How to Use the Hop-On Hop-Off Bus in New Zealand
Hop-on hop-off: it’s as swift as the movement suggests. This bus concept works particularly well for backpackers and working holidaymakers who want to see the whole of New Zealand at their own leisure with maximum fun. Hop-on hop-off buses are flexible tours allowing you to hop on the bus and hop off the bus almost whenever you like, so you can shape your bus journey around your desired trip. But how do the hop-on hop-off buses in New Zealand work?
For most backpackers, the “hop-on hop-off” concept is pretty new, so that’s why we’ve lovingly thrown together this complete New Zealand hop-on hop-off bus guide on how it all works.
Before we begin, bookmark Travel by Bus in New Zealand: The Ultimate Guide to check out all of your bus tour options for NZ.
Watch This Guide to Hop-On Hop-Off Buses in New Zealand as a Video!
Prefer to watch a video on how the hop-on hop-off buses in New Zealand work? Check out this video and subscribe to more New Zealand travel tips on the NZ Pocket Guide YouTube Channel.
What Does Hop-On Hop-Off Mean?
Hop-on hop-off is a type of backpacker bus network in New Zealand, which, simply put, is a flexible bus tour for adventurous travellers!
Unlike the national coach buses, the hop-on hop-off bus is a guided route with an emphasis on activities and social experiences with like-minded travellers. Get the full comparison in What is the Difference Between Hop-on Hop-off and National Coach.
With a mix of free and optional pay-as-you-go activities, the hop-on hop-off bus tours around New Zealand are action-packed. What’s more, the “hop-on hop-off” aspect of the bus trip means you can opt to get off the bus and enjoy some independent travelling at most points during the route.
The New Zealand Hop-On Hop-Off Bus Companies: Stray, Kiwi Experience and Flying Kiwi
The hop-on hop-off bus companies in New Zealand are Kiwi Experience (the green bus), Stray (the orange bus) and Flying Kiwi (the blue bus). They all have their own little charms with unique overnight stops and slightly different routes. However, the way Kiwi Experience and Stray work are very similar, allowing us to explain them both in this article. Yay!
Flying Kiwi works slightly differently, as they have camping accommodation and most meals included in their trips. For more information on Flying Kiwi, dive into our explanation of how Flying Kiwi works.
5 Things to Know About Stray and Kiwi Experience
Here are five things to know about Stray and Kiwi Experience:
- National passes are usually valid for a whole year while shorter passes have a time limit
- Driver guides book your hostel and activities while giving you their insider knowledge of New Zealand
- Hostel accommodation is usually a bunk-style dorm
- Bus journeys are action-packed with walks, photo opportunities and activities
- You pay for food, hostel nights and activities of your choice.
Now let’s jump into the nitty-gritty of our guide to the hop-on hop-off buses in New Zealand!
How to Choose Your Hop-On Hop-Off Bus Pass
How much time do you have? What part of New Zealand do you want to see? These questions help you decide on what pass to choose for your bus trip.
Most of the time, backpackers are keen to see the whole of New Zealand and we couldn’t recommend that more! Choosing a pass that covers most parts of the country is a popular option. However, if you have limited time or maybe just want to experience, say, the South Island on the hop-on hop-off bus, then there are passes just for that.
What Does a Hop-On Hop-Off Bus Pass Include?
- Hassle-free bookings for accommodation and activities made by your driver
- Stops at some free activities along the way
- A valid pass for 12 months
- “Unlimited Travel” meaning you can do the route as many times as you like as long as there is space on the bus.
How to Purchase Your Hop-On Hop-Off Bus Tour
There are four easy ways to book your bus pass that we recommend:
- The hop-on hop-off company website – Perfect for those who love to have travel plans sorted early! Be sure to keep an eye out for seasonal deals.
