One Week to See the Best of New Zealand’s South Island

A trip to New Zealand really is a trip to Middle Earth.

It’s a country with landscapes that’ll make you pinch yourself to check you’re not dreaming.

It may be small, but New Zealand sure packs a punch with epic mountains, volcanoes, glaciers and rugged beaches.

Saying the South Island is an exquisitely beautiful place would be an understatement. 

We left a week of exploring the South Island feeling exceptionally grateful.

New Zealand has always been on my travel list, and yet, even as we were in the midst of our trip, it all felt so surreal.

It’s that magical of a destination.

AN ITINERARY FOR 6 DAYS IN THE SOUTH ISLAND

We would have loved to have more time, but at the time of our trip, we could each only swing a week off work. Wanting to go for any longer would have meant delaying the trip, and possibly not going.

Chatting it over with friends in the US and UK though, they told us if they were holidaying, they’d only expect to have 6-8 days to explore- once long-haul flights and jetlag are factored in.

So, while parts of our time felt a bit rushed, we didn’t mind it because we were keen to see and do as much as possible. And, it helped we had spectacular weather on our side.

Day 1: Arrive in Queenstown at 11 am (we flew from Melbourne, where we’d been living, so we didn’t feel jet lagged); Spend day in Queenstown; Drive to Te Anau late afternoon

Day 2:  Depart Te Anau early morning, drive to Milford Sound; Leave Milford Sound late afternoon to head back to Queenstown for a late night Onsen Pools experience (8:30 pm booking), and overnight stay

Day 3: Drive to Franz Josef, via Hawea

Day 4: Morning glacier flight; Drive to Tekapo via Hokitika and Arthur’s Pass (this route added 2-3 hours to our drive, but it was too beautiful to miss)

Day 5: Morning in Tekapo; Drive to Pukai; Mount Cook hikes*; Drive to Wanaka at night

Day 6: Morning in Wanaka; Drive to Queenstown for late-afternoon flight to Sydney

*Although doing 1-2 Mount Cook hikes was part of our itinerary, the weather had other ideas, and we were forced to turn back on our drive to Cook. This ended up working out nicely for us, because it put us in Wanaka mid-afternoon, which meant we had time to leisurely explore and watch sunset lakeside.

Also worth noting, the back-half of our trip was pushed back by a half day after our glacier helicopter flight was moved from the afternoon we arrived to the following morning (in favour of better flying conditions). We were okay with this change, because the glacier flight was one of the top things we hoped to do in the South Island, but it did mean things in Tekapo, Cook and Wanaka were more rushed than they would have been otherwise.

I haven’t included drive time estimates for a reason- there’s what Google tells you, and there’s what it actually is.

In reality, we ended up stopping so often, we added 2-4 hours to every drive. Which, again, we didn’t mind, because it meant we were spending time hiking and seeing the beauty of nature that’d brought us to New Zealand to begin with.

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HOW TO GET AROUND

Road trip.

It’s the best way to see the country- some cities have limited public transit, but to truly experience the best New Zealand has to offer, you’ll need to rent a car (or camper van).

If you’re only heading to Queenstown and want to see the Milford Sound without renting a car, you can look into same day tour providers, like Awesome NZ.

Just know you won’t have the flexibility to stop throughout the sound and explore short hikes or overlooks you may desire.

We reserved our car two months ahead of time at a cancellable rate, and then checked weekly for price drops.

At the end of winter, during peak ski season in Queenstown, we paid £15 per day from a budget provider, Scottie’s, and £60 for a week of insurance. We had an old car, but it worked perfectly.

And, parking fee wise- we didn’t encounter national park entry, or parking fees anywhere, aside from street parking in Queenstown. Even there, you can find free, limited time parking if you’re willing to drive around for a while to avoid the expensive metered lots.

WHAT TO DO IN EACH STOP

QUEENSTOWN

Ah, the adventure capital of the world. No surprise, there’s loads to do in this beautiful, small city.

KEY SIGHTS

Wander idyllic, downtown Queenstown: The area is cute, full of mostly upscale shops and eateries.

Take the skyline gondola to the top of Bob’s Peak: Return gondola tickets aren’t exactly cheap at +£20, but the views are once in a lifetime worth it. There’s also a luge at the top of the mountain, and a bungee jump.

Relax at the Onsen Hot Pools with soaring valley views:
Picture this: A private hot tub in the mountains, with expansive valley views, where you can sip bubbles, nibble New Zealand chocolate, and just relax while taking in the beauty of nature. If that sounds like a dreamy experience to you, then you’ll understand why we were so excited to visit the hot pools. Fortunately, the experience was everything we could have dreamed.

// My complete guide to the Onsen Pools // 

If you’re spending more time in Queenstown, there’s loads more to do- swimming and boating on the lake, and skiing in the nearby mountains.

Also, no shortage of adrenaline pumping activities– bungee jumping, skydiving, and the like.

WHERE TO EAT & DRINK 

  • Fergberger: The queues are worth it. Known for their real burgers the falafel one was epic, and don’t sleep on the onion rings
  • Fergbakery: Picked up a few pastries here for Te Anau, knowing we’d be leaving early morning. So delicious
  • Vudu Cafe & Larder: Perfect for brunch
  • Surreal Bar & Restaurant: The spot for mulled wine on a rooftop
  • Cafe Society: Outside of town, near the shopping mall with two budget grocery stores- great mochas
  • Boatshed Cafe: Our favourite cafe in Queenstown, just adorable. A short drive from town, waterfront with the best views and plenty of dogs

ACCOMMODATION RECOMMENDATION 

We didn’t love our budget hotel in Queenstown, and I’d encourage you to try and stay in town so you can easily walk around.

