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New Zealand South Island Itinerary and road trip tips

Suewan Kemp Destinations, Travel tips 6 Comments

Planning our New Zealand, South Island road trip took a lot of research. We only had 23 days and wanted to make sure we had time to see everything but also to make sure we had time to relax and enjoy it.

So our 3 weeks in New Zealand looked like this:

Map of our route around South Island New Zealand travel tips itinerary road trip long term family travel

Our New Zealand itinerary. 3 weeks on South Island.

  1. Christchurch
  2. Kaikoura
  3. Hanmer Springs
  4. Greymouth
  5. Day trip to Punakaiki
  6. Franz Josef
  7. Queenstown
  8. Milford Sound
  9. The Catlins
  10. Dunedin
  11. Lake Tekapo

We decided to miss out the very top of South Island because of the road conditions. The roads were still damaged from the earthquake so sadly we decided to omit some of the South Island must see places like Marlborough and Nelson.

Here are our New Zealand road trip tips:

1. Check the road conditions before you plan your route

At the time that we went to South Island (November 2017) we weren’t able to access the northern part of South Island easily because of earthquake damage to some of the major roads.

We decided to skip that part of the island and focused our route on other places we wanted to see. Use the NZ Transport Agency website to get up-to-date information on road conditions.

2. Roads aren’t the same here

Be aware that New Zealand roads are not like roads we’ve seen in many other countries! They are windy, you will go up and down and through mountains, and the scenery is gorgeous. You will probably want to stop the car and take photos! (Do it safely – see point number 4). For all these reasons you need to add on extra time when looking at how long it takes to get from place to place.

A photo of a long winding road going through mountains New Zealand road trip travel family long term

Driving on South Island, New Zealand is incredible!

3. Take a good camera

Honestly in all the places we’ve been to New Zealand has been the most beautiful. Around every corner, you will want to get a snap of a beautiful valley, or a waterfall, or a lake. It is really lush. And then for the actual taking of photos….

4. Be sensible and don’t just stop in the middle of the road

Don’t leave your doors wide open when you’re taking photos. You’ve got to have some common sense and consideration for other drivers. We saw some tourists do stupid things in order to get the best shot.

5. Keep supplies in your car

Food and water are a must, particularly for tired and carsick kids. Having snacks and water to hand is really important especially when you might not see a shop for another 100km!

Photo of a lake and mountain New Zealand road trip South Island travel family adventure digital nomad family

Roaring Billy Falls

6. Businesses close early

Be aware that some shops and restaurants close early (at least, it seems early to us!). We were really shocked to find that shops and restaurants and cafes would close at 3pm or 4pm in small towns. We nearly got caught out on Dan’s birthday when we realised there were no restaurants open and the nearest supermarket was a 20-minute drive away and was only open for another 35 minutes!

7. Look for the brown roads signs

When you’re driving you’ll come across little brown signs showing you that there is a place of interest nearby. Do stop at some of these. Some of the best-hidden gems we found were in these places. One of the best ones we stumbled on was Roaring Billy Falls.

8. Be prepared to be offline

In some parts of New Zealand you just can’t get a mobile signal. Accept it and make sure you plan for those days. You can download maps onto your phone before you go so that you can always know where you are and where you’re headed – or you could even grab a good old-fashioned paper map! We got SIM cards at the airport with Vodafone and Spark. I would say Vodafone seemed to have better coverage on the whole.

9. Let cars pass

If 4 or more cars are behind you then it’s actually the law that you have to pull over to let them pass. It is wise to drive slowly, especially as you aren’t familiar with the roads, so bear this in mind. I’m sure locals appreciate it when slow driving tourists move out of their way. There are plenty of places to pull over on New Zealand roads which you can use to stop at safely.

10. Take stuff for the kids to do on the long journeys

We knew it would be a challenge for Roobs to do a road trip as we usually travel slowly. She gets carsick pretty easily so we prepared various things for the journeys which helped her. We loaded our tablet with some of her favourite programmes. We downloaded 2 audiobooks for her to listen to. She also took some toys to play with.

I also made up a folder of printed out activities for her to do in the car. The folder had word searches, crosswords, puzzles, car games etc. It was a great way to distract her and she really enjoyed filling in the worksheets. I got all the worksheets from different websites. (I’m hoping to find time to write a post about the activities we prepared).

South Island New Zealand road trip family travel travleling with kids rtw

We wrote in more depth about the places we went to on our road trip in this post, this one and this one


Comments 6

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  1. NZ is one of our bucket list destinations too! Just looking at your pictures reminds me of why. Thank you so much for your tips on travelling here. The same rules apply in Maui (more like common courtesy rules). I live in O’ahu, but the hubby and I have gone to Maui and the roads are just as windy.

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