New Zealand is a relatively small country and getting around is easy, with some form of public transport going to many destinations, though sometimes limited to one service per day. There are still some places that are hard to access, yet all of these can be reached with will, flexibility and a little ingenuity.
Internal flights are reasonably priced if booked well in advance, but you’ll appreciate the scenery better by travelling at ground level. The cheapest and easiest, though slowest, way to get around is by bus (coaches or shuttle buses). The rail service, by contrast, is limited and expensive.
Rental cars and campervans, particularly the little ones (see Buying a used vehicle), can be remarkably good value for two or more people, but if you are staying in the country for more than a couple of months, it’s more economical to buy a vehicle. New Zealand’s green countryside encourages cyclists, but even the keenest vary their transport options.
Competition on the ferries connecting the North and South islands means passenger fares are good value, though transporting vehicles is pricey. Planes and boats give limited access to offshore islands and the parts of the mainland that remain stubbornly impenetrable by road, though more specialist tours make getting into the wilds easier.
The frequency of long-distance bus, train and plane services is listed, where relevant, in each chapter in “Arrival and Departure”, while local buses and trains, again where relevant, appear in “Getting Around”.
Many visitors fly into Auckland at the beginning of their trip and out from Christchurch at the end, so don’t touch domestic flights, but those with a tight timetable wanting to hit a few key sights in a short time might be tempted by reasonable-value internal fares.
The biggest domestic operator is Air New Zealand (wairnewzealand.com), serving all the main centres and numerous minor ones (25 destinations in all). The main competition is from Jetstar (wjetstar.com), which serves Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch, Dunedin, Rotorua and Queenstown. Air New Zealand runs single-class planes with fares that come in three levels, offering lower fares for decreased flexibility: there are fewer low-cost fares at popular times. Jetstar has a similar system. For example, a one-way standard flight between Auckland and Christchurch is about $399, a Flexi Plus around $289, a Smart Saver as little as $139 and a seat only (no hold baggage) $89. Other flights you might take are scenic jaunts from Auckland to Great Barrier Island, the hop over Cook Strait, or the short trip from Invercargill to Stewart Island.
Air New Zealand t0800 737 000, wairnewzealand.co.nz.
Great Barrier Airlines & Air Coromandel t0800 900 600, wgreatbarrierairlines.co.nz. Flights between Auckland, Coromandel and Great Barrier Island.
Fly My Sky t0800 222 123, wflymysky.co.nz. Flights between Auckland and Great Barrier Island.
Jetstar t0800 800 995, wjetstar.com/nz.
Soundsair t0800 505 005, wsoundsair.com. Small planes across Cook Strait.
Stewart Island Flights t03 218 9129, wstewartislandflights.com. Scheduled services between Invercargill and Stewart Island.
You can get most places on long-distance buses (“coaches”) and smaller shuttle buses, which essentially offer the same service but are more likely to drop you off and pick up at hotels, hostels and the like. Services are generally reliable and reasonably comfortable, and competition keeps prices competitive. The larger buses are usually air-conditioned, and some have toilets, though all services stop every couple of hours, at wayside tearooms and points of interest along the way. Most of your fellow passengers are likely to be visitors to New Zealand so drivers often give a commentary, the quality of which varies.
InterCity and Newmans
The biggest operator, InterCity, runs high-quality full-size buses all over the country. They operate closely with Newmans, who pitch themselves as slightly more luxurious and target sightseeing excursions. In practice, the two companies share a timetable and InterCity passes can often be used on Newmans buses: when we refer to InterCity we are generally referring to services run collectively by InterCity and Newmans.
As an example, a standard one-way fare on the North Island, Auckland to Rotorua, is $50, while on the South Island, Christchurch to Queenstown, it’s $85.
Prices often plummet during off-peak periods and a range of discounted fares is available, with an advance-purchase Saver fare yielding a 25-percent discount and a Super Saver 50 percent. Extreme Saver and Web Saver fares are also available: book early for the best prices. YHA, VIP and BBH cardholders get fifteen-percent discounts off Standard rates but you’ll find cheaper deals by chasing down the various Saver fares.
