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Last Updated on March 21, 2023 by Sarah Puckett
When Tim and I traveled through New Zealand for 2 months, we went with a unique bus tour called Stray. We had originally planned to rent a campervan and self-drive over the North and South Islands. After some research, I found a cheaper, easier option – buying a bus pass with Stray.
What is Stray New Zealand?
Stray New Zealand road trips are hop-on/hop-off bus journeys that cover the entirety of the country. They include stops at all the major points of interest and many lesser-known spots as well. There are a couple of companies that offer hop-on/hop-off bus passes that cover popular tourist routes (Kiwi Experience and Stray are the two I saw everywhere). They include your transportation on the busses as well as scenic stops and hikes along the way. You can take the full route straight through on the minimum number of days, or you can hop off and stay a little longer since the busses depart for the next destination almost every day. You book your own accommodation and activities (your bus driver can help). This means you have a lot of flexibility while having the convenience of a driver/guide and a general itinerary laid out for you.
Do We Recommend Stray New Zealand?
Overall, I recommend Stray as a great option for most types of travelers to New Zealand. We had the most comprehensive bus pass itinerary. I felt that it covered everywhere we wanted to go at a reasonable price. While I have never traveled with their main competitor, Kiwi Experience, anecdotally we heard that Kiwi Experience is a younger, more party-centric crowd.
Note that this post is not sponsored or in collaboration with Stray in any way.
I’ve evaluated the pros and cons of the Stray New Zealand bus road trip experience by various categories below. Keep reading to decide if Stray is how you should travel in New Zealand!
Stray New Zealand Itinerary
Stray New Zealand’s bus trips offer different itineraries for different durations, budgets, and the number of inclusions. Some packages include both the North and South Islands, and others just include one or the other.
- You can choose an itinerary that suits your interests, length of your trip, destinations, etc.
- The duration of your trip is flexible within a minimum and a maximum number of days. For example, all of their bus packages have a minimum number of days needed to complete all segments of your chosen ticket. But, in terms of maximum duration, you could stretch it out as long as a year if you chose to “hop off” and spend more time somewhere. For example, many backpackers choose to stay in the cities working part-time jobs to save up for the next leg of travel.
- Stray New Zealand’s bus itineraries include exclusive destinations that are hard to reach or lesser-known. For example, Blue Duck Station and Gunn’s Camp are two we hadn’t heard of before booking with Stray. This makes it easy to get further off the beaten path and have more unique experiences.
- The itineraries cover all of the major highlights of New Zealand. There’s not a single “New Zealand must-do” that isn’t covered on their journeys. For this reason, their itineraries will meet most travelers’ needs.
- If there is a site you want to visit that is not on the itinerary, you can always arrange your own transportation.
- While you can spend as much time as you want at each overnight stop, time at roadside viewpoints is limited. For example, when our bus stopped for a brief photo-op at Lake Tekapo, we only had a few minutes. If you want to spend more time at the highway stops, you’ll have to come back on your own.
- Your bus route may include sites you aren’t interested in. I found every place we visited on our comprehensive pass to be worthwhile, though.
As travelers, we walk the lined between over-planning and under-planning. Some people need flexibility and spontaneity, while others prefer to have things planned out in-depth. Here’s where Stray falls with regards to travel flexibility.
- It is very easy to book and reschedule your bus segments on the Stray website. You can modify your bus schedule throughout your trip, too. Just give reasonable notice and make sure there are spots available. This allows you to be fairly spontaneous with your travel plans if you decide you want to spend more or less time somewhere. For example, if you want to heli-hike Franz Josef glacier, being able to spontaneously stay longer is helpful. Since the helicopter trips often get canceled due to weather, you’ll want the option of staying longer to try again. Being able to extend your stay if your original heli-hike date gets canceled can help you ensure you still get the experience you wanted.
- You can stay anywhere (literally, anywhere) you want to in any of the stops. While Stray has partnerships with various hostels and hotels along their routes, you are by no means limited to those options.
- You can eat wherever you want at any of the stops. There are no included meals baked into the price of your ticket, so no obligation to participate in group dinners or dine at only specific places.
- During busier tourism seasons, it may be hard to book your bus seat on short notice due to the high volume of travelers vying for a seat. This means you have to plan a bit more in advance and can’t be quite as spontaneous.
- If you see a place on the side of the road you want to stop, you can’t just pullover. While Stray’s bus itineraries include most all the highlights you would want to stop and see along the routes, that doesn’t mean you won’t have to watch a stunning place pass by outside your window without being able to stop and explore.
