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Should You do a Day Trip to Milford Sound from Queenstown?

Should You do a Day Trip to Milford Sound from Queenstown?

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If you’re visiting Queenstown, you’re obviously going to want to visit Milford Sound! But, as a Queenstown local, I often get asked whether it’s doable in a day.

After living in Queenstown since 2018 and doing countless trips to Milford Sound, I honestly don’t recommend driving yourself there and back in a day. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t do it if you’re short on time. I recommend taking a tour or staying overnight closer to Milford Sound, and in this post, I’ll explain exactly why. And as always, I’ll share recommendations based on my own experiences. 

Visiting Milford Sound is a once-in-a-lifetime experience for many people and since it’s one of my favorite places in the world, I’m here to make your trip count! 

How long does it take to drive from Queenstown to Milford Sound and back without stopping?

Bailey stands on the road into Milford Sound in Fiordland National Park  
The road through Fiordland National Park on the way to Milford Sound
Green moss and Milford Sound at sunset in Fiordland National Park
Milford Sound, it doesn’t get better than this!

Google Maps will tell you 3 hours and 45 minutes, but in my experience, it always takes AT LEAST 4 hours to drive each way without stopping. And the thing is, there are some really beautiful stops along this drive. I think it would be a real shame not to enjoy at least a few of them! For that reason, I recommend allowing either 5 hours each way, or 6 hours there and 4 hours back (depending on how you divide up the stops). 

Honestly, this drive is a mammoth task. After you reach Te Anau, the driving becomes quite technical, as you’re tackling winding mountain roads. And since Milford Sound is very popular, you don’t exactly get them all to yourself! 

So, should you do a day trip to Milford Sound from Queenstown?

A road traveling to Milford Sound from Te Anau
Pretty drive, isn’t it?

The short answer is no – or rather, you shouldn’t do a self-drive day trip. The drive is just way too long. You’d have to leave early and get back late, and you’d just be far too tired to enjoy it.

I’ve visited Milford Sound countless times but I have never driven there and back from Queenstown in a day, and I don’t plan to! 

Visiting Milford Sound is a really special experience. It’s not something you should stress out about or rush. Every time friends and family come to visit me in Queenstown, I take them to Milford Sound, but I always book a tour or do a day trip from Te Anau instead. 

Other options to Visit Milford Sound

1. Organized bus tour

Roundtrip Small-Group Tour with Nature Cruise

Bailey looks at a mountain on the milford sound nature cruise new zealand
Is that pretty or what?

In terms of ease, price, and convenience, this small-group tour is hard to beat. There’s a maximum of 16 people in a group, so it just felt like I was traveling with a group of friends for the day! And the guide, Sinchan, really couldn’t have been better – he kept us entertained on the long journey by regaling us with myths and legends about the places we passed. 

We got to stop at Lake Te Anau and Eglinton Valley, which is especially exciting for Lord of the Rings fans. To be honest, that’s not really me, but the valley is stunning so I still enjoyed the stop. The highlight of the journey for me was the Mirror Lakes Walk, but the boat cruise through Milford Sound itself was also incredible. I’ve done so many of these cruises, but this was a real standout because it was a small boat cruise which enabled us to see lots of wildlife up close. 

I’m really not a fan of big bus tours, but this tour doesn’t feel anything like that. It’s so personal and almost feels like a private experience! It starts at 6:30 am with convenient pick-up locations across town and you can expect the tour to last about 13 hours. The base tour costs $299 NZD per person, although you can also add a picnic lunch or upgrade to a glass roof bus for an extra fee.

Glass-roof Bus Tour with Buffet Lunch

Waterfalls on the steep cliffs of Milford Sound
So many beautiful waterfalls!

This tour is with a slightly larger group, with a maximum of 49 people. But the price includes a glass-roof bus to make the road trip even more enjoyable and a buffet lunch. I’m sometimes a bit cautious of buffets but this one is generous with great food, so it’s got my seal of approval! 

Again, the stops at Eglinton Valley and the Mirror Lakes were beautiful, but I also loved the extra stop at Monkey Creek. It’s one of the best places on the South Island to spot keas, New Zealand’s famously cheeky parrots. 

The boat cruise was fantastic and we saw all of the highlights of Milford Sound, including Stirling Falls, Mitre Peak, and lots of seals! We also got free tea and coffee on board, which I thought was a nice touch. Meanwhile, the bus was also super comfortable, which may not sound that exciting now but trust me, it makes a big difference on the day. 

This option costs $315 NZD, which includes lunch, the cruise, and hot drinks. The only additional cost on the day would be if you fancied a cheeky beer or glass of wine! Tours leave at 7 am daily from the Visitor Centre and return 12.5 hours later. This tour does book up pretty fast, but Viator offers free cancellation so that you can book with confidence.

2. Day trip with a night in Milford Sound or Te Anau

Bailey poses with her car in the Eglinton Valley on the way to Milford Sound
On my way to Milford Sound!

While I wouldn’t drive from Queenstown to Milford Sound and back in a day, I have broken up by spending a night in Te Anau before.