InterCity also offers numerous fixed-route passes such as the Auckland, Bay of Islands Pass, including Cape Reinga ($209; backpacker $179); Auckland, Rotorua, Napier via Taupo, Wellington and back (Maui’s Catch: $215; backpacker $195); Nelson to Queenstown via the west coast ($159; backpacker $145); and various all-New Zealand experiences (from Kia Ora: $645; backpacker $579), with ever increasing fares.
A host of bus and shuttle bus companies compete directly with InterCity/Newmans on the main routes and fill in the gaps around the country, often linking with the major operators, to take you off the beaten track. Generally they cost less (sometimes appreciably) and can be more obliging when it comes to drop-offs and pick-ups, though seldom as comfortable over distance. We’ve listed a number of the operators below, but there are many more mentioned in the appropriate sections of this guide.
Official (i-SITE) visitor centres carry timetables of bus and shuttle companies operating in their area, so you can compare frequencies and prices. Fare structures are generally straightforward, with fixed prices and no complicated discounts. Auckland to Rotorua, on the North Island, costs about $34, while on the South Island, Christchurch to Queenstown will be roughly $45.
Atomic Shuttles t03 349 0697, watomictravel.co.nz. Major long-distance bus operator in the South Island.
InterCity & Newmans Auckland call centre t09 583 5780, wintercitycoach.co.nz & wnewmanscoach.co.nz. Long-distance buses nationwide.
NakedBus t0900 62533 (premium rate), wnakedbus.com. Cheap, frill-free trips on both islands.
Northliner Express t09 583 5780, wnorthliner.co.nz. Bus travel around Northland, owned by InterCity.
Southern Link t0508 458 835, wsouthernlinkcoaches.co.nz. Routes all over the South Island.
Not much is left of New Zealand’s passenger train service besides commuter services in Wellington and Auckland and a few inter-city trains. The long-distance services that exist are scenic runs, primarily used by tourists; trains are so slow that they have ceased to be practical transport for New Zealanders. Minimal investment in infrastructure and rolling stock is beginning to have an effect on standards, but railway travel remains a pleasant experience.
Trains have reclining seats, buffet cars with reasonable food, beer, panoramic windows, and occasionally a glass-backed observation carriage. Tickets guarantee a seat: passengers check in on the platform before boarding and bags are carried in a luggage van.
Long-distance trains are all run by Tranz Scenic (t04 495 0775 & t0800 872 467, wtranzscenic.co.nz), which operates three passenger routes. The longest is the Overlander between Auckland and Wellington, past the volcanic peaks of the Tongariro National Park. Interesting stops along the way include Te Awamutu, Te Kuiti (where the train is met by a shuttle bus to Waitomo Caves) and National Park (with access to Mount Ruapehu and the Tongariro Alpine Crossing). The service leaves both Auckland and Wellington daily around 7.35am and reaches its destination around 7.20pm.
In the South Island, the TranzCoastal runs between Christchurch and Picton, a pretty run sometimes hugging the coast. It leaves Christchurch at 7am for the run up through Kaikoura (9.54am) and Blenheim (11.33pm) to Picton (12.13pm). It then returns from Picton (1pm) through Blenheim (1.33pm) and Kaikoura (3.28pm) to Christchurch (6.21pm).
The finest rail journey in New Zealand is the TranzAlpine between Christchurch and Greymouth on the West Coast – it is covered in detail on For more information, see Orana Wildlife Park.
Fares are higher than the comparable bus tickets, but with discounts and the use of a travel pass, travelling is still reasonably good value. Most people get the standard or Flexi fare, which gives a discount in return for advance booking, limited availability and only a fifty-percent refund if cancelled after the departure time. As an example, a standard, one-way ticket from Auckland to Wellington is about $129, from Christchurch to Greymouth around $185. Seniors (60-plus) can get a thirty-percent discount on standard fares, though most folk do better by going for a Scenic Rail Pass. Blind and some disabled travellers are entitled to a forty-percent discount on the standard fare.
Apart from a couple of short-run steam trains, the only other passenger trains are along the Taieri Gorge Railway between Dunedin and Middlemarch, again run almost entirely for the benefit of tourists and an extremely beautiful scenic route.
