New Zealand looks like a small country on a map, especially next to Australia. But once you’re in the country, it’s actually quite big. So I want to share with you the best and cheapest ways to get around the country.
Getting around New Zealand
New Zealand has a very well developed bus network that connects all major cities but also stops at small places along the way. If you are going to rely mainly on busses to get around the country, then I definitely recommend getting a bus pass. Inter-City offers the FlexiPass and the TravelPass are valid for 12 months and they offer you pretty unlimited travel around both islands and they also include the Interislander ferry. To buy a pass, you choose a rough route but you are then free to roam along that route at the time and pace that you choose. Prices start at 120 NZD for a very simple route (Auckland to the Bay of Islands) and go up to around 990 NZD for a route to every nook and cranny of New Zealand.
Kiwi Experience offers something similar but their passes are a bit more pricey than the once by Inter-City. However, on the Kiwi Experience you meet a lot more backpackers and they also offer additional experience tours (e.g. to Milford Sound) at a special Kiwi Experience price. Some hostels also offer discounts to Kiwi Experience travellers. So if you're traveling alone and want to meet other backpackers really fast, their bus passes can be worth looking at.
Stray offers guided tours around New Zealand varying in length from a few days to a couple of weeks (quite pricey). They also offer hop-on-hop-off passes which give you more flexibility and freedom to do what you want. The way it works is that you choose a route for your 10-trip bus pass and then you're free to roam as you please. The passes do not include the ferry but Naked Bus does offer sleeper beds on some journeys. So if you want to replace a hostel with a night on a bus, this might be something to consider.
Trains aren’t widely available but there are a couple of mainly tourist lines that run across the North and South Island. There are three scenic rail lines operated by KiwiRail: the Northern Explorer (Auckland-Wellington), the TransAlpine (Christchurch-Greymouth) and the Coastal Pacific (Christchurch-Picton). They all start early in the morning and run once a day (though not every day of the week).
If you just want to get from A to B, there are definitely more convenient buses running on all those routes but if you have the time, the journeys are definitely worth it. The windows of the carriages are big and let you take pictures along the way. I have done the Wellington to Auckland journey before and it's a beautiful way to see the centre of the North Island. A ticket from Auckland to Wellington costs around 160 NZD (around 100 Euro/ Dollar at the moment) and the journey takes about 12 hours. There are also combination bus and rail passes available.
Wellington also has a very well developed train network that runs up the coast and up the Hutt Valley. The fares are very cheap, especially when you are used to the prices of European trains, but the trains are very comfortable and the staff at the Wellington Station are very helpful if you're unsure as to what ticket you need.
If you have ever looked at a map of New Zealand, you may have noticed that New Zealand is made up of three separate islands: the North Island, the South Island and Stewart Island (there are actually a couple more strewn across the Pacific but let’s keep it at 3).
The best way to cross the Cook Strait is by ferry. There are two operators that run between Wellington and Picton: the Interislander and Bluebridge. Both operators sail several times a day between the two main islands and the trip takes about three and a half hours. Prices differ greatly, as there are a lot of discounts and different fare options available. But just to give you an idea, I checked the price for an Interislander Ferry that would sail on the same day from Wellington to Picton and the cheapest Web Saver fare is 55 NZD (which would be 32 Euro or Dollar at the current exchange rate). I'd definitely recommend that you book the ferry a couple of days in advance, especially during the summer months (November-February) as there are a lot of Kiwis and tourists around.
The ferry is definitely the best way to get a first idea of the Marlborough Sounds and of the beauty of the South Island. If, however, you are doubting your sea worthiness even slightly, I’d recommend you stock up on anti-seasickness medication because the crossing of the Cook Strait is almost always rough. I did the crossing once and I have never felt so sick in my entire life. So don’t say you haven’t been warned.
Flying is certainly the quickest way to get around the country but it’s also the most expensive (except for some trains which are even more expensive). Having said that, if you can plan ahead slightly or if you know that you definitely need to be at a certain place within New Zealand, it’s worth checking out flights. Air New Zealand is the most widely operating airline in the country and they tend to have good offers that can save you money and a lot of time when trying to get around.
Jetstar also offer services that connect the big cities. Jetstar is comparable with Easyjet or Ryanair. Similar service (or lack thereof) and similar friendliness. Jetstar can be unreliable, however, as they tend to delay or cancel flights quite regularly.