TE ANAU

The drive from Queenstown to Te Anau elicited no fewer than a dozen instances of ‘omg’ and ‘bloody hell’. It’s stunning.

KEY SIGHTS

We came for one thing- The Milford Sound. I know there are other hikes and such in the area, and would encourage you to look into them if you have more time.

It’s hard to put into words how just incredible the Milford Sound is.

It’s the number one attraction in the South Island with daily cruises in the sound, as well as tours running from Queenstown.

Cruising the fjord lasted about two hours, and was picture perfect scenery at every bend.

You’ll see soaring limestone cliffs on either side of you, and towering snow-capped mountain peaks, including Mount Mitre.

The fjord has two waterfalls- Lady Bowen Falls and Stirling Falls, both fed by glaciers. On our visit, we were lucky to see so many other streams of water flowing down the mountainside, created by the recent rainfall.

Our ship sailed right up to and underneath several of the bigger falls.

In addition to stunning scenery, we also were fortunate to spot rare penguins, tons of seals, and cruised out to where the fjord meets the Tasman Sea.

There are often dolphins in the fjord as well, but our boat operator told us they’d spotted them only the day prior, and it’s not usual to see them on consecutive days.

Perhaps one of the best things about visiting the sound is that it’s so much more than a fjord cruise.

On our drive back to Queenstown, we stopped several times for short hikes, and to revel in lookout points.

// My complete guide to the Milford Sound //

WHERE TO EAT & DRINK 

  • Sandfly Cafe (great for a coffee stop)
  • Redcliffe Cafe (came recommended for dinner, but we didn’t eat there)

ACCOMMODATION RECOMMENDATION 

We arrived in Te Anau just in time for twilight. We stayed in a private room at the Te Anau Lakefront Backpackers for £30 a night.

We thought we’d be sharing a bathroom with the entire hostel, and were delighted to find that wasn’t the case- it was almost apartment style, instead. In our block, there were two private rooms, a shared dining area, a kitchen nook with microwave, flatware and tea kettle, and a bathroom. Excellent value.

FRANZ JOSEF

KEY SIGHTS

One of our favourite parts of driving the South Island?
How insanely beautiful everything was, everywhere.

On the drive from Queenstown to Franz Josef, we routed through Hawea. Oh, stunning Lake Hawea with striking blue water- we were so stunned by this lake, we pulled over several times for photos, and to just admire it.

After Lake Hawea, the road stretches onto the Haast Pass, a very scenic stretch through mountain valleys.

Here, we stopped at a few places-

  • Thunder Creek Falls: We thought this was just another stop-off, but didn’t mind the stretch. Imagine our surprise when we found a gorgeous, cascading waterfall a short walk from the road
  • Fantail Falls: Another short walk from the road, you’ll come across these small falls and a river valley- worth the short stop if you’re driving all day
  • Haast Blue Pools: We didn’t realise this hike took 45-60 minutes return, and unfortunately didn’t have time for it. But, I’ve heard the pools are the kind of thing that has to be seen to be believed- the water is a deep- aqua blue and surrounded by rocks of varying scale

Continuing on our way, we made it to Franz Josef, a small, two street town.

There aren’t many other places in the world that you can access a glacier just a stone’s throw away from a highway- Franz Josef is one of them.

We came to Franz Josef to do a glacier helicopter ride, which we’d originally scheduled for mid-afternoon.

The weather had other plans though and our ride was delayed until the morning. Mega grateful we were still able to have the experience, but it did mean we had to adjust a few other plans since we got a later than planned start that day.

The South Island may be packed with beautiful sights, but few really match up to the magnificence of the Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers.

Walking around the top of the Fox Glacier was an unbelievable experience.

Just imagine soaring over glittering fields of ice, snow-capped mountains, and deep valleys. It’s an experience that makes you appreciate the beauty of the glaciers- it’s pure, incredible nature.

We reserved with Fox and Franz Josef Heliservices, and had a cracker of a time.

Not only was the experience unbelievable, but the heliservice staff were so helpful, in coordinating details and rebooking our flight when the weather didn’t cooperate.

// My complete guide to taking a glacier heli flight //

We’d also heard there are fantastic natural hot springs in Franz Josef, but didn’t have time to check them out.

WHERE TO EAT & DRINK 

  • Full of Beans Cafe: Good option for your morning coffee fix
  • SnakeBite Brewery: Upon hearing our flight was postponed/possibly wouldn’t be happening, we headed to the brewery for drinks. Here, we had local ciders, wines, and craft beers. Such a great place, both roomy and cosy with a fire scene crackling on giant tellies 

ACCOMMODATION RECOMMENDATION 

We stayed in a private room with shared bathroom facilities at YHA Franz Josef.

No complaints- the room gave us the privacy we needed, and we were close enough to the restrooms that leaving the room to use them wasn’t an inconvenience. Could have been because it was the off-season, but also never encountered lines for the shower or toilets.

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LAKE TEKAPO

Leaving Franz Josef, we decided to drive through Hokitika and Arthur’s Pass, rather than going back the way we came through Hawea. This added ~3-4 hours to our trip (with all the stops we made), but it was worth it.

At Hokitika, we hiked the most beautiful gorge. A ~15 minute walk from the car park, you’ll arrive at a beautifully coloured lake. If you cross the lake and wander down onto the opposite side, you can climb down rocks to get even closer to the river bed.

Before heading to Arthur’s Pass, we stopped in Hokitika town, because I wanted to see it, and we needed a caffeine boost, which we found at the cute, Stella Cafe.

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Then, it was onto the breathtaking Arthur’s Pass.

