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Traveling between the two main islands of New Zealand can be a marvelous part of your overall NZ visit.

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Getting between the North and South Islands of New Zealand

A range of choices to fit in your vacation needs

Transform your travel between NZ's islands into a gorgeous scenic flight in a small plane between Picton (pictured) and Wellington.

Part of a series on travel to and in New Zealand - click the links on the right hand side for more articles.

 

 

Most people will choose to include time in both the North Island and the South Island of New Zealand during their vacation downunder.

The two islands are separated by a narrow but sometimes very rough stretch of water.

There is no bridge between the islands, so you need to choose between a ferry or a flight, and if flying, you also need to decide which two towns or cities to fly between, and whether to take a regular 'big jet' or a small sightseeing type flight.

Choosing Where You Travel Between in New Zealand

There are several factors to keep in mind when deciding where and how to cross between New Zealand's North Island and South Island.

These include cost, convenience, timing, and how to fit the travels into the rest of your New Zealand touring itinerary.

Most people will either take a ferry between Wellington and Picton (and/or vice versa) or will fly between a major city/tourist center in the North Island (ie Auckland, Rotorua, or Wellington) and a major city/tourist center in the South Island (ie Christchurch or Queenstown).

But just because these are the best known and most common means of travelling between the islands, that is not to say they are also the best for you in your particular travels.

Avoiding the Need to Do a Round Trip

Here's an important consideration.  Depending on where you're traveling from and to before/after your time in New Zealand, you may not need to arrive into the country at the same airport as you fly out again.

In particular, if you are traveling between NZ and Australia as part of your journey, you might fly perhaps between Sydney and Auckland in one direction, and between Melbourne and Christchurch in the other direction.

Or you could fly between any other city (primarily on Australia's east coast) and any of the major NZ cities with air service to Australia (best service with Auckland and Christchurch, less with Wellington, Queenstown, and sometimes other airports such as Hamilton and Rotorua).

You can fly in and out of the same or different airport in Australia and/or in and out of the same or different airport in New Zealand too; depending on what fits with your schedule, itinerary, and airline connections.

Much of the time it will cost you no more to fly in to one city and out of a different one - saving you therefore the time and cost of needing to return back to your entry city in NZ.

There are also flights from multiple NZ cities to other destinations in Asia, to which a similar logic generally applies.

Free or Discounted Flights in New Zealand

Flying for free?  What's not to like about that!  Sometimes you may find that your airfare from your point of origin to New Zealand is the same to fly to Auckland or to Christchurch or possibly other NZ cities too, or if not exactly the same, might only be very little more.

Better still, sometimes you'll find that you could fly eg first to Auckland, then spend some time during a multi-day stop in the North Island, then fly on to eg Christchurch, spend more time during a multi-day stop in the South Island, then fly home again.

Choosing Where to Travel Between Islands

One important consideration as to where you travel between on NZ's North and South Islands may be how you plan to get to the point of departure and how you will continue your travels from your point of arrival.

In particular, if you are choosing to use a rental car or motor home, you will need to understand your rental car/motor home company's one way rental policies and also be aware of which towns and cities they have rental depots.

Not many of the rental car companies have more than two or three depots around the country.  Most have depots in Auckland and Christchurch, some also in Wellington, and a few more in Picton also, but when you go to the secondary centers, your choices rapidly dwindle.

Ferries and Trains between New Zealand's Two Islands

Please see our three page series on Taking a Ferry between New Zealand's North and South Islands for all the information you need about how the ferries operate, what your choices are, etc.

Please see our page about trains and rail travel in New Zealand for information on trains that get to and from the top of the South Island (Picton) and the bottom of the North Island (Wellington) and how to bridge the gap between.

Train Connections with Ferries and Flights

If you are traveling by train for some of your travels in New Zealand, you will have to arrange transfers between a train station and an airport or ferry terminal yourself.

Wellington Transfers between Trains, Ferries and Flights

Wellington in the North Island is one of the terminals for the interisland ferries, plus it also has a train station and airport, so transfers between all three modes of travel are possible.

