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Last Updated on 11/04/2021
Heading to New Zealand soon? Unsure about how to travel around it? Here’s everything you need to know about the Kiwi Experience so you can decide if it’s the best way to explore New Zealand for you:
New Zealand prides itself on being one of the most accessible countries for backpackers and it can perhaps be attributed to its wealth of good quality hostels and reliable ways to get around the country. From campervans to bus tours, there certainly isn’t a shortage of transport options at your disposal.
I visited New Zealand in June 2018. As a first-time solo traveller, I opted for the popular bus tour operator, the Kiwi Experience. Here’s how I got on:
What is the Kiwi Experience?
The Kiwi Experience is a flexible hop-on-hop-off bus tour that takes its passengers around the North and South Islands of New Zealand. Recognisable by the big green bus, Kiwi Experience tours cover the length and breadth of the country, showing passengers all the highlights and hidden gems New Zealand has to offer.
Passengers are given a flexible amount of time to complete a tour of their choice, with some tours allowing up to 12 months for completion, hence the ‘hop-on-hop-off’. You can then tailor your itinerary and accommodation along the way depending on your budget.
The Kiwi Experience’s signature green bus has gained a reputation for being a bit of a party bus among the locals as it caters predominantly towards 16-30-year-olds; a little like Freshers Week on tour. Nevertheless, it’s a useful way to travel around New Zealand if you’re a first-time traveller, solo traveller, or simply don’t fancy the hassle of driving.
Why I did the Kiwi Experience
I was travelling to New Zealand on my own. It was my first official long-haul solo trip so I wanted something hassle-free and easy so I could enjoy my trip without worrying about the intricacies of the itinerary. The Kiwi Experience provided a safety net with a touch of flexibility, allowing me to strike out on my own when I wanted.
I discovered the bus tour operator through STA Travel. It appeared to be the perfect choice for first-time solo travellers who were overwhelmed by the thought of planning a trip to the other side of the world on their own.
The beauty of the Kiwi Experience bus pass is that once you buy it, everything is sorted from your transport to your itinerary. All you need to do is book your flights and have enough money saved up for your accommodation, food, drinks and activities. Easy.
How it works
Booking your Kiwi Experience bus pass is as easy as visiting the website and following the steps. You can tailor your Kiwi Experience how you wish by choosing from a range of flexible hop-on-hop-off passes that cover New Zealand’s North and South Islands in as little or as much detail as you like.
The tour operator also has the option to choose small group tours promising a maximum capacity of no more than 16 people at a time. Although you have a slightly limited amount to choose from, these tours offer a quieter and more personal holiday experience. The small group tours range from 7-17 days and cost from NZ$1040 to NZ$2159. Dedicated snowsports tours are also available for those wanting to seek out the best slopes and ski resorts the country has to offer.
A typical Kiwi Experience hop-on-hop-off bus pass can be as little as 2 to 28 days minimum, covering specific points of interest along the length and breadth of the country.
If you really want to get your money’s worth then I recommend choosing one of the lengthier bus passes depending on how much time you have. Why?
A) You might as well see as much of the country as you can while you’re there.
B) The Kiwi Experience is always running sales on their bus passes so you’re guaranteed to find a bargain.
I went all in and booked the biggest Kiwi Experience bus pass – the Whole Kit and Caboodle. True to its name, it left no stone unturned, covering the very tip of the North Island to the deepest south of the South Island in a minimum of 28 days.
The original price of this whopping tour was NZ$1779 but I managed to bag it for 40% off in a sale, paying NZ$1067. It’s the most flexible bus pass on offer, allowing its passengers to start and finish anywhere with unlimited travel for up to 12 months.
What it’s really like
The bus spent a minimum of 1 night in each stop unless scheduled otherwise. Half the day was usually spent driving and the rest of the time was allocated to activities we had booked en route or relaxing at the hostel.
On a few occasions, there was more driving than usual simply because there was a lot of ground to cover. I didn’t mind though as New Zealand certainly wasn’t lacking on the scenery front. In fact, staring out of the window had never been so interesting and there were always regular pit stops along the way if you got peckish or fancied a stretch.
The Kiwi Experience may have gained a reputation for being a party bus but the tour operator had its fair share of early mornings with scheduled departures long before 10am most days. I would be lying if I said it wasn’t painful but after a few days of 7am starts it started to get a bit easier. I learnt very quickly that the key was to unpack as little as possible the day before.
The Kiwi Experience can pass very quickly through its scheduled stops so it’s a good idea to hop off from time to time to give yourself a chance to rest, see more of the area and put on a much-needed clothes wash.
If you do decide to stay a bit longer all you need to do is fire off a quick email or call the office and let them know the dates you plan to be getting off and what date you would like to be getting back on. It’s vital to do this a few days in advance, particularly during the peak season (December – February) as buses tend to be full and you don’t want to get stranded – as lovely as each stop is.
The drivers were an integral part of the Kiwi Experience tour. Depending on what bus pass you choose, you have a number of different drivers in one tour that operate on specific routes. Some of them have been doing it for decades.
Your Kiwi Experience bus driver is more than just a driver, they’re your tour guide, entertainment manager and friend. They’re full of stories about bygone trips, facts about each stop and jokes to make you laugh during the journey.