If you get a chance to drive this pass, do it. We passed several ski resorts, which would be a nice way to spend even more time in the area.

But even just driving it, we were awestruck at the beauty of the mountains.

Just as the sun was starting to set, we rolled into Tekapo. It was too late to see the bright blue colour of the lake, which meant we had a nice surprise in the morning.

In the am, we woke up to watch sunrise over the lake from our bed, which was insane.

Then, we went for a walk around the lakeshore, visiting a historic church.
Tekapo is just breathtaking.

Before heading further south, we backtracked a few miles to the Three Creeks Service Station. We’d passed it at sundown, and wanted to come back in the day for a proper look.

This cool antique shop is an interesting juxtaposition against the soaring mountains of this area. If you’re a vintage junkie, you’ll love popping in here.

Before heading to Pukai, we drove up to the hill overlooking the lake. Entry access costs $8 NZD (£4), but it’s worth it.

The views are sweeping and spectacular. Plus, there’s an adorable coffee shop, Astro Cafe, so you can quite literally have coffee on what feels like the surface of Saturn. We had such a great time, and would have stayed longer, but were evacuated, due to high winds in the area.

KEY SIGHTS

  • Three Creeks Service Station
  • Walk around the lakeshore, and see the historic church 
  • Drive up to the hill overlooking the lake
  • Wake up early for sunrise at the lake 
  • There are also glacier heli-flights departing from this area, and of course, a ton of lakefront activities (swimming, boating, etc.) in warmer months

WHERE TO EAT & DRINK 

As with other stops, we relied on our groceries and didn’t eat out much, but these places came highly recommended.

*Denotes we actually stopped there (as detailed above).

  • Hokitika: Fat Pipi Pizza, Aurora Restaurant (breakfast), Stella Cafe*, New World Supermarket (for grocery re-stocks)
  • Tekapo: Astro Cafe*, Our Dog Friday* (a good restaurant next to our hostel, popped in for ciders after a long day of driving, noted the menu looked great)

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ACCOMMODATION RECOMMENDATION 

We stayed at YHA Lake Tekapo and LOVED it. Newly built, it’s gorgeous.

The common rooms overlook the lake, and are perfect for lounging. And, the communal kitchen is massive, with loads of space for cooking, eating or storing food. We were seriously impressed by how great the kitchen was.

We stayed in a lakefront private room with an en-suite, and loved it. Like in a hotel, we had sheets, towels, toiletries and a coffee maker / tea pot provided.

The best part though, unquestionably, was being able to watch a glowing sunset from the comfort of our bed.

MOUNT COOK

I thought Tekapo was special, but rounding the corner in route to Cook and seeing Lake Pukai knocked my socks off.

The bluest, most vibrant waters I’ve ever seen, and with snow capped mountains in the background?

Words fail me.

It’s a lake that’s truly bluer than the sky.
If you’re planning on hitting up Cook, you’ll drive past it- there’s only one way in and out of Mount Cook.

At Cook, we’d planned on doing 1-2 hikes, but the closer we got to the mountain, the worse the weather was.

With low visibility, freezing rain and a high wind advisory, we had to turn around.

Initially, we were bummed about this. But, having this be the only thing that didn’t ‘work out’ during our entire week felt like an ultimate blessing, especially since we visited during winter.

A gentle reminder to build flexibility into your intereary when you visit, as you can’t predict the weather any season in New Zealand.

Turning back, we drove through the small town of Twizel, which we’d heard was a great place to stop and eat. By the way, it’s pronounced, “Twy-zel” not “Twizzle”.

Instead  of stopping though, we decided to keep going to hopefully hit Wanaka by mid-afternoon.

KEY SIGHTS

Lake Pukai: There are several pull-offs for you to ogle the lake. We especially liked Peter’s Lookout.

There are tons of hikes and activities to do at Mount Cook, I’m only going to share the ones we’d considered on our schedule. Whatever you have time for, if the weather cooperates, it’s sure to be epic. After all, this is the land where Edmund Hillary trained before being the first to summit Everest

  • Hooker Valley
    • 10 km return, almost entirely flat
    • Begins at White Horse Hill Campground
    • You follow the Hooker river through open tussock and over three very photogenic swing bridges until you reach the glorious hooker lake, where there are floating icebergs
  • Blue Lakes and Tasman Glacier Lake Walk
    • 2.6km return
    • The Tasman Glacier lake walk is a really short track that branches off the Blue Lakes trail
    • There’s nothing particularly special about the track itself, it’s just walking along gravel, but the lake you come out to at the end is ridiculously beautiful
  • Tasman Glacier 
    • We knew we wouldn’t have time for this, but it looks like an amazing place to watch the sunrise
    • Follow the signs to the Tasman River and head down to the end of the lake (opposite of the glacier)

WHERE TO EAT & DRINK 

  • Twizel: Shawty’s (great for breakfast)
  • Mount Cook: Almost no dining options here (Old Mountaineers Cafe came recommended from friends), would advise bringing your own food

ACCOMMODATION RECOMMENDATION 

We hadn’t planned on spending the night in Cook, but had looked at YHA Mount Cook. The hotels in the area are limited and expensive.

Plan this accomodation far in advance if you’re on a budget for the best chance at decent rates.

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WANAKA

Back on the main roads and en route to Wanaka, it was crazy how different the weather was (blue skies and sunshine). 

We arrived in quirky Wanaka just in time to wander town for a bit and see sunset lakeside at #ThatWanakaTree.

Can you say you’ve been to New Zealand without queuing up at sunset to see the Wanaka Tree?

The tree has become so popular there’s a GoogleMaps location. In warmer months, crowds are entertained by a pianist who serenades them as the sun goes down.

