Why You Should Travel with Topdeck (My Topdeck Experience - Kiwi Encounter - New Zealand)
Updated: Dec 3, 2019
This article is not sponsored by or affiliated with Topdeck, and all opinions and experiences are entirely my own.
I dedicate this article to the phenomenal #Topdiiiiiick squad with whom I was blessed to travel.
Back in January of 2018, I embarked on a month-long trip around New Zealand (and you can find my highlights here and here!). While I spent the first half of this trip travelling solo or staying with family, I joined a Topdeck tour for the final two weeks to tick off the most important places as efficiently as possible.
I planned to do some sort of review of my trip when I came home. That was nineteen months ago, so this is long overdue!
Before I decided to join a tour, and to travel with Topdeck specifically, I did a fair amount of research to figure out what would suit me best, and I wanted to share my experiences in the hope that other prospective travellers will find it useful!
I’ve organised my review into five sections in order to help you find the info you need!
Would I Recommend Topdeck?
Whether you’re thinking about joining a group tour, trying to choose a company, or want an insight into what travelling with Topdeck in New Zealand was like, this post should help you out!
Please feel free to comment or DM me with any other questions you have!
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Which Topdeck tour did I join?
I booked a place on Topdeck’s Kiwi Encounter tour – a 16-day long tour which started in Christchurch and ended in Auckland (you can also do this tour in reverse). Our main stopping points included Milford Sound, Queenstown, Christchurch, Nelson, Kaikoura, Wellington, Tongariro, Rotorua, and Auckland.
Why did I choose Topdeck over other tour companies?
One of my biggest reasons for choosing Topdeck in particular was because they were the only tour company (that I had considered) whose tours included a day in Tongariro to hike the Tongariro Alpine Crossing (if you so wished). This hike was one of the things I knew I had to do when visiting New Zealand, so this kind of sealed the deal for me.
This trip also included people on the 5-day Sweet As North, 7-day Southern Explorer, 11-day Pure Adrenalin, and the 19-day Grand Kiwi tours, so people joined and left at different points during the trip. The only place I missed out on visiting by not booking the 19-day trip was the Bay of Islands.
Travelling from Christchurch, everyone was new on the day I started my tour, which I appreciated. If you decide to travel from the north, note that the start point is in the Bay of Islands – i.e., if you join in Auckland, it’s likely you’ll be joining a group that has already been travelling together for a few days.
Who was I travelling with? Where was everyone from?
My tour group included around 45 people, plus Lance – our tour leader – and Chris – our driver.
I was 24 when I went travelling and was genuinely concerned that I would be the oldest on tour (Topdeck tours are open to anyone between 18 and 39), but I was very comfortably somewhere in the middle, actually! Our group spanned the entire age range, with someone who had turned 18 only a couple of months earlier, and someone who would be turning 40 later that year!
My group was mostly made up of Aussies, and I was one of three Brits. We also had a couple of Kiwis, two Canadians, one American, one Italian, one Mexican, one Swiss, and two Germans – I think that covered everyone!
Pros / Trip Highlights
The people I met
When I joined my tour, I was perfectly comfortable with the idea that I wouldn’t make friends. I like my own company, had been travelling on my own already, and was merely using the tour to simplify my travel.
Instead, I made friends who I know I’ll keep for life.
If you’d told me before tour that – within 16 days – I would have formed these kinds of friendships, I’d never have believed you. But it honestly just happens! Unless you really make an effort to isolate and exclude yourself, you’re going to become part of a crazy Topdeck family.
Travelling with Topdeck allowed me to meet people from all over the world with whom I had something in common. In our group we had a huge mix of ages, nationalities, personalities, languages, professions, experiences, and stories, but we had found ourselves travelling together because we had chosen to do so. I would be massively surprised if you joined a tour and couldn’t find someone you really connected with.
Specifically because of the people I was travelling with, I learned a few words of Swiss-German, made a huge step in recovering from a loss, and was taught some of my now-favourite card/drinking games! Since then I’ve caught up with two of my tour buddies – Sanj on his visit to London, and Katja during my trip to Switzerland!
We shared once-in-a-lifetime opportunities, drunken nights and inevitable hangovers, some tears, and so much laughter, and my experiences are so much more precious to me because of the people I shared them with.
Amazing trip leaders
Lance and Chris were our tour leader and driver, Chris driving Maxine (our lovely tour bus) and Lance on the mic. Maybe we just got lucky, but I don’t think you could have found a better duo. They were both super lovely, down to earth dudes, and always so much fun to be around. I like to hope they represent the general standard of Topdeck leaders.
