Saturday, 3 January 2015

Kiwi Experience review and tips

In November and the beginning of December 2014, my girlfriend Emily and I spent three weeks travelling around New Zealand with Kiwi Experience. We booked this through STA Travel back in the UK, when booking the flights for our round-the-world trip. You can read my New Zealand blog posts here

Kiwi Experience is a flexible travel network, with your ticket being valid for up to year. You choose a route package, then you can hop on and off the bus, staying in each location on your chosen route for as long as you want. This is great if you want to travel around New Zealand, stay with friends or find work in a particular place for a longer period, before continuing your route at a later stage. You can check out the various route options on the Kiwi Experience website here

Before booking we had considering hiring a camper van for the New Zealand leg of our adventure. Although I'm sure this would be a lot of fun, I don't actually enjoy driving all that much. Emily and I also thought the Kiwi Experience option would be much more sociable, plus it was likely to work out being a little cheaper. You need to weigh up the cost of the camper van hire, fuel and paying for camper van pitches at holiday parks against the cost of the Kiwi Experience package and hostel cost. Kiwi Experience regularly have special offers available, which we took advantage of when booking through STA Travel.

The Kiwi Experience bus stops in several places each day on the way to the overnight location. If there isn't a supermarket near the overnight stop, the bus stops at a supermarket along the way. Other stops are mostly photo opportunities, along with a walks of up to an hour, around scenic areas on many of the days.

We booked the Sheepdog route, which starts in Auckland, where we flew in, and travels through both the North and South island, before looping back up to Christchurch in the South island, from where we flew to Melbourne, Australia. We found this route covered all of the main places we wanted to see and was ideal for the three weeks we had time for during our three month trip. The minimum time required for each route is listed with each package, so you can weigh up which route suits you best versus the amount of time you have. I'd recommend you allow several more days on top of the minimum route, as there are several places you'd want to stay for more than one night, which I'll list in more detail below. 

Some of the route options continue from Christchurch, which was our final stop and head back to Auckland, for travellers who want to do a full route. Having spoken to other people who did this route, it sounds like it was good fun, but there is only actually a couple of extra places to see, with further stops being the same as stops on the southbound route.

Overall I found Kiwi Experience to be great fun and good value for money. I've written about the overnight stops, along with a few tips below, to help you get the most out of your trip.


OVERNIGHT LOCATIONS


Please note that the stops listed below are the ones we did on the Sheepdog package. There are other stops on other packages.

AUCKLAND-CHRISTMAS

AUCKLAND

A sprawling concrete jungle where we started the route with many other passengers. We felt like we could have been in any other major city in the world here. A few touristy things to do, but not worth sticking around for long, in my opinion. Most people we met said the same thing.

Recommended length of stay: 1 night


cathedral cove

HOT WATER BEACH

The Hot Water Beach Holiday Park is a pleasant and modern place to stay, situated very close to Hot Water Beach. You can head to the beach at low tide and dig your own geothermal hole, or make use of someone elses hard work when they're finished with it! Low tide was at 11pm when we were there, so expect a fairly late night, followed by an early start the next day. We also travelled to nearby Cathedral Cove on the bus, on the afternoon we arrived.

Recommended length of stay: 1 night


waitomo caves

WAITOMO

Waitomo is famous for one thing: tubing through caves. This is highly recommend, with various caving options available depending on your budget and how brave you're feeling. There's not a huge amount else going on locally [think one bar, one shop] so go caving when you arrive in the afternoon and jump back on the bus in the morning. See tips section below to save money on caving trips.

Recommended length of stay: 1 night


rotorua smell

ROTORUA

The Kiwi Experience accommodation is Base Rotorua, which has the awesome bonus of a naturally heated swimming pool. Hot geothermal springs can be seen all over this town, which produce a rotten egg smell, which thankfully you get used to pretty quickly! The Tamaki Maori Cultural Evening is highly recommended, as it's very interesting and well presented, with a very tasty dinner. We stayed here for one night, but I think there's enough to see to spend an extra night here if your schedule allows. The Hobbiton trip is also en route to Rotorua, so worth staying an extra night if you want to go there and to the Maori evening, as it's squeezing a lot in if you do both.