Locals told us the tree used to be part of farmland- and a farmer would tie cattle to it. With time, the lake levels rose, and while the other trees are gone, this one has survived, so it looks like it’s floating in water.

Post sunset, we had a drink at local brew shop, Kaai Whaka Pai and then headed to our Airbnb, which was a 15-20 minute drive outside of town.

The next morning, we drove back to Queenstown, stopping in a few of our favorite places- Boatshed Cafe and Ferberger, again.

There’s definitely more to do in Wanaka if you’ve got the time.

KEY SIGHTS

  • #ThatWanakaTree
  • Wander town, tons of cute cafes, shops and restaurants
  • There are also some great hikes, and wineries outside of Wanaka if you can swing more time here

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WHERE TO EAT & DRINK 

  • Urban Grind Bar & Eatery: Popped in here for chats with locals and hot chocolate
  • The Doughbin: Great vegetarian pie
  • Big Fig: Came recommended for healthy food, but we didn’t have a chance to eat there
  • Kaai Whaka Pai: Awesome selection of NZ beers and wines

ACCOMMODATION RECOMMENDATION 

In Wanaka, we found the best rate in a private room (attached to a home, with its own en-suite) at an Airbnb outside of town.

Because, we weren’t planning on eating out or drinking in town much, we were cool with staying outside of it for cost savings. Plus, the couple we stayed with was lovely, and their space was great.

Also, no WiFi limitations!

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WHERE ELSE TO VISIT IF YOU HAVE TIME

Spending more time in each place we visited in the South Island would have been a dream.

Additionally, in the South Island, would have loved to visit: Picton, Queen Charlotte Drive (Marlborough Sounds), Nelson and Punakaiki (Pancake Rocks).

And, definitely hoping to see the North Island on a return trip, visiting: Auckland, Coromandel, Raglan, Hamilton, Rotorua, Taupo, and Wellington.

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EXTRA NEW ZEALAND TRAVEL TIPS

Language: English is the predominant language. 

Safety: New Zealand is as safe as it gets, but as with any destination, don’t leave valuables out in plain sight (e.g. in your car).

Budget: We didn’t track everything down to the cent, but rather have estimates of what we spent over the course of the week we traversed the South Island.

// My complete guide to seeing the South Island on a budget //

*Shared in GBP (£) because we were both budgeting in Sterling at this phase of the trip

Also, note, these are winter rates. Expect things to be more expensive in summer.

  • Accom: £12-20 for dorm bunks; £30-65 for private rooms; £100-175+ for hotels
  • Food & drink:
    • We spent ~£60 on a week of groceries, which I detail in my budgeting post
    • 3x meals out, each under £10 per person
    • 1-2x coffee drinks at cafes daily, £2 per person
    • Cider/beer/glass of wine out: 2x per person, ranging from £4-6 a drink
  • Attractions: Parking everywhere was free, but we splurged on our glacier flight, the sound cruise, and our onsen hot pools + massage night
    • On the first two attractions, we scored discounts for winter rates
  • Rental Car: £15 per day for 6 days, plus £60 for a week of insurance
  • Petrol: Each half tank was £15-20, we’re estimating about £120 total for the week
  • Parking: Free, everywhere. Even in Queenstown, you can find free street parking
  • SIM: £15 for 2 GB of data
  • Flights: £80-100 each way, departing Melbourne and flying into Sydney with EasyJet (we booked far in advance for lower rates, and at generally off times to travel)

Currency: New Zealand Dollar

Most places will take card, but always carry a small amount of cash for remote petrol stops or small cafes/shops. 

Visas & Onward Travel: As always, check for your specific country, but visitors from the US and UK do not need a visa for visits up to 90 days. You will, however, need onward proof of travel- this can be a return ticket or one-way ticket to another destination.

New Zealand is notorious for checking onward travel, so make sure you’ve either got a solid plan booked, or have used a site like onwardtravel.com to secure a temporary onward flight. Expedia can also be a good resource if your departure plans aren’t totally set yet- they offer 24-hour 100% cancellation on some flights, which means you could purchase a flight, received a confirmation, and then cancel. 

Getting There: We flew into Queenstown’s airport direct from Australia, but if you have more time or are seeing both islands, you could also fly into Auckland in the North, and either fly south or take the ferry crossing.

When to Visit: We visited at the end of August and had a fantastic time- though, admittedly, we were very lucky with the weather. Many of the winter discounts we saw advertised noted increases beginning in September/October. 

  • Peak Season: November – January
  • Off Season: June – August

Tipping: Much like the UK and Oz, it’s not customary. 

WiFi Access: We weren’t prepared for how tough this would be. Data was expensive, so we planned on just using WiFi at our hotels/hostels.

Although, we soon discovered that most cap your allowance (it’s common to see caps at 500MB-2GB). Also, we had a tough time finding WiFi in cafes or restaurants, so definitely prepare to be offline.

Packing Necessities: Whenever you visit, you should prepare for a multitude of seasons. Layering is critical, as is having a wind and waterproof outer layer (coat and pants).

I didn’t bring specific hiking shoes, because we visited in winter, and didn’t plan doing long treks. Trainers were just fine for all the places we stopped.

Would also definitely bring bug spray and sunscreen, as well as layers, layers, layers.

