Seasonal Planning for New Zealand Travel
While New Zealand has a lot of climatic variety from the north to the south, and from the coast to inland mountain areas, it's generally safe to say that the North Island is warmer and wetter, and the South Island is cooler and drier. There are exceptions to this depending on altitude and other geographic features, like the presence of mountains blocking certain parts of the country from specific weather patterns.
Summer is the busiest season in New Zealand, partly because a lot of foreign visitors like to come to make the most of the warmer summers, but also because this is peak tourism season for domestic travelers. Schools and colleges are out for much of December and most of January, and many workers take at least a week off between Christmas and New Year. Many New Zealanders have their favorite holiday spots that they return to every summer, meaning campsites and the inter-island ferry can book out far in advance.
Winter in New Zealand may not be comparable to Northern European or North American winters, but it can get cold, especially in the south and at higher altitudes in the north. The North Island gets a lot of rain in winter, so is best avoided at this time. The South Island gets less rain but more snow, and is especially attractive for skiers and snowboarders.
The spring and fall are good seasons to travel in New Zealand, and are generally considered the shoulder seasons. Although summer officially ends in February, March and April can experience summer-like temperatures, especially in the north (although don't be surprised if winter arrives a little early). Similarly, spring can be a bit wintry early in the season, but by October and November, temperatures and sunlight hours in some places aren't much cooler than in the summer. Temperatures and weather are a bit less reliable in the spring and autumn than they are in summer and winter, but if you don't mind taking a chance, these seasons have fewer crowds.
|Season||Months||Pros||Cons||Best for||Where to Visit|
|Summer||Dec-Feb||Warm temps and long daylight hours (longer in the south).||Peak tourism season||Beach activities, hiking in the mountains.||Northland, Coromandel Peninsula, South Island beaches and mountains.|
|Fall||March-May||Lingering warm weather, foliage in the south.||Cool, wintry conditions, increased rain.||Outdoor activities in the mountains. Uncrowded beaches, warm seas.||Tauranga, Hawke's Bay, and the Nelson/ Marlborough areas for long hours of sun.|
|Winter||June-Aug||Fewer tourists, good skiing.||Rain in the North Island, cold temps in both islands||Skiing and snowboarding.||Skiing around Queenstown, Wanaka, and Canterbury.|
|Spring||Sept-Nov||Late in the season can be summery, without summer crowds.||Lingering winter temps and icy conditions on mountain roads.||The ski season continues into spring in the South Island.||South Island national parks for outdoor activities.|
Summer tends to be the warmest and driest season in New Zealand. High temperatures are often in the high 70s F (mid-20s C) or more. The North Island is generally warmer and more humid than the south. The major exception to this is the top of the South Island—the area around Nelson, Golden Bay, and the Marlborough Sounds—which sees summer conditions that are often hotter and sunnier than parts of the North Island.
Further notable exceptions to the 'summer is drier' rule are the southern and western South Island in December, as these areas get quite a lot of rain in December. Plus, ex-tropical cyclones coming from the Pacific Islands can hit later in the summer—these don't happen every year, but when they do, expect and lot of rain and heavy winds for a couple of days. But, droughts can hit parts of the country in summer, too, and it's not unusually to see no significant rainfall for one or two months over summer.
Summer is ideal beach time in New Zealand, and as the season progresses, the seas warm up. With a long coastline, there are beautiful beaches all over the country. But, the Northland, Coromandel, and Nelson/Tasman areas have some of the best beaches in the country. Expect long stretches of white/gold sand or charming little bays, clean water, Surf Lifesaving patrols on popular beaches and peak times, and—aside from the peak period of New Zealand school holidays—not too many other people. In general, the beaches of the east coast along the whole country are better for swimming. The west coast is more rugged and exposed, currents can be dangerous, and sands are often black.
For outdoor activities like hiking, kayaking, and mountain biking, head to the South Island in summer. The mountains of Canterbury and Otago provinces are ideal at this time of year, with cooler temperatures than coastal and lower-altitude places. Temperatures in the North Island may be too warm for some people to enjoy extensive outdoor activities, although nowhere is necessarily bad at this time of year.
Travelers often overlook the bottom of the South Island, and Rakiura/Stewart Island off the south coast. But the summer is a great time to travel to these beautiful places. Temperatures will be cooler than further north, and you may not want to swim in the sea, but conditions are warmer than they'll be at any other time of year. The Catlins area of Otago/Southland is a highlight, as is Rakiura.
As mentioned above, summer is peak season in New Zealand, for international as well as domestic travelers. If you want to make the most of the great weather, it's necessary to book accommodation (including campsites), rental vehicles, domestic flights, and inter-island ferries as far in advance as possible, or you may miss out.
Christmas and New Year (December). Many New Zealanders have the week between the two holidays off work. Christmas tends to be family time, and a lot of attractions shut at least for the day. You'll find big parties, in both small towns and bigger cities, for New Year's Eve on 31st December.
World Buskers Festival, Christchurch (January). This late-January festival brings together local and international street performers, musicians, magicians, jugglers and more, for fun events over a couple of weeks.
Waitangi Day (February). This national holiday, on February 6th, marks the date in 1840 when Maori chiefs signed an agreement with the British Crown. It's a foundational day in New Zealand's history, and often—depending on who is in government—can be a time of protest and the airing of grievances. The whole country takes a holiday on this day, but events at Waitangi itself, in Northland's Bay of Islands, are especially interesting.
Napier Art Deco Festival (February). Travel back to the 1930s and celebrate Napier’s Art Deco heritage. The city was destroyed by an earthquake in 1931 and rebuilt largely in the Art Deco style.
