Kristy’s tips for travelling around New Zealand with kids in a campervan

I have thought very often about campervanning around New Zealand so it is not without a little piece of jealousy that I’m sharing this guest post (and another one soon). If you want to know how to travel New Zealand with kids then read on!

My dear (real life!) friend Kristy of Loulou Zoo has just returned from a trip to the South Island of New Zealand with her husband and two young daughters, and she has so many great tips and ideas to share on campervanning in New Zealand for kids. The best part (for me) is that before she went, I wouldn’t have categorised Kristy as a “traveller” now she’s full of plans for future trips and I just love it.

**You might like to use AirBnb for accommodation in New Zealand too – click here to get $25 off your first AirBnb stay!**

This post is full of very useful advice and tips for planning and carrying out a trip to New Zealand with kids in a campervan, and in a couple of weeks I’ll also share Kristy’s itinerary for things to do in New Zealand with kids in the South Island. Over to Kristy!

Kristy’s tips for planning a campervan trip to New Zealand with kids

For those of you who don’t know me, I should tell you straight up that I love planning. And spreadsheets. Oh and lists. Spontaneity is definitely not my middle name.

So the thought of going to another country with no itinerary is both exciting and terrifying to me. But this is exactly what we did when we travelled to the South Island of New Zealand with toddler recently. A holiday that was booked on a whim and on short notice! So prior to leaving I roughly researched (ok, I went mad on Pinterest, with Amanda’s help) some destinations and learned a few things about New Zealand holidays with kids, and using a campervan with kids (even to campervan with baby New Zealand!), and that was about it. Well, other than booking our flights and a campervan of course.

Tips for exploring New Zealand with kids in a campervan

I won’t lie to you – several times on the flight and once we arrived I had to say to myself “now Kristy, you have no idea where you are going … but it will be ok”. And it was – much more than ok!  This is an amazing place to visit with so much variety, it’s so easy to get around and the people are so lovely and friendly. It also happens to be extremely child (in my case two toddlers) friendly: New Zealand travel with kids is actually pretty easy!

A must visit really. And visit by campervan you must!

So let me share with you everything I learnt on our trip – toddler survival tips included.

General planning tips for New Zealand holidays with kids

When should we visit NZ?

In my opinion I don’t think there is a bad time to travel to NZ. Obviously you just need to think about certain things you may like to do, such as skiing in winter. As we travelled during late autumn/early winter (May/June), we avoided crowds, which made everything much easier. We never booked our accommodation in advance; we could just turn up on the day and had the pick of the park. This was great for restaurants too – they were very accommodating with the girls as none were busy!

We had the bonus of seeing snow (I can’t promise this will happen every year!) but having lovely sunny days (most of the time), so it was perfect for us.




Should we go in a campervan?

For me this is a definite YES! Having the campervan meant we could pick where to go that morning and set off. A couple of times a destination wasn’t exactly what we thought, or someone we met would tell us somewhere great to go – and we could easily change our plans. Having the campervan makes meal preparation easier (which is a huge bonus with little ones) and healthier. Having all our stuff contained in one place saved us packing it all up every time we had to go somewhere. And cost wise, the rate per person is much cheaper than a hotel. There are plenty of great places to stay as well.

But having small children in a campervan sounds crazy!

I know, I know – confined spaces and small children who need day sleeps or wake during the night do not mix right? Don’t worry, I hear you.

For us, the amazing experiences we shared and things we saw outweighed the negatives. However, it wouldn’t be fair of me if I didn’t share some of the downsides of staying in a camper van with two kids under three.

Campervanning New Zealand - caravan park in Queenstown

There are the obvious negatives, such as sleep. It is hard to get two babies to sleep in a confined space, and our girls are generally really good sleepers! Day sleeps were only in prams or if we were driving somewhere, and at night I laid with them until they went to sleep. In the mornings, it’s one up, all up! But really, that’s not much different from home right?