For maximum flexibility, it’s hard to beat driving around New Zealand: you’ll be able to get to places beyond the reach of public transport and to set your own timetable. With the freedom to camp or stay in cheaper places away from town centres this can be a very economical option for two or more people.
In order to drive in New Zealand you need a valid licence from your home country or an International Driver’s Licence valid for up to a year in New Zealand and you must always carry the licence when driving.
In New Zealand you drive on the left and will find road rules similar to those in the UK, Australia and the US. All occupants must wear seatbelts and drivers must park in the same direction as that in which they are travelling.
The speed limit for the open road is 100kmph, reduced to 70kmph or 50kmph in built-up areas. Speeding fines start at $30 and rapidly increase as the degree of transgression increases. Some drivers flash their headlights at oncoming cars to warn of lurking police patrols, but there are also hidden cameras on the roads. Drink driving has traditionally been a problem in New Zealand: as part of a campaign to cut the death toll, random breath tests exist and offenders are dealt with severely.
Road conditions are generally good and traffic is relatively light except around Auckland and Wellington in the rush hour. Most roads are sealed (paved), although a few have a metalled surface, composed of an aggregate of loose chippings. Clearly marked on most maps, these are slower to drive along, prone to washouts and landslides after heavy rain, and demand considerably more care and attention from the driver. Some rental companies prohibit the use of their cars on the worst metalled roads – typically those at Skippers Canyon and around the northern tip of Coromandel Peninsula. Always check conditions locally before setting off on these routes.
Other hazards include one-lane bridges: a sign before the bridge will indicate who has right of way, and on longer examples there’ll be a passing place halfway across.
Unleaded and super unleaded petrol and diesel are available in New Zealand, and in larger towns petrol stations are open 24hr. In smaller towns, they may close after 8pm, so be sure to fill up for long evening or night journeys.
If you’re driving your own vehicle, check if the New Zealand Automobile Association (waa.co.nz) has reciprocal rights with motoring organizations from your country to see if you qualify for their cover; otherwise, you can join as an overseas visitor. Apart from a free 24hr emergency breakdown service (t0800 500 222) – excluding vehicles bogged on beaches – membership entitles you to free maps, accommodation guides and legal assistance, discounts on some rental cars and accommodation, plus access to insurance and pre-purchase vehicle inspection services.
Visitors driving in New Zealand typically pick up a car in Auckland, tour the North Island to Wellington where they leave the first vehicle, cross Cook Strait, pick up a second car in Picton, then drive around the South Island dropping off the car in Christchurch. The whole thing can be done in reverse, and may work out cheaper, or you can stick with the same car across Cook Strait, which with domestic companies doesn’t entail a big price hike.
You’ll see rental deals for under $37 a day, though only for older, small cars rented for over a month in winter (June–Aug). Demand is high over the main summer season and prices rise accordingly.
Most of the major international companies are represented and offer good deals for virtually new cars. Domestic firms offer cheaper rates partly by minimizing overheads and offering older (but perfectly serviceable) vehicles. You may find even cheaper deals with cut-rate local companies, which are fine for short stints, though for general touring domestic nationwide companies are the best bet. Their infrastructure helps when it comes to crossing between the North and South islands (see The Dowse Art Museum) and they typically offer free breakdown assistance.
In peak season it usually pays to have a car booked in advance. At quieter times you can often pick up something cheaper once you arrive; and in winter (except in ski areas) you can almost name your price. Provided your rental period is four days or more the deal will be for unlimited kilometres. The rates quoted below are for summer season assuming a two-week rental period, but don’t be afraid to haggle at any time.
As a general rule, Ace, Apex, Omega and Pegasus offer reasonably new cars at moderate prices, while the rest of the companies listed below try desperately to undercut each other and offer low prices.
Based on a two-week rental in summer, for two people, a small car (1.3–1.8 litre) might cost $45–70 a day from the majors and $37–60 from domestic national firms. A medium-sized car (2–3 litre) might cost $65–90 from the majors and $35–80 from domestic national companies. Unless you’re here in winter and want to get up to the ski-fields without tyre chains you don’t really need a 4WD, which generally cost $70–130 a day; you’ll be better off renting one for short trips in specific areas.