Recommended length of stay: 1-2 nights


lake taupo

TAUPO

Taupo is built around enormous Lake Taupo, which is very pretty by day and at sunset. You can do the Barbary Sails sailing trip here, where you can take your own booze on the boat and chill out with other Kiwi Experience passengers, in groups of up to around 20. Taupo itself is a nice little town, with lots of street art and a few nice bars. We stayed here for one night, but there's definitely plenty to do if you want to stay for two. Taupo is also the cheapest place to skydive in New Zealand. Bad or cloudy weather can postpone skydiving trips, so if you're really keen to jump, you might want to schedule a couple of days here to make sure you don't miss out. Worth noting that some package options take you back to Taupo on the way back up to Auckland, so don't stay here longer than the one night if you're going to end up revisiting anyway.

Recommended length of stay: 1-3 nights


new zealand sheep

RIVER VALLEY

This overnight stop is at a cabin in the middle of nowhere, pretty much as far inland as you can go in New Zealand. This stop is for one thing only: Grade 5 White Water Rafting, which is the highest grade you can commercially take part in without training. You arrive at this stop late in the afternoon, drink reasonably priced booze from the bar, sleep in an enormous dorm and go rafting in the morning, before leaving at lunchtime. This is a really lovely stop, but there's not much else there other than scenery and a couple of walks, so only one night needed.

Recommended length of stay: 1 night


wellington cable car

WELLINGTON

Wellington is the capital of New Zealand and offers plenty to do, catering for all budgets. We stayed for two nights, but I think there is plenty to do for 4 nights or more in Wellington, if you have time to stay longer. There are plenty of great places to eat and drink, lots of free activities [there are lots of must-do lists online] and some cool paid-for activities too. I recommend the Wellington Cable Car and Botanic Garden walk for a cheap afternoon out. Make sure you check out Fidell's Cafe on Cuba Street and go for a free tasting at the Parrotdog Brewery too.

Recommended length of stay: 3-4 nights


interislander crossing

INTERISLANDER CROSSING

You don't need to book the interislander ferry between the North and South islands of New Zealand in advance. A few days before you are due to make the Cook Strait crossing between Wellington and Picton, your Kiwi Experience driver will take a cash payment from you and stamp your Kiwi Experience ticket. All you then need to do on the day of the crossing is hand your ticket in to your driver, who will arrange everything else for you.


new zealand wine

PICTON TO KAITERITERI

When we arrived in Picton, after crossing the Cook Strait between the North and South islands, our driver Jared took us to a Vineyard where we did wine tasting. I don't think this is a stop every driver makes, but if you do, this is a very nice and picturesque stop. Kaiteriteri itself is very small, with a little beach, a bar attached to the hostel and a couple of activities available including horse trekking. Only one night needed, I don't know what you'd do if you had two!

Recommended length of stay: 1 night


westport surfing

WESTPORT

Westport is a sleepy little town, where the Kiwi Experience bust stops at a great hostel called Bazil's. One of the owners of this hostel was previously a New Zealand surf champion, who offers surf lessons. We also went for a beach bonfire with our driver, although this isn't something which is officially a part of the itinerary, so you may or may not get to do this. This is a fun little stop, but only one night is needed, unless you're keen to do a bit more surfing.

Recommended length of stay: 1 night



franz joseph glacier

FRANZ JOSEPH

The Franz Joseph glacier draws people to the small town of Franz Joseph, from where you can book a short helicopter ride to access the glacier, which can no longer be accessed by foot. This will cost you around 300 NZD, including a hike on the glacier. Our friends did this and loved it. These trips are often cancelled; while we were there in November, there had been only a handful of trips during the last 10 days. Our friends got lucky with a 'weather window' and were one of only a few groups who managed to go that day. Some people on our bus stayed longer in Franz Joseph at last minute, to have another chance at being able to do the glacier trip.

The accommodation is at a cool place called the Rainforest Retreat, which has an awesome bar and restaurant on site. Make sure you ask for the backpacker food menu, as this is considerably cheaper than the main menu, for the same food! We stayed at a place called Southern Laughter Backpackers about a three minute walk away, where our double room was much cheaper [plus none were available at Rainforest Retreat] and this also included a hot tub, free WiFi, free breakfast, free soup at 6pm and free popcorn from reception.

Recommended length of stay: 2 nights


wanaka kayaking

WANAKA 

I'd highly recommend staying in Wanaka for a couple of nights, as I think a lot of people overlook it, eager to get to Queenstown. It's an incredibly pretty town and a great place to go kayaking without a guide, much cheaper than the other kayaking options on offer around New Zealand. There are lots of nice places to eat and drink and a couple of very cool independent cinemas. There are also lots of free-to-use BBQs around Wanaka.

