What New Zealand lacks in flashy theme parks it more than makes up for in its natural beauty. Beaches, forests, caves, mountains, rivers, and lakes offer a wealth of good old-fashioned outdoor fun, and the towns and cities are generally quite small and manageable, and thus reasonably kid-friendly. New Zealanders themselves are big travelers, within their own country, as well as beyond it, so you'll find facilities and attractions all over the place catering to traveling families.
New Zealand is an ideal family travel destination not just because it offers fun stuff for kids, but because parents will genuinely have a good time, too. While we know parents can have a great time at so-called kids' attractions, it doesn't matter if you're not the theme park type here: there's so much more to see and do that will entertain kids and amaze parents. While the needs of parents differ wildly depending on the age of kids (and size of the family), in New Zealand, there's something for everyone.
New Zealand with Infants
Comfort and convenience are priorities for all families, but especially so for parents of infants. While babies are easily portable, it can be exhausting to try to do too much when you're still in the less-than-optimal-sleep phase of parenthood, when your child needs changing and feeding frequently. Basing yourself in a mid-sized town with lots of nearby attractions—such as Rotorua, Nelson, or Queenstown—is an excellent approach to traveling in New Zealand with infants.
- Scenic trains. Many travelers choose to travel around the country by rental car, but long car rides with a baby can be painful. Scenic train rides are a great alternative. They're mainly run as tourist services, so pass through very picturesque countryside. There's plenty of room to move about, with refreshment carts, viewing platforms, and bathrooms, so are preferable to sitting in a car for hours. The Northern Explorer travels between Auckland and Wellington in the North Island, while various services in the South include Picton, Kaikoura, Christchurch, Dunedin, and the Southern Alps.
- Scenic cruises. New Zealand offers plenty of opportunities for scenic boat rides. Baby is likely to be lulled to sleep while parents can enjoy the sights. In Auckland, there are short ferries from the CBD to the North Shore, Waiheke Island, Rangitoto Island, and elsewhere. In the lake cities of Rotorua, Taupo, Queenstown, and Wanaka, you can get out onto the lake. Go dolphin watching in the Bay of Islands or Marlborough Sounds (be aware that whale-watching tours in Kaikoura generally have a minimum age of three). Take a scenic cruise along the coast of the Abel Tasman National Park instead of hiking within it. Admire one of New Zealand's most iconic sights, Mitre Peak, from the water at Milford Sound. Spot seals and penguins at the Otago Peninsula. There are so many options.
New Zealand with Toddlers and Preschoolers
In some ways, traveling with toddlers is more challenging than with infants, as they tend to be more stubbornly independent. But, at least they're less likely to eat the sand at the beach than babies, and don't need to eat and sleep quite so often, opening up the sightseeing options.
- Beaches. New Zealand has some of the best beaches in the world, and outside the summer school vacation period, most of them are pretty empty. As a rule, beaches on the west coast of both islands tend to have bigger waves, stronger currents, and blacker sands. The east coasts have white sands and better swimming conditions. You'll never be far from a great beach while traveling along the coast of New Zealand, but especially good places to go with little ones are the Nelson and Abel Tasman National Park area, the Coromandel Peninsula, and Northland/the Bay of Islands.
- Wildlife parks and reserves. New Zealand has very few native mammals, but a wide variety of native birds, including the famous kiwi. The best places to see these are in dedicated wildlife reserves that are as close to natural, predator-free environments as possible, such as Zealandia in Wellington, Tiritiri Matangi island off Auckland, or Ulva Island, off Rakiura Stewart Island. There are also several zoos and zoo-like parks where you can see native New Zealand wildlife and international species, such as the Auckland and Wellington Zoos, the Kiwi House in Whangarei, Natureland in Nelson, Kelly Tarlton's Aquarium in Auckland, the National Aquarium of New Zealand in Napier, and Orana Wildlife Park in Christchurch.
New Zealand with Under 10s
While older kids will also enjoy any of the activities mentioned above, you can also get into more outdoor activities with school-aged kids, really expanding your travel options.
- Camping. Camping is a great way to keep costs low in New Zealand. There are well-equipped campsites all over the place, but if you're willing to look beyond these, camping with a tent or RV is also a great way to see more remote corners of New Zealand, where other accommodation options are limited. New Zealand's Department of Conservation runs an extensive network of campsites, ranging from basic to serviced. You don't even need to stay at a designated campground everywhere, but be aware of local freedom camping laws.
- Horse trekking. Little legs can tire quickly, but horse trekking is a great alternative. You'll be able to cover rough terrain and longer distances that would be challenging for smaller kids. With farming being such a large part of New Zealand life, a lot of rural people keep horses. Great places for horse treks include Golden Bay, Central Otago, Ninety-Mile Beach, Punakaiki Pancake Rocks, and the Whanganui area.
New Zealand with Tweens and Teens
Teens (and tweens) should be capable of the same kinds of activities as their parents, so if you're into the outdoors, you'll have many great options when traveling with your older kids in New Zealand.
- Hiking. New Zealanders are into hiking (which they call tramping) in a big way, so there are many tracks of varying difficulty all over the country. From short hour-long bush walks to multi-day treks through the wilderness, you'll be able to find something to suit your family's needs. In the national parks, you can stay in DOC-administered huts if you don't want to hike with all your own gear. The Abel Tasman National Park, at the top of the South Island, is a family favorite as its easily accessible via water taxi, and there are many beaches that kids of all ages (and parents) will love.
- White-water rafting. Many white-water rafting companies set a lower age limit of 12 on their trips, for safety reasons. If your child is a reasonable swimmer, there are many white-water rafting trips suitable for beginners, with smaller rapids. If your older teens are confident in the water, they can try some more challenging sections. Popular places to go rafting are the Kaituna River (Rotorua), Shotover River (Queenstown), Buller River (Murchison), and the Rangitata River (Christchurch), among others.
- Skiing. Whether your kids are competent skiers or just keen to learn, New Zealand is an excellent place to ski and snowboard in the winter. The majority of commercial ski fields are in the South Island, accessible from Christchurch and Queenstown/Wanaka. Cardrona, near Wanaka, is especially suitable for kids while also having more advanced options to keep experienced skiers happy.
Tips for Traveling with Kids in New Zealand
- All kids under the age of seven must be fitted in an age- and size-appropriate car seat when riding in a private car. This law doesn't apply to taxis or buses, but outside of urban areas, these aren't a common means of transport anyway. Rather than haul your own from home, many car rental companies also offer child car seats.
- New Zealanders are generally quite relaxed about public breastfeeding, and the law allows women to breastfeed wherever they need. Most women choose to do it discreetly out in public, with a scarf or shawl handy but don't feel obliged to do this if it doesn't suit you or baby. Attitudes are relaxing and will continue to if more women breastfeed unapologetically in public.
- Most public restrooms will have some kind of baby changing table, and bathrooms in cafes and restaurants often do. It's a good idea to carry a small and easily foldable changing mat to cushion your baby against hard surfaces (or less than sanitary conditions!)
- ap water is safe to drink in New Zealand, and food-borne illnesses are rare, so let your kids eat and drink whatever they feel like! (The ice cream is particularly good).
- New Zealand isn't a very cheap place to travel, with kids or without, but under-fours get free entry to most sights and activities, and child prices apply to under 12s, 16s, or 18s, depending on the place. It's also good to know that there are no entry fees to national parks in New Zealand.