PS. You can see every single thing I packed to backpack the world for a year in this post

Must Try Local Goods: I’ve detailed our shopping list in my budget post, but we had a ton of New Zealand treats recommended to us, which we were delighted to partake in:

  • Wine is pretty cheap in new Zealand, and you’ll be able to sample some of the best in the world here. We enjoyed wines from the Marlborough and Central Otago regions, especially Pinot Noirs
  • HokeyPokey ice cream: Caramelised honeycomb blended with vanilla
  • Pavlova: Meringue, whipped cream, fruit
  • L&P: Stands for Lemon & Paeroa, named after the North Island town where it was invented (think: lemony Sprite)
  • Manuka honey
  • Kumara: Hello, epic sweet potato
  • Cookie Time Original Chocolate Chunk 
  • ANZAC Biscuits: Stands for Australian and New Zealand Army Corps, representative of the troops who fought during World War 1. Wives and mothers used to send biscuits to their sons and husbands during the war, using ingredients like oats and golden syrup that wouldn’t spoil during the journey. Now these cookies (biscuits) are a national favourite 
  • Pineapple Lumps: Chocolate coated, pineapple flavoured chews
  • Cadbury Chocolate Fish: Raspberry marshmallow, coated in chocolate
  • Cadbury Perky Nana: Banana taffy, coated in chocolate
  • Lamingtons: A sponge cake, coated in raspberry or chocolate and then sprinkled with shaved coconut
  • Kiwi Fruit: NZ is one of the world’s top exporters, try the golden or yellow varieties 
  • Crisps: So many excellent flavours, we loved- Proper Crisps Cider Vinegar & Sea Salt; Grain Waves Honey Mustard; Mexicano Jalapeno; and Bluebird Originals Salt & Vinegar

Have you ever been to New Zealand’s South Island? Is it on your list of places to travel to someday? 

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How to Travel New Zealand on a Budget

New Zealand is, without question, an expensive place – whether you’re on a tight budget or not.

But, epic nature, the kindest people you’ll ever meet, and no shortage of activities make it worth seeing in your lifetime if you have the means to save, plan and travel.

It may not be a ‘budget destination’, but you can travel the South Island on a budget.

Note: I’m sure this is possible for the North Island too, but we only ventured south with our week in New Zealand.

10 Tips for Planning a Road Trip Around New Zealand on a Budget

Why a road trip?
Because that’s the best way to see the country- some cities may have limited public transit, but to truly experience the best New Zealand has to offer, you’ll need to rent a car (or camper van).

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Tip 1: Reserve a car early for a chance at best rates

We reserved ours two months ahead of time at a cancellable rate, and then checked weekly for price drops.

At the end of winter, during peak ski season in Queenstown, we paid £15 per day from a budget provider, Scottie’s, and £60 for a week of insurance. We had an old car, but it worked perfectly.

And, parking fee wise- we didn’t encounter national park or parking fees anywhere, aside from street parking in Queenstown. Even there, you can find free, limited time parking if you’re willing to drive around for a while to avoid the expensive metered lots.

Tip 2: Decide what activities you want to do ahead of time, and budget accordingly 

A glacier flight, onsen spa night, Queenstown cable car, and fjord cruise were the four things we cared the most about, so we built our trip around them.

You can seriously ball out in New Zealand- skydiving, bungee jumping, adventure sports galore- or you can be sensible and pick a few special experiences.

Another perk to visiting in the off-season?

We noticed discounted rates for a lot of our experiences, notably the glacier flight and fjord cruise. At many providers, we saw signs advertising winter deals, only applicable until October.

Tip 3: Stay in hostels

Those familiar with backpacking won’t take issue with this, but I know people who are putting off a trip to New Zealand simply because of how expensive they believe accommodation will be.

We stayed at YHA’s in private rooms- some had en-suite bathrooms, others were shared. All were good, YHA Tekapo was especially great.

The private rooms were clean, and just like in a hotel, often, we were provided with mini shower supplies, towels, bedding, a coffee/tea maker (plus packets of coffee/tea/hot chocolate), and access to WiFi. One of our hostels, the YHA in Tekapo, even had a trendy restaurant attached to it, and gorgeous lake views.

Quality varies, of course- some are older, others are newly built or renovated. All were the perfect place to rest our heads, and a fraction of what hotels would have cost us.

And, if you’re wondering- YHA’s also have dorm rooms.

Rates we saw at the end of winter varied place to place. Queenstown, Wanaka, Tekapo and Cook were the most expensive places, with much better deals to be found in Franz Joseph and Te Anau.

Dorms started at £12-20 per night, and for private rooms, we paid between £30-65 per night. By comparison, hotels in popular areas will start at £100-175 per night and go higher in peak season.

Normally a fan of Airbnb, I was disappointed to see skyhigh rates throughout the South Island. We only ended up staying in an Airbnb once, which was a private room attached to someone’s home, located 15 minutes outside of Wanaka.

If you’re traveling in a big group, Airbnb may be a good choice. The reason why so many rentals seem expensive for two people, like us? Many listings are for entire homes. So, if you’re sharing with 6-8 people, it’s no longer as cost prohibitive.

Of course, you can do accommodation even cheaper if you rent a camper van or go straight up camping (when it’s warm enough).

Tip 4: Consider renting a camper van

If going to New Zealand again, I’d price out camper vans.
Be sure to include shower stop fees, petrol costs and camp sites in your estimate.

I truly believe this is the best way to see New Zealand, because you have loads more flexibility.

However, some campsites book out early- like Milford Sound- so, be sure to research which ones you need to reserve ahead of time, and which ones you can be more flexible with reserving.

And, looking into campsites ahead of time is also a good idea because there are free ones around the South Island.

Tip 5: Fuel up in main towns, even if you don’t need much petrol

We fuelled up often, every half tank, to avoid running out in remote places and paying a premium to refuel.

Each half tank was £15-20, pending location. Cost varies, pending where you go and how much driving you do, but we spent ~£120 for a week of petrol and drove a lot.

