The Business of Mountain Shuttles

We missed our shuttle back to town from the end of the Tongariro Alpine Crossing by less than 10 minutes. We had paid $30 in the morning for the full round trip ride. A one-way ride costs $25.

The morning bus driver for the Plateau Lodge Shuttle had told us to call the company late in the day to give them an update on our location. Cell service was near impossible to find on the mountain. Only when we reached the end of the track did we have a clear signal. The bus driver had given us the impression that cell signal was available all the way through. Knock one on them.

So to come back out to pick us up was going to cost $25 a head. We tried hitchhiking, but all five cars in the parking lot seemed to be headed the other way. Luckily, a friend’s boyfriend had come up with his car. They came back to pick us up, and we gave him $7 a head for gas.

The next morning, I busted out my best Indian haggling skills to see if I could be refunded for the portion of service we didn’t use. The wife of the shuttle company’s manager said I must be really hard-pressed for money if I was essentially trying to make the argument that a sandwich shop should give me my money back because I didn’t end up eating half my sandwich.

While my effort clearly fell flat, I did pick up a few tidbits. The driver is paid $20 an hour for about five to six hours of work at least a day. That comes out to about $3,000 a month.

The shuttle company gets passengers mostly through referrals from the local hostels. He has to give back a 20 percent commission to those hostels. So that’s $6 off a $30 fare. A 15 percent goods and services tax takes away another $4. So the company basically does not make money until the third passenger off the day, accounting for two hours of pay for the driver.

The manager also made the argument that he charges $5 less than the other operators in the area, keeping him in a precarious position. If you end up doing the crossing, just be sure to be prepared to keep your shuttle company happy in the morning. And on your way back, you should find signal at the Katehai Hut. Make a call from there.

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