Long-time readers may remember that when I first started traveling New Zealand in 2010, I booked a pass with a hop-on hop-off bus company called Stray. I’ve talked about my experience with this bus before, albeit rather briefly, and tucked away in this post about sailing in Abel Tasman National Park.
Today, I want to expand a bit on why I chose this mode of transport, and why it might work well for you, too — despite any pre-conceived notions you may hold.
The view from Mount Victoria in Auckland
Hop-on hop-off buses run along a pre-designed route that covers almost the entire country. Travelers can purchase various passes; some give you access to the entire route, others give you access to certain sections. The passes are valid for 12 months, and during that time, you can get on and off the bus wherever you like along the way — as long as there’s a seat available. In New Zealand, the most popular companies are probably Stray and Kiwi Experience.
So how do these buses differ from standard ones? Mainly, the pace. Hop-on hop-off buses take much longer to get from A to B. A direct bus from Auckland to Wellington takes around 11 hours; even if you take one Stray bus the whole way, it will take you around two weeks to make the same journey. That’s because it follows a longer route, makes frequent stops, and stays overnight several times along the way.
Pancake Rocks in Punakaiki, a small town on NZ’s west coast
The people who use hop-on hop-off buses are often painted with a certain brush. They’re called “boring” or “touristy,” while the backpackers who use other forms of transport consider themselves more independent, adventurous, and spontaneous.
Now, that’s a massive generalization, and one we’ll examine more closely in a second. But first, let’s be clear: these buses are not as flexible as operating your own vehicle. Because, hi — that would be impossible.
If your bus is leaving at 7am, you need to be on the bus at 7am. If there isn’t a seat available on the day you want to travel, you need to wait until tomorrow. If the driver doesn’t go past your hostel, you need to get yourself to one that’s on the route for pick-up. So, yes, there are certain limitations.
Parliament Building (nicknamed “the Beehive”) in Wellington
But that doesn’t mean the bus has to dictate your every move. Your driver can provide information, advise you on activities, and book your accommodation — or you can make your own arrangements, and use the bus solely as transport. You can stick with the same group the whole time — or you can follow your own pace and itinerary. If you want, you can even do both. There’s no commitment either way.
Some days, you might be up for doing everything yourself, and some days, you might just want to add your name to a list and let someone else deal with it. And that’s okay! It doesn’t make you a bad traveler, or boring, or unadventurous. It just makes you a human being with your own set of needs and priorities.
Maybe when you don’t have to worry about finding a place to sleep, you can focus on chatting to new people, tasting some unfamiliar foods, or pushing your limits on a walking trek. Maybe you’ve got no clue where to start, and having a pre-planned route to follow will give you some ideas. Maybe you just want someone else to do the driving so you can sleep the whole time. Sounds fair enough to me — and at the end of the day, it doesn’t even matter what I think, so long as it works for you.
Tongariro National Park on the North Island
This was back in 2010, when I was 22 and on my own in a foreign country for the first time. I was already busy thinking about myself, my belongings, and where I’d be going tomorrow; I had no desire to throw “responsibility for an automobile” into the mix. I don’t know much about cars, but I do know shady mechanics love to rip off people that don’t know much about cars.
Plus, fuel costs and other fees are pretty high in New Zealand, so you’re not necessarily saving money — especially if you’re on your own. There’s a pretty good chance you can find other travelers to drive with you and split the costs, but what about the times you can’t?
So I sprang for a bus pass. And guess what? I was still a solo traveler with a sense of adventure. There was still room for spontaneity and chance. I didn’t feel tied to the bus; in fact, I frequently took days, weeks, and even months off from using it. I still struck out my own and took risks. But when necessary, I had the option. I traveled from the Northland to Dunedin during my first year in NZ, and the bus took care of 90% of the transport. If you use your pass as much as I did, it easily winds up being cheaper than booking each trip individually.
CBD in Dunedin, NZ’s fourth-biggest city
Of course, that’s entirely up to you. If you want to be able to come and go as you please, you’ll probably want your own car. If you want to save as much money as possible, perhaps you’ll be more suited to hitchhiking. If you’re the particularly athletic sort, maybe you’ll want to run or cycle your way around. There are many options here; this is just one.
But a hop-on hop-off bus is a great way to get a feel for the country, find ideas for destinations and activities, and meet heaps of other travelers — and in a pretty flexible, malleable way. You won’t be tied down, but you will have some fall-back options. And who doesn’t like having options?
Is it a touristy way to see the country? Sure. But at the end of the day, if you’re a foreigner visiting New Zealand for leisure, you’re a tourist — whether you use the bus or not. It’s probably time to make peace with that.