Australia vs. New Zealand: Which Is a Better Vacation Destination for You?

Jong Soo (Peter) Lee/Flickr

Jong Soo (Peter) Lee/Flickr

With so many things to do and spectacular places to see, choosing between Australia and New Zealand can be a difficult decision. These friendly destinations are a traveler’s dream, thanks to their beautiful beaches, outdoor activities, fresh cuisine, attractive locals, and an overall relaxed attitude. But with these similarities, which country should you spend your hard-earned vacation time in? Of course it would be ideal to visit both, but each country deserves at least two weeks (and if you’re an American, that may be all the PTO days you have for an entire year). So, if you have to pick one, we’ve matched them off in a handful of categories, starting with how to get around. Check out our head-to-head and discover which makes for a better vacation spot for you.


Getting Around

Antonio Olmedo/Flickr

Antonio Olmedo/Flickr

Australia spans over four million square miles, meaning it will be hard to see it all on one trip. Depending on what your priorities are, flying is the best way to cover Australia’s large distances. Several domestic airlines include Qantas, Virgin Australia, Jetstar, Tiger Airways, and Rex. (Book early for the best fares.) Backpackers will want to consider bus companies, like Oz Experience or Greyhound, which are both comfortable, efficient, reasonably priced, and a great way to meet fellow travelers. They offer hop-on, hop-off passes for popular routes like Sydney to Cairns. Older travelers may want to rent a car and take to Australia’s network of well-maintained roads. The country offers some of the most beautiful drives in the world, like Victoria’s Great Ocean Road along the southeast coastline, as well as an epic journey through the Outback. If you have plenty of time, there are spectacular — albeit pricey — rail journeys such as The Ghan and Indian Pacific. The Indian Pacific travels between Sydney and Perth, stopping at Broken Hill, Adelaide and Kalgoorlie, and the legendary Ghan travels between Adelaide and Darwin.

New Zealand is much smaller than Australia, and many visitors will fly into Auckland on the North Island before renting a car and traveling on from there. Adventurous types should consider renting a campervan to experience all the rugged natural beauty that both islands have to offer. There are plenty of holiday parks, campgrounds, and even vineyards, farms, and olive growers that allow you to park at their property (some for free). Some campervan models are as small as a car, while others are fully loaded with a full-sized fridge, shower, and toilet. You can make your way to Wellington and take the car ferry to the South Island. Otherwise, to save time, hop on a plane and rent a car or campervan from Wellington, Christchurch, Nelson, Dunedin, or Queenstown; daily flights are available between domestic airports.

Weather

Steve Collis/Flickr

Steve Collis/Flickr

Due to its large size, Australia has several different climate zones, and the seasons are the opposite of those in the Northern Hemisphere. December and January are the hottest months, while July and August the coldest. Most will want to travel to the southern states during the sunny, dry summer months of January, February, and March, but that also means a higher concentration of vacation-goers. (Don’t forget to lather on the sunscreen, as sun protection is a very serious matter in Australia.) Winter, on the other hand, offers visitors some respite from the crowds and inflated prices, though expect cooler and sometimes rainy conditions.

Located southeast of Australia, further away from the equator, New Zealand has a slightly cooler subtropical climate than Australia. December and January are reliably sunny summer months. One major difference between Australia and New Zealand is that there are mountainous areas of South Island, particularly Queenstown, which receive a large amount of snowfall between June to August, providing great skiing conditions. And yes, it is possible to ski and surf in the same day in New Zealand. Don’t rule out the shoulder season, which boasts a moderately warm climate that is great for hiking, biking, and wine tasting with fewer tourist crowds.

Beaches

Brian briandscantlebury.com/Flickr

Brian briandscantlebury.com/Flickr

Australia is renowned for its beaches (and beach culture), as it should be, given that it has more than 18,000 miles of spectacular coastline along the Pacific, Southern, and Indian oceans. There are plenty of gorgeous places to people-watch, as well as coves, caves, and remarkable rock formations to explore. The southern states have the most popular spots for sunbathing (think Bondi, Manly, and the Gold Coast), plus great scenic beaches along the Great Ocean Road, the Great Barrier Reef, and Western Australia’s shoreline — home of the Eighty Mile Beach. For swimming and body surfing, it’s best to stick to patrolled beaches where lifeguards set up flags for safety. Keep an eye out for dangerous marine life, as well as painful bluebottles, a small, bright blue jellyfish that is easy to spot.

With more than 9,000 miles of pristine coastline, New Zealand holds its own in the beach department. Auckland’s West Coast beaches have black sand, superb surf, and spectacular sunsets, while buzzing surf towns like Mount Maunganui offer white sand beaches that stretch as far as the eye can see. The lesser populated South Island also has beautiful beaches with stunning backdrops of forests and mountains. For instance, Abel Tasman National Park, located near the quaint town of Nelson, offers plenty of activities like kitesurfing, kayaking, and hiking, along with fur seal colonies, penguins, and bottlenose dolphins, which inhabit the area.

