If you’re planning a trip to New Zealand and you want to know how to travel New Zealand without a car, then keep reading! You can definitely see the country without your own vehicle thanks to the country’s system of buses, trains, and more.
New Zealand is filled with stunning scenery. The country is small, and so much of it is still quite remote. You have a handful of large cities, some smaller towns, and the rest is wilderness. That’s why most people suggest getting a car during your visit—it can be tough to see the hidden corners of the country without your own transportation.
However, a lot of people choose to travel New Zealand without a car, and I’m one of those people.
There are plenty of solid reasons to travel New Zealand without a car:
- You don’t have a valid drivers license.
- You can’t afford to buy or rent a car (especially if you’re a solo traveler).
- You’re anxious about driving in a foreign country.
Trust me, I get it. I chose to travel New Zealand without a car because I was nervous about driving on New Zealand’s roads, plus I hadn’t budgeted for a car beforehand. I was also so used to traveling by car back in the U.S., and I wanted to try backpacking without my own vehicle for a different kind of experience.
How to Travel New Zealand Without a Car
Do you need a car in New Zealand?
There are definitely a few cons to going carless in New Zealand, but no, you don’t NEED a car to travel the country. Ultimately, I’m happy with my choice to travel without one. I spent almost a year traveling New Zealand without a car and I found it to be quite simple—and fun! I mostly traveled by bus, but I also used trains, planes, and ferries.
While public transit won’t get you to the most remote parts of the country, you can always find a way to get where you want to go. Where public transit ends, there are private shuttle companies, tours, and plenty of locals or fellow travelers who are more than willing to give you a lift.
Yes, having your own car will make it much more convenient to get anywhere at any time, but it’s really not necessary.
This post is all about traveling New Zealand without a car, including how to get around via public transit, how to choose the best option for your trip, and my best tips for getting around New Zealand when you don’t have a car. I will mostly focus on traveling New Zealand by bus, but I will also touch on the other transportation options.
Traveling New Zealand by Bus
During my working holiday in New Zealand, I used buses about 90% of the time to get around. I found that the bus routes reached most places that travelers would want to go, including the big cities, the smaller towns, and major tourist areas. Traveling New Zealand by bus was also an affordable option as a solo traveler. I found the buses to be quite comfortable and reliable, but I’ll talk about all of these details more below.
New Zealand Bus Companies
There are currently 3 major New Zealand bus companies to choose from. One is a more general bus service, while the other two are hop-on hop-off style bus services geared towards tourists.
Intercity Bus NZ
Intercity was my chosen operator during my time in the country. I much preferred them over the “backpacker buses”, which is what the other companies typically catered to. Intercity Bus had a lot more locals on board making regular trips between towns since they are the main bus service in the country. Of course, plenty of tourists use them as well. If you are an independent traveler, planning and booking everything on your own, Intercity is the best New Zealand bus company for you.
InterCity Bus Reviews on TripAdvisor
Naked Bus/Mana Bus
Naked Bus and Mana Bus was known for having super cheap bus fares, so it was a great option for super budget travelers trying to get around New Zealand. However, the company is no longer operating, so this now leaves most of New Zealand’s bus business going between Intercity Bus and the hop-on hop-off type of bus services.
The reason I mention this option even though it no longer exists is because you might hear about it when planning your trip (especially if you’re reading older blog posts), and I want to clarify and let you know that this is no longer an option.
Kiwi Experience NZ
Kiwi Experience is a hop-on hop-off style bus service that takes tourists all around New Zealand. They’re the big green buses you’ll probably end up seeing at all the major tourist stops. This is definitely a social backpacker style of travel, for those who want to meet people to spend their journey around New Zealand with.
You can stay somewhere as long as you like before getting back on to your next destination, but it is heavily focused on people who want more of a group travel experience. Travelers typically book their accommodation and activities through the company as well, although you don’t have to.
