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How to Pick the Best Milford Sound Cruise: 5 Best Cruises

How to Pick the Best Milford Sound Cruise: 5 Best Cruises

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Are you looking for the best cruise in Milford Sound? Luckily for you, I’m a bit of a Milford Sound cruise expert.

I’ve been to Milford Sound many times. I’ve visited in all seasons, and I’ve done countless cruises, kayaks, and hikes – you name it! In fact, I actually worked as a freelance writer in Milford Sound a few years ago.

Nowadays, I visit Milford as often as I can because I just love it that much. This means I’ve tried and tested my fair share of cruises, and to be completely honest, they aren’t all created equal.

Which is why I’ve written this blog!

Below, you’ll find information about my five favorite Milford Sound cruises. I’ve done each of these cruises and they are all excellent in their own way. I’ll explain more and compare them all if you keep reading!

Note: All cruises in Milford Sound depart from this same jetty located in Milford Sound. If you don’t have your own wheels, you’ll need to book a cruise with transport included from either Queenstown or Te Anau (the closest towns). I’ve included details below on which cruises have transport options available so you can be sure to choose the right tour for you.

1. Small Boutique Cruise (My Personal Favorite Cruise)

The Milford Sound Dock with Mitre Peak in the background
Our small but mighty boat!
  • Duration: 1 hour 45 minutes
  • Cost: Starting from $149 NZD
  • Best for: Those who love a more intimate experience in a smaller boat
  • Transport options: This cruise has the option to add transport from either Te Anau or Queenstown
  • Rating: Nearly 2,000 5-star reviews – check them out here!

Do you know the saying, “bigger is better”? When it comes to my glasses of wine, burgers, and mountains, I completely agree. But in the case of my favorite cruise, bigger is not better. In fact, smaller is better! And that’s what makes this Boutique Cruise one of the most sought-after experiences in Milford Sound.

I know what you might be thinking, “Alright Bailey, you have my attention, but why does the size of the boat matter?” – two reasons actually! 

Firstly, a smaller boat means you get up close and personal with waterfalls, wildlife, and the world-renowned nature Milford Sound is known for. Secondly, it means fewer people and fewer people means a more intimate and personalized experience. 

I was completely blown away for the entire 2-hour journey the first time I took this cruise (yes, I have taken it multiple times!). Since the boat isn’t crowded, you get unspoiled views of Mitre Peak, Bowen Falls, and various wildlife along the way. If you want to up your chances of seeing wildlife, my recommendation is to take the 10:45 am cruise, but there are also 12:45 pm and 2:45 pm options. 

With an onboard guide, an attentive and friendly crew, and luxury lounge seating – this cruise just about has it all. While it does offer complimentary coffee, tea, and biscuits there are no other food options on board. So I recommend eating a good breakfast or bringing some snacks so you don’t have a rumbly tummy taking away from the epic views.

With over 1,800 people around the world rating this a 5-star experience it makes sense that it books out fast. Do yourself a favor and get your tickets ahead of time for $149 NZD so you don’t miss out on this experience.

Book this cruise with transport from Queenstown

You can also join my favorite small boutique cruise if you’re staying in Queenstown! This full-day tour is a fantastic option because the drive to Milford is long, and not having to drive yourself saves your energy to enjoy all the sights. So this tour will transport you from Queenstown to Milford, making some epic stops along the way (hello Mirror Lakes!), then includes the small boutique cruise with lunch, and will return to Queenstown. This is a long day, but all that’s included for $289 NZD makes it worth it – just ask the 1,200 positive reviews!

Book this cruise with transport from Te Anau

Finally, experience the same cruise but with transportation from Te Anau! This tour from Te Anau to Milford includes the cruise, transportation, and lets you enjoy the journey by stopping at lakes, scenic viewpoints, and more along the way. The drive from Te Anau is much shorter but holds my favorite stops on this scenic route, so combined with the cruise makes for an awesome day of exploring! You can book this tour for $264 NZD.

2. Milford Sound Nature Cruise (Best for Spotting Wildlife)

Bailey looks out the front of a Milford Sound cruise
You can see the stunning Mitre Peak in the distance.
Bailey drinks tea on a Milford Sound cruise
Complimentary coffee is perfect for a cold day!
  • Duration: 1 hour 45 minutes
  • Cost: Starting from $145 NZD
  • Best for: Those who want to see wildlife and learn about the area
  • Transport options: This tour has options to start in Milford Sound, Queenstown, or Te Anau
  • Rating: Over 150 5-star reviews!

