You don’t come to New Zealand to stay in your hostel and hang around Auckland. While you are in the stunning country you have to travel the length and depth and see as much as possible. Flush travellers buy a car but for those on a budget (or those who just don’t want the hassle of breaking down in the middle of nowhere) there is a very affordable viable option. That is of course the bus / coach system that runs all around NZ.
I’ve travelled a large portion of the country by bus now and have a decent grasp of how the whole thing works, how to get great prices and what your options are regarding all the major operators.
In this article we’ll take a look at the main budget bus operators, how to get the best fare and other tips on planning and making the best use of your journeys.
Your main options
There are a lot of bus companies in New Zealand, it’s a country that seems to be running on tourism (and milk but that’s another story!). There are a lot of options regarding things like organised tours and private bus hire but if sticking to a budget is your goal you are pretty much going to find yourself staying with the major operators.
Nakedbus operates on two levels.Firstly it’s a coach-line offering stripped down bus services (hence the Naked!) and secondly it’s an agent for a few other bus companies such as Atomic buses. The booking system is seamless between the owned coaches and agent service so you don’t have to worry about that.
The operate their own busses across the majority of the North Island and you’ll find some scattered on major South Island routes but they often agent out to other companies down there.
They are known as the biggest budget option and their advertising gives this impression. This is played up with their $1 fares (+ booking fee) but in reality it’s often for just one seat on the coach so don’t expect to be paying just a dollar per ride unless you book all your buses 3+ months in advance!
Generally I have had a great experience with Nakedbus apart from two times. Once the coach turned up an hour late due to a timetable change that wasn’t passed onto customers. The other issue could have been bad. Our Nakedbus ticket was for an Atomic Shuttles and the Dunedin drop off point on our e-ticket was incorrect. So we arrived in Dunedin with an hour to get our next bus but was on the wrong side of town! Luckily the driver (Atomic bus driver) had the decency to drive us to the other location.
Nakedbus’s own coaches tend to be fairly comfortable but occasionally on the busy route busses (Auckland to Wellington as an example) I have found that my knees rub against the seat in front. Still for the prices you can get and with the fairly frequent stops it is certainly not the worst bus experience I have had.
Their website advertises Free WiFi but I have only found this to be a North Island option and it’s patchy probably much due to phone signal being patchy in certain areas! It doesn’t seem to increase ticket prices though so we can’t complain!
The most widely known operator has been operating in New Zealand for over 30 years. They operate the Intercity coaches and also GreatSights brand and claim to have the largest overall network. In most cases you can pick up an Intercity for most routes you’ll need to take North and South. In a few cases Intercity will also be an agent for smaller companies and private bus operators.
Probably in response to Nakedbus, they also offer the “$1 fares (+ booking fee)” deal but I have never managed to snag one so again don’t expect fares this cheap!
Their coaches have always been comfortable and leg space has been adequate. I’ve never experienced a late (or worse early leaving) bus and drivers have always been nice.
Operating in the South Island for over 20 years but much smaller than the others above Atomic tend to rune medium to small buses although I have seen a few larger ones. Sometimes they act as an agent for Intercity coaches. For a smaller operation it’s surprising how often they come up cheapest on a route and they say that they will “match or better a competitor fare at a comparable time excluding $1.00 (one dollar) fare”.
Service tends to be quite personal and often the drivers will drop you off slightly off route, if you ask them nicely! As I said when our Atomic bus finished in a different place to what Nakedbus (the agent) had told us the driver was nice enough to drive us to where our ticket said. On another occasion we were asked where we was staying and automatically taken there.
I’ve always been comfortable on the coaches and the drivers are often quite chatty so the experiences have always been positive.
All three companies seem to operate similar schedules with 2 hours generally being the longest between toilet breaks (sadly I am yet to come across toilets on any coach) and at least one longer stop on long-distance journeys. Often they’ll stop near certain sights enabling you to get a peek at some attractions without having to stay in the town. I’ve seen things such as the Pancake Rocks at Punakaiki due to well placed coach stops.
SPECIAL MENTION: Newman’s Coaches
Newman’s may well be New Zealand’s oldest bus company. They have been operating for over 100 years and currently run routes between Queenstown and the West Coast towns of Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers, and also between Christchurch and Queenstown. They were incorporated by Intercity in 1998 so you book them through Intercity. However Newman’s runs a coach tour with driver commentary, very comfortable seating and stops at sites of interest. However that does not mean you can’t get a seat at a budget price.
When booked via Intercity from Wanaka to Greymouth we knew nothing about the route and then this Newman’s bus turned up. When the driver first started talking about the lakes we assumed he was just a chatty driver. Then we realised that it was all part of the trip and we had found ourselves on a sight-seeing tour. We stopped at some beautiful sights near Lake Hawea and then off into the amazing rainforest surroundings of the Haaste Pass. I have never seen so many waterfalls in my life and I don’t know that I ever will again! Lunch was on a small scale Salmon farm (not my favorite place being a vegetarian) on the pass and then we headed over and finally into Greymouth. We had paid a budget price and did not expect this level of journey! If you get a chance to take this trip it is well worth your time.
