A 20-day New Zealand Trip Itinerary for First Timers

by | Apr 21, 2019 | Travel

After our New Zealand Trip, we were asked many questions. Why New Zealand? How long were you gone? What did you see? Did you see any Kiwi? Did anyone think you were a Kiwi? Which side of the road do you drive on? Was the food good? Is it expensive? How long was the fight? (That is the short list!) 

We hope to answer a few of the many questions over a series of posts. We couldn’t possibly pack everything into a single post. So sit back and enjoy the trip, as they say. 


New Zealand Trip Itinerary

We were gone for twenty days. It is a great Itinerary for first-time New Zealand visitors:

  • Two Days of Travel (All spent Flying! Lost a day crossing the International Date Line)
  • One Night Auckland (Arrived late, got up early) – City Life Hotel 
  • Three Nights/Days – Turangi – Big Turangi House 
  • Three Nights/Days – Rotorua – The Redwoods Lodge
  • Two Nights/Days – Franz Josef Glacier – The Ferns Hideaway
  • Five Nights/Days – Wanaka – CasaLinda
  • One Night/Days – Milford Sound – Real Journey’s Cruise
  • One Day/Night – Queenstown – Central Ridge
  • One Day/Night Auckland – City Life Hotel (Bonus! Got an upgrade!)
  • One Day/Night (This day was never-ending, but we got our day back when crossed back over the International Date Line.)

View from the suite in Auckland! 



Why New Zealand?

We stayed up late dreaming about vacations and enjoying a beverage or two. Chuck said, “Let’s go BIG! We can go anywhere we’ve got the Delta points.” Hawaii and Norway were contenders but by morning the die was cast, we wanted to go to New Zealand. The Pinterest pictures looked amazing. Seriously, New Zealand has kiwi, volcanoes, rain forests, glaciers, hobbits, fiords, penguins, bungee jumping and no chance of catching a weird disease from a mosquito bite. Although we discovered a bit late, the Dracula of New Zealand’s west coast rainforest, the dreaded sand fly


(But no worries you can buy bug repellent for the sandflies.)

We packed a lot into those twenty days and wished we could have stayed longer. How long should you plan to visit New Zealand? For as long as you can afford to be away from your commitments at home and your bank account can stand it. For us, it was about 3 weeks.


How did you plan the trip?

Trip Planning with Chuck is a lot like playing a game of Clue. We both collect a bunch of facts and then exchange them. A list of suspects is developed. We arrange these on a large whiteboard in our living room. It looks a bit like a detective’s crime board. Eventually, an itinerary emerges.


(A bit of New Zealand Humor to give you a taste of what life can be like with Chuck. We found this sign by accident while looking for a winery.)

Our first clue, New Zealand’s International Airport is in Auckland, which happens to be at the North end of the North Island. This meant the ideal rendezvous with our travel companions was Auckland. We had the trip bookends.

What to pack between the bookends? We read countless blogs. Browsed images on Pinterest for ideas, but let us be real; Pinterest is fraught with unrealistic expectations. So we consulted with friends who have traveled or lived in New Zealand. More ideas were added to the whiteboard and added to our Google Map. 

We had a list of must-dos! 

Hiking! Tongariro Crossing, Tongariro River Trail, Blue Pools, Isthmus Peak, Hooker Valley, Devil’s Punchbowl. Pinterest was accurate about the hiking, it is awesome. If you own a pair of hiking boots you need to hike in New Zealand. It is a life affirming event. 


Visit Hobbiton. Yes, we got to go into one of the hobbit houses and yes someone asked to have their picture taken with Chuck. Get all the silly stories and many pictures here



Tour White Island. I’ll admit I wasn’t looking forward to the boat ride but with these two it wasn’t boring. An added bonus was seeing dolphins. I was also nervous about touring an active volcano. No worries they provide safety training! This excursion deserves its own, big, bad post. 



Drive the Forgotten World Highway. I’m not going to lie, the road was insane and not for the weak. We should have gotten a clue after telling a group of New Zealanders we were planning to drive the Forgotten World Highway. They said, “You do know it is a middling road?” We assured them we’d be fine. Chuck had driven in Scotland besides we wanted to see a hobbit hole and get our passports stamped in the Republic of Whangamomona. We had no idea what a middling road was but we do now. Come along on this crazy ride with us



Dive into Maori Culture at Te Puia in Rotorua. I strongly recommend you put this on your itinerary and put it at the beginning too. It is a crash course in Maori arts, crafts and culture. It will change the way you see New Zealand. We’ve got lots to share about our experience at the Te Puia. It may involve green lipped mussels. Join us on the tour


Heli-Hike on the Fox Glacier. Awesome. Do it. You won’t regret it. The safety meeting before we got on the helicopter had a few shockers. I know, major clickbait. 


Overnight cruise in the Milford Sound. I did not bring my hiking boots on to the boat since I was told you can bring ONE small bag. I had no idea there was a hike planned before dinner at Sandfly Point on the Milford Track. We read it rains a lot in Milford Sound, so my bag was jammed with rain gear and warm clothes. I can’t wait to share the details from the experience in an upcoming post. 



In between those adventures, we found some specular gems on both the North and South Islands. Some were planned and some weren’t like when Chuck tried to take a picture of the Lone Tree In Wanaka! That my friends is its own story. 


