Here’s the best of both worlds. A great tour of New Zealand, with a mix of “must see” and “off the beaten track” sights during the days, and a chance to hopefully see the spectacular Aurora Australis “Southern Lights” in the evening(s).
As always, we avoid one night stays, giving you a selection of two and three night stays to make your tour more relaxed and enjoyable, and as always, we’ve put together an itinerary that combines flexibility, free time, and high quality sightseeing and coaching.
The tour is personally escorted by David Rowell – the “Travel Insider” himself, who is a New Zealander, albeit one who has lived in the US for a considerable time. That means he can present NZ to you as a local, but with an understanding of the US perspective, helping you to better understand and relate to this beautiful and friendly country.
Few people realize that one of the world’s most beautiful destinations (New Zealand) also features one of the world’s most amazing natural sights (the Aurora Australis – the southern hemisphere’s little known twin of the better known Aurora Borealis). Here’s a great way to simultaneously enjoy the best of New Zealand while optimizing your chances of seeing the Aurora Australis in the evenings.
We’ve carefully chosen the tour timing to give you the very best chance of seeing the aurora. The best time of year seems to be close to an equinox, so we’ve chosen the March equinox and combined that with when the moon is mainly shaded rather than mainly full.
The main tour starts on Monday 16 March, when you arrive into Queenstown.
If you’re flying from the US, you cross the international date line on your overnight flight, and so to get to Queenstown on Monday, you should leave the US on Saturday afternoon/evening. But, don’t worry – the flight isn’t two days long! It takes little more time to fly from Los Angeles to Auckland than it does to fly to Europe, it is just the way the time zones work. Oh – if you think skipping ahead a day is weird, wait until you fly home, when you’ll get back to the US before you leave NZ!
The main tour ends on the morning of Wednesday 25 March in Dunedin. You could either fly home that day, probably arriving back in the US the same day, or extend on as you wish.
We’re offering a suggested/recommended pre and post-tour optional extension. Please click here for full day by day details of the main tour and the pre and post tour options.
Our main tour is in the southern part of NZ’s South Island. For the pre-tour option, we’re offering our very popular Auckland-Rotorua-Napier touring option that showcases the best of the North Island. This starts with you arriving in Auckland on the morning of Wednesday 11 March (or earlier if you prefer), and after an initial night in Auckland, gives you two nights in Rotorua and then two more nights in Napier. (Note there’s very little chance of seeing an auroral display in these parts of the North Island.)
This option takes you through to the morning of Monday 16 March, and you’d fly from Napier down to Queenstown that day, which is the start of the main tour.
The tour ends in Dunedin, at which point a post-tour option takes you up to stately Christchurch, and then on one of New Zealand’s famous scenic train rides up the east coast of the South Island to Picton, where you change to an inter-island ferry for the beautiful 3 1/2 hour passage, through the Marlborough Sounds and over Cook Strait to Wellington, the country’s capital, getting in early evening, with a night of hotel in central Wellington also included.
The next morning you can either fly home (or elsewhere) on Saturday 28 March, or enjoy a Saturday in Wellington and on Sunday treat yourself to another of New Zealand’s amazing train journeys, up the heart of the North Island to Auckland. You could then fly home either on Sunday evening or Monday.
Is New Zealand a Good Place to See an Aurora Display?
The short answer is “Yes”! Here’s a short video clip, taken about 20 minutes from downtown Queenstown on 28 May 2017, as proof. And we’ll be going much further south than Queenstown, to get you even closer to where the Aurora is in the sky. Here’s another one, taken just a couple of months ago (31 Aug 2019), in Invercargill.
And now for a longer answer.
Most people seem to immediately think of Iceland as the best place to see the Aurora Borealis, but we know more people who have gone there and failed to see the aurora than people who have succeeded. The possibly surprising thing is that Iceland is further away from the Magnetic North Pole (which the Aurora Borealis is centered around) than New Zealand is from the Magnetic South Pole (which the Aurora Australis is centered around). Reykjavik is about 2053 miles from the Magnetic North Pole, and nowhere in Iceland is closer than 1900 miles. But the South Magnetic Pole is only 1809 miles from Queenstown, and a mere 1709 miles from Bluff at the foot of NZ’s South Island. Those extra few hundred miles of proximity might make all the difference between seeing or failing to see an aurora display.
