If you’re thinking of travelling to New Zealand, but aren’t sure how to get around once you’re there, you will no doubt come across the Kiwi Experience bus in your research.
In a nutshell, the big green bus is a hop-on, hop-off tour of the country, taking backpackers to the best spots in New Zealand for adventure activities. The Kiwi Experience guarantees it’s passengers at least one night’s hostel accommodation at each stop. People can chose to stay longer than the minimum time and hop on to another bus if they so wish.
Kiwi Experience Hostels
One of the first questions I asked was “Do you get a choice of hostels at each location?” and the answer is no. The Kiwi Experience has contracts with hostels in each place where the hostel reserves enough beds for the Kiwi Bus passengers. You are welcome to stay at other hostels, but you have to sort this out yourself. On the way to a new stop, the bus driver sends round a clipboard where everyone signs up for the approved hostel, or, if you’ve booked your own accommodation, you write down the name of the hostel so they know where you are. The drivers will have a main drop off/pick up point at the Kiwi Bus approved hostel, but the drivers will try to drop you off at your chosen hostel if it’s pretty much on route. You can also usually get picked up at, or near, your hostel the next morning if you give the office a call to book a pick up. If you’ve booked a hostel out of the way, you can’t really expect the bus to drop you off there – they aren’t a taxi service, they are a bus with a route and a timetable.
My next question was “Are the pre-selected hostels the cheapest, or best value for money?” and the answer to this one is… well… it depends. On average, I’d say no. It only takes a quick search on Hostelworld to check out reviews, prices and location for hostels in each town. Kiwi Experience likes to use Base and Nomads, which are big chain hostels. I assume they use these as they’re huge so will always be able to absorb the rabble from the bus along with everyone else. You only need to check Hostelworld to see that Base and Nomads don’t have the best reviews, and not necessarily the best prices either. They certainly aren’t the cleanest…
Price isn’t everything though – we usually stayed at the pre-selected hostel because that’s where everyone else on the bus was staying. Otherwise, how do you make friends?
Please note: Guaranteed accommodation does NOT mean that the price of the hostel is included in the bus pass. The hostel price is not included. It just means that there is a guaranteed bed for you at their hostel of choice if you want it, but you still have to pay for it as usual.
One piece of advice I would give on this topic would be to stay at the chosen hostel for the first few stops, then make a decision on whether to continue to do so. By that point, you’ll have a good group around you to meet up with no matter where you stay, and you can always all book hostels as a group if you don’t like the look of the main accommodation choice.
There are so many passes to choose from depending on how much time you have, and how much money you have to spend.
Whichever one you pick, just promise me you won’t pay full price for it. They have sales on their website all the time. Just keep an eye out for the one you want. I promise it will pop up on sale before you know it. The best thing is, once you’ve bought a pass, it’s valid for a whole year from date of purchase. Additionally, once you’ve used it, it’s valid for another full year from date of first use. We bought our Whole Kit and Caboodle pass when it was on sale in September, and didn’t use it until February.
Just pick the one that’s right for you – the only advice I will give on this one is to try not to do the minimum time if you can. All passes have a minimum number of days in which they can be completed, giving you the shortest time (usually one night) at each stop. Try to have a couple of days flexibility in there if possible, allowing you to stay longer somewhere where there’s lots to do.
Ok, so actually two pieces of advice because I have another one… If you’ve got plenty of time, you will be tempted to get the Whole Kit pass like we did. This one starts in Auckland, goes up to the Bay of Islands, then back down and around North and South Island, with the ‘Deep South’ upgrade thrown in, before then going back up to Auckland.
I wouldn’t recommend this pass if I’m honest. We got it because we thought “yeaaah let’s do everything!” … we both thought that the Deep South trip was insanely boring, you are on an uncomfortable little minibus for the two days, hardly getting off, with commentary about cows and how there’s nothing to do in Invercargill (one of the stops). This little trip was two days we won’t get back, I wish we hadn’t done it. Also, getting a pass which takes you back up to Auckland isn’t really necessary, as it’s revisiting towns you’ve already stayed at, plus you have to pay another $50 for the ferry back up. We decided to sack off the four days back up to Auckland and just flew out of Christchurch instead. It’s easy to see all this in hindsight!
Before we went to New Zealand, I was a little bit worried about the hop-on, hop-off system. “What if the next bus is full?” I thought to myself. “What if we’re on the waiting list for days?”. The idea of having to pay for extra nights in towns just because we were waiting to get a seat on the bus didn’t appeal. My in-built obsessive planning side kicked in and I wanted to research each location and pre-plan how long we’d spend in each place, book the hostels and notify Kiwi Experience of our plans. All before we’d even left the UK.
If you’re a bit like me, all I can say is… chill out. It will all be OK. Honestly. These guys know what they’re doing. The bus drivers are constantly visiting each location, so their advice on where you should stay extra nights is the most helpful. You’ll probably want to take into consideration with what your new bus friends are doing too. If you book all accommodation in advance and can’t change your timetable I guarantee you will regret it.
We changed plans constantly and never had any problems. We chose to stay extra nights in a couple of places, which then changed every future bus booking for the rest of our trip. We were on the waiting list for buses but always managed to get seats, even on the busy ones. It works because everyone is chopping and changing, so even if your chosen bus doesn’t have a seat right now, by the time you actually get to that place, 9 times of of 10 a seat will be free.
My advice would be to try to give a couple of days notice if you can, and always keep the office staff up to date on your plans. If you are on the waiting list then call the office each day to see if anything has changed. They are a fantastic bunch, they will help you out.