Autumn begins in March, and weather conditions early in the season can vary from quite summery in the north to cooler in the south. Average high temperatures range from the high 60s F (around 20° C) in the north, to the mid-50s (around 14° C) in the south.
Sea temperatures can actually make for good swimming conditions in early autumn, as they are usually warmer than in summer, even if the air temperature is a bit cooler. Leaves change color at higher altitudes and lower latitudes, but much of the North Island doesn't experience a classic 'fall' season, as there are fewer deciduous trees.
Later in the season, temperatures and conditions can be cold, wet, and increasingly dark (the sun sets before 5 pm in more southern parts of the country in late autumn and winter).
Autumn is shoulder season in New Zealand, as many international travelers come earlier in the season, but taper off by May. With the exception of the Easter holidays (in March or April), locals don't travel as much during this season, and if they go anywhere they're more likely to head to the Pacific Islands or Australia than other parts of New Zealand.
Easter (March/April). Although not everyone observes this Christian holiday from a religious perspective, schools and many workplaces take vacation for at least the Easter long weekend, sometimes a week or more. Domestic travel increases at this time.
Wildfoods Festival, Hokitika (March). At this food festival in the small West Coast (South Island) town, you can try unusual, weird, and cringe-worthy foods like bull testicles and deep-fried insects. There’s more mainstream food, too, as well as plenty of craft beer and fine wine. People come from all over the South Island for this festival, so book accommodation in advance.
National Jazz Festival, Tauranga (April). This jazz festival began in 1962, making it the longest-running jazz festival in the Southern Hemisphere.
Auckland Comedy Festival (May). Local and international acts perform throughout Auckland, from tiny basements to large theaters.
Auckland Writers Festival (May). Avid readers won't want to miss this literary event, which brings together writers, thinkers, and readers from around New Zealand, and the world. It doesn't just feature 'traditional' writers, and you can expect talks from other public figures like politicians or musicians.
While much of the North Island gets quite a soaking in winter, the South Island is generally drier, as precipitation forms as snow, especially at higher altitudes.
The ski season starts from mid-June, and runs until well into the spring. There are three ski fields in the North Island, around the Tongariro area of the North Island, but all other ski fields are in the South Island, especially around Queenstown, Wanaka, and the mountainous parts of Canterbury.
You don't have to ski to enjoy the winter conditions of the lower and mountainous South Island. General sightseeing is enjoyable at this time, and even wet or cold conditions can't spoil a trip to spectacular Milford Sound, or characterful Dunedin. Road conditions can be challenging during winter, though, and some routes may be blocked after heavy snowfall.
New Zealand's northern-most province, Northland, is nicknamed 'the winterless north', but this really depends on your definition of winter! The peninsula north of Auckland does experience much milder winter temperatures than much of the country (it's not uncommon for daytime highs of 59° F/15° C, and frosts are uncommon), but it's also very wet during winter. So, take its nickname with a grain of salt if you do head there in the winter.
Winter tends to be busiest in the South Island, especially in the mountains. Winter is the off-season in the North Island.
Queenstown Winter Festival (June). Skiing is a big deal around Queenstown, so this town surrounded by mountains celebrates rather than hides from winter. Check out free concerts and snow sports events at this festival, which marks the start of the ski season.
Birdman, Russell (July). If you're traveling around the winterless north in July, check out this wacky festival in Russell, Bay of Islands. Competitors dress up as birds and jump off the Russell Wharf!
New Zealand International Film Festival (July). This festival begins in Auckland in July, and travels around the country thereafter, so you may be able to catch it in other towns throughout the country, too.
Winter Games, Queenstown/Wanaka (August). This winter sporting festival focuses on skiing, snowboarding, ice hockey, and curling. Even if you don't participate in these sports yourself, this can be fun to watch.
Beervana, Wellington (August). New Zealand has a thriving craft beer scene, celebrated during Beervana in Wellington. A good reason to hibernate indoors in Wellington in August.
Spring can be a great time to travel in New Zealand, as temperatures are on the rise after winter, the days are getting longer, and there are still fewer crowds at popular places. From late October, temperatures can get quite summery (although overnight may still be quite cold).
International visitor numbers pick up in the spring, but domestic travelers are still thin on the ground as most families save their holidays until summer. The exception is around ski fields earlier in the season. The ski season continues into October, so September especially is still a popular time to go skiing in the central North Island and South Island.
Spring is a good time to head to some of the lower-altitude national parks for outdoor activities. At higher altitudes, snow can stick around well into spring. But, in places like the Abel Tasman National Park at the top of the South Island, or the Whanganui National Park in the North Island, lower-altitude hikes and water activities (kayaking in Abel Tasman, rafting in Whanganui) are good in spring, and there are fewer other tourists than in summer.
Spring is also an ideal time to go white-water rafting along New Zealand's rivers. Temperatures will be cold (you'll probably need a wetsuit) but melting snow in the mountains increases the volume of rivers, making for some fun and bouncy times.
World of Wearable Art, Wellington (September). This creative art-meets-fashion show exhibits local and international fashion design with a creative twist. The WOW Museum in Nelson can be visited at any time of year, and rotates their exhibits after the show in Wellington.
Whitianga Scallop Festival (September). Seafood lovers are generally in luck in New Zealand, but shouldn’t miss this festival in the small town on the Coromandel Peninsula.
Taste of Auckland (October). During this food and drink festival, renowned chefs compete to prepare the most popular menus. Foodies who find themselves in Auckland won't want to miss this.
Toast Martinborough (November). Several vineyards in this famous wine-producing town in the lower North Island participate in this annual wine festival.