You may or may not have heard of the Kiwi Experience Bus, which is a semi-organized tour that runs through both islands of New Zealand, aimed at backpackers. I say semi organized because it is essentially a hop on/ hop off bus, however they also organize accommodation and activities for you. There are a bunch of different passes you can choose from which take you on slightly different routes, and I chose to travel on the Zephyr Pass, which is the Sheepdog Pass (north and south island) combined with the Bay of Islands. I travelled on this pass for just over three weeks in November and December 2016, however you can take between 19 days and a year to do the whole route, which also makes it ideal for those on working holiday visas. You can read about the highlights of my trip here, and below is my review on each aspect of the Kiwi Experience Bus.
I believe the price is very affordable and definitely cheaper than hiring a campervan if you are travelling solo. If there are a group of you, you would need to weigh up the costs but this is definitely a hassle free way to travel and socialize with others. I met some backpackers travelling on the local intercity busses, which may be cheaper but definitely not as fun and you would need to organize accommodation and activities yourself. There are always deals on the website so I would not recommend buying a pass at full price as they are usually 40-60% off. I got my pass for around $600, instead of around $1000.
The accommodation was generally in hostels with kitchens, apart from a few Kiwi Experience Special stays like the Maori Village in Rotorua, which I highly recommend. You also have the option to book your own accommodation at a destination and the bus can usually drop you there, however I found it more convenient and fun to book with Kiwi Experience and stay with everyone on the bus. The hostels also all have a kitchen, which makes it easy to cook your own meals and stay on a budget.
Your bus driver is your tour guide and they will provide you with commentary and info on all the activities and stops along the way. Our drivers stopped at many cool hiking spots on bus days, which allowed us to see as much of NZ as possible. Sometimes I felt a little lazy (or hungover!) but all of the walks and hikes we did were definitely worth it and broke up the sometimes long days of driving. I had two different drivers on my trip and they were both extremely knowledgeable, fun and helpful. They also make sure you have supermarket stops on most days, so you can buy snacks and food to cook for dinner.
Most of the people on the trip will be young backpackers from Europe and the UK between 18-30, and many will be on world trips or have working holiday visas. At the start of the trip I was on a bus where people didn’t want to drink and party as much, however the dynamics changed and it became more social when I stayed an extra day somewhere and ended up on a different bus. I also found that because it is a hop on and off bus many of the people you meet and form friendships with will be staying at places longer than you so you may not see them again, or you may meet up with them a week later when they catch up to you. This totally sucks when you meet amazing people and have to say goodbye to them a few days later. It was also a little tiring constantly changing groups and having to introduce yourself to people but I guess this is just a part of backpacking and travelling solo, which I was not used to.
The Kiwi Experience has many different activities on offer from sky diving to black water rafting, to visiting Hobbiton, which is sure to please any Lord of the Rings fan. Whilst they do not run these activities you can book them through Kiwi at a usually discounted price. I would recommend researching which activities you want to do before the trip as you usually sign up for the activities on the bus and don’t have much time to think about it. This resulted in me wasting money on certain activities and regretting not signing up for others. However, keep in mind if you are on a budget that you can often find better deals on activities through websites such as bookme, especially if you book them in advance.
As a hop on and off bus you have the flexibility to stay in each place as long as you want, or just do the minimum time. You can decide your itinerary before you go, or you can choose as you go which involves calling the Kiwi Experience office to see if there are any spots on the bus you want. It is usually not a problem to change busses, however in peak times you will be added to a standby list. I went just before peak time and none of my busses were ever completely full.
Before my trip I had already decided I was doing the minimum time everywhere except for Queenstown where I would extend to four nights instead of two. However, this did screw me over a little bit as there were many places I would have liked to stay longer such as Wellington (you arrive at night and leave in the morning so have no time to see anything on minimum time), and Lake Taupo, which I did stay an extra night in but that meant I had to shorten my time in Queenstown as I had already booked my flight home. I also stayed in Paihia for two nights instead of one, as I arrived on Saturday and the busses don’t run back to Auckland until Monday. This worked out well as there was no way you would have time to do or see anything if you only stayed there for one night.
The Kiwi Experience provided an amazing solo travel experience and I got to do and see so much of beautiful New Zealand in such a short amount of time. I found it a lot cheaper than doing an organized tour and you get a lot more freedom and flexibility too. However, make sure you give yourself extra time to do the pass as I can guarantee there will be places you want to spend extra nights at, or even people you want to spend more time with. The Kiwi Experience Bus is an ideal way to travel for solo travellers, groups of friends or even couples.
Give yourself extra time to complete the pass. I had major regrets that I had already booked my flight home as there were many places I would have loved to spend extra time in.
Research activities before you go. Don’t skip out on activities because you are on a tight budget, just make sure you choose the ones that interest you the most. Even though I didn’t do anything too crazy like sky diving or bungee jumping (regrets), I made sure to do as many activities as I could because New Zealand has so much awesome stuff to do.
Take advantage of free walks and hikes. New Zealand’s beauty is everywhere you look with a photo opportunity around every corner.
Get a Sim Card. the Kiwi Bus has limited wifi, which isn’t very good and certain booking websites are blocked. At most hostels the wifi will be so bad you can’t use it or you need to pay for it, so having your own data is essential.
Check the website bookme. we bought some hot springs passes at a discounted price on this site; the only catch was that you could only go on certain days at certain times. Try looking in advance if you know the dates you’ll be at a destination because there are some really great deals, especially on the more expensive adrenaline activities.
Get to know everyone. There are so many awesome people on the Kiwi Bus, with many cool stories to tell. Chances are you will meet someone at the start of the trip and be super surprised when you see them walking down the street in Queenstown a few weeks later.