If you are renting for several weeks, there is often no drop-off fee for leaving the vehicle somewhere other than where you picked it up. For shorter rental periods you may be charged $170–300, though if you’re travelling south to north, you may be able to sweet-talk your way out of drop-off charges. At different times in the season Wellington, Picton, Christchurch and Queenstown have a glut of cars that are needed elsewhere, and companies will offer relocation deals. Look at hostel notice boards or call the firms listed below. Some companies want quick delivery, while others will allow you to spend a few more days en route for a reduced rental rate.
You must have a full, clean driver’s licence and be over 21; drivers under 25 often pay more for insurance. In most cases insurance is included in the quoted cost but you are liable for any windscreen damage and the first $1000 of any damage. With some of the cheaper companies this excess can be as much as $3000 if the accident is your fault. This can usually be reduced to $250 or zero by paying an additional $10–20 a day Collision Damage Waiver. Usually before giving you a car rental companies take a credit-card imprint or a cash bond from you for $1500. If you have an accident, the bond is used to pay for any damage: in some cases you can pay anything up to the value of the bond; in others you pay the entire bond no matter how slight the damage. Read the small print, look around the car for any visible defects, so you won’t end up being charged for someone else’s mistakes, and check whether there are any restrictions on driving along certain roads.
Domestic car-rental agencies
A2B Rentals t0800 545 000, wa2brentals.co.nz.
Ace Rental Cars t0800 502 277, wacerentalcars.co.nz.
Apex t0800 939 597, wapexrentals.co.nz.
Bargain Rental Cars t0800 001 122, wbargainrentals.co.nz.
Jucy t0800 399 736, wjucy.co.nz.
Omega t0800 112 2333, womegarentalcars.com.
Pegasus t0800 803 580, wrentalcars.co.nz.
Throughout the summer, roads are clogged with campervans, almost all driven by foreign visitors who rent them for a few weeks and drive around the country staying in campsites and freedom camping. A small campervan is generally suitable for two adults and a couple of kids and comes with a fold-down bed and compact kitchen. Larger models sleep four or more and often have a shower and toilet.
Medium campervan rentals (based on a 3-week rental) average about $200–330 a day during the high season (Dec–Feb), dropping a little for a couple of months either side and plummeting to around $160 in winter with the two biggest rental firms, Maui and Britz (effectively the same company). A few smaller firms (listed below) offer cheaper rates, saving 20–30 percent.
Small vans are often cramped and aimed at backpackers prepared to sacrifice comfort to save money. These typically cost $80–95 a day during summer, $75–85 in the shoulder season and $60–70 in the depths of winter. The current trend is for wildly painted vans, often with arcane, quirky or downright offensive comments graffitied on them: witness Escape Rentals and Wicked Campers. Other good bets are the distinctive orange Spaceships that have been imaginatively converted to suit two adults. For an affordable and slightly offbeat experience go for a restored, classic VW campervan (possibly with a pop-top), from Auckland-based Kiwi Kombis, who charge $140–210 a day, depending on dates and van.
For all campervans there’s usually a minimum rental period of 5–7 days, but you get unlimited kilometres, a kitchen kit and perhaps airport transfer. Insurance is often included but you may be liable for the first $2000–7500 and you should seriously consider paying extra fees to get this liability reduced. Most companies have a supply of tents, camping kits, outdoor chairs and tables that can be rented for a few dollars.
No special licence is required to drive a campervan, but some caution is needed, especially in high winds and when climbing hills and going around tight corners.
Campervan rentals: medium to large
Adventure t0800 123 555, wnzmotorhomes.co.nz.
Backpacker Campervans t 800 422 267, wbackpackercampervans.com.
Britz t0800 831 900, wbritz.com.
Eurocampers t0800 489 226, wbreakaway.co.nz.
Freedom Campers t0800 325 939, wfreedomcampers.co.nz.
Jucy t0800 399 736, wjucy.co.nz.
Kea Campers t0800 520 052, wkeacampers.com.
Maui t0800 651 080, wmaui.co.nz.