The other thing that bothered me was showering in the caravan parks. It was so cold the girls would shiver until we dressed them – I also shivered as once you have a shower naturally you dress your child first, so you have to stand in the freezing cold drying them! Some parks had better facilities than others, but most of the parks in smaller towns had bathrooms that let the cold air in and consequently were cold ALL THE TIME. But we lived.

How do we plan our New Zealand with kids itinerary?

I was so impressed by the New Zealand Tourism industry – it is so easy to find out information about the country. Here is a list of a few places you can go for information on where to stay, where you are allowed to stay (no, you can’t just camp wherever you like!), what to do and importantly – where dump stations are (you will find out about that in good time if you go in a campervan!):

100% Pure NZ – the official tourism website – they have suggested itineraries, places to stay and visit and even an iphone app. You can save destinations and activities into your account and create your own itinerary.

Okay to Stay – this is a great concept – pay a $45 joining fee and you can stay at any of the locations in their directory for free (well you should at least buy some goodies from the places you stay, but that’s win win). They have a long list of local businesses such as wineries and cheese makers – so you can stay on their properties, get to know the owners and try their produce. You just have to check with them the day before to make sure its ok and that’s about it.

Happy Campers – a van hire company, however they have a handy phone app that shows you places to stay, where utilities are, things to do – basically anything you need to know!

Camping NZ App – another great app with all the info you need to know when you’re driving around!

Campervanning New Zealand with kids - Lake Tekapo

We only had our first and last nights of accommodation booked when we went over (which was in a hotel). The rest we just made up as we went along. Most places though will advise you to book your first night’s accommodation at least, just in case.

A little point to note, if staying in holiday parks the Top 10 branded ones generally cost a little more! Smaller parks often provide you that little bit extra and have cheaper rates.

How to survive (and thrive!) in a campervan in New Zealand

Have I convinced you to travel by campervan as yet? If so – here are some tips!

General tips for campervan life

  • Van size: for a family of four (in our case two adults, a 14 month old and a 2.5 year old), the 6 berth was a perfect size. Parking in some town centres was a little challenging but in most places we visited this wasn’t an issue.
  • On the day of pick up:
    • Allow time for the handover process, it should take around an hour.
    • Allow time to buy supplies.
    • Take time to settle in – unpack and get used to the van.
    • Take a photo of the number plate. This will save you looking like a loser every time you go into the reception of a park and not knowing what your registration is … trust me.
    • Work out where the fuel cap is (again saves looking a tad silly when you have to fill up).
  • Packing: pack reasonably light. In a 6 berth van there was heaps of storage inside – but even packing lightly once we emptied our bags and bought food it was full!
  • Storage: try and have a place for everything, it makes the van feel crowded if you have stuff everywhere.
  • Thermals: we purchased ours from Icebreaker in Christchurch, where we received great advice (much better than Australia). For people who have never been in the “cold” before such as us, it is hard to believe actually how cold it can be. Some days I had four layers of thermals on – it’s that cold!
  • Drive times: being from Western Australia I can appreciate long distance driving, but for those from other countries just remember how far distances really are and plan your trip accordingly.
  • Shopping: not all places you visit will have a “major” retail store, so stock up in larger towns if you can.
  • Van bond: be aware there is a large bond on van rental (up to $5,000). You can include this in your travel insurance; you need to weigh up the benefit/cost.
  • Heating/gas: our van had a gas heater, we also had the option of an electric one as well (which we really should have taken them up on!). Make sure you check your gas bottle everyday, as you don’t want to run out in the middle of the night. Our company gave us extra blankets as well: we used ALL of them.
  • Internet: it can be patchy, so don’t assume you will be accessible everywhere. Lots of holiday parks have free wifi or you can purchase it fairly cheaply. We purchased a Vodafone prepaid set up but it was useless – I’d say stick with the caravan park options.
  • Extras when booking the van: we hired camping chairs, but most nights it was too cold to sit outside anyway so we didn’t use them at all (I lie – we got them out one night but by the time I got the girls to sleep it started raining). The GPS however was very, very handy.
  • The handover service for the camper van was excellent (very fast and friendly) and they even provided a transfer to our hotel.

