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Visiting Milford Sound is always a great experience, whether you drive or take a bus tour. But if you really want to do it in style, a helicopter is the way to go!
That’s right, it’s possible to take a scenic helicopter flight from Queenstown to Milford Sound. Not only do you get to explore the beautiful fiord itself, but you also get to see some of the South Island’s best scenery. You’ll have a bird’s eye view over the Southern Alps, the stunning New Zealand countryside, and the entire fiord.
I haven’t taken loads of helicopter rides in my lifetime, but when I have, they’ve been an unforgettable experience. And the one I took to Milford Sound was definitely worth it!
However, there are some things you should know before booking a helicopter to Milford Sound. So if you’re uncertain or just want more info, keep reading. I’ll break down all the important details so you can decide if taking a helicopter is the right choice for you.
1. About Milford Sound
Milford Sound is one of the most beautiful places in New Zealand. It was once named the top tourist destination in the country – which comes as no surprise. It’s surrounded by towering mountains, cascading waterfalls, and incredible wildlife. Honestly, the nature here feels unparalleled!
Milford Sound feels super remote and untouched by humans. But as it turns out, Maori people have been coming here to fish, hunt, and collect jade stones for thousands of years. It wasn’t until the 1800s that Europeans discovered this hidden gem. Rumor has it Milford Sound was so well concealed the explorer Captain Cook passed by it twice without ever realizing it was there.
It’s just a 3.5-hour drive from Queenstown – but I’d budget much longer than that! The journey between Queenstown and Milford Sound is full of scenic stops. You may even want to stay overnight in Te Anau to break up the drive.
However, not everyone has the time or energy to drive to Milford Sound and back in one day. This is where helicopter tours come in handy! You’ll save yourself driving time while still enjoying all the beauty the fiord has to offer. Plus, you’ll get to see incredible sights from high above.
Related Reads: If you want to explore more of this country, read about my favorite multi-day guided tours of New Zealand.
2. How long is the helicopter ride from Queenstown to Milford Sound?
Milford Sound is only about 70 km (43.5 miles) from Queenstown as the crow flies, so the helicopter ride takes about 45 minutes each way. And given how amazing the views are, the time will absolutely fly!
However, if you’re not flying to Milford Sound, your journey will be much longer. Steep canyon walls and the Southern Alps separate the two destinations. As such, buses and cars have to go the long way around on the Milford Sound Highway. If driving from Queenstown, the journey is 288 km (179 mi) and takes about 3 hours and 45 minutes each way.
Basically, a helicopter ride will save you A LOT of time!
3. Pros and cons of doing a helicopter flight to Milford Sound vs taking the bus
Milford Sound is worth visiting – however you choose to get there. But booking a helicopter definitely has its pros and cons.
Pros of taking a helicopter flight
For me, one of the biggest pros of taking a helicopter flight to Milford Sound is how much time it saves!
If you do a day tour from Queenstown, there are more than seven hours of travel time which is pretty exhausting. With a helicopter flight, you spend about 1.5 hours traveling to and from Milford Sound, and you have epic views the entire time.
Also, I just want to add that I really don’t recommend driving yourself all the way from Queenstown to Milford Sound! If you want to self-drive, stay overnight in Te Anau instead. Otherwise, it’s way too much driving in a single day. At least you can sleep on a bus!
Not only do you save time, but it’s such a unique experience. It really feels like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. New Zealand’s landscape is just so beautiful. And when you see it from above, you really get a feel for its diversity.
Cons of taking a helicopter flight
Of course, taking a helicopter flight is also much more exciting than a bus ride, but it’s also a lot more expensive. I’m talking about three to four times more expensive!
If you’re on a budget, a bus tour from Queenstown to Milford Sound would be a better option.
Plus, there are some benefits to the slow route. Although bus tours involve a pretty long journey, you get to stop off at lots of scenic spots along the way. You’ll visit Eglinton Valley, go for nature walks, and see the stunning Chasm Viewpoint.
What I love about bus tours is you get to see these sights close up. It definitely adds to the overall experience. On a helicopter ride, you’ll have amazing views from above and a completely different experience. But obviously, you can’t stop at all these places, so you do miss out a bit.
Bus, Cruise, and Fly Tour
If you want to avoid any FOMO, I have the perfect answer! There’s a tour to see Milford Sound by air, land, and water, so you won’t miss a thing!
With this Bus, Cruise, & Fly Tour, you get a little bit of everything. You’ll start the morning with a bus ride to Milford Sound, stopping at all the top sights en route.
I’m constantly impressed by the lush landscapes and bodies of water on this drive. One of my favorite stops was Monkey Creek, where I filled up my water bottle straight from the glacier-fed stream. I also got to visit Te Anau, where I grabbed coffee and got a feel for this picturesque little town. Our group also got to explore Eglinton Valley, which is a must for any Lord of the Rings fans!