Small vans and conversions
Backpackers Transport t0800 226 769, wbackpackernz.co.nz.
Escape t0800 216 171, wescaperentals.co.nz.
Jucy t0800 399 736, wjucy.co.nz.
Kiwi Kombis t09 533 9335, wkiwikombis.com.
Spaceships t0800 772 237, wspaceshipsrentals.co.nz.
Wicked Campers t0800 246 870, wwickedcampers.co.nz.
Buying a used vehicle
Buying a used vehicle can be cost-effective if you are staying in the country for more than a couple of months. Reselling can recoup enough of the price to make it cheaper than using public transport or renting. If you buy cheap there’s also a greater risk of breakdowns and expensive repairs. The majority of people buy cars in Auckland and then try to sell them in Christchurch, so there’s something to be said for buying in Christchurch where you’ll often have more choice and a better bargaining position.
Some of the best deals are found on backpacker hostel notice boards where older cars and vans are typically offered for $500–5000. Realistically you can expect to pay upwards of $3000 for something half-decent. It may not look pretty and with a private sale there’s no guarantee the vehicle will make yet another trip around the country, but you might get an added bonus like camping gear thrown in with the car (or offered at a snip).
For a little more peace of mind, buy from a dealership. There are plenty all over the country, especially in Auckland, Christchurch and Wellington. Prices begin at around $5000 and some yards offer a buy-back service, usually paying about fifty percent of the purchase price. If you’re confident of your ability to spot a lemon, you can try to pick up a cheap car at an auction; they’re held weekly in Auckland and Christchurch and are advertised in the local press. Be aware that you’ll usually be liable for the buyer’s premium of ten percent over your bid.
Before you commit yourself, consult the vehicle ownership section of the NZ Transport Agency website (wnzta.govt.nz), which has good advice on buying and the pitfalls. The Buying a used car factsheet is particularly helpful.
Unless you really know your big end from your steering column you’ll want to arrange a mobile vehicle inspection, either from the AA (t0800 500 333, waa.co.nz; members $147; non-members $169) or the Car Inspection Services (t0800 500 800 in Auckland and Wellington, wcarinspections.co.nz). The inspection may give you enough ammunition to negotiate a price reduction. Finally, before you close a private sale, call AA LemonCheck (t0800 536 662, waalemoncheck.co.nz) – its staff will fill you in on registration history, possible odometer tampering and any debts on the vehicle ($20 members; $30 non-members).
Before they’re allowed on the road, all vehicles must have a Warrant of Fitness (WOF), which is a test of its mechanical worthiness and safety. WOFs are carried out and issued by specified garages and testing stations and last for a year if the vehicle is less than six years old, or six months if older. Check the expiry date, as the test must have been carried out no more than one month before sale. The vehicle should also have current vehicle registration, which must be renewed before it expires (6 months, starting at $299.90; 12 months $431.06 for petrol-driven, private vehicles – 1300–2600cc): post offices and AA offices are the most convenient for this, though you can also do it online at wnzta.govt.nz.
You transfer ownership with a form (filled in by buyer and seller) at a post office: the licence plates stay with the vehicle. Next you’ll need insurance: Comprehensive (which covers your vehicle and any other damaged vehicles), or Third Party, Fire & Theft (which covers your own vehicle against fire and theft, but only pays out on damage to other vehicles in case of an accident). Shop around as prices vary widely, but expect to pay a minimum of $350 for six months’ Third Party, Fire & Theft cover.
Visitors from most countries can ride in New Zealand with their normal licence, though it (or your international licence) must specify motorbikes. Helmets are compulsory, and you’ll need to be prepared to ride on gravel roads from time to time.
Few people bring their own bike but bike rental is available from the companies running guided bike tours. It isn’t cheap, and for a 650cc machine in summer you can expect to pay $190–280 a day. Bike Adventure New Zealand (t0800 498 600, wbikeadventure.co.nz) offers 600cc enduro machines for $95 per day for short periods, dropping to $55 per day for ten weeks. Alternatively, try the same channels as for “Buying a used vehicle” opposite.
The obvious alternative is an organized tour, self-guided or guided, usually incorporating top-of-the-range accommodation, restaurants and bikes.
