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10 Things to KNOW About Catching a Ferry to the South Island

10 Things to KNOW About Catching a Ferry to the South Island

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Did you know that New Zealand is actually split up into two main islands?

If you’re planning to explore the best spots in New Zealand, you’ll want to visit both of them. For this, I highly recommend grabbing the ferry between Picton and Wellington.

In fact, I think grabbing the ferry is a whole experience in itself and a great way to enjoy New Zealand’s natural beauty!

However, I do understand that it can be a bit daunting to do the first time, and it can be super helpful to know things like how far in advance to book, when the departure times are, etc…

That’s why I’ve put together this blog, which is packed with nuggets of wisdom I’ve gained over the years. So without further ado, let’s get started!

Overview of Catching a Ferry to the South Island 

A ferry in Queen Charlotte Sound on a beautiful day traveling from Picton to Wellington, NZ
On a calm, sunny day, the views are epic! Photo credit: Depositphotos pxhidalgo

The ferry crossing between the North Island and South Island of New Zealand takes about 3.5 hours, plenty of time to enjoy a good book, take in the stunning scenery as it rolls on by, or both! The ferry to the South Island departs from the cool capital of Wellington and arrives in picturesque Picton on the South Island.

Would you believe that in the peak season (summer and long weekends) there are up to 21 ferries operating daily between 2 different ferry companies?! This ferry journey is widely celebrated as one of the most beautiful ferry routes in the world, and you can spy beautiful views of the Marlborough Sounds on the way.

You may even spot some dolphins or whales if you’re lucky!

There are cabins available to sleep on board as well as restaurants and bars, plus Wi-Fi too, so you’re sure to have all your needs met when making the crossing on the Cook Strait.

Catching a ferry to the South Island is a must-do for any traveler’s New Zealand itinerary. The truth is, there are plenty of incredible things to do on the South Island that you really don’t want to miss! Read on for 10 helpful facts about catching a ferry to the South Island so you know exactly what to expect.

Related Read: One of the most popular routes to get to Picton is from Kaikoura – check out the best stops when driving from Kaikoura to Picton!

10 Things To Know Before Catching a Ferry to the South Island

1. There are two different companies

The Interislander Ferry Company
Interislander! Photo credit – Depositphotos MJWilliams

There are two ferry companies that operate this route – Interislander and Bluebridge. It’s worth noting that Bluebridge ferries are typically much smaller than the Interislander ones.

To help you in making your decision as to what ferry company to choose, I’ve listed the pros of each below:

Bluebridge – Typically cheaper prices with more cabins on board should you want some private space. If you want more time in Wellington, there’s an overnight Wellington to Picton ferry and the terminal is in the center of Wellington so you can walk there from your accommodation. 

Interislander – Larger boats with outside seating so you can fully absorb the great views, as well as more restaurant and café options on board. Plus, the larger boats navigate the bad weather on the crossing more easily, so it’s a less choppy ride for you. Go for this option if you get seasick!

The Interislander ferry terminal is located outside the city center and isn’t walkable, but you can catch the free bus to here that departs from Platform 9 at Wellington Railway Station. You can check times and book your Interislander tickets here.

2. You should book as far in advance as possible

Because the ferry is the only way to get between both islands (other than flying), booking in advance is essential to avoid missing out. Space on these ferries book out quickly – especially on the weekends and during school holidays.

Plus, you are likely to get a better price if you book in advance, particularly with Bluebridge ferries. If you book far enough ahead, you can often snag a cabin add-on from just $50 NZD!

3. You don’t need a vehicle

Cars an the back of a ferry from Wellington to Picton
Some travel with vehicles, others don’t!

You can board all ferries to the South Island as a foot passenger, with prices starting from about $65 NZD per person. That said, as a foot passenger, you are subject to luggage restrictions – two suitcases of a maximum weight of 32 kg (70.5 lbs) each and a carry-on bag. If you have a vehicle, you can load it up with as much as possible, which is why a lot of travelers choose this option.

If you do plan to rent a car in New Zealand and take it onboard, remember that some car rental companies require you to drop your vehicle off before you board and pick up another on arrival at the South Island.

For those planning on renting a motorhome in New Zealand, know that the ferries can accommodate them easily too! Just be sure to select the correct vehicle length and size at the time of booking.

4. Prices depend on the number of people and the time of year

Ferry departure times and prices vary depending on the season. Average prices start at $200 NZD per vehicle.

For Interislander ferries, there are typically three departure times daily from Wellington to Picton – 8:45 am; 1:00 pm, and 3:45 pm. There may be more departure times during the busy months.

With Bluebridge ferries, there are 4 sailings daily – 2:00 am; 8:15 am; 1:30 pm, and 8:30 pm. Again, this timetable may change, with additional departures, depending on the time of the year, so it’s best to check in advance to see what the latest times are.