Outdoorsy Activities

Mads Bødker/Flickr

Mads Bødker/Flickr

The people who live in Australia and New Zealand are thrill-seekers by nature, and both countries offer plenty of exciting adventure activities, in addition to beautiful cities with museums, parks, and cultural attractions. 

Australia has the Great Barrier Reef (the world’s largest coral reef system) for snorkeling and diving, as well as the Coral Coast. There are scenic coastal walks in Sydney and along the Great Ocean Road where the Twelve Apostles are located. Visitors can also partake in multi-day sailing trips in the Whitsunday Islands, go trekking in the ancient Daintree Rainforest, enjoy bushwalking in the Blue Mountains, or explore the great Outback where the Uluru sacred rock formation is located. If in Sydney, the Harbour Bridge Climb allows for exercise and great views. Or, walk along the pathway for free.

The unspoiled nature of New Zealand can be attributed to volcanic activity which makes for beautiful lakes and mountainous vistas, plus unique wildlife. A visit to the fiord of Milford Sound should be high on the list. Many choose to take a boat ride through these great rainforests and waterfalls. A three-hour drive from Auckland is Rotorua, the country’s primary geothermal area, boasting a wide variety of hot springs, geysers, and Maori cultural attractions. The adrenaline-capital of the world, Queenstown, is a cool small town with ski slopes as well as bungee jumping, sky diving, paragliding, and river surfing opportunities. There are glaciers to hike and rivers to raft, and many of New Zealand’s towns offer pretty walking, running, and biking trails where you might see a herd of sheep crossing the path. 

Food and Drink

Katherine Lim/Flickr

Katherine Lim/Flickr

Aussies like a good barbecue, usually referred to as a “barbie,” and common items include beer can chicken, beef, and sausages. Seafood is also popular and special occasions usually include prawns and grilled fish. Due to Australia’s large immigrant population, the big cities will offer every kind of cuisine, including Thai, Vietnamese, Italian, Spanish, Middle Eastern, and Indian. Now, Australia (especially Sydney and Melbourne) has one of the most well-rounded and sophisticated dining scenes in the world. While you might see kangaroo, crocodile, and emu on the menu at some restaurants, Australians tend not to indulge in their local wildlife that much. 

New Zealand no doubt offers a large variety of fresh seafood. For instance, oysters, scallops, crayfish, whitebait, green-lipped mussels, salmon, and blue cod are staples. Meat, like venison and lamb, is also a staple. Fish-and-chips is another typical New Zealand meal (a traditional brought over from England), and is commonly sold wrapped in newspaper. Kiwis are passionate about good ice cream and have unique flavors like hokey pokey (creamy vanilla ice cream with pieces of honeycomb), and Pavlova, a meringue-type dessert that’s topped with cream and fresh fruit. New Zealand also has several world-class cheese making companies — Kapiti, Whitestone, and Puhoi Valley are some of the top brands to look out for.

New Zealand’s dining scene is evolving from fine-dining (few and far between these days) to farm-to-table gourmet restaurants in a more relaxed, contemporary setting. These menus focus on fresh, local ingredients, often specific to their region and often organically grown.

Both Kiwis and Aussies claim to be the meat pie capital of the world. In Australia, the meat pie is the traditional meal offered at most sporting matches. And in New Zealand, the meat pie is so popular that you can find it at every McDonalds restaurant.

Beer is a ubiquitous drink in both countries, but the amazing local wine industry is even more popular. Australia’s top wine regions like Barossa, Hunter, and Clare Valleys are incredibly varied. New Zealand’s Sauvignon Blanc from the Marlborough region put the country’s wine making on the world stage, and today, several regions have sprung up on both islands with Pinot Noir and Merlot grapes.

Coffee culture is also big in Australia and New Zealand. Look for local favorites like the flat white and long black, and enjoy a cup from one of the many hip cafes. Like the meat pie, both nations claim origination of these drinks. 

Nightlife

remixyourface/Flickr

remixyourface/Flickr

Australia is known for its sociable nightlife and will appeal to backpackers and budget travelers who flock to neighborhoods where hostel bars can be found. Melbourne is the cultural capital of Australia, and its hip neighborhood of Fitzroy is surrounded by street art, dive bars, and live music venues. If in Sydney, keep an eye out for underground parties. Promoters like People Must Jam, Picnic, and Under the Radar put on popular nights in warehouses and venues across the city. Beach parties tend to be secret affairs that locals know about, so it doesn’t hurt to ask around. Byron Bay and Cairns are also known as party meccas, while other Aussie towns offer regular pub and club crawls. 

New Zealand nightlife can be found in Auckland’s wide range of bars, clubs, and restaurants. In recent years, new hot spots are popping up, especially in the Britomart precinct, which is home to trendy bars and restaurants set in converted warehouses and packing sheds. The capital of Wellington has also led the nightlife scene with more 20- to 34-year-olds per capita than anywhere else in the country. Other small cities like Dunedin and Queenstown have rowdy pubs for young folks, and all cities offer lounges and wine bars for adults, with a more relaxed setting. 

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