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BEST Time to Visit the South Island of New Zealand

BEST Time to Visit the South Island of New Zealand

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Well, hello there! I am so excited that you want to come to my favorite place on earth and home, the South Island of New Zealand.

If you clicked on this blog it’s because you’re looking for an answer to the question in the title, when should you visit South New Zealand? Never fear, I’ve got you covered! I have lived here for a long time and can give you all the information you need. We will start with the best months to visit then break down each season with a pros and cons list. 

I know that sounds like a lot to read, but don’t worry! I’m keeping this blog quick, but detailed, for your convenience. Alright, let’s get into it!

When is the BEST time to visit the South Island?

Bailey walks through the grass at Lake Pukaki Viewpoint (Mount Cook Road)
Summertime and the livin’ is easy!
Bailey stands on the shores of Milford Sound looking out at Mitre Peak in Fiordland National Park
Milford Sound is one of those places I could visit year-round

It can be difficult to pick a favorite. Wine or beer? Mountains or ocean? Cake or ice cream? 

While each of those previous examples’ answers usually depends on my mood that day, when it comes to the South Island my answer is always the same, summertime! Well, specifically I recommend the months of February and March, but more on that in a moment.

I admit it, I’m a sucker for the sunshine and warm weather. All of my favorite activities (and maybe yours) like hiking, wine tours, camping, and cruises are better when it’s warm out. It’s also much easier to get from point A to point B since you won’t have to deal with road hazards like ice or snow. That means December through February (New Zealand summer months) is the best time to visit, but this is also when everyone else tends to visit as well. 

A person stands at the famous Roy's Peak viewpoint at sunrise
Just admiring the views at Roy’s Peak!

The biggest thing to keep in mind when planning your trip is when New Zealand and Australia have their school breaks. In short, avoid New Zealand like the plague from mid-December to the end of January if you can. Of course, I’m being a little dramatic. If you come during those months you’ll still have an amazing time, but be ready for increased prices on everything and loads more people at all the popular destinations. 

To streamline everything for you I will include the link to all of the New Zealand school holidays as well as all of the Australian school holidays. Hopefully, this will help you when planning your trip!

Okay, so why do I recommend February or March for the perfect South New Zealand getaway? The weather is still fantastic, all hikes and other activities will still be open, and there are no school holidays. Ding-ding! We have a winner!

So now that we have discussed the best time to visit, let’s dive into each season specifically. There is a lot to know, but I’ll break it all down for you and keep things simple. Don’t go anywhere just yet! There are still a few more things you should know before you book your plane ticket and pack your bags.  

The Four Seasons on the South Island and the Best Time to Visit in Each One

Summer 

bailey hikes up a path to Ben Lomond Summit in New Zealand
Hiking the Ben Lomond track!
Bailey drinks wine at a winery in New Zealand
Wine is best enjoyed in the sun!

Best month to visit – February 

Pros 

  • All Great Walks are open in summer as well as other hikes
  • Warmer weather and typically less rain 
  • Seasonal produce is available
  • Longer days mean more time for activities
  • More festivals and events 
  • Safer road conditions 
  • Can pack lighter 

Cons

  • Busiest season 
  • Bookings in advance is required 
  • Top attractions sell out months in advance (Franz Josef Glacier Hike, Milford Sound Overnight cruise, etc) 
  • Campervans are at high-season prices

That’s a lot of pros at the top, isn’t it? You can see why the South Island of New Zealand is so popular during the summer! As soon as December arrives, I bust out all of my jean shorts and cute tops that were hibernating in the closet and head to one of my favorite local Queenstown breweries

With average daily temperatures ranging from 20-25 C (68-77 F), it’s easy to pack light and comfortable for any activities you want to take part in. Hiking is best during this time especially if you want to do a Great Walk since all of them are open. If you happen to be in Queenstown on December 31st, you might even run into me by the lake for the local fireworks show! And that’s just one of many different events happening all over the South Island.