How much is a lot?

Our route: Queenstown – Te Anau – Milford Sound – Queenstown – Hawea – Franz Josef – Arthur’s Pass – Tekapo – Mount Cook – Wanaka – Queenstown

Tip 6: Be prepared to be offline

Data is expensive in New Zealand, around £15 for 2 GB.

When driving, you’ll drop cell signal often- we didn’t have service 90% of the time while driving. Really, we only had signal through towns, which was more than enough to check directions.

And, I know what you’re thinking- well, what about WiFi?

Most places, bar major cities like Queenstown, won’t have it readily available (including at cafes and restaurants).

Also, hostels and hotels tend to cap your ‘free’ allowance. We saw caps ranging from 500MB to 2GB per stay.

You should 100% bring a map and downloaded directions in case you find yourself without service.

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Tip 7: Go outside of cities to buy groceries

We bought groceries outside Queenstown in a shopping mall near the airport where there are two budget stores (Pack ‘n Save and FreshChoice).

Buying downtown or central in any other town, like Wanaka will cost 2-3x more (based on what we saw, browsing prices in shops).

Believe we spent ~£60 total for a week of groceries, including treats, and tons of fresh fruit vegetables.

Selecting groceries that would travel well and hold up over the course of a week without regular access to refrigeration was a bit of a challenge, but we managed- only needing to top up a few times.

Mostly, we bought-

  • Bread for sandwiches
  • Peanut butter, jelly
  • Fruit: Apple, oranges, bananes, blueberries, stone fruits
  • Vegetables: Carrots, celery, tomatoes, bell peppers, avocadoes
  • Granola bars, packets of oatmeal
  • Cheese sticks
  • A selection of New Zealand crisps to try
  • Treats (hello, lamingtons, L&P, giant chocolate chip cookies, and special New Zealand candy)
  • No need to buy water- New Zealand water is pure, the South Island has some of the best in the world

If we were worried about something not being refrigerated overnight, we just left it in the car since it was fairly cold wherever we went (especially at night).

With these groceries, we only ate out 3x. And, even then, we chose our meals out sensibly- all three times, each meal under £10 per person.

We also did 1-2x daily coffee from cute cafes, because I love experiencing cafe culture, which usually came in at £2 each. Bring a reusable cup for a discount here, we noticed it was often 10-50 cents per cup, which can add up if you’re avid coffee drinkers like us.

There are some seriously great restaurants in Queenstown and Wanaka, and I’d loved to have try them, but the experiences we did were more important. 

Tip 8: Limit drinking out- pick up beers, ciders or New Zealand wines to try from grocery stores

Neither of us were drinking much alcohol while in New Zealand, which made budgeting here pretty easy.

However, we do like to try local ciders, wines and craft beers, and with such a great scene for all three in New Zealand, we wanted to try a couple.

Our solution?

We picked up some from grocery stores, which proved much, much cheaper than drinking out. 

Throughout the week, we did have a few drinks out, twice. We noted a cider/beer/glass of wine in Franz Josef was ~£6, and beer/wine in Wanaka at the craft brewery we visited was ~£4. 

Tip 9: Visit in the off-season 

Summer is peak time to visit the South Island.

But, in winter, you’ll find better deals just about everywhere, sans ski hubs like Queenstown. Although, even in Queenstown, things are cheaper in winter than summer.

Plus, in winter, the mountains are capped in snow.
That said, we didn’t experience snow or ice storms, but you should acknowledge that risk.

Weather may usually be nicer in summer, but with storms, slips/road closures are common. So, I don’t know that there’s truly a ‘fool proof’ time to visit the South Island.

I’d go in the fringe. We went near end of winter and had a fantastic time.

Rates for most things start to go up again in October, as spring goes on.

Tip 10: Unless you’re visiting in the high season, book some things as you go

In summer, hotels/hostels/campsites may book up, but if you’re there in the fringe season or winter, you can likely roll into just about any town and find somewhere to stay. This won’t mean you’ll always find the cheapest rate, but you will have more flexibility in how long you spend places.

For the most part, we did hostel reservations that were cancellable up to 48-72 hours without penalty, so we had some degree of flexibility in moving things around if we so desired.

And, if you’re going the camper van or full-on camping route, read forums like TripAdvisor to get a sense of just how full potential campsites you’re interested in get.

Finally, flights to Queenstown were fairly cheap for us- departing from Melbourne, returning to Sydney. Each leg was under £80-100 with EasyJet.

We watched flights for weeks, and booked in advance to secure good rates.

If you’re coming from across the world, look for connecting flights into Asia’s major hubs- Singapore, Bangkok and Kuala Lumpar.

Then, if you have time, I’d fly into Oz (often, good deals to be found on returns from Asia’s hubs). And then, I’d fly to New Zealand. I know it all depends how much time you have, but my point is, there are ways to get flight price down as well- no matter where you’re coming from.

Have you ever visited New Zealand? Is a trip there on your travel wishlist?

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3 Can’t Miss Experiences in New Zealand’s South Island

New Zealand may be small, but it packs a punch with epic mountains, glaciers, volcanoes, and rugged beaches.

No matter how long you’re there, it’s difficult not to fall in love with the country.

Although our time in New Zealand was short, it was epic.

With less than a week in the country, we had to prioritise the places we went, what we saw, and the experiences we did.

Anticipating New Zealand would be expensive, we knew it’d be smart to decide which experiences we wanted to do before arriving in the country.

Planning our trip, we made the decision to trim in some areas (accomodation, meals, rental car) so that we could splurge on a few activities.

