1 January 2018

Backpacking Series: Part II - How we explored New Zealand in 6 weeks with the Kiwi Experience Bus



6 weeks in New Zealand - How did we do it?

Backpacking around New Zealand was no doubt one of the best things I have ever done. It feels like a dream - this place of outstanding beauty at the far end of the world which has so much to offer, and we managed to fit so much in. So how did we do it?

In this post we'll be discussing everything from how we saved up, how we organised our trip, how we managed to get around New Zealand without driving, accommodation, food, budgeting, activities and more. Our trip heavily relied on the Kiwi Experience Bus Tour: and we'll be giving as much information about that as we can (including our comments and reviews).
  • Saving money

I was fortunate enough to have savings to cover our flights: to save up for the rest of the trip I worked for a year and lived at home. It is the best option when it comes to saving money, as opposed to trying to save up when you're having to pay rent. To travel both islands in the same way we did, I would say that you would need to work full time for 1-2 years whilst living at home, and of course by living on a very strict budget: no smoking, no drinking, no night's out (not a problem for Summer and I), and keeping paid activities to a minimum (like going to the Cinema, etc). I would also avoid buying takeaways and eating out, putting your money towards cheap food such as brown rice and pasta. Not fun but worth it. 

*I understand this doesn't apply to anyone: not everyone has the opportunity to live and work from home. There are other things that come into play which don't necessarily affect people in the same way: such as car insurance, commute costs, health care, etc. This is just how we did it for those who are curious, or who may be in the same position as us.*


Summer and I did everything we could to save money. Again, our situation may not be the same as yours, but here are our money-saving tips:



- No pricey treats (city breaks, restaurants)
- Cook your own food (and don't buy meat: try it for a week and see how much you can save)
- Walk as much as you possibly can
- Drink Tap water everywhere (buy a proper water bottle that you can bring with you everywhere, not plastic water bottles from shops - reduce that carbon footprint too)
- Open a savings account: deposit a certain amount from every paycheck, leaving only the minimum in your main account so you don't go overboard. (that way you have no opportunity to dip into your savings)
- Public Transport instead of driving: we don't drive so we didn't need to worry about petrol costs or car insurance. It's worth comparing prices and seeing if it is indeed cheaper to take the bus to work, etc.
- Got Amazon Prime, or Netflix? Can you share a 2 or 4-screen account with a loved one instead? Think of those monthly subscription costs which easily add-up.
- Be strict on purchases: no magazines, no new clothes that you don't need. No £3 - £4 coffees. You can even save money on things like make-up removers: just use soap. Use cheap shampoo. Buy from cheap (and cruelty-free) make-up brands like Nyx instead of high-end stuff. There are so many small things you can do!

Be resourceful and do your research: you may have more at your finger-tips then you think. Please note that despite this, Holly & ended up borrowing money towards the end of the trip, mostly due to higher food prices than expected.

  • Travel costs & Budget
These prices are subject to change - we booked them in 2017, and we visited New Zealand just before the Summer season. 

Prices are given in NZ dollars and GPB


We did visit Vancouver before we went to New Zealand: so we had to take that into account when we booked our flights. 

- Flights: We booked all of our flights on Expedia: by doing so you are then able to gain Expedia Points & get decent discounts on hotels. We wanted to stay in hotels in Vancouver and in the big cities in New Zealand, which is why we decided to book it all on Expedia.
It is worth checking out, some discounts make a big difference. It's also super easy to keep track of your upcoming trips: just download the App on your phone and it gives you all the information you need. I think we paid around £900 altogether for our flights from London to Vancouver and Vancouver to Auckland, and then another £900 for our flights from Christchurch to San Francisco and San Francisco to London. Just make sure you empty your cache before you open Expedia - if you don't you'll notice the prices will sneekily climb with every new visit.

If you book your Kiwi Experience Bus tour with RealGap as we did, they can send you a free quote for flights - which can be much cheaper than booking with Expedia. My only worry was the quality of the Airline that would be with - you are dealing with a worrier here so just remember that I planned everything I possibly could, including what to do if things went wrong and I needed to make emergency changes. I didn't want to risk booking a cheaper airline in case my rucksack was lost: as we were moving from place to place every other day, waiting to receive our luggage would have been an absolute nightmare.