On this full-day tour, you’ll also take a 2-hour nature cruise on Milford Sound, spotting incredible wildlife and waterfalls. When I went, we got close enough to feel the spray from the falls – which was quite refreshing! We also spotted some cute fur seals basking on Seal Rock.
But my highlight of the trip was definitely flying back to Queenstown! You’ll travel on a small plane rather than a helicopter. But honestly, it’s nice that the return trip was so much faster (yet still had gorgeous views!).
This tour is worth it because you get to experience Milford Sound in 3 different ways. Plus, at $689 NZD per person, it’s cheaper than a helicopter tour. However, this tour does sell out fast. So if you want the best of all worlds, check availability and book it online here!
Related Read: To delve into Lord of the Rings fandom even more, check out these LOTR tours in Glenorchy, New Zealand (which is just a 45-minute drive from Queenstown!).
4. Do you need to book a helicopter to Milford Sound in advance?
Helicopter tours to Milford Sound are super popular, and book up way in advance (especially during the summer). I recommend booking a helicopter flight as early as possible. Otherwise, you might miss out!
I usually book through Viator so that I can secure my spot. Viator is awesome because you can change or cancel for free later on. You can do this up to 24 hours before your booking. But when I looked at booking directly, the only way to get a 100% refund was to cancel at least a week in advance.
5. Do helicopters to Milford Sound often get canceled in bad weather?
Unfortunately, yes, they do. That’s just the nature of helicopters – I mean, you wouldn’t want to be up in the air during severe weather conditions, would you?
Safety is the top priority for all of the helicopter operators offering tours to Milford Sound. They keep a very close eye on the weather to ensure passenger safety. So rest assured, they’re not going to take chances and fly you to Milford Sound if it’s not safe.
But there’s good news! If your Milford Sound helicopter flight is canceled due to bad weather, you’ll be offered an alternative date or a full refund. Either way, you won’t lose your money.
Also, a sneaky hack I’ve used many times over the years is to book through Viator because you can often change your booking up to 24 hours beforehand. This means you can book your flight in advance and then check the weather closer to the time and change the date if necessary.
With all of that being said, more often than not, the flight goes ahead as planned – the companies would be out of business otherwise!
6. What are the best helicopter tours to Milford Sound from Queenstown?
Milford Sound Helicopter Tour from Queenstown
With this 2-hour helicopter tour, you get a bird’s eye view of the amazing landscape and not one, but TWO landings. You’ll touch down in both Milford Sound and the remote mountains. If you’ve never done an alpine landing before – it’s an incredible experience!
Also, you get live commentary from your pilot throughout the journey. When I boarded the helicopter, I got a comfy headset so I could hear all about the area’s landmarks and history.
The whole experience only lasts for a few hours, so it’s the perfect way to see Milford Sound if you’re short on time. Sometimes, tours that pack a lot into a short amount of time feel rushed, but this is definitely not the case with this one. Flights are offered at 8 am, 10 am, and 2 pm, so it’s super easy to fit into your Queenstown itinerary.
This tour costs $1,015 NZD per person (or an extra $100 during peak season) and includes hotel pickup and dropoff from central Queenstown. As such, you don’t need to worry about getting to and from the airport. Just sit back and enjoy the ride! So for a convenient and super memorable tour, secure your spot online here!
Milford Sound Helicopter Flight and Cruise from Queenstown
This Milford Sound tour is very similar to the one I discussed above, but you also get a nature cruise on the fiord itself!
The cruise is the quintessential Milford Sound experience because it takes you through the heart of the fiord. You’ll see its cliffs, waterfalls, and wildlife up close. I’ve done so many Milford Sound cruises, and I never get bored of them!
First, you’ll fly from Queenstown to Milford Sound, enjoying amazing views of the Southern Alps. Once you land in the fiord, you’ll hop aboard your 2-hour cruise. Now is the time to appreciate the sound from the water – which isn’t hard! I love all the waterfalls, inlets, and wildlife I see every time I visit.
What I also love about this tour is you also get a bonus landing. My crew landed on a snow-capped mountain and even had a quick snowball fight!
This 4-hour tour starts around 10:45 am and includes hotel pick up and drop off from Queenstown. While you can pay for a private tour, I recommend booking a seat on a shared helicopter for $1,600 NZD (or $1,770 NZD during the spring/summer) instead. I mean, it’s a helicopter – so it’s a small group regardless!
Trust me, if you want a helicopter and a nature cruise, this is the tour for you! However, not all dates offer the shared aircraft option. So check availability and book your seat online here!
