If you're thinking about going to New Zealand, 1) you should definitely do it, and 2) you will need a few planning pointers before you even start an itinerary.
New Zealand is the perfect destination for adventure, roadtripper type travelers. The landscapes are beyond dynamic, with volcanoes, glaciers, tropical beaches, geothermal craziness, fjords and electric blue lakes. And whether you like to passively sightsee or hike all day, there's something for everyone. And I won't get into the proximity to Tasmania, Australia, Cook Islands and the possibilities there. Or that Hawaii makes a perfect stopover on the way home.
This is a collection of baseline planning tips and itinerary recommendations, based on our 3-week trip in autumn of 2018.
Basic things to note before planning:
It's a long haul, approximately 14 hours from LAX to Aukland. For us, we knew we should plan to check all our itinerary boxes on this one trip, since it's not so easy/likely for us to return anytime soon. So it's worth it to plan to wait until you can invest at least 2 weeks, ideally 3, and during a pleasant time of year (anything but winter IMO).
New Zealand can be really pricey in high season (particularly summer), especially the airfare. You will need to rent a car, and often times the drop-off will differ from the pick-up location (additional 'relocation' fee). You will want to take additional domestic transport to get from one island to another, or from one end of an island to another (about $50-100/pp each way). Food is pricey (meals are maybe 20-40% more than in USA), and gas is around $100 USD a tank.
Fortunately, there have been a lot of deals lately from USA lately, with fares starting around $600 R/T. If there aren't any decent sales, expect to pay over $1000. You can probably budget on meals and hotels, but just know it's going to be an expensive trip. Don't be discouraged though, it's SO worth it.
Time of year
As with all travel, off and shoulder seasons tend to be a lot cheaper. Hotels and car rentals drop by as much as 40-50%, plus availability shoots up so you have more options.
You also want to consider what kind of weather and conditions you're hoping for. I assume most people elect for summer for obvious reasons. It brings warm sunshine and ice-free trails in the south, but also sand flies (they're like mosquitos but 2x worse), crowds and higher prices. We went in fall and LOVED it (March). There were autumn leaves, chilly weather and very thin crowds and road traffic.
The country is segmented into two islands, North and South. They're very different, and while both warrant a visit, one may appeal to you more than the other. North Island is known for its warmer climate, beaches, geothermal parks, and wine country. South Island is famous for its vast mountains, glaciers and fjords, making it a hotspot for hikers and adventurers. You'll need to rent a car, and you can easily plane hop from one region to another to get a taste of both islands. Just know you'll need 3+ weeks to even attempt to fully do North and South.
These are my top points of interest, and they're all captured in the Google Map linked further below. You will not find any of the Lord of the Rings stuff here, but there's a ton of it you can google if that's your thing. The one ultra popular tour even non-LOTR fans do is Hobbiton, and that's all I'll say on that.
Rotorua - Bizarre and dramatic geothermal parks with some crazy landscapes. Warning the whole town stinks like sulphur but you get used to it.
Coromandel Peninsula - Beautiful sandy beaches and coastal trails. Cathedral Cove is the famous landmark.
Glow Worms - Waitomo Glow Worm Cave and Waipu Cave both are near the Aukland region and offer a ton of guided boat tours. If you don't want to pay a hundred bucks to tour glow worms by boat (which looks amazing), do what we did and find some free ones on the roadside - like the Dell Glow Worms in South Island.
Tongariro Alpine Crossing Trail- This is a world famous day hike with views of craters and blue pools. You take a bus to the trailhead. Part of a multi-day circuit, but this scenic leg is manageable in 6-8 hours. Not technical, just steep in spots. Planning is required to get a bus to the trailhead, and nearby lodging is limited, so I reco the Discovery Lodge nearby that offers transportation to/from the trail.
Mount Taranaki - You can day hike this famous Mount Fugi-looking mountain, and see it from the famous reflecting tarn (pool) midway up. We skipped this due to weather/time, and I'm forever sad.
Abel Tasman National Park - This is a lush tropical coastal area with a long walking track from one end to the other. You stay at a hotel outside of the park, then take a beautiful water taxi ride into a camp area, walk a few hours through the park to another camp area, and take a return taxi back to the town. It's an easy and lovely day fit for people of all ages - and you can do all kinds of kayaking and water activites. We stayed at the beautiful Abel Tasman Lodge in Marahau, took the Marahou Water Taxi to Onetahuti campsite, walked 5.5 hrs to Anchorage campsite and returned back from there. You can also shorten the walk to 3.5 hrs and start at the Bark Bay campsite instead. Try to time it so you're walking back to Anchorage in low tide, so you can cut across Torrent Bay and save an hour. The BEST fish and chips is at a restaurant near the park called Hooked on Marahuo.
Wharariki Beach / Golden Bay - Its a 2 hour drive from Abel Tasman, and was our best spontaneous decision. It's the most beautiful beach, especially at sunset. You park at a small cafe (with wild peacocks roaming around!) and walk 30-45 min to the beach through rolling green hills. The beach is full of caves and is famous for a massive arch rock formation in the ocean.
Franz Joseph/Fox Glacier - Franz was disappointing, the glacier is mostly melted. Fox is more interesting. Short but steep little walk. Overall these were just meh for me. Probably way more interesting flying over them if you have the budget for a helicopter. However if that's the case, I'd look into flying over the glaciers in Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park - those glaciers are INCREDIBLE.
Wanaka - I LOVED WANAKA. This is an upscale, cute lakeside town surrounded by amazing mountain views. Lots of options for a fancy Airbnb. See the famous Wanaka Tree at sunset (tree sticking out of the middle of the lake) and the mob of photographers shooting it. The little main street across from the lake offers good restaurants. The Roy's Peak hike is an ultra-instagrammed nearby trail with epic views of the region (very steep). It's very crowded, so aim for a sunrise hike. Nearby Rocky Peak trail is said to be a somewhat comparable view with a fraction of the crowds.
Queenstown - Very cool town with lots of action and adventure activities. We almost skipped the Queenstown Hill hike in town, because we assumed it wasn't worth it since its literally in town... DO IT. Amazing sweeping views of the lakes and mountains, and only a couple hours round trip. Go for sunrise or sunset. Onsen Hot Pools are luxury outdoor, private hot tubs that serve booze and food. Book well in advance, its sells out most days. Book a daytime reservation to enjoy the river views.
Glenrochy - Drive one hour from Queenstown to this sleepy little lakeside town. Not too much in town other than a really cute lake dock, but you go for the incredible views along the way. Blue water, green mountains, goats and llamas everywhere. Awesome joyriding. There are a couple "petting farms" where you can feed and pet all the farm animals! And they're actually called petting farms.
Milford Sound / Fjordland National Park - This is a 3-4 hours drive from Queenstown, and you want to coordinate a trip when the weather is decent - it gets a lot of rain! Te Anau is the last town before Milford Sound (most of the hotels and food places are here), and they're about 2 hours apart... so just plan accordingly. There is VERY limited lodging in this region. We stayed in a simple-but-cute cabin in the middle of the park called Knobs Flat. Highly recommend - it's extremely convenient. Awesome day hikes include Key Summit Trail (go for sunrise) and Lake Marian (go for midday sun) - you can do both in one day if you're short on time. This region is home to world famous multi-day hiking tracks like Milford, Kepler and Routeburn as well.
A New Zealand vacation may seem overwhelming because there's so much to do, but regardless of what you settle on it will be amazing. It was the bucket list trip I didn't know I had until I was there.