Planning a memorable holiday to any country is an art. Sure, there are some destinations where its very simple – you just focus on a few highlights.  Take France, for example – now that’s relatively easy – you’ll see the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre etc. But it gets a little harder to achieve the perfect plan when you have a lot of options in one country. New Zealand is such a place.

flying into the glacier country around mt. Cook

Helicopter flight on the Southern Alps

As a Travel Designer for over 30 years, I still come across the same old mistakes that people make when planning their ‘trip of a lifetime’. So hopefully, this blog will to give travellers a strategy that you can pretty much use for any country.

Suggestion 1: Do some initial research.

You’ll probably have a key reason for visiting New Zealand. Maybe some friends or family have recommended it. Or you might have seen a documentary on TV. Whatever it is, first check out the Tourism NZ website This website will give you important key facts and information about New Zealand. Its at this stage, you should be thinking about weather & seasons, distances, maps, what to do etc. Make some notes on your must-dos list.  Write down names, locations and activities. Now I’m not suggesting you spend hours on this, but by doing this, you will achieve a good overview. The meticulous details will come much later at about point 4 further below.

overlooking the clutha river near the village of wanaka

Clutha River between Lake Wanaka and Lake Dunstan.

Suggestion 2: Time is everything.

Set aside as much time as you can for travelling in New Zealand. For most travellers, they’ve come a long way. You really need a minimum of 10 days to cover just a few of the key locations. A lot of the time travellers will start planning their holiday by looking at a map. “Gee, New Zealand looks small” they’ll say. Well guys, looks can be deceiving. New Zealand is actually a mini Planet Earth compressed into a pallet of beaches, fjords, glaciers, islands, oceans, vineyards and rainforests. Travelling our country roads will take much longer than you think. The key is not to spend all day on the road. Instead, focus your time exploring the ‘heartland’ – the nature and scenery!

hiking in mount aspiring national park with swing bridge of the matukituki river

Swing bridge on the way to the Rob Roy Walk in the Mt. Aspiring NP.

Suggestion 3: Less is more – Focus on key locations.

Limit the number of New Zealand locations you visit, then stay longer at these places. We all know about the “See-14- European-countries-in-10 Days” tours. This type of travel is so outdated. You will need some time to relax along the way. My golden rule is ‘less is more’! ‘Slow down’ and have 2-3 nights at each location to really discover. You’ll see so much on a kayaking tour or day hike.

walking on the queen charlotte track looking into the marlborough sounds

Viewpoint on the Queen Charlotte Walk into Marlborough Sounds.

Its more than possible to squeeze in a farm visit to see a bit of sheep shearing. But at the end of the day, it’s a matter of accepting that you won’t cover the whole of New Zealand, even in 4-6 weeks. However, let’s not forget that a lot can be achieved in 6 weeks if you’re smart.

rural setting with sheep in foreground with Tongariro NP

Tongariro National Park mountains with farming country.

Suggestion 4: Smart travel planning.

Once you understand the 3 golden rules, it’s time to get really clever with planning your New Zealand holiday. So here is what I recommend:

Step 1:

Use an online map such as Google NZ or print-out an online map and start to circle key locations and the time you want to spend. At Guest NZ we use the Wetu system (see sample).

Step 2:

Once you start allocating the time you have available, you’ll quickly discover that you’ll soon run short of it. So a very wise way of saving time, is by adding domestic flights. Driving everywhere, makes no sense.

Step 3:

As soon as you’re all set-up and happy with your ‘location and dates’, you’re well on your way. Congratulations 50% of your planning is done and dusted!

travelling lake pukaki in the south island of new zealand

Lake Pukaki in the MacKenzie Country, South Island

Suggestion 5: Focus your travel planning

Now it’s time to dig deeper – where do you want to stay and what activities do you wish to do? Again, there is so much on offer in NZ, it’s mind-blowing. Our country has so many hiking options – either for 10 minutes or 5 hours. It’s helpful to know that there is plenty of information around in most locations. So you can sometimes ‘fill in the gaps’ once you arrive in NZ.