- TourRadar – They have regular sales and the tour website is a good place to compare routes, prices and reviews with other New Zealand bus tour companies
- Travel agents in New Zealand – We always find it cheaper to book with travel agents in New Zealand than with agents overseas. It’s likely that the first hostel you stay at will be able to book a bus pass for you
- The Kiwi Experience shop in Auckland – For Kiwi Experience, you can go straight to the source at Kiwi Experience’s HQ on Beach Road, Auckland.
When to Purchase Your Hop-On Hop-Off Bus Pass
You can purchase your pass in advance (up to 12 months before your departure date) but you do not have to decide on travel dates straight away. Your 12 months pass (or 24 months with Flying Kiwi) begins from the day you start travelling. Remember, you have a year to make your first booking to travel.
How to Find a Good Deal on Hop-On Hop-Off Bus Passes
You don’t need to worry too much about what the full price of the bus pass is. More often than not, the passes are on sale, so check the websites for their up-to-date prices. Check out our tips on 5 Tips to Get a Better Deal on a Backpacker Bus Pass in New Zealand.
Once you have purchased your bus pass, you will receive a passenger number. Keep this safe! You will need the number every time you want to book the next bus to hop on.
Our tip: save your bus company’s phone number in your contacts with your name and passenger number. All you would have to do is look at your phone while you are calling the reservations team. Easy!
How Much Does a New Zealand Hop-On Hop-Off Bus Pass Cost?
With Stray and Kiwi Experience, there are a number of costs you need to consider when taking the bus because these are not all-inclusive tours.
The Price of the Hop-on Hop-off Bus Pass
The prices of bus passes fluctuate with sales. Plus, prices really depend on which bus pass you buy. For a full national pass, the price can be anywhere between NZ$1,000-$2,000. Keep an eye on those sales and read our 5 Tips to Get a Better Deal for a Backpacker Bus Pass.
The Price of Activities and Accommodation
Although the bus driver can book accommodation and activities for you, you pay for these as you go. You can expect to pay around NZ$25-35 per night for accommodation (with a couple of exceptions, which you can read more about in our How to Budget for a Hop-on Hop-off Trip Around New Zealand).
For activities, the prices can range from NZ$10 to NZ$400+, so making your own personal activities budget is essential. We’ve made a list of typical activity prices in The Cost of Backpacking in New Zealand.
The Price of Food
You will need to provide your own food and drink on the trip. By either stopping at a destination with a supermarket or making a supermarket stop during the day, the bus will give you regular access to a supermarket to buy your own food to cook at the hostel, which is the best way to keep food costs low. Having group meals with your fellow bus passengers is another way to reduce food expenses.
For more money-saving tips and how much you can expect to pay on the Kiwi Experience or Stray bus, check out How to Budget for Hop-on Hop-off Trip Around New Zealand.
Budgeting with Flying Kiwi
As mentioned, Flying Kiwi works a little differently. You don’t need to worry about an accommodation budget, as accommodation is included in the trip. Although Flying Kiwi does offer at least one meal a day (some days it’s three times a day, sometimes it’s two), there are going to be some occasions where you are going to need to buy your own meals. This is usually when there is no access to a kitchen so you’ll be buying food from cafes, takeaways and restaurants, so budgeting for some meals is a must. Again, take a look at typical takeaway prices in What is the Cost of Backpacking in New Zealand?
How to Book When You Want to Start Travelling
Ready to hit the road? Have a look at the bus timetable, usually found on the bus company website or app, to see when the next departure is from your starting point. To book your place on the bus with Kiwi Experience, all you need to do is call the reservations team or flick them an email. With Stray, you can call their reservations team or book online.
The friendly team at Stray or Kiwi Experience will let you know the location of departure and the departure time. They will also inform you of this itinerary via email.
Make sure you show up about 15 minutes before departure! Don’t set the tone for the rest of your trip by being late for the first day. You just wouldn’t want to be that guy.
Activities on the Hop-On Hop-Off Bus Tours in New Zealand
While you’re on the road, they’ll be lots of opportunities for social media snaps, so you are never sat for too long on the bus without a break. Your driver-guide will pick out some great short hikes and points of interest along the way, which of course means there are some free activities!
