What’s it like to travel on a hop-on hop-off bus? I recently finished a whirlwind, twenty-five day trip around all of New Zealand with a hop-on hop-off bus company called Stray. While I normally trend towards much more independent travel methods, I felt this was the way to flashpack across New Zealand. Had I been traveling with others already, I might have opted to rent a camper van, but my limited time and budget combined with a need for a few temporary friends edged me in the direction of the hop-on hop-off bus.
There are three main companies in New Zealand doing these trips – Stray, Kiwi Experience and Magic. Kiwi Experience has a reputation for being the party bus and caters to a much younger crowd of backpackers than I really wanted to spend a month traveling with. Magic seemed like a decent choice, but I went with Stray because they seemed to get more off the standard route and included some destinations the other two skipped.
Things got off to a shaky start for me day 1 when I was one of the last two people to get on the 24-seat bus in Auckland and ended up in a near fetal position, cramped over the wheel well – probably the worst seat on the bus. About 30 minutes later, we arrived at Stray Headquarters where we watched a quick video about how the whole booking system works, hit the toilets and confirmed our itineraries.
TIP #1: Make sure you understand the system and that you book as much as you can in advance. It’s easy to stay flexible and get off the bus if you like a spot, but impossible to get on a fully booked bus, forcing you to wait a couple days for the next bus. NOTE: there are fewer busses (3/week) in the winter than in the summer (once/day) making bookings at busy stops (Queenstown, Mt. Cook) essential.
Once we were underway, “Mambo”, our driver, had us do a “speed-dating” style game where we had to talk to someone we didn’t know. After five minutes, he’d have us switch. We did this for about and hour and by the time we were done, I’d managed to procure a better seat and knew half of the bus. My 2nd bus could have used something like this, but I ended up helping the process along a bit at one of our first stops. It also helped that there was a passenger who was with the first bus for a while, and the 2nd bus for a while, and was able to bridge the gap a bit.
TIP #2: Get to know your bus. You are going to have a far better experience if you make some friends on the bus. If you can get the whole bus, or at least the majority, to be one big group, it can really be something.
Travel for me often has just as much to do with who you meet along the way as it does the places you see, the things you do and the food you eat. If you’ve never done a tour like this, you’ll be shocked at how quickly strangers become friends. I came away with two different groups (Bus #1 and Bus #2) of friends, some of who I’ve since met in Australia and will likely travel with in South America in a couple years time.
– Dolphin Encounter, Kaikoura – Swimming with 600 dolphins (okay, not all at once) was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
– Maketu – A Stray exclusive, this Maori cultural experience was another major highlight of the trip, and not just because I was determined to be Chief. We learned about how different tribes would be “invited” into a Marae (where we stayed overnight), ate a traditional dinner (that didn’t seem all that traditional) and learned how to do a Haka (a cultural dance you can see an example of by watching the All Blacks during the Rugby World Cup)
– Franz Josef Glacier – Stunning ice caves, crevices and experienced, knowledgeable staff made for a great day of exploration.
– Waitomo Caves – Spelunking and abseiling through underground waterfalls – what’s not to like?
– Abel Tasmin – The only great walk I was able to do any part of due to weather.
– Queenstown – Skydiving and Bungee jumping, not as much for the activities themselves as my going through with doing them. I’d do skydiving again, bungee jumping not-so-much.
– Cape Foulwind Walk – this was just a one hour stop between Abel Tasmin and Greymouth, but it was a gorgeous day along cliffs overlooking the beach and a seal colony.
– The Mountain Scenery – There were certainly some weather issues that came up (see below) but all that snow on the mountains of the south island made for some spectacular scenery.
TIP #3: If you fall in love with a stop, get off the bus. If you fall in love with the bus, or driver, and are scheduled to get off, stay on the bus.
TIP #4: The Drivers are all radically different individuals and each one is a character. If you don’t mesh with your driver, or your bus, get off the bus and get on the next one.
– The Weather – Traveling during a country’s winter period has some advantages, such as lower costs and less crowds. However, there’s a reason most people travel during peak season – it’s when the weather is at its best. There were four major things I was unable to do/see due to bad weather – River Rafting in Rotorua, the Tongariro Crossing (supposed to be New Zealand’s best day walk), and Milford Sound (arguably THE highlight of the south island).
– Time – Do what I didn’t do and allow yourself at least a week, preferably three weeks, over and above what is recommended in the brochure. The pass I was using, called “Moe”, says minimum 18 days. I took two extra days in Wellington and three extra in Queenstown and wish I had more time (see tip #3)
– Full Day Lord of the Rings tour, Wellington – Only do the Full Day tour in Wellington if you are truly a hardcore LOTR fan. If you’re only curious and feel you have to do a LOTR tour, do the afternoon tour in Wellington.
