When it comes to Milford Sound, getting there is half the fun – or at least it can be!
Milford Sound is one of the most beautiful places in New Zealand. This stunning fiord is set against a backdrop of tall mountains and is full of waterfalls and impressive wildlife. However, it’s pretty remote, so you need to know how to get there.
And unfortunately, there’s only one place to stay in Milford Sound, so as you can imagine, that gets booked pretty fast. As such, most people visit Milford Sound from Queenstown or Te Anau. But don’t worry – the scenery on the way over is absolutely gorgeous.
From either of these places, there are 4 ways to get to Milford Sound. I’ve tried them all and know the pros and cons of each. So if you’re planning your trip and not sure which route to take, keep reading. I’ll go through each one so that you can choose the best option for you!
- How to Get to Milford Sound
- What are the best places to stop between Queenstown and Milford Sound?
- Tips for visiting Milford Sound
- Renting a Car, Campervan, or Motorhome in New Zealand
- Travel Insurance Has Your Back!
- Thanks for reading!
- Why I Book Tours with Viator
How to Get to Milford Sound
1. Drive yourself
Driving is my preferred way of getting to Milford Sound, but there is a caveat: I only recommend doing this if you stay in Te Anau, not Queenstown.
It takes around 3.5 to 4 hours to drive one way from Queenstown to Milford Sound. This could be exhausting for a day trip and doesn’t give you time to explore any of the scenic spots along the way.
However, if you really want to drive from Queenstown to Milford Sound, I suggest doing it over a couple of days. You can stay overnight in Te Anau, which allows you to break up the trip and enjoy more sightseeing on the way.
If you’re visiting Te Anau, you’re only a 1.5-hour drive from Milford Sound (without stopping). However, I highly recommend that you give yourself at least an extra 1.5 hours! Trust me, you’ll want to make some stops along the way because the journey itself is pretty epic. In fact, it’s easily one of the best road trips on the South Island.
The road from Te Anau to Milford Sound is 118 km (73 mi) long, and there are tons of beautiful sights. Some of the best include Eglinton Valley, which is home to several filming locations from the Lord of the Rings movies. You’ll also see the beautiful Lake Gunn, Pops View Lookout, and Hundred Falls.
It’s generally a pretty safe and easy drive from Te Anau to Milford Sound if you’re going during the warmer months – typically the best time to visit Milford Sound. However, it does rain a lot during the spring and summer, which can make the road slippery, so be careful. Put your headlights on and reduce your speed.
The road to Milford Sound (Highway 94) is also narrow in places which can get tricky with oncoming traffic. In the summer, there are many big tour buses traveling to Milford Sound, so be on the lookout for those. But in general, it’s a pretty easy journey.
You can still drive to Milford Sound in the winter. However, you need to be extra careful. The big tour buses will mostly be gone. But instead, you may have to deal with ice and snow on the roads, which is much worse. There may also be traffic from people heading to ski resorts at this time of year.
I’m not saying don’t drive in the wintertime. Just be cautious, and I strongly recommend taking snow chains with you. Pay attention to the road signs and updates. They’ll let you know when snow chains are required so you can pull over and attach them to your tires.
You also need to check weather and road reports before you go. Look out for avalanche warnings as well. You should never stop in an avalanche zone, and you should try to get through them as quickly and safely as possible. You can check road updates for Highway 94 online here.
During the summer, there’s a traffic light system to manage the flow of vehicles. However, in the winter, the tunnel is open for two-way traffic, so you shouldn’t stop at the entrance. You can drive straight through, but be careful of oncoming traffic as the tunnel is pretty narrow!
Related Read: If you need a vehicle for the drive, make sure to read my tips on renting a car in Queenstown!
Self-drive tours of Milford Sound
If you’re driving yourself to Milford Sound, you should still book a tour! The main way to see Milford Sound is on a boat cruise. These cruises book up way in advance, so I strongly recommend booking yours ahead of time.