What you really want to focus on, are those key activities. Those can be either kayaking the Abel Tasman, Lord of the Rings with a Jet-boating combo or seeing the rare Yellow-Eyed Penguins. Those activities will often take at least half a day.

Also, during the busy summer season, remember this: these tours will need to be pre-booked! Getting seats at the last minute will be challenging. But, if you have done your ‘homework’ (steps 1-4) and choosing the locations you wish to visit and the dates, you are well on the way.

water taxi service on lake rotoiti in the nelson lakes national park

Using the water taxi service on Lake Rotoiti in the Nelson Lakes NP.

Suggestion 6: The fun part!

So you now have all those key things to do at your fingertips – with locations and dates. Everything should now be a lot clearer. Now for the  fun part! Its time to check out accommodation, transport and tour options. Here is what I recommend:

Step 1:

Check out the accommodation options you like for each location. Everyone enjoys a certain style and some travellers like to mix it up. Some are very budget focused and are only interested in the lowest price. On the other hand, there is a new traveller emerging – they are wanting special locations away from mass tourism and above all, privacy. They also love the best of service.

stylish dinner setting at te koi lodge in the nelson tasman region

Stylish dinner at Te Koi Lodge in the Nelson-Tasman region.


Here’s a wee word of caution –  using online review sites such as Tripadvisor is not always a good indicator of how good a property is. That’s why I like to check out properties myself before I recommend them to my guests. Of course this is not a option for overseas travellers. As I see it, there are only 2 options available to you.  Either contact a knowledgable travel consultant (with location expertise) or go by your ‘gut feeling’. But above all, make sure you secure your accommodations first!

Step 2:

Now you can check out domestic flights. Keep in mind that New Zealand has many regional airports. The beauty of this option is that you can leave your rental car at one airport and fly to the next location to pick-up another rental car. Those rentals are called ‘multi-island hires’ and the price will be the same per day. Keep in mind though: you need a minimum of 3 rental days for each rental. Otherwise you’ll be charged a ‘one-way fee’! Also note, smaller rental car firms will have fewer locations – mainly in Auckland, Christchurch and Queenstown.

Step 3:

Book the rental cars. As mentioned before, the affordable smaller operators provide limited pick-up and drop-off rental locations. There are times when I asked “do we need a 4WD’ car for New Zealand”. No you don’t. But you will need to consider is your number of passengers and luggage With a family of 4 travellers or two couples travelling, you’ll definitely need a Station Wagon vehicle such as a Toyota Highlander. These are very popular and they have plenty of space.

Step 4:

Book your tours – ferry or train journeys etc. If you are keen on a specific restaurant or winery, make sure you secure these well in advance. You’ll be glad you planned ahead!

special birthday treat in new zealand

Treat yourself for some special days in your life!

Summary on planning your New Zealand holiday:

1.  Do the initial research. Write down what you really have to do and see.
2.  Set your travel dates and locations first. Less is more!
3.  Focus your planning – do it step-by-step in the right order!

If you use the above strategies, I guarantee it will sharpen your focus and you’ll see what can be achieved in the time you have. For any questions please email me and I would be happy to point you in the right direction with your travel planning for New Zealand!

Need a rental car? See GO Rental Auckland & Christchurch depots

Happy travelling!

2 responses to “Travel Planning New Zealand”

  1. Jan Roberts says:

    It is the biggest mistake many of our guests make – trying to see too much in a short space of time. Our country is deceiving that there is a lot packed into a small area. Love this blog and the fact you advise everyone to slow down – take it in 🙂

    • GuestNZ says:

      Thanks Jan. Yes we still get “wished we’d stayed for another night” comments.Getting the planning right is the key and a quality holiday experience will follow.

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