- Travel insurance: we booked our insurance with Expedia for our short trip in Vancouver (10 days), and we were then insured with Columbus Direct for our time in New Zealand. It was reasonably cheap and offered all the coverage we were looking for. I think we payed around £115 for the both of us for the 6-7 week period.

- Transport prices: we booked the Funky Chicken Pass on the Kiwi Experience Bus Tour via RealGap, which was our main and only mode of transport to explore New Zealand's North and South Islands - this cost £399. Extra charges include a Ferry Ticket if you're going to both islands which cost 55$. (see full details about the Kiwi Experience Bus below incl. website link)

- Currency Exchange: We ordered our New Zealand Dollars in advance from a local Post Office, it gave us the best rate especially as we ordered a large amount. Airports tend to be much more expensive, and we wanted to have all the money ready before the day we left. We got a certain amount out in cash, and then we left money in our accounts to access with our debit card. I would suggest getting a Travel card from the Post Office instead: we didn't have the time to do so unfortunately - but this way you'll avoid paying transaction fees.

- Activities Budget: I would say that to give yourself the opportunity to do as much as you possibly can in New Zealand in 6 weeks, you need at least 2500-3000$ which is around £1400. More if you can. This depends on what you'll be doing though: are you planning on skydiving or bungee jumping? These are the most costly activities available at around $250-$500 each! If you're doing those you may want to save a bit more. What about Lord of the Rings tours? Do some research beforehand so you know what to expect. Our activities were booked with the Kiwi Experience Bus (full details below) which means many of them had discounts. Just remember that Summer and I don't drink or eat meat: if you do you'll need to plan that into your budget.

- Accommodation budget: there are so many hostels and hotels in New Zealand. We booked some in advance, but most of the time we booked them via our Kiwi Experience Driver (see in full detail below), prices are on average $30-$35 per night for a bed in a hostel.

- Daily recommended budget: if you only do free activities, you could probably survive on $40-$45 a day.

  • Transport & Activities - Kiwi Experience

We travelled around New Zealand on the Kiwi Experience Bus, having bought the Funky Chicken Pass which takes you around both islands. The cost for this is £399, and we booked it through RealGap (see here - this is were we booked it and has all the information you need). You have your transport sorted, and as well as having the possibility to book activities, you also have guaranteed accommodation (more details on that further down this post).

 The minimum time for this trip is 21 days: it is a hop-on, hop-off Bus, which means you are able to stay longer in places if you wish. This was super convenient for us as not only are you able to meet new people, you also don't have to worry about public transport. Many remote places in New Zealand can be difficult to access unless you have a car: as we don't drive, this was our best bet.

Once you hop on the Bus at your first stop, you are booked on to the end of your trip, unless you stop off somewhere for a couple of extra days. If you do this, you have to then book your seat for future bus trips. You have to book your seat at least 24h in advance - and remember, you may be put on stand-by, and Buses don't always run every single day depending on the season. So take that into account when you're planning as you may end up spending longer somewhere than you wish!

We planned our whole itinerary in advance and booked all of our seats at least a month before we left, which means we didn't have to worry about booking them on the phone or being put on stand-by. The downside to this is that we would meet people on the Bus, and lose them again as we hopped off and they stayed on their bus - or there are some places we wanted to leave sooner or later but couldn't because we had already planned our itinerary, and didn't want to complicate things. Some people did the minimum 21 days, some stayed for 6 weeks, others for 6 months - the pass lasts for a whole year which means you can hop off somewhere as long as you wish within in that time frame. It's super flexible and I am genuinely happy we booked it.

You are also able to book activities on the Bus, and often with Kiwi Traveller Discounts.

Every day, the driver will pass down a clipboard with activities to book and the prices. We were able to experience SO much thanks to them, and almost all of them with discounts. Your driver is your guide, they will know everything so don't hesitate to go and see them. Even if you just fancy a chat.

