When to visit New Zealand? This is a question that I get a lot living in New Zealand.
Mid-December through ~First Week of February
This is the heart of New Zealand summer and the heart of high tourist season in New Zealand. It is not just local tourists since this is also summer school holidays in New Zealand, meaning that domestic tourists are also out in force. There are a lot of people everywhere in New Zealand enjoying the great weather.
Weather: The weather is great, warm and sunny.
Sunlight: The sun does not set until 8 pm to 10 pm in Queenstown. This means that you get extra daylight hours to do more outside.
Mountains: The snow levels have receded, making almost all hiking trails accessible and eliminating avalanche danger is most places.
Rain: It rains all year round in New Zealand. During the summer at least it is not cold if you get caught in the rain and the sun tends to dry things, resulting in less mud.
Crowds: You will not be having New Zealand to yourself. There will be crowds everywhere. The places a little off the tourist track will also be crowded since it is prime time for domestic tourists. There are ways to limit crowds at places like the Tongariro Crossing, but you can’t eliminate them.
Prices: The prices reflect the popularity of the season. Expect to pay a premium for lodging and car/campervan rentals. Deal sites often have fewer offerings than in the off-season.
Booking Ahead: You often need to book ahead and it isn’t uncommon for places to be fully booked. If you are in a campervan many cheap/free campsites get full before 5 pm and many paysites in popular areas book out completely.
Driving: The number of rental and privately owned campervans and caravans reaches a peak during this time of year. This means that traffic moves even slower than normal. It is not uncommon for South Island drives to take 20% longer than anticipated due to the slow speak of traffic in general.
Mid-February through March
February and March are still high season for international visitors, but New Zealand school holidays are over. This means that domestic tourists will be out in force over the weekends, but there will be a lot fewer during the week. It used to be that March was considered shoulder season, that is no longer the case. The number of visitors to New Zealand increasing has caused a shrinking of the shoulder season.
Weather: Still great
Daylight: Still great
Mountains: All trails should be open
Rain: No changes on the rain front from January.
Crowds: The main tourist sites are still packed. The lesser tourist sites often. Have fewer people mid-week.
Prices: Prices have not gone down and you will still pay a premium for the great weather.
Booking Ahead: Slightly less of an issue, but still needed many places. Campervan sites are still crowded.
Driving: There are fewer domestic campervans and caravans on the roads which makes the roads a little faster but trips often take 15-20% longer than anticipated.
Things do start to slow down in April. Many places adopt reduced hours after Easter. It is important to watch for Anzac Day and Easter. Almost every store in New Zealand is closed on Good Friday with many having reduced hours throughout Easter weekend. If Easter and Anzac Day occur on back to back weeks, it tends to create a large amount of domestic tourism.
Crowds: The crowds are down in April and it is the start of the shoulder season. Each year it seems like shoulder season is pushed back by international tourists staying later
Booking Ahead: The tourist numbers are down enough that you do not need to book ahead outside of Easter and Anzac Day.
Mountains: Most trails will still be open in April, but some are starting to close due to snow and ice. The snow does make the mountains more picturesque.
Prices: Some prices have decreased, but many are still at high season levels.
Daylight: The clocks are pushed back an hour in the middle of the month changing sunset from ~6:30 pm to ~5:30 pm in Queenstown. This gives you less time to adventure outdoors and enjoy being outside.
Weather: It is starting to get cold out. You might be in shorts or you might be in pants and a jacket. There are not a lot of people at the beach due to the temperature.
May is fall in New Zealand. The days are short, colder, and less sunny. Tourism is down on both the domestic and international fronts. The English brought a lot of trees to New Zealand and now New Zealand does get good fall colors with non-native trees.
Crowds: The crowds have finally left New Zealand. Many tourist-related businesses go on reduced hours from May through October.
Prices: The prices reflect the decrease in the number of tourists. Car rentals, campervans, and lodging rates tend to be reduced.
