Planning a Road Trip Around New Zealand’s South Island

One of the main things most people will want to do during their time in New Zealand is take a trip around the South Island. Before you plan your trip you should decide on whether you’re going to take a bus, buy a car or rent a campervan. For more information on this see my post here. Once you’ve figured out how you’re going to get around it’s time to get into the nitty gritty!

How long does it take?

Like any trip the longer you have to spend in the South Island the better as you’ll have more time in each place and it will allow you to get off the beaten track and explore some smaller towns. We recently spent 10 weeks travelling throughout the island however I know people that have spent 2 weeks and met others that spent over 6 months so it really does vary. If possible I would recommend at least 4 weeks to get to see as much as possible.

Where should I to stop?

How many places you stop will be directly influenced on how much time you have to travel. If you have very limited time then make sure to see the main attractions:

  • Milford Sound
  • Queenstown
  • Abel Tasman
  • Mount Cook
  • Fox Glacier/ Franz Josef

The longer you have to travel the more places you can add. Some other places I would highly recommend are:

  • Cromwell
  • Kaikoura
  • The Catlins
  • Wanaka
  • Tekapo
  • Arthurs Pass
  • Dunedin

When planning your trip read all about the south island and make note of the main things you want to see. From here you can map where each attraction is and if there are other places along the way you might want to stop at. The complete itinerary of my trip can be found here. This is a good starting point if you’re planning your own road trip as it breakdowns the driving distances between locations as well as the things to see and do in each area.

How much will it cost?

Money money money! This was my biggest concern before we left for the South Island – would we have enough money to see us through the entire trip. Overall we spent about $9000 for two of us in a campervan for 10 weeks. You can easily spend more but you can also reign in the cost. For me I saw this as a once in a lifetime trip and we didn’t curtail our spending too much. Our total cost for the trip can be broken down as follows:


We had a self contained campervan which was a big money saver and we only spent approx.
$850 on accommodation. We went to a lot of freedom campsites rather than holiday parks where possible. Over the course of the 10 weeks we only paid for XX sites. The cost of holiday parks can vary greatly. Milford Sound ($30pp) and Lake Tekapo ($25pp) were by far the most expensive places we stayed however as there were limited sites in the area we had no choice but to pay. Overall I would say that having a self contained car probably saved us about $1000 in accommodation costs.


We had our own car so this was a significant expenditure ( approx. $1800) however if you’re going to be cycling, hitchhiking or taking a bus around this won’t be an expense you have to factor in. New World provide 6 cent off a litre with each purchase so keep your receipt. Also get a Mobil card which will also give you 6 cent off each litre. This may not seem like much but on average we saved $3 each time we filled the car which adds up over 10 weeks.


As this was a once in a lifetime trip for us we didn’t hold back when it came to doing things and spent approx $2000 in this area. Some of the biggest expenses in this category included the nighttime hike at St John’s Observatory in Lake Tekapo ($175pp), kayak and cruise at Milford Sound ($199pp) and kayaking with the dolphins and seals at Kaikoura ($110pp). This is definitely an area you can save a lot of money as there are loads of free things to do in the south island from hikes to museums. Additionally each town tend to have similar attractions such as kayaking and jet boating so once you do an activity in one town you’re probably not going to do it again. Keep an eye on sites like GrabOne where you can get discounts and special offers for all different activities.

Food, Drink and Miscellaneous

This is an area you can make big savings. We spent about $4500 in this area however this covered everything from grocery shopping to eating out and any unexpected expenses. We made a big effort to get food in a cheaper supermarket such as New World or Countdown and would then typically cook our own breakfast, lunch and dinner each day. Eating out will very quickly drain your bank account and overall we only ate out about 10 times over the 10 weeks. There were some times/ places we knew we would be eating out such as in Queenstown (hello Fergburger) and our anniversary. We also got caught out in Mount Cook and ran out of food, as there was no supermarket anywhere nearby we had to eat out a couple of times. There were also plenty of miscellaneous things we needed to get. These included minor spends like batteries and major spends such as the ferry to and from the North Island (approx $230 each way for two adults in a car) and getting the car through the Warrant of Fitness (new brakes etc. meant this cost us $300).

The great thing about a road trip like the one we did was the flexibility it allows you. You can spend as much time and money travelling as you want. Also, if like us you plan on working for a while first prior to doing any travelling then you’ll be able to save a good bit of money. We spent approx $9000 on our trip however almost $6000 of that we made and saved in 4 months of working and living in Wellington. Most of all if you’re going to do a trip like this make the most of it and don’t worry too much about the cost of everything. If there’s something you really want to do then I say do it because you may never get the chance to come back!

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