BEWARE: you must be so careful with your money. I ended up spending alot in just the first week. Ask questions, see your driver: is there a similar activity you book somewhere else? I would also suggest sitting at the front or middle of the bus: some of the activities (only a few) have very limited spaces, so it was quite unfair when a Kiwi Traveller was unable to do something just because he was the last one to get the already complete clipboard.

So, what activities can you book on the Kiwi Experience Bus? Honestly, almost EVERYTHING available in New Zealand. Skydiving, River Rafting, Horse-Riding, Kayaking, Cave Diving, Bungee Jumping, Heli-Hikes... All the mad, thrill-seeking things you can think of - but also cultural activities such as the Tamaki Maori Village Experience, and Pounamu Carving (Greenstone sacred to the Maoris).

I wish I knew what the price of each activity was before we left - it would have made budgeting much easier. Luckily enough there isn't one experience I regret doing, but I did end up borrowing money from family at the end of our trip.

So, to make things easier for you, here is a list of the top activities we booked via the Kiwi Experience Bus which we absolutely LOVED. Take into account that these a just a few that we decided to do - many people do River Rafting too which is quite pricey but supposed to be incredible.

Prices are in NZ dollars - October/November 2017

1. Cave rafting

Where: Waitomo (North Island)
What: Wetsuits, rubber rings, floating down underground rivers in the darkness to see the glow worms, even jumping backwards down small waterfalls. It was one of the most fun and incredible things I have EVER done. I could not recommend it enough: read our full post about it here.
Price: $118

2. Lord of the Rings location tour: Edoras


Where: Christchurch (South Island)

What: visit the filming location for Edoras as used in the Lord of Rings trilogy. As a massive LOTR fan this was a HUGE item on my bucket list, which I managed to tick off with a $40 discount.
We wrote a long post about it here with plenty of pictures: read the post here.
Price: $237 ($40 discount)

3. Hobbiton 

Where: Mata Mata (North Island)
What: Only remaining film set from Peter Jackson's the Hobbit trilogy, also a living set with people gardening there.
A must for all Lord of the Rings and Hobbit fans. We thought the tour was quite rushed, so don't hang around and take pictures of everything: save it for the photo opportunity towards the end of the tour. Read our full post and comments about the tour here.
Price: $79 or $99 depending on whether the whole bus books it - for transport reasons.

4. Tamaki Maori Village Cultural experience

Where: Rotorua (North Island)
What: Experience the Maori Culture with your fellow Kiwi Bus travellers. An experience which is difficult to put into words, but I would say it is absolutely worth the money.
Read our full post about it here.
Price: $185 (overnight option)

5. A trip to Milford Sound

Where: Depart from Queenstown (South Island)
What: A full day trip to Milford Sound: a very long drive which is incredibly scenic, with several stops along the way. Once you arrive in Milford Sound you take a boat and get right up close to the incredible mountains: you might even see dolphins and whales. It is the most picturesque place we have ever seen.
Read our full post about Milford Sound here.
Price: $110

Keep in mind that the Bus packs in A LOT. If you don't stay extra days, you will miss out, because most days you arrive at a new locations around 4-5pm, and depart again around 8-9am, leaving you little or no time to discover the town or do activities of your own. You will have multiple stops on most bus journeys: whether it's to see a natural wander, to do a small hike - there are loads of free things included in the Bus itinerary, so don't worry if you don't have the money to book paid activities. You will manage to see so much - trust me. But I highly recommend stopping off a few extra days in several places, so you can rest for one, but also so you can go off and do your own thing in your own time. It gets a little tiring when you're constantly bound to the tight Bus itinerary with no opportunity to do your own thing.


  • Itinerary
As I mentioned before, we pre-planned our entire itinerary before we left. Our itinerary followed the route the Kiwi Experience Bus Funky Chicken pass takes - which made planning out our trip SO much easier.
Once we booked the Bus pass, and knew which date and place we were going to start from, we got started on planning the trip.

Click here to view the Kiwi Experience Funky Chicken Pass itinerary.