Milford Sound Highlights Helicopter Flight from Queenstown
This scenic flight is the most wallet-friendly helicopter tour of Milford Sound. It really helps you appreciate just how diverse and beautiful the South Island really is! Plus, your guide will share loads of fascinating facts as you fly over the Southern Alps, Mitre Peak, and Milford Sound.
Although it’s a shorter flight, you still get to land on a glacier (weather dependant, of course!). Overall, it’s a pretty epic day out!
I also like that there’s a maximum of six travelers per group. This means you get lots of chances to ask your pilot questions over the headset (which I take full advantage of!). I think this just makes the whole experience way more personal.
This flight is also fantastic for those who are short on time. The whole experience takes less than two hours. You could leave at 8 am and be back well before lunchtime – so you can enjoy even more epic activities in Queenstown!
The tour costs $905 NZD (or $1,063 NZD in the peak spring/summer season) and includes hotel pickup and dropoff. So for a less expensive option with all the same views, reserve your flight online here!
Milford Sound and the Glaciers Helicopter Tour, including landing from Queenstown
This helicopter tour will also take you soaring over Milford Sound and the surrounding mountains before touching down on a glacier. A glacier landing is always a surreal experience, and your guide will teach you all about its unique features. You’ll also be able to take lots of photos on the glacier (which will do wonders for your Instagram feed, I’m sure!).
This tour is very similar to the last one I described. However, the flight is slightly longer at 1 hour and 30 minutes. There are also three departures per day: 9 am, 11:30 am, and 2 pm – so it can be easier to book.
The pilots really know their stuff. Believe me, you’ll definitely come away with a much deeper knowledge of Milford Sound and the surrounding landscapes. The tour company is also very highly rated and has a really good reputation across New Zealand, which is always very reassuring!
The tour costs $1,312 NZD per person and increases to $1,450 NZD in the spring and summer, and there’s a maximum of 12 people per group. Although this helicopter is larger, it’s still a nice, intimate experience.
For a reliable helicopter ride with a reputable company, book this flight online here!
Milford and Fiordland Highlights Tour by Helicopter from Queenstown
What I love about this helicopter tour is you get two unique landings, on a glacier and the beach. On the beach, you can stroll around and spot NZ fur seals. You really do experience a lot in just a few hours, and get to soak up those Milford Sound vibes!
Plus, this tour is longer than most others. You get a full 2-2.5 hours to really take your time and explore the scenery.
The pilots take a different flight path back to Queenstown, so you get to see as much as possible. On the way there, you’ll fly over the Southern Alps with lots of mountain scenery. On the way back, you’ll fly over Lake Wakatipu and focus more on other glacial rivers and lakes.
There’s also the option to add food and drink to your tour package. I love a good beach picnic, and Milford Sound has the perfect environment! So if the weather conditions are right, I’d recommend adding it on.
This tour is one of the most expensive options at $1,600 NZD per person or $1,770 NZD if you’ll be flying in the popular spring and summer months. But with the extra time, flight paths, and landings – you get your money’s worth!
If the helicopter experience is what you’re after, this tour is for you! Don’t hesitate to reserve your seat online here!
Related Read: For those that love helicopters, one flight might not be enough! Read my blog about the top helicopter tours in Queenstown here.
7. Where do helicopter flights in Queenstown leave from?
Helicopter flights from Queenstown to Milford Sound leave from the Queenstown Airport (which is located in the suburb of Frankton). The airport is just 7.3 km (4.5 mi) from central Queenstown, and it only takes about 15 minutes to get there.
All of the helicopter tours I listed above include pickup and dropoff from hotels in Queenstown. So you don’t even need to worry about it!
But if you’ve rented a car in New Zealand and prefer to drive yourself, you definitely can. And luckily, most of the tour operators have complimentary airport parking.
8. Do the tours offer free transport from Queenstown to the airport?
Yes, they do. The tours offer free pickup and dropoff from all central Queenstown hotels. You don’t need to worry about transport to the airport or finding a meeting point.
However, if you’re staying far out of the city center, then you can request to be picked up at a meeting point in town.
When you book through Viator, you can often check out the list of available pickup points from the “meeting and pickup” section of the page. It’s usually easy to find one that suits you. If you choose a meeting spot by one of my top restaurants in Queenstown, you can enjoy a meal before or after!
Why I Book Tours with Viator
Viator is a trusted online booking system for tours around the world! I almost always book tours using Viator for a couple of reasons:
- Free cancellation on most tours – Most of the tours on Viator allow you to cancel and get a full refund up to 24 hours in advance. This is handy in case plans change, or if booking an outdoor activity, the weather forecast is looking grim.
- Reserve now and pay later – You can secure your spot on some of the most popular tours well in advance and not pay until closer to the day of the tour.
- Pay in your chosen currency – Avoid costly international transaction fees by choosing to pay in your home currency.
