I came across a number of Stray Bus New Zealand reviews, so I thought I’d offer my perspective to those thinking of doing the same thing. Sharing is caring, especially when it comes to a big purchase like this
If you do end up booking a pass it’d be appreciated if you could book through my links, as I’ll get a little kick back for the sale, so I can go on my next awesome adventure!
So What is the Stray New Zealand Bus?
For those not familiar with Stray NZ, it’s a hop on/hop off bus service that gives you some flexibility with how you get around New Zealand. While traveling on a Stray bus you’re guaranteed accommodation for that night at a reasonable rate of usually $28 NZD a night. There are also a couple of activities that are discounted at each of the stops (Usually ~10-15% off retail prices). Each trip has a minimum amount of days that you’re supposed to complete the trip in, but you have up to a year to use the pass. Booking a spot on the bus is relatively simple, but can only be done once you’ve purchased a ticket. It can get complicated at times, especially during peak season, so if you have any questions you can email or call the Stray team to help you out after you’ve purchased the ticket.
If you really like a stop and have time, just let the driver know you’re going to be hopping off the bus. You’ll then have to figure out whether there is room on the next bus coming through town, which is at least 1-3 days during peak season. If there isn’t room you’ll be waitlisted and may have to wait for yet another bus to come through town. So just make sure you’re okay with staying in that town/city, or look into finding your own transportation to the next stop. If you don’t like the people who are on your bus, or if you don’t like the driver you can just roll the dice on the next bus that comes through town as well.
Luckily for me I really enjoyed the people on our bus from day 1, as well as our driver, Postie. Although he had his interesting driving quirks, like drifting into oncoming traffic every time he searched for new songs on his ipod, or going up on two wheels on to the median of a bridge overlooking a reservoir trying to make a hair-pin turn on our way back from Blue Duck Station. For the most part, our core group stuck together for the 2 weeks from our start in Auckland, all the way down to Queenstown. So even if there’s a stop you really aren’t into, the people you’re with help to bring up the energy.
Stray NZ? Kiwi Experience? Contiki? Intercity?
Other hop-on/hop-off bus options include Kiwi Experience, Contiki, and Intercity. While doing research it was basically between Kiwi Experience and Stray for me. From what I saw on my trip, the average age of Kiwi Experience is probably around 20, while Stray tends to skew a bit older, with a greater emphasis on culture and experience. Don’t get me wrong, we still went out and partied pretty hard, but that wasn’t the sole purpose of the trip. I’d say the average age of our Stray bus was closer to 24/25, I myself being 29 at the time of the trip. There were a few parent/child groups on the trip as well, helping to bring up the average age. There were also a fair share of people on the bus that were 18-21 years old, so it really is a good mix, with roughly 40 or so people on the bus during peak summer season.
Before booking my ‘Max Pass’ I tried to find as much information as I could on pricing, and tried finding the absolute best deal possible. I also read it would be cheaper in NZ, but I didn’t want to take that big of a chance. The price ended up being the same once I got to Auckland, so it’s definitely worth some piece of mind to show up with a pass in-hand, especially during the summer peak season so you can secure your spot on a bus well ahead of time. Buying a pass does not guarantee you’ll get on the bus, you still have to reserve your spots on the bus. I ended up buying a pass a ~3 weeks ahead of my arrival to NZ and found out I got one of the last available seats for the pass I purchased and the dates I was looking to travel. Granted I could’ve traveled on stand-by if one of the stops was full, but if you’re constrained by flights it could be very stressful. The moral of the story? Buy your pass early, and lock your seats in for your trip as soon as you can. This is especially true for the peak season of December – February/March. Based on what I’ve seen over the past year, passes typically go on sale during different times of year and I happened to come across a pretty good sale of $930 AUS (At the time ~$811 USD) for the Max Pass, while the retail price of the pass is ~$1450 AUS (At the time ~$1265 USD). The Max Pass minimum amount of travel is 23 days, and takes you through most of the North Island and all of the South Island.
