Abel Tasman in the north west.
  • Drive down the west coast to Greymouth and the glaciers, continuing south past Haast towards Wanaka and Queenstown.
  • Make a detour westward toward Te Anau and Fjordland and then straight down to the south coast for Invercargill and the Catlins.
  • Drive back up the east coast, stopping at Dunedin and Oamaru
  • Head inland for Mount Cook and the Lake Pukaki/Tekapo, before arriving back in Christchurch

Most people seem to choose to head north and do the loop anti-clockwise, though I don’t suppose there’s any reason you couldn’t do it in the other direction.

If you’re short on time, you could also cut out the extreme north and south parts of the loop and cut straight across from Christchurch to the lakes (Tekapo and Pukaki) and then continue down the 8 towards Queenstown. From there you could make brief trips south (to Fjordland and Milford Sound) and/or north to the west coast and the glaciers.

Our route / itinerary

As for us, we don’t have onward flights booked, so our timescale for exploring South Island is totally up in the air, and will be very dependent on our allotted budget.

Since we’re in Wellington right now, we’ll be taking the ferry over to Picton. We’ll therefore start in the Marlborough region rather than Christchurch. Besides timecale, our route will greatly depend on whether we’re able to take a few weekend breaks to South Island in coming months (a jaunt to Kaikoura is already in the works!). If we tick things off on shorter visits, then obviously we won’t be as worried about seeing them on the road trip proper!


Over to you

If you’re planning a similar trip, how’s it going? What are your “must sees”? Or, if you’ve already been, do you have any tips for things to do and see on South Island? I’d love to hear in the comments!

And don’t forget to check out my New Zealand North Island Itinerary, if you haven’t already. 🙂

Enjoyed the post? Pin the image below!

How to plan a South Island Road Trip - The Painted Globe


Two Traveling Texans

19 thoughts on “How to plan a New Zealand South Island Road Trip

  1. Rachel

    This advice is amazing. I do love a good travel planning post! Thanks for including a link to us 😀 I wish our own road trip had ended up being that comprehensive.

    1. Lorna Post author

      Thanks so much Rachel! Your round up was fab – people should definitely check out those other blogs (and yours!) if they’re planning a NZ trip. 😀

  2. Anisa

    I would love to do a road trip like this, so definitely looking forward to reading your posts about your road trip. I haven’t been to New Zealand and I really want to go. I think a road trip is definitely the best way to be able to see as much as possible, especially when you want to explore a place of so much natural beauty. I pinned for future reference, thanks for sharing on #TheWeeklyPostcard.

    1. Lorna Post author

      Thanks Anisa. 🙂 I can’t wait to finally get there – out of the two islands, South Island was always the one I was more keen to see! Will definitely post all about putting the planning into action in the future.

  3. Lolo

    Oh we love road trips! It’s the only way to go! We’d love to visit New Zealand one day and if we went, we’d definitely do a road trip! These are all great tips! Thanks for linking up with #TheWeeklyPostcard!

  4. Ruth | Tanama Tales

    The hardest part for me is narrowing the must sees because everything looks like a must see to me. That is where I spend more time on my travel planning. After “deciding,” everything else seems like a breeze. #TheWeeklyPostcard

    1. Lorna Post author

      Me too! One of my biggest struggles with travel is balancing my desire to see everything with my desire to see things slowly and fully (and stick to a budget).

  5. Anda

    These are wonderful recommendations, Lorna. I’ve never been in New Zealand but we have been planning to go for a long time. There never seems to be enough time for all these travels… I’ll bookmark your post for future reference. Thank you for sharing it on #TheWeeklyPostcard

  6. Hilary

    Wow, you’re quite a good planner!! When are you going on this amazing journey? Can’t wait to see your photos, and hear how it all worked out! #theweeklypostcard

    1. Lorna Post author

      At the moment the plan is October this year! Nothing set in stone yet, though. Will definitely post all about it nearer the time. 🙂

  7. Mary {The World Is A Book}

    What a great experience you’re going to have! We’ve only been to Auckland and would really love to explore the South Island one of these days. I can’t even imagining narrowing down what to see but it looks like you’re off to a great start with your planning. Have a wonderful trip!

  8. Rob+Ann @TravelLatte(.net)

    Somehow, we hadn’t thought about doing a New Zealand road trip, but that’s an awesome idea! Of course, these are good tips for planning any road trip. Nicely done! Thanks for sharing on #TheWeeklyPostcard. 🙂

    1. Lorna Post author

      Thanks guys! Very true that it could be applied to any road trip – this would be my method no matter where I was heading. 😀

  9. Sunny

    How do you plan for accommodations. We are going to be in NZ for a month in March and wonder if we have to book everything in advance?

    1. Lorna Post author

      I can only comment on campsite accommodation rather than hotels (we’ve only stayed in a hotel once here!).

      When we roadtripped this past September we called up campsites only one or two days in advance for booking and all of them had availability for us, even at relatively central locations in Queenstown, Te Anau etc. Of course, during warmer months like March this may not be the case. It never hurts to drop a couple of campsites (or hotels) an email and ask how far in advance they book up at that time of year, so you can get an accurate view of how close you can leave it. Hope that helps, and have an amazing time here in NZ!


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