I know I look big, tough, and scary, but on the inside, I’m a softie who loves to make silly little noises at cute animals. Now that I mention it, that might be why everyone on this Nature Cruise Tour was looking at me weirdly! But can you blame me? Fur seals, Fiordland crested penguins, and bottlenose dolphins are just so adorable!

While every cruise comes with a guide, this particular cruise stands out because they are certified naturalists. This means that your chances of seeing rare animals increase compared to a regular sightseeing cruise. Keep that camera ready!

It doesn’t end there, however. I was blown away by all of the cool facts and knowledge the guide continued to wow everyone on board with. Having done all the cruises on this list I can confidently say that this one in particular is the best way to learn about the flora and fauna of Milford Sound! You can read my review of the Nature Cruise here, but safe to say, I loved it.

This 2-hour expedition has multiple departures throughout the day from 9:30 am to 3:15 pm, depending on the day you choose. I recommend you take the earliest cruise possible to up your chances of seeing wildlife. Bottlenose dolphins are extremely elusive, especially since only 60 of them live in Milford Sound!

When I took this cruise it was a little chilly, so my top tip is to wear warm clothes, even during the summer. You’ll spend a good amount of time outside on deck looking out for wildlife and it’s more fun when you’re comfortable.

You can book this cruise with or without a picnic lunch, or you can just pack some snacks. If you’re coming from Queenstown or Te Anu (see options below) I recommend booking it with lunch since the drive back is long and even longer when you’re hungry.

This cruise with lunch will cost you $180 NZD per person, and without lunch is $145 NZD. Don’t hesitate to book your ticket in advance and secure your spot aboard!

Book this nature cruise with transport from Queenstown

This tour from Queenstown will take you on the same nature cruise above, plus more! They will provide transportation on a glass-roofed bus so you can enjoy the incredible views the entire way. It also makes stops, which helps break up the drive and enjoy the area. Once you get to Milford, embark on the nature cruise, learn all about the area, and see wildlife, before returning to Queenstown. This full-day tour is $315 NZD.

Book this nature cruise with transport from Te Anau

For those staying in Te Anau, skip driving yourself and book this full-day tour to Milford. You’ll join the nature cruise for some epic wildlife sightings, and also drive in the same glass-topped coach – it will be a day of views! I also can’t forget to mention that this includes a yummy buffet lunch, which we enjoyed while chatting with the guide and learning even more about the area. You can book this tour for $265 NZD per person.

Related Read: The fiord is gorgeous from the water, but wait until you see it from a scenic flight over Milford Sound!

3. Milford Sound Scenic Cruise (Most Relaxing Cruise)

Bailey looks at a snow covered mountain on the milford sound nature cruise new zealand
  • Duration: 1 hour 45 minutes
  • Cost: Starting from $145 NZD
  • Best for: Those who love a relaxing day to enjoy the views, a comfy boat, and lunch
  • Transport options: This tour has options to start in Milford Sound or Queenstown
  • Rating: Over 100 5-star reviews!

I know that I’ve been singing the praises of smaller boats on this blog and I think it’s time I give the larger ones some love. After all, this Milford Sound Scenic Cruise offers comfort that the smaller boats just can’t match. 

What I loved about this tour was the amount of space offered both inside and on the deck. With more room for people to spread out, it was easy to find a relaxing spot to settle into and enjoy the views. And if you’re traveling with family, you’ll be happy to know that there are ample seating options for you and your loved ones.

There’s even a full bar on board, need I say more?

But let’s address the fiord in the room. Sorry, I mean the elephant in the room! Does taking a cruise on a large boat mean you’re going to miss out on anything? 

Honestly, not really. Even though this is a larger boat it still can get pretty close to waterfalls and animals. If you’re worried about things being too far away to see I recommend bringing a pair of binoculars! 

Something else to consider is that the size of the boat means it rocks less in the water. While Milford Sounds water is quite calm it can still get a little choppy. I can get seasick on rough days, so I appreciated that the size of this boat meant more stability!

