Backpacking New Zealand: Kiwi Experience Review
New Zealand is a regular stop off for those on their Gap Year or doing a round the world trip. Roughly the same size as the UK, there is a lot to see and do in New Zealand. Getting around is possibly one of the biggest decisions you’ll make.
The first thing I want to make clear is that Kiwi Experience and Oz Experience are not the same company. The experience is different and you shouldn’t base your opinion on whether to do Kiwi Experience on how you found Oz Experience.
Kiwi Experience offers transport options for independent travellers across New Zealand. The options are rather flexible with different tour lengths, regional passes, both island passes and start/finish locations (Auckland and Christchurch). There’s also a tonne of great routes so it can help you make up your mind about your New Zealand itinerary.
The Bus and Drivers
Now the bus is exactly what you’d expect; a big green coach! It’s clean and comfortable which it should be considering how much time you’ll be spent on the bus throughout your travels in New Zealand. More important is the bus drivers. Some drivers you’ll like and others you’ll love. For example, Ringo (keep it Ringo) was fun, loved his job and had a great taste in music. What more do you want from a bus driver?
Just a quick note to say stow away passengers will be caught…
I think what also impressed me was that two of our drivers were female. I’ve been on a considerable amount of tour buses and yet Kiwi Experience is the first operator that I have seen a female driver. Considering there is the same, if not more independent female travellers, why does the industry not reflect this with who they employ. So good on Kiwi Experience I say!
One small nuisance I found with Kiwi Experience is that you have a card ticket that you must keep safe (otherwise there is a charge for a new one) and there is no online booking for buses. However, having said that if you’re travelling round the world, looking after a ticket shouldn’t be too hard. Also, you can book your next bus through your driver. I did find that the call centre staff were incredibly helpful whenever I needed to change dates for buses.
I noticed that a lot of people coming to New Zealand seem to have quite a tight time schedule (don’t know why, New Zealand is not to be rushed!). Luckily, the Kiwi Experience timetable is very frequent, even in winter, so that you don’t have to ‘waste’ time staying an extra night in a place just because there isn’t a bus the next day. Once piece of advice for travellers who book Kiwi Experience from home (e.g. UK) check with Kiwi Experience themselves on their timetable. There were instances where travel agents were using old timetables. Always contact Kiwi Experience to check, especially if you have flights to consider.
A lot of tour buses have the reputation for attracting young drunks. With Kiwi Experience I actually found this not to be the case at all. On my first leg of my journey I spent a week with roughly the same group. The ages ranged from 18-28 and most seemed to be university graduates rather than 18 year olds who can’t hold their drink. It was by no means a party bus, not all the time anyway. We had big nights and then tame ones. Having said that on occasion we were split, some would chillout and watch a movie at the hostel and others would hit the town. Also a thing to note is that people had a various personal budgets. Some nights people would go out for dinner and others would cook themselves. There was also a mixture of solo, group and couple travellers. There is no specific stereotype who go on the Kiwi Experience bus.
This is the legend that is Les. You’ll meet him at Lake Mahinapua for steak and an amazing fancy dress night!
Furthermore I lived in Queenstown for quite some time so regularly got to see the tour buses arrive daily. This is of course a generalisation but one in which I base on having seen various groups; Kiwi Experience always came across as the more fun and sociable bus. Sure they may have been louder but I’d rather be on a bus where there’s the option to party hard and abstain than have no option at all.
Your hostel accommodation is entirely down to you and they can be pretty flexible as to where they drop you off. I’m predominantly a fan of the small independents rather than the big chains. Base hostels can be found throughout New Zealand and you could be staying there quite regularly throughout your trip. If you do plan on this be sure to get yourself a Base Jumping card which allows you 10 nights accommodation in any NZ Base at a discounted rate.
My personal recommendations for Hostels are:
Auckland – Verhandahs Backpacker Lodge (Great if you want to get out of the hustle and bustle)
Taupo – Taupo Urban Retreat (Lovely owners with great communal areas)
Nelson – Fern Lodge (Great pub with amazing food)
Westport – Bazil’s Hostel (Amazing kitchen, fat cat and cosy homely feel)
Wanaka – Base (One of the nicest Base hostels I have stayed in)
Franz Josef – Rainforest Retreat (Hot tub, oh yes!)
Lake Mahinapua – Mahinapua Hotel (One of the best nights you’ll have)
Queenstown – Nomads (Sauna. Need I say more?)
Kaikoura – Lazy Shag Backpackers (Warm friendly hostel and the log fire goes a long way)
Bay of Islands – Base Pipi Patch (Excellent base to explore Paihia)
Kiwi Experience offers various different passes that include north and south island passes or combos that start and/or finish in Auckland or Christchurch. I myself did the Top Dog pass which starts in Christchurch, does a loop around the south island and then heads top the Bay of Islands, finally finishing in Auckland.
One thing I will never been able to comprehend is travellers who only do the north island. It’s nice up there but really has nothing on the south! For me the highlight has to be west coast of the south island i.e. Nelson to Queenstown. You’ll stop at places like Lake Mahinapua, Franz Josef and Wanaka. This is accompanied by gorgeous coastal drives and stops by places of natural beauty. I’d actually rate this journey over the Great Ocean Road in terms of scenery.
The best thing about the Kiwi Experience is that everything is so ‘easy’. Even for a veteran solo traveller sometimes it’s nice just to be driven somewhere and then told your options. By booking through your driver you do get discounts on activities too. Don’t worry you’re not compelled or pressured in to do any of the additional activities. If you did them all you’d certainly be broke, so budget carefully. New Zealand in general has so much to offer for example; Sky Diving, Bungee Jumping, Paragliding, Snowboarding, Glacier Hiking, Ferburger eating, Rock Climbing, Quad Biking, White Water Rafting and Whale Watching to name but a few! It’s reported that prices are slightly cheaper on the north island so it’s worth planning and budgeting for the activities you want to do.
If you go through Waitomo be sure to check out the GlowWorm Caves. After a fire ravished the old visitor centre an award winning new one was built in it’s place! You can explore these caves by doing black water tubing but if you’re not up to it, a cheaper and less energetic method is to do the Waitomo Glowworm Caves Tour. The caves really are extraordinary. The caves have the feel as if your in a cathedral of sorts but naturally formed by the rock. After a short walk through the caves you are taken on a gentle boat road to explore the caves. My camera really wouldn’t do it justice but looking at the ceiling of this cave was like looking at the night sky but with thousands of glowworms instead of stars. It’s a rather remarkable sight to see.
The Best Free Stuff
As part of your tour you will stop off at various points to see places of interest or natural beauty. Here are my personal favourites.
Punakaiki Pancake Rocks and Blowholes
The price for these tours are competitive in the industry and good value for solo backpackers. When I was in New Zealand the Kea pass, which covers both islands, was on offer at $389. This is normally $874 so some quick math tells me that’s 55% off. This is an absolute bargain! Kiwi Experience is known for running offers regularly such as buy one island and get a second island free. If one of these offers come up be sure to jump on them. Very good value for money!
Short answer: go for it! I have some very fond memories of the big green bus and the places it took me. I made some fantastic friends many of which I am still in touch with. It’s convenient, good value for money and if you are on a tight schedule you can be assured you don’t miss the best bits New Zealand has to offer.
Have you been on Kiwi Experience? Let us know your thoughts!
Update: There’s a great resource for planning your trip to New Zealand that you really should check out if you’re going. Planit NZ is a centralized resource for NZ travel.
This tour was sponsored by Kiwi Experience.