There’s another consideration, too. Reykjavik has cloudier skies than locales in the south of NZ’s South Island. You’ve about a 50% chance of no more than “partly cloudy” conditions while we’re in NZ, whereas in Reykjavik, the chances are as low as 22% and never better than 43% at any time of year.
And still another consideration. Call us biased if you will, but we’ve always considered Iceland something of a barren wilderness, and with an unattractive unappealing main city. Sure, you can enjoy a day or two – maybe even three – in Iceland, and in the summer it can be beautiful, but of course, summer is a bad time to see the lights in Iceland. Any more than a few days during winter in Iceland becomes successively less interesting, whereas in New Zealand, you’ve some of the most beautiful scenery in the world, and lovely towns to visit and stay in. If you go to Iceland to see the Northern Lights and fail, you go home empty and disappointed. But if you go to New Zealand and also fail to see the Southern Lights, you have still enjoyed a wonderful touring experience and can return home thankful for that.
Lastly, the preceding has been considering NZ vs Iceland. To more completely consider your choices, perhaps the best places in the world to see either display would be Fairbanks, AK, or Yellowknife in Canada’s Northwest Territories (or somewhere utterly inaccessible in Antarctica). But there is little else to experience/enjoy in those remote places, making it very much an “all or nothing” experience.
Am I Guaranteed to See the Aurora?
Alas, no. Like any other weather related issue, this is not and can not be guaranteed. Additionally, the forecasting ability for auroras is weak rather than strong, and short term rather than long term, meaning you really don’t know much of what to expect until a few days (or even a few hours) in advance.
The longer you stay in the south of NZ’s South Island, the more chances you have of seeing an aurora. We are spending a generous nine nights in total, variously in Queenstown, Te Anau, Invercargill and Dunedin, but even with this extended stay, we can’t promise any guaranteed outcome at all.
On most of the nights, we’ll have our coach and driver on stand-by, and if the forecast is favorable for aurora activity, we’ll offer you a late evening chance to go and hopefully see it. If we get advice of aurora activity in the “wee hours” like 2am or 3am, you’ll be given a chance to take taxis a short distance out of town if necessary to optimize the clear sky viewing. In Queenstown and Te Anau it might only be necessary to walk outside to see the lights in the sky.
And if we end up with no sightings, notwithstanding our best efforts? We’ll offer you a 10% reduction off the cost of a second NZ Aurora tour (assuming we offer another tour in the future) if we don’t sight any aurora displays on this tour.
Isn’t Winter the Best Time to See the Aurora?
While this is commonly thought to be the case, there are a number of factors to consider. Auroral activity is more or less constant all year, and all day (in a random sort of way), with two influencing factors.
The first factor is that there seem to be slightly better and bigger displays close to the two equinoxes, because of how the poles are positioned with respect to the sun. We are building our tour around the March equinox (which occurs in New Zealand on 20 March, and is considered to be part of their fall/autumn season).
The second factor is that while the auroral displays are as likely to happen at 1pm as at 1am (and the same probability for any other time of day/night), they are not strong enough to be seen in daylight. Only when the sky is dark can they be seen. In winter, the skies are darker for a longer period each day, so there are more viewing hours. This is the only reason that winter is thought to be better than other times of year.
We’ve decided to opt for an equinox timed tour, which we feel gives us the best compromise. The weather in NZ is still nice for our daytime touring, the nights are reasonably long, and the aurora activity may be slightly greater.
Another “dark sky” consideration is the phase of the moon. Moonlight can weaken and “bleach” away much of the intensity of an aurora, and so we’ve chosen the time between half moon (Monday 16 March) and new moon (Tuesday 24 March) to boost the brilliance of any displays that might appear.
We’ve balanced the opposing concepts of including lots of activities and also allowing you free flexible time on this tour.
