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How to Pick the BEST Lake Cruise in Queenstown – My Honest Review!

How to Pick the BEST Lake Cruise in Queenstown  – My Honest Review!

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So, you want to go on a lake cruise in Queenstown? I don’t blame you; Lake Wakatipu is one of the most beautiful lakes in New Zealand and cruising on it is nothing short of breathtaking.  

But there’s just one problem.  

There are two different cruises to choose between in Queenstown! You can either board the historic steamship the TSS Earnslaw, or opt for the modern Million Dollar cruise.

Having done both cruises (more times than I’d like to admit), I can definitely help you make the decision. You see, there is no one clear answer, and depending on the type of experience you’re looking for, you can choose a suitable lake cruise in Queenstown!

In this blog, I’ll tell you all about cruising on Lake Wakatipu so you can be sure of what to expect, and also compare both the TSS Earnslaw cruise and the Million Dollar cruise.  

The Two Scenic Cruises in Queenstown

Bailey enjoys a drink on the TSS Earnslaw on the way to Walter Peak Station
Here we go!

When I put this list together, I wanted to highlight two of the very best scenic cruises available in Queenstown, with each offering something unique! I’m happy to say that the TSS Earnslaw and the Million Dollar cruise do just that.

If this is your first time doing a lake cruise here in Queenstown, then stepping aboard a historical ship really helps transform a good cruise into an unforgettable experience. This 90-minute cruise aboard the TSS Earnslaw is my top pick between the two available options, and though it has its pros and cons, it’s a winner in my eyes!

Complete with a fully licensed bar, I also adore the service you receive on the Earnslaw, and at $99 NZD per person, the experience is fantastic value! Not only do you get to see what a coal-powered steamship is really like (how cool is that?), but you also have the option to upgrade your booking with lunch or dinner – something you don’t get on the Million Dollar cruise.

So if you’re on the fence of which cruise to book, I highly recommend the TSS Earnslaw.

With that said, this cruise from Million Dollar is also fantastic. It’s 90 minutes long, is super affordable, and offers a pretty comfortable ride around the lake (with a bar onboard too!). As it’s a faster boat, you’ll also get to see a bit more of the lake too, however there isn’t the option to upgrade for