New Zealand in Three Weeks: Road Trip Itinerary
New Zealand in Three Weeks: Road Trip Itinerary

New Zealand in 3 Weeks: Road Trip Itinerary 🚗⛰️ [2022]

© NZPocketGuide.com

How to Make the Most of New Zealand in Three Weeks

You might have heard a thousand times that three weeks is not enough to see New Zealand. However, you can see a hell of a lot in three weeks if you have a sense of adventure! That’s what this three-week New Zealand itinerary entails with a mix of landscapes, activities and experiences on both the North Island and the South Island. Sure, you’ll be spending some time behind the wheel, but you’ll also be spending time hitting the most popular New Zealand sights and more.

Three weeks (or 21 days) in New Zealand is enough time to experience the wildlife, Maori culture, landscapes and adventure activities this country is famous for. What’s more, three weeks allows you the time to explore the country in a number of ways, whether it’s renting a car or campervan or hopping on a bus with like-minded travellers. All of that and more will be explained in the travel itinerary below!

Alternative New Zealand Three-Week Itineraries

Before we get into this itinerary for three weeks in New Zealand, we thought you might like to know about our other itineraries to compare:

New Zealand Three-Week (21-Day) Itinerary Overview

  • Day 1 – Arrive in Auckland
  • Day 2 – Auckland to Hahei
  • Day 3 – Hahei to Waitomo (via Karangahake Gorge)
  • Day 4 – Waitomo to Rotorua (via Hobbiton)
  • Day 5 – Rotorua to Taupo/Tongariro National Park
  • Day 6 – Taupo/Tongariro National Park
  • Day 7 – Tongariro National Park to the Ruahine Forest Park
  • Day 8 – Ruahine Forest Park
  • Day 9 – Ruahine Forest Park to Wellington
  • Day 10 – Wellington to Picton
  • Day 11 – Picton to Nelson
  • Day 12 – Nelson or the Abel Tasman National Park
  • Day 13 – Nelson to Punakaiki (via Nelson lakes National Park)
  • Day 14 – Punakaiki to Franz Josef
  • Day 15 – Franz Josef to Wanaka
  • Day 16 – Wanaka to Queenstown
  • Day 17 – Queenstown or Milford Sound
  • Day 18 – Queenstown to Mt Cook
  • Day 19 – Mt Cook
  • Day 20 – Mt Cook to Geraldine (via Lake Tekapo)
  • Day 21 – Geraldine to Christchurch

How to Get Around New Zealand in Three Weeks

We’re not going to beat around the bush there is going to be a lot of driving – A LOT. If you can handle it, then get yourself a rental vehicle and continue down to the itinerary below. Otherwise, if driving for almost 21 days does not quite sound like the trip you were imagining, then consider travelling New Zealand by bus. Here are your options when it comes to travelling New Zealand in three weeks:

There are a few more transport options, which we list in the 10 Best Ways to Travel Around New Zealand.

Tourism NZ© Tourism NZ

Day 1 – Arrive in Auckland

Drive Time: 0 Hours

Welcome to New Zealand! Now, we’re guessing you took a long flight to get here and where else to recover than Auckland? Before hitting the road, take some time to explore New Zealand’s largest city otherwise known as the “City of Sails”. It’s also the city of volcanoes, many of which you can explore. Climb Mt Eden for some of the best views of the city, or take a ferry out to Auckland’s youngest volcano, Rangitoto Island. However, if you want to relax after your flight, enjoy the bars and eateries of the city.

Things to Do in Auckland

Accommodation in Auckland

See our top picks in The 50 Best Accommodations in Auckland. Otherwise, check these out:

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NZPocketGuide.com© NZPocketGuide.com

Day 2 – Auckland to Hahei

Drive Time: 2h15mins

Now it’s time to hit the road and start travelling New Zealand. First up, head to Hahei in the Coromandel for some of the best beaches on the North Island.