Local produce is also at its prime, so it’s a fantastic time to chow down on some fresh sweet corn or avocados. Fruits and vegetables all over the island are quite literally ripe for the picking. Restaurants will use locally sourced seasonal produce in their meals and the food is incredible! 

Bailey looks out from the deck of a cruise in Milford Sound and enjoys the view
Milford Sound during the summer is incredible!

Unfortunately, this also means all of the best hotels, tours, and experiences tend to be booked out months in advance. My favorite, the Milford Sound overnight cruise, is next to impossible to take if you didn’t get tickets way before. All attractions are just busier in general and it can easily become annoying for visitors. 

Most people who come during the summer are going to be in the market for a car or campervan rental. To help you out, I’ve written a whole guide to renting a car in New Zealand and there are several trusted campervan companies here as well. Just know that summer is undoubtedly one of the best times to hit the open road, but that also means you’ll have to empty your wallet with much, much higher rental prices. I recommend doing it if you can, but you’ve been warned!

I love the idea of everything summer has to offer, but not so much spending my life savings (that’s an exaggeration, but still). But come February or March, car and campervan rental costs are still high, but besides that, it has all the pros of a summertime trip without the hassle!

Related Read: For more South Island travel inspo, check out the best things to do in Queenstown in summer.

Autumn

Bailey in the road near Franz Josef Autumn New Zealand
Look at those colors!
A road during autumn new zealand
Autumn is a beautiful time in South New Zealand

Best month to visit – March 

Pros

  • Less busy 
  • Can still get warm, dry weather in March and early April 
  • Beautiful autumn colors (April) 
  • Great hiking (March)
  • Many festivals and events
  • Cheaper time to visit, and tours don’t book out that far in advance
  • May is the least busy month on the South Island 

Cons

  • Cools down dramatically in April and May 
  • Will get some snow in the mountains but not enough to ski 
  • Most Great Walks close on April 30th 
  • Campervan and motorhome high-season pricing is in effect until around the end of March
  • April school holidays (check dates) 

Autumn is a fantastic time to visit. March, which you already know is my favorite month, starts to get those autumn colors and still hangs onto the summertime heat. However, April is when the colors come into full effect, and driving around the South Island offers breathtaking views of the wilderness I’ve come to love so much.

There are so many fantastic road trips on the South Island. And if you’re around in early April I recommend taking the drive from Queenstown to Mount Cook, you won’t regret it!

Since the holiday crowds are gone, it’s much easier to book tours for the top experiences without doing it months in advance. And if you’re curious about which experiences I’m talking about, read about the best things to do on the South Island here.

While campervan rentals are still pricey through March, early April still has plenty of good weather and rentals are cheaper. You can compare rental prices on Discover Cars, which is the company I always book with! If you have your own wheels, I suggest making your way to Arrowtown at the end of April for their fantastic Autumn Festival.

A vineyard in Cromwell, New Zealand
In autumn, the vines turn orange and it’s so beautiful!

Hiking on the South Island (especially a Great Walk) is a must-do when you visit. Keep in mind that most hiking trails are open through April. After that, some close for the season. There is no shortage of hikes regardless of the time of year, but if you have some you’re dying to do, check the dates they are open. And if you’re still brainstorming, here are some of my favorite hikes on the South Island to inspire you!

Still, autumn can be a little tricky. Come the end of April and into May, it cools down drastically with average daily temperatures being 13 C (55 F). Not to mention both New Zealand and Australia have school holidays between roughly April 13th to the 28th. I swear, didn’t they just have a holiday? 

While it’s not completely frigid weather, you’ll still need to pack plenty of warm clothes and be ready for more rain. However, if you don’t mind it being a little cold, May is a nice month to visit because traditionally it’s the slowest time of the year!

banner asking people to click to join the Queenstown Diary Facebook Group

Winter

Bailey at the Remarkables ski area on a mountain with a beer New Zealand
Skiing and beer are two of my favorite things!
Bailey stands on the egde of Hooker Lake in Mount Cook National Park 
The Hooker Valley Track in Mount Cook National Park!