This nature cruise is perfect for anyone who wants to see the fiord up close. There’s a naturalist guide on board who will teach you all about the rare wildlife that inhabits Milford Sound. Plus, it’s a small boat, which I think offers a way better experience than the big cruises – you can get much closer to the action.
I loved this cruise because our guide was just so passionate! When I went, they taught me about the area’s geology and helped me spot animals like fur seals and dusky dolphins.
Tours leave at 10:30 am and 1:15 pm daily, so it’s easy to fit into your schedule. Plus, it’s fairly reasonably priced at $109 NZD per adult or $84 NZD per kid. And if you want, you can add a picnic lunch for an extra $35 NZD. So for an easy cruise over the fiord, pick a date and book your trip here!
I also really like this 3-hour cruise because it includes lunch and admission to the Milford Sound Underwater Observatory. This area is only accessible by boat and is where salt water meets fresh water, Here, you can witness underwater life you normally wouldn’t be able to see, like Black Coral.
There’s usually a morning and afternoon tour, with extra options in the summertime. However, I highly recommend going on the first cruise of the day to avoid the big boat tours. It costs $129 NZD for adults or $59 NZD for kids, so it’s a good option for families. If you’d like to see Milford Sound sights PLUS the Underwater Observatory, book this cruise here!
If you want to kick things up a notch, take an overnight cruise in Milford Sound! This Fiordland Discovery Overnight Cruise is the ultimate way to experience Milford Sound. I got to cruise along the fiord both in the evening and early morning (when all of the other visitors had left). I really felt like I had this sound all to myself. Plus, everything was amazing on board, from the food to the rooms to the rooftop hot tub!
The cruise is admittedly pricey at $1,149 NZD per person. However, it’s one of my all-time best travel experiences! It only runs from December to early April, and it books up FAST. So secure your spot well in advance to enjoy this epic adventure.
Where to stay in Te Anau
As the closest town to Milford Sound, Te Anau makes a great base! Plus, there are several places to stay in Te Anau. For budget travelers, Te Anau Lakeview Kiwi Holiday Park & Motels has spaces for campervans or motorhomes as well as motel rooms. For social travelers, Lakefront Backpackers offers dorms and private rooms at affordable prices – starting at under $40 NZD.
The Aden Motel is the best mid-range option and has beautiful studios, 1-bedroom, and 2-bedroom apartments. But if you can afford more, I’d recommend Fiordland Lakeview Motel and Apartments, which offers well-equipped apartments and rooms with amazing lake views.
Related Read: If you’re booking a place in Te Anau, you can read about the best restaurants in town here!
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!
2. Take a bus tour from Te Anau or Queenstown
While bus tours from Te Anau are popular, many people choose to drive themselves since it’s much closer. In fact, if you’re coming from Te Anau, I definitely recommend driving yourself. It gives you more freedom to explore along the way – and it can save you money, too!
However, if you’re coming from Queenstown – I have the opposite advice! I’d recommend taking a tour.
A bus tour is the most popular way to get from Queenstown to Milford Sound. You can do it all in a day without having to drive yourself. Although it’s still a 13-hour day, you can sleep on the bus on the way back, so it’s definitely better than driving!
Bus tours from Queenstown
I really like this small group tour from Queenstown because it includes lots of stops along the way! I got to see beautiful sights like Lake Wakatipu, Eglinton Valley, and the Mirror Lakes. Plus, there’s a maximum of 16 people in a group. As such, it’s not overwhelming, and you get a more personal experience.
It costs $249 NZD including roundtrip transportation from your hotel, a nature cruise, and a picnic lunch. However, this tour does sell out, so book it online in advance here!
This award-winning tour is also a fantastic option, with many scenic stops on the way from Queenstown to Milford Sound. You can even participate in some guided walks, although these are optional if that’s not your thing!