More than that, there are plenty of activities to do when you reach your destination for the day. We’re talking about all those bucket list activities such as skydiving, staying in a marae, kayaking, bungy jumping, Hobbiton, white water rafting, dolphin swimming, etc. Your bus driver will be able to book you into your activity of choice. This is organised by passing a clipboard around the bus and you just simply sign up. You will pay for the activity once you get to it.
Beware: that clipboard can be oh-so-tempting! It’s easy to just sign up for everything on the list because it all sounds so good. This is where actually making a bucket list comes in handy, so you can select the activities you really want to do and you will stick to them and your budget. That’s not to say you shouldn’t do something spontaneously, but just do what your budget will allow. For more tips, take a look at How to Budget for a Hop-On Hop-Off Bus Trip Around New Zealand.
Accommodations with the Hop-On Hop-Off Buses
Conveniently enough, your driver-guide books your first hostel night in each overnight location for you too. This will be another clipboard that makes its way around the bus, so you can say what type of room you want to be in and for how many nights. Remember, your bus company can only guarantee you the first night in their chosen hostel. Further nights you may need to book in advance, especially in the summer season.
That’s not to say that you cannot choose your own hostel to stay in that night. A few passengers do just that! Your driver will likely be happy to drop you off at the door of your chosen hostel. However, in our experience, it’s much more fun to stay with the group you have been travelling with for the day (or a few days), so staying in the bus’s chosen hostel tends to be the more social option.
In the case of Flying Kiwi, they travel with tents so accommodation is included in your bus pass. They stay at campsites around the country where you can choose to upgrade to a solo tent or a cabin in some locations.
How to “Hop-Off” Anywhere
As long as where you want to hop off is along the bus route that is on the main route (not a side route that uses a partner bus company of Stray or Kiwi Experience), you can hop off anywhere, even between overnight stops. The great thing about the hop-on hop-off bus is that you can stay off the bus for as long as you like. If you have the time, take advantage of the fact that you can thoroughly experience a place. Remember, the national bus pass is valid for 12 months! If you want to start working or WWOOFing as part of your working holiday, just hop off the bus for a couple of weeks, even months.
Some backpackers will use the hop-on hop-off bus as a means of getting around the country while hopping off and taking side trips to all those unexplored hidden gems. Nevertheless, you’ll still get to experience some remote locations and see the true New Zealand with some of the overnight stops included with all of New Zealand’s hop-on hop-off bus companies.
How to Hop Back on the Bus
As soon as you know what date you want to get the next bus and continue on the route, you need to let your hop-on hop-off bus company know! You can only get back on the bus if there is a seat available for you, which can be a bit of a mission in the busy summer months. The best way to book your place on the bus is usually to give the company a call. They will tell you the next available dates to get back on the bus from your location. The booking process over the phone is super quick and simple – just make sure you have your passenger number handy!
For more about how “flexible” it is to hop back on the bus, check out this video:
A Day in the Life of a Hop-On Hop-Off Bus Passenger
So what is life like once you are on the hop-on hop-off buses in New Zealand?
- Catch the bus on time from your prearranged pick-up point
- Get introduced to your driver-guide and the plan for the day
- Start meeting your fellow bus passengers through icebreakers or general chitchat!
- Take multiple breaks from the bus: coffee, toilet, supermarket, etc
- Visit attractions and do free activities as you make your way to today’s destination
- Back on the bus, the driver guide books your preferred activities and accommodation for you. (Accommodation is included with Flying Kiwi)
- For the rest of the day, you’ll be doing activities, socialising, exploring and enjoying some free time until the sun goes down (and beyond)
- Start it all again tomorrow or hop off the bus to hop back on another day.
Morning Madness: What Happens in the Morning on a Hop-On Hop-Off Bus Tour
“Meet at the bus at 8.30. If you’re late we’re leaving you behind!” We hope you haven’t been drinking too much the night before because it’s an early start almost every morning on the hop-on hop-off bus.