We’re also reasonably flexible about adding to or varying the tour ‘real time’ as we are traveling. As long as the group as a whole agrees and the schedule allows, we’re always happy to make changes to enhance the experience for all group members.
Accordingly, while including accommodation every night, breakfasts most mornings, some drinks and a few dinners, plus touring, sightseeing and admissions, we’ve left plenty of time open for you to choose exactly the experiences, meals, and other activities you personally wish.
Everything is optional, so if you want to spend a lazy day strolling around one of the lovely towns we stay in rather than a more active day out and about sightseeing, that is of course totally possible. It is all up to you.
Some of what the tour includes comprises :
On the Coach
- Large luxury coach so there’s always an average of at least 1.5 seats per person, giving you best views and comfort while touring
- Bottled water available for purchase at modest price
- On-board rest-room, reclinable seats, plenty of space for carry-ons and purchases
- David Rowell (the ‘Travel Insider’ himself) as tour leader
- Engaging driver/guide and commentary
Where We Visit
- Queenstown – unquestionably New Zealand’s tourist paradise. A lovely little town in a stunningly beautiful setting, and with an abundance of wonderful activities to enjoy, including jetboating and bungy jumping (both activities invented in NZ) as well as more leisurely experiences too such as a gondola ride up the side of the mountain that Queenstown is located at the base of, or a cruise on a historic steamboat across the lovely lake that Queenstown is on the shores of.
- Milford Sound – An area of breathtaking natural beauty. It is actually a fiord rather than a sound, but whatever it is and called, it is an amazing place to visit, and the climax of a wonderful scenic drive through some of NZ’s remotest and most unspoiled scenery to get there.
- Te Anau – An evocative town on the shores of its eponymous lake, and with dense original native bush surrounding it. Legends suggest there’s a “lost tribe” of indigenous people somewhere in the bush, and possibly some thought-to-be extinct creatures, too. You’ll understand why this is truly credible when you sense the remoteness of this location.
- Invercargill – NZ’s southernmost city, seldom seen by international visitors. No, you didn’t step back in a time machine, but sleepy Invercargill sure feels that way. It offers a relaxed pace of life and a chance to experience some of the essence of the “Kiwi way of life”.
- Bluff – To be blunt, we consider Bluff a cold barren windswept place! It is located at the very southernmost bottom of the South Island, but is also about as close to the South Magnetic Pole as you can get, so we’ll go there to see it during the day, and perhaps return at night if there’s a chance of seeing the Aurora Australis from there.
- Catlins Coast – Not only is this almost unknown by international visitors, but even very few New Zealanders have explored this alternate route between Invercargill and Dunedin. We travel this route because of its scenic splendor and are sure you’ll be delighted we did so.
- Dunedin – A beautiful university town, with overtones of its original Scottish settlers and memories of its grander past. It contains what might be “the most photographed building in the Southern Hemisphere”, although we kind of doubt that claim. The most photographed building in NZ? Possibly. But we suspect other structures like the Sydney Opera House are much more widely photographed in total!
Plus, on the Pre-Tour
- Auckland – New Zealand’s largest city, called “the city of sails” because of the beautiful harbor it is set on, and the occasional site of the America’s Cup yacht races.
- Waitomo Glowworm Caves – An amazing experience into a “living” (ie it has a river running through it) cave series, and with glowworm caverns featuring a site almost as splendid as the Aurora Australis itself.
- Otorohanga – A quintessential small NZ town, largely unseen by most tourists.
- Rotorua – The heart of NZ’s geothermal region, with boiling mudpools, geysers, and sulfurous smells galore, plus also one of the major hubs of the indigenous Maori people and their culture.
- Napier (Hawke’s Bay) – Once termed “the fruitbowl” of NZ because of its many orchards, this idyllic region should perhaps now be termed “the wine glass” due to the excellent wineries now situated throughout the area.
And, on the Post-Tour
- Oamaru – A town with a well-preserved Victorian era architecture and grandeur, and the country’s oldest public gardens.
- Timaru – A pleasant service town for the farming community and the largest town in South Canterbury. A good place to stop for lunch (which is exactly what we do).