- Peace of mind – When booking with tour operators you find in person on the street or in small booking offices, you are often promised one thing and given another. This online platform holds tour operators accountable with a written description of inclusions as well as the opportunity for customers to leave reviews.
Check out the Viator website here!
9. Are helicopter tours to Milford Sound safe?
Yes, they’re very safe. Statistically, you’re a lot safer in a helicopter than you are in a car!
In New Zealand, commercial helicopters have to follow very strict guidelines, and pilots are highly trained. As such, you can rest assured that you’re in good hands. Accidents are rare, but it does always pay to choose a reputable company. I would only ever go with (and recommend) highly-rated tour operators.
10. Is taking a helicopter to Milford Sound worth it?
It allows you to see Milford Sound from a totally different perspective, and the views are just stunning. Plus, if you’re visiting Milford Sound from Queenstown, it cuts down on a lot of travel time. I’ve found this allows you to really be present and get the most out of your day. Overall, I definitely think it’s worth it.
Related Read: If you’re wondering what time to visit, read my guide to all four seasons in Queenstown. I cover the pros and cons of each so you can make the best decision for you!
Booking a Milford Sound Cruise
Nature cruises are probably the best-known activity in Milford Sound. It’s a touristy experience, but also a lot of fun and a chance to see the fiord up close. It’s famous for a good reason!
Even if you decide not to book a helicopter flight that includes a nature cruise you could also plan out a road trip from Queenstown to Milford and spend several days here so you’d have time to go on a nature cruise and do some of the other awesome things to do in Fiordland National Park, you could even drive further to Te Anau.
There are different types of cruises available in Milford Sound, from large ones that serve buffet meals, or small ones that can get right up close to the fiord’s amazing natural features – those ones are my favorite, as you get a more adventurous experience, and the chance to ask your guide all of your burning questions.
This Southern Discoveries Nature Cruise is the one I recommend the most and it costs $109 NZD (or $125 NZD in the spring/summer) and includes around two hours on the water exploring granite walls and chasing waterfalls while learning from your skipper about the area’s geography. There is a possibility of seeing bottlenose dolphins and even crested penguins! You can even upgrade your tour to include a picnic-style lunch or a buffet-style lunch.
Must-Do Activities While in Queenstown
While in Queenstown there are plenty of other activities that will keep you busy… Honestly, there are so many it’ll be hard to choose which ones to do! Below are some of my favorites.
- Central Otago Wine Tour and Tasting – This is my personal favorite wine tour in Queenstown! It is one of the best values for money, for $215 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.
- TSS Earnslaw Steamship Cruise – This scenic and relaxing cruise in Queenstown is an activity great for any afternoon. The ship you will be cruising on is the Historic TSS Earnslaw and you will get to watch crew members add coal to the flames that power the vessel. Take in the mountain ranges and lush green valleys of Otago. You can also upgrade this tour here to include dinner at Walter Peak High Country Farm.
- Queenstown Canyoning Adventure – Climb and jump off waterfalls, rappel, swim, and trek your way down a part of a Queenstown canyon 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.
- Queenstown Lakes Lord of the Rings Tour – This tour is fun for both major LOTR fans and those who have some level of interest in seeing and learning about the filming locations. You will be guided around in a 4×4 vehicle that is equipped to cross rivers and rugged terrain. There are 8 different stops over 9 hours, it’s a long day but it will be filled with so many breathtaking views and you’ll learn a ton from your guide.
- Extreme Jet Boating – Looking for a thrill? Jet Boating is one of New Zealand’s most unique activities. On the tour out of Queenstown, you’ll be able to zoom up the Shotover River through narrow canyons at high speeds and make 360-degree spins. Trust, me it’s epic!
Where to Stay in Queenstown
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!
Renting a Car, Campervan, or Motorhome in New Zealand
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.
- 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. My top choice for a motorhome company is Star RV because they have beautiful motorhomes at affordable prices. You can check prices and availability for Star RV motorhomes online here. Alternatively, you can use Motorhome Republic to search all motorhomes in NZ. For more detailed info, read my complete guide to renting a motorhome in New Zealand!
EXCLUSIVE DISCOUNT CODE: I’ve managed to snag a discount code for 5% off for my readers if you book your JUCY or Star RV campervan or motorhome before the end of June 2024! 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! One thing to note is that this code is only valid for travel before Dec 21, 2024.
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 in the airport as soon as we land.
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!
Seeing Milford sound from a helicopter is well worth the experience! And if you’re coming from Queenstown, it saves so much time and energy. So if you were debating booking a helicopter tour, I hope my blog has helped you find some answers – and maybe even pick a tour!
To read even more, check out my travel blog about New Zealand here. I’ve lived and explored this country extensively – and love sharing what I’ve learned. To give you an idea of what I cover, I’ve included a few links below. Thanks for reading!