With departures from 9:30 am all the way to 3:15 pm it’s an easy cruise to fit into your schedule. Bear in mind that the exact departure times vary by date, so double-check before you book! You can also choose to pay extra for a picnic lunch if you’d like! All in all the ticket cost me a reasonable $180 NZD with lunch, but they also have a cruise without lunch option for $145 NZD.

But hey, don’t just read about it – go do it yourself! You can book your tickets in advance below.

Book this scenic cruise with transport Queenstown

Keep the relaxation going, even if you’re staying in Queenstown! You can take this full-day tour, which includes transport in a big, luxury coach, and also the same relaxed cruise mentioned above. You make stops along the way enjoying all best attractions, and lunch is also included. This tour is $315 NZD and will bring you back to Queenstown in the end!

banner asking people to click to join the Queenstown Diary Facebook Group

4. Cruise with Underwater Observatory AND Kayak Add-On (Best Combo Tour)

Stirling Falls in Milford Sound, New Zealand
Stirling Falls!
Bailey on a kayak enjoying Milford Sound
I just love Milford Sound!
  • Duration: 2 hours
  • Cost: $295 NZD
  • Best for: Those looking for an adventurous way to explore Milford Sound
  • Transport options: This tour departs from Milford Sound only
  • Rating: Nearly 100 5-star reviews!

The only combo I love more than a burger and fries is probably a combo tour. But if there was a combo tour that offered a burger and fries you know I’d tell you about it! Regardless, this Combo Cruise Tour really knows what it’s doing and offers a unique and non-stop fun experience. 

Let’s talk about each stop of the day separately because they’re all fantastic.

At this point, I don’t know if there’s much I can say about a cruise in Milford Sound that you don’t already know. It’s stunningly beautiful, there’s all sorts of wildlife, the waterfalls are epic, and it’s one of my favorite places ever. You get on a small boat and get to experience all of that during this cruise! 

Oh, but it gets better. You’ll make a stop at the Underwater Observatory to see various species of aquatic life, like black coral, up close and learn about the unique nature of the Milford Sound. This is only accessible by boat and is such a unique experience! You’ll even get to see the rare black coral.

But the cherry on top of this Milford Sound sundae is kayaking. You’ll throw on a life vest and take a 90-minute guided tour right into the heart of “the eighth natural wonder of the world”. We got super lucky and spotted some Fiordland crested penguins and I’m crossing my fingers that you get to, too!

On top of all of this, a picnic lunch is included. Sadly, it wasn’t a burger and fries, but it was still delicious! Departure times range from 9:30 am and 1:15 pm depending on the day of the week and time of year you go.

As you can probably guess this tour is super popular and sells out fast. Tickets are $295 NZD  but book them sooner rather than later so you don’t miss out!  

Keep in mind that this cruise only departs from Milford Sound. You will have to get yourself here if you’re staying in Queenstown or Te Anau, as there are no tours that offer transportation.

Related Read: Are you planning your own road trip from Te Anau to Milford Sound? Check out the best places to stop on the drive from Te Anau to Milford.

5. Milford Sound Overnight Cruise (Overall Best Experience)

Bailey looks out the window while eating on a Milford Sound overnight cruise
Enjoying the view and food!
The hot tub on the back of our Milford Sound overnight cruise with views of the steep cliffs in Milford Sound, New Zealand
Not a bad place for a soak!
  • Duration: 1 day
  • Cost: $1,198 NZD
  • Best for: Those looking for an immersive and memorable way to experience Milford Sound
  • Transport options: This tour departs from Milford Sound only
  • Rating: Nearly 100 5-star reviews!

They say to save the best for las,t so that’s exactly what I did. To call this Milford Sound Overnight Cruise a once-in-a-lifetime experience would be accurate, but it’s so much more than that. Without a doubt, this was one of the most incredible experiences I have ever had.

From the moment we set off at 4 pm to when we returned at 9 am the next day the crew treated everyone with 5-star service. They were funny, helpful, and it was easy to see they loved their jobs. There are very few passengers allowed at one time on this cruise which makes everything more intimate and the service fantastic.

The boat is the definition of luxury with a hot tub on the top deck, clean and comfortable rooms, and plenty of places to relax and take in the Milford Sound. No expense was spared and I had to wonder if this is what it would have been like to be on the Titanic (without the sinking that is). 

