I got to New Zealand with no real plan for getting around. I knew a handful of things that I wanted to do, but how I traveled around was completely up in the air. My first night in Auckland was at Queen Street Backpackers hostel, and while perusing some of their brochures and other tourist guides, I came across the backpacker bus section. There are a handful of companies who all run similar bus tours in New Zealand, but the Kiwi Experience looked like the best bet for what I was after, and it just so happened they had a huge sale on the tour route I was most interested in to cover a good chunk of both North and South Islands.
Backpacker Bus Travel Passes
In total, Kiwi Experience has 32 different travel passes you can choose from (as of this writing). Some of them cover just the North Island, some of them cover just the South Island, and some of them cover both islands. They take various amounts of time to complete, so depending on how long you’re in New Zealand, you may find some that work for you and some that don’t. Each travel pass gives a minimum number of days required to complete. You can always take longer and extend your trip beyond the minimum required.
I opted for the ‘Buzzy Bee’ travel pass, which had a minimum time requirement of 15 days, and begins in Auckland. It’s usually $1,195 NZD, but at the time, it was on sale for $499 NZD. I had exactly 18 days in New Zealand, which worked out because the Buzzy Bee didn’t include a couple stops I wanted to make. Kiwi Experience has add-on deals for all their tours, so in my case, I added the ‘Milford Explorer’ day trip out to Milford Sound. Since the Buzzy Bee technically ends in Queenstown, I still needed to get to Christchurch to catch my flight out of New Zealand. Another add-on took care of that, and I was able to stop for two nights at Lake Tekapo on the way. In all, I spent $707 NZD for the main tour package ($499), the Milford Explorer day trip ($119) and the extra leg from Queenstown to Christchurch ($89).
What’s Included on Kiwi Experience
For the most part, you should view Kiwi Experience as a means of transportation. I looked at a rental car for the 18 days I was in New Zealand and before even considering petrol, it was over $900 NZD for a small compact car. However, Kiwi Experience is more than just transportation. You’re also getting the benefit of local guides — each driver is your tour guide, and only New Zealand-born Kiwis are allowed to be drivers. Their knowledge and experience is hard to put a price to, but you don’t get that with a rental car, and you’d be missing out.
All the travel passes include transportation and booking of accommodations and activities. They’ll arrange everything for you so you just show up and pay. The cost of the travel passes does not include the more premium activities (or meals), but they do make several stops each day for free and low-cost fun. Most days, we did a morning hike through a park or nature reserve somewhere, which was a good chance to wake up and stretch off the bus for a bit. Many of the stops I wouldn’t have known about otherwise.
When you’re budgeting, plan on the price of your travel pass plus food, lodging, and fun. You can eat cheap by taking advantage of the daily supermarket stop, and then cook at your hostel. Every hostel we stayed in had kitchen facilities and cold storage, so the sky was the limit as far as what you could prepare. See my post on Diets in Review about one such healthy, cheap meal.
New Zealand is arguably one of the best places in the world to go backpacking, even forgetting about the gorgeous scenery. The entire country is setup for travelers, as tourism is a major part of their economy. There are scads of hostels everywhere, and your Kiwi Experience driver will know the ones worth staying in and the ones you’re better off avoiding. You can always stay with the group or venture out on your own.
Kiwi Experience is a backpacker bus, so meet plenty of other people along the way that you’ll keep in touch with long after your trip is over. Everybody is there to have fun and explore New Zealand, and it isn’t difficult to make new friends. Several people I met plan to get in touch when they’re visiting the States, and I’ve got several to get in touch with when I’m traveling to their country. You don’t get that with a rental car or a camper van, either.