The plethora of transport options available in New Zealand is almost overwhelming to the person that has just begun researching a trip there. In fact, there are no less than eight categories that these options can fall under. These categories are listed and described below.
This is by far the quickest way to get around New Zealand, but it is also one of the more expensive options. The worst part of air travel, in my opinion, is the fact that you completely miss large portions of the country that you would at least get to see fleetingly on other modes of transport. That said, air travel definitely has its benefits. My international flight (like most not originating in Australia) landed in Auckland, but I only intended to travel the South Island; therefore, a flight from Auckland to Christchurch was very handy.
All of the major cities have airports that are serviced daily by at least Air New Zealand, but anything outside of Auckland, Wellington, and Christchurch is more expensive to fly into--especially Queenstown! It's often hundreds of dollars cheaper to fly to Christchurch and rent a car for a week than it is to fly directly to Queenstown. The smaller towns sometimes have Air New Zealand outposts as well; for instance, Hokitika flies a little 20-seater to Christchurch.
Fortunately, Virgin Blue has just started flying between Auckland, Wellington, and Christchurch. While they don't often offer the $8 tickets that were available when they first launched services, they will still provide much-needed competition for Air New Zealand and Qantas and will hopefully bring fares down. I got lucky and found an $80 one-way red e-deal (Qantas special) ticket from AKL-CHC; these tickets often cost around $120.
This was my chosen mode of transport throughout the South Island. While it was certainly less convenient than having my own car at my disposal, it was by far the cheaper option; I didn't have to pay for a car, insurance, registration, or skyrocketing fuel prices! And, while the schedules didn't always sync with the times I wanted to leave/arrive in different places, the extra time that I had to allot allowed me to explore many places much more in depth than if I had had the option to jump in a car and drive to the next big thing.
There are four main bus services, a seat reseller, and quite a few smaller bus lines that operate within the South Island. The first and most expansive network is Intercity/Newmans. These two bus lines are separate entities, but you can book spots on either using the Intercity website. Intercity is the commuter bus line for NZ, like Greyhound is for the US, but I found it to be considerably more reliable. Since they use Greyhound-sized coaches, they generally have the most space per route. Their pricing is on a tiered system; if you book early enough, you can get "web savers," which are often 50% or less of the normal adult price; otherwise, there are student, YHA/VIP member, senior, and child tickets, just to name a few. Intercity also has a Flexi-Pass, which you can buy with a certain number of hours for all of your travels throughout NZ. The more hours you buy, the cheaper each hour becomes. If you buy 5 hours, they cost $11/hour; once you work your way up to 60, you're only paying about $9.75/hour. However, I found that buying web saver tickets was actually cheaper than using a Flexi-Pass; this allowed me to not feel locked in to only using Intercity as well. The main advantage of the Flexi-Pass is that it allows you to fly by the seat of your pants and book the day before you travel, while I often booked tickets about a week in advance.
Intercity Coachlines take their job of getting people around the island safely very seriously. If you miss a bus in a town, they will probably just mark you as a no-show; however, I found myself reported missing when I missed the bus (and again failed to show the following day) at the head of the Copland Track! So, I would recommend that, for whatever bus line you travel, if you miss a bus from a remote area you should let them know that you've made it back safe and sound, or else a full-scale search might be launched for you.
Atomic Shuttles is the second largest bus line on the South Island. Since they concentrate their services on this, more lucrative, island, they have a few more routes than Intercity--most notably, the road from Christchurch-Greymouth through Arthur's Pass. Unlike Intercity, Atomic doesn't have a tiered pricing schedule or specials if you book ahead of time--you get the price that is marked in their fare table. Even though they have a tendency to be a bit more expensive, your money won't be badly spent; Atomic, like Intercity, is very reliable and I don't recall any bus departing anything other than on time (although it does happen!). Also, they have well-kept buses that often have DVD players; on one ride between Queenstown and Christchurch, we got to watch three movies! Atomic also has their own version of the Flexi-Pass, called the U-Choose Pass. This pass will get you a minimum of 10 hours on Atomic buses for $9/hour (which is cheaper than the Intercity rate). Again, you should think before buying this pass as it locks you into using one bus line (at least for the number of hours you've purchased).
The Southern Link K Bus runs smaller buses on most of the major routes around the South Island, although there are some notable omissions (like the West Coast). I never booked a ticket on the K Bus, even though I ended up riding on their buses quite often, since nakedbus.com, which I have described below, resells their seats. The K Buses, as I've mentioned, are smaller and a bit less comfortable; most importantly, I found that they rarely ran on time. I rode on one bus that was nearly 2 hours late to pick me up...but I couldn't complain much, since I only paid $1 for the ticket (again, through nakedbus.com).
Tracknet operates in the southern regions of the South Island, from the West Coast route, through Fiordland, to Invercargill. True to its name, it offers transport to many of the tracks in the region, including the Routeburn, the Milford and the Kepler. The DOC seats sold online for the Milford Track are actually on a Milford Sound-bound Tracknet bus as well. They sell their seats at a set price noted on their website, but nakedbus.com also resells their seats, meaning it is possible to find them for a substantially reduced price. I found that Tracknet was much more on-time than the Southern Link K Bus in the north.
Nakedbus, also known as nakedbus.com, is, as I've mentioned many times, a seat reseller (although on their website, they show pictures of nakedbus buses, which I've never actually seen). Nakedbus.com has made its name by selling $1 tickets on nearly every route they offer. It's obvious to wonder how in the world they could make any profit at all by selling tickets for $1. They certainly don't sell all of their tickets for this price--only the first ticket on each route per day. So, if someone's bought a ticket from Picton to Nelson for $1, you won't be able to buy a $1 ticket for Picton-Nelson or any of the subroutes, like Blenheim-Nelson. Each ticket sold after this goes up slightly in price, so the second ticket costs around $7, the next around $15, etc. This is why it pays to book early; I found that if I looked about 2 weeks in advance on routes I knew I would cover, the $1 ticket was still available. And, if you realize you don't want to travel that route any more, you only lose $1 (although nakedbus does offer the ability to change your ticket for a small fee plus the difference in fares). Also, as I've mentioned above, you're paying a fraction of what it normally costs to travel, and this often means added inconvenience. Nakedbus only sells tickets on one or two services per day (even if K Bus/Tracknet offer more than this), so you'll often find yourself traveling at times that don't quite suit your schedule; also, I wouldn't expect the buses to always be on time!
This entry is continued in Transport, Part 2.