Updated: 4/30/2018 | April 30th, 2018
It’s easy to get around New Zealand. Buses go everywhere, cars constantly pick up hitchhikers, campervans are easy to rent, and backpacker bus tours zigzag around the country. Plus, there are trains and planes.
In short, there’s no shortage of transportation options.
When I was in New Zealand recently, I used nearly every one of these options so, today, I want to share the pros and cons of each so you know how to get around New Zealand the most (cost) effective and efficient way possible!
One of the most popular ways travelers get across New Zealand is by backpacker bus. These buses offer a hop-on/hop-off service that allows travelers both the flexibility to go at their own pace and the convenience of having activities and accommodation organized for them. New Zealand has two major hop-on/hop-off buses: The Kiwi Experience and Stray.
- The Kiwi Experience – The Kiwi Experience is the biggest and most popular backpacker bus in New Zealand. It attracts mainly young gap-year travelers. I’d say it’s about 50% 18-22-year-olds, 40% 23-27-year-olds, and 10% 28+. I like how they go 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 most nights. The downside is that: (a) the buses seat around 55 people, and when they’re full, they get a little bit cliquey (and during the busy season, the bus is pretty much always full); and (b) the passengers are really focused on getting drunk (the bus’s affectionate nickname is “The Green Fuck Bus”), hence why so many young people take it. I’d say if you’re 25 or younger (or just looking for a party), this bus is for you.
- Stray Travel – 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 picks up more older, independent travelers. The bus drivers don’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. If you aren’t really looking to party a lot or want to spend time with more mature travelers, Stray is for you.
New Zealand has three train lines: Northern Explorer, Coastal Pacific (currently closed because of the earthquakes), and TranzAlpine. These are not commuter trains but scenic train rides: they come with viewing platforms, audio commentary, information packets, and big windows for taking photos.
Here are the prices:
I took the TranzAlpine across the South Island. It had been a dream of mine to do since my first visit in 2010 and I loved every minute of it. It lived up to all the hype. You pass rivers and mountains, cross gorges, and roll through vibrant green farmland. It was a really peaceful, informative, and scenic way to get across the South Island and made me wish there were more trains around the country (come on, NZ, you can do it!).
This isn’t the most efficient or cheapest way to get around (heck, the Northern Explorer from Auckland to Wellington is 11 hours!) but I can’t recommend this enough. It’s worth every penny.
Tip: InterCity offers a bus/train combo ticket from Christchurch to Greymouth and then onward to Nelson or Franz Josef, but it’s actually cheaper to book it separately.
If you aren’t renting a car, buses are the best and cheapest way to get around New Zealand. Buses stop in every town, and there are frequent departures from even the smallest cities.
There are two main companies: InterCity, New Zealand’s largest public bus network, and Naked Bus, a holding company for more traveler-centric buses and tours.
Personally, I like the Naked Bus as it tends to be a few dollars cheaper and have more package options geared toward independent travelers. But the bus experience? It’s basically the same. Both companies use similar coaches and both have wifi. (Also, Naked Bus contracts out to InterCity on the South Island.)
These are the average ticket costs for sample routes:
Prices exclude the $3.99 booking fee for InterCity and the $1.99 booking fee for Naked Bus.
You can also find tickets as low as $1 NZD if you book at least two months in advance. I tend to buy transportation last-minute so I never scored those super discount fares but they are an awesome deal if you can!
Both companies also offer bus passes. InterCity has two, both of which valid up to 12 months: FlexiPass, an hours-based bus pass (15-80 hours) designed for backpackers and independent travelers; and the TravelPass, a fixed-route pass that’s only good for spots on that specific route. The FlexiPass costs between $135 – $545 NZD, while the TravelPass costs between $125 – $1045 NZD. The Naked Bus has one too called The Passport, which is valid for a set number of trips: 3, 5, 10, or 20. It costs between $99 – $439 NZD.
With the InterCity TravelPass, you can stop anywhere along the route. For example, if your pass includes travel between Picton and Christchurch, you could do Picton to Blenheim, Blenheim to Kaikoura, and Kaikoura to Christchurch all on one trip. With the Naked Passport, you can only stop at places listed on their pass route’s page.
So +1 for the IC TravelPass.
I bought the $135 InterCity FlexiPass for 15 hours. Adding up my journeys on the South Island individually, the price of my tickets would have been $172, so the pass does save money. However, there’s a caveat: you can only use the FlexiPass on InterCity buses, and on the South Island they contract out a lot of routes, so I couldn’t use my pass from on most of the routes to Milford Sound, Mt. Cook, or Bluff (to get to Stewart Island).
So what’s a traveler to do?
If you’re booking far in advance and getting the cheap discount fares, don’t buy a pass. I’d also skip the big fixed-route pass, as they don’t offer value when compared to other giant passes or tour operators. For example, the InterCity TravelPass is $1045, but Stray has more comprehensive passes for less — currently its Max Pass is only $929 and has more destinations and activities. Kiwi Experience’s Sheep Dog does the same for $799. At the higher prices, the backpacker buses make better sense than a bus pass.
I’d buy a FlexiPass since it is hours based and lasts forever. Combine that with other cheap tickets bought far in advance, ridesharing, or anything else. Mix and match what you do for optimal savings. Use the pass for expensive routes and cheaper options for other, shorter routes!
Flying in New Zealand isn’t that cheap, as there are only two companies that dominate the entire market: Air New Zealand and Jetstar — and on most routes, it’s just Air New Zealand. While you can find some cheap fares on shorter routes or by booking a few months in advance, unless you are really pressed for time or traveling from island to island, I’d skip flying.
Here are prices for some popular routes:
Campervans and Car Rentals
Campervans litter New Zealand, especially on the nature-heavy South Island, where people hike and camp, because they serve as accommodation and transportation all in one, and for budget-conscious travelers, that’s a win-win. There are five main rental agencies: Jucy, Travellers Autobarn, Spaceships, Britz, and Wicked Campers. Jucy is dominant; I saw more of its cars and vans than any other company.
Prices vary a lot. Your daily rate will change depending on where you pick the vehicle up, if you are dropping it off at a different place, how long you are renting it for, how far in advance you book, and when you book (going during the high season? Prices seem to double!). You need a degree in accounting to figure out how these companies price their cars! Here are sample daily rates for when you pick up and drop-off at the same location:
Here are sample daily rates for when you pick up and drop-off at a different location:
If you drive, getting a campervan is going to be one of the most economical way to get around. You’ll be able to use your van/car as accommodation, pick up travelers to split the cost of gas, and maybe find travel partners to split the cost of the vehicle itself. If you are spending $70 NZD per day for a Jucy campervan that can fit three people, that’s a savings of up to 50% compared to a hostel and daily bus ride, which will set you back $30-50 a day.
If you use a campervan, be sure to download the awesome CamperMate app, which lets you find nearby campsites, gas stations, and dump stations.
Hitchhiking is easy in New Zealand, and it’s one of the main ways to get around. There are plenty of people who will pick you up. Additionally, you can just ask around any hostel for a ride — everyone is doing the same circuit. I got from Wanaka to Queenstown to Fiordland that way. Plus, hostels also have boards where people are looking for rides. Additionally, check out the Thumbs Up NZ or Carpool New Zealand ridesharing apps.
Book Your Trip to New Zealand: Logistical Tips and Tricks
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