Bus travel in NZ is easygoing and well organised, with services transporting you to the far reaches of both islands (including the start/end of various walking tracks)…but it can be expensive, tedious and time-consuming.
New Zealand's main bus company is InterCity (www.intercity.co.nz), which can drive you to just about anywhere on the North and South Islands. Naked Bus has similar routes and remains the main competition. Both bus lines offer fares as low as $1(!). InterCity also has a South Island sightseeing arm called Newmans Coach Lines, travelling between Queenstown, Christchurch and the West Coast glaciers.
Privately run shuttle buses can transport travellers to some trailheads or collect them from the end point of a tramp; advance booking essential.
There are no allocated economy or luxury classes on NZ buses (very democratic), and smoking on the bus is a definite no-no.
Naked Bus has a sleeper class on overnight services between Auckland and Wellington (stopping at Hamilton and Palmerston North) where you can lie flat in a 1.8m-long bed (bring a sleeping bag, pillowcase and maybe earplugs). See http://nakedbus.com/nz/home/sleeper-bus for details.
Over summer (December to February), school holidays and public holidays, book well in advance on popular routes (a week or two ahead if possible). At other times, a day or two ahead is usually fine. The best prices are generally available online, booked a few weeks in advance.
If you’re covering a lot of ground, both InterCity and Naked Bus offer bus passes (respectively, priced by hours and number of trips). This can be cheaper than paying as you go, but do the maths before buying and note that you'll be locked into using one network. Passes are usually valid for 12 months.
On fares other than bus passes, InterCity offers a discount of around 10% for YHA, ISIC, HI, Nomads, BBH or VIP backpacker card holders. Senior discounts only apply for NZ citizens.
Flexipass A hop-on/hop-off InterCity pass, allowing travel to pretty much anywhere in NZ, in any direction, including the Interislander ferry across Cook Strait. The pass is purchased in blocks of travel time: minimum 15 hours ($125), maximum 60 hours ($459). The average cost of each block becomes cheaper the more hours you buy. You can top up the pass if you need more time.
Aotearoa Explorer, Tiki Tour & Island Loop Hop-on/hop-off, fixed-itinerary nationwide passes offered by InterCity. These passes link up tourist hotspots and cost $775 to $1140. Passes with a narrower scope (eg West Coast or Southern Alps) are also offered. See www.intercity.co.nz/bus-pass/travelpass for details.
Naked Passport (www.nakedpassport.com) A Naked Bus pass that allows you to buy trips in blocks of five, which you can add to any time, and book each trip as needed. Five/15/20 trips cost $159/269/439.
InterCity offers six hop-on/hop-off, fixed-itinerary North Island bus passes, from short $125 runs between Auckland and Paihia, to $405 trips from Auckland to Wellington via the big sights in between. See www.intercity.co.nz/bus-pass/travelpass for details.
On the South Island, InterCity offers six hop-on/hop-off, fixed-itinerary passes, from $125 runs along the West Coast between Picton and Queenstown, to a $549 loop via Christchurch, Queenstown and the West Coast glaciers. See www.intercity.co.nz/bus-pass/travelpass for details.
As well as InterCity and Naked Bus, regional shuttle buses fill in the gaps between the smaller towns. Operators include the following (see www.tourism.net.nz/transport/bus-and-coach-services for a complete list), offering regular scheduled services and/or bus tours and charters:
Abel Tasman Travel (www.abeltasmantravel.co.nz) Traverses the roads between Nelson, Motueka, Golden Bay and Abel Tasman National Park.
Atomic Shuttles (www.atomictravel.co.nz) Has services throughout the South Island, including to Christchurch, Dunedin, Invercargill, Picton, Nelson, Greymouth, Hokitika, Queenstown and Wanaka.
Catch-a-Bus South (www.catchabussouth.co.nz) Invercargill and Bluff to Dunedin and Queenstown.
Cook Connection (www.cookconnect.co.nz) Triangulates between Mt Cook, Twizel and Lake Tekapo.
East West Coaches (www.eastwestcoaches.co.nz) Offers a service between Christchurch and Westport via Lewis Pass.
Go Kiwi Shuttles (www.go-kiwi.co.nz) Links Auckland with Whitianga on the Coromandel Peninsula daily.
Hanmer Connection (www.hanmerconnection.co.nz) Daily services between Hanmer Springs and Christchurch.
Headfirst Travel (www.travelheadfirst.com) Does a loop from Rotorua to Waitomo (with an option to finish in Auckland).
Manabus (www.manabus.com) Runs in both directions daily between Auckland and Wellington via Hamilton, Rotorua, Taupo and Palmerston North. Also runs to Tauranga, Paihia and Napier. Some services operated by Naked Bus.
Tracknet (www.tracknet.net) Summer track transport (Milford, Hollyford, Routeburn, Kepler) with Queenstown, Te Anau and Invercargill connections.
Trek Express (www.trekexpress.co.nz) Shuttle services to all tramping tracks in the top half of the South Island (eg Heaphy, Abel Tasman, Old Ghost Road).
West Coast Shuttle (www.westcoastshuttle.co.nz) Daily bus from Greymouth to Christchurch and back.
Clock up some kilometres with like-minded fellow travellers. The following operators run fixed-itinerary bus tours, nationwide or on the North or South Islands. Accommodation, meals and hop-on/hop-off flexibility are often included. Styles vary from activity-focused itineraries through to hangover-mandatory backpacker buses.
Adventure Tours New Zealand (www.adventuretours.com.au/new-zealand) Four 11- to 22-day NZ tours of North or South Island, or both.
Bottom Bus (www.travelheadfirst.com/local-legends/bottom-bus) South Island nether-region tours ex-Dunedin, Invercargill and Queenstown.
Flying Kiwi (www.flyingkiwi.com) Good-fun, activity-based trips around NZ with camping and cabin accommodation from a few days to a few weeks.
Haka Tours (www.hakatours.com) Three- to 24-day tours with adventure, snow or mountain-biking themes.
Kirra Tours (www.kirratours.co.nz) Upmarket coach tours (graded 'Classic' or 'Platinum' by price) from an operator with 50 years in the business.
Kiwi Experience (www.kiwiexperience.com) A major hop-on/hop-off player with eco-friendly credentials. Myriad tours cover the length and breadth of NZ.
Stray Travel (www.straytravel.com) A wide range of flexible hop-on/hop-off passes and tours.