Kiwi Experience Reviews on TripAdvisor
Stray Bus NZ
Stray Bus is another hop-on hop-off style bus operator, very similar to Kiwi Experience. Stray has a group travel/tour provider kind of feel to it, versus being just a bus service (like Intercity). You can book your accommodation and activities through Stray, and you’ll most likely spend most of your time with the other travelers on your bus.
Stray NZ Bus Reviews on TripAdvisor
New Zealand Bus Routes
All New Zealand bus companies tend to follow similar routes through the country. There will be a few differences, but you can expect to reach all of the major towns and tourist spots by any of the bus services mentioned above. Intercity Bus seems to venture out to smaller towns since there are a lot of locals using the buses. Whereas Kiwi Experience and Stray are only focused on going to popular destinations for tourists.
Here are the major stops you can expect to reach by bus. (Clicking the links will take you to my blog posts about those destinations.)
North Island Bus Route
- Bay of Islands
- Coromandel Peninsula
- New Plymouth
South Island Bus Route
- Milford Sound
- Mt Cook
- Franz Josef
Again, different New Zealand bus companies will take you to different places. This is not a comprehensive list, just a selection of popular places. While the top spots can be reached by any of the bus companies, some places aren’t available on the hop-on hop-off tourist buses. Intercity Bus is the best option to reach more places.
Check the individual bus websites to see their full route maps.
New Zealand Bus Prices
Bus fare prices really depend on 1.) Which company you’re using, and 2.) how far you are traveling. However if you are just looking to purchase one-off bus tickets from point A to point B, Intercity is really the only option.
On Intercity, expect to pay (on average) around $10 NZD per hour of travel. That’s just a good average to keep in mind when budgeting and planning (not a solid formula). I believe my average bus fare was around $25 NZD for a 2-3 hour trip. Of course prices may have changed slightly since then.
New Zealand Bus Passes
If you are planning to travel New Zealand by bus for the majority of your trip, you’ll be better off getting some kind of bus pass. All New Zealand bus companies have some kind of pass system.
Kiwi Experience and Stray NZ work ONLY on a bus pass system. If you want to travel with them, you will need to purchase one of their hop-on hop-off bus passes. They range in price, length of time, and destinations. You can travel for a few days, up to months. You can see all of New Zealand, or just a small part. Choose the bus pass that works best for your ideal New Zealand itinerary.
While Intercity allows you to purchase single bus fares for any trip, they also have a bus pass option. If you know you’ll be using them a lot, it can save you money to purchases a pass instead of buying individual fares.
I never bought any kind of bus pass while I was in New Zealand, simply because I planned my route very last minute. I’d wait until I arrived somewhere to decide where I would go next! Maybe that means I should have bought one, but…
The hop-on hop-off buses have various deals and specials available on their website, so you can always check for discounts before purchasing a bus pass.
For Intercity, I recommend signing up for their rewards program. Intercity Rewards is free to join, and you can earn “rewards” every time you book a trip with them. This usually amounted to a couple dollars saved on every bus fare I bought. Through almost a year of traveling with them, a couple dollars here and there definitely added up!
Read Next: More Ways to Save Money in New Zealand
New Zealand Bus Expectations
Since I have only traveled with Intercity, I can’t personally speak to the comfort level and expectations for Kiwi Experience or Stray NZ. So I will just talk about my experience traveling on the Intercity buses.
The Intercity buses were always kept clean and seemed to be well-maintained. Some buses were a bit more updated than others, but I found that all of them were quite nice. The seats were comfortable and roomy (saying this as a 5’5 woman), and I never felt cramped on the buses.
If you’re traveling during peak season, you should expect the buses to be full most of the time. However, if you’re traveling during shoulder seasons, the buses can be quite empty. So you will most likely be able to have a row (two seats) to yourself if you’re traveling alone.
They “have WIFI”, but most of the time it wasn’t too reliable. Being on a bus in remote areas, and considering New Zealand internet isn’t that great to begin with, it’s not a surprise that the bus WIFI isn’t great. However, I preferred to read, listen to music, or nap while I was on the bus anyways, and most of my trips were a couple hours at the most.
