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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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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.

Related Read: One of the most popular route 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. 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 pros 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 (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 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 $200 NZD per vehicle.

With Interislander ferries there are typically three departure times daily from Wellington to Picton – 11 am; 2:15 pm and 6:30 pm. The departure times may increase at busy times of the year.

With Bluebridge ferries there are 4 sailings daily – 2:30 am; 7:45 am; 2:00 pm and 7:15 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 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 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 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 it in the winter months if possible. 

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 great located hotel is important because Picton is not the most beautiful town. So, you really want to enjoy the natural scenery and be near the coast.

Budget travelers will love the 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 fun and it’s easy to meet other travelers. It’s located close to the marina and right next to Picton Memorial Park.

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

If you don’t mind spending a little more, the Picton Waterfront Luxury Apartments are one of the most luxurious options in Picton. The hotel’s location is as waterfront as you can get and the rooms come with large balconies and ocean views.

Renting a Car, Campervan, or Motorhome in New Zealand

A motorhome by the beach
Me and my trusty campervan!

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 is what most budget backpackers get 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! You can easily compare campervans, prices, and book on the website Motorhome Republic. We also have a 5% discount code (DTRAVEL5) with Mad Campers, which you can use at checkout.
  • Motorhome – A motorhome is larger and more comfortable than a campervan. Many motorhomes will comfortably sleep 6 or more people – perfect for a family visiting New Zealand. Motorhomes are the most expensive option, but with one, you won’t ever need to stay in a hotel and you’ll save money that way. Motorhome Republic is my suggested website for booking a motorhome in New Zealand simply because they are a reliable company and the website is super easy to use! We are also partnered with Kiwi Motorhomes, which is well known as the top motorhome rental company in New Zealand. You can get 5% off using the code Queen5. For more detailed info, read my complete guide to renting a motorhome in New Zealand!

Travel Insurance Has Your Back!

Life can be unpredictable and when you’re traveling abroad the last thing you want to worry about is getting sick or injured and having to pay out of pocket for treatment.

If this concerns you, SafetyWing can help! SafetyWing specializes in very affordable and comprehensive medical and travel insurance that is aimed at digital nomads, remote workers, and long-term travelers. It costs just $45 USD per 4 weeks!

To start coverage you must purchase it after leaving your home country, so we usually purchase it as soon as we land in the airport.

Since using SafetyWing we’ve been reimbursed thousands of dollars when we’ve gotten sick. During the pandemic, they’ve even gone as far as to pay for our last-minute flights back to Canada before the border closed!

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. Or check out these guides here which I think you may find useful:

Things to do in Queenstown in summer

Things to do in Wellington

Road trip from Picton to Nelson

Best Stops on the Road Trip from Palmerston North to Wellington! 

Sangram Sinha

Friday 17th of December 2021

Thanks for such helpful information.