New Zealand's a dream for family travel: kid-centric activities, family-friendly accommodation, a moderate climate and very little danger. Unadventurous palates can always be accommodated and food servers are clued up on dietary requirements. Base yourself in a sizeable town for amenities galore and excursions within a short drive.
Best Regions for Kids
- Rotorua & the Bay of Plenty
Wow, bubbling volcanic mud, stinky gas, gushing geysers and Māori haka performances! Rotorua is hard to beat from a kid's perspective. And around the Bay of Plenty coast are beaut beaches and plenty of fish and chip shops.
- Wellington Region
You need a compact city if you're walking around with kids. Wellington fits the bill, with a brilliant museum, a ratchety cable car, lots of cheery cafes and fab Kapiti Coast beaches less than an hour away.
- Queenstown & Wanaka
New Zealand's winter sports scene suits pro snowheads (and après-ski fans) but it's just as easy to enjoy with kids...actually, it's more fun. Cardrona has kid-friendly skiing, and there's Wanaka's Puzzling World for ski-free days.
- Christchurch & Canterbury
Nature parks, row boats, the International Antarctic Centre and botanic gardens in the big city, and the amazing Banks Peninsula not far away (penguins, dolphins and pretty birds).
New Zealand for Kids
Fabulous wildlife parks, beaches, parks, snowy slopes and interactive museums proliferate across NZ. There are countless attractions and amenities designed specifically for kids but families needn't stick to playgrounds and holiday parks. Kid-appropriate adventures, from glaciers to white-water rafting, are everywhere...if parents are brave enough, that is.
Admission Fees & Discounts
Kids' and family rates are often available for accommodation, tours, attraction entry fees, and air, bus and train transport, with discounts up to as much as 50% off the adult rate. Note that the definition of ‘child’ can vary from under 12 to under 18 years; toddlers (under four years old) usually get free admission and transport.
Eating Out With Children
If you sidestep the flashier restaurants, children are generally welcome in NZ eateries. Cafes are kid-friendly, and you’ll see families getting in early for dinner in pub dining rooms. Most places can supply high chairs. Dedicated kids' menus are common, but selections are usually uninspiring (pizza, fish fingers, chicken nuggets etc). If a restaurant doesn’t have a kids' menu, find something on the regular menu and ask the kitchen to downsize it. It’s usually fine to bring toddler food in with you. If the sun is shining, hit the farmers markets and find a picnic spot. New Zealand's restaurants are decent at catering for gluten-free and dairy-free diners – one less thing to worry about if kids follow a special diet.
Breastfeeding & Nappy Changing
Most Kiwis are relaxed about public breastfeeding and nappy changing: wrestling with a nappy (diaper) in the open boot of a car is a common sight! Alternatively, most major towns have public rooms where parents can go to feed their baby or change a nappy. Infant formula and disposable nappies are widely available.
For babysitters who have been fully interviewed, have supplied child-care references and undergone a police check, try www.rockmybaby.co.nz (from $16 per hour). Alternatively look under ‘baby sitting’ in the Yellow Pages (www.yellow.co.nz).
- Book accommodation far in advance: many motels and hotels have adjoining rooms that can be opened up to form large family suites, but they are snapped up fast, especially in peak season.
- If you're planning to roam between locations, stock up on food in larger towns. There's much more choice, and prices in smaller food shops in remote locations can be sky high.
- Plan stops in advance if you're travelling by road. Distances can feel long but fortunately NZ is rich in gorgeous lookouts, roadside waterfalls and many towns have prominent public toilets, hurrah!
Children Will Love...
- Queenstown Everything from kids' rafting trips to paragliding, bungee jumping, ziplines, ice skating and (of course) skiing.
- Whanganui Journey A slow-roaming canoe trip the kids will never forget.
- Abel Tasman Horse Trekking Paddock rides for little ones and beach horse treks for those aged 12 and up.
- Cape Reinga & Ninety Mile Beach Go sandboarding on gigantic dunes.