And, of course, you’ll also get the quintessential nature cruise on Milford Sound. Again, you’ll be in a small group, and the friendly guides make you feel super comfortable.
This tour costs $250 NZD and you can add on a barbecue lunch for $27 NZD. The tour covers roundtrip transportation with hotel pick-up and all activities mentioned above. There’s also WiFi on board the tour van, which I think is a nice touch given how long the journey is! So for the classic Queenstown to Milford Sound experience, check availability and secure your spot here!
Flying is an amazing way to get from Queenstown to Milford Sound. You get absolutely incredible views of Milford Sound and the Southern Alps from the sky. I’ve done it a few times now, and I highly recommend this experience if you’ve got the budget for it – it’s incredible!
But beautiful views aren’t the only reason to fly to Milford Sound. It’s also a fantastic option if you don’t have a lot of time. You can do it in half a day from Queenstown – just 5 hours or less. Usually, it’s an hour’s flight to Milford Sound, a 2-hour cruise upon arrival, and another hour’s flight to return.
Flying is also a really good option for people who are coming from Queenstown but suffer from motion sickness. If you can’t face the thought of a 3 to 4-hour bus journey (each way), seriously consider a flight! You don’t have to miss out on Milford Sound just because of the drive.
Flying on a small plane
I love this half-day tour because you get roundtrip flights and a nature cruise on Milford Sound! I also really appreciate that you return to Queenstown via a different flight path, so you get to see even more of the South Island’s beautiful scenery.
You get all this for $595 NZD per person, which is a very good price considering how much time you get in the air. I’ve taken scenic flights in other parts of the world that have cost way more for a much shorter journey! Plus, there’s usually a morning and afternoon option – so it can easily fit into your itinerary.
To take advantage of this awesome flight and cruise deal, book your tour online here!
Flying on a helicopter
If you’ve never been in a helicopter, here’s your chance! This 4-hour tour takes you to Milford Sound via helicopter, soaring high above the Southern Alps. You’ll get commentary from your pilot as you fly over the beautiful scenery. Once you land, you’ll embark on a nature cruise on the fiord, spotting wildlife and waterfalls at every corner.
However, what really sets this tour apart for me is the fact that you get two landings. The first is in Milford Sound, of course – but the second is on a snowy mountain peak. It was amazing to experience such different landscapes in such a short amount of time. It really wouldn’t be possible without a helicopter!
The helicopter tour costs $1,600 NZD per seat when you share with others. This includes roundtrip transport from your hotel, flights, your guides, and the nature cruise.
If you’re only interested in the helicopter portion, book this tour without the cruise for $1,015 NZD instead.
Related Read: If you hear “helicopters” and get excited, you’re not alone! Read about my favorite helicopter tours in Queenstown here!
4. Bus, cruise, and fly tour from Queenstown
Can’t decide between a bus tour or a scenic flight from Queenstown? You don’t have to! You can have the best of both worlds.
This Bus-Cruise-Fly tour is the ultimate way to see it all when you’re visiting Milford Sound from Queenstown.
You start by taking a bus from Queenstown to Milford Sound, exploring all the scenic stops along the famous Milford Sound Road, including the Mirror Lakes, Eglinton Valley, and the Chasm. You also get to stop in the town of Te Anau to stretch your legs and get a feel for this quaint area.
Once you get to Milford Sound, you’ll embark on a 2-hour nature cruise. You can appreciate the beauty and wildlife up close, with an amazing view of Mitre Peak.
On this tour, instead of driving back to Queenstown, you’ll hop aboard a small plane! After a long day of touring, it was a relief to be able to fly back – not to mention the incredible views. Flying over Fiordland National Park was truly invigorating and the perfect way to end the day.
I love this tour because it allows you to experience Milford Sound in 3 different ways. It’s 10 hours long in total, so it’s not as tiring as a bus tour, and it’s a lot cheaper than taking a helicopter! It costs $689 NZD. If you want to experience it all, this is the tour for you! Don’t hesitate to book this Bus-Cruise-Fly tour online!
