Which pass should I buy?
I would highly recommend getting a bus pass with the Sheepdog as your core itinerary (any pink pass).
The main reason why is because it starts in Auckland and ends in Christchurch and none of the passes include the $55 NZD inter-island ferry. Most travelers that I met that were traveling on other passes typically flew from either Queenstown or Christchurch back to Auckland to save money (flights were as cheap as $45 NZD) and time. The bus that goes back to Auckland is an “express” route that takes four days, stopping in Nelson, Wellington, and Taupo. Rather than spending money on an extra ferry ticket and four days of accommodation, plan on ending your trip in Christchurch and it’s a win-win.
When to buy?
The earlier you start planning your trip, the better. Never buy your bus pass for the full retail price. The Kiwi Experience website is constantly having some sort of sale (usually 50% off or better). If you have a specific bus pass in mind, just check the website once a week, and it will most likely be featured sooner or later. Also, you can get a good deal on bus passes from travel agencies such as Peterpans if you’re already in Australia or New Zealand.
What should I do?
Auckland [2-3 nights recommended]
This is where most passengers start their Kiwi Experience passes and where you will most likely be flying into New Zealand. Auckland is also the hub for the Bay of Islands trip. I would highly recommend starting in Auckland because it is the easiest place to meet other travelers, as everybody is new and they are trying to make new friends too. Auckland is the largest city in New Zealand, so give yourself some time to explore the city before you leave if you don’t have plans to return. Don’t forget to do your research, because the Kiwi buses do not leave out of Auckland every single day (even fewer days in winter) and book your bus departure date as soon as you know when you’ll be in town.
Hot Water Beach [1 night on minimum time]
I opted out of the overpriced kayak trip to Cathedral Cove and stuck with the free activities instead. A friend that went on the kayak trip said it was spectacular and worth the money. If you’re on a tighter budget, the free activities in Hot Water Beach are a great alternative to save money. You must go to the beach during low tide to dig a hole in the geothermal hot spots and enjoy your own personal spa. The water is absolutely scalding in some places so be careful. After soaking at the beach for an hour or two, go on the Cathedral Cove walk and go through the cave to the other side to explore the beach for yourself.
Waitomo [1 night on minimum time]
The big activities in this area are centered around the glowworm caves. Since it was winter, the underground river was not very appealing to me. Instead, I went on the general walking tour that ended with a short boat ride to see the glowworms. If you’re “just looking to tick off the boxes” the tour was the cheapest option to see the glowworms firsthand but probably wasn’t as amazing as the Black Abyss and Black Labyrinth tours.
Rotorua [2 nights recommended] or [1 night on minimum time]
This is the first stop where I would actually spend a few extra days if you had them. By now, if you haven’t met a solid group of friends on the bus, just hop off and try the next one. If the decision comes down between staying an extra night in Rotorua or sticking with a group of friends on minimum time, I’d stick with the group because you will only become closer with every stop.
Any true Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit fans have to go to Hobbiton. The other top rated activity is the Tamaki Maori Village overnight stay. The price is steep at $179 NZD but it is such an immersive experience and probably one of the most fun times I had on the north island. It is possible to do Hobbiton and the Tamaki village in the same day, which makes for a pretty epic day. The overnight stay included afternoon tea/coffee with a legendary fried biscuit and a traditional hangi dinner. The dinner wasn’t all that it was hyped up to be, but I was still stuffed from the biscuits. The best part of the village is the hours after nightfall. Our host shared stories of the ancestors and there are three hot tubs to soak in by the bar.
Taupo [2 nights on minimum time]
This was the first stop that I opted to stay at a hostel outside of the Kiwi Experience. The Haka Lodge is a solid chain of hostels throughout New Zealand. The bunk beds are built sturdy into the wall so they do not shake while you move around. More importantly, they all offer free wifi that is reliable because it’s not slowed down and stretched between a hundred backpackers. Good, reliable wifi is a Godsend in New Zealand.
As far as activities go, the Tongariro Crossing is supposed to be the best day hike in the world. Unfortunately, the weather was not on our side during our time in Taupo and the hike was cancelled for three days. My friends that went on the hike a few days later said it was beautiful but very physically challenging. The hike is expensive in the winter, takes about 8-9 hours and covers a variety of terrain including ice. Taupo is also one of the best two stops to go skydiving. If you are only choosing one, I’ve heard that the Fox Skydive in Franz Josef is a better dive site but the videos in Taupo are better.
River Valley [1 night on minimum time]
Awesome accommodation at the River Valley Lodge. The roast dinner is absolutely worth the $16 NZD. It is one of the best meals I had in New Zealand and probably the first serving of vegetables I had in a week. There’s no wifi or phone signal in River Valley so the night is spent in the lodge. Start early during happy hour and stay warm by the fireplace. Stick around for the famous River Valley table challenge for your chance to win free drinks. Summertime would be a great time to go rafting at this stop.
Wellington [2 nights recommended] or [1 night on minimum time]
This is another stop that I would recommend extra time if you have it. The Kiwi Experience arrives in Wellington at night and leaves early the next morning to catch the inter-island ferry. Wellington is the capital city of New Zealand and has a museum that is meant to be amazing. The ferry to the south island is about three hours long. The boat is big and very clean. It reminded me of a small cruise ship to be honest. The ferry sells food and drinks onboard so you don’t have to worry about bringing your own snacks. The sea can be rough, so prepare for motion sickness accordingly. If you want to sleep, there are recliners in the front of the boat on the lower level by the cafe. You can also pay for premium lounge access or a cabin room if you want to splurge, but I don’t think it’s necessary.