Things to Do in Hahei

  • Cathedral Cove. Take the easy coastal walk to a beach with white cliffs and a giant archway to walk through. There are also options to visit the beach with activity operators by kayak (more info on Viator, Tripadvisor and KKday) or boat (on Viator, Tripadvisor and KKday)
  • Hot Water Beach. Go to Hot Water Beach at low tide to dig yourself a hot pool in the sand.

Accommodation in Hahei

Check out top Coromandel accommodations in the 10 Best Budget Accommodations in the Coromandel and 9 Best Hotels in the Coromandel. Otherwise, here are our top picks in Hahei:

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Tourism NZ© Tourism NZ

Day 3 – Hahei to Waitomo (via Karangahake Gorge)

Drive Time: 3 hours

Your final destination today is Waitomo, famous for its glowworms and caving activities. Before you get there, don’t miss the Karangahake Gorge, halfway through the drive. There are a number of walking tracks in the area between 45 minutes to 4 hours going through a historic mining area taken back by the forest and the river. Walk through mining tunnels, through native forest, alongside mining relics and to magnificent waterfalls.

Things to Do in Waitomo

After the drive and walking at Karangahake Gorge, you will have time to do one of the short activities in Waitomo. For example:

For more inspiration, take a look at the 15 Best Things to Do in Waitomo.

Accommodation in Waitomo

Do you full research on places to stay using the 10 Best Boutique Accommodations in Waitomo or 10 Best Budget Accommodations in Waitomo. Otherwise, here are some quick recommendations:

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NZPocketGuide.com© NZPocketGuide.com

Day 4 – Waitomo to Rotorua (via Hobbiton)

Drive Time: 1h50min

If you want to do one of the caving activities in Waitomo or didn’t get to do one of the Waitomo activities yesterday, this morning would be a great time to do so! Join one of the caving operators in Waitomo, throw on a sexy wetsuit and tube/abseil/climb your way through the Waitomo Caves – compare all of your options in the 8 Best Waitomo Cave Tours.

Once the adventure is over, it’s time to hit the road to Rotorua. Depending on what you prefer, there are things to do along the way to Rotorua, such as Hobbiton in Matamata, or save some time for more things to do in Rotorua this evening.

Things to Do on the Road to Rotorua

  • Stop by Otorohanga to see a kiwi bird in the kiwi house or quickly learn a bit of New Zealand history down the Ed Hillary Walkway situated in the centre of Otorohanga
  • See the Arapuni Swing Bridge, a huge suspension bridge crossing New Zealand’s longest river
  • Do the Te Waihou Walkway (1h30min or 3 hours walk) to the Putaruru Blue Spring to see some of the purest and clearest water flowing in a stream
  • Take a detour to Matamata to visit The Hobbiton Movie Set (more info on ViatorTripadvisorKlook and KKday). This will add an extra 30 minutes to your drive time.

Things to Do in Rotorua

For more ideas, check out the 25 Best Things to Do in Rotorua.

Accommodation in Rotorua

See our top recommendations in The 50 Best Accommodations in Rotorua. On the other hand, you’ll probably be happy with any one of these:

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NZPocketGuide.com© NZPocketGuide.com

Day 5 – Rotorua to Taupo/Tongariro National Park

Drive Time: 1 hour to Taupo or 2h15min to National Park Village

Today, spend some time doing awesome stuff in Rotorua before hitting the road. But why the crazy drive time? Well, if you are into hiking and landscapes, then we suggest that you pass through the town of Taupo and base yourself in the Tongariro National Park so that tomorrow morning, you can tackle the Tongariro Alpine Crossing or another hike in the national park. However, we know long hikes are not for everyone, so another option is to stay in Taupo which has a huge variety of activities on offer. Find out more about what there is to do in either Taupo or Tongariro National Park in tomorrows section. Before then, you have a day in Rotorua to enjoy before hitting the road!

Things to Do in Rotorua

Again, we have a lot more recommendations in the 25 Best Things to Do in Rotorua.

Accommodation in Taupo

Get all of our recommendations from the 10 Best Hotels in Taupo and 10 Best Budget Accommodation in Taupo or just take a looksy here:

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Accommodation in National Park Village

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NZPocketGuide.com© NZPocketGuide.com

Day 6 – Taupo/Tongariro National Park

Drive Time: 0

Spend the whole day in Taupo or Tongariro National Park doing awesome activities. There’s no driving to do today other than to your chosen activity. Plus, you can stay in the same accommodation as last night.