Best month to visit – July or August outside school holidays 

Pros

  • By mid-June, ski resorts are open (most years) 
  • Cold winter weather for snow sports 
  • Cheapest time to rent a motorhome (but you’ll want a heater) 
  • Many activities outside ski towns are quiet (such as Milford Sound)
  • The landscape is epic

Cons

  • July school holidays 
  • Most ski towns are full 
  • Not many festivals and events
  • Advanced bookings are required for hotels in ski locations 
  • Roads can be closed or dangerous during snow storms 

I may not love the cold, but heck, I’d be lying if I said there aren’t some amazing things to see and do here during the winter. 

Most notably, and my favorite, skiing! By mid-June, mountains are usually covered in snow and ski resorts are open. Ski resorts and towns are generally packed with visitors and making a reservation at the last moment is a gamble so do it well in advance (especially from July 6-21 when New Zealand has a school holiday). If you’re a skier, you’ll definitely want to check out my guide to skiing in New Zealand before you go.

Besides skiing, there is a glacier-sized amount of winter activities to take part in on the South Island. I’m not kidding, there’s literally a glacier you can walk on!

I love stargazing in the winter because the Milky Way is easier to see and nights get darker faster. Visiting the Franz Josef Glacier is a must-have experience for all my adventure junkies out there (heli-hike tour, anyone?). Not to mention, some of my favorite hikes like the Hooker Valley Track offer jaw-dropping views of snow-covered mountains. But my all-time favorite place on the South Island, the Milford Sound, is an absolute spectacle in the winter and tours to Milford Sound are easy to book on short notice.

The Milford Sound Dock with Mitre Peak in the background
Winter in Milford Sound is a sight to see!

While it may sound crazy to rent a camper van and sleep in 3 C (37 F) weather, it’s actually quite doable if you make sure to rent a heater! This is the cheapest time to road trip in South New Zealand and is a completely underrated experience. However, I recommend having some experience with driving in winter conditions since snow is unavoidable. It’s also not entirely uncommon for some mountain passes to close entirely for periods due to safety concerns.

Overall, it’s just a quieter time to visit the South Island since most people only come to ski and stay inside the resorts and towns. If you don’t mind the cold and enjoy a good adventure, you’ll have an amazing experience here. Plus, if you travel with other people, it’s way too easy to pelt them with snowballs when they aren’t paying attention!

To plan your cold-weather getaway, check out the best things to do in New Zealand this winter. And, of course, I had to highlight my local city by writing about the top wintertime activities in Queenstown as well.

Spring

Bailey stands in front of a right green JUCY campervan
This is a great time to rent a campervan!
Bailey on the Routeburn Track in Mt Aspiring National Park, New Zealand
Hiking the Routeburn Track!

Best month to visit – November for hikes, September for skiing

Pros

  • Spring skiing in September
  • Plants and animals everywhere 
  • One of the quietest periods is September and early October 
  • Temperatures start to warm up 
  • Don’t have to book far in advance 
  • Can get cheaper campervans and motorhomes (until October) 
  • Roads are usually safer (from snow and ice) 

Cons

  • Can be wet in late spring 
  • Weather can be unpredictable 
  • Not hot enough to swim but not cold enough to ski (most of the season) 
  • Middle season with fewer tours and activities running 

Like autumn, spring on the South Island of New Zealand offers different activities depending on the month you visit. There are practically no school holidays during this time so tourism is low – which means so are prices! 

But much like me between the ages of 13 to 15, traveling in South New Zealand during spring can be awkward at times. Stuck in that transition into summer, unpredictable weather means there are fewer tours and things to do.

But I said fewer, not nothing to do! What I love most about spring is the weather getting warmer, the snow melting, and the plants and animals bringing life to the once snow-covered landscape. November in particular has me tying up my hiking boots to hit the trails and smell the flowers! 