How to book your activities and accommodation with the Kiwi Experience
Your bus pass doesn’t include accommodation and activities but they’re easy enough to arrange en route. All you need to do is sign a clipboard that gets passed around the bus and then the driver simply calls ahead and makes the booking for you. Then just show up and pay.
Nothing is compulsory (it’s a holiday after all!) and you’re at perfect liberty to make your own activity and accommodation arrangements should you wish. You just need to make it back to the bus in time.
Kiwi Experience activities on offer
Without giving too much of the game away, just some of the activities on offer include:
- A free cruise around the Milford Sound
- Bungee jumping
- White water rafting
- The Bay of Islands and Cape Reinga
- Jet boating
- Tamaki Maori Cultural Experience
- Glacier walk
- Whale watching
- Plenty of free walks, excursions and cultural experiences
Pros and cons of the Kiwi Experience
1) The Kiwi Experience has a bus pass to suit any budget so you can spend as much or as little as you want.
2) Its hop-on-hop-off nature allows you to tailor your tour to your own pace, giving you an unhurried and flexible way to experience New Zealand.
3) The company is passionate about its conservation efforts and works to support local businesses wherever it can.
4) You’re with the same group almost 24/7 so it’s a great opportunity to make friends fast.
1) The demographic on the Kiwi Experience is predominantly a young backpacking crowd so it might not suit everyone’s travelling style.
2) Buses can get full and cliques can form.
3) The bus pass’s flexibility is certainly a bonus but joining a new bus full of travellers can be a daunting prospect if they’ve already had time to form friendship groups.
It’s hard to know how to budget and New Zealand is well-known for being an expensive country. Here’s a breakdown of the cost of 1 month on the Kiwi Experience (bus pass included):
|What:||How much it cost:|
|The Whole Kit and Caboodle bus pass||NZ$1067 / GB£543.16|
|Food and drink||NZ$675.24 / GB£343.69|
|Activities||NZ$967.56 / GB£493.15|
|Accommodation||NZ$807.66 / GB£411.89|
|Miscellaneous||NZ$444.07 / GB£226.30|
|Total: NZ$3,960.16 / GB£2,018.19|
It’s worth noting that it took me nearly 2 months to complete my bus tour as I was keen to take my time. This means that not every hostel and activity is accounted for here but it should be a helpful snapshot of the Kiwi Experience in full swing.
The Kiwi Experience prides itself on being a low impact form of travel. It stands by the philosophy ‘green, not mean’, a commitment made by the tour operator to protect the communities it visits and the wildlife and nature it interacts with.
The Kiwi Experience takes part in numerous projects dedicated to preserving the flora and fauna of New Zealand. Such projects include tree planting, regular beach cleanups in Westport which save on average 250kg of rubbish from entering the ocean each month and conservation efforts that are crucial to the survival of New Zealand’s iconic native bird, the kiwi.
All Kiwi Experience buses have been fitted with a fuel monitoring system and every driver guide has been trained in ‘Safe and Fuel Efficient Driving’ (SAFED) to support the company’s commitment to reducing its carbon emissions by 20% in the last 2 years.
Kiwi Experience tips
- Download the Kiwi Experience app. It’s not the most comprehensive of apps out there but it gives you a breakdown of the itinerary and highlights to start budgeting for.
- Do a Kiwi Experience tour during the shoulder or off-peak seasons (March-November) as buses are quieter which means you’re always guaranteed a place on the bus if you book it.
- Budget. It’s easy to go a bit crazy and book up anything and everything but some of the top activities can be expensive. Make sure you set aside a budget for the activities you don’t want to miss out on. Talk to your driver if you’re unsure about the costs.
- Don’t buy your bus pass at full price. The Kiwi Experience does regular sales so booking your tour far in advance won’t necessarily give you the best rate.
- Invest in a freezer bag and a few Tupperware boxes when you’re in New Zealand. More often than not you will be staying in hostels and cooking your own meals, which will mean grocery shopping and leftovers.
- Pack comfortable clothes that you don’t mind getting a little worn and muddy. The Kiwi Experience is all about adventure and the outdoors so comfort is key.
- If you decide to hop off the bus always make sure you have your next bus confirmed beforehand (particularly during the summer months). I heard plenty of stories of travellers getting stranded for weeks on end because there was simply no more room.
- Don’t feel obliged to take part in every single social engagement. It’s your holiday and you’re at perfect liberty to book a private room and get an early night should you wish to.
- Don’t miss your chance to do an activity because you think you might do it later instead (I’m talking mainly about skydiving and bungee jumping here). You have no idea if the weather will be in your favour later on and you could miss your chance altogether.
- The ferry from the North to South Island is not included with your bus pass so make sure you budget about £30 each way.
The Kiwi Experience is a fun and stress-free way to explore New Zealand. Perfect for first-time solo backpackers, it offers straightforward yet flexible tours that can give you as much or as little independence as you want.
The bus tours provide hassle-free access to some of New Zealand’s most treasured landmarks. Its social vibe allows you to build fast friendships but catering predominantly to a younger demographic, it may not be suitable for older or more seasoned travellers. Nevertheless, it’s a jam-packed, adventure-fuelled tour that takes you to the heart of New Zealand and beyond.