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Planning Your Campervan Trip to NZ

Campervan Rental New Zealand - The Journey Starts with a Plan

We asked Scott Cook, New Zealand’s best travel book writer, to help us give you the best advice about planning your New Zealand campervan hire holiday.  Here are his insights:

Planning

Planning a significant visit to New Zealand is complicated, no doubt about it.  There are SO many choices to make about when, where, and how long to visit because New Zealand has such an astounding variety of natural, cultural, and adrenalized activities to choose from. Nowhere else in the world will you find such a variety of must-see natural features clustered into such a small land area.

It’s impossible to make one set of recommendations that will fit all travellers.  Everyone is faced with similar “up-front” decisions like when to visit and how long to stay so I’ll address those first.  Then you can get into the fun part of individualizing your own itinerary according to your personal travel desires.

When to Visit

The summer months from December to March are far and away the most popular time to visit New Zealand.  Not surprisingly, the weather is most reliable in summer and the sea, rivers, and lakes will be inviting you in.  So if your intention is to visit in the New Zealand summer (conveniently escaping a Northern hemisphere winter), here are my top three tips on how to best time your trip:

  • Avoid the North Island during the crazy three weeks in mid-summer when all the locals are on holiday. 
  • The shoulder season is the best time to visit the South Island as you’ll avoid the crowds and are likely to be bothered less by the irksome bugs.
  • If you are travelling on a budget, consider trading off the balmy weather for a great deal on your campervan hire.  Winter rental prices are about a third of summer prices.  Prices are also lowered in the shoulder season. 

Beware of Kiwis on Vacation

Since most international visitors arrive in the summer, the crowds at the most popular attractions are the greatest at this time.  You can expect to find two tourists on the South Island for every one on the North Island.  Most travelers attempt to “do” both islands but they budget two thirds of their time on the fabled South Island.  Since travellers often allocate fewer days for the North Island, they are forced to do a sort of “North Island Greatest Hits” tour.  Inevitably they find the tourism hot spots crowded while the rest of the North Island has travellers scattered widely.

The major exception to the feeling of widely-scattered tourists on the North Island is during the New Zealand Christmas/New Year Holiday period (about December 26 until January 10).  The kids are out of school for their summer holiday from mid-December until about the end of January and many businesses close for staff to take their vacation so the cities empty out.  And where do they all go?  Camping of course! During these three weeks, virtually all the best holiday spots on the North Island are crowded with vacationing Kiwi families.  Popular beach campgrounds see hundreds or even thousands of campers, whereas in early December or mid-February the same campground may have only 10-20 campers.  

It’s my experienced opinion that the North Island doesn’t deserve the bad press it gets as a tourist destination for being more crowded.  Because many travellers begin their visit in Auckland and often around the Christmas/New Year time, they are immediately confronted with crowded campgrounds and attractions for their week-long North Island stay. They then assume that this situation is typical of the entire summer. It isn’t. Once the Kiwi holiday weeks are finished all the Kiwis go back to work leaving virtually the entire island as an uncrowded paradise…especially after the end of January when the kids return to school.

By contrast, the popular holiday destinations in the South Island don’t experience the same mid-summer crush.  Since only one third of the country’s population live in the South, there are a lot less Kiwis to visit the South’s attractions over the Christmas/New Year’s holiday.  On the whole, the South doesn’t seem that much more crowded over Christmas/New Year’s than the rest of the summer (except the hottest hot spots such as Milford, Queenstown, Wanaka, and Abel Tasman National Park).

So if your travel time must include a portion of the Kiwi holiday period, it may be best to plan to be on the South as much as possible during those three weeks to avoid the crowds at North Island campgrounds and attractions. Plan to do the North Island portion of your trip either before December 20 or after January 10. 

Shoulder Seasons in the South Island

The summer months bring a huge number of tourists to the South Island, much more so than the North Island.  Travellers often comment how the South Island in summer seems like a merry-go-round of tourists hurrying from one must-see spot to the next.  It’s not unusual to see the same people at every attraction on your route.  The experience of watching one of the blowholes spout at Punakaiki changes when 100 yammering tourists push in behind you!  

