New Zealand’s Backpacker Buses

One of the biggest ways travelers get across New Zealand is by backpacker bus. These buses offer a hop on/hop off service allowing travelers the flexibility to go at their own pace with the convenience of having travel and activities organized for them. New Zealand has three major hop on/hop off buses: Kiwi Experience, Magic Bus, and Stray. I tried the Kiwi Experience and Stray.

Kiwi Experience
the kiwi experience New Zealand
The Kiwi Experience is the biggest and most popular backpacker bus in New Zealand. The bus mainly attracts young gap-year travelers. Nine times out of ten, I was the oldest traveler on the bus. I’d say it’s about 50% 18–22 year olds, 40% 23–27 year olds, and 10% 27+.

What I liked: The Kiwi Experience goes out of their way to make sure everyone socializes and gets to know each other. The drivers play a lot of games and icebreakers, and there are group dinners at most of the hostels. Most of the group ends up sticking together, making it an easy way to find travel partners. Additionally, the Kiwi Experience gets you discounts on most attractions, activities, and hostels.

What didn’t I like: Size. The buses seat around 55 people and when they’re full, they get a little bit clicky. Little groups form, and in the end it feels like a Contiki Tour. I had more fun when the bus was less full and you could get to know people better. During the busy season, the bus is pretty much always full. Moreover, I wished the bus didn’t make so many little side stops. While it’s sometimes nice to see something different, by the ninth or tenth stop, most of the people are simply like, “can we get to the destination already?”

Who it’s for: If you’re 25 or younger or just looking for a party, this bus is for you. It’s predominantly filled with young people who want to have a good time. Out of all the buses I took, I only saw one couple—most formed on the bus. Moreover, if you aren’t looking to get off the beaten track and just want to see the highlights of New Zealand, this bus is also for you. They’ll drop you off at all the main destinations.

Stray Travel
stray travel bus New Zealand
Stray is new, and their goal is to “take you off the beaten path.” While they hit all the major destinations the Kiwi Experience does, they also take you to a few different ones. I was really happy that they take you right into Abel Tasman National Park for two days instead of just dropping you off in Nelson.

What I liked: Stray has smaller buses, providing a more intimate setting and making it easier to meet people. While there are many gap-year travelers on the bus, Stray tries to pick up more older independent travelers. On my buses I saw a lot more couples and people generally less interested in getting drunk every night. They went out, but it wasn’t the only thing they were interested in. Stray seems to have a better balance than the Kiwi Experience when it comes to this.

What I didn’t like: The bus drivers I had didn’t play as many games or have as many icebreakers, making it a bit awkward when you first step on the bus alone and aren’t an extrovert. Moreover, compared to the Kiwi Experience, the buses weren’t as comfortable.

Who it’s for: Stray, unlike Kiwi, goes both ways. You can definitely find a party bus full of gap-year kids, but unlike Kiwi, you’re more likely to find travelers interested in seeing something other than the bar. If you aren’t really looking to party a lot or want to spend time with more mature travelers, Stray is for you.

Overall, I liked the Kiwi Experience better. But then again, I tend to enjoy a livelier atmosphere while I travel. I spend a lot of time online doing work, so I’m usually ready to cut loose by nightfall. The Kiwi Experience is definitely the place to do that. I thought Stray does a great job, and I would recommend them to people looking to do one of these buses but not be surrounded by young travelers.

But no matter which bus you choose, do not buy your ticket before you get to New Zealand. You’ll get better deals and discounts if you purchase your ticket from a hostel or travel agent inside the country. Many of the people I traveled with learned that lesson the hard way.

For more information, visit my guide to New Zealand travel.

(Disclaimer: Both the Kiwi Experience and Stray Travel gave me a free bus pass.)

  1. Jessica

    When I got to Auckland in January, Magic Bus was having a 50% off sale on their top three packages. I ended up buying one that went around the entire country that came out to about $300US. The pass is good for 12 months and I could make as many trips around NZ as I want…um, if I manage to get back there before it expires.

    My experience was somewhere between what yours was with Kiwi Experience and Stray. The buses were large (except once in Northland), we made lots of little stops, and received special discounts on activities. The drivers in general made an effort to make sure we socialized and had a good time, but one of them really went out of his way. I was lucky to have him for all of the south island!

