I spent three months traveling New Zealand by bus and by bus only. While road tripping through New Zealand is popular, buses are a great option for the solo or budget traveler, as they are easy to access, affordable, and plentiful.
Here is a break down of the different options to help you decide the best way to do it if you also choose to travel around New Zealand by bus.
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Travel New Zealand By Bus
If you choose to travel New Zealand by bus, keep in mind they are not the most efficient use of your time. Bus rides can be 8+ hours long because of all the stops to pick up and drop off passengers. Plus, bus drivers have scheduled breaks up to an hour-long.
With that being said, it’s by far the most flexible and economical option for travelers and locals alike. Just load up on audiobooks and you’ll be all set!
Most buses offer free wifi on board. Unfortunately, the wifi works off of cell towers and is unavailable in remote areas of the country, which is most of New Zealand. Some other benefits of traveling New Zealand by bus are that they have comfortable seats, they are air-conditioned, and some are sleeper coaches.
There are two main types of buses: A-B bus lines and hop-on-hop-off buses, as well as plenty of traditional bus tours to consider.
A-B Bus Lines
These buses offer rides from point A to point B. Tickets are cheap and destinations are vast. You can create a DIY itinerary as you go or buy passes that include a certain number of trips or hours, depending on the bus line.
Intercity Bus is the company I primarily rode with while in New Zealand. In addition to single-ride tickets, Intercity Bus offers FlexiPasses or TravelPasses to help you get around the country. Each pass is valid for 12 months and can be managed online.
FlexiPass: With a FlexiPass, travel time ranging from 15 hours for $125 NZD to 60 hours for $459 NZD can be purchased and used to travel across both islands to any destination you choose. The more hours you purchase, the less each trip costs. Estimated travel hours between destinations are deducted from your total, not actual travel time. So, any delays on the road will not affect the hours on your pass. You can use hours to ride the ferry between the two islands and to participate in different activities, as well. Similar to some cell phone plans, you can “top up” your Flexipass hours if needed.
TravelPass: Intercity’s TravelPasses include fixed routes that you can travel at your own pace, similar to hop-on-hop-off buses. Passes for both islands or each island are available and range from $125 NZD to $1045 NZD. All national passes (those for both islands) include an inter-island ferry ride.
Skip Bus is the solution to budget bus transportation now that Mana Bus and Naked Bus have ended their services in New Zealand. They hit major cities and towns on the North Island including Auckland and Hamilton, and several stops between Rotorua and Wellington. Outliers like Whangarei and Tauranga are also on their route.
I have not personally used Skip Bus to travel in New Zealand but I checked out their website and the prices are definitely budget-friendly. A one-way 11-hour trip from Auckland to Wellington starts at $16NZD.
Tips for riding A-B buses in New Zealand
- You do not need to show the driver a printed copy of your ticket. An email confirmation will grant you access to the bus. Sometimes just a verbal relay of your name works, too. I suggest taking a screenshot of the email confirmation while connected to wifi just in case you’re boarding the bus somewhere with poor reception or no wifi.
- Pay attention to the bus line listed on your ticket. Just because you book through InterCity does not mean you will be riding an InterCity bus. I once missed a bus that was parked right in front of me because I didn’t pay attention to what was written on my ticket!
- Buses to far-off and remote destinations may only be available once a day or once every other day. Plan accordingly.
- People in New Zealand drive a bit recklessly for my taste, especially bus drivers. If you suffer from motion sickness, we have some tips to help prevent it.
In addition to transportation from A to B, there are bus companies that are designed with backpackers and independent travelers in mind to offer flexible, guided travel. All the sites and overnights are planned, you just have to sit back and enjoy the ride. They include scenic stops, knowledgeable drivers, and a bus full of new friends you haven’t met yet.
A bed at a hostel is guaranteed during every overnight stop, which the driver will book for you. You can also book additional activities through the driver en route. Your bed and some of the activities are an additional cost, but you’re free from the hassle of researching and booking it all yourself.
The itineraries are planned with a minimum number of consecutive days of travel (anywhere from a few days to a month), but your passes last for 12 months from the activation date. It’s your choice to stay on the bus from beginning to end for the full planned itinerary or hop off somewhere to stay longer. Then hop back on a new bus when you want to move on.
Sales and deals run for each of the following companies all the time. Find them online, ask agents at hostel-run travel counters, i-Sites, and other activity booking sites across the country. Hostels and bars also partner up with these companies to run competitions and giveaways for passes, so keep an eye out for those, too!