Bailey sits on the bed of our Milford Sound cruise with magnificent views out the window
What a view! We booked the “bunk room” because it was the only room available that I could get (they do have standard double rooms, too.)

Dinner and breakfast are included, and oh man, are they good! This isn’t a buffet-style dinner either, I’m talking proper table-side service! If you’re like me you’ll love drinking a glass of local wine as you cruise past waterfalls. Just plan to spend a little extra for beverages, as they aren’t included in the price.

Besides the cruise that takes you up and down Milford Sound, there are a variety of fun activities to keep you entertained during your time. I love getting in a kayak or on a paddle board so I was thrilled to learn that they had both! There’s even a tender (an even smaller boat) you can take out with their onboard naturalist guide to look for wildlife. 

However, by far the most amazing moments I had were watching the sunset and sunrise over the Milford Sound. It’s something very few people see and it’s absolutely magical!

I won’t lie, this isn’t a cheap experience. However, having your accommodation paid for with meals and activities included is money that would have been used for the same things regardless.

That’s why I find its $1,198 NZD price tag reasonable for everything you get on this amazing tour. I’m not the only one who feels that way either, with dozens of positive reviews. You can hop aboard this cruise from November to April and it departs from Milford Sound only (no transport from Queenstown or Te Anau).

This cruise books out MONTHS in advance (you’ve been warned…I get emails all the time from disappointed travelers who missed out!) so if you are itching to experience it yourself read my tips and experience from my Milford Sound overnight cruise, then book your own!

Renting a Car, Campervan, or Motorhome in New Zealand

Bailey stands in front of a right green JUCY campervan
JUCY is one of my favorite campervan rental companies (read below for a discount code!)
Bailey stands behind her Mad Campers campervan cooking in the kitchen at Piha Beach
I also really like Mad Campers!

Let’s face it, you’re going to need wheels to get around New Zealand. Although a small country, buses between destinations are infrequent and expensive. Plus, some of the best experiences you can have in NZ are on road trips!

You have three options when it comes to getting wheels in New Zealand; a car, a campervan, or a motorhome. Here’s what you need to know about each and where to get them:

  • Car – A normal car is the cheapest rental vehicle you can get in New Zealand. It’ll get you around to all of the best destinations with ease. The only downside to a car is that you will need to stay in hotels or Airbnbs during your travels (no camping.) The easiest place to rent a car in New Zealand is on Discover Cars where you can compare cars, companies, prices, features, and more very easily.
  • Campervan – A Campervan is a large van that has a bed and a small kitchen in the back. It’s what most budget travelers use for traveling around New Zealand since it allows you to camp comfortably and for free (most) nights. Campervans are best for couples or solo travelers who are happy to live in a small space. You should also love the outdoors and camping…and be prepared for an adventure of a lifetime! My favorite campervan rental company is JUCY because they have a huge selection of campervans to choose from, plus multiple pick-up/drop-off locations. You can browse JUCY’s campervan selection online here. Alternatively, you can easily compare all campervans available in NZ on Motorhome Republic here.

EXCLUSIVE DISCOUNT CODE: I’ve managed to snag a discount code for 5% off for my readers if you book your campervan or motorhome through JUCY or Star RV! Simply click here to select your JUCY campervan, or click here to select your Star RV motorhome, and then use the code DTRAVEL24 at checkout to get 5% off – it’s that easy!

Thanks for reading!

Bailey gets ready to go kayaking in Milford Sound
I hope you enjoy Milford Sound!
Bailey in a kayak in Milford Sound
Thanks for reading!

Milford Sound is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful places I’ve been to, so I’m so excited you will get to experience it too! After going on all five cruises on this list, I know you’ll have a blast regardless of which one you choose. It will be a memorable addition to your South Island itinerary, who knows, maybe you’ll get to try a few of these cruises as well.

Thanks so much for reading. If you found this blog helpful, I have lots of other blogs about visiting Milford Sound that you’d probably enjoy. 

Is Milford Sound Worth it? – My Honest Review

BEST Time to Visit Milford Sound (My Advice After Visiting in ALL Seasons!)

10 Things to KNOW Before Booking a Helicopter to Milford Sound