How to plan your trip and get the best price
When you first arrive in New Zealand it can be a little overwhelming. There is so much to see and no matter how long you are there, not enough time to see it all! This is where you just have to accept defeat and realise you can’t do everything but still planning ahead will help you no end. If you can start your planning well before leaving that may save you stress and money.
I’m sure you’ll have some idea of where you want to go though. If in New Zealand heading down to a local i-site or looking online can help you create a list of places to go. Once you have that list it’s time to mark them all on a map so you can get an idea of where you need to get to. I have successfully used Google maps and their place markers for this but I bet it’s much more fun with a big paper map!
At this point you can check on the websites of the major operators and see how their route maps line up with the places you want to go. It is possible you may want to go to a few places that they don’t serve so you may have to dig into some other options such as smaller local companies or private taxi / minibus services, these often won’t be super cheap so it’s best to try and avoid them! In some cases it may be cheaper to rent a car for a day or two.
Getting cheap bus fares
With Intercity and Nakedbus they tend to operate a scaling price structure that gets more expensive the closer to the date you want to travel. Their $1 fares are near unobtainable in my experience but it’s not uncommon to pick up a $10 fare. I think my best deal was just $20 from Auckland to Wellington, an 11 hour journey that was booked 5 weeks in advance. As far as I can tell Atomic works on a fixed price but their seats can fill up quick so it still pays to book early.
- Book as early as possible. If you do book 3 months in advance there is a small chance you could get your $1 fares.
- Possible idea: If you are booking super early then possibility is to book as many $1 fares as you can find and then if you don’t make them all it’s not the end of the world!
- Check the prices on Intercity, Nakedbus and Atomic.
- Just incase look for smaller bus local companies and get a price from them too.
- Check Jayride and other alternative transport (more on that below).
Is there a local bus service?
If going on a short journey either from a city center to a suburb (or vice versa) or to another nearby town / city it is always worth checking to see if there is a local bus running. The big cities such as Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch have useful smart phone apps but most places should have city bus information available online. If not there is always the local i-Site that you can call or visit. It may simply be the case that you pay $6 instead of $10 but a saving is a saving.
What is Jayride and why should you check it out?
Jayride.co.nz is a site with ride shares and hire car relocations listed however some of the coach operators will also put deals up. I have seen very good prices from Atomic Shuttles, especially between places like Queenstown and Christchurch.
Alternative transport options
Buses are great but it always pays to look at other options just in case you get a better deal.
Car hire – You can get car hire in New Zealand for approximately $25 per day. Add insurance and maybe it’s closet to $40 but if there are 3-4 of you that’s quite a cheap start. You have to add in gas though and if you are not returning you will need to use a larger hire company and likely drop off between major cities.
Hire car relocation - This is quite popular for those not on a strict schedule. The deals vary but you can often find 4-5 days to relocate a hire car from somewhere like Christchurch to Wellington, and they may even pay your ferry and gas! How awesome is that? To find these deals you can check places like Jayride but also the hire companies websites and even just give them a call. All the major hire companies offer relocation but you need to be flexible to make good use of it.
Ride shares - Jayride of course is a great place to check and you can also see letscarpool.govt.nz but there are a lot of people with a space in their vehicle driving all over the place, all the time! They often just want you to chip into gas money! I have not done this yet but have had good feedback from those that have. Of course use due diligence and always stay safe.
Hitchhiking - This is very common in New Zealand and New Zealander’s are cool with it in general. Of course you need to stay safe and there have been a few murders / disappearances over the years. Despite these (around 4 deaths in the last decade as far as I can tell) it’s still considered quite safe.
Here is some brief advice for those wanting to hitchhike:
- You need to tell people where you are going.
- Travel with a companion.
- Take a picture of the car number plate before getting in and send that to a friend.
- Also text your travel plans to SAFE (7233) and get more details on SAFE here.
- If you ever feel in danger, don’t do it.
Final thoughts on bus travel in New Zealand
I love traveling by bus and have so far found it to be very convenient / affordable and an amazing way to see parts of the country and still get to your next destination. In my eyes it beats flying hands down!
My favorite journey was probably the Haaste Pass but Picton to Christchurch was a close second. I feel lucky to have seen deals basking on rocks, penguins going about their business, waterfalls, wekas, hawks, glacier rivers, amazing rainforest, lakes, stunning snow capped mountains and much more all from the comfort of a bus seat without paying a premium tour price!
Note: Links to Intercity within this post are affiliate links. This basically means i’ll earn a small percentage if you book a journey through those links. That has not affected my advice and this article is honest opinion. If you do book via my links it is much appreciated. Also if you are looking to promote Intercity yourselves you can sign up as my sub-affiliate here.
If you have any questions, ideas or thoughts on improving this article or personal experiences to add I would love to hear them so please take the time to leave a comment below.