Adventure New Zealand Motorcycle Tours & Rentals wgotournz.com. Nelson-based company providing upmarket, small-group guided or self-guided tours around the South Island, with itineraries tweaked to suit and a luxury coach in your wake. Rates start at $9000 for a standard 10-day trip on a relatively modest bike.
New Zealand Motorcycle Rentals & Tours wnzbike.com. Another specialist top-end company, offering guided all-inclusive tours staying in quality accommodation, semi-guided tours and bike rental. A fully guided 21-day tour round both islands will set you back about $8300, staying in hotels and riding a modest bike.
Te Waipounamu Motorcycle Hire & Tours wmotorcycle-hire.co.nz. These folk do upscale tours round the bottom of the South Island and bike rentals including Beamers at $230/day in the high season.
If you have time, cycling is an excellent way of getting around. Distances aren’t enormous, the weather is generally benign, traffic is light, and the countryside is gorgeous. Most everywhere you go you’ll find hostels and campsites well set up for campers, but also equipped with rooms and cabins for when the weather really sucks.
But there are downsides. New Zealand’s road network is skeletal, so in many places you’ll find yourself riding on main roads or unsealed minor roads. You’ll also experience a fair bit of rain and have to climb quite a lot of hills.
Cycling the South Island is an easier proposition than the North Island. The South Island’s alpine backbone presents virtually the only geographical barrier, while the eastern two-thirds of the island comprise a flat plain. In the North Island you can barely go 10km without encountering significant hills – and you have to contend with a great deal more traffic, including intimidating logging trucks.
New Zealand law requires all cyclists to wear a helmet. Some fitness is important, but distances don’t have to be great and you can take things at your own pace. If you’d rather go with a guided group, For more information, see Multi-day tours.
For more information get the Pedallers’ Paradise guides (wparadise-press.co.nz) or Bruce Ringer’s New Zealand by Bike.
Since the vast majority of riding will be on sealed roads with only relatively short sections of gravel, it is perfectly reasonable (and more efficient) to get around New Zealand on a touring bike. But fashion dictates most people use a mountain bike fitted with fat but relatively smooth tyres.
On long trips it’s cheaper to bring your own bike, set up to your liking before you leave home. Most international airlines simply count bikes as a piece of luggage and don’t incur any extra cost as long as you don’t exceed your baggage limit. However, they do require you to use a bike bag or box, or at the very least remove pedals and handlebars and wrap the chain. Some airlines will sell you a cardboard bike box at the airport. Soft bags are probably the most convenient (they’re easy to carry on the bike once you arrive), but if you are flying out from the same city you arrive in you can often store hardshell containers (free or for a small fee) at the backpacker hostel where you spend your first and last nights: call around.
Renting bikes for more than the odd day can be an expensive option, costing anything from $30–55 a day, depending on whether you want a bike with little more than pedals and brakes, a tourer or state-of-the-art mountain bike. Specialist cycle shops do more economical monthly rentals for around $200–250 for a tourer and $300 or more for a full-suspension superbike.
For long-distance cycle touring, it’s generally cheaper to buy a bike. It will cost at least $1500 to get fully kitted out with new equipment, but it’s worth checking hostel notice boards for secondhand bikes (under $500 is a reasonable deal), often accompanied by extras such as wet-weather gear, lights, a helmet and a pump. Some cycle shops offer buy-back deals, guaranteeing to refund about fifty percent of the purchase price at the end of your trip – contact Adventure Cycles, 9 Premier Ave, Western Springs, in Auckland (t 09 940 2453, wadventure-auckland.co.nz/adventurecycles). If you’re bringing your own bike, the same folk will let you store the bike box you transported your machine in, help organize an emergency package of spare parts and extra clothing to be forwarded at your request, and give your bike a once-over before you set off, all for around $50.
Lethargy, boredom, breakdowns or simply a need to shift your bike between islands mean you’ll use public transport at some point. You can usually get your bike onto a bus (generally $15–20) or train ($15–20/journey), though space is often limited so book well in advance. Crossing Cook Strait, the Interislander and Blue Bridge ferries charge $15–20.