Backpacks and suitcases are put on the bus, the driver-guide takes your name, and you hop on the bus. You’ll either be on a large coach, where you socialise with the people around you, or you’ll be on a smaller bus where it is more likely to feel inclusive of the whole bus.
On the road you go! It won’t be long until your driver-guide, whether its a lively local from Kiwi Experience or a passionate Stray driver or two guides with Flying Kiwi with heaps of stories to tell, gets on the mic and lets all the passengers know the “rough” plan for the day we say “rough” because this is New Zealand and we find the best way to travel is to go with the flow. He/she will introduce themselves to any new passengers and outline the expected stops you’ll take that day, such as coffee, toilet, lunch and supermarket stops. Of course, there will be more unexpected stops, but you’ll have to wait for the surprise later…
As the morning progresses, the coffee breaks start. All the caffeine addicts will be spending their NZ$5 at every stop. Oh yeah, and 30 minutes down the road, those addicts will need a toilet stop. So after a couple of stops in the morning, you’ll be back on the road again. And the road in New Zealand is never dull!
Depending on where on the route you are, the driver may start playing some icebreaker games with the whole bus so that you can start mingling with your new travel buddies. Switching seats when the driver calls is a popular one. This is more likely to happen from the starting points, like Auckland, Christchurch and Queenstown. It is not really necessary every day as people get to know each other as they progress through the bus route.
Now you have got the questions out of the way that EVERY TRAVELLER ASKS EACH OTHER: “Where are you from? How long have you been in New Zealand? How long are you staying? Where have you travelled before? Blah, blah, blah,” you can start relaxing and enjoying the company of your fellow bus crew. The crowd can really change from bus to bus.
On Kiwi Experience, you often have 18-25-year-olds, mostly Europeans, mixed with a few other internationals and older passengers. On Stray, you are more likely to have a mix of nationalities and ages, yet their core is still the 20-something backpacker. Flying Kiwi has an average age of 27 but tends to have passengers between 20-40 years old.
Getting along with these people is super easy on the bus. Passengers are like-minded, possibly solo travelling, and keen to meet new people. That’s probably why they took the hop-on hop-off in the first place! However, if you find yourself in a crowd that you don’t want to stay with, whether it’s a group of rowdy party lads that are too intense, or you want to be with that rowdy crowd of party lads and your current bus crew just doesn’t cut it, at least you can hop-off the bus and wait for a later departure. Chances are, this new bus will be more to your liking.
Afternoons on a Hop-On Hop-Off Bus
This is what New Zealand is all about: the stunning scenery! The scenery that you probably dreamed about after seeing The Lord of the Rings. Better yet, you get to pay your full attention to the towering mountains, rolling green hills, volcanoes, braided rivers, deep gorges, blue lakes, rugged coastline, sheep fields and tiny Kiwi towns because you don’t have to drive yay! You can sit back, relax and take it all in.
Unlike travelling with the national coaches like InterCity, the hop-on hop-off bus allows you to actually get outside and experience the landscape you’re passing through. Your driver-guide will stop the bus when there’s a stunning viewpoint that can’t be missed or a crazy rock formation or wildlife or a free activity or a short hike or whatever! The most common stop on a hop-on hop-off bus is… the waterfall.
Now, hilariously enough, hop-on hop-off passengers have a love/hate relationship with New Zealand’s waterfalls. In the beginning, they’re awesome. They’re everything you ever wanted and more. Then, by waterfall #12 these beautiful natural sights become just a blur. Yes, they’re stunning, but you can’t remember what its name was, where it was… New Zealand has spoiled you, dammit!
In the quieter seasons, usually between the end of autumn and the beginning of spring, when your bus is relatively quiet, you can easily ask your driver guide to stop if you want to take photos. (Or gang up on the driver during summer with your fellow passengers to convince him/her to stop the bus. The drivers tend to like a bit of banter anyway). Often enough, the driver will offer this option to you.
