Hobbit hunters head to the North Island; adventurers head to the South. A hop, skip and jump from Australia’s east coast (it could take you longer to drive from one side of Sydney to the other in traffic), Queenstown has long been a haven for those seeking a little more adrenaline in their life. As well as the famed slopes – there are four excellent skiing fields within 90 minutes’ drive of the town centre – it’s the starting point for anyone who wants to bungee, luge, mountain bike or hike through some of the country’s celebrated natural landscapes. But if you’re seeking to unwind rather than amp up, there’s plenty to do here, too: excellent wineries, peaceful strolls, decadent spas nestled among the mountains. No matter what type of trip you’re planning, this is everything you need to know before you go.
Qantas flies to Queenstown Airport. Flights from Sydney take about three hours; from Brisbane takes 3 hours and 45 minutes; and from Perth requires a stopover in an east-coast city.
Entering New Zealand
Australians travelling on an Australian passport don’t need a visa or permit to New Zealand, as long as you haven’t been convicted of a crime or been deported from any country.
New Zealand has strict biosecurity laws to preserve its pristine natural environment. Read the Passenger Arrival Card carefully to ensure you aren’t bringing in any illegal goods. Declare anything you’re unsure of or dispose of the item in the marked bins.
Flying into Queenstown
Queenstown Airport, around 15 minutes from downtown Queenstown, services both domestic and international flights. There’s a single terminal so navigating your exit is quite straightforward.
Chances are you’ve hired a car so you can explore the South Island further. Several vehicle hire stalls are lined up just before the terminal exit. Other car hiring companies will pick you up via a free shuttle and take you to their sites – be sure to check your arrangements beforehand.
Alternatively, there’s a taxi rank to the right of the main exit doors and an airport shuttle service that leaves from directly in front of the exit.
The Queenstown Orbus departs the airport every 15 minutes from the public bus stop to the left of the exit and operates from 6am until late every day. Purchase a $5 GoCard from the Tourism Queenstown/Milford Sound Scenic Flights desk near the baggage claim at Queenstown Airport. With the GoCard, every trip is $2.
There is no specific advice for vaccines before entering New Zealand. Health risks are similar to those in Australia.
Though English is spoken throughout New Zealand (albeit with its own regional quirks – jandals, anyone?). Māori is also an official language.
The legal drinking age in New Zealand is 18, with a zero alcohol limit for drivers under the age of 20.
Queenstown’s natural beauty might be ripe for drone photography but there are regulations on where you can fly your drone. Visit AirShare to find out the restrictions.
The $2 Orbus network is the easiest way to explore central Queenstown, as well as the surrounding suburbs including Arrowtown and Frankton Flats.
Most activity providers will organise your transport from the town to the destination as part of your experience. If you need a ride from your accommodation to the ski fields, Queenstown Ski Transport can organise a shuttle.
At the time of writing, the Australian dollar was buying around NZ$1.06 – check a reliable currency conversion service for up-to-date foreign-exchange rates.
Check with your bank that you won’t be hit with extra fees when using your credit card in New Zealand. ATMs will charge you for withdrawing money from your debit card, too, so it might be worth organising a travel card with low or no fees to use while you’re away.
In any case, inform your bank of your travel plans, lest overseas purchases are misconstrued as fraud and your card is cancelled.
Queenstown changes with the seasons: the Queenstown Gardens are filled with piles of crisp red and yellow leaves come autumn and the same park will be a bubble of blossoms come spring.
In winter, temps can get as low as -2 °C and up to around 8°C so appropriate attire is necessary. Summer can get as hot as 30°C but temperatures generally hover closer to the low 20s.
When to go
It depends on what kind of holiday you’re here for. The ski fields open from early June and are often still open until early October. The annual Queenstown Winter Festival, four days of performances, food and fireworks is on in June. If you want to steer clear of crowds, avoid travelling in July when the throngs of people are at their thickest.
Late spring and summer are ideal for hiking or mountain biking thanks to more daylight (the sun can set as late at 10pm thanks to the south island’s spot on the globe). Autumn is notorious for unpredictable weather, including heavy rains, so steer clear if you’re not prepared to spend the trip indoors.
Taking a trip to the region’s wineries is ideal at any time of year.
There’s not a specific dress code. Rug up if you’re hitting the slopes and listen to the instructors if they specify a certain outfit before you bungee, swing or jetboat.
Tap water is safe to drink. Queenstown’s water supply is currently chlorinated so expect it to taste a little different. If the taste is not to your fancy, leave a full jug of water in the fridge overnight so the chlorine naturally dissipates.
An Australian drivers’ license is valid in New Zealand for up to a year. A local license is required if you stay longer.
New Zealand’s winding roads require drivers to be vigilant about following speed limits and road signs. Most roads are two-way, with a single lane in each direction, so there are few places to overtake. One-lane bridges are prevalent so slow down on approach to give the correct car right of way.
If you’re driving in the winter, be prepared to deal with hazards such as ice, snow and fog. Use snow chains or consider hiring a 4WD to get you through more challenging conditions.
But the most important thing to remember when driving in New Zealand is that it will always take you longer than you think to arrive at your destination because of the narrow, snaking roads. Milford Sound might look a short distance from Queenstown on a map but it’s actually almost a four-hour drive away – and that doesn’t include time for stops at picturesque lakes and trails along the way. Always check travel times before you set out.
New Zealand and Australia have a reciprocal health care agreement so Aussies can access government medical facilities by presenting their Australian passport and Medicare card. There are some exclusions, including treatment for ongoing health conditions, and the agreement doesn’t replace the need for travel insurance so always organise it before your journey.
If you’re a planning to partake in adrenaline-boosting activities such as bungee jumping or skydiving (and we’re betting there’s a high chance you are given you’re going to Queenstown) check your insurance covers these.
Register any hiking plans with a Department of Conservation Visitor Information Centre before you head out into the wilderness and always carry a personal beacon with you in case of emergencies.
Where to stay
Queenstown’s central area is compact; there’s an eclectic mix of luxe hotels, backpacker hostels and Airbnbs within the city centre that make getting around easy. If you want to open your eyes in the morning and immediately see an incredible vista of Lake Wakatipu, look for rooms along Lake Esplanade or Frankton Road. Travelling in a campervan? It’s free to stay overnight in a fully self-contained one on most public land away from residential areas.
Phone calls and mobile data
Before you land, disable data roaming and don’t answer incoming calls on your mobile phone if you want to keep your monthly bill in check. Invest in a prepaid travel SIM card if keeping in touch with home is important.
To call Australia, dial +61 followed by the phone number – including the area code minus the zero. So, to call a Sydney landline telephone, you would dial +61 2 then the phone number. To call a mobile phone, use the same country code and dial the mobile number minus the first zero.
Power sockets in NZ have the same voltage as those in Australia (230V-240V) and use the same two- or three-pin plugs so there’s no need to bring an adaptor.
Handy apps and websites
- Smart Traveller for safety information.
- XE for currency conversion.
- The New Zealand Transport Agency for advice on driving in New Zealand.
- Adventure Smart to safely plan an epic trip.
- Journey Planner to check Orbus times.
- AA Traveller to figure out how long it will take to drive to your destination.
- Freedom Camping for information on where you’re allowed to camp.
This piece was originally published in February 2018 and has been updated.