Choosing 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 New Zealand’s extremely variable seasonal weather or peak visitor months. Now, several years later and with numerous North and South Island adventures under our belt, we are a little older and wiser and have our favourite times of the year to travel around the country based on what we enjoy doing. So when is the best time to visit New Zealand?

For those of you who just want a quick answer, here it is. From our personal experience, we think that the best time to visit New Zealand is either September through to November for snow-based experiences or March through to May for hiking, cycling and water-based activities. Over these months, it’s generally less crowded, things are cheaper and the weather is still great.

However…. these suggested months are based on our personal preferences. It might be different for you. For example, if you want to be guaranteed the best snow cover and ski conditions, you really want to visit New Zealand in August but you’ll be paying more and jostling with more crowds.

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 give you some travel tips and explain some of the things you need to consider when planning a New Zealand holiday. That way, you can decide when is the best time for you.

But regardless of when you choose to visit, with a little bit of planning, an open mind and an adventurous spirit, you can have a fantastic holiday, any time of the year.

Read on to find out how.

Hot Water Beach pools

When is peak season and shoulder season in New Zealand?

Peak/high season: Summer (December to February) is the holiday season for New Zealanders and also the peak tourism season for 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. For us, shoulder seasons are the best season. But do the shoulder seasons have the best weather?

New Zealand’s weather and seasons

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.”

Having read this far, you may have already figured out that if you live in the Northern Hemisphere, here in the Southern Hemisphere the seasons are opposite.

  • Your winter is our summer (December to February)
  • Your spring is our autumn (March to May)
  • Your summer is our winter (June to August)
  • Your autumn/fall is our spring (September to November)

So what can you expect from New Zealand’s climate and our very distinct seasons?

Summer in New Zealand (December, January, February)

Average daily temperatures in Summer (minimum/maximum)

North Island: 13-23⁰C (55-73⁰F)
South Island: 10-20⁰C (50-68⁰F)

Summer is the best time to visit New Zealand for:

  • Hot and sunny weather (don’t forget the sunscreen)
  • Long days
  • Outdoor activities like swimming, hiking, mountain biking and river rafting
  • Festivals and concerts

Ah, New Zealand summer, we love you! By the time summer season comes along, New Zealand is alive and buzzing. Everyone comes out to play, hiking, cycling and enjoying New Zealand’s mountains, beaches and lakes over the hottest months of the year. For us, The Coromandel in early summer is one of the best places to be. But after schools break up around mid-December it gets more than a little crowded so we tend to head more off the beaten track to beaches like Te Arai north of Auckland.

Te Arai Beach

On the positive side, there are always lots of festivals and concerts in the summer months, and the days are long. In Auckland, in mid summer (January) the sun sets around 8.45pm while in Invercargill at the bottom of the South Island, the sun sets around 9.40pm. Bear in mind however, the south is noticeably colder than the north and while summer season 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.

Must-do events for foodies in Summer

Beach lifeguard flag

Autumn in New Zealand (March, April, May)

Average daily temperatures in Autumn (minimum/maximum)

North Island: 10-19⁰C (50-66⁰F)
South Island: 6-16⁰C (43-61⁰F)

Autumn is the best time to visit New Zealand for:

  • Avoiding the highs of summer with cooler yet still mild temperatures
  • Avoiding the summer crowds
  • Cheaper flights (May is generally considered to cheapest month to fly to New Zealand)
  • Enjoying Autumn colours as leaves start to change

March is early autumn and we personally find it’s one of the best times of the year for getting out our hiking boots. 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.

Hooker Valley Track

If we don’t do one of our usual Autumn road trips, we stay local, which for us is the Tongariro National Park, home to what is considered one of the world’s top day hikes, the Tongariro Alpine Crossing.

TAC Ketetahi

While the weather is noticeably cooler, there are still calm, clear days, making it the perfect time to get outdoors. We also find that with fewer crowds, we can explore with a more relaxed pace.

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.