Recommended length of stay: 2 nights


queenstown cable car

QUEENSTOWN

Queenstown is the adventure capital of New Zealand and possibly the World! There are tons of awesome activities on offer and you may end ups spending a fair bit of money here! Queenstown is the home of bungy jumping, with loads of great options on offer. There are lots of activities on the lake, including jet boating and the incredible shark experience [look it up]. The Skyline Gondola offers great views and the Luging at the top is great fun. There are plenty more activities, along with countless great places to eat and drink. Every night is a Saturday night in Queenstown. Make sure you visit Fergburger, although I think it's hard to avoid it!

Recommended length of stay: 4-7 nights


milford sound day trip

MILFORD SOUND [OPTIONAL EXTRA DAY TRIP]

This is a one day trip from Queenstown, leaving at around 7am. It's around a 4-hour drive each way, plus a few stops. The actual boat trip around Milford Sound is around an hour and a half to two hours. They say that going to New Zealand and not visiting Milford Sound is like going to Egypt and not seeing the Pyramids. I have to disagree, I don't think Milford Sound lives up to the hype. Don't get me wrong, it's very beautiful, but so is most of the scenery in this stunning country! I didn't think the long day and the scenery made the cost of the trip worthwhile.


lake tekapo church

LAKE TEKAPO

This overnight stop is at a holiday park in a small town. The bus drives a very short distance to visit the Church of the Good Shepherd for a lovely and brief photo stop the following morning. The only activities on offer here are a visit to the on-site spa, or stargazing trips at a nearby Dark Sky Reserve. The latter are weather dependent and were cancelled when we visited. Definitely only stay here for one night, unless you want to guarantee you get to go on the stargazing trip. There's not a whole lot going on here.

Recommended length of stay: 1 night


earthquake christchurch

CHRISTCHURCH

This city was hugely damaged by earthquakes around four years ago and is under major reconstruction. There are many large empty spaces in the city where buildings once stood and the city has a bit of an eerie feel about it. Visiting the damaged cathedral, along with the cardboard 'transitional cathedral' and the Pop-Up Mall are a must and there's a lot of cool street art and 'gap-fillers' in the city to check out. You could spend an extra night here if you wanted to do some paid activities, but I'd only really recommend you stay for one night.

Recommended length of stay: 1-2 nights


A FEW TIPS


ACCOMMODATION

Kiwi Experience guarantee you a bed for the night, but only for the night you are on the bus. You sometimes pay more than the going rate for the hostel, as the hostel want to cover the commission they are paying Kiwi Experience for bringing you there. If you're only staying somewhere for a night, it's hardly worth finding your own accommodation for the sake of a few dollars. If you are planning to stay somewhere for more than one night, it's best to book ahead, even if it's in the same hostel that Kiwi Experience books you into. The hostel need to keep enough beds available for the Kiwi Experience bus arriving the next day, so you may find that there isn't a bed available for you for more than the night you are on the bus if you don't book ahead, especially in the summer. We also found much cheaper private rooms online in many places, so it's worth checking it out.

We travelled as a couple and wanted to stay in a double private room each night, rather than dorms. This only cost a little more than two dorms beds, so if you're travelling as a couple, it's worth checking the difference in cost between these two options. Double rooms usually have towels and toiletries and often have an en-suite, offering a little bit of luxury whilst backpacking.


ACTIVITIES

Kiwi Experience sell bundle offers for many of the activities available, for example booking three water based activities as one package in advance, to save a little money. Do you research to make sure you are booking the activities you definitely want to do and also that you're doing them in the best place. For example, I noticed you can book a package that includes White Water Rafting. The place that you do this rafting is not at River Valley, which is where everyone does it [read about that in the section above] and even our driver said the other rafting place isn't the best place to do it, as it's not as long and epic. One package option also includes the Franz Joseph Glacier trip, which frequently gets cancelled, as I mention in the section above. I guess you be offered a refund if it did get cancelled, but you'd to have to check this out and also whether the saving offered makes it worthwhile.

Tickets for the Milford Sound day trip can be purchased in advance. I'm not sure of the price to purchase in advance, but you can buy from your driver a few days before [you do this trip from Queenstown] for 115 NZD. I'd recommend you decide nearer the time whether or not you want to do this trip. In my opinion, this is a nice day trip, but a very long day of driving for a short boat trip. There is so much nice scenery around New Zealand that you see already, that it's worth considering skipping this day trip if you're short of time or money, or if there are other activities you are thinking of spending your time and money on. It definitely didn't live up to the hype in my opinion.

