This entry is a continuation of my Transport, Part 1 entry, which described air and bus travel within New Zealand. There are quite a few more options for transport within New Zealand described below.
Organized Bus Travel
By "organized bus travel," I mean buying tickets on a bus line that organizes all transport, accommodation, and activities for the duration of your stay in New Zealand. There are three major companies that do this in New Zealand: Kiwi Experience, Magic Bus, and Stray Bus. If you have limited time in the country or don't want to bother with the hassle of planning every next move, these buses are for you. All you have to do is pick which pass you would like--essentially, whether you'd like to travel the North Island, the South Island, or both--and everything else is sorted out for you.
However, as the saying goes, things that seem too good to be true normally are. These buses cater to mainstream tastes and therefore miss many of the destinations that are "off the beaten track." If you want to see any of these places that your itinerary misses, you have to plan it all yourself. I met many travelers that were having extreme headaches with this; many were just trying to figure out how to fit a hike in and then getting back to a place that the Kiwi/Magic/Stray Bus would pick them up and were having serious problems doing so. Another problem that arises with these buses that I heard about many a time is how crowded they are. One group of Irish guys on the bus to Fox Glacier had literally just abandoned the $900 they paid for their Kiwi Experience tickets because they called up in Nelson trying to get a bus down the West Coast and were told that the next available bus was in a week and a half!
Also, being on a planned itinerary in a bus means you're grouped together with the same people for the entirety of your stay in NZ. This is okay if you get along with everyone...but does this always happen? No. That was the great thing about independent travel--I could stick with people I liked if I wanted to, but I could also easily get away from people that drove me up the wall!
The Kiwi/Magic/Stray buses tend to cater to a certain kind of traveler as well. I'll be kind and not write what the common conception is, since I met quite a few nice people that were traveling with these bus lines (although the vast majority of the people I met had gone out of their way to book into hostels away from their buses--you are allowed to do this, apparently--and spent much of their time lamenting having ever bought their bus ticket in the first place).
Let's just say that many BBH hostels point out that they are NOT where the "party buses" book in. I know that any hostel that was a known Kiwi Experience stop was a hostel I avoided at all costs (especially Base Backpackers). Sometimes you can't avoid it--say, when there's only one hostel in all of Fox Glacier--but then, that's where I had a drunken girl try to climb in my window at 3am...
The main mode of transport across the Cook Strait, which separates the North and South Islands, is the ferry. There are two choices here: the Interislander and BlueBridge.
I wrote a short review of the Interislander Ferry after my previous trip to New Zealand in 2005. The Lynx, the catamaran that we rode on, is no longer in service; instead, there are three traditional ferries to choose from, all of which take about 3 hours to make the trip between Wellington and Picton. Tickets on this line cost as low as $52 one-way if you book ahead and grab the "web saver" fare; if you book closer to the date, your ticket could cost as much as $72. Vehicles are also allowed on all ferries, but this service is also quite expensive; the cheapest web saver for 1 person and their vehicle is $165.
BlueBridge seems to me to be a bit cheaper, although they have not posted their fares for the high season yet. In low season, you can travel across the Cook Strait for as little as $35, although if you add a vehicle the price evens out with the Interislander. Bluebridge also does not have a tiered pricing system based on when you book, so you'll get the same price whether you book months or hours ahead.
People also choose to fly across the Cook Strait (although the more adventurous fly part of the way and then skydive the rest)--however, this means missing the scenic beauty of the Marlborough Sounds, which the ferry traverses for about half of its trip. These are definitely a must-see and if you're not planning to do a hike in the region, the ferry is the best vantage point you'll get!
TranzScenic operates three passenger rail lines within New Zealand: the Overlander, which travels from Auckland to Wellington, the TranzCoastal, which travels from Picton to Christchurch, and the popular TranzAlpine, which travels from Christchurch to Greymouth. All of these services are more expensive than riding on the equivalent bus route (the cheapest train ticket from Auckland to Wellington, for example, is $46, while the cheapest bus ticket is $10). A low season ticket from Picton to Christchurch will cost you upwards of $100, and the TranzAlpine, being the most popular and the most scenic, will cost nearly $150 in the peak of high season--for one way! You can get much better deals during the winter--with an adult return on the TranzAlpine costing a measly $114--but a bus is still the much cheaper option.
Trains do have their benefits though. First of all, you can get up and walk around as much as you like. There's a windowless observation car where you can jostle all of the other snap-happy riders for that perfect spot to take a picture of the Southern Alps. There's also a concessions car where you can buy overpriced food and drinks (although you can bring your own as well). However, after having ridden the TranzAlpine, I think I'd rather just take a bus/car and stop an extra night in Arthur's Pass with the money I saved!
This entry is continued in Transport, Part 3.