Related Read: Wondering what time of year to visit Queenstown? Check out my guide comparing all 4 seasons in Queenstown!
What are the best places to stop between Queenstown and Milford Sound?
The drive from Queenstown to Milford Sound is quite the scenic one! It’s a 288-kilometer (179-mile) journey and takes about 3 hours and 45 minutes. However, you’ll want to take it slow and soak in all the sights in between.
To give you an idea of what I’m talking about, keep reading! Below are some of the highlights of this epic South Island road trip.
Devil’s Staircase Lookout
The Devil’s Staircase Viewpoint has an amazing view of Lake Wakatipu and the windy road that runs alongside it. It really provides that perfect Instagrammable photo op. However, it’s a little tricky to find. It’s located about midway between Queenstown and Kingston – so keep your eye out. Also, there’s only a small parking lot here – so it’ll be a quick stop to stretch your legs and capture the scene.
The small lakeside town of Kingston is a great place to stop for a meal at its only restaurant, The Kingston Flyer. If you want to rest overnight, I’d recommend the Kingston Top 10 Holiday Park, which offers both camping and motel-style accommodations. Avid cyclers should know this is also the starting point for the new Around the Mountain Cycle Way, which is one of the best bike trails near Queenstown.
Garston Hunny Shop
Garston Hunny Shop is a family-run honey farm just 60 km (37 mi) from Queenstown. It’s a sweet pick-me-up after driving a bit and a nice way to learn about local types of honey. You can buy some jars as souvenirs or purchase products from their natural cosmetics line, Abelha. If you have time, check out the art next door at Garston Stables (which is run by the beekeeper’s husband).
Mossburn is a cute little town and the deer capital of New Zealand (watch out when driving past here!). However, the reason to stop here is primarily for cheap gas. New Zealand is notorious for having expensive fuel, but gas stations near Mossburn have the cheapest prices I’ve seen!
Te Anau is the last town you’ll hit before Milford Sound. So stock up on any groceries or gas, or stay overnight if you can! However, there is plenty to do in Te Anau as well – including seeing the famous glow worm caves. I’d recommend taking this 2.5-hour tour which includes a boat cruise across Lake Te Anau and a guided glow worm cave tour for only $99 NZD.
As you enter Eglington Valley, you’ll notice a stark change in landscape. These golden-yellow beech forests make for beautiful photographs. This valley was also the setting for many Lord of the Rings filming locations. If you want to take a longer hike, check out the challenging East Eglinton Track.
Almost all tours will stop at Mirror Lakes because the scenery is just so idyllic. There’s also a short and flat walk just along the lake. It’s very family-friendly and the perfect opportunity to stretch your legs.
Pops View Lookout/Hollyford Lookout
The Pops View Lookout is one of my favorite spots on this drive. Be careful on the drive up to this lookout as it’s located around a blind curve. But once you’re safely there, you’ll have a dreamy view of the mountains. There’s also a cheeky Kea who often greets people in the parking lot – one of New Zealand’s many local animals.
Lake Marian Track
Lake Marian Track is one of my favorite hikes on the South Island. There are two walking tracks you can take here. It’s just a 20-minute walk to the waterfalls and a 3 hour return to Lake Marian. Honestly, if you have the time and energy, I’d recommend going the distance!
Monkey Creek is glacier-fed and has water so fresh you can drink straight from the source! Seriously, I stop here to fill up my water bottles, and it somehow tastes so much better than regular tap water. Also, keep your eye out for the rare Whio (blue duck) and Kea that live in the area.
The Homer Tunnel is one of the most famous sights along this road. During the summer, traffic lights operate, and you can wait up to 20 minutes at a red light. But I wouldn’t wait – get out of the car, walk around, and take in the beautiful views!
The Chasm is a roaring waterfall with beautiful rock formations. It requires a 20-minute walk along a trail to reach the powerful falls – which are even more intense after a huge rainfall. The best viewing points are on the two footbridges over the Cleddau River.