I drove from Queenstown to Milford Sound in the morning, visiting some of the stops along the way, of course, and then did a nature cruise. On the way back, I stayed in Te Anau, about 2 hours from the fiord. There are some nice hotels in Te Anau and staying here cuts the drive time down by about 2 hours. By the time I got to Te Anau, I was definitely ready for a break from driving! 

Better still, if time allows, you can also spend two nights in Te Anau. That way, you won’t need to drive for more than four hours in total per day and will be able to enjoy the road trip. In my opinion, most of the best stops between Queenstown and Milford Sound are after Te Anau anyway! 

Plus, there are plenty of things to do in Te Anau so I like having some extra time there to explore. Taking a tour of the glow worm caves should be on everyone’s New Zealand bucket list. If it’s already on yours, you can read more details and book a cave tour online. There are also great opportunities for hiking, biking, and jet boating here.

Te Anau Glow Worm Caves 
The Te Anau glow worm caves are incredible!

If you’re wondering if it’s possible to stay right by Milford Sound itself, then the answer is yes! I’ve written a guide on where to stay in Milford Sound, but to save you time, one of my top choices is the Milford Sound Lodge because it’s serene and comfortable with stunning views of the fiord. Although you’re looking at at least $695 NZD per night, I can’t deny that it’s a dream place to stay.

And if you’re enjoying van life, you can park next to the Lodge in the Rainforest Campervan Park, which is a powered site that gives you access to the lodge’s facilities. 

If you’ve got a campervan, staying elsewhere along the road is cheap and tons of fun (if you’re anything like me and just love being immersed in nature!). There are some great campsites along the road to Milford Sound. I like Kiosk Creek Campsite, which is 54.8 km (34 miles) from the fiord, and this area is also great for vans. Meanwhile, Cascade Creek is super popular for those camping in a tent! 

If you do decide to self-drive, make sure to check out the best nature cruises in Milford Sound. This is the quintessential way to experience the water and you won’t want to miss it. However, if you opt for one of the tours I’ve mentioned, a nature cruise is already included.

Related Read: If you’re craving a getaway, read about some of my other favorite day trips from Queenstown.

3. Take a scenic flight or a flight/cruise/bus combo tour

Roundtrip Queenstown to Milford Sound Scenic Flight plus Cruise

Views of Milford Sound from a helicopter flight from Queenstown
Such a beautiful place!

I’ve had some incredible experiences in New Zealand, hence why I’ve spent so long living here! But few can compare to a scenic flight over Milford Sound. 

This roundtrip flight to Milford Sound offers aerial views that are beautiful beyond words, and you take a different flight path back to Queenstown to ensure you see as much scenery as possible! I was pinching myself the entire time. To top it off, it includes a nature cruise when you touch down in Milford Sound. It’s the best of both worlds – I saw Milford Sound from high above AND up close.

I also loved that the nature cruise was on a small boat because you get so much closer to the mountains, the waterfalls, and the wildlife. Nothing beats that “Glacial Facial” at Stirling Falls! 

The main reason to do this tour is because it’s a phenomenal experience, but it also saves a ton of time! It lasts for about 5 hours in total, rather than 12 or 13, so it’s great if you’re short on time, get tired easily, or just don’t want to spend 8 hours or more on the road. Tours run at 9:30 am or 12 pm most days, with check-in 30 minutes prior near the airport.

The only downside is that this tour is not cheap at $645 NZD per person, but this is one of the most worthwhile experiences that I have ever splurged on. No regrets here! 

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Milford Sound Bus, Cruise, and Flight Combo from Queenstown

Bailey smiles at the Camera on a Milford Sound cruise with a waterfall in the background
Only having the time of my life
Scenic flight into Milford Sound, New Zealand
What a view of Milford Sound from above!

Although the journey to Milford Sound from Queenstown is long, it’s also a fantastic road trip. I mean, stops like Eglinton Valley and the Mirror Lakes are famously beautiful! So if you don’t want to miss out on that, but still want those awe-inspiring aerial views, I have the perfect solution: this bus-cruise-fly tour

I think this tour gets it right with the itinerary because you start off on the bus and enjoy the road trip when you have the most energy, and then end on a high with the scenic flight. In Milford Sound, you’ll hop aboard a nature cruise, a Milford Sound must. This cruise is on a bigger vessel, which isn’t my personal favorite, but it is a more comfortable experience because the larger boats have more amenities. Lots of people actually prefer them! 

I love this option because it means you don’t miss out on any part of the Milford Sound experience. It’s 8.5 hours long, so you get a full day experience but it’s not insanely long. And since it departs at 7 am, I still had the evening to enjoy in Queenstown afterward. Prices start from $732 NZD per person, including pickup from select points and the bus, cruise, and flight. 

4. Milford Sound Overnight Cruise

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!
Bailey looks out the window while eating on a Milford Sound overnight cruise
Enjoying the view and food!

I’ve really saved the best for last here! Okay, so I will say that the Milford Sound overnight cruise is expensive, but it’s also the best thing I’ve ever done. Not just in New Zealand, but anywhere in the world. 