We basically took a long look at the Kiwi Experience Funky Chicken route: and did some research about what each place had to offer. From there, we decided how many days we wanted to spend at each stop, and made sure to plan it according to what days the Kiwi Bus departs on (you can find all this out on their website and the online guide), so we didn't get stuck anywhere longer than we wanted to. When we booked accommodation in advance (for stops we wanted to hop-off at), we made sure we booked hostels or hotels we could cancel a day or so beforehand, in case we changed our minds. We actually ended up doing just that at one point. Again, we knew we had guaranteed accommodation for overnight stops with the bus, so whenever we stayed with the bus non-stop without hopping off, we didn't book anything.

It's so great to be able to see the itinerary and the Bus departure information before you leave: from all of this you are basically able to plan your entire stay.

See the Kiwi Experience website page with all the details here. You'll be able to see where the bus stops, and through their website you will access the Bus Departure information.

Again, we booked everything through RealGap.com : once fully booked, you will have an account and are able to ask them plenty of questions. I sent so many panicked emails and got all of my questions answered. There is also an online chat available.
They also expect some information from you to ensure you are well taken care of: insurance details, travel details, contact details, medical information etc.


How to stay organised:

We did a full planner of our trip, which followed this format:


We made it on Google Docs and saved it to Google Drive: this allowed us to access it anywhere in case we lost the hard copy, and we were also able to share the document link with our friends and family so they know where we were, our hotel/hostel/airbnb contact details etc.

We typed important information and things which hadn't been planned yet in red, and all things which had been booked and paid for were highlighted in green. We made sure we wrote all the Bus details in the transport column, typing all the Kiwi Experience Bus details in Green. (All the information about bus times and pickup locations will be provided once you book your seats - you must be on time as the bus will not wait for you, and there is a $50 no-show fee.). & yes, everything Lord of the Rings related was in purple.

Just remember this planner doesn't take into account which Activities we booked on the Kiwi Bus, as they were planned the same day we did them or the day before with our Bus driver.

It's super important to keep track of what you have booked and paid for in advance (as I said we booked a lot of our accommodation in advance as our itinerary and bus seats had been set) - we even made a mistake which lead to a panicked phone call to our parents at midnight.

To reduce the possibility of mass panic during your trip, I would highly recommend putting everything you possibly can into this itinerary and printing it off BEFORE you arrive. Addresses, phone numbers, booking references, payment methods, even what to do if you're at risk of missing the Kiwi Experience Bus.

  • Where did we hop off at?

We began our Kiwi Experience journey in Auckland. There are some places we wished we spent more time in, and some we wish we spent a little bit less. We will recommend how long to hop-off at below next to how long we actually stayed.
It was nice to just relax at the hostel on the days where we didn't have much to do.

The places we hopped off at are:

North Island:

- Taupo (5 nights - 2 nights recommended, 3 if you're doing the Tongariro Alpine Crossing)
- Rotorua (4 nights - 3 nights recommended)
- Wellington (7 nights - 4 nights recommended)

South Island:

- Picton (5 nights - 2 nights recommended if you have nice weather, more if planning on hiking)
- Abel Tasman (4 nights - 2-3 nights recommended depending on weather)
- Wanaka (5 nights)
- Queenstown (6 nights - 4 nights recommended)
- Lake Tekapo (3 nights - 1-2 nights recommended)
- Christchurch (7 nights - 3 nights recommended)

My biggest regret is not spending more time in Franz Josef - despite having 2 nights accommodation with the Kiwi Bus (some places have more than 1 night guaranteed as there is more to do). The Kiwi Bus took us to an AMAZING hostel and there were so many hiking trails nearby. Read more about our time in Franz Josef here. The reason we spent more nights than recommend is mostly due to the weather: we wanted to have extra days just in case plans fell through because of it. Being on the bus can also be a little overwhelming and tiring, so it may be a good idea to plan a few rest days throughout.

Want to know what we got up to at each location? Here is our NZ travel post masterlist - posts on Kiwi Bus Activities, Free Activities & more.