There are several different kayaking trips offered by Kiwi Experience as you travel through New Zealand, most of which cost upwards of 70 NZD. If you spend an extra day in Wanaka, you can enjoy an afternoon of kayaking on beautiful Lake Wanaka and paddle to Ruby Island. You can hire a double or single kayak for around 30 NZD per person for two hours, which is considerably cheaper than the guided options offered elsewhere.

We booked the Waitomo Caves experience on the bus on the day for around 105 NZD for the Black Labyrinth option, with Black Water Rafting Company. Our friends booked a similar trip in advance from home in Canada on Groupon. This was with a different company, but they loved it just as much as we did, explored the same caves [albeit different parts of the same caves] and it cost them a whole lot less. You can also get much cheaper options for loads of activities including bungy jumping, by visiting Book Me here. Worth checking out special offers online in advance to save you some cash.


FOOD

You can buy small cooler bags from supermarkets, which are really handy for keeping a few things cold during the bus journey. All hostels have fridge and freezer space, although this might be tight, so don't buy too much. There is always a supermarket near the hostel, or a stop made on the way each day, so you don't need to buy too much at once.


WIFI

WiFi is rubbish and expensive in New Zealand. Remember the days of dial-up internet? It's about as fast and frustrating as that! Most hostels charge upwards of 4 NZD for 24-hours internet use. You are given a log-in card to access the WiFi, which can be very temperamental. Ignore what many hostels will tell you; you can use the same card to log-in on more than one device, as long as you only use one device at a time and log-out in between.

Check the Kiwi Experience handbook to find out where you'll be staying each night. Many hostels use the same internet provider, so you can work out if buying a week long card will save you money, which will work at any hostel using the same internet provider. All Base hostels use the same internet provider for example.

Visiting the local library and getting a temporary membership is a free and easy way to access the internet on a computer, rather than using your own device.


If you want to read more about by journey around New Zealand, you can check out my blog posts here

8 comments:

  1. Hi Josh

    Great blog post - it's been really interesting to read and very helpful :) will definitely take note of your tips about accommodation and activities!

    My partner Baptiste and I are going to NZ late Nov for 5 weeks and probably going to book the Super Funky pass. I was a bit worried as I've read reviews that say it's a young persons party bus, did you get this vibe?

    Emily

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    1. Hey Emily, great to hear from you! I wouldn't so much say it was a party bus, but most of the passengers are on gap years, students or have just finished Uni. My girlfriend and I were amongst the oldest on the bus, aged 23 and 26 at the time. We didn't get too involved with night-time partying, but made some friends on the bus and had a great time. It's definitely a great value and fun way to see beautiful NZ! If you have any specific questions about Kiwi Experience or NZ, drop me an e-mail at joshkinnersley [at] gmail [dot] com and I will be glad to help :)

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  2. Hi Josh, I've booked the sheepdog route in November and I've just noticed that the bus timetable is less frequent during winter. Or is Nov their spring?? Did you find that you were delayed by the bus schedule?

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    1. Hi Rebecca! We did not get delayed by the timetable. We changed our route [stayed extra nights] a few times and on one occasion we were on a waiting list, but we got on fine after waiting a day to find out. I remember the buses were pretty full, but people are changing routes so often, that there's a lot of flexibility. Have fun!

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    2. Hi Josh. Thanks for this. Sorry one more question did the buses pick up people 3-4 time a week or was it daily. I've only been sent the timetable up until april so I'm not sure.

      Thanks again

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    3. I'm pretty sure it was nearly every day when we were there, with the odd day off - best to call them to check :)

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  3. Hello there. I am just about to book the same bus pass as it is currently discounted and will be traveling there within a week, so same time that you guys did. What a coincidence! I have around 22/23 days at most and stumbled upon your blog as I am researching where I should spend the most of my extra days. Your comments on cheaper kayacking, better rafting, and Milford sound was very helpful. I have heard the same thing about Milford. I have a few questions, if you can lend some pointers.
    Are hiking shoes necessary?
    How cold did it get? -I'm from California and have been living in Brisbane for a year so I have a slim tolerance to the cold.
    Would it have been useful to bring a spring rash suit or rash shirt for some warmth when swimming?
    Did you bring a laptop? Is it worth bringing it to record travels?
    Thanks!
    Emily

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    1. Hey Emily, thanks for your comment! Sorry that I am so late replying to this - I got married very recently and I am currently on honeymoon in Japan :) I hope you are having an excellent trip!!

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