- Christchurch – The most English of New Zealand’s cities. Tragically harmed by a succession of earthquakes almost ten years ago and now resolutely rebuilding.
- The “Coastal Pacific” Train Ride – One of NZ’s three world-famous scenic train journeys, taking you up the east coast of the South Island from Christchurch to Picton.
- The “Inter-islander” Ferry Crossing – A lovely 3.5 hour sea journey on a large ferry between the top of the South Island (Picton), through the beautiful Marlborough Sounds, across Cook Strait, around the bottom of the North Island, and to Wellington.
- Wellington – New Zealand’s capital city, situated on the hills around three sides of a glorious natural harbor, with a wonderful museum, gardens, a cable car, and plenty more to enjoy.
- The “Northern Explorer” Train Ride – Optionally stay another day in Wellington and then take another of NZ’s great train journeys – the day train from Wellington, up through the heart of the North Island, to Auckland.
Food and Drink Inclusions
- Breakfasts every morning, except in Queenstown, where we stay in self-catering accommodation with kitchenettes and close to a lovely supermarket so you can fix your own breakfasts
- Welcome cocktails the first night
- A group welcome dinner on the second night to accelerate the getting to know each other process, with a drink or two as well (of course)
- Group farewell dinner – a sad experience for sure, but we try to make it as convivial as possible, and, yes, of course there’ll again be a drink or two on offer
- The pre-tour adds a welcome drink, a picnic lunch (weather permitting), a special feature dinner, two winery visits/tastings, and a cone of David’s favorite artisan ice-cream
Of perhaps equal importance in understanding the distinctive and special nature of this tour is not just what the tour includes, but also what it omits.
What the tour proudly does NOT include!
- NO Early starts (well, would you allow us just one, please!)
- NO Crowded coaches (maximum group size 24 people on a 40+ seater coach)
- NO Characterless hotels on the outskirts of cities
- NO Checking in and out of multiple hotels
- NO Series of long days of endless travel on a bus
- NO Huge groups being rushed through tourist trap after tourist trap
- NO ‘Shopping opportunities’ at over-priced trashy souvenir shops
- NO Group meals, at fixed times, with limited fixed menus, in generic cafeterias
- NO Regimented inflexible schedules and mandatory events
- NO Obnoxious inexperienced ‘out of their depth’ first time travelers
- NO Crowded schedules leaving no flexible free time
We offer good quality accommodation in all the places we stay, generally of a four star type of standard, although the concept of four stars is rather variable and in smaller NZ towns such as Invercargill, while we’re in one of the city’s best hotels, it is not quite what you’d expect of an international four star property. But the rooms are clean, functional and comfortable, and the staff helpful and friendly.
Breakfast is included each morning in Te Anau, Invercargill and Dunedin. In Queenstown, we are staying in a nice motel which has in-room kitchen facilities. You can walk to a great supermarket and buy fresh items for your breakfasts (and for your other meals too if you wish, of course) and prepare them in your motel unit to suit yourself. Or just walk the short distance into the center of Queenstown and enjoy a breakfast at a local cafe – they even have Starbucks stores!
As we generally do with our tours, we’ve created variable pricing depending on how many people come on the tour. With the small-sized groups we offer, but with full-sized coaches, the cost per person is quite sensitive depending on the people traveling, so rather than set a price that is unfairly high or unrealistically low, we set it fairly based on how many people are traveling.
The prices for the main tour and the optional pre and post tours are shown immediately below. Note that if you choose all three elements – the main tour and both the pre and post tours too, we add a “quantity discount” to the total sum. We will not operate the tour with fewer than ten people, and normally would not accept more than 24 in total (but if you had a last-minute extra person who wanted to come along with you, we’d probably make an exception for that).
So encourage your friends to come, and not only get the special savings (mentioned next) but also bring the tour price down for you, for them, and for everyone else, too.
To give you an indication for possible total tour numbers and therefore cost, our last couple of NZ tours had 22 and 21 people on them (but those tours featured a different itinerary). We are hoping to get more than 15 and maybe more than 20 for this tour.