Stray New Zealand Deal Update (12/10/18):
There are 3 solid promos up until Dec 20, 2018
The Stray Everywhere Pass is going for $1229 NZD ($758 USD). Leave no stone unturned. Go ‘everywhere’ including a 3 day adventure around the remote East Cape of New Zealand. Stray recommends 4-5 weeks, but this will enable you to see every inch of the island. A must for anyone that has a bunch of time.
The Short Max is going for $829 NZD ($570 USD), this also includes a free Jack Pass to explore the bay of islands as well. This gives you just about all of the North and South Islands. You do miss out on a trip to Milford Sound, so if you’re keen on checking that out make sure you give yourself a a few more days in Queenstown to hop off. All in all this is still a good value for what you get to see. Stray recommends ~3 weeks, but if you’re gonna hop off for Milford Sound I’d say make it 4 to be safe.
The Short Moe Pass is going for $729 NZD ($501 USD), this also includes a free Jack Pass to explore the bay of islands as well. This is very similar to the Short Max Pass, except you don’t go to Kaikoura. All in all a great deal if you can figure out a flight into Auckland and then a flight out of Christchurch.
Stray also put together their 2019 travel guide which is worth checking out, while you plan out your trip!
Here’s a 2018/19 route update as well.
Stray New Zealand Maps
Stray New Zealand Journeys
For those that are looking for a fixed itinerary/fixed price deal, and don’t want to hop-on-hop-off there is Stray Journeys. Prices range from $4400 NZD to $1300 NZD.
During Winter Stray Journeys are operated on the hop-on hop-off bus network. This means some passengers on your trip who are travelling on flexible passes will be hopping on and off the bus. Stray Journeys passengers will follow a fixed itinerary with specified inclusions. You can expect to travel on a modern comfortable bus (mid-coach) and to be led by a knowledgeable Driver Guide.
So, what’s included?
- All transport – including inter-island transport between North and South Island (for National Tours). This would be another $45 USD each way on the hop-on-hop-off bus.
- Local Guide – expect entertaining commentary, insight into local secrets and extra support from your tour guide
- All accommodation – quad-share (upgrades available)
- Activities – selected top-rated activities and special deals on optional activities
- Some meals (as indicated on each tour’s itinerary)
Overall, the pricing isn’t too far off from what I spent for lodging, food, and activities (see below).
- The Cook Journey $4,445NZD ($2,956 USD) looks a lot like the Maximus Pass without the deep south and northern tip of Cape Reinga.
- The Sheppard Journey $4,255 NZD ($2,829 USD) looks just like the Cook pass except it ends in Christchurch, instead of making a loop back to Auckland.
- The Dingle Journey $4065 NZD ($2,703 USD) looks very similar to the Max Pass.
Stray New Zealand Planning:
What I suggest is that you do some thorough research of the areas surrounding the stops on the bus and find a pass that suits you best, in case you want to stop and explore. The way I took the trip, completing the trip in the minimum amount of time suggested, doesn’t allow you to really do some of the things you’d like to do in New Zealand. It’s ultimately a top level overview of the county, with 1-2 days spent in each destination. Most places you’ll have half a day to try and get an activity done, before you’re shuffled back on the bus. A lot of the activities are not divulged until the day of, while you’re on the bus going to the destination. Therefore rushing you into making a decision because the driver needs to call in numbers to secure spots and prices.
Additionally, some of the activities that were offered required you to get off the bus because the bus needed to leave before the activity finished, which I think is pretty ridiculous. Hobbiton being one of the more popular non-Stray activities amongst people on the bus, although after speaking with some who have made bookings recently, Hobbiton is possible without hopping off the bus. A little bit of work goes a long way, and it would’ve been nice for Stray to provide a “one sheet” of each of the activities and the costs associated with the activity at each of the stops. That way people can budget accordingly, and you don’t have to feel rushed into doing something, when it might be offered elsewhere. Overall this was my biggest gripe with Stray NZ, and I’d love to hear from people who have taken the trip recently on how this has changed so I can pass this on to everyone reading this post.