Abel Tasman/Kaiteriteri [1 night on minimum time]
The Kiwi accommodation is supposed to be good at this stop, but we stayed at the Adventure Inn at the national park. The hostel is owned by an ex-Kiwi Experience driver, Greg, and was an awesome place to stay. He is currently in the middle of building up his bunks so we stayed inside the house for the night. It was so cozy with the wood-burning fireplace and gigantic TV in the living room. Out back, there is an awesome cinema that has a huge list of movies to choose from. Greg has a bunch of pillows and bean bags to lounge on while you watch a movie and if you ask him really nicely, he’ll even back some massive chocolate chip cookies that are to die for. Do yourself a favor and stay at the Adventure Inn, and be sure to tell him who sent you!
Westport [1 night on minimum time]
Not very memorable but there were some good picturesque stops along the way. Bazil’s is the accommodation for the night. I opted for a single room this time, which was a good change from dorm bunks. In the summer time, you can go surfing but we spent the night at a local pub to catch the rugby game instead.
Lake Mahinapua [1 night on minimum time]
Another small accommodation in the middle of nowhere. The Lake Mahinapua Hotel is walking distance from the lake and the beach. The thing to do at this stop is the legendary Mahinapua Pub party. Every party has a different theme, and they all end pretty much the same. With drunken fools.
Franz Josef [2 nights on minimum time]
Another legendary stop with good accommodation with the Kiwi bus. Weather-permitting, the heli-hike is one of the best things I’ve done on my entire trip. All your equipment, warm jacket, pants, boots, crampons, hat and mittens are all provided by the Franz Josef Guides company. They even have extra layers if you need them. The helicopter ride is unforgettable and the glacier was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for me. Definitely budget ahead of time if you’re interested and you will not be disappointed. If you’re on a budget, some friends went on a free hike and saw waterfalls and the Franz Josef Glacier from afar, and they loved it. Franz is also home to an epic skydive over Fox Glacier with two mountains in the background.
Wanaka [1 night on minimum time]
A beautiful little town on the lakefront with picturesque mountains in the background, Wanaka is a neat little stop on the way to the legendary Queenstown. I stayed at the YHA Purple Cow, which was very clean and low-key. For a good price, I landed a 3-bed dorm with ensuite and was very happy with my night’s accommodation.
Queenstown [5-7 nights recommended] or [2-3 nights on minimum time]
The adventure capital of the world, there’s no shortage of adrenaline-filled activities in Queenstown. Give yourself as much time in Queenstown as you’d like. If you have extra days in New Zealand, spend them in Queenstown. The town is also on a lakefront with the beautiful Remarkables mountain range in the background. There’s bungy jumps from various heights and platforms, canyon swings, ziplines, jet boating, as well as free walks available. Challenge yourself on the steep trails up Queenstown Hill and you will be rewarded with 360 degrees of epic views.
Queenstown is the hub for the Milford Explorer day trip. Take a day trip to one of the ski/snowboarding peaks around the area. You can take the gondola up the cliffside for a beautiful view overlooking the city and luge down to the bottom or jump off the ledge if you’re feeling brave. You definitely have to try a Fergburger (or four!) and decide for yourself which is better, Ferg or Devil Burger? Queenstown is such a beautiful town, even if you spend the day doing nothing, it’s a great place to recharge.
Accommodation in Queenstown through Kiwi is at Nomads. It’s a good place to spend a few nights with your friends but I left to go to the Haka Lodge. The Haka Lodge in Queenstown does not disappoint. The last two nights, I booked myself into the YHA in central Queenstown, which was also better than Nomads.
For a more in-depth guide to Queenstown, check out my friend, Helen, at thefreshstarttraveller!
Lake Tekapo [1 night on minimum time]
In the middle of a Dark Sky Reserve, this is an ideal spot to stargaze or see the Southern Lights if you’re lucky. The lakes in the area are a beautiful turquoise due to the high deposits of glacier dust. I went to the Tekapo Springs hot pools, which is a series of three outdoor hot pools and also includes a dry and wet sauna. Tekapo Springs is a perfect way to unwind from the past few weeks of backpacking and you will leave feeling completely relaxed.
Christchurch [1-2 nights recommended]
I would just plan to spend one night in town before your flight back to Auckland or out of New Zealand or an extra night if you plan to go to Kaikora. The city is still recovering from the 2011 earthquake so there’s not much to do here. You can walk around Cathedral Square and explore a few shops at Restart Mall with plenty of time left. I stayed at the Rendezvous Hotel, which is good and affordable.
Kaikora [Not included]
Kaikora is not included in any of the Kiwi Experience bus passes, but it’s meant to be the best place in the world to see sperm whales. Skip the Kiwi Experience option for a day trip transportation and catch an intercity bus from Christchurch instead or hire a car with a group of friends. Buses to Kaikora are currently limited, so be sure to plan accordingly as you may have to book overnight accommodation and take a bus back to Christchurch in the morning. Aside from whale-watching tours, you can also book a tour to swim with dolphins in the wild.