I’ve seen a number of tour reviews where people complained about spending so much time on the bus, which I can understand, but the time we spent on the road is far from being a negative part of my experience. Lance always found the best playlists to play, and there were regular singalongs every day, which I promise weren’t as cringey as they sound!
Lance would also pop up throughout our journey to give us relevant info – often enough to feel like we were we being given a comprehensive overview of where we were and what we were seeing, but not so often that it was annoying. A tour’s leader can massively affect how enjoyable it is, but Lance added so much value to my experience in New Zealand, and his genuine enthusiasm always shone through.
In addition to being kept well informed throughout our trip, Lance and Chris were able to give us the best recommendations for food/drink/hikes/karaoke etc everywhere we went, as well as finding us some amazing Topdeck deals. In terms of good shouts on their part, Queenstown stands out to me:
If you’ve heard of Queenstown, you’ve almost definitely heard of Fergburger, the most legendary burger joint in the southern hemisphere (probably). If you don’t fancy waiting in an hour-long line for a burger (that’s not an exaggeration), Devil Burger, just a few streets away, is apparently just as good but without the excessive queues! I can’t compare the two, but Devil Burger was good enough for me!
As Topdeckers, we were able to visit one of Queenstown’s ice bars with 50% off the entry price, a free shot, and a free cocktail – can’t complain!
Added extras along the way
On some days, we spent a significant length of time on the road, but even our longest trips were broken up with stops along the way.
Sometimes these purely gave us the chance to go and grab some food, but more often than not we just made a quick stop to see a good view, or hike a short way to a lake or waterfall. On our drive to Queenstown, for example, we stopped off at Thunder Creek Falls, and at the Roaring Meg lookout point just outside the town.
My favourite stops were en route from Lake Ohau to Christchurch, when we passed Lake Pukaki and Lake Tekapo. The ten or so minutes I had to sit on the shores of Lake Pukaki, with an unobscured view of Mount Cook, were enough for me to decide that this was my favourite spot on the planet. (It sounds dramatic, but your most pivotal experiences don’t always occur over a significant length of time.)
Some of these stops were better than others, but they only provided me with more opportunities to marvel at this gorgeous country, and I know I wouldn’t have seen most of these places if I’d been travelling around on my own.
Unique experiences and opportunities
While a lot of the things offered by Topdeck aren’t exclusively “Topdeck activities”, I know there are loads of things I did on tour that I wouldn’t have even considered doing on a trip of my own.
On tour I took a helicopter flight up to the top of the Franz Josef Glacier, with views over the whole of Fiordland, went dolphin (and orca!) watching in Kaikoura, experienced the Shotover Jet, upside-down ziplining, and the luge (five times!) while I was in Queenstown, and went sea kayaking in Abel Tasman National Park. I could have opted to do these things on a solo trip, but I know I wouldn’t have, and I appreciated them all so much more because I had friends doing them with me.
They might not be the #1 reason you choose a tour, but you’ll look back and be so glad you had the chance to do these things!
Queenstown & Tongariro
In terms of the places I enjoyed visiting most on tour, Queenstown and Tongariro have got to be my top two.
Queenstown was the second stop we made on tour, but we stayed there for three nights, which was the longest we spent in any one place. There is SO much to do in Queenstown, especially if you’re a thrill-seeking traveller, and the town itself is absolutely charming. While in Queenstown I had a Devil Burger, watched the sunset over Lake Wakatipu, rode the luge five times, zip lined upside down, rode in a jet boat through the Shotover Canyon, visited the botanical gardens, did karaoke, experienced my first ice bar, drank some amazing cocktails, drank some dreadful cocktails, and stayed out far too late. I have no idea how I achieved all of that in under four days, and I would have gladly stayed for twice as long!
As I mentioned earlier, Tongariro was one of my deal-breaking locations, as I was desperate to hike the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, and most of the tours I found didn’t include it. With Topdeck we stayed in Tongariro for two nights in order to make an early start on the hike and to recover that evening. Not everyone did the hike, but the vast majority did, so I’m honestly surprised it’s such a rare tour inclusion. In the end, the weather was dreadful and we had almost zero visibility for the entire length of the crossing which was a bit disappointing, but I’m still glad we had the chance to give it a go.
Staying in a Marae
Another highlight I found to be - honestly - quite moving was spending the night at a Maori Marae in Rotorua. Learning about Maori culture and visiting Maraes and villages is a pretty common inclusion in a lot of New Zealand tours, but I wonder if I would have had such a memorable experience with another company.
I felt a bit nervous when we arrived at the Marae - essentially we were entering someone’s home, and there were lots of rites and rituals I was worried about messing up! Once we’d all settled in, however, it became one of my favourite nights in New Zealand.