North Island mini-excursions: Redwood Walk, Huka Falls, Polynesian Spa, Black Sand Beach – Mana Bay – Patea, Waitetoko Maori Church and graveyard (near Turangi – on our drive to Rotorua), Papamoa Beach (after we left Hobbiton), Mount Tongariro (on our way back from the Forgotten World Highway). 

South Island mini-excursions: Ship Creek near Haast (on the way to Wanaka – sandfly hell), Goldfield Jet Boat in Cromwell, Queenstown Gondola Ride, and Luge, The Lone Tree in Wanaka, Shopping for sweaters at Jill’s Wool.

Driving and Travel between Islands


Travel between the North and South Islands is easy and inexpensive. Inter-Island flights run regularly. You could take a ferry too. We opted to spend the first week on the North Island before taking an inter-island flight to Christchurch. 

We rented a car on both Islands. Just like in Scotland, you drive on the left side of the road. It wasn’t Chuck’s first rodeo. The roads can be twisty and narrow. Many of the must-dos on our itinerary required mountain driving skills. Be sure to plan for longer than expected drive times.

We rented our car from Omega Car rental and we could not have been happier. Very easy check-in and check-out with accommodating shuttling to and from the airport. The prices were great and the cars were in great shape.

When is the best time to visit New Zealand?

New Zealand is in the Southern Hemisphere so their seasons are opposite of ours and their summers (November-February) can be hot. It is cooler in March. It rains a lot but slightly less in February and March. Flights are slightly cheaper in March. We were seeing a pattern and picked March.

(Beautiful Mount Tongariro. As you can see the weather was perfect!) 

What is the weather like and what should you pack?

We were lucky, it rained only a couple of times and it was warmer than I expected. We visited Scotland’s Orkney Islands last May and in my head, I assumed the weather would be similar. Based on that experience, I advised my sister to bring rain gear and several base layers. I was secretly thrilled to know more about something than my sister. She dutifully packed based upon my recommendation and threw in a couple of pairs of shorts. She reminded me regularly during the trip that she didn’t need the base layer or the rain gear. Thankfully we had washer and dryers pretty much everywhere we stayed.  

How long is the fight?

It takes a while to get to New Zealand from Detroit, Michigan. Using points required a layover in Australia. Flying time from Detroit to Los Angeles is about 4.5 hours. From LAX to Sydney, Australia is another 13 hours. To our surprise the trip from Sydney to Auckland, New Zealand was another 3 hours. Maps are so deceiving. New Zealand and Australia look fairly close; like flying from Detroit to let’s say Cleveland. No, it is more like flying from Detroit to Florida. If you do the math, it is nearly 21 hours of flying time. It was ugly.


Add to it layovers and you are looking at three days of travel time going to New Zealand and returning home. We planned for 3 weeks, which left 17 days to explore New Zealand.

Travel tip: We traveled with my sister and her husband. They waited and purchased tickets during the Air New Zealand Cyber Monday sale. They got a great deal and upgraded their seats. They also opted to spend a few days in California before they flew DIRECTLY to Auckland. They both enjoyed their flying experience. If you have the time to stay in California to break up the long flight, do it. If you’ve got the cash to upgrade your seats, do that too!

Kiwi Questions

Did you know Kiwi eggs are about six times the size of a chicken’s egg, yet a Kiwi is about the same size as a chicken? No, I didn’t. I also didn’t know that It takes her 30 days to grow the egg. I’m sure she is like I’m so done with that egg! And has the male Kiwi incubates the egg for another 60-90 days. 


Greg’s New Zealand wish was to have someone think he was a Kiwi. Not the cute Kiwi bird but have someone think he was a New Zealander. (Kiwi is also the nickname for people from New Zealand.) His wish did not come true but while I was digging through a sale bin of reusable grocery bags, someone said, “Excuse me miss, you live here right?” I just stared at her and thought, “OMG I can’t wait to tell Greg.” My silence was mistaken for “Yes” and she proceeded to ask where she could find nutrition bars. 

We didn’t see any Kiwi birds either. Although I’m pretty sure I may have had a near encounter with one on the Forgotten World Highway. That story deserves its own post. More about that soon, I promise. 

Is it expensive?

You can visit on a limited budget. Hiking is free. There are plenty of excursions which are not expensive and for us, the exchange rate was in our favor. I withdrew $200 New Zealand dollars from the ATM  and it took from my bank account $130 U.S. dollars. Food wasn’t expensive. I paid on average the same as a meal in Michigan. But don’t buy limes. Those are super expensive. More on not that later.

What is the food like? 

The food was pretty much like the food in the United States but with different fish options.


We didn’t have any Anthony Bourdain food experiences; well maybe one or two or possibly three. Our food post will have all the details. 

“Do we really want to travel in hermetically sealed popemobiles through the rural provinces of France, Mexico and the Far East, eating only in Hard Rock Cafes and McDonald’s? Or do we want to eat without fear, tearing into the local stew, the humble taqueria’s mystery meat, the sincerely offered gift of a lightly grilled fish head?” – Anthony Bourdain

Photo Galleries 

If you can’t wait for the posts taking a deeper dive into our New Zealand adventure, visit our photo galleries where we have almost a thousand pictures. 

Enjoy the images. Contact us regarding any use. 

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