Things to Do in Tongariro National Park

Things to Do in Taupo

Get more inspiration from our 20 Best Things to Do in Taupo.

NZPocketGuide.com© NZPocketGuide.com

Day 7 – Tongariro National Park to the Ruahine Forest Park

Drive Time: 2 hours

The mission today is to spend some time in the New Zealand wilderness. Ruahine Forest Park is an awesome place to do that and a locals favourite! There are a few different wilderness lodges and camping options in the Ruahine Forest Park, as well as activities from hikes to horse riding to white water rafting.

To break up the journey, stop in Ohakune for a coffee or check out the Mangawhero Walking Track (1-hour loop) to walk in the forests at the base of Mt Ruapehu. Your final destination today will be at one of the accommodation options listed below. You’ll get more time to explore the area or do an activity there tomorrow.

Accommodation in the Ruahine Forest Park

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NZPocketGuide.com© NZPocketGuide.com

Day 8 – Ruahine Forest Park

Drive Time: 0 Hours

It’s time to relax/go wild in the Ruahine Forest Park! Whatever your bag is, you could do some white water rafting or horse riding at River Valley (more info on Viator and Tripadvisor), horse riding, 4x4ing or claybird shooting at Makoura Lodge, or hiking in the Ruahine Ranges. Alternatively, relax in your farmstay or accommodation to get a taste of Kiwi life.

Things to Do in the Ruahine Forest Park

NZPocketGuide.com© NZPocketGuide.com

Day 9 – Ruahine Forest Park to Wellington

Drive Time: 3h20mins

Your final destination today is the capital city of New Zealand! However, we recommend breaking up the drive by stopping along the Kapiti Coast, full of beaches and walks to check out! Walk over a sand dune walkway in Queen Elizabeth Park, relax on Peka Peka Beach. How about getting a kite landboarding or kite surfing lesson on Foxton Beach?

Once you reach Wellington you have the evening to enjoy the eateries and nightlife of the capital city!

Accommodation in Wellington

See more stays in The 50 Best Accommodations in Wellington or check out these quick links:

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NZPocketGuide.com© NZPocketGuide.com

Day 10 – Wellington to Picton

Drive Time: 0 Hours (Ferry Crossing)

Today you have the treat of taking the ferry from the North Island to the South Island! We recommend the sunrise or sunset sailing for the best prices and the best light for a stunning journey across the Cook Strait and through the Marlborough Sounds. Depending on what time your sailing is, you will either have time to do something in Wellington or Picton. Here are some ideas.

Things to Do in Wellington

Don’t like these? Get more ideas from the 25 Best Things to Do in Wellington.

Things to Do in Picton

Accommodation in Picton

If everything goes to plan and you do not miss your ferry then these are some excellent accommodation options in Picton, if not in the 10 Best Hotels in Picton or 10 Best Budget Accommodation in Picton, then here:

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NZPocketGuide.com© NZPocketGuide.com

Day 11 – Picton to Nelson

Drive Time: 1h50mins

Do one of the activities that you missed in Picton yesterday or hit the road to Nelson. Stop by Havelock to take a boat cruise out into the Marlborough Sounds or join a kayaking tour down the Pelorus River one of The Hobbit filming locations. Then you will reach New Zealand’s sunniest city, Nelson, where you will have more opportunities to do some of the following activities.

Things to Do in Nelson

We elaborate on all those experiences and more in the 20 Best Things to Do in Nelson.

Accommodation in Nelson

Pick out your favourites from our 10 Best Hotels in Nelson and 10 Best Budget Accommodation in Nelson or simply book a stay to one of the following:

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NZPocketGuide.com© NZPocketGuide.com

Day 12 – Nelson or the Abel Tasman National Park

Drive Time: 0-1 hour

Nelson is the gateway to three national parks on the South Island. One of which is the Abel Tasman National Park, full of pristine golden sand beaches backed with lush forests. Tours operate from Nelson daily taking you into the Abel Tasman National Park via Kaiteriteri. Either drive to Kaiteriteri yourself (1 hour one way) for maximum flexibility or take one of the shuttle services. In Kaiteriteri, you have a great deal of Abel Tasman options from kayaking tours, water taxis to hikes, or boat tours.