Tips for campervanning New Zealand with toddlers

  • When you book the van, they give you the option of including car seats, so you don’t have to lug yours over there.
  • Take a lightweight stroller with you. Airlines will allow you to check this in with your baggage and in our 6 berth van we had room to store it easily. It saved us on many occasions! Make it one you aren’t particularly fond of – ours really took a hiding!
  • With young ones, plan your day and travel distance accordingly. We generally only travelled for a couple of hours each day (so a few hundred kilometres) so the girls didn’t get too cranky. We would always set out around 10 to 11am, so they could eat a snack and then generally have a sleep for most of the drive. Plan your travel time around sleeps to save headaches!
  • Utilise the TV/activity rooms at caravan parks – if it was dark or raining sometimes we would take the girls there to play whilst one of us cooked/cleaned or packed up. A lifesaver!
  • Try and stay in places where there is a walking track or decent road/path close by, then if anyone (of the children, not the adults!) gets cranky you can take them for a spin in the stroller.
  • To pack lighter, I didn’t bring many nappies – I purchased them in NZ (who, by the way, have some great environmentally conscious options).

Campervanning New Zealand with kids - snow in Omarama

Driving and safety tips for campervanning in New Zealand

  • It’s recommended that you have a day in NZ before picking up your van. Many serious accidents have been caused by jet-lagged drivers.
  • Watch the safety videos available on the campervan company websites or visit the NZ transport Authority website.
  • If travelling in autumn/winter, before you even leave the carpark learn about driving in icy or snowy conditions. You can get into a lot of trouble if you don’t know what you’re doing! Ask about the snow chains and how to put them on (even get them out if that will help you).
  • If you do come across snowy/icy conditions:
    • Check with locals or listen to the radio to find out if it is safe to drive where you want to go (trust me!)
    • Be very careful when driving – have your lights on and drive slowly, very slowly if need be.
    • If you encounter ice – be aware that your brakes can lock if used in these conditions – use only the handbrake if need be.
    • Use common sense – if you see a row of cars stopped on the road, assume there must be a good reason and stop too (do not drive around and possibly into a mountain, which is what we witnessed occur).

Any questions for our New Zealand expert?

Thanks so much, Kristy, for sharing such great tips. I’ve always imagined heading to New Zealand in summer but apart from the icy roads this winter version does sound enticing (I have to admit I always freaked out when I had to drive in Germany in icy conditions).

Have you ever imagined heading around New Zealand with kids in a campervan? If you’ve got any questions for Kristy then leave them in the comments, and remember also to check her post about the itinerary they followed to explore the gorgeous South Island.

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Comments

  1. Hi Kristy and Amanda!
    Great post! Am currently 36 weeks along and have been thinking for the last 30 or so how toddlers and campervans would mix, so am thrilled to hear someone has survived the experience! I have a ski-obsessed husband and a few Kiwi in-laws on the South Island, so we’re really excited about the next ski-season with a 12 month old! This answers a few questions I’ve been tossing about in the back of my mind for a little while now.
    Thanks again!
    L.

  2. Thank you for having me – I look forward to any questions! 🙂

  3. We’re hoping to campervan the South Island in the next year or two, so I loved reading all your tips. I’m wondering whether it was difficult to get used to driving such a big vehicle?

    • This is one of my fears too Kirralee, I always let my husband drive in these kinds of situations as he’s fearless. Will wait to hear what Kristy has to say!

    • Hello Kirralee,

      I must admit I’m much like Amanda as I didn’t drive once! I get nervous in those sorts of situations so we decided he was better placed to drive! He got used to it pretty quickly, once you work out where you have to “line up” the mirrors etc on the van so you are positioned on the road correctly it gets easier!

      As I said parking was difficult sometimes, but if we were unsure I’d just stick my head out the window or jump out and direct! Most of the time though the van was parked wherever we were staying, or at attractions etc they generally have larger bays for campervans.

