When is the best time to visit New Zealand?
When we first arrived in New Zealand in 2013, we were more than a little naive as we explored the country. We never considered things like seasonal weather or peak visitor months. Now, several years later and with numerous North and South Island adventures under our belt, we’re a little older and wiser and have our favourite times of the year to travel based on what we enjoy doing.
New Zealand is without a doubt a year-round holiday destination and there really isn’t a bad time to visit. It just comes down to expectations and what you’re hoping to get from your visit. In this article we’ll explain some of the things you need to consider when planning a New Zealand trip so that you can decide when is best for you.
And for those of you who just want a quick answer, here it is. We think that the best time of the year to visit New Zealand for snow-based activities is early spring (September to October) and the best time of the year for hiking, cycling and water-based activities is late summer to mid autumn/fall (February to April).
Read on to find out why.
What and when is shoulder season in New Zealand
Peak/high season: Summer (December to February) is the holiday high season for both New Zealanders and international visitors which makes it the busiest time of the year for travel.
Off/low season: Winter (June to August) in New Zealand is the low season. While the overall number of tourists is down, winter is still popular with visitors keen to make the most of our excellent ski fields.
Shoulder seasons: These are the months either side of summer so September to November and March to May.
Notice any similarity between the shoulder season dates and the dates we mentioned previously as our favourite months to explore New Zealand? Summertime hotspots are noticeably less crowded during the shoulder seasons and there are a few other advantages like cheaper rates on accommodation, car hire and many other things.
It’s worth mentioning that over the last few years, New Zealand Tourism has been actively promoting the shoulder seasons as the best time to travel to New Zealand and we’re starting to see a shift in visitor behaviour. It will be interesting to see what impact this has in the longer term (extended peak season rates?) but for now, unless you have some specific reason not to, the shoulder seasons should be your first choice.
New Zealand seasons and weather
Weather is always an important factor when choosing the best time to go to New Zealand, or any country for that matter. You can’t control the weather but at least you can prepare for it. As a wise old Scotsman said, “There’s no such thing as bad weather, only the wrong clothes.”
If you live in the Northern Hemisphere, the first thing you need to know is that here in the Southern Hemisphere the seasons are opposite.
- Your spring is our autumn (March to May)
- Your summer is our winter (June to August)
- Your autumn is our spring (September to November)
- Your winter is our summer (December to February)
So what can you expect from the seasons?
Spring in New Zealand
September still sees a bit of a winter chill in the air with snow on the mountains and late-winter snow sports still popular into October on the South Island and central North Island. The weather at this time of year can be changeable, but then that’s true of New Zealand pretty much any time of year. Also bear in mind when heading into the backcountry or off-piste, avalanches can occur so always check conditions beforehand.
30 September marks the start of daylight savings with clocks turned forward. Warmer days and longer daylight hours draw everyone out of hibernation and by November temperatures in the north average in the high teens (Celsius). This is when we usually head to the Northland region.
Summer in New Zealand
By the time summer comes along, New Zealand is alive and buzzing. Everyone comes out to play, hiking, cycling and enjoying New Zealand’s mountains, beaches and lakes. We still head to The Coromandel in early summer but after schools break up around mid-December it gets more than a little crowded.
On the positive side, there are always lots of summer festivals and concerts, and the days are long. In Auckland, in January the sun sets around 8.45pm while in Invercargill at the bottom of the South Island, the sun sets around 9.40pm. Don’t get too excited though, the South Island is noticeably colder than the North Island and while summer temperatures in the south are warm, the sea remains cold. You’ll want to save your swimming for the north with sea temperatures remaining mild into February.
Autumn in New Zealand
March is early autumn and we think it’s one of the best times of the year for hiking. We usually travel to the South Island around March/April each year to visit some of our favourite spots like Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park and the Hooker Valley Track. While the weather is noticeably cooler, there are still calm, clear days, making it the perfect time to get outdoors.