NZ North Island - click here

In more detail:

Waiheke Island - click here
Hot Water Beach - click here
Waitomo - click here & here
Rotorua - click here
Taupo - click here
River Valley - click here
Wellington - click here

NZ West Coast of South Island - click here

In more detail:

Picton - click here & here
West Coast of NZ - click here
Franz Josef - click here
Wanaka - click here
Queenstown - click here, here & here
Christchurch - click here

  • Accommodation  

We stayed in a mix of places: hotels, hostels and AirBnB's. 

If you are travelling on the Kiwi Experience Bus, you have guaranteed accommodation for every overnight stop. Some stops also have 2 nights guaranteed accommodation, so you are able to do more in those places. If you book with the bus you will be staying in hostels, with prices ranging between $28-$35 per night.

This is one of the many advantages of booking with this company, not having to worry about where you'll be staying or how you'll get there with your rucksacks is a big relief.

Our trip is heavily tied to the Kiwi Experience Bus: it was our main mode of transportation, accommodation, and it took us to so many places. It really does squeeze a lot in. Again: you will be mentally and physically exhausted if you don't book a couple of extra nights in some places.

In the larger cities, we booked hotels in advance as we knew we wanted extra time there. (Auckland & Wellington in particular). Remember if you book flights with Expedia you get a discount on hotels (which you must use within a week - so make sure you have an itinerary planned before you book!).

We also booked AirBnB's and hostels in advance for places which we spent extra days in, and the rest of the time we booked our accommodation with the Bus (this is done the day or night before your stay with your driver). Just take into account how far you will have to walk to your pre-booked hostel with all your stuff: sometimes your Kiwi Bus driver is able to drop you off just outside, sometimes you need to walk 5-15 minutes, rarely further than that though.

The hostels in the main cities (Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch) are probably going to be a bit grottier than those in the small towns. Some hostels we stayed in had more to offer than a higher priced hotel room (even free food!). I'd say only 1 hostel was pretty bad: having no hot water after hiking a Volcano in awful weather conditions wasn't so great, and neither was sleeping above a bar which played loud music well up to 2am. Other than that they were absolutely fine. You also don't need to worry about bringing your own sheets and pillows, all of the hostels booked with the Kiwi Bus provide those.

I will stress that there are lots of hostels in every town and city we visited in New Zealand. We were there from late September to mid-November, which isn't the busiest season so I assume there were more beds available - if you are going in the summer months and are booking the hostels yourself, outside of the Kiwi Experience Bus - some places may be fully booked so be aware of that possibility. The good thing is that you don't need to worry about having to walk ages to get somewhere. Most of the places we visited are tiny, we didn't drive or take any other mode of public transport when we explored all the towns and small cities.

The hostels vary from place to place: most of the time, you are in a room with 4-6 bunks. The most we had in a room was 8, and we were once put into a twin bed room - but I'd say it was usually 4-6 people in a room. You don't have much personal space, and the room will be an absolute mess once everyone is settled - but we had a great time. Even me who is a shy introvert wasn't overwhelmed (read my post about this here). Considering it was my first time ever staying in hostels, I never felt uncomfortable. If you haven't booked accommodation beforehand and you book it with your bus driver, you will be put into a room with other Kiwi Experience Travellers (if you've made new friends you can ask to be put together): so you're all in the same boat, with familiar faces, which makes everything much less daunting!

For every single hostel we stayed in, we had our own key card - so no-one but your bunk mates can get into your room. I would still stay vigilant: don't leave your valuables on display, and don't flash things in front of those you don't really know. I actually carried all my valuables (cameras, lenses, money, passport & laptop) with me in my rucksack every time I left the room for a long period just to be safe. I also slept with my rucksack tucked next to my pillow against the wall - it's best not to take any chances. Some hostels have lockers, and a receptionist even offered to take care of our laptop when we went on our hike in Abel Tasman - so it's worth asking. From what I heard most thieves try to steal phones or wallets - because they are easy to conceal once taken. Just be smart about it and you should be fine.

