Stray Group at Uncle Boy's Family Maori

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.

The bus passengers at a playground sidestop

A quick stop at a playground helps breakup the drive from one destination to another.

Stray

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.

A group shot along the southern coast of New Zealand

After staying over extra time in Wellington, my second bus had only a few travelers from the first, creating an entirely new group dynamic.

Group Dynamics

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.

A sidestop at a farmer's fence covered in flip flops.

Long hours together make for fast friends on a trip like this.

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.

Trip Highlights:

–       Dolphin Encounter, Kaikoura – Swimming with 600 dolphins (okay, not all at once) was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

A traditional greeting at the Maori cultural stay.

A traditional greeting at the Maori cultural stay, something you can only do with Stray.

–       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.

The walk along the top of Cape Foulwind

The Cape Foulwind walk was probably the best “side stop” of the trip.

–       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.

Disappointments:

Lots of snow

The morning we left Queenstown we were inundated with snow that blocked our access to Milford Sound.

–       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.

Our tour group being led around the Franz Josef Glacier

Small groups let you wander the Franz Josef Glacier and see more of what you want to see.

–       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:

Mountains and Sheep

Sheep on the farm along the road to Mt. Cook.

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)

Snowy surroundings in the mountains

The road leads away from Mt. Cook towards the warmth of Christchurch and Kaikoura.

–       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)

The sun over lake Taupo

A sunny shot over Lake Taupo

–       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)

Quiet Beach at Abel Tasmin

Your own private beach at Abel Tasmin

–       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)

Encounter Dolphins in Kaikoura.

Encounter Dolphins in Kaikoura.

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.

 

  • http://acouplevagabonds.com Joe

    Wow this sounds like a lot of fun! But jeez it’s expensive. Probably one of the main reasons New Zealand is not very high on my list of places to visit is because I’m always hearing how expensive it is…

    • Anonymous

      Yeah, it was a great time, but yes, it’s also expensive. Keep in mind all costs are in $NZ which at the time of my travel was about 80cents NZ to the US dollar. Also, if you cut down on the activities and kept watch on your food budget, the experience would be much much cheaper.

  • Europe

    Great breakdown Travis! Thanks

  • http://www.yTravelBlog.com/ yTravelBlog

    What a great resource on New Zealand. After Craig’s big trip there I really want to go now and this will be so helpful for when I do

    • http://www.flashpackerhq.com Travis Ball

      Thanks! Yeah, it’s now high on my list of recommended travel destinations!

  • http://www.yTravelBlog.com/ yTravelBlog

    What a great resource on New Zealand. After Craig’s big trip there I really want to go now and this will be so helpful for when I do

  • http://twitter.com/bohemiantrav Stephen Bugno

    Thanks for the detailed review of your trip. I’ve never done it but often wondered how these hop on hop off buses worked. I guess you can see a lot and and meet plenty of other travelers, but doesn’t it take the challenge out of organizing your own transport/travel?

    • Anonymous

      Yes, one of the drawbacks is that you only see what’s on their itinerary, although you could organize your own side trips if you were so inclined.  For those that don’t enjoy organizing their own transport, this is probably the ideal situation, as long as it goes to the spots you’re interested in.  

      While I usually prefer to make my own way, I must say it’s nice to occasionally give up the reigns and not have to worry about how to get from A to B to C.  Since they book the accommodation for you from the bus and signing up for activities is as easy as checking your name on a clipboard, about the only thing you have to worry about from day to day is what time you need to wake up to get on board in the mornings.

      -Travis 

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  • http://whatnottodopost22.blogspot.com/ Ryan

    Wow that is expensive! I definitely want to see NZ and do most of the stuff you did. Thanks for writing this, it is one of the best resources on the buses I’ve read. Maybe a Working Holiday could take the edge off that price…

    • Anonymous

      It totally would – I worked in Sydney for a couple months just previous to the trip and it helped immensely! 

      -T

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  • http://www.facebook.com/alexclarke81 Alex Marshall Clarke

    Great summary! My husband and I are doing this tour in December this year and your review has confirmed my rough costs that I had budgeted. Although will be cutting down on some of those activities. Thanks :)

    • Anonymous

      Glad to hear it!  You’re going to have an amazing time!  Kaikoura was probably one of my favorites but it’s small, so can get over looked.  Don’t miss it.

      -T

  • phoebe teepee

    this was an amazing post. seriously. THANK YOU <3

  • Andy

    Thanks for this post! I’m thinking of doing this over the upcoming june/july months. As a first time 23 yr old solo female traveler, I’m a little concerned about safety and whether to do this or an inclusive tour. But, I really like the idea of getting off at stops and meeting different people. I just dont want to find myself doing activities alone. Any advice on the best kind of stray experience?

  • Anonymous

    This post has been really useful. I’m planning my tour of NZ, which starts next Sunday! I’m thinking about doing the bus travel totally independently, but I’ve made a note of a lot of your recommended stops. I was thinking of skipping the dolphin swim, but you’ve convinced me to go for it!

    • Anonymous

      Hey BB,

      Thanks! Yeah, if the dolphins are out and about, be sure to do the swim. A real highlight of that trip (even if the water was damn cold).

      Be sure to come back and let us know how the trip went! I can’t wait to hear back from some of you on your experiences!

      – T

  • Darren Walsh

    Excellent post man, I have the short Moe booked and going in 2 weeks. The full trip takes 16 nights and I have only 17 nights to play with, not ideal but possible do you think?
    Also how conservative we’re you with your spending when there? Looking at a budget of about 3000 for the 17 nights. Thanks for your help :-)

    • Anonymous

      Totally possible, though you will likely find yourself wanting to stay somewhere longer and unable to do so. Part of that kind of trip.

      I wasn’t as conservative as some, but then I was there to make the most of it and spent what was necessary to do so. I think you’ll be just find with that kind of budget. My advice is to take a look at the binders they’ll have on the bus that contains all the different activities available to you during your trip. Figure out what you want to do and what it will cost right at the beginning, so you can cut things that might not be as important to focus on the things you really want to do. That will give you a good idea of where your money will go.

      Have a blast! Please come back after the trip is over and let me know how it all worked out!

      Safe travels!

      – T

  • Chris

    Great article! Nice to see the insights from a passenger. I’ve got a window of free time in September/October and was looking into going with Stray but would hate to miss out on some of the walks due to bad weather – which month did you go in?

  • Pakhi

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  • Zarah

    Great post! Originally traveling with a buddy but got flaked out and now had to do it alone! The summary gave me an idea what I can do or squeeze in for my 10 days trip this April.
    Cheers!

  • Sharlie

    very helpful! Thank you!

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  • Charlie

    Hey! Thanks for the post – really helpful insight into the additional costs they elaborate on on the site. I’m from the UK so doing some currency conversion – are your amounts NZ or US$?? I appreciate currency will have fluctuated but it still gives me an idea! Thanks :)

    • flashpackerhq

      Hey Charlie,

      Glad this post helped with your planning. I was referring to $ in US dollars. I’m not too sure how much prices will have changed over three years, but like you say it should give you some idea.

      Good luck with the trip! Let me know how it all goes!

      – Travis

  • Cal

    Hey, How did you get the Winter discount? I’m going in July/August and looking at passes now, don’t know if I’ll get more off nearer the time?