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5. They take 3.5 hours on average

Views over Queen Charlotte Sound from the ferry between Picton and Wellington
Don’t worry, though, there are some pretty spectacular views to see along the way! The Marlborough Sounds are one of the most beautiful places in New Zealand.

On average, each ferry crossing will take about 3.5 hours. But with Bluebridge you can book a Sleeper Service which allows you to board the boat early and check in to your cabin. If you choose this option, you should manage to get about 6 hours of sleep in your cabin.

Important information: You’ll need to arrive between an hour and 30 minutes before your scheduled departure. So, make sure to allow plenty of time to get there!

6. Can I stay in my car on the ferry?

No, you cannot. Once the ferry starts moving, you won’t be allowed onto the car parking deck, so make sure you have everything you need with you before leaving the parking deck. This is due to safety reasons.

7. What you need to bring with you

Views of the Marlborough Sounds from Cook Strait ferry
Make sure you bring your camera!

Some important things to remember to take with you when you’re getting a ferry to the South Island are:

  • For check-in, you will need a valid passport or photographic ID such as a driver’s license, International Student Card, or government-issued ID card.
  • If you get seasick, be sure to take medication with you! I definitely got a little seasick the last time I rode a ferry to the South Island.
  • The food options on board tend to be limited, so make sure to bring snacks with you if you’re a fussy eater or have allergies.

8. There are restaurants and cafés onboard

On Interislander, there’s a large restaurant with a varied menu, as well as a bar/café. There’s also a small shop. Interislander also has an upgrade option that gives you access to a private lounge where you can avail of unlimited food and drink, including beer and wine. This service costs from $86 NZD per adult. 

On Bluebridge, the eating options are a little more limited because it’s a smaller ferry. There’s one large café/bar serving hot food and snacks.

9. You can sleep onboard

Bluebridge offers a sleeper service on the ferry to Picton, which will all you to get about six hours of sleep in a private cabin.

Both companies offer private cabins, but these sell out quickly and are especially popular with families and couples. Interislander only has cabins on one ship – the Kaitaki.

10. What you need to know about the weather

A ferry passes through Queen Charlotte Sound in the Marlborough Sounds during high winds
It gets really windy!

Crossing the Cook Strait by ferry is at the top of many travelers’ bucket lists. But the Cook Strait is also considered unpredictable, as it often experiences rough water and heavy swells from strong winds. So, if you’re someone who suffers from seasickness, then I advise against traveling on it in the winter months if possible. 

That said, if you’re traveling in the summer, then you might just be in for stunning blue skies and stunning blue waters – I’m jealous!

Where to Stay in Picton, New Zealand

Harbor views in Picton, New Zealand
Views of the harbor in Picton!

Picton may be a small town, but there are a ton of great places to stay. The truth is, picking a hotel with a great location is important because, let’s face it, I’m you really want to enjoy the natural scenery and be near the coast!

Atlantis Backpackers – $

If you’re a budget traveler, I’m sure you will love Atlantis Backpackers! I stayed here once when I was transporting my car from Auckland to Queenstown and simply wanted a cheap place to stay. The hostel is tons of fun, and it’s easy to meet other travelers. It’s located close to the marina and right next to Picton Memorial Park.

A bed in a dorm here starts from around $25 NZD per night – talk about scenic views on a budget! You can check availability and book your stay online here.

Harbour View Motel – $$

If you can spend a little more, then you’ll really get a nice upgrade. The Harbour View Motel is one of my favorite hotels in Picton because of its amazing location and views. From your room, you can stare out at the gorgeous marina and enjoy sunset drinks on your balcony – pure travel bliss!

The staff here are also super friendly and happy to help you out if you have any questions during your stay in Picton. Rooms here start at $173 NZD per night for a double room, and you can book in advance on here.

Picton Waterfront Luxury Apartments – $$$

Are you looking for a luxury stay? Well, I’ve got you covered! The Picton Waterfront Luxury Apartments is one of the most luxurious options in Picton. These self-contained apartments are as waterfront as you can get, and the rooms come with large balconies and ocean views.

You’re also just a 2-minute walk from Picton town, perfect for grabbing a bite to eat at the end of a busy day. With rooms starting at around $500 NZD per night, it’s not the cheapest place to stay, but you do get some serious Picton luxury for your money! You can check availability and book your stay here.

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 from My Queenstown Diary at the Blue pools in New Zealand
Thanks for reading!

I hope this blog has helped to give you a better understanding of what to expect on the ferry to the South Island. Providing the weather holds up, this trip can be a lot of fun and make for some awesome photos!

For lots of other great tips, be sure to browse around my blog. I have lots of road trip itineraries as well as guides to epic destinations including Wanaka and Te Anau. Or check out these guides here, which I think you may find useful:

25 Best Things to do in Queenstown in Summer

75 EPIC Things to do in Queenstown

13 BEST Stops on the Drive from Picton to Nelson

Sangram Sinha

Friday 17th of December 2021

Thanks for such helpful information.