The following companies offer itineraries for each island separately or a combination of both:
Kiwi Experience has been New Zealand’s premier tour bus line for 28+ years. One highlight is unlimited travel on a number of their nationwide passes (after completing the full itinerary). Also, score discounts on a huge list of activities when you book directly with the bus drivers. Kiwi Experience really helps to get the planning part of your visit out of the way by offering a prepay option for your accommodations and activities.
Passes have funny names like the Funky Chicken, the Sheep Dog, or Hokey Pokey. Base prices (before any kind of discount) range from $99 NZD to $1599 NZD. The number of combinations to choose from seems unlimited and can be sorted by the number of days and prices.
Stray Bus offers unique, off-the-beaten-path stops and activities on their tours. For example, experiences exclusive to Stray include an overnight stay on a Maori meeting ground, an authentic farm-stay experience, or a wildlife stop-over on Stewart Island.
Pre-discount prices for Stray bus passes range from $105 NZD to $1999 NZD.
In addition to A-B buses and hop-on-hop-off buses, there are also traditional tour buses that shuttle groups of people to specific attractions. Tour buses can run for just a day trip or for several days or weeks. These tours often plan every detail of your trip, including accommodations and meals.
I work in the service industry in a popular destination for these types of tour buses. It’s difficult to see masses of people descend on my beloved town, sometimes treating me and my coworkers like dirt, and then leave just a couple hours later without truly learning anything about a place so dear to me. I swore I would never go on such a tour.
However, my mindset changed the longer I stayed in New Zealand. I grew tired of researching and planning how to get from one place to another and decided to just book a couple of pre-planned tours. The convenience cannot be topped, but your travel fund will take a hit. Fast travel is expensive! Luckily, I found the site BookMe.com and scored a couple of great deals.
Related: New Zealand: Christchurch City Guide
The first tour I chose was the Jucy Sunriser Coach & Cruise. The bus picked me up in Te Anau and stopped throughout Fjordland National Park on our way to Milford Sound. After cruising Milford Sound and enjoying lunch on board, the bus headed back to Queenstown, making a few more stops along the way. You can also book this Milford Sound bus tour through InterCity.
Once back on the North Island, the final activity I wanted to do before I left New Zealand was to visit Hobbiton, the famous Lord of the Rings filming location. I found a Gray Line tour that included hostel pick up and drop off, main attraction stops at Hobbiton and Waitomo Glow Worm Caves, as well as several stops for snacks and leg-stretches along the way. A private buffet lunch at the Shire party marquee and a beer at the Green Dragon Inn was also included.
Stray Bus also offers tour packages that include a guide, activities, accommodations, and some meals. The Cook Tour, their most comprehensive tour available, costs $4345 NZD and covers both islands from top to bottom in just 23 days. Many other itineraries are available for both summer and winter travel.
Travel Planning Tip: Order a prepaid SIM card before you travel!
Additional Types of Transportation
Seeing and doing as much as you can during the time you have is the number one priority, whether you travel for two weeks or six months. Buses are not the only way to travel around New Zealand. Here are a few more options:
Car and Camper Rentals
If you want to spend a little more money, car and campervan rentals are popular. If you have limited time in New Zealand and want the freedom to roam away from tourist crowds, this option might be best for you.
Jucy is probably the most well-known campervan rental company in New Zealand. Their campers sleep 2-4 people and include everything you need: a stove, refrigerator, and cooking supplies, beds with linens, and a camp table with chairs, among many other amenities.
There are lots of other camper rental options, though. Use campervanfinder.com to find a deal that suits your budget.
Planes and Trains
Air and train travel is the most expensive option to get around New Zealand without a car, but planes offer speed and trains offer scenery. Sometimes you just need to get somewhere and get there fast. I flew Air New Zealand from Queenstown to Auckland with a cheap, last-minute ticket using Kiwi.com, which (to my surprise) is NOT a New Zealand-based site.
There are three scenic passenger trains in New Zealand, but only two are open right now. The Coastal Pacific line was damaged during the November 2016 earthquakes and is closed indefinitely.
Walk-on or drive-on passengers can cross from one island to the other on either the Interislander Ferry or the Blueridge Ferry. Both travel between Wellington on the North Island and Picton on the South Island through 58 miles of the Cook Strait. The ride takes 3-3.5 hours to complete.
Buy a Car/Van
One popular way of getting around is by personal vehicle. Many people convert their own cars into little homes on wheels. The used car market is huge in New Zealand, especially for travelers with a Working Holiday Visa. Many employers turned me down simply because I did not have my own car. This option allows you the freedom to get into the nooks and crannies of the country, and you’ll save travel time and money on accommodations.