All of the hostels we stayed in had laundry rooms and kitchens. Some even had lounges with TV & Netflix! Laundry prices vary depending on the hostel: one load could cost you 2 dollars, or up to 4 dollars - so make sure you go somewhere and get some change.

Most of the hostels that the Kiwi Experience Bus books with are dry hostels: which means no drinking allowed inside the hostel, and loud drunken behavior is not tolerated. I thought it made the experience much more comfortable, as we never had to deal with people who were smashed and being inconsiderate to others. This can be a big worry to some people so it's good to know beforehand that it isn't something you need to get anxious about.
A lot of the areas around the hostels in the small towns are alcohol ban areas too - which is also a comforting thought (images of drunken brits in Ibiza or Malia come to mind - there was none of that in New Zealand).

  • Food
- Supermarkets: 

No need to worry about how you're going to feed yourself during your trip: when you are travelling on the Kiwi Experience Bus, you will be stopping at a supermarket every day (your Driver will always tell you what meals you will need to buy at each supermarket stop). 
Some supermarkets are more expensive than others, and to be honest most of my money went towards food when I was travelling.
I found New Zealand supermarkets to be pricey in general, and I didn't want to eat crappy food every day and fall into a cycle of eating crap - feeling like crap. You will need to keep your energy levels up, so don't just rely on rice and pasta and cheap snacky foods: buy fruit and veg too. I can assure you we struggled when we weren't eating enough: so much so that I had to physically stop every 30 seconds and remove all my backpacks when I was walking to an airbnb in Queenstown. You will also be doing A LOT of walking and hiking in New Zealand so expect to see your body change. 

- Hostels:

Many hostels actually provide cheap meals, so you will have that option when you're fed up of cooking the same plain meal every night.


- Restaurants:

Restaurants vary in price, there will most likely be a meal for every budget whatever town you're stopping in. We never had any problem finding a vegetarian meal in NZ, and in the big cities (Wellington and Auckland in particular) there were quite a lot of restaurants who catered to Vegans.

  • Final thoughts on the Kiwi Experience Bus


Pros:

- It was absolutely worth it and I don't regret doing it
- Perfect for non-drivers
- Perfect for those who are visiting NZ for the first time
- It took us everywhere we had researched beforehand
- Very helpful and excellent service
- Comfortable and laid-back feel
- Very busy itinerary (free activities and booked activities)
- Discounts on Activities - LOADS of activities available
- Guaranteed Accommodation in good hostels
- Best way to meet new people
- No need to worry about getting to your next stop - never need to carry your large rucksacks for longer that 10-15 mins.
- Flexible: change your itinerary via phone or email as long as you do so 24h before. (I suggested via phone as they get very busy during the summer season).


Cons:

- Very busy itinerary can mean rushed free activities (1 hour to do a hike, "don't be late or get left behind!" - our bus driver joking, probably) and the Kiwi Bus can be quite physically demanding.
- May be on bus with annoying people (rare but you might be with a large group of people who are loud and just want to get drunk - I have to say this only happened ONCE so don't worry too much)
- Not a lot of time at all to do your own stuff unless you hop-off (highly recommended)
- if you are going in the busy summer season, and don't pre-book for bus journeys, you might be put on stand-by and not have a seat on the bus you wanted. They are often able to move people around and make it work, but it can still happen. I'd suggest setting an itinerary before to avoid stress, which you can always change on the way.
- a couple of activities have VERY limited spaces, but only one or two.


I left New Zealand just one month ago and I still miss it very much - it is perfect for those who love the great outdoors, but even those who aren't used to walking or hiking can find so much joy in this country. The people are kind, it feels safe, and it is utterly beautiful. I cannot wait to go back!

I hope this post has inspired you to think about going travelling at some point in your life. New Zealand is so backpacker friendly too, and there seems to be a lot of work there if you're hoping to gain some extra money to fund your trip.

If you have any questions at all please don't hesitate to ask! Check out our Contact page for our details.

Thankyou New Zealand, and thankyou Universe for this opportunity in life. I will never forget it!

Holly & Summer
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