- The Catlins Flat rambles a few minutes long, rewarded by waterfalls...no tired little legs here.
- Redwoods Whakarewarewa Forest Big-timber mountain biking for older kids in Rotorua.
- Hahei Beach, Coromandel Peninsula The classic NZ summer beach.
- Ngarunui Beach, Raglan Learn to surf on gentle Waikato waves in view of lifeguards.
- Mt Maunganui Sand and surf for the kids, cafes and bars for the oldies.
- Hot Water Beach, Coromandel Peninsula Dig your own hot pool in the sand (but check the temperature).
- Long Beach, Russell A short walk or cycle from Russell, calm waters and a couple of trees for shade.
- Kiwi Birdlife Park, Queenstown Spot a kiwi and myriad squawking birds.
- Akaroa Dolphins, Akaroa Watch dolphins from a catamaran, in the company of a wildlife-spotting dog.
- West Coast Wildlife Centre, Franz Josef Meet the tuatara (pint-sized dinosaurs).
- Zealandia, Wellington Twittering birds in predator-free hills.
- Royal Albatross Centre, Otago Peninsula Watch little penguins waddle ashore at dusk from Pilots Beach.
- Aroha Island, Kerikeri Do a DIY kiwi-spotting walk at this private eco reserve.
Culture with Kids
- Te Papa, Wellington Earthquakes, Māori culture and molten magma.
- Auckland Museum The Auckland volcanic field and a 25m waka taua (war canoe).
- Hobbiton, Matamata Tours of hobbit holes and a drink in the Green Dragon Inn.
- Canterbury Museum, Christchurch A mummy, dinosaur bones and a cool Discovery Centre.
- Puke Ariki, New Plymouth A mighty big shark plus Māori exhibits and more.
- Shantytown, Greymouth All aboard a steam train for gold-panning in a recreated gold-rush town.
- Mt Vic Chippery, Wellington Exceptional fish and (five kinds of!) chips.
- Bennetts Watch chocolate makers at work in Mangawhai.
- Hawke's Bay Farmers Market Fill a basket and have a picnic.
- Kiwifruit, Motueka Pick up a ripe bag at harvest time at the Sunday market.
- Sweet Alice's Fudge Kitchen, Hokitika Candies, ice cream and fudge on the West Coast.
- Gisborne Farmers Market Macadamia nuts, oranges, pastries...and all of it local.
Queenstown Ice Arena Skate the rink, watch ice-hockey or hire frisbees for disc golf.
Family Adventures, Queenstown Kids as young as three can shoot the rapids on the Shotover River.
Coromandel Zipline Tours, Coromandel Peninsula Eight separate sections traversing the canopy of the Driving Creek Conservation Park.
Paddles & Saddles, Great Barrier Island Explore the island by bike, kayak or scooter.
For all-round information and advice, check out Lonely Planet’s Travel with Children. Plan ahead by browsing Kidz Go! (www.kidzgo.co.nz) or pick up a free copy of its booklet from tourism info centres in Queenstown, Wanaka and Fiordland.
When to Go
New Zealand is a winner during summer (December to February), but summer is peak season and school-holiday time. Accommodation will be pricey and will require booking far ahead, especially for family-sized rooms. A better bet may be the shoulder months of March, April (sidestepping Easter) and November, when the weather is still good and there’s less pressure on the tourism sector. Winter (June to August) is better again – chances are you’ll have the whole place to yourselves! Except for the ski fields, of course, most of which are fully geared towards family snow-fun.
Many motels and holiday parks have playgrounds, games rooms and kids' DVDs, and often fenced swimming pools, trampolines and acres of grass (many have laundry facilities, too). Cots and high chairs aren’t always available at budget and midrange accommodation, but top-end hotels supply them and some provide child-minding services. The bach (a basic holiday home) is a good-value option, while farmstays can be highly entertaining with the menagerie of animals on-site.
Many B&Bs promote themselves as blissfully kid-free, and most hostels focus on the backpacker demographic. But there are plenty of hostels (including YHA) that do allow kids.