The changing season is particularly noticeable around Queenstown and Central Otago, with trees putting on a spectacular display of autumn/fall colour. 1 April marks the end of daylight savings time and clocks are turned back an hour which means more light in the morning.
Meanwhile in the ‘winterless north’, you can still be wearing t-shirts on sunny days.
Winter in New Zealand
June is the official start of winter and it’s when we store our paddleboards and diving gear, and dust off the ice axes and crampons as we wait for the first snow. Winter in the North Island is relatively mild compared to the South Island but Mount Ruapehu, the North Island’s highest peak, gets its fair share of snow. That’s a good thing too as Ruapehu is home to one of New Zealand’s largest ski areas. While winter is officially from June to August, ski fields around the country will stay open into October.
New Zealand public & school holidays
New Zealanders love the outdoors and take every opportunity to head out of the cities. Be in Auckland on a long weekend or at the start of school holidays, and you’ll experience holiday traffic that will have you pulling your hair out.
What we’re trying to say is that school holidays, and in particular the long summer break in December, is probably not the best time to go to New Zealand, especially if you’re going to be near any of the main centers or local holiday hotspots. Many of these hotspots are likely to be places you’re going to want to visit. If however you’re happy to explore off the beaten track, like the far north of the North Island or the bottom of the South Island, you can still avoid the crowds almost any time of year.
New Zealand has all the usual national public holidays like New Year’s Day (January 1/2), Good Friday, Easter and Easter Monday in April, Christmas Day (December 25) and Boxing Day (December 26). There are also a number of other holidays you might not have heard of like Waitangi Day (February 6), ANZAC Day (April 25), Queen’s Birthday (first Monday in June) and Labour Day (last Monday in October).
In addition to the above, there are regional anniversary holidays which fall on specific Mondays and only apply in that region on that day. For example, Auckland’s holiday is typically the last Monday in January. You can check the dates of all of these holidays here.
As far as school holidays go, there are three 2 week mid-term breaks which start in April, July and September. Then around the middle of December, schools close for 6 weeks, businesses shut down and Auckland almost starts to feel empty. You can check school holiday dates here.
Availability & costs
It should come as no surprise that with so many kiwis holidaying in December/January, accommodation in and around popular spots is at a premium, particularly campsites and holiday parks. The influx of international visitors also means that hotels and motels fill up quickly.
This means two things, in peak season:
- you need to book well in advance for accommodation
- you will be paying high season rates
And that doesn’t just apply to accommodation. Flights to New Zealand are more expensive and busier, filled with peak season tourists and of course kiwi expats returning home to spend Christmas and New Year with family and friends.
Top attractions and activities will also be busier during the peak season so you will have fewer options to choose from unless you book in advance.
While we don’t fly anywhere on our travels around New Zealand (we prefer driving our trusty UTE), we do still need accommodation, or at least a place to camp and grab a hot shower. Travelling outside of peak season is one way that we save money. We’re also always on the lookout for discounts, and more likely to find good deals on sites like GrabOne and BookMe outside of peak season.
Finally, travelling outside of peak season gives us more flexibility as we’re less concerned about accommodation availability. So for example, when touring around the South Island, once we arrive in Picton, we assess the weather and decide our route (down the east coast or the west coast) and book as we go. We definitely wouldn’t risk doing that in peak season.
So when is the best time of year to visit New Zealand?
From our personal experience, the shoulder seasons, September to November and March to May are the ideal times to visit. It’s quieter, it’s cheaper and the weather is still great. Choosing between these two shoulder seasons will really depend on the types of activities you want to do in New Zealand. September to November is better for snow-based activities while March to May is still warm enough for the beach, particularly on the North Island.
We realise of course that these dates may not work for everyone depending on their particularly circumstances. But regardless of when you choose to visit New Zealand, with a little bit of planning, an open mind and an adventurous spirit, you can have a fantastic holiday, any time of the year.