Views: The mountains look even more majestic with a coating of snow.
Daylight: Sunset is between 5:15 pm and 5:45 pm in Queenstown during the month. This is 3-4 hours less than in the high season and really has an impact on how much you can see in a day.
Weather: It is colder and wetter than during the summer. This is not an issue if you hit a good weather patch, but it makes rainy weather not fun to be around.
Mountains: Some mountains are starting to get snow and ice. There are some restrictions on what is accessible in the mountains. Some trails will have avalanche danger, others will not.
June is the start of winter without a lot of the benefits. Many of the ski resorts are not open yet, which helps reduce prices in mountain towns. The domestic and international tourist loads are low. The weekend around the Queen’s Birthday tends to be a little busier than others.
Booking ahead: Not needed
Scenery: Everything is even greener than normal and the mountains are snow-covered.
Sandflies: Sandflies are miserable, but there tends to be fewer of them May through September.
Driving: Traffic is a lot less, but chain requirements and icy roads are not rare. It is also not uncommon for the Milford Sound road to be closed due to ice/avalanche danger.
Weather: Wet and cold. It is possible to get good weather spells and they are great, but it is not rare for an entire week to be wet and cloudy.
Reduced hours: Many businesses that are tourist-oriented have seasonal hour reductions and some close completely (like the best pie shop in Te Anau).
July through August
There are two weeks of school holidays in July and it is pretty common for kiwis to escape winter and travel internationally during this time period. During school holidays and weekends there tends to be a lot of domestic tourism to the mountains/ski towns. The rest of the country has low tourist loads and can be great if you hit a good weather window.
Crowds, Prices, Scenery, Booking Ahead, Sandflies: The positives are still there
Skiing: Skiing tends to pick up in July and continue through October.
Weather: It rains a lot and it is often cloudy. There have been weeks where I have rarely seen a blue sky. It is possible to get a good weather window and they are pretty awesome, but I would not count on them.
Daylight: Daylight hours are still down, limiting your adventures.
Driving: It is not rare in mountain towns and the Milford Sound for roads to be closed or require chains. At least car rentals tend to be dirt cheap.
The main domestic tourism is to ski/mountain towns on the weekends. The rest of the country has low tourist loads and can be great if you hit a good weather window.
September through October
Spring has started in New Zealand and this is true shoulder season. International tourists start to come back and prices start to rise. Skiing is still going, but it is not really beach or shorts weather. I think that after daylight savings time in September is one of the best times to visit New Zealand if you do not have your heart set on doing hikes above the snowline. At the end of October is Labour Day, the first public holiday since June. There tends to be a lot of domestic tourism that weekend/week.
Prices: Prices in October can start to creep up. You still do not need to book ahead during this period.
Daylight: Daylight savings time occurs at the end of September which pushes sunset to ~8 pm. This really increases your time to adventure
Mountains: Many of the trails are still not accessible due to snow and avalanche danger.
Driving: The roads are starting to get better and there are not a ton of campervans on them, but chain requirements and closures still happen.
November through mid-December
International tourists start to come back to New Zealand during this time and more Kiwis take leave. The levels of tourists dramatically increase in mid-December. Many of the positives and negatives listed in other months are just average here and not really good or bad.
Daylight: Good amount of daylight to adventure.
Crowds: The crowd levels tend to moderate to high.
Weather: You can still get periods of a lot of rain and clouds and the temperature is not always high enough to make the rain bearable.
There is not “the best” time to visit New Zealand. If you are planning on going in the shoulder seasons you need to decide if you would rather more mountain access and less daylight in April/May or less mountain access and more daylight in September/October. It rains a lot all the time in New Zealand, that is why it is green. When you go in the colder part of the year it can be harder to enjoy your time if it is raining. During the winter there also tends to be more clouds even if it is not raining. Make sure that you get the most discounts as possible when you visit New Zealand.