When you’re out and about you’ll definitely want a few layers handy although in the ‘winterless north’, with the region’s warmer temperatures generally, you can still be wearing t-shirts on sunny days late in Autumn. For us personally, we find Autumn to be a great time to go north.

Must-do events for foodies in Autumn

Arrowtown in autumn

Winter in New Zealand (June, July, August)

Average daily temperatures in Winter (minimum/maximum)

North Island: 6-14⁰C (43-57⁰F)
South Island: 2-10⁰C (36-50⁰F)

Winter is the best time to visit New Zealand for:

  • Winter sports like skiing and snowboarding
  • Soaking in natural hot pools
  • Alpine hiking and climbing adventures

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 of the season before heading into the snow capped mountains. 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, Whakapapa. While winter is officially from June to August, ski fields around the country will stay open into October.

Mt Ruapehu in winter

So is there a best time for skiing and winter sports in New Zealand? Again, the answer is “it depends”. Snow falls in June are unpredictable but towns like Queenstown start to buzz with the annual Queenstown Winter Festival (usually the second half of June) being a major drawcard.

In July, ski season really kicks off with ski resorts and slopes getting a little hectic thanks to New Zealand school holidays. You may want to hold off visiting until August or even September if you don’t mind wet snow conditions as we head into Spring weather. Heli skiing is of course one option for avoiding the crowds during the July/August busy period.

The end of October marks the end of ski season and while most fields are still open, snow can be patchy. South Island ski resorts will be your best bet, and of those, Cardrona is considered one of the more dependable late season ski areas.

Christmas in July

It may seem odd to some, but many New Zealanders celebrate Christmas twice each year. Official Christmas day, December 25th, falls in the middle of our summer which makes it a little hard to have a white Christmas. To make up for this, we have a second Christmas in July. So don’t be surprised if you visit New Zealand around July and arrive at your ski resort to find it covered in Christmas decorations.

Must-do events for foodies in Winter

Ski field

Spring in New Zealand (September, October, November)

Average daily temperatures in Spring (minimum/maximum)

North Island: 9-17⁰C (48-63⁰F)
South Island: 6-16⁰C (43-61⁰F)

Spring is the best time to visit New Zealand for:

  • Enjoying the Spring blooms (make sure to visit Christchurch, the Garden City)
  • Making the most of quieter hiking trails
  • Grabbing some good off-season travel deals

September still sees a bit of a winter chill in the air with crisp mornings and snow on the mountain tops. Depending on snow conditions, late-winter snow sports are still popular into October on the South Island and central North Island. The weather at this time of year can be changeable, and while that’s true of New Zealand pretty much any time of year, you need to be prepared for anything in Spring. Also bear in mind when heading into the backcountry or off-piste, avalanches can still 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 late spring (November) temperatures in the north average in the high teens (Celsius). This is when we usually head to the Northland region to make the most of the warm weather after winter.

Must-do events for foodies in Spring

Spring lupins

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 visit New Zealand, especially if you’re going to be near any of the main centres 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), Matariki (June 24) 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 New Zealand 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 and January, accommodation in and around popular spots is at a premium, particularly campsites and holiday parks. The influx of international visitors exploring the country also means that hotels and motels fill up quickly.

This means two things, in the peak tourism season:

  • to find accommodation in tourist hotspots you will need to book well in advance
  • 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 international 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 this time 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/truck), we do still need accommodation, or at least a place to camp and grab a hot shower. Travelling outside of peak 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 BookMe outside of peak season.

Finally, travelling around New Zealand 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, knowing that there’s more space in holiday parks at this time of year. We definitely wouldn’t risk doing that in the peak tourist season.

Lake Ohau valley

And the best time to visit is…

So if you’ve made it this far, you must be pretty serious about visiting our amazing country. Hopefully this article has helped you to decide when is the best time for you to visit New Zealand. You may, like us, prefer the quieter off-peak months or, due to circumstances, you may have to brave the peak tourist season. Either way, if you do visit, we’re sure you’ll have an amazing time here in Aotearoa, The Land Of The Long White Cloud.