    There were a lot of people in their late teens/early 20s, so I often felt old being 28, but at the same time, there was generally a small handful of people from 30+, all the way up to 60+. One woman in her 50s said she had heard that Kiwi E was the party bus, which is why she chose Magic. I also noticed quite a lot of couples…maybe 1/4 of a full bus.

    This probably goes for all the buses, but I was generally one of the few Americans on each of mine, which was nice. 😉 Most of everyone else was from the UK, Ireland, and (of course) Germany.

    Anyway, I guess if you’re looking for a happy medium between Kiwi Experience and Stray, go with Magic? /essay 😛

  2. No mention of Atomic Travel? Did you get the chance to review them? From my experience, they were the cheapest and tended to have more frequent schedules.

    • Ramsey

      Attomic doesn’t compare to stray or kiwi, its a point to point bus and you would miss out on all the cool little extra’s and discounted activities. got to compare apples with apples

  3. Atomic are only really a shuttle service or “point to point” where as the above one a what would be know as jump on jump off. I the above ones are offering a full experience rather than just transport. Companies like atomic, intercity and naked bus are just transport… good and cheap for the independent traveler

  4. Sounds like a great way to meet fellow travelers, and, given what the demographics seem to be on these buses, a great way to have fun and meet people you’d normally never be around. Sounds like a great opportunity for a nice mix of culture and party, especially for the younger travelers. New Zealand is high on our list for travel – I just get a sense the people are fantastic and the local is perfect for adventure.

  5. Sofia

    We felt that travelling with Intercity gave more flexibility to choose where, when, for how long and in what direction you want to travel.
    We also found it being the cheapest option.

    We bought 50 hours of travelling (and had used up all of it exactely as we were about to leave) and could then travel wherever we liked, back and forth, completely how we wanted. With most of the other bus companies you could only travel in one direction, which meant that you would miss out of many places you would have liked to see depending on where you started off.

  6. becs

    I wish you had time to review Magic in comparison to Stray and Kiwi as well (and even Intercity, even though it’s not a ‘backpacker bus’ but a good alternative to all three, especially to go where you want, when you want instead of always sticking to a certain route).

    Both Stray and Kiwi were started by the same person while Magic is (apparently) totally different then those two. I am (was) a loyal Stray-er but it would have been nice to read about something other then what everyone uses.

    A reason to return!

    • NomadicMatt

      There were only so many buses I could take in my short time while I was there. Taking the intercity (which I did) and reviewing it here wouldn’t fit as this post is just about backpacker buses. i would have liked to take Magic but there wasn’t enough time.

  7. Nice review Matt, whilst I’m giving New Zealand a miss in my first trip around the world I’ll go there another time and probably with kiwi travel while I’m still young!

  8. I am heading to New Zealand tomorrow and really considering buying a stray pass. The one I am looking at works out at around the same price as going by intercity and goes to far more convenient destinations – Abel Tasman for example. The only drawback I can see at the moment is that the likes of stray don’t run everyday from each destination whereas the public buses do.

  9. June

    Thanks for the post. I am thinking of going to NZ in September and haven’t bought any ticket yet.
    Do you know if it’s still very cold in September?
    For people who like bush-walking, is stray or kiwi experience better choice?
    If the website offers 40-50% discount for the pass, is it still cheaper to buy the ticket from local hostels or travel agents?

  10. Travelled from Auck to Paihia last night. First time in Nbus. Got off in kawakawa and quickly realized I had left an expensive pair of headphones and iPAD in my seat (I’d just woken up). Immediately phoned Nbus. By the time the bus had reached kerikeri my property was gone. Noone behind me and only 3 other travellers left at the front of the bus. So, one of them had wandered back up the aisle to steal my property or the driver or cleaners. Nbus calls it ‘uplifting’ property. THEFT THEFT THEFT I will NEVER use this company for anything again and will tell everyone I ever meet that if you do, prepare to be stolen from by scumbags. Phoned helpdesk and they phoned driver, who unsurprisingly had no knowledge of anything apparently. I went down to paihia the next morning and got on the same bus to check. Same driver on board, same unhelpful response. Knew nothing. But did suggest the cleaners might have taken the stuff but usually return lost property. The online help operator disconnected me after reporting Nbus accept no responsibility for ‘uplifted property’.