Stray New Zealand Costs and Budgeting:
This will vary greatly, but this can give you an idea of what I paid on a daily basis over the span of 24 days. The cost can vary wildly, and it can add up quickly if you’re an adrenaline seeker, as those activities seemed to be ~ $100-200 each. Costs are in USD for my 2014 trip (At the time of my trip the exchange rate was 1 USD to 1.21 NZD, as of Nov 1, 2018 it is 1 USD to 1.50NZD, so you’re getting 20% more purchasing power, not nearly as good as it was in late 2015, but still a really good exchange rate).
Max Pass – $800
Hostels – $20/$25 a night (24 nights)
Food/Booze (A combination of grocery shopping/cooking and eating out and a few nights out at the bar in the bigger cities like Queenstown and Wellington) – $40/$50 a day? You could cook every night and save a few bucks, but you’ll definitely want to throw back a few meat pies, and a Fergburger.
Tongariro Crossing – $30
Ferry from North Island to South Island – $45 (Each Way)
Maori Home Stay + Dinner – $70
Kohutapu Lodge + Dinner – $65
RT Flight from Australia – $575
Milford Sound Cruise – $55
Ballpark Grand Total for 24 days? $3600 USD. This was easily the most expensive leg of my RTW trip coming in ~$150 a day. However 1/4 of the cost was the max pass, so if you can get it on sale, that’s where you’ll save a good chunk of change.
For those that are from the USA like myself, now is a great time to visit because of the strength of the dollar. When i visited in Feb/Mar 2014 1USD was worth ~$1.20 NZD, now 1 USD is worth $1.39 NZD, 20% more purchasing power! My trip would’ve cost me ~$2900 instead of $3600 USD.
Off the Beaten Track
Stray’s motto is “Off the Beaten Track”, which is how it differentiates itself from the other bus companies. They pride themselves on unique experiences, and unique lodging along the way. Some of the unique lodging experiences are quite nice, others are pretty shitty and in the middle of nowhere. I guess that comes with the territory, and then some of the hostels you share with Kiwi Experience. Take this trip with an open mind, and know you’ll be staying in some low-rung mass accommodations like BASE or Nomads, in combination with some of the more unique lodging options afforded to you over the length of your trip.
Top Stray New Zealand lodges on the Max Pass
(Note that these are subject to change on your trip)
• YHA Rainforest Punakaiki – Each group has a unique lodge, situated in the middle of a rainforest, a short walk to the beach. The bed situation was interesting, but not awful, at least in our lodge, and the kitchen was decent. They like to have a competition to see which house can create the cheapest meal, as well as the most expensive meal. Ours ended up being one of the most expensive, but provided us with leftovers for the next day.
• Raglan – We stayed at the Karioi Lodge. There is a beautiful view of the ocean and the mountains. At night you can see the glow worms along the driveway. So save your money on the glow-worm rafting tour! They also operate a surf school, so for those that wanna extend your stay and surf a little bit more, this is the place to be.
• “The Barn” in Abel Tasman National Park – Newly renovated rooms, each person get’s their own comfortable single bed, and not a rickety bunk bed. Two kitchens that are well stocked with utensils, and very close to the entrance of Abel Tasman National Park. It’s also a short walk to Fat Tui burger for a solid meal around $15NZD, with some great burger options.
• Blue Duck Station – This was definitely an ‘off the beaten track’ stop. I ended up skeet shooting for ~$30 w/ a Stray discount. A free option that a lot of people liked was a 90 min hike to a waterfall. If you’re someone that has wanted to go hunting, this is the only option on the trip to go on a hunting trip, albeit kind of expensive on a backpacker budget. Also, I’m not sure I’m up for hunting. Once the sun went down we all had a few drinks around the fire and a bunch of us had an axe throwing competition.
Bottom Stray New Zealand lodges on the Max Pass
• Hahei – Minimal accommodations, poor way to start the trip off. It felt like a trailer park, but we did have a nice group dinner where everyone got to know one another.
