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

Two ferry's cross the Cook Strait into Queen Charlotte Sound from Wellington to Picton, New Zealand

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You may or may not be aware that New Zealand consists of two separate islands – the North Island and the South Island and the only way between the two is by ferry (or of course, airplane.) So, if you’re planning a vacation to New Zealand and want to explore the entire country then you will need to know more about the ferry to the South Island.

After enjoying the picturesque North Island, the ferry is your gateway to NZ’s incredible South Island (my personal favorite!) You’ll get to visit some of the most amazing places including Queenstown, Franz Josef, Milford Sound, and so much more.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Before you start enjoying the South Island, you need to get there – which is where this blog comes in handy!

In this blog, I list everything you need to know about catching a ferry to the South Island. Including how far in advance to book and departure times. These tips will help you prepare for your ferry and the beginning of any epic South Island road trip!

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. The ferry to the South Island departs from the cool capital of Wellington and arrives in picturesque Picton on the South Island (one of the best places to visit 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! It’s definitely one of the best things to do in New Zealand.

There are cabins available to sleep on-board as well as restaurants and bars plus WiFi 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.

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. Worth noting is 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 pro’s of each below:

Bluebridge – typically cheaper prices, 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 cafe options on-board. Plus, the larger boats navigate the bad weather on the crossing easily so it’s a less choppy ride for you. Go for this option if you get seasick! Worth noting too is the Interislander ferry terminal is outside the city center and isn’t walkable – you can catch the free bus to here that departs from Platform 9 at Wellington Railway Station.

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. 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.

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. You are subject to luggage restrictions as a foot passenger – two suitcases of a maximum weight of 32kg 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 take a rental car on board remember that some car rental companies require you to drop your vehicle off and pick up another on arrival at the South Island.

If you’re renting a motorhome in New Zealand, the ferries can accommodate them easily too, just be sure to select the correct vehicle length and size at the time of booking.

You can book yourself on the Interislander ferry here easily if you’re not traveling with a vehicle!

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

Ferry departure times and prices vary depending on the season. Average prices start at $180 NZD per vehicle.

With Interislander ferries there are typically three departure times daily from Wellington to Picton – 9 am; 2:45 pm and 8:00 pm. The departure times may increase at busy times of the year.

With Bluebridge ferries there are 4 sailings daily – 2:30 am; 8 am; 1:30 pm and 8:45 pm. Again this timetable may increase or decrease depending on the time of the year.

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 wayQ

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 will not 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 driving 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 cafes onboard

On Interislander, there’s a large restaurant with a varied menu as well as a bar/cafe. 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 $120 NZD per adult. 

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

Related Read: Are you a lover of amazing coffee and cafes? Luckily for you, there are some great places to check out on the South Island. Check out these amazing cafes in Queenstown as well as some in Arrowtown!

9. You can sleep onboard

Bluebridge offers a sleeper service on the ferry to Picton, which will enable you to get about six hours 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 it in the Winter months if possible. 

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.

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.

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