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.
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 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.)