While summer on the North Island means long warm sunny days (for the most part), summer weather on the South Island is often no better or worse than in the shoulder-season (October, November, and April).  Almost all my time exploring the South has been in the summer months and usually it felt fairly wintery to me—coat, winter hat, and heaters on in the camper.  But it can be scorching hot on the east side of the Southern Alps so really “Anything Goes”.  So, why visit the South Island when tourist numbers are at their peak? Here are some more reasons to visit the South Island between April and November:

  • It’ll cost you much less.  The airfares are cheaper, the campervan rates are cheaper, the hotels, motels, and campsites are cheaper. 
  • You’ll feel a lot less like a “tourist”.  You won’t have to join a line-up at the popular spots. You’ll feel less pressured to “see it all”. Hopefully, you’ll allow yourself more time and have a more realistic expectation of how many “must-sees” you’ll actually see.
  • You won’t need to pre-book. You can just cruise around worry-free doing and seeing whatever Mother Nature chooses to entertain you with. 
  • The sandfly menace! A less-mentioned but very important consideration.  The sandflies are no less prevalent in the shoulder seasons but if the weather is generally a bit cooler then you’ll be wearing pants, shoes and socks, and longer sleeves and thus be less prone to their privations upon your privates.  Let me tell you, when I get pure warm sunshine on the West Coast, I actually dread it because I know that I’ll be swarmed by sandflies the entire time yet the heat will make me want to wear shorts and sandals….and then I pay the price, first with a daily dousing in DEET then with weeks of itching when I let my guard down.

Give the shoulder seasons some real thought when planning a trip to the South.  The island, unlike the North isn’t about warm-water beaches, tanning, and relaxing in the warmth.  The South, for almost everybody on a limited holiday timetable is about squeezing in as many must-sees as possible, often at a break-neck pace…no time for sunny beaches.  This further reinforces my advice to treat the islands as separate destinations.  Plan one holiday on the South for a shoulder-season then follow it up with another holiday on the North during the welcoming warm heat of mid-summer.   This is how to get the most out of New Zealand---you have to plan both the weather and the tourism game at once….and when you do…UNFORGETTABLE!!!

Which Island?

I ALWAYS recommend travellers start their trip on the South and finish on the North, except if their visit coincides with the three weeks of Kiwi vacation time (about December 26 until January 10).  If that’s you, just try to avoid the North for those three weeks. Why start on the South?  It’s about managing your expectations.  Because most travellers are super-excited to see legendary jaw-dropping natural wonders of this fabled New Zealand immediately upon their arrival.  International tourism hoopla sets high expectations for mountains, fiords, glaciers, you know the “Lord of the Rings” natural grandeur. This is why we come to New Zealand—we want BIG, IN YOUR FACE grandeur!  Most of the “oh-my-gawd-wow” landscapes around each bend of the road that will leave you “blown-away” are in the South Island. If you arrive on the North where the natural beauty is more sublime than grandiose, you may be mildly disappointed.  

The other reason to finish in the North is because it’s less hectic. The North Island may have more residents than the South but this North population lives in the cities and goes to work every day, leaving all the beaches, lakes, rivers, and forests to the visitors most all the time. The South, on the other hand, has WAY more tourists who are not at work, but rather at the same attractions you are trying to see, thus making more of the South’s attractions feel significantly more crowded than on the North Island (except the North’s few “Greatest Hits” hot spots (Bay of Islands, Hot Water Beach/Cathedral Cove, Rotorua, Taupo/Tongariro, Waitomo).

How long to Visit?

My rule of thumb is: If you have three weeks or less then choose only one island to visit.  If you insist on trying to visit both islands on a limited time budget, then I suggest you allow at least 24 days with the first 14 days on the South followed by the final 10 days on the North.  Here are the pitfalls of trying to see all of New Zealand in less than 24 days:

  1. You will constantly be in a huge hurry. That doesn’t sound like a relaxing way to spend your vacation.
  2. You will have little or no flexibility with your itinerary. The unpredictable NZ weather will inevitably scuttle many of your plans because you haven’t allowed any flexible time to change plans according to the ever-changing weather. 
  3. You will be driving like mad, spending a heap on fuel, and also incurring the time, cost, and planning needed to make the ferry crossing.  
  4. You will miss some of the best. Generally on this type of hurry-up itinerary the North Island gets shorted the most, and thus sometimes you’ll leave NZ without even feeling like you had any “summer” on your trip, and your final days may be solely devoted to the North’s most-crowded “Greatest Hits” attractions (Tongariro Crossing, Waitomo Caves, Rotorua, Hot Water Beach/Cathedral Cove, Bay of Islands/Paihia). 

Don’t do it---you’ll end up exhausted and frustrated/disappointed from “trying to do too much” and then missing out on stuff because the weather hasn’t cooperated or you were too burned-out from all the hustle-bustle hurry-hurry. Plan at least 24 days to try see both islands… or only choose one to visit!

The best van + the best plan = UNFORGETTABLE!!

Start Making an Itinerary

So now you know roughly what you're doing, it's time to get into the nitty-gritty of where to go. Check our itineraries page for lots of ideas.

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