Things to Do in the Abel Tasman National Park

And that’s not all! Check out the 11 Best Things to Do in the Abel Tasman National Park for more ideas.

New Zealand in Three Weeks: Road Trip Itinerary© NZPocketGuide.com

Day 13 – Nelson to Punakaiki (via Nelson lakes National Park)

Drive Time: 3h45min

There’s a fair bit of driving to do today but the beautiful views of the Buller Gorge help pass the time quickly. There are a few quaint towns to stop by for a coffee, such as Murchison. However, to really make the most of the drive we suggest taking a detour into the Nelson Lakes National Park to see the beautiful Lake Rotoroa or Lake Rotoiti. Both are very similar in terms of views and short walks available so take your pick! This will add on an extra 20 minutes onto your drive time, but they are simply too good to miss.

Once you arrive in Punakaiki, you have a lot of options, but don’t miss the Punakaiki Pancake Rocks & Blowholes for their impressive and bizarre rock formations.

Things to Do in Punakaiki

Check out how to do all of these things and more in the 9 Best Things to Do in Punakaiki and 10 Best Things to Do in Paparoa National Park.

Accommodation in Punakaiki

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NZPocketGuide.com© NZPocketGuide.com

Day 14 – Punakaiki to Franz Josef

Drive Time: 3 Hours

Head to the Glacier Country with one of the worlds most accessible glaciers! Franz Josef is your opportunity to walk on, crawl inside, fly over, skydive over or walk up to a glacier. Get some ideas on how you can take on the glacier here. Nevertheless, there’s actually more to do here than glacier gallivanting! Check it out in the list below.

Things to Do in Franz Josef

Learn more about these experiences in the 20 Best Things to Do in Franz Josef.

Accommodation in Franz Josef

See our top recommendations in the 10 Best Hotels in Franz Josef and 10 Best Budget Accommodation in Franz Josef or simply check these out:

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NZPocketGuide.com© NZPocketGuide.com

Day 15 – Franz Josef to Wanaka

Drive Time: 3h40min

You’ve got a long drive ahead today but plenty of reasons to stretch your legs. You’ll be going through another super scenic rode on the Haast Pass where we recommend you stop at Thunder Creek Falls just a minutes walk from the road. Then don’t miss the Blue Pools of Haast. This is a 1-hour return walk through the forest to some of the clearest and bluest rivers you will ever see.

This evening you will have the time to relax by the beautiful Lake Wanaka.

Things to Do in Wanaka

And that’s just a taste. Check out the 25 Best Things to Do in Wanaka.

Accommodation in Wanaka

If the 10 Best Hotels in Wanaka or 10 Best Budget Accommodations in Wanaka doesn’t interest you, then check out these:

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New Zealand in Three Weeks: Road Trip Itinerary© NZPocketGuide.com

Day 16 – Wanaka to Queenstown

Drive Time: 1 Hour

Time to hit the Adrenaline Capital of the World! Take the Cardrona Valley route to be the best views on the way to Queenstown. Once there you have so much to do! Take a look at The Complete Guide to Queenstown or the list below.

Things to Do in Queenstown

And there’s so much more to do listed in the 45 Best Things to Do in Queenstown.

Accommodation in Queenstown

See more stays in The 50 Best Accommodations in Queenstown or take a look at the following:

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NZPocketGuide.com© NZPocketGuide.com

Day 17 – Queenstown or Milford Sound

Drive Time: 0 Hours

With towering mountains, untouched rainforest and unbelievable scenery, Milford Sound is an unforgettable journey. To have a break from driving, we recommend taking one of the many bus tours to Milford Sound then boarding a cruise of the fiord. Bus trips give you plenty of opportunities to hop off the bus and do multiple short walks on the way. For more information, get your head in the 10 Best Milford Sound Tours from Queenstown & Te Anau. If a 13-hour bus and cruise trip doesn’t appeal, see the 6 Best Scenic Flights to Milford Sound from Queenstown instead.