The Wellington train station is close to the Wellington ferry terminals.  It is walking distance to one of the terminals and just under two miles (3 km) to the other terminal.  A shuttle bus operates between the railway station (platform 9) and the ferry terminal, leaving about 50 minutes before each scheduled ferry departure, and returning back to the train station after everyone has got off the ferry and collected their luggage, with the notable exception being this shuttle bus does not operate for ferry arrivals after 9pm.

Wellington's main Rongotai airport is about 8 miles (12.5 km) from the train station.  This is probably about a NZ$30 taxi ride; alternatively there is an airport bus service - Metlink's 'Airport Flyer' that operates every 15 minutes between the airport and Lower Hutt (one service an hour extends on to Upper Hutt), with two stops in central Wellington (Courtenay Place and the main Bus terminal just a short walk from the railway station).  This bus even offers free Wi-Fi on board.

Christchurch Transfers between Trains, Ferries and Flights

Christchurch has an airport and train station, but does not have a ferry terminal any longer.  However, one of the two train services travels between Christchurch and Picton, so in theory it is possible to connect between flights and ferries (but you'll usually have the need to overnight in Christchurch between the two journeys due to the one train a day leaving very early to go to Picton and returning very late from Picton.

Christchurch's train station was relocated away from its moderately central location and now is in an unappealing location a little further out of town (about 2.5 miles/4 km driving distance) from Christchurch's main Cathedral Square).

It is about a 5.5 mile (8.5 km) journey between the train station and Christchurch's main Harewood Airport.

There is a free shuttle bus service between many hotels in central Christchurch and the railway station to get you there in time for the Trans Coastal train's early morning departure to Picton.  There are no free shuttles for the return train, but there are usually regular shuttles that meet the train and which provide low cost transfers within the city.

Picton Transfers between Train, Ferries and Flights

Picton is the point in the South Island where the interisland ferries travel to and from.  It is a very small town and the train station is a couple of minutes walk from the ferry terminal.

Happily, the ferry and train schedules (there is only one train a day) are synchronized so that there is a convenient connection between when the ferry from Wellington arrives and when the train to Christchurch departs, and similarly between when the train from Christchurch arrives and a ferry departs (both in the early afternoon).

You can even check your bags all the way between Wellington and Christchurch, and they will be transferred automatically for you between the ferry and train.

Picton has a tiny airport and a similarly small airline which offers service between Wellington and Picton up to eight times a day, plus less frequent service between Wellington and Nelson and also Wellington and Blenheim.

This airline, Sounds Air, also offers shuttle transfers between its airport, a few miles south of Picton, and downtown Picton.  Details here.

Flying Between the Islands

The quickest way to travel between the two islands is of course to fly.

A flight is not only quick, but it can also give you gorgeous views of NZ's beautiful countryside on your journey.

You have a choice of two major airlines that operate mainly passenger jets (Air NZ and Jetstar) and several tiny commuter airlines with equally tiny planes.

Note that New Zealand often has rough weather in the air, especially around Wellington, and particularly at lower altitudes.  The jets can usually get up above the bad weather, and in any case get through it very quickly at 550 mph.  The tiny propeller powered planes will struggle through the middle of such bad weather, at perhaps 150 mph or less, which can sometimes make for an unfortunately 'interesting' experience.

That is not to say that flying on these small single engined planes is dangerous.  But it can sometimes be very rough.

On the other hand, if you have a strong stomach, or on a nice day in summer, if you choose to spurn the big passenger jets and instead treat yourself to a flights on a tiny Sounds Air plane between Wellington and Picton or Nelson, you'll be getting a marvelously memorable scenic flight as well as a functional transfer between the islands, and you'll be doing something special that most international tourists don't know is even possible.

Air New Zealand

Air New Zealand is NZ's largest airline, operating both international and domestic flights, and giving you the greatest number of choices in terms of where you can fly between and the number of flights operated.  It is a Star Alliance airline.