Based on what others have told me, if you use Kiwi Experience or Stray, you should expect the buses to be crowded and a bit noisier due to the social aspect of the service. A lot of backpackers really prefer this, so that’s not meant as a negative (necessarily). But it’s definitely seen as more of a party backpacker bus for younger travelers (working as a housekeeper while I was NZ, we all sighed when the big green bus rolled in every day). I can’t speak to the comfort level or the quality of the interiors etc.
Traveling New Zealand by Train
In general, I absolutely love train travel. If I can take a train to get somewhere, I’ll take it. I was extra excited to use the trains while I was in New Zealand, and tried to plan things out so that I could take each of the scenic routes available (I only ended up being able to take one route). The prices are quite expensive compared to other transportation options, but I think it’s well worth it for the experience.
New Zealand Train Routes
New Zealand’s Kiwi Rail operates three scenic train journeys throughout the country:
- Northern Explorer – Runs between Auckland and Wellington on the North Island.
- TranzAlpine – Runs between Christchurch and Greymouth on the South Island.
- Coastal Pacific – Runs from Picton to Christchurch on the South Island.
You could actually see quite a bit by taking the scenic trains. While there are only three routes, they stop in multiple places along the way, most of which are popular spots to visit. You can purchase stop-overs on these routes if you want to spend a day somewhere before re-boarding the train to move on to the next stop.
Start in Auckland, make some stops along the central corridor of the North Island on your way to Wellington. Then take the Cook Strait Ferry from Wellington to Picton, and catch the Coastal Pacific to make your way to Kaikoura and Christchurch. Spend a couple days in Christchurch, then board the TranzAlpine to cross over to the west coast of the South Island, with a stop at Arthur’s Pass on the way.
This definitely misses out on the Southern region of the South Island, and frankly a lot of other great spots too. But if you are really into train travel, this would be a fun route to take. I wanted to do this, but the Coastal Pacific closed due to the Kaikoura Earthquake while I was in New Zealand (it has since re-opened).
I wrote an entire post about my experience on the Northern Explorer train, and I added in a lot more details about traveling New Zealand by Train. So if you’re interested, I recommend reading that post as well!
Traveling New Zealand by Plane
Flying is the least fun way to travel New Zealand if you ask me. The country is so beautiful, you don’t want to miss any of it along the way! And since the country is so small, no trip is really that long (or you know, maybe that’s just because I’m from the U.S., where you need DAYS to drive even just half way across the country.)
I only flew within New Zealand at the end of my trip, when I needed to quickly get from the South Island back to Auckland to catch my flight out of the country. However, if you are looking to jump from city to city, or from island to island, quickly, then flying will be the best option.
There are airports in the major cities and towns, but there are many places in New Zealand where you will have to drive/take a bus/catch a ride quite a ways to get to an airport. Flying isn’t the cheapest option, but it is the most convenient if you need to get somewhere fast.
Check grabaseat.com to search for flights within New Zealand. They typically have the best deals!
Traveling New Zealand by Ferry
You can’t travel much of New Zealand by ferry, but there are a handful of places where it’s the only option (or just the best option). The most common place in New Zealand to catch a ferry is when traveling between the North and South Islands (Wellington and Picton). Unless you decide to fly, this is the only way to get between the islands, and it’s a New Zealand MUST DO in my opinion. I wrote an entire post about the Cook Strait Ferry and everything you need to know!
There are also ferries operating between smaller islands around the country. In Auckland, there are quite a few, with the option of getting to Waiheke Island or the Coromandel Peninsula by ferry.
Other Ways to Travel New Zealand Without a Car
I REALLY didn’t want to drive in New Zealand or worry about buying and selling a vehicle, so I’m very happy with my choice to travel New Zealand without a car for a year. There were times when it would have been a lot more convenient to drive, and there are a handful of places I feel like I missed out on because it would have been too complicated to get there with public transport. So consider what’s important for you to see, how much time you have, and your budget.