(a) Send in your request to join the tour prior to the end of day on Monday 14 October and you’ll get an early bird $100 per person discount off these tour prices.
(b) Why not bring a friend or two with you, for more shared fun and fellowship.
To encourage you to do this, and your friends to travel with you, we’ll offer a 1% discount for each extra person you bring with you (other than anyone you are sharing your room with).
Bring another couple, and they get a 2% discount – and you get the same discount too! Bring two couples and all of you get a 4% discount, and so on (up to a maximum of ten people and 10%). Plus, of course, every extra person sees the rate per person decrease for everyone, as per the pricing table, above.
As always, we do our best to keep the single supplement to as moderate a cost as possible.
In this case, the main tour single supplement is $795. The pre-tour supplement is $445 and the post-tour supplement is $275. If you’re doing all three tour parts, the total single supplement is $1495.
If you’d like to treat yourself to a bit more space and comfort, with sometimes additional amenities or a better view, we offer two levels of upgrades.
Note that not all hotels have upgrades. We do the best we can, and then charge you based on what we can and can’t upgrade, so these upgrade fees are the most you’d pay, and generally you’ll find you will be paying less.
- One level of upgrade + $199 (per person share twin)
- Two levels of upgrade + $299 (per person share twin)
Shorter Tour Adjustments
You are free to join and leave the tour on any day at all. If you’re not doing the complete tour, you get a reduction for each night not taken. This is $200/day.
Air Fare and Route
You can choose whichever carrier, dates, and class of service you wish, and/or arrange for frequent flier mileage award travel. We’re happy to assist you find good flights, of course.
For the main tour, you should arrange to fly to Queenstown (ZQN) and back from Dunedin (DUD).
For the pre tour, you should fly to Auckland (AKL) instead of Queenstown, and then separately from Napier (NPE) to Queenstown (ZQN) on Monday 16 March. We suggest the Air NZ flight that leaves at 11.25am and go via Auckland.
For the post tour, you should fly home (or onwards to wherever else you are going) not from Dunedin, but either from Wellington (WLG) on Saturday 28 March or later, or from Auckland (if you’re taking the train to Auckland on Sunday) either Sunday evening or Monday 30 March – we recommend Monday, just in case the train is delayed getting to Auckland on Sunday.
Please ask us if we can help in any way with planning your flights.
Application to Join
Terms and Conditions
Our standard terms and conditions apply to this tour.
In addition, please note these extra terms :
1. Your confirming deposit of $500 per person is required within seven days of your participation being confirmed. Full payment is due on or before Monday 16 December, 2019. Please note that pricing includes a 3% cash/check discount, if you’d prefer to pay by credit card, we ask you to accept the passed on extra 3% cost for us to process your credit card charge.
2. US, Canadian, and many other citizens require a current passport that will not expire until at least three months after the date of their planned return from New Zealand in order to be admitted to NZ, and require an easily obtained electronic visa. Citizens of other countries should check with the airline that will transport them to NZ to determine what passport and visa requirements may apply.
3. There’s plenty of room in the coach’s luggage bays for as much luggage as you choose to bring. Note that airlines charge massively for extra luggage so we recommend being prudent, but from our point of view, bring as much as you like.
4. Tour price is based on a wholesale NZ/US exchange rate in the range of 0.60 – 0.66 (as shown, eg, in Yahoo Finance/Money – on 9 October 2019 the rate was 0.63). If the exchange rate moves outside this range, and prior to full payment having been received by you, we will adjust the price up or down to reflect the change in underlying tour costs. If the tour price increases by more than 10%, you may cancel without penalty and receive a full refund of your deposit. Tour price is locked in place once full payment has been received.
We recommend you should consider travel insurance as prudent protection. Rather than attempt to sell you some policy ourselves that may or may not suit your needs, we recommend you go to this insurance shopping site, which offers comparisons between something like 100 different policies offered by 18 different insurers, giving you all the options you need.
For more information about travel insurance than you probably ever thought you’d want to know, please click the link to read our three-part series on the subject.