  11. claudia

    Thanks for the review! Lots of people say you shouldn’t buy the bus pass for the full price – but can anyone tell me how much discount you can expect? I’m planning to take the Stray Pass “Short Moe”… If they’re offering a 40% discount on the Stray website – is that still too expensive? How cheap do the offers get?

    • Thari

      Hey, I agree, great read for people who are travelling to NZ soon. Claudia, I am planning to book Stray too for next week, although I’m looking at the ‘Ron Pass’. I am thinking with this kind of discount (around 250 dollars) it might be cheaper to buy online after all! I think I will to be sure. What do you think Matt? Hope you have a good time!!

      • Peter

        I’m also interested in what sort of discounts you are referring to. The Stray max pass is normally 1565, on for 999 right now. Kiwi experience is up to 58 percent off for some trips. Is it reasonable to expect it to be cheaper than that, especially in the high season? Obviously you can’t make guarantees but you never did mention what kind of discounts people who booked last minute were getting. I used your newsletter to book a 2 for 1 sail croatia trip so you’ve set the discounts bar pretty high!


        • Peter

          No response yet from Matt so I’ll share my experience… We booked the Kiwi Experience for the whole island through a travel agent in Melbourne. Both Stray and Kiwi we’re about 10% off through the agent vs online. Both in the $900 range but way better value with Kiwi. Check multiple agents as the price varied. Also, if the package you want is on sale, book it sooner rather than later. The one we booked had went off special by the time we got to NZ. This applies to the January high season.

  12. John Stroup

    Do not use Naked Bus.
    We’ve recently had bad experience with this carrier, and the more I investigate, the more I’ve come to realize that many others have had unfavorable to terrible experiences with them, as well.
    Leaving/not stopping for people, terrible customer service [$1.99/min phone calls, re booking fees, no refunds no matter what, and it’s never their fault].
    They are a bit of hit or miss. You may have a drama free trip. You could get left in the wop-wops and have your stuff “not found” on the bus.
    They are not really worth the hassles.

  13. emer

    Thanks Matt, since you are one of the few people who have travelled with both companies, I appreciate your insight!
    I was looking into Stray versus Kiwi for a ~2week south island trip. Stray are coming out cheaper and I would like to book asap. I am travelling for work for 1 week to auckland at start of december and making my way to the south island for this. If I am not actually staying n a hostel, can I avail of any discount they might have? is it ok to book these trips so close to departure?

  14. Marcus

    I did a lots of research and ended up going with a company called Haka Tours.

    It was a smaller group, and loads of fun. They are a full tour, so it includes accommodation. the guide was great, very knowledge able.

    I did a 16 day tour of NZ – love this country.

  15. Eleanor

    I was wondering if anyone had any idea of the potential price difference between booking the bus tour NOW, or waiting until you arrive in that country?
    My friend & I are very eager to have the more expensive aspects of our trip booked & out of the way before we leave. We’re thinking of booking the ‘Southern Round Up’ tour with Kiwi Experience which is currently priced at NZ $805.

    Any help would be much appreciated!

  16. Melinda

    I am also interested in purchasing the Stray bus pass but I am trying to be patient and hold on until I am in Auckland. Where did one go in Auckland to obtain this bus pass?

    • Josh

      Melinda, I’m also probably going to purchase one of the stray passes. I’m not sure if I will purchase ahead of time or when I get there…there doesn’t seem to be much information on what will get you the better deal (besides what Matt recommends). I just sent stray an email asking where to get a pass locally. I’ll post back when I get a response.

  17. Mel

    I’ve got the same question… I’d like to get the Bret Pass and currently I’d save around 350 NZD… so I’m not quite sure if I should wait (I’ll be heading to NZ on 30th of March…) or get the deal.

  18. alexa

    how do you choose a tour for the kiwi experience there are so many! I have a list of places I want to see but its hard to decide which tour would fit those places?

  19. abbi

    I am leaving in two weeks and I am still having a very hard time trying to find a bus pass!
    Should I just wait till I get into New Zealand and go through a travel agent?
    I received my working holiday visa so I want to hopefully stay for 6 months or so (I have up to 12 months from when I get into the country). So I can take my time with going around and finding a place that I would want to stay for a few months.

    Any recommendations?

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