It was super interesting to learn about Maori history and their culture, their beliefs and their traditions. The family who were most involved in entertaining us were so friendly and down to earth, and such amazing hosts too! Half of our group learned a haka, and the other half learned a poi dance (another traditional Maori dance) which was fun (and a lot harder than I expected!), and we had the most amazing dinner with everyone. They went out of their way to make sure my vegan demands were met, and I had to share with some other hungry Topdeckers because there was too much for me!
I think a lot of us were a bit concerned about how all of us sleeping in one room was going to work…. The wharenui, or the meeting house of a Marae, is a big room where pictures of the family’s ancestors are displayed. All fifty(ish) of us had plenty of room to sleep; I am a very heavy sleeper, but I don’t think anyone was kept awake by anyone else!
As our tour travelled northwards, the night at the Marae was one of the final things we did. I definitely appreciated it more as a result, feeling well acquainted and comfortable around everyone by that point. (If you start your tour in Auckland, your Marae experience might be on night 3 or 4.)
I wanted this to be a balanced review including the less amazing parts of my tour, but I really struggled to think of any! These next points are SO minor because they were all I could think of, but thought they *might* be worth mentioning.
A short stay in Wellington
The ONE thing I might suggest could be improved on future tours would be spending a bit more time in Wellington. We rocked up to the capital city in the early evening, and had left by lunchtime the next day. My memories of Wellington include a very blurry night at Danger Danger, a bar in the city, and twiddling my thumbs whilst feeling incredibly hungover the next day.
I’m not at all complaining about the time we did have in Wellington, but I know I would have appreciated a bit longer - at least one full day to fully explore the city. Had I known we could fit in more of Wellington that day, I don’t think I’d have let myself be hungover either!
Joining the tour after the start date
This didn’t concern me in particular, but might affect someone else’s choice of tour.
As I said earlier, a number of New Zealand tours made up the route we took overall, with tours of seven, eleven, sixteen, and nineteen days. This meant at least six people joined our group after we had already been travelling together for a while.
Ultimately, I thought all of our “new people” became part of the group really quickly, and at no time did I think any of them were struggling to fit in, or were overwhelmed by joining an already-established group.
Saying that, I know I personally would have been nervous to join the group later into the tour, and would far rather join at the start and leave before the end, which is what I was doing anyway. This would just be something to consider when choosing the specific tour you join.
The pace of the trip
After the first six days of our tour, which were super busy, I felt like the pace of the trip dropped, particularly while we were in Nelson, Christchurch and Kaikoura. Honestly this was no bad thing after a few crazy days in Queenstown, but I remember feeling like our later arrivals joined during a less exciting part of the trip.
We almost killed Maxine (our beloved bus).
It was HOT while we travelled around South Island, and - on a 34°C+ day, Maxine nearly snuffed it and completely overheated. She had become a sauna on wheels, even with the best air con, and there was one occasion Chris decided we needed to make an unscheduled stop.
This could have been a rubbish afternoon, but Lance knew of a good place to stop which was shady, and had a stream running through it where most people ended up going for a swim. Obviously, Maxine’s untimely demise was nobody’s fault, and was actually handled very well - just something to keep in mind when you head out on a bus-dependent trip!
A note for the vegans
Again, a really minor complaint, but there was one day in particular where we made a stop to do some crayfish tasting, and one to do some wine tasting. The majority of Topdeckers will have no issues with this, but my fellow vegan travellers are in for a quieter day, as neither crayfish nor wine is vegan! I wasn’t at all sore about this, and had a nice day regardless, but I would advise anyone in the same position to bring snacks with them and enjoy the unlimited tap water at the winery!
There were a few minor concerns I had before setting out on tour, which I can obviously now clear up for the benefit of prospective Topdeckers! I also asked you in my instagram story if you had any questions about tour life yourself.
(Obviously I can only speak for Topdeck and my tour in particular, but I would like to hope most tours are similar!)
What will the accommodation be like?
This is always something I worry about before a trip where I haven’t had full control over the planning!
The accommodation in New Zealand used by Topdeck is perfectly decent. If you’re looking for five star luxury, then tour life probably isn’t for you, but if all you want is a comfy bed, a bathroom with a decent shower, and functioning wifi then you will be fine.
We stayed in a mixture of places - hostels, hotels, campgrounds (where we had a proper room and bathroom, mind you!), and the Marae - and there weren’t any I was dying to get out of!
Rooms are assigned by gender, so I was bunking with between one and three other girls on tour, with the exception of our Marae stay, where the whole tour group slept in one room! You can also pay a little bit extra for a room of your own every night (again, with the exception of the Marae). Honestly I would say this isn’t worth the money - unless you aren’t planning to socialise whatsoever - as you will make friends within the first day, and will enjoy the time you get to spend with your room buddies!
