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).