      You can hold up cars on main roads as you can only go 90km’s so you just have to remember to pull into the overtaking bays or lanes when you can to let them pass!

      Enjoy! 🙂

  4. Lisa Limpus says

    hi there, we are heading over at the end of September to do South Island in a motor home with 2 kids as well. Now when you say pack lightly, how lightly. Can you give me a run down of what you took for everyone pretty please. I am worried that I am over packing or under packing.
    Cheers Lisa

    • Hello Lisa 🙂

      How lovely! You will enjoy it I’m sure.

      For the girls I packed a week’s worth of warm pants, a jacket (a kathmandu one, so very warm), a beanie, boots, a few “thermal” tops (just target ones, to put on underneath their top layers), pj’s, a few long sleeve tops and a couple of jumpers each. I brought some warm socks over there for them. Most days they would wear the thermal top, another top or jumper and then a jacket when we went outside (so what was underneath didn’t matter so much if it was little “worn”!).

      For myself I had some tracksuit pants/warm top for sleeping, a pair of leggings (which I wore under my pants sometimes!), a pair of jeans, a couple of long sleeve tops, a thermal singlet and thermal long sleeve top, winter jacket (an Icebreaker one I brought over there), a sleeveless puffer type jacket and again I brought warm socks there. I took sneakers and boots but mostly wore my boots!

      I did have to wash a few times, which didn’t bother me! I’d just throw a load of washing on in the evening where ever we were staying when we were running low on clothes. I packed more pants for the girls just as they tend to get so dirty so quickly!

      I’m was pretty “lazy” with my dressing each day – as it was so cold I mostly just wore thermals and my big jacket so I didn’t need anything else.

      I hope that helps.

      🙂

  5. Hi!

    I’m so exited to find this blog and especially this blog post! Me and my husband and our two little boys are planning a long travel starting late next year or early 2017. We are planning to see different places, but the “main place” we are going to visit will be NZ. I haven’t thought of traveling with a campervan, but after reading this post I’m convinced that it’s the perfect way for us to see NZ. Looking forward of seing your itinerary!! Will be following this blog! It looks really interesting 😉

    Best regards from a travel enthusiast from Norway (but now traveling in Greenland)!

    • Fantastic! I’ve got another post coming up in a couple of weeks with some of Kristy’s itinerary around New Zealand too. I’m so envious of your travel in Greenland – I’ve just been in Iceland and was so fascinated there. Also: Norway is an amazing place. Glad you found the blog!

  6. Hi!

    Thanks so much for this great post. My husband and I have just booked a 6 berth camper from Christchurch for us and our 2 kids (ages 5 and 2). Do you have any recommendations for the best caravan parks for kids on the South Island? We are planning to drive a loop from Christchurch, up to Kaikoura, back across Arthur’s Pass to the west coast, down past Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers, in the Wanaka and Queenstown, up to Mt. cook and then back to Christchirch. We weren’t going to book any accommodation as we thought we might free camp some nights but I also thought the fun and entertainment options for kids in the holiday parks might be worth staying there. Any tips?

    Many thanks!!

    • Ps. We are heading for over from Brisbane in a month from end of October – start of November. (2 weeks) Any tips for great kids things in general would be great! We hope to take the kids tobogganing somewhere too for their first experience of snow but not sure where access will be easiest. Queenstown?

    • Hello Lou 🙂

      I have heaps of recommendations for you! As Amanda mentioned, if you haven’t already check out the itinerary we followed. I mention quite a few great parks in there. I found all of the Top 10 or other branded parks we stayed at had great facilities for kids, with cool playgrounds (and jumping pillows – they love jumping pillows over there!). You pay a little more for those parks but generally it was worth it!

