Review: My Experience With Stray Travel In New Zealand

Review: My Experience With Stray Travel In New Zealand

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.

Stray Travel Bus

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.

Stray Travel Map
The Stray network. Image from straytravel.com

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.

Stray Travel Bus
With Postie, the driver/guide, in one of our random stops to play with snow and take pictures of the scenery.

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.

My Experience

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!

Fox Glacier in New Zealand
A view of the Fox Glacier.

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.

Hiking Routeburn Track in New Zealand
Hiking the Routeburn Track, with the Hollyford Valley in the background. This is one of Stray’s unique stops.

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.

Mount Cook in New Zealand
A view towards Mount Cook, the tallest mountain in New Zealand. We spent the night at the base near the mountain, which is another exclusive Stray stop.

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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16 thoughts on “Review: My Experience With Stray Travel In New Zealand”

  1. I was wondering if there are alternate choices for accommodations. Do the hostels generally have single rooms? Are there guest houses, b and bs or reseonably priced hotels close by the bus stops? Also…is there a time of year when it’s not cold and not too overcrowded? 45 on the bus versus 8-10
    sounds pretty crowded. I really want to go to New Zealand. I’d be going solo
    and this seems like a good way to do it. Thanks.

    1. Elyse –
      There are alternate choices of accommodation in their selected hostels. They give you the choice of a dorm bed or a single or double bed room, depending on availability. Of course, prices range and from my experience, the single or double rooms tended to be about twice the price of a dorm bed.

      In most decent sized cities you have the option of staying at another hostel. You can simply book it on your own and tell the driver to drop you there (and pick you there when departing). We did that in Queenstown since it was reasonably priced.

      On the time of the year… Summer (their summer) is their high season, so it is understandably more crowded. In truth their average group size is 30 (as per their information), but they use the 44 (or 45) seater buses to accommodate people. During winter they use the smaller buses since there are less travelers. I would suggest traveling in shoulder seasons (Spring/Fall) since you might get the best of both worlds; not a lot of people and good weather. That being said, while my average group was 8, I know that the buses a few days ahead and few days behind us had around 15 to 18 people.

      Stray is good for solo travelers, I agree, especially if you’d like to get to meet people on the road and hopefully travel a portion of your trip with them.

      Feel free to let me know if you have any other questions!

  2. I can’t even order my first leg, can u give me some help? I have paid and can login, but even if i go 2month ahead it just shoes that the bus is unavaiable… :/

    1. Eli, sorry for my late reply. Were you able to order your first leg? If not, feel free to email me to see if I can help. It is possible that you might be ordering a leg that is booked with another company (as Stray uses other buses for a few routes). In these cases, you have to email them to tell them the date and time you’d like to go soothes can book it for you and put it in your schedule (online).

      Cheers!
      Norbert

  3. I have been e-mailing stray and they said that there is a book of brochures which has the activities available at each stop, but that there is no comprehensive list with prices. Is this supported by your experience? it seems like really poor management and kinda sketchy.

    I am trying to budget appropriately for the max pass (on a 6 month trip so budgeting is essential), but it is really hard with so many unknowns.

    thanks

    1. Hi lele –

      Yes, that’s correct. They don’t state the prices because those are only recommendations of things you can do while traveling with Stray, but those activities are with other companies Stray recommends, so Stray cannot give any pricing on those activities since they don’t have any control over them. What you can do is check each recommended company’s website and check the prices for what you’re interested.

      Trust me, I too care a lot about budgeting, but once I got on the bus at the beginning of the trip, our driver was more than knowledgeable with current prices (since they fluctuate with seasons and demand) and through him we were also able to book several of the activities. Should you want to know an exact price beforehand, just ask Stray through email which companies they recommend for the activities you’re interested, and contact them directly.

      Hope this helps!

  4. Hi! I’ve started a new travel blog written by travellers from all over the world. We are made up of independent wanderers past and present. I am currently writing an article on the best ways to travel in New Zealand. I personally did the Kiwi Experience, but I am in need of a guest blogger to write a piece on the Stray bus. I would love if you could spare some time to sum up your experience above to use in the article – I will give credit and links to your blog of course. Please drop me an email if this is something you might be interested in and I can send you what I’ve written so far. Hopefully this will be the start of a friendship!!

    Hope to speak soon,
    Lauren

  5. Since the pass lasts for 12 months, would you recommend one getting a pass for the whole of NZ and travelling only perhaps one island at a time and returning another time within the 12 month period for the other island?

    Also, I’d like to ask when in winter you travelled with Stray! Thanks 🙂

    1. Hi Sophie –

      Well, that really depends on what you really want to see and what kind of experience you’re looking for (in addition to how long you’re allowed in the country depending on your passport and/or visa). I would do both islands at the same time, time permitting, since you’ll already be there and wouldn’t need to spend money flying back to NZ. But, if you feel that splitting it works better for you, that’s more than possible.

      I was there during August. The south island got pretty cold and snowy while the north island was more bearable.

  6. Hi Norbert,

    Thank you for sharing your experience with Stray especially on the Q pass. However I have even shorter days than yours with only 11 Days to travel around the south. I am still considering should I get it or not? Besides Stray, I’m still exploring whether there I should go with other options.

    1. Hi Rachel –

      If you only have 11 days, I’d recommend contacting someone over at Stray and ask them if it is possible to do the Q with only 11 days. It would be ideal to have an arrival and departure date because buses are scheduled for specific days of the week, that way they could tell you precisely if you can do it or not. I believe, though, that you might, but will need to skip a stop (or two) by arriving there and hopping on the bus leaving right after you arrive.

      There are shorter passes on the south island you could do, if you think that will work best for you. They don’t go as far south, but you get to see some of the most impressive spots in the south island still.

      Hope this helps!

  7. I’ve been reading your blog avidly over the past few days, but I especially appreciated your review of Stray. I bought a tour pass with them and will hopefully be using it later this year. Thank you for your insights.

  8. Hello! You mentioned in your post that there are a few locations you would have liked to stay longer at – could you elaborate on what these locations are? 🙂

  9. Hi! I’ve wanted to take a tour of NZ for ages now but I only have vacation in the Kiwi writer months. I’m a 52 year old solo traveler and usually tour with Intrepid, which has a very wide age range. However, they don’t run tours in winter. Would I feel comfortable being so much older than everyone else on a Stray bus?

    1. Hi Brian – Well, while it’s true that the average age is 20s and 30s, I don’t see why you should feel uncomfortable taking a Stray Bus. The main purpose of Stray is to connect places, with the added bonus of touring a bit along the way. I would still recommend you take it, but it all depends on how you feel about it and your “adventurous spirit.”

      I’ve traveled with Intrepid and G Adventures with travelers of all ages, and so far we’ve all gotten along really well. While on my Stray trip we were all around the same age, I’m sure should a 50 years+ were to be there, we would have had just an equally good trip.

      Hope this helps!

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