Keep in mind that it’s important to pack a good waterproof jacket since the weather can go from fantastic to downpour on a moment’s notice. And even though it is getting warmer it’s still a little chilly with the average spring day temperature being about 12-18 C (54-64 F).

Views of lupins and Lake Tekapo on the south island of New Zealand
The lupins at Lake Tekapo!

This is also a great time to rent a campervan. The month of September still offers those great rental prices and the roads are usually pretty cleared up of snow. Camping while the flowers are in bloom? Yes, please!

Of course, if camping isn’t really your style, ski resorts are usually open through September with plenty of good runs to be had. This depends on snowfall for the season and other unpredictable factors so keep that in mind. So if you want to do some off-season skiing, try to get here as early in September as you can!

You can probably tell by now that depending on the month you’re visiting, you might be a little limited in your choice of activities. However, there are still tons of great experiences like cruises in the Milford Sound or doing a Franz Josef nature walk. So don’t count those out! Overall, spring is slightly more tricky to plan, but nonetheless, it’s a great time to visit the South Island.

Related Read: If you’re looking for help planning your trip, I created this 1-week South Island itinerary. Or, if you have more time, try my 10-day South Island itinerary instead!

Renting a Car, Campervan, or Motorhome in New Zealand

Bailey stands in front of a right green JUCY campervan
JUCY is one of my favorite campervan rental companies (read below for a discount code!)
Bailey stands behind her Mad Campers campervan cooking in the kitchen at Piha Beach
I also really like Mad Campers!

Let’s face it, you’re going to need wheels to get around New Zealand. Although a small country, buses between destinations are infrequent and expensive. Plus, some of the best experiences you can have in NZ are on road trips!

You have three options when it comes to getting wheels in New Zealand; a car, a campervan, or a motorhome. Here’s what you need to know about each and where to get them:

  • Car – A normal car is the cheapest rental vehicle you can get in New Zealand. It’ll get you around to all of the best destinations with ease. The only downside to a car is that you will need to stay in hotels or Airbnbs during your travels (no camping.) The easiest place to rent a car in New Zealand is on Discover Cars where you can compare cars, companies, prices, features, and more very easily.
  • Campervan – A Campervan is a large van that has a bed and a small kitchen in the back. It’s what most budget travelers use for traveling around New Zealand since it allows you to camp comfortably and for free (most) nights. Campervans are best for couples or solo travelers who are happy to live in a small space. You should also love the outdoors and camping…and be prepared for an adventure of a lifetime! My favorite campervan rental company is JUCY because they have a huge selection of campervans to choose from, plus multiple pick-up/drop-off locations. You can browse JUCY’s campervan selection online here. Alternatively, you can easily compare all campervans available in NZ on Motorhome Republic here.

EXCLUSIVE DISCOUNT CODE: I’ve managed to snag a discount code for 5% off for my readers if you book your campervan or motorhome through JUCY or Star RV! Simply click here to select your JUCY campervan, or click here to select your Star RV motorhome, and then use the code DTRAVEL24 at checkout to get 5% off – it’s that easy!

Thanks for reading!

Bailey smiles at the camera on the Avalanche Peak Trail
Thanks for reading!

Thanks for reading my blog and I hope it’s helped you plan your South Island adventure. Of course, the best time of year to visit depends on what you like to do. I love February and March because it’s still warm and sunny, but not quite as crowded as January. That being said, the South Island is stunning all year round and full of fun activities.

For more travel advice, you can read more articles about the South Island here. Or, check out my full blog on New Zealand here. As a Queenstown local, I love sharing what I’ve learned from living and traveling through this beautiful country – which is why I’ve linked to a few handy articles below!

25 BEST Places to Visit on the South Island of New Zealand

Two Weeks on the South Island of New Zealand – 3 Tried and Tested 14-Day Itineraries!

33 BEST Things to do in Christchurch, New Zealand (2024 Guide!)

17 Things to KNOW Before Renting a Car in Queenstown (+My Top Tips!)