      When are you going? The busy season starts December so if it’s before then you shouldn’t have too much of a problem getting accommodation without a booking. For free camping, make sure you check out any of the sites/apps I mention above, just so you can make sure you aren’t camping where you shouldn’t! As I say we didn’t free camp as I quite enjoyed the comfort of knowing I had “facilities” close by and the fact we could plug in to power – and most importantly be near where we could get more gas if we ran out (gotta love a gas heater – make use of that!). But free camping is great – especially with the little ones as if they can’t go on anymore you can just stop!

      We didn’t go to the Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers as I read a bit about the difficulty of accessing those places with small children (especially after our first glacier “experience”) – but this is entirely personal of course so google it and see what you think!

      In the post with my itinerary I mentioned a few kiddie “must do’s” – that being the seals near Kaikoura, the animal farm in Geraldine and the farm tour in Queenstown. The seals were my personal favourite (and something my 2.5 year old still talks about).

      Let me know if I can help with anything else and I would love to hear about where you went when you get home!

      Kristy

  7. Hi
    Thank you very much for this information. I’m from NZ myself, and will soon have a short holiday in the north island with my husband, toddler and baby – in a small campervan – and I think your tips will be really useful.
    Kind regards

  8. Hi, what an inspiring blog post. I’ve always wanted to travel around New Zealand but since having kids thought I’d have to wait 18 years until they’ve flown the nest but actually why wait? Take them with me!

    Can I be nosy and ask how much you spent in total? It will be in a couple of years at least as need to save up and would be great to have a rough idea!

    Also how long were you there for? Was it long enough? Or too long?

    Many thanks
    Louise

    • Hello Louise

      No problems. Our airfares from Perth to NZ were around $2.6k AUD – that includes one child (we only paid $70 for our youngest) and we booked them fairly last minute so I dare say with some forward planning you would probably save money!

      Campervan hire really depends on when you go and which van you choose – have a look on one of the rental sites and put in some dates/choose a van and see what you get, that would be best for that one!

      Then spending money really comes down to personal preference – we ate in the van quite a bit but did spend money on sight seeing/tours. If you’re from Australia, then the cost of food etc is fairly similar.

      We were there for 19 days – I think you always long for more when you are on a holiday, however I think that was enough time being in the campervan with the kiddos – I was also looking forward to a warm shower in a “real” bathroom (not a caravan park!).

      I hope that helps!

      Cheers
      Kristy

  9. Hey. Great article. I’m just wondering how much I should expect to pay for site fees during christmas holidays. Also, is it possible to just pull up for the night any nice place you like in NZ?

    Thanks for your help.

    • Hi Kieran

      No problems. I’m not 100% sure – they are all different! Being peak period it would be more though, maybe have a look on some of the websites for the Top 10 parks (they were generally the most expensive!).

      You can’t just stop anywhere, it’s best to check on one of the apps I have mentioned above to be sure, as although there are a lot of free camping sites – some areas are restricted! The “Okay to Stay” option I mentioned above is great too!

      Cheers
      Kristy

  10. Hi,

    We’re looking into a motorhome for our trip jan/Feb 17. Our little girl will be 2.5 years old. We hope to do 2 weeks north island and 2 weeks south Island. Do you think we will have enough time? Also can you stay in a campsite longer that 1 night, do they keep your site for you for a 2nd/3rd night? This is all new territory for us. We will be travelling from Northern Ireland so we have a long trip.
    Any advice would be appreciated!
    I thought a motorhome would be the safest bet as there’s always a toilet on hand and my little girl has food allergies so will be easier to cater for.
    Loving reading about you trip and tips along the way.

    • Hi Ruth

      How exciting! 2 weeks on each island should be fine, but you will just have to prioritise what you want to see to make sure you can fit it in!

      You have to ask for the amount of nights you want to stay, they don’t automatically reserve a spot for you after 1 night. It depends how busy they are as to how long you will be able to stay, if you book in advance then you should be able to stay as long as you like! If you don’t book and they have room, then you can just pull up and stay there as long as you like. We were lucky enough to go when there weren’t many people around so we never had any troubles with accomodation!

      Yes great idea, with little ones it does make it easier.

      Let me know if you have any other questions, I’d be happy to help.