However, if you want a break from the road, you have plenty more options for things to do in Queenstown listed above as well as some more inspiration in the 45 Best Things to Do in Queenstown.

NZPocketGuide.com© NZPocketGuide.com

Day 18 – Queenstown to Mt Cook

Drive Time: 3 Hours

If you have not had enough of epic scenic drives, then here’s one more for you through the Lindis Pass on the way to Aoraki Mt Cook National Park. On the way to Mt Cook, consider stopping by the Highlands Motorsport Park in Cromwell to challenge your travel buddies to go-karting (more info on Viator and Tripadvisor) or stop by Omarama for their hot pools with a view.

Once at Mt Cook, you have a lot of options to explore the heart of the Southern Alps with its glaciers but well get onto that more tomorrow.

Accommodation in Mt Cook

Get inspiration for amazing stays from our 5 Best Hotels in Mt Cook and 5 Best Budget Accommodation in Mt Cook or, you know the drill by now, see these awesome stays:

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NZPocketGuide.com© NZPocketGuide.com

Day 19 – Mt Cook

Drive Time: 0 Hours

There are many ways to enjoy the impressive landscape of the Aoraki Mt Cook National Park, from glaciers to lakes to mountains, so you’ll want to spend a whole day doing some or all of the following activities.

Things to Do in Mt Cook

More details on all of these activities can be found in the 20 Best Things to Do in Aoraki Mt Cook.

NZPocketGuide.com© NZPocketGuide.com

Day 20 – Mt Cook to Geraldine (via Lake Tekapo)

Drive Time: 2h15mins

Next stop, Geraldine! This is not without an obligatory stop at Lake Tekapo with its vibrant blue lake and the most scenic church in New Zealand, The Church of the Good Shepherd. Stop by the Fairlie Bakery for one of their award-winning New Zealand pies, then onward to Geraldine. You have time to either do an activity this evening or tomorrow morning so take your pick from the following!

Things to Do in Geraldine

  • Do grade 5 white water rafting on the Rangitata River
  • Horse trek in the hills of Peel Forest
  • Hike, swim, rappel, cliff jump and more on a canyoning tour
  • Go mountain biking or 4×4 off-roading
  • Take an alpaca for a walk.

See how to do all these exciting experiences in the 10 Best Things to Do in Geraldine.

Accommodation in Geraldine

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NZPocketGuide.com© NZPocketGuide.com

Day 21 – Geraldine to Christchurch

Drive Time: 2 Hours

If you missed any of the awesome activities yesterday, take the time to do them before you hit the road to Christchurch. Journey through the Canterbury Plains to Christchurch where you now get the chance to explore the South Islands biggest hub before catching your flight and moving on to your next adventure.

Things to Do in Christchurch

See the 15 Best Things to Do in Christchurch for much more ideas (and details).

Accommodation in Christchurch

Get ideas for places to stay from our 11 Best Hotels in Christchurch or the 10 Best Budget Accommodations in Christchurch. Or check out these stays:

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More About Planning a Three Week Trip to New Zealand

That’s it for our New Zealand 3-week itinerary but by no means the end of our road trip advice. Check out the following guides if you simply can’t get enough of our NZ tips:

Finally, be sure to bookmark the 31 Tips for Travelling in New Zealand and The Best Travel Guide to New Zealand – they’re pretty darn useful.

Author

Laura S.

This article was reviewed and published by Laura, editor in chief and co-founder of NZ Pocket Guide. Since arriving solo in New Zealand over 10 years ago and with a background in journalism, her mission has been to show the world how easy (and awesome) it is to travel New Zealand. She knows Aotearoa inside-out and loves sharing tips on how best to experience New Zealand’s must-dos and hidden gems. Laura is also editor of several other South Pacific travel guides and is the co-host of NZ Pocket Guide’s live New Zealand travel Q&As on YouTube.

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