For the majority of our trip we stayed in ensuite rooms (Queenstown, Te Anau, Christchurch, Nelson, Kaikoura, Wellington and Rotorua), and other times we had shared bathrooms (Fox Glacier, Lake Ohau, Tongariro, and the Marae), but I never encountered any bathroom-related issues.
Is it easy to be vegan while on tour in New Zealand?
In short, yes. I never had any issue finding things to eat, or being catered for. I’m always mindful while I’m travelling that vegan food is not easy to come by in some places, so I always have some emergency snacks with me just in case.
When Topdeck organised meals (some breakfasts and dinners) there was always a vegan option available, and there was plenty of choice when I bought food myself in supermarkets.
Of course, New Zealand food isn’t too dissimilar from that in the UK, and all packaging is in English which makes things more straightforward. This is definitely something to think about in advance of your trip, though.
Is every day full on or are some days busier than others?
There was a huge variety in how busy you are each day. There was always something to do, but you could largely make the trip your own. Of course, there were travel-heavy days and early mornings to catch the bus, but we had a fair few bus-free days, and mornings when you could sleep in.
Regardless, I always felt like there was something to do, but there was plenty of room to make your days as busy as possible, or do the bare minimum. Pretty much all the activities were optional (even the ones “included” in the tour - e.g. the bike ride in Arrowtown, which I happily passed on), and Chris and Lance were very receptive to everyone’s personal needs.
With New Zealand in particular (it might be the same elsewhere), there were LOADS of opportunities to swim - I’d say almost every day. If that’s your thing then you have plenty of chances to do so!
Are there opportunities to do laundry on tour?
Unless your trip is short, you’ll likely want to do laundry at some point during the tour. This was absolutely no problem in New Zealand.
You can use the Topdeck app, which allows you to update your booking, add dietary requirements, rate the places you’ve been etc, and includes a list of all the accommodation that provides laundry facilities, where they are, and how much it costs. At the start of my tour, I was able to plan in advance where I would want/need to do laundry, and your tour leader should remind you throughout your trip about what is offered at each place you stay.
I did laundry on the quieter days/evenings we had, and probably could have travelled with about half as many clothes!
Would I Recommend Topdeck?
To put it simply, yes.
I was hugely impressed with my Topdeck experience, in every aspect. The tour sounded good on the website, and I'm generally sceptical about these things, but they exceeded every one of my expectations by a significant margin.
Value for money
I was asked a few times about whether I thought the trip was good value money-wise. As of September 1, 2019, the price of the tour I chose is £1,849, although I paid £1,512 for a tour in January 2018. I am dreadful with money and budgeting etc, but I do believe this was good value for money.
The amount paid to Topdeck includes all your accommodation for fifteen nights, a decent number of meals (22 in total - 15 breakfasts, 2 lunches, 5 dinners), all of your coach transport (with air con, and wifi that worked most of the time!), your two amazing trip leaders, and a whole range of activities. (The trip itinerary has been modified since I was in NZ, but not significantly.)
I haven't worked out exactly how much I might have spent had I tried to do a similar trip on my own, but I would have struggled to cover everything provided by Topdeck for the same price. Looking at accommodation alone, I stayed in two other places (a hotel in Auckland and a motel in Christchurch) during my trip, averaging £95 per night. Assuming this is a reasonable indicator of what I would have paid if organising a trip of the same length, fifteen nights' accommodation would cost around £1,425. That price is before any food, transport, or activities have been factored in.
I've not looked in too much depth at what other transport I might have used, but there isn't a huge number of alternatives, save for hiring a car and driving yourself (which would be WAY more expensive). For a trip of over two weeks, Topdeck's price is honestly a bargain.
More than anything, Topdeck are experts at providing you with experiences you will remember for the rest of your life. I feel very cliché using the phrase "you can't put a price on experiences/friendship blah blah" but it's honestly true.
I'm very happy to pay for convenience, but I truly believe I would have paid more to organise a less convenient, or certainly less straightforward trip of my own. I LOVE planning trips, but I did enjoy having all the tricky details sorted for me, and all I needed to do was turn up.
Thanks to the amazing experience I had with Topdeck, I have had an amazing first taste of group tours. I am certainly open to travelling with other tour companies, who perhaps organise different sorts of trips in different locations, but I can guarantee I will be booking another trip with Topdeck before my travelling days are over. 10/10 would recommend to a friend.
Whew - another LONG article! This is what happens when I write about stuff I truly love! Thank you and congrats for making it to the end! <3
I'd love to hear about your Topdeck experiences, too! I hope (and expect) they are as positive as mine!
As always, comments, likes and shares are much appreciated! Feel free to pass this article on to any of your friends who have been considering going on tour too!
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