  11. Thanks so much for this post! I’ve got a heap more ideas from here 🙂 We live in NZ and are doing a 3 week campervan trip at the start of spring around the North Island… I’m so excited about it and looking forward to reading more of your posts 🙂

  12. Great post! I’m a first time mum planning a trip in 6 mths. My boy will be 18mths old. My only concern is sleeping. He’s pretty settled in his own cot (well, after a bit of a cry, most of the time). We could take a porta cot with us or I could sleep with him.

    My question is: how long did your little ones take to settle into their new surroundings for sleeping?

    My boy is already turning into a climber so I don’t think sleeping with him is an option. And having me in the room with him may be a bigger distraction… I just don’t know. And every child is different but hearing your thoughts would be great.

  13. Oliver Jones says

    Gotta do the same.I’ll be travelling with my best buddies next time.

  14. hi,
    woww! a great post!
    i am planning to do south NZ in Sept2016. any specific tips for the season?
    2adults + 3 kids (5yo, 3yo and 9months old).
    i still contemplate to take motorhomes or rent a car/mpv+hotel/motel.
    i am pretty nervous to handle them (in motorhomes) alone, and husband will handle the drive etc.
    can you advise? thank you so much

  15. Great post! We traveled with a 9 month old in Sep 15 from Christchurch – Hanmer Springs – Franz Josef – Wanaka – Queenstown – Lake Tekapo – Christchurch and wish i found this earlier. I have to agree travelling after 10/11 when they are due for their day sleep was the best idea. Our boy didn’t love showers so once we picked up Camper we went to Mitre 10 & purchased a big tub that he bathed in the van. There’s a website called Kids Go that tells you kid friendly accom/restaurants/activities. We filled up a big thermos each morning at the campground for his bottles so we were prepared for the day. Otherwise Tripadvisor gives you a good idea on other peoples experiences. Happy travels

  16. Hi Kristy.

    I’m also from WA. Thanks for your post! Hubby & I always thought of going on a campervan all the time as we love road trip but never had the guts. Now that we have an 18 month boy it would be near impossible, but your post has been inspirational. Your advise is really useful.

    If you dont mind me asking, Do you have a previous experience prior to this trip? Out of curiosity Most campervan has a shower in it which I assumed that was what you had but why did you choose to shower in the caravan park?

    I’m so excited looking forward to your reply.

    • Hi Shirley, in case Kristy doesn’t see this, I think I can help with the answers – I’m pretty sure they hadn’t been campervanning at all prior to this trip and certainly hadn’t travelled anywhere far with the two girls. I remember being surprised (pleasantly!) that they suddenly booked this trip! I’m assuming that showering the two girls at once was easier in the larger space of the caravan park. When I was a kid we spent six months campervanning around Europe and it was the same, the shower in the campervan was just too much trouble to use, and much nicer to use the ablution block.

  17. Hi!

    My wife and I are thinking of doing a campervan trip in New Zealand with our newborn at around 6 months old. Could you talk about logistics in terms of 1) sitting while driving and 2) sleeping

    For sitting. Where did your kids sit? Was it at the back and rear facing? I had thought about wanting our newborn to sit in the front with us (in those front 3 seaters) but i heard that’s dangerous due to airbags. Even if you can deactivate them, there’s always risk. Can you tell me what were the seat arrangements of the kids while you guys were driving around?

    For sleeping, where did your kids sleep? Were there in the same bed as you? Or did you have separate beds? For newborns, i heard it’s dangerous to have them sleep in the same bed/surface with you as you can roll over them

    Thank you so much for any information you can provide.

  18. Hi Kristy!

    Hope you are still reading/responding here 🙂

    Thanks for sharing. We are going to travel around 6 months with our kids (1.5 and 2.5 years old), and are considering to spend 4 months in a 6-berth rental motorhome to see New Zealand. Oct-Feb. Is it crazy to spend such long time in a motorhome with toddlers or do you think it can work?

    Thanks!

    Toine

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