•Maori Home Stay in Mourea (30-40 people crammed into one room with beds on the floor, we also had to pay ~$70 NZD for accommodation and dinner). The experience with the Maori people was great, and the people who lived there were amazing. However, myself and a number of other people I was traveling with couldn’t help but feel as though we were getting hosed, in a pre-packaged way. Especially since everyone is basically FORCED to do this. Alternative accommodation doesn’t exist nearby, and you’d have to find your own transportation to that accommodation if you did find something else. We slept like sardines on mattresses on the floor with 40 people in a room. If you’re a light sleeper bring industrial strength sleeping pills and/or earplugs, because you will get a few people who snore!
• Gunns Camp – Electricity goes out at 10pm including heaters, located in one of the rainiest places in NZ, and also quite cold, very limited kitchen, in the middle of nowhere. The stop after Gunn’s Camp is Invercargill, dubbed the ‘Arsehole of the World’ by Mick Jagger. I wouldn’t fight Mick on that. Then again, who would fight Mick Jagger?!?
• Kohutapu Lodge – A Hangi dinner was included in the $65 price tag for the evening, which was a very nice authentic meal, and quite filling. But certainly on the pricier side of things. Since an average night at a hostel is $25, that breaks out to a $40 dinner! The activities to partake in during the day/night were nice, although only volleyball was free, the rest of the activities required $$. This was also a forced activity/cost similar to the Maori home stay, with no options to lodge elsewhere.
Stray Max Pass vs Short Max Pass:
The difference of the two passes is that the Max Pass also includes two nights for the deep south of NZ. It’s one day at Milford Sound with a stay overnight at Gunns Camp, where you can spend $65 for an ‘optional‘ cruise (but everyone takes it). The following day you head to Invercargill, where you have the option to travel to Stewart Island overnight, for an additional $130 NZD. Those that don’t go to Stewart Island then go east to the Catlins, where you have an opportunity to check out some Penguins and Sea Lions in their natural habitat. Although there is no guarantee that you’ll see them. From here you make your way back to Queenstown, and pick up anyone coming back from Stewart Island, ultimately getting you back into Queenstown around 7pm. Just in time for Happy Hour!
My two cents would be this….Don’t buy the Max Pass, the Short Max is just fine. Instead, spend more time in Queenstown and try and see if you can’t book yourself a trek through one of NZ’s Great Walks. I saw some pictures from some friends who did a 3day/2night hike. They got to walk through Fiordland National Park in all it’s glory via the Kepler Track, and really soak it in. The Stray bus route only allows you to make a few stops to take pictures along the way, and then snap some shots on the cruise. You’ll have to book the Kepler Track hike pretty far in advance, since accommodation is limited. On the Max Pass you’ll end up coming back through Queenstown anyways and spend a couple nights there with a lot of the crew you’ve traveled with previously in all likelihood.
Conclusion of my Stray Bus New Zealand Review:
If you’re traveling on your own, this is a good option to see as much of NZ as you possibly can, in an organized fashion. However, traveling on the minimum amount of suggested time for each pass really makes you feel like you’re scratching the surface and not getting a true feel for each place. The trade-off to this top-level approach is meeting a bunch of great people along the way. I’d definitely do it the same way on my first trip to NZ. However, when I come back to NZ I’d feel more comfortable in traversing this beautiful country on my own now that I have a lay of the land. When you’re always in planning mode, it really feels good to not worry about logistics for 3-4 weeks. I’d give the experience 4 out of 5 stars, mainly because of the people I met along the way in combination with the beauty that NZ has to offer. If you’re traveling alone, or even if you’re in a pair, I’d highly suggest going with Stray.
If anyone has any specific questions about Stray, feel free to shoot me a comment below, or even an email and I’ll be happy to help!! While it makes me jealous, it also brings me a lot of joy to help out a fellow traveler, so don’t be shy.
I’d love to hear from those that have been on Stray before so we can swap stories.
For making it all the way down to the bottom of my post, here’s a gallery of all shots I took on my trip.
(Disclaimer: This is not a sponsored post. This is a 100% genuine review. If you want to help support me, please book through my link. Hit me up in the comments, or find me on twitter @jbeinstein or Facebook to get in touch with me if you have any questions before booking. I try and respond ASAP, commenting is probably the quickest way for me to get in touch with you since it generates an email.)