Bikes usually travel free on buses, trains and ferries if packed in a bike bag and treated as ordinary luggage. Air New Zealand will fly your bike free, if it is within your baggage allowance; Jetstar will charge you at its normal excess baggage rate, though that doesn’t cut into your free allowance.
The ferries you’re most likely to use are vehicle-carrying services plying Cook Strait between Wellington on the North Island and Picton on the South Island. Details are given on For more information, see The Dowse Art Museum.
Passenger ferries link Bluff, in the south of the South Island, to Stewart Island, and both vehicle and passenger ferries connect Auckland with the Hauraki Gulf islands, principally Waiheke, Rangitoto and Great Barrier. Information about these short trips is included in the accounts of Invercargill and Auckland. Most visitors spend more boat time on cruises – whale watching, dolphin swimming, sightseeing – or water taxis.Read More
One of the cheapest ways to cover a lot of ground is on a backpacker bus, which combines some of the flexibility of independent travel with the convenience of a tour. You typically purchase a ticket for a fixed route (usually valid for 12 months), and then take it at your own pace. You can either stick with the one bus for the entire journey with nights spent at various towns along the route, or stop off longer in places and hop on a later bus. During peak times some buses may be full, so you’ll need to plan onward travel several days in advance. Most companies operate year-round, though services are reduced in winter.
The emphasis is on experiencing the country rather than travelling from one town to the next, so you’ll be stopping off to bungy jump, hike or somesuch. Being part of a group of forty rowdy backpackers arriving at some idyllic spot isn’t everyone’s idea of a good time and, by using assorted public transport, it is often just as cheap to make your own way around New Zealand. But if you want almost everything organized for you, and a ready-made bunch of like-minded fellow travellers, this sort of travel might appeal.
It can be 5–10 percent cheaper to book before you arrive, as some deals are not available once you step off the plane: check the websites or with your travel agent. You might also save a few dollars by being a YHA, VIP, BBH or ISIC cardholder. Tickets don’t generally cover accommodation, activities (although these are often discounted), side trips, food or travel between the North and South islands.
Operators are listed below. For those interested in multi-day tours and adventure activities check out “Outdoor activities” (see Multi-day tours), where more intimate and specialized excursions are listed.
Flying Kiwi Wilderness Expeditions (wflyingkiwi.com). Operator specializing in tours that get off the beaten track and eschew city hostels in favour of camping. Converted buses are equipped with bikes, canoes, windsurfers, kitchen, awning, fridge, beds, tents and hot shower, and everyone mucks in with domestic chores. Trips operate all year and once on board you stick with the same group. Options range from the Northern Express from Wellington to Auckland via Taupo (2 days; $268) to a full NZ tour (27 days; $3740 including food and camping fees).
Haka Tours (hakatours.com). Small-group (max 16) guided adventure and snow tours aimed at the slightly more discerning backpacker. Packages range from the seven-day South Island Tour ($1299) to the 24-day “Epic NZ” ($3599).
Kiwi Experience (wkiwiexperience.com). With a deserved reputation for attracting high-spirited party animals, Kiwi Experience offers a huge array of passes, from a trip to Cape Reinga starting in Auckland (min 3 days; $199) to the Full Monty (minimum 32 days; $2125).
Stray (wstraytravel.com). Stray have attempted to take the mantle of ultimate party bus away from Kiwi Experience. Trips include a Round South Island (RON) circuit (minimum 16 days; $940) and a North Island circuit (minimum 9 days; $535).
With quiet roads, brilliant scenery and superb camping, New Zealand has long been on the cycle touring map and now looks set to become a major off-road cycle touring destination.
As a recession-busting project, the government has funded a series of 18 Great Rides, stand-alone, mostly off-road routes that comprise Nga Haerenga (wnzcycletrail.com). The rides (from a few hours to several days) should all be complete by early 2013 and boosters hope that they will emulate the successful Otago Central Rail Trail, providing superb riding while boosting the local economy. Eventually these may be linked together in an end-to-end network along the lines of Te Araroa.
Rent a bike locally and just tackle rides such as “From the Mountains to the Sea” in the north and “The Old Ghost Road” in the south, or come for a month or so and collect the set.