Related Read: For another awesome road trip, read about the best stops between Queenstown and Christchurch here.
Tips for visiting Milford Sound
If you’re planning a trip, there are some things you should know before heading to Milford Sound.
The first time I went, I didn’t quite play it right and felt a bit unprepared (particularly with clothing). However, I learned from my mistakes, and so can you! Below, I’ll break down my top tips to have the best vacation possible.
Book in advance
Milford Sound is really popular, so it’s always best to book in advance.
Day cruises and tours don’t book up as far in advance. However, I still recommend booking online through Viator at least a few weeks before your visit (especially during the summertime).
Dress for all weather conditions (especially the rain)
Milford Sound’s weather is famously unpredictable. You never quite know what it’s going to throw at you.
I’ve definitely experienced four seasons in one day in Milford Sound, so I recommend wearing layers that you can easily put on and take off. And most importantly, make sure to prepare for the rain! A waterproof jacket is a must.
Consider staying in Te Anau if self-driving
If you want to drive yourself to Milford Sound, then I highly recommend staying at one of the hotels in Te Anau.
As I mentioned, it’s a 3.5-hour drive from Queenstown to Milford Sound, so a day trip can be super tiring. You’ll be absolutely exhausted by the time you get back to Queenstown, which isn’t great when you’re driving yourself! At least if you take a tour, you can nap on the bus.
Te Anau, meanwhile, is only a 1.5-hour drive from Milford Sound. There’s also lots to do there, so it’s worth a visit anyway. I like to stay in Te Anau for two nights when I visit Milford Sound so I can enjoy everything at a leisurely pace.
Use Viator for free cancelation (and date changes)
As I mentioned earlier, tours and cruises to Milford Sound book up pretty fast – which is why I always book through Viator. That way, you get free cancellation and date changes up to 24 hours before your booking. You can book way in advance without worrying about losing money if your plans change. You almost never get this when you book direct, and the prices are the same!
Be careful self-driving in winter
If you’re visiting New Zealand in wintertime, you can absolutely visit Milford Sound too!
I actually love visiting Milford Sound during winter. However, the roads can be icy during this time, and there’s an avalanche risk. You need to be extra careful, particularly if you’re driving.
It’s always best to check the road conditions before you leave and pay close attention to avalanche signs. I also recommend bringing snow chains.
If you’re a confident driver, you should be fine, but extra care is required. And if you’re not a confident driver, you’re better off just booking a tour during winter.
Don’t cancel because of the rain
If it’s raining, there are two main reasons why you shouldn’t cancel your visit to Milford Sound. The first is that it gets about 200 days of rain per year, so it’s pretty difficult to avoid.
The second is that Milford Sound is actually more beautiful in the rain! All of our best photos have been taken during or after the rain. The waterfalls look more impressive, the scenery appears more dramatic, and there’s just something very atmospheric about the lighting after the rain.
So seriously, don’t let that put you off – just bring some decent waterproof clothes!
Leave your expectations at the hotel
It’s sometimes easier said than done. But try not to get carried away by the hype around Milford Sound. Come with an open mind and let the fiord speak for itself.
Some people come to Milford Sound with impossibly high expectations, which then ruins the experience. Try to leave all of that behind and know that everyone’s experience of Milford Sound is different. My biggest tip is to be present rather than comparing what’s in front of you to over-edited images on Instagram.
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 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 (QUEEN5) 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 at 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!
Milford Sound is such a beautiful place, and even though it’s remote – it’s definitely worth a visit! And luckily, the journey there can be just as much fun. I hope this article has helped you decide how you’ll get there so you can have a fantastic trip.
If you found this guide useful, check out my other blogs about New Zealand. I’ve lived and traveled all over the country and love sharing what I’ve learned. To help you out, I’ve linked to some articles below. Thanks for reading!