Oh and by the way, if you’re the spontaneous kind and like one of the places in you’ve stopped at, just tell the driver you want to hop off here! You can hop off the bus anywhere along the route, whether you have organised this with the reservations team or driver beforehand or just decided you want to hop off. However, getting back on the bus on a later departure date may require a bit of forward-planning, especially in summer when buses fill up quickly. Just call the reservations team and book yourself onto your next chosen departure bus. You’ll be given a time and place to be picked up from. If it is in the middle of the route during the day you may have to wait a while as the buses don’t tend to stick to a super tight schedule. Note that the minimum time you can hop off the bus with Flying Kiwi is nine days, while other bus companies tend to have more frequent departures.
Sign Up for Activities and the Next Accommodation
But, let’s say you stayed on the bus because you can’t let your new friends go or you are so eager to see your next destination. Next will be a lunch stop by a pristine lake or in a charming Kiwi town. Relax, eat, take photos, hang out with your friends and just enjoy the Kiwi lifestyle for all the laidback goodness that it is. If you have been travelling on the bus for a few days in a row now, you’ll definitely cherish the downtime. Things get pretty full-on when you stay on the bus for a while.
As you hit the road again, the driver guide will start to book the accommodation and activities at today’s destination. He/she will hit the bus microphone again, explain the place you’re staying tonight, how awesome it is and what activities there are to do (and how awesome they are…) You can always guarantee that the skydive in the next town is “the best in New Zealand” even if that was said about the previous skydive.
Then a couple of clipboards and pens will make their way around the bus, so you can sign up for what activities you want to do and what type of room you want to stay in the accommodation. Remember, you are guaranteed your first night of accommodation but booking more nights depends on availability. If you have booked your own accommodation, you have the option to write that down too and the driver guide will do what they can to drop you off as close to your accommodation as possible.
You’ve arrived! You’ll pay and check into your hostel or lodge, which is usually NZ$25-$35 per night, apart from one of Stray’s unique overnight experiences both just over NZ$70 and Kiwi Experience’s one optional overnight experience. Remember, Flying Kiwi has accommodation already included in campsites. However, you can upgrade to cabins or a tent all to yourself.
Now you have plenty of time left in the day to do activities. Your driver can transport between many of the activity providers they work with, or you can go off and do your own thing. If your driver-guide hasn’t told you already, ask them what there is to do at this location. They travel here all the time with the bus, so they’ll have heaps of knowledge! Also, don’t forget to check NZPocketGuide.com for free things to do in all of New Zealand’s locations.
It’s likely that a good group of your fellow bus mates are doing an activity with you, so this makes doing your white water rafting/kayaking/glowworm/caving/horse riding/parasailing/skydiving/bungy jumping all the more enjoyable to share the experience with other people.
Nevertheless, there is always a group of people who want to save money for another day. So go for a hike with them, wander around town, play card games, socialise: it’s up to you.
Some evenings, the driver guide will stay with the group and initiate some ways to socialise, whether it’s a drinking game, meeting at a bar or having a bonfire on the beach. Stray, Kiwi Experience and Flying Kiwi all take passengers to some interesting overnight stops literally in the middle of nowhere.
As some people have been travelling on the bus for a few days, there will be some evenings when people just want to relax rather than party, so don’t expect things to be too full-on every night. And, with the flexibility of the tour, you can really do whatever you want to do once you get to your destination.
Whether you stay here a few more nights or hop back on the bus the next day, you’ll have it all to enjoy again! As your driver-guide will remind you: “Meet at the bus at 8.30. If you’re late we’re leaving you behind!”
More About Hop-On Hop-Off Buses in New Zealand
Believe it or not, we do have more guides to help you plan the perfect hop-on hop-off bus trip around New Zealand! Check them out:
- 15 Tips to Make the Most of Your Backpacker Bus Trip
- 10 Things We Like About the Hop-on Hop-off Bus to Travel New Zealand
- What’s the Difference Between Coach and Hop-on Hop-off bus?
Finally, if you liked this New Zealand hop-on hop-off bus guide, then you’ll probably like The Travel Guide to New Zealand on a Budget.