The Backpacker Express: Hop-on/Hop-off buses

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Kick-in-the-pants competitors to traditional intercity motor coach tours, these upstarts from Ontario to Auckland are geared to the young and budget-minded

Imagine, if you will, a bright and shiny bus full of young backpackers from all over the globe sailing through the Australian Outback on an air-conditioned shoestring, feasting on Foster's and yeasty Vegemite sandwiches to the pounding beat of a rockin' sound track. It's not a scene from the popular Aussie road movie The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, but just another day on the Oz Experience, one of the first bus lines in history to offer "hop-on/hop-off" service--a subset of the so-called "backpacker bus" phenomenon that is changing the face (or at least one of the cheekbones) of budget travel.

What they are 

An offbeat (sometimes downright wacky) cross between a Eurail train pass, an organized tour, and a Greyhound intercity coach, the hop-on/hop-off bus basically works like this: you buy a ticket from Point A to Point B, which entitles you to make as many stops as you please along the way-dally to your heart's content--then simply hop the next bus onward when you're good and ready. Flexibility like this, unthinkable in the byzantine airline world, means that footloose travelers can cover more ground than ever before at a fraction of the price-and with a lot more fun, thanks to the congenial company of like-minded dudes and dudettes (mostly well under 30, single, and looking to party). The drivers, who act simultaneously as tour guides, den mothers, hostel bookers, and all-around smart alecks, are handpicked, licensed, and generally responsible; their presence reassures parents who might be less than eager to let their young ones saunter off on a totally unescorted adventure.

"It's a tour and it's a party," observes David Barish, publisher of Bakpak Travelers Guide, and the atmosphere is certainly a draw for the right kind of person. Others, like 33-year-old Prisca Demolli of Verona, Italy, find that it's "a bore, and there's way too much beer involved." Still, it's hard to argue with prices like US $199 on Oz Experience for a journey from Sydney to Cairns--a minimum of nine days, with plenty of stops for sight-seeing, bush walks, wineries, sheep stations (ranches), even petting zoos. By comparison, Greyhound Pioneer (unrelated to America's own Greyhound) charges $139 for a very standard ride between the two cities--a bit cheaper, yes, but no bells and whistles (and a lot less rowdiness).

Over the past decade, a growing handful of hop-on/off bus lines have taken root around the globe, especially in former British colonies like New Zealand, South Africa, Canada, and of course Australia. A few brave attempts (The ANT, US Bus, and AmeriBus) have recently been made within our own borders, but all have gone belly-up due to factors including the vast size of the United States and the different mentality and expectations of our younger travelers. Elsewhere, though, this kind of ultraflexible service is, well, hopping. Young or old, then, or anyone planning extensive travel to certain parts of the globe, would do well to look into the outfits below, directly or through American travel agencies such as Council Travel (800/226-8624) or STA Travel (800/777-0112).

New Zealand

At the ripe old age of 11, the Kiwi Experience is the granddaddy of the hop-on/hop-off movement. The groundbreaking formula of cheap, flexible service and perky staff proved so popular that by 1993, the wild and crazy guys who founded the company expanded next door into Australia. Today they offer a plethora of cutely named passes throughout this Colorado-size country; the "Southern Roundup," for example, takes in South Island sights both on and off the beaten track (Christchurch, Queenstown, wilderness stopovers) for US $188 ($179 with an ISIC student card or a card from a hostelling organization like YHA or VIP; about $10 more if bought in New Zealand). To do both islands in depth, with some three dozen stops along the way, the "Whole Kit & Caboodle" costs just US $483 ($459 with discounts; about $24 more if bought locally). Buses run daily January through March and at least four times a week otherwise. 170 Parnell Rd., Parnell, Auckland; tel. 011-61-9/366-9830, fax 366-1374; kiwiexperience.com.

