You’ve seen me rave about New Zealand and my experience with Stray Travel in the past couple posts and on Facebook, so its right that I dedicate a post reviewing Stray since they were the ones who made possible most of my experiences in the south island of New Zealand.
Stray is a guided hop-on-hop-off bus network that covers most areas of both islands in New Zealand. The way they differentiate themselves from other companies that do the same thing is by visiting exclusive locations that are out of the common tourist trail. They literally, stray.
How it works
At first, when I got my pass, I wasn’t really sure how to use it, but I’ll explain to you how it works. Stray offers a series of passes that include just the south island, north island, or both islands. After you buy your ticket, your pass will be valid for 12 months.
So, you have the option of hopping on and off for a much as you want during a year (within the stops included in your pass), spending long periods of time in each stop, or simply travel the country within a few days or weeks and use the bus as a guided service. The duration of your trip is up to you, and it is completely flexible.
You get a unique Stray customer number, which will allow you to go online (or email a Stray agent) and book the next desired bus, few buses, or the entire journey according to the route.
While their bus reservation interface is not that difficult to manage, it needs to improve a bit in the smoothness of the booking process. After that, all you need to do is show up at the pickup place at the indicated time and you’ll see their orange bus in no time.
It is important to note that the pass only includes the bus. No accommodation, food, or activities are included in it.
Stray offers tours, which include some of the activities, food, and all accommodations; but, I guess maybe most travelers just use the bus pass to have the flexibility to stay anywhere on the way for as long as they want. (At least all travelers who I met on the bus were using passes and not tours.)
The bus passes don’t include accommodation but Stray guarantees availability of up to 4 nights of accommodation per location to their passengers (at a specific hostel), so you don’t need to worry about booking a place in advanced (this is very good if you’re traveling in high season).
They typical discounted price for a night in a 4 to 6 beds dorm ranges from $25 to $35 NZD. The average, from my experience, was $28 NZD per night. (Big exceptions to this average, though, are the nights at Mourea and Lake Aniwhenua, which are $80 NZD and $75 NZD, respectively. This is because they include a cultural Maori show and breakfast.)
Day tours and activities are not included in passes, but most companies offer a discount to Stray customers; including skydiving, the Milford Sound cruise, bungy jumping, and every other major attraction along the route.
A Typical Stray Day
A typical day on the bus goes like this: Leave around 7 – 9 am and stop for about 30 to 45 minutes at a sightseeing spot (or few spots) along the way. Then stop for lunch at a small town, where you have the option to eat anywhere you’d like and/or buy something at the supermarket to cook dinner at the hostel.
After lunch, there is typically a few more sightseeing stops along the way before reaching the hostel at around 4 or 5 pm. Along the way the driver will point out a lot of facts about the places you’re passing through and in some occasions will hop-off with you to participate in the activity too.
The majority of the stops done along the way are for free activities, like hiking, sightseeing waterfalls, and lakes, or other nature-related attractions.
While this is a typical day, depending on the group of people you’re traveling with and the driver, sometimes you might deviate from the “schedule” and stay longer on the road or visit a few more places during a specific day. It’s somewhat flexible.
I did the Q Pass, which goes through most of Stray’s network on the south island, from Christchurch all the way to the south.
I did it in 13 days, which is the recommended time for it, and while 13 days is good enough to get a good feeling of the entire region, I would recommend staying a bit longer in a few spots, so probably 16+ days would be perfect!
I’ve pretty much written of all the things I did along the route; like bungy jumping in Queenstown, the several Lord of the Rings locations we visited, and the beautiful Southland and Fiordland, including the Milford Sound cruise!
So, I’ll go ahead and share what I liked and didn’t like of my overall experience on the bus:
What I liked
The welcoming was really nice every single time I hopped on a new bus. I had three drivers on my 13-day hop-on-hop-off experience (since the network works in smaller circuits and schedules, chances are you’ll change drivers more than once).
I remember the first welcoming felt like I was entering a “Brady Bunch” bus because everyone welcomed us with a big hello and huge smiles. That was nice.
I liked that Stray visited several places that are outside other bus networks, and most all of these places were gorgeous! Most of the time we were the only ones there, in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by beauty.
Since I traveled during winter, our group was an average of 8 people, which felt like a nice number because it gave the opportunity to get to meet everyone. The size varies and always depends on how many people hop-on and hop-off at each destination (I’ve heard that in summer the numbers can be as high as 40+ per bus).
Four of those travelers were with me the entire trip, so we created a good relationship and often socialized, played games, or went out drinking at night together.
What I didn’t like
Overall the experience was really good. The only negative thing I have to say, and this is really nitpicking, is that they should make sure that every new passenger receives a “welcome/goodie bag” and not just the ones that hop-on in Auckland or other major cities.
I didn’t get it, nor any information or schedule of the route, so I had to ask the other travelers, “at what time we leave tomorrow?” or “where are we going next?” That was until I decided to ask for a brochure and schedule, which I shouldn’t have had to do in the first place. But again, that’s just nitpicking.
In the end, do I recommend it?
I will be fair here and say that while I recommend the experience, the pass will be worth to you depending on what you value more; saving money or having the Stray experience. If you want to travel as cheap as possible across New Zealand, then Stray is not your best option. They are not the cheapest option, but they do take you to some amazing places (often with other amazingly good travelers on the bus).
If you want the Stray Travel experience by getting off the common tourist trail, then it is worth it, because you can save some of that money invested in the pass in most discounted experiences/attractions/sights and accommodation.
Now, you really get the most value for your money when you use the pass for long-term travel and spread your stops across several weeks or months. This, in my opinion, is the best way to travel with Stray.
Now, are you ready to stray in New Zealand?
Thanks to Stray Travel for the complimentary passes. They didn’t ask for a favorable review, and as always, the opinions and expressions written here are my own.
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