– Franz Josef Heli Hike – I was initially booked to do a heli hike during our day at the glacier, but this fell through due to not having enough passengers to make it cost effective for the company to put the helicopter in the air.
– Christchurch – Stray pretty much passes by Christchurch due to the fact that they’re still recovering from the Earthquake. I didn’t get to spend much time exploring, but was disappointed it was just a quick drop off and pick up spot on the way to Kiakoura.
– Minor points – there are a few spots along the way I felt could probably be skipped in wintertime, as there isn’t much going on. Rangitata, for example, was in the middle of nowhere and didn’t really have much to offer during the winter (in the summer, you can go river rafting). Greymouth and Makarora were along the same lines. Another reason to make friends with the bus – the slow stops become an opportunity to hang out.
TIP #5: Give yourself some buffer time. If the weather turns, a heli hike gets canceled, or you simply want to spend more time at a stop, you can do so. If your schedule is really tight, I can guarantee you’ll miss out on a few things and wish you had the time to fix it.
My Itinerary and a cost breakdown:
I also wanted to include an Itinerary of my trip and a cost breakdown to give everyone a sense of what a trip like this would cost. It was difficult not to notice a few people on the bus really concerned about going over their budgets. I don’t think enough thought was put into what kinds of activities they’d be doing along the trip.
– Day 1: Auckland to Raglan (activity – Surf Lesson – $89)
– Day 2: Raglan to Maketu (activity – Maori Cultural Experience – $75 incl. accom and dinner)
– Day 3: Maketu to Taupo (via Rotorua) (activity – Hells Gate spa – $115)
– Day 4: Taupo to Whakahoro (Blue Duck Lodge) (activity – 4WD Safari – $90)
– Day 5: Whakahoro to National Park (activity – None: Tongariro Crossing Canceled due to weather – $105 in winter to cover gear rental, free in summer)
– Day 6: National Park to Wellington (activity – Te Papa Museum – free)
– Day 7: Stay in Wellington (activity – Full Day Lord of the Rings Tour - $115)
– Day 8: Stay in Wellington (activity – City tour by Stray & city exploration – free)
– Day 9: Wellington to Marahau/Abel Tasman (activity – None, but the ferry ride was okay – $51 for the ferry)
– Day 10: Stay in Abel Tasman National Park (activity – Seals and Sand tour/trip – $70)
– Day 11: Abel Tasman to Greymouth (activity – Cape Foulwind walk & Pancake Rocks – both free)
– Day 12: Greymouth to Franz Josef (activity – None: greenstone factory closed during our tour)
– Day 13: Stay in Franz Josef (activity – Franz Josef Glacier Hike – $123)
– Day 14: Franz Josef to Makarora (activity – None)
– Day 15: Makarora to Queenstown (activity – Puzzling World $15)
– Day 16: Stay in Queenstown (activity – city exploration – free)
– Day 17: Stay in Queenstown (activity – Skydiving – 12,000 foot jump for $329)
– Day 18: Stay in Queenstown (activity – more city exploration – free)
– Day 19: Stay in Queenstown (activity – Bungee Jumping – $180)
– Day 20: Queenstown to Invercargill instead of Gunn’s Camp (activity – None: Horrible weather closed the roads leading to Gunn’s camp and Milford Sound. We detoured to our next stop which was Invercargill – The trip I had planned on doing was $92)
– Day 21: Invercargill to Stewart Island (activity – half-day hike along various beaches and island exploration – $66 one way for the ferry)
– Day 22: Stewart Island to Dunedin (activity – Speight’s Brewery Tour – $25)
– Day 23: Dunedin to Mt. Cook (activity – None: Ice covered paths and threatening snow made a walk somewhat dangerous, so we stayed in and took first and second in the pub quiz)
– Day 24: Mt. Cook to Rangitata (activity – None)
– Day 25: Rangitata to Kaikoura (activity – Dolphin Encounter – $165)
Total Hop On Hop Off Breakdown
Stray Pass = $750 with winter discount
Average Accommodation cost of $28 X 25 Days = $700
Food (Eating out) avg cost of $15 / meal X 3 meals / day X 25 Days = $1125
Food (mostly self catering) avg cost of $7 / meal x 3 meals / day x 25 days = $525
Total spent on activities = $1574 ( Would have been $1771 had we done the Tongariro Crossing and Milford Sound)
Total Cost with $1000 food budget = $4024
Note: When budgeting something like this, always add %10 for incidentals and backup.