Quality & Value for Money
Whenever you book a service while traveling, you want to know you’re getting good quality. This is especially important when it’s a long-term travel relationship like 8 weeks on a hop-on hop-off bus! Here’s what you can expect with regards to the quality of Stray’s service on their New Zealand bus trips.
- Comfortable buses with cushioned seats, climate control, and large windows.
- You always have a driver/guide on-hand to answer any questions or help you make travel arrangements
- When planning our New Zealand trip, we found that Stray’s bus passes were less expensive than renting a campervan and self-driving for the same amount of time.
- Realistically, your Stray driver is better at driving in New Zealand than you are. They are safe drivers and they won’t get you lost. Being able to offload the driving onto someone else means you can spend more time sleeping, reading, catching up with friends, etc.
- While the bus makes plenty of stops for bathroom breaks and snacks, there is not a toilet on board the bus. Plan accordingly.
- All of our drivers/guides were very good, though some were better than others. As with any service, there is a degree of variation in the skill, experience, and customer service offered by each individual guide.
- Where you save money in transportation choosing Stray over your own campervan, you could easily make up for it at hostels and hotels, since you can’t sleep on the bus like you would a camper.
Stray does not include accommodations as traditional guided tours would. They do, however, encourage passengers to stay at certain places over others. What are the accommodation options like on the Stray New Zealand bus?
- Stray has partnerships with hostels throughout New Zealand that offer discounts to Stray passengers.
- While you can stay anywhere you’d like, Stray guarantees a dorm bed for you at their preferred hostels. You still have to pay your way, but you are spared the hassle of booking your own accommodation if you choose.
- Being able to stay wherever you want is a great advantage over guided tours that lock you into specific accommodations that may not be the location or style you want.
- All of the recommended accommodations were central to the action (either in the heart of the city, near trailheads, walking distance to sites, etc.).
- If you don’t want to sleep in a dorm room with a bunch of other people, you will still need to book your own accommodations.
- You might get stuck in a dorm anywhere if nothing else is available. We were able to get a private room for the two of us at most places, but not all hostels had them available for the nights we were in town.
- Some hostels are gross. While most were really nice, the one we stayed at in Queenstown had spaghetti sauce and trash all over the place. Yikes!
Many travelers enjoy meeting others while on the road and forming new friendships. Others are more inclined to stick to themselves. Here’s what the social situation is like on Stray’s New Zealand trips.
- You have a built-in crew of travel buddies, many likely on the same itinerary and timeline you are. We saw a lot of the same faces throughout our trip, and even if we parted ways for a week or two, we eventually would cross paths again. For example, a lot of people we met spent extra time in Queenstown, plus the Stray New Zealand bus itinerary includes two stopovers there. This resulted in a group of 30 people we knew to be able to get together to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day together.
- With space for 24-40 people on each bus, if there’s someone you don’t get along with, you aren’t stuck with them in a small group.
- Stray passengers range in age from 18 to 60 and above, though most are in their 20s and 30s. That said, Stray is a good option for all age groups.
- Group dynamics can be hit or miss in any situation, including travel. There is always the possibility that someone on the bus could be annoying, rude, culturally insensitive, any other undesirable trait in a travel mate, etc.
- Large groups mean long lines to check-in at hostels or to go to the bathroom during rest stops. They also mean some people may hold the group up by being late to pick-up time or taking too long at one of the photo stops. On our bus, we stopped for a short half-hour hike at one point, but half the group never came out of the hike. Our driver ended up having to leave them behind temporarily in order to take the other half of the group to a brewery where we had reservations for a tour. She then went back and picked up the stragglers, so it all worked out, but it was definitely frustrating for everyone involved.
While some travelers are less interested in learning than others, many appreciate getting some level of information about the places they visit. Stray New Zealand bus drivers/guides provide a little bit of information, but not too much as to bore the less interested.
- With a guide, you get more information about the places you visit and insights about life in the country. They can help provide context and history, making your visit more meaningful.
- The Stray drivers/guides are not historians or scientists, and nor should they be. They can’t give in-depth information that you might expect on a National Geographic expedition for example. If that’s the level of educational value you want from your guide, then Stray is not for you.
Our trip with Stray New Zealand by bus over the North and South Islands is one we’ll definitely never forget, and we still keep in touch with friends from that journey. Overall, I think Stray is an excellent option for travelers who enjoy seeing as much of a place as they can, hitting all the highlights and a few off-the-beaten-path spots as well. If you enjoy socializing with other travelers, are flexible with your schedule and accommodation options, and patient with group dynamics, you will likely enjoy your experience as much as we did!