Your Trip to New Zealand: The Complete Guide

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New Zealand is a sparsely populated country in the South Pacific with an extraordinary variety of natural attractions. Beaches with white, black, and golden sands; hot spring baths, gushing geysers and bubbling mud pools; enormous snow-capped mountain chains and lonely volcanic cones rising out of plains; dense native forest with a wide variety of birds. New Zealand also often offers the best of both worlds. Enjoy subtropical temperatures in the north and alpine conditions in the south; visit fashionable cities with fine dining and great art galleries and quiet backwater towns where there's more livestock than people; experience traditional Maori culture and European colonial elements. Whatever kind of experience you're looking for, you can probably find it somewhere in New Zealand.

But, there are some important things you need to know to help a trip to New Zealand go smoothly. From how to get around, to the best airports to enter the country, to money-saving tips in this rather expensive country, this guide has all the information you need to plan your trip to New Zealand.

Planning Your Trip

  • Best Time to Visit: Late spring, summer, and early autumn (October-March) for most activities; winter and early spring (June-October) for snow sports.
  • Languages: English, Te Reo Maori
  • Currency: New Zealand Dollar
  • Getting Around: Many travelers rent a car or RV. New Zealand has long-distance buses, and a few scenic long-distance train services, connecting the main points of interest. There's also an extensive range of domestic flights throughout the country.
  • Know Before You Go: Unless you really like rain, avoid the North Island in winter (June-August).

Things To Do

New Zealand is known for its natural beauty. There are all kinds of opportunities to get outdoors and explore nature, from extreme sports like white water rafting and mountain climbing, to much more mellow activities like relaxing on a beach or wildlife spotting on a scenic cruise.

  • Go hiking. New Zealanders love to hike (which they call tramping), and there are well-maintained short and long-distance hikes all over the country.
  • Visit a national park. There are 13 national parks in New Zealand, three in the North Island and 10 in the South. Most are great for hiking, but there are other activities you can enjoy, like sea kayaking in the Abel Tasman National Park, lake swimming in the Nelson Lakes National Park, and scenic cruises in the Fiordland National Park. Plus, entry to national parks is free.
  • Laze on a beach. New Zealand has a long coastline filled with beautiful beaches. Those in the upper North Island (Northland, Auckland, and the Coromandel Peninsula) usually have the warmest conditions for swimming.

Explore more attractions with our full-length articles on New Zealand's top national parks, the best beaches in the country, and the top places to go hiking.

What to Eat and Drink

New Zealand cuisine combines Pacific, European, and Asian influences, and makes good use of the produce that comes from its land and sea. Travelers from North America or Europe will be able to get a lot of things they're familiar with (like burgers, Indian curry, and sushi), but there are also some dishes that are unique to New Zealand, or that the country excels in. The seafood is especially high quality here, so don't miss your chance to try some local green-shell mussels or snapper. Dairy in New Zealand is also very high quality, so something as simple as ice-cream or cheese can be a bit of an event in New Zealand.

New Zealand wines are highly respected and enjoyed around the world, with the white Sauvignon Blanc variety a particular favorite. There are numerous wineries around the country that you can visit for a meal and a wine tasting experience, or to just to buy a bottle or two. Craft beers are also on the rise. Many of these are produced in the fashionable, slightly quirky cities of Wellington and Dunedin, but there are small microbreweries dotted in unexpected places around the country, too.

Read more about what to eat and drink in New Zealand in our articles on the best restaurants in New Zealand, 10 foods to try while in the country, and nightlife in New Zealand.

Where to Stay

A question that would-be visitors to New Zealand repeatedly ask is which island is better, the North or the South? There's no correct answer here, as each island offers different and varied experiences. If you're coming to New Zealand on a long trip, then spending time on both islands is ideal, but many travelers don't have that luxury and need to choose one or the other.

The North Island is more heavily populated than the South (with around three-quarters of New Zealand's total population living there), which means there are more towns and settlements. Most travelers fly into Auckland, New Zealand's largest city, and spend some time here before either heading north to subtropical Northland, or south to Taupo, Rotorua, the Tongariro National Park, and Wellington (the nation's capital).

The South Island is the place to go if you're seeking snowy mountains and the wilderness experience (although New Zealand gets a lot of tourists, so "wilderness" is a relative term). Visitors usually fly into Christchurch, the largest city in the South Island (and the second-largest in the country), and visit South Island highlights like Aoraki/Mount Cook, Kaikoura, Abel Tasman National Park, the Marlborough Sounds, Dunedin, Queenstown and Wanaka, and the West Coast.

Many travelers rent a car or RV and camp throughout New Zealand. That way, there's no need to worry about being close to a hotel or motel after a long day of exploring. However, there are a wide range of accommodation options all around the country, from shared dorm rooms in backpacker hostels to luxury hotels.

Getting There

Auckland Airport is the busiest in the country, with the most flights from international destinations landing there. It's most convenient if you're spending time in the North Island, or looking for cheaper airfares. Christchurch Airport is second-busiest, and is more convenient for travelers focusing on the South Island. From either airport you can get connecting flights to other domestic destinations. There are international airports in Wellington, Dunedin, and Queenstown too, but these generally just connect to Eastern Australia.

For more information about New Zealand's airports, read our full guide.

Culture and Customs

In general, tipping is not practiced in New Zealand, and in addition to not being expected, it's considered pretty unusual. You may see tips jars in counters at some cafes or bars, but certainly not everywhere as there are minimum wages in New Zealand.

Money-Saving Tips

New Zealand is quite an expensive destination, although when the US dollar is strong, it can be more accessible for American visitors.

  • Compared to the U.S., New Zealand meals are expensive for the amount of food you recieve. To save money, self-cater if and when possible. Food in grocery stores and supermarkets is still expensive, but buying the ingredients to prepare a sandwich for lunch costs less than buying several sandwiches in cafes. Similarly, you should expect to pay at least NZ$5 for a coffee in a cafe, whereas you can buy a bag of ground coffee at the supermarket for NZ$6, which will last you several days.
  • Accommodation costs are also high, although cheaper options are available if you want to stay in a shared room at a backpacker's hostel. One way that many travelers get around this is to rent a car and camp in a tent, or rent an RV. Neither option is cheap, but you'll be combining your transportation and accommodation costs, which could save you quite a lot of money.
  • National parks and beaches are completely free to visit, making them a great option for budget travelers.
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