Australia

One of the best budget ways to grasp the vast and often stark beauty of the land Down Under is from the back of an Oz Experience bus, a vehicle much more plush than you'd expect (no toilets on board, though, and it can be as long as three hours between stops). Still, the cheeky patter of the driver/guide will keep you amused (otherwise, bring earplugs). The oddly named "Bruce Ex: Syd" is the most popular route, running from Sydney to Cairns (home of the Great Barrier Reef), with four weekly departures (more in high season); it takes at least nine days to complete and costs only US $207 for a six-month pass with unlimited stops (ten bucks cheaper with YHA or VIP discounts). Another great route, the "Grouse," hits all the tourist faves, starting in Sydney and passing through delightful Melbourne on the way to Alice Springs (near world-famous Ayers Rock), then flying on to Cairns for the finale. The cost here is US $535 ($509 with discounts)--and that's including the plane flight. Kings Cross & Darlinghurst Rds., Kings Cross, Sydney; tel. 011-61-2/9368-1766, fax 9368-0908; ozexperience.com.

Another well-established company, The Wayward Bus (tel. 011-61-8/8232-6646, fax 8232-1455; waywardbus.com.au) operates many routes including the "Face the Outback" trip from Adelaide to Alice Springs and surroundings.

South Africa

It's no big surprise that hop-on/hop-off should also be popular in the other land "down under," considering that it blends the flora, fauna, and scenery of Africa with the comforts of a "first-world" country--all at spectacular prices, thanks to a favorable exchange rate and lower cost of living. The Baz Bus, founded in late 1995, runs 22-passenger coaches between Cape Town and Johannesburg along the coast at least four times a week by way of Northern Drakensberg or the tiny kingdom of Swaziland, and from Johannesburg on to Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe. Buses run in both directions, and there is also shuttle service from Swaziland to Maputo, capital of Mozambique, and from Victoria Falls to Livingstone, across the border in Zambia, a free shuttle is operated by a local hostel. Fares range from US $180 (one-way, Cape Town to Johannesburg via Northern Drakensberg; round-trip $315) to a truly cheap $260 (one-way, Cape Town to Victoria Falls via Swaziland; $420 round trip) and you can take as long as you want-three months or three years--to complete the journey. 8 Rosedene Rd., Sea Point, Cape Town; tel. 011-27-21/439-2323, fax 439-2343; bazbus.com.

Europe

The continent of Europe is so wide, mein Herr, and these days the cheapest way to cross it (up and down or side to side) is Busabout, a London-based network now in its third season and serving more than 60 of the most popular cities, from Stockholm down to M laga. Interestingly, London (being off the continent) is considered an "add-on" (US $51 for holders of the 15-day pass); similar supplemental deals let you visit Greece, Eastern Europe, even Turkey and Morocco. Passes range from 15 travel days in a two-month period ($259) or 30 days in a four-month period ($489) to an unlimited season pass (mid-April through October) for $1,109 (by contrast, a three-month youth Eurail pass costs $1,089 for people under 26). Service along most main routes runs every other day during summer months and every eighth day in Scandinavia. Guaranteed accommodations at selected hostels, bungalows, hotels, and pensions available in every city for $13-$23 a night. 258 Vauxhall Bridge Rd., London; tel. 011-44-171/950-1661, fax 950- 1662; busabout.com.

There are also several local outfits, most notably Haggis Backpackers (tel. 011-44-131/557-9393, fax 558-1177), covering some 600 miles of Scottish highlands, and Turkey's Fez Travel (tel. 011-90-212/516-9024, fax 518-5085), serving Istanbul, Cappadocia, and points in between.

Canada

The Great White North currently boasts the only true hop-on/hop-off service in the western hemisphere. In the east, CanaBus Tours (pun intended) covers Ontario destinations like Toronto, Niagara Falls, Blue Mountain, and Algonquin Park with a US $181 pass, while out west, Moose Run Adventure Tours sets out from Vancouver on a grand exploration of spectacular natural beauties like Lake Louise and Manning Provincial Park (US $242). For $391, you can combine the two itineraries (adding $138 for one-way bus from Toronto to Vancouver or $207 for plane or train). Buses are comfy and equipped with TV and VCR--but no toilets (rest stops are generally every two hours). The season runs from May through October, and individual stops can range from three to seven days. 74 Gerrard St. East, Toronto, Ontario; tel. 877/226-2287, fax 416/977-9533; canabus.com. Moose Run Adventure Tours, 1653 Coquitlam Ave., Port Coquitlam, BC; tel. 888/388-4881, fax 604/944-3091; mooserun.com.

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