If you do manage to get stuck without a ride, turn up at the pick up time anyway because sometimes people just don’t turn up for the buses and forget to notify the office staff. Or they’re still hungover in bed. Either way, the bus will not wait, so if you’re there instead… brilliant, hop on.
Apparently the record one day was thirty people not turning up. What were they all doing?
Just be aware of the season you go – Summer is super busy so talkign to the driver as soon as you can to sort your extra nights is a good plan, and I believe the bus runs a limited timetable in winter as there are less passengers, so make sure you check out the timetables here: https://www.kiwiexperience.com/before-your-nz-trip/nz-bus-timetable
Age Range & Partying
You may be aware of the old reputation of Kiwi Experience as a massive party bus for 18 year olds who just want to get shitfaced and shag everyone. Great! Sign me up! Just kidding. It’s not like that, I promise.
I hate to use a tired old phase but this one is so true… the bus is whatever you make it. If you want to go out and get drunk every night then I guarantee you will find some others on the bus who will happily join you. If you’d prefer to cook a meal with some new bus friends and chill out some place quieter with a few beers, there’ll be plenty of takers for that too.
The drivers told me that things have changed since the “wild old days”, including the backpackers themselves. Not just the age range, but the mentality. You still get loads of 18-21 year olds looking for an adventure, but now there’s plenty of 25-30 year olds like me and Blakey, and even parents that tag along with their 18 year old son/daughter for a laugh, and solo older travellers who want a convenient way to see New Zealand.
The drivers said that backpackers these days, regardless of age, seem to drink less. This could be because drinking in New Zealand is so expensive that one massive night every now and then is easier on the wallet than going out every night, or it could be because people want to actually see the country, not just get drunk then spend their days hungover. In the good old days, apparently everyone got drunk but then still managed their bungee jumps and hele hikes the next day anyway. We’re a fragile bunch these days.
The Kiwi Experience as a couple
Most backpackers on the bus are solo travellers or a few mates travelling together, but you do get the occasional couple (like us).
Is the Kiwi Experience a good way to travel as a couple? Yes, if you want to make friends. Not so much if you want a romantic holiday. If you spend all your time acting mushy, holding hands and kissing, no one will want to be your friend. I guarantee it. They’ll see you in your little couple bubble and leave you to it… meanwhile you’re both sitting there wondering why nobody is talking to you, the rude bastards! If, however, you’re willing to act like two seperate human beings who don’t have to spend every waking second glued together, you’ll make loads of friends and have a great time.
There were a few couples on our various buses who had already pre-booked all of their accommodation so they had private rooms. Mostly, these were in hostels away from the other passengers on the bus. I honestly do not even know the names of any of those couples, because they didn’t socialise. They were perfectly friendly when you spoke to them, but that’s about it. They probably had a fantastic time, but I can’t help thinking they’d have got more out of it if they’d staying in the dorm rooms a few times and got to know more people.
Blakey and I stayed in dorm rooms most of the time because we wanted to make friends, but also because it was waaay cheaper. Every now and then we’d splash out on a private room but mostly stayed with everyone else. If you don’t mind sleeping apart, I’d recommend this. However, I do wish we’d stayed in private rooms a bit more.
The Kiwi Experience is more than just a bus to get you from A to B, and the driver is more than just the bloke at the front of the bus. The drivers are also guides, who tell you all about the areas you’re going to, give you advice on how long to stay, and most importantly tell you what you can do when you get there.
If you’re an obsessive organiser, like me, you’ll be tempted to book activities in advance. Some poeple got activity vouchers from travel agents who claimed to represent the Kiwi Experience, but they regretted it when the drivers told them that the bus didn’t even go to some of the locations the travel agent had sold them vouchers for. They lost a lot of money.
I would recommend booking as you go. The drivers will give you a run down of things to do, their opinion on which ones are best, and how all of the activities fit in with the bus timetable. They will send clipboards down the bus for you to sign up to the activities, which have Kiwi Experience discounts.
Are these the cheapest prices you’ll be able to get for these activities? No, not always. However, they are activities you know for sure fit in with the bus timetable, so you always have that piece of mind. Just remember though that the activities you book with the driver are ones the Kiwi Experience get a commission for.
There are plenty of alternatives, and even the exact same activity, with the same company, but at a cheaper price. You can find them by looking around a bit on the internet. A brilliant website for discount New Zealand activities is http://www.bookme.co.nz. This is a great little site that lets you search for activities by region, then book them online at a discount. We got heaps of cheaper stuff on here, from mini golf to jet boats, wine tours to haunted houses.
Is Kiwi Experience Worth It?
If you’re anxious about travelling by yourself, want to meet heaps of people, hopeless at organising stuff youself (or just don’t want to), or if you you only have a limited time but want to see as much as New Zealand as possible, then absolutely – Kiwi Experience is for you. It’s one of the best ways to see the highlights of New Zealand in an organised, streamlined way which is a load of fun.
If you have more time, I would suggest doing your own thing, or starting on the Kiwi Bus to get a feel for the place, then revisit your favourite spots. We will definitely be going back to South Island to spend more time on the amazing hiking trails. We’ll probably hire a campervan and have a proper explore.
That’s the downside of Kiwi Experience; your freedom is limited – you get off the bus at hiking spots, or beautiful lakes, but you only have half an hour there to stretch your legs and take a picture before it’s back on the bus to go to the next place. It makes sense – they have a schedule to keep to, and a busload of backpackers to deliver. But if you really want to get stuck in the wilds of New Zealand I would say there are better ways to do it.