But if you know you’re going to do it without your own vehicle, you can still see and do most everything that’s on your bucket list. It’s also important to mention that New Zealand is a VERY friendly place, with a huge traveler community. So if you are backpacking around the country, staying in hostels, working, etc., it will be so easy to find people with cars who are willing to give you a ride. Hitchhiking is still popular there, and a relatively safe thing to do. I made my way to lots of places where the buses don’t go simply by meeting new friends and catching a ride with them.
There are also a lot of shuttles available (usually passenger vans), that run shorter distances from larger hubs to more remote areas. For example, there’s a beach hopper shuttle on the Coromandel Peninsula that will take you between Whitianga, Cathedral Cove/Hahei, Hot Water Beach during the summer. There’s also a shuttle that runs from Westport up to the little town of Karamea (which I highly recommend visiting!). You can typically find these shuttles for places that can’t be reached on public transport.
And of course, you can always join small tour groups to get to major attractions from the larger tourist hubs. Some are more organized tours (like Haka Tours), while others are really more of a shuttle service with a little bit of help with organizing/planning.
For example, I used a small tour operator to take me from Rotorua out to Wai-O-Tapu. There were about 10-15 other people, they took us to a couple of extra stops along the way for sightseeing, and then dropped us at Wai-O-Tapu and gave us two hours to explore on our own.
I joined a similar tour for my trip to Milford Sound from Te Anau. It was a small group in a passenger van, and we stopped at all of the major sites along the road to Milford Sound, before being dropped off for our cruise. I preferred this small tour to the large tour buses that follow the same routes.
You can find good deals on shuttles and tours like this on BookMe.co.nz
Best Way to Travel New Zealand Without a Car
There isn’t necessarily one BEST way to travel New Zealand without a car. It depends on how long you have to see the country, what you want to see, and what your overall budget is. It also depends on your preferred travel style, and whether you plan things yourself or prefer to have some help with organization.
Like I said, I used New Zealand buses to get around the country for most of my year there, and I was very happy with the experience. The price, the flexibility, and the reach (which places I could get to with it), were all just perfect for me as a solo budget traveler.
- I recommend the Intercity buses over Kiwi Experience or Stray if you prefer to travel independently, planning your own route as you go. If you want a more social experience and have a set amount of time that you can travel, you might prefer the hop-on hop-off buses.
- If you only have a couple of weeks to explore New Zealand, but you want to see some of the major sites, traveling New Zealand by train could be a lot of fun. Especially if you want a slower pace that allows you to take in the scenery and enjoy the journey.
- If you just want to hit the major cities/towns in a very short period of time, flying between cities will work best. So if your itinerary includes Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch, and Queenstown (and not much else), you can find budget flights to get around the country.
- Lastly, if you are on a super tight budget and want to experience New Zealand in a different way, give hitchhiking a try. I won’t encourage people to hitchhike, but New Zealand is probably the safest country to do it in. It’s very common, and it’s an easy way to get between towns. Plus you’ll meet tons of people along the way!
So if you’re planning on traveling New Zealand without a car, don’t worry! I know most people recommend renting/buying a car, but it is definitely not necessary. I enjoyed traveling New Zealand by bus and I don’t feel like it made it any more difficult to see the country the way I wanted to.
As you plan your New Zealand trip, be sure you read my other big New Zealand posts:
- Ultimate New Zealand Guide (everything you need to know!)
- What to Know Before You Go to New Zealand
- The Cost of Traveling New Zealand
- New Zealand Hostel Guide (the best and the worst)
- New Zealand Packing List
- How to Travel New Zealand on a Budget
- Over 100 Free Things to Do in New Zealand
- 26 Photos to Inspire You to Visit New Zealand
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Great guide, Courtney! When you’re traveling on a budget, by yourself or both, renting a car is often out of the question. Americans, in general, seem opposed to bus travel, but personally, I love it! Just a few of the pros are not having to worry about parking and not needing to show up hours early to go through security like you do with air travel. Looking forward to hearing about your transportation ventures in Portugal!
Agreed! Americans especially are used to traveling by car within a country, but it’s not budget friendly (or eco-friendly) when traveling alone.