I did this Fiordland Discovery Cruise and it was, in a word, epic. There were only 22 of us on board, so it was a really peaceful and friendly experience, and the smaller boat allowed us to explore the sound in depth. And since we were there in the evening and early morning when everyone else had gone home, this was a truly sublime experience. Don’t even get me started on what watching the sunset and sunrise were like. 

I loved everything about the boat, from the huge windows in my room that gave me first-class views, to the delicious food. We got a 3-course plated dinner and it was the kind of food you’d expect in a nice restaurant, not on a boat! 

Another great thing about this cruise is that you don’t check in until 2:45 pm, so I had plenty of time to enjoy the drive. If you want to hear more details, just read my full review of the Milford Sound overnight cruise.

But I will share some important logistics first! This cruise is only available from early November to mid-April. It costs $1,198 NZD per person and if you want to do it, I cannot emphasize how crucial it is to book in advance. There are only two overnight cruises that operate in Milford Sound, so they fill up months in advance. You’ll need to be proactive to secure your spot on this cruise, but I promise it is worth it. 

Must-Do Activities While in Queenstown

Bailey with two of her friends at Perky's - Floating Bar Queenstown at sunset
Fall in love with Queenstown at sunset!
bailey stands at the front of the TSS Earnslaw in Queenstown
A cruise on the TSS Earnslaw is a unique way to explore!

Once you’re back in Queenstown after exploring Milford Sound, there are plenty of other activities that will keep you busy. Honestly, there are so many things to do in Queenstown, that it’ll be hard to choose! Below are some of my favorites:

  • Watch a sunset – As the day draws to a close in Queenstown, make sure to head to the shores of Lake Wakatipu to watch a sunset. It’s one of the best viewpoints to watch the sun sink behind the Southern Alps. I like watching from Queenstown Beach or Perky’s Floating Bar where you get a view of the lake and delicious food and drinks too!
  • Go canyoning – Climb and jump off waterfalls, rappel, swim, and trek as part of this Queenstown Canyoning Adventure with a qualified guide. This thrilling full-day activity is perfect for those who love adventure and exploration! As long as you aren’t afraid of heights and have a basic swimming ability you won’t need any other skills.
  • Wine tasting – This Central Otago Wine Tour and Tasting is my personal favorite wine tour in Queenstown! It is one of the best values for money as for $239 NZD your tour bus will stop at 4 different boutique wineries in the Otago region that include a wide range of wine samples and a provided gourmet lunch platter. As you hop between wineries you’ll gaze out the window at spectacular views.

Related Read: If you want to see even more of this island, check out my 10-day South Island itinerary! It comes with 5 road trip options, with one stopping at Milford Sound.

Where to Stay in Queenstown

Hot Tub over looking the river and mountains at Kamana Soak in Queenstown, New Zealand
Photo credit: Kamana Lakehouse

Finding the right place to stay in Queenstown can be hard. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of awesome choices, but things book up fast! For that reason, I highly suggest booking your accommodation well in advance.

Honestly, during peak times, any of the best hotels in Queenstown will be fully booked several weeks in advance…you have been warned! To help you plan ahead, here are a few places I personally love and that would make an awesome place to stay in Queenstown.

Kamana Lakehouse – $$$

For a luxurious stay, I highly recommend Kamana Lakehouse. This hotel is located just on the outskirts of town. Although it’s super peaceful, it’s just a 5-minute drive into the center of town. The place overlooks both the lake and the mountains, and the onsite restaurant uses local, seasonal ingredients to create the freshest meals. To top it off, many of the rooms boast lake views, and some even have outdoor baths!

The trick will be snagging this for your dates (it’s a popular place!). Rooms start around the $400 NZD mark, and you can check availability and book online here.

La Quinta Queenstown – $$

If you’re looking for a mid-range hotel, then you should seriously consider La Quinta Queenstown. This beautiful hotel is right by the airport but still very quiet. Plus, the views are amazing (although you won’t find me recommending a place without great views!). The rooms are all studio or one-bedroom apartments, which is really handy if you want to cook or even just have breakfast in your room.

Prices start at $200 NZD and you can book online here.

Absoloot Hostel Queenstown – $

My top choice for budget travelers is the Absoloot Hostel Queenstown. This small hostel has dorm rooms and budget private rooms, and it’s really clean and comfortable. The location is in the heart of Queenstown – the window from the kitchen looks out over Lake Wakatipu!

Dorms are around $55 NZD, and private rooms begin around $210 NZD. The Absoloot Hostel is easily one of the top cheap hostels in Queenstown and can be booked on Hostelworld.com or Booking.com.

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 smiles at the camera on the back of a Milford Sound cruise
Thanks for reading!

If you’re in Queenstown, you have to visit Milford Sound! This place is absolutely stunning, and you don’t have to miss it just because you’re short on time. Although I wouldn’t drive there and back in one day, there are other ways to see the sound. Whether you spend a night or two in Te Anau, take a bus tour, or fly to Milford Sound, I’m sure you’ll have an amazing experience.

To learn more about the sound itself, check out my other blogs about Milford Sound. I also live and travel all over the country, and you can read about other destinations in New Zealand here. As always, safe travels, and thanks for reading!

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