There are flights between the islands operating between many different cities.  Here is a list sorted by the South Island city first, and then the North Island cities it operates direct service to (more or less in north to south order in both cases).  Other services can be done with a change of plane somewhere en route, or course.

  • Blenheim and Auckland or Wellington

  • Nelson and Auckland, Rotorua, Napier, New Plymouth or Wellington

  • Westport and Wellington

  • Christchurch and Auckland, Hamilton, Tauranga, Rotorua, Napier, New Plymouth, Palmerston North or Wellington

  • Timaru and Wellington

  • Queenstown and Auckland, Rotorua or Wellington

  • Dunedin and Auckland, Palmerston North or Wellington

  • Invercargill and Wellington

Air New Zealand operates a mix of jet and commuter flights.

More details can be found on Air New Zealand's website.

Air2There

Air2There is a tiny airline that offers service (in tiny single propeller driven planes) between Wellington and Blenheim and between Paraparaumu and either Blenheim or Nelson.  You have a 15kg/33lb luggage allowance.

More details on their website.

Golden Bay Air

The smallest of all the airlines listed, this airline operates 50 minute flights, primarily only between Wellington and Takaka, in Golden Bay, to the west of Nelson, in small single propeller driven planes.  You would have either a 10kg or 20 kg (22/44 lb) luggage allowance.

Details on their website.

Jetstar

Jetstar is a Qantas subsidiary airline, and operates skeletal domestic service in New Zealand between Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Queenstown (as well as flights between various eastern Australian cities and Auckland, Christchurch and Queenstown).  All planes are twin engined jets.

More details are on their website.

One notable feature of Jetstar is their price guarantee where they guarantee to meet and even beat the lowest applicable competing fare.  Details here.

Origin Pacific

If you see any reference to the Origin Pacific airline, this is out of date.  The airline ceased operations in 2006.

Pacific Blue

Pacific Blue is a subsidiary of Australian airline, Virgin Blue.

For three years from late 2007 through late 2010 it operated domestic services in New Zealand too, but the pressures of intense competition between three major domestic airlines in a tiny country of barely 4 million people saw the airline cease operations in NZ after apparently losing considerable money.

So if you see references to Pacific Blue as a domestic NZ airline, that too is out of date.

The airline still operates flights between NZ and Australia.

Sounds Air

This is a tiny airline based in Picton which operates flights between Wellington and either Picton, Blenheim or Nelson.  It has three main planes it uses - single engine, propeller driven 13 seater Cessna Caravans.

The flight is short and on a nice day can be extremely scenic and beautiful because you're at low altitudes and the planes have high wings, above your windows, so you are sure of great views.

On a not so nice day, the flight will be rough and bumpy and unpleasant.

It takes about 25 minutes to fly between Wellington and either Picton or Blenheim, and 40 minutes to fly between Wellington and Nelson.

Sounds Air allows 33lbs (15kg) of luggage free per passenger, and more than that may be charged for, and they do not guarantee they can always accept additional baggage.

Details on their website.

For more information

Click the links in the top right of this page for additional helpful information about travel to and in New Zealand.

If so, please donate to keep the website free and fund the addition of more articles like this. Any help is most appreciated - simply click below to securely send a contribution through a credit card and Paypal.

 

Originally published 21 Jan 2011, last update 28 Nov 2012

 
 
 
Related Articles
Information about planning a vacation in New Zealand
When to Visit NZ and how long to stay
Trains and rail travel in New Zealand
Your Choices when Traveling between NZ's North and South Island
Taking a Ferry between the North and South Islands :  Parts 1  2  3
Renting a Car in New Zealand Parts 1  2  3
Self-drive touring in New Zealand
Self-drive itinerary directory
Christchurch - What to see and do part 1
Christchurch - What to see and do part 2
Hawkes Bay - What to see and do
Rotorua - What to see and do
Queenstown - What to see and do
Te Anau - What to see and do
The Travel Insider's NZ Tour, Oct/Nov 08

Information about planning a vacation in Australia
 
 

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