What to Pack
- Lots of layers New Zealand’s weather can be fickle, even in summer. Pack beach gear for summer trips, but throw in a few thermal long-sleeve tops and jackets.
- Sunhats, sunscreen and sunglasses Sunglasses for all, even in winter.
- Food containers Farmers markets, beaches...NZ is primo picnic territory.
- Insect repellent Itchy sandfly bites make grumpy children.
If your kids are little, check that your car-hire company can supply the right-sized car seat for your child, and that the seat will be properly fitted. Some companies legally require you to fit car seats yourself.
Most public transport – buses, trains, ferries etc – caters for young passengers, with discounted fares and a helping hand getting your stroller/nappy bag/shopping aboard.
Consider hiring a campervan for the whole trip. These formidable beasts are everywhere in NZ, kitted out with beds, kitchens, even toilets and TVs. Hire companies proliferate in major centres, with reasonable rates once you consider the savings on accommodation (and goodbye unpacking, repacking and leaving teddy in a hotel room).
- Lonely Planet Kids (www.lonelyplanetkids.com) Loads of activities and great family-travel blog content.
- LetsGoKids (http://letsgokids.co.nz) Download the NZ edition for family travel inspiration and money-saving vouchers.
- Kidspot (www.kidspot.co.nz) The 'Family Fun' section has suggestions for child-friendly activities, road trips and more.
Keeping Costs Down
Campsites, holiday parks and kid-friendly motels are all great options for family travel on the cheap with shared kitchens to cook in. Coastal campsites are often located near beaches and may offer other free outdoor activities. Motels sometimes include a kitchenette.
Most museums, galleries, entertainment parks, wildlife sanctuaries and similar attractions offer kids' concessions and/or family tickets that let the whole tribe in for less.
Most midrange restaurants and pubs will offer a kids' menu, with choices, portions and prices adapted to the needs of younger diners. When the weather's good, hit farmers' markets for an al fresco picnic, where kids don't need to sit still.
Urban transport networks all offer discounts to children and students; infants usually travelling for free. When weather, terrain and your plans allow, consider kitting the family out with rental bikes to take advantage of NZ's fantastic cycling infrastructure, or the flat topography of cities like Christchurch.
Region by Region
Bay of Islands & Northland
Waikato & the Coromandel Peninsula
Taranaki & Whanganui
Taupo & the Ruapehu Region
Rotorua & Bay of Plenty
Head around East Cape for an earthy, authentic, no-frills driving tour with the kids. Empty beaches; dune-side holiday parks; fish and chips at the pub; Māori dudes with full-face tā moko … it’s one of the last really untouristed places on the North Island.
Christchurch & Canterbury
Dunedin & Otago
Fiordland & Southland
Queenstown & Wanaka
Nelson & Marlborough
Good to Know
Look out for the c icon for family-friendly suggestions throughout this guide.
Babies and Toddlers Attitudes to public breastfeeding are pretty enlightened throughout New Zealand, while infant formula, nappies and other essentials are readily available in supermarkets, pharmacies and smaller groceries.
Dining Out The golden rule is ‘be considerate’: kids are welcome in most eating establishments, but their behaviour is your responsibility, and fine-dining patrons will expect to enjoy an adults-only environment. Generally, licensed establishments such as pubs welcome well-behaved kids, but not after dinner time.
Prams and Pushchairs New Zealand’s cities are well-paved, well-lit and easy to negotiate for parents pushing prams and pushchairs.
Seat Belts Everyone must wear seat belts while in moving vehicles, with appropriately anchored chairs and capsules mandated by law for the very youngest.
Public Transport Kids’ discounts of different kinds exist for all mass-transit systems in New Zealand. Infants travel free.
Hire Vehicles If your kids are little, check that your car-hire company can supply the right-sized car seat for your child, and that the seat will be properly fitted. Some companies legally require you to fit car seats yourself. Consider hiring a campervan. These formidable beasts are everywhere in NZ, kitted out with beds, kitchens, and even toilets and TVs.