Namely: a night at the onsen spa with massages, cruising the magnificent Milford Sound, and soaring over snow-capped mountains in a glacier heli-flight.

Were the budget decisions we made worth it?
Absolutely.

The experiences we chose were unbelievable, and we created memories that’ll last a lifetime.

That said, there are seemingly endless things to do in the South Island from bungee jumping to skydiving, so narrowing your top choices may be hard- especially if you’re trying to do New Zealand on a budget.

We chose to visit in winter, knowing the weather may be variable, but also realizing we’d be able to score discounts on just about everything.

And, sure enough, both our fjord cruise and glacier flight advertised lower rates in the ‘off-season’.

If you’re planning a trip to the South Island, these three experiences should be on your consideration list. Ultimately though, what you decide has to be a reflection of what interests you most (it’s your time and money), and we couldn’t have been happier with our choices.

3 Can’t Miss Experiences in New Zealand’s South Island

Soaking in an Onsen Tub with a Valley View

Picture this: A private hot tub in the mountains with expansive valley views, where you sip bubbles, nibble New Zealand chocolate, and just relax in the beauty of nature.

If that sounds like a dreamy experience to you, then you’ll understand why we were so excited to visit the hot pools during our time in the South Island.

The Onsen pools were one of the things I desperately wanted to do most on our trip to Queenstown.

They’re fresh-water, private hot-tubs, located in rooms with retractable roofs. They’re private, serene, and pretty much perfect.

And yet, when we went to book (a month prior), we were gutted to discover there weren’t any spots available for the experience we wanted- the classic, hour-long soak.

We did see one opening in the entire week we’d be in New Zealand for their ultimate package, which includes an hour-long soak, plus an hour-long massage.

The price was nearly 2x what it would have been otherwise, and so, we were understandably, on the fence about booking.

In the end, we decided to splurge for it, and it was utter magic.

With only one opening left, it meant we had to go at night, so we didn’t have the beautiful valley views those who visit in the day are treated to, but the night sky was something else. The twinkling stars were so bright, gazing at them for an hour was incredible.

And, visiting in winter, we loved feeling the crisp mountain air against the steam rising from the hot pool.

The massage that followed was unbelievable.

Overall, it was just the most blissful, calming experience.

We drove to the pools, because we were staying in a hotel nearby for the night, but they also run a shuttle (at cost) to town for guests who either don’t have a car, or don’t want to drive.

Cruising the Eighth Wonder of the World 

Exploring the South Island, you’ll quickly realise why it was chosen as the location for the Lord of the Rings filming.

New Zealand’s rugged landscape is straight out of a fairy tale. 

It’s even home to a place that’s considered the eighth wonder of the world for its spectacular and untouched beauty.

It’s hard to put into words how just incredible the Milford Sound is.

It’s the number one attraction in the South Island with daily cruises in the sound, as well as tours running from Queenstown.

Cruising the fjord lasted about two hours, and was picture perfect scenery at every bend.

You’ll see soaring limestone cliffs on either side of you, and towering snow capped mountain peaks, including Mount Mitre.

The fjord has two waterfalls- Lady Bowen Falls and Stirling Falls, both fed by glaciers. On our visit, we were lucky to see so many other streams of water flowing down the mountainside, created by the recent rainfall.

In addition to stunning scenery, we also were fortunate to spot rare penguins, tons of seals, and cruised out to where the fjord meets the Tasman Sea.

There are often dolphins in the fjord as well, but our boat operator told us they’d spotted them only the day prior, and it’s not common to see them on consecutive days.

Perhaps one of the best things about visiting the sound is that it’s so much more than a fjord cruise.

On our drive back to Queenstown, we stopped several times for short hikes, and to revel in lookout points.

// For more about the majesty of the Milford Sound, read the review of my experience here // 

Soaring Over Snow-Capped Mountains in Search of Glaciers 

A glacier helicopter tour is the adventure of a lifetime.

Just imagine soaring over glittering fields of ice, snow-capped mountains, and deep valleys. It’s an experience that makes you appreciate the beauty of the glaciers- it’s pure, incredible nature.

Franz Josef and Fox Glacier are nearby each other, surrounded by rainforest.

Tours depart from either town, but there are more providers in Franz Josef, which is why we chose to book our tour from there.

We reserved with Fox and Franz Josef Heliservices, and had a cracker of a time.

Not only was the experience unbelievable, but the heliservice staff were so helpful, in coordinating details and even rebooking our flight when the weather didn’t cooperate.

Originally, we booked a mid-afternoon single-glacier flight.

Arriving in Franz Josef though, we observed clouds rolling in, and were worried our flight would be cancelled. Sure enough, when the pilot landed from the flight before ours, he reported deteriorating flying conditions and advised against continued flights that afternoon.

We hadn’t built much flexibility into our itinerary because we were short on time, but decided to switch up some plans for the day following, and hoped visibility would be good enough for a morning flight.

Little did we know, we’d be double lucky.

One, we were fortunate to be able to fly.

And, two, the switch-up in our booking meant we were put on a ‘twin glacier’ tour, so for the price we’d paid for a shorter, single flight, we got to go on a flight almost twice as long, which visited both Fox Glacier and Franz Josef, including landing on Fox.

Flights are expensive, but they’re also the best way to see the glaciers. The glaciers have receded so much, you can’t see much anymore from the hiking point below.

And really, it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity.

Flying over rugged mountains, and then landing on solid snow, where you have 10-15 minutes to wander around and enjoy the view of massive snow drifts and distant peaks is nothing short of phenomenal.

Our pilot was excellent, ensuring we got the best experience possible. We flew close to both glaciers, as well as over valleys and mountain peaks.

In terms of when to go, we were surprised to learn weather is more stable during winter than any other season. There are also more clear days in winter, and the ice moves less.

On the flight itself, you won’t be able to bring much- a camera and phone is about it. No selfie sticks are allowed, nor are iPads in the helicopter (they block the view). Any other items (purses, wallets, etc.) just add weight, so you’re encouraged to leave them behind.

Have you ever been to New Zealand? What adventures are at the top of your travel list? 

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Cruising the Eighth Wonder of the Natural World

New Zealand is an exquisitely beautiful country.

Exploring the South Island, you’ll quickly realise why it was chosen as the location for the Lord of the Rings filming.

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New Zealand’s rugged landscape is straight out of a fairy tale. 

It’s even home to a place that’s considered the eighth wonder of the world for its spectacular and untouched beauty. 

It’s hard to put into words how just incredible the Milford Sound is. 

It’s the number one attraction in the South Island with daily cruises in the sound, as well as tours running from Queenstown. 

Just about everyone we knew who had been to the sound said it was the most beautiful place they’ve ever been, and still- we questioned if it was worth visiting. 

Located 3.5-4 hours each way from Queenstown, visiting the sound in a single day can make for a very long trip. 

And, while it’s possible to stop in between to break the trip up, or camp in the sound itself, doing so requires time. 

With only six days to see the best of the South Island, we questioned if taking two days out of our itinerary was the right choice- especially since there was so much else we wanted to see and do. 

In the end, we decided to go for it- even if it meant we’d be exhausted from all the driving. 

And now, looking back, I can’t believe we almost didn’t visit the sound- it was one of the best parts of our trip to the South Island. 

It is unquestionably one of the most amazing places in the world. 

We booked a 10 am fjord cruise, reasoning that would give us some time to explore other parts of the sound in the afternoon on our drive back to Queenstown. 

 

To make it there for our morning cruise, we drove out from Te Anau early morning. 

On our ride out, the weather was cold, windy and rainy. In fact, we later learned on our way back to Queenstown that a snow and ice advisory had been issued for the sound, beginning shortly after we left. 

Back to our drive: Heading through the final mountain pass, we emerged to blue skies and calm waters. 

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Talk about mountain magic. 

We could not have asked for better cruising weather. 

Our cruise was booked with Mitre Peaks- their boats are MUCH smaller than other operators, so you’re able to get closer to everything. They’re also the most eco-friendly and conservation minded provider, which was important to us for exploring such an astounding natural wonder. 

Cruising the fjord lasted about two hours, and was picture perfect scenery at every bend.

You’ll see soaring limestone cliffs on either side of you, and towering snow capped mountain peaks, including Mount Mitre. 

The fjord has two waterfalls- Lady Bowen Falls and Stirling Falls, both fed by glaciers. On our visit, we were lucky to see so many other streams of water flowing down the mountainside, created by the recent rainfall. 

Our ship sailed right up to and underneath several of the bigger falls. 

In addition to stunning scenery, we also were fortunate to spot rare penguins, tons of seals, and cruised out to where the fjord meets the Tasman Sea. 

There are often dolphins in the fjord as well, but our boat operator told us they’d spotted them only the day prior, and it’s not common to see them on consecutive days. 

Another reason I loved cruising with Mitre Peaks? 

Our guides were so friendly- one of them spent a lot of time talking about his lifestyle, which I found fascinating. He has tribal ancestry, lives 110 km from cell service (or regular Internet access), and hunts / free dives for all his food. 

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Perhaps one of the best things about visiting the sound is that it’s so much more than a fjord cruise. 

On our drive back to Queenstown, we stopped several times for short hikes, and to revel in lookout points. 

We allotted ~2-3 hours for these one-off stops, but found ourselves wishing we had more time. 

A few of our favourite stops in the sound: 

  • The Chasm: A must stop, both to walk in giant fern and moss covered woods, and also to admire mountain parrots, a gushing river and stunning rock chasms 
  • The Tunnel: We were lucky enough to be stopped here for a light, during which time, a few kea (mountain parrots) landed on our car. Felt so fortunate we got to see these beautiful birds close up
  • Mirror Lakes: A beautiful serene stop, where you can see a tranquil pool of water reflecting mountains in the background
  • Eglington Valley: Gorgeous, expansive valley 
  • Tutuko Bridge: Beautiful river and valley views
  • Hollyford Valley Lookout: A deep valley and snow capped mountains in the distance- swoon
  • There were a few other places we stopped, essentially, whenever something caught our eye, so be on the lookout as you’re driving 

As far as getting to the sound– 

You can take a day trip from Queenstown, although be prepared for it to be long, and for stops in the sound to be limited. I’ve heard Awesome NZ is among the best providers if you’re not renting a car or not set on driving yourself, because they make a few quick stops en route to the cruise, and have glass-top coaches. 

We self-drove, stopping in Te Anau overnight. Driving ourselves made the most sense for flexibility, but also because we were also on a week long road trip. 

If you have the time, I’d recommend spending another night in Te Anau to break up the drive back, and so you have more time in the sound. 

Must Knows for Visiting the Sound

  • There’s no cell service from Te Anau to Milford- zilch. It’s only one way in and out, so you can’t get lost, but be sure to look up stops, and download podcasts, etc. before you head in
  • Also, no petrol- fuel up in Te Anau
  • No food or drink, bring your own
  • If camping, reserve in advance- campsites are limited and tend to book out quickly
  • Bring bug spray (the sandfly problem is real), and sunscreen 
  • Check travel advisories constantly- especially before you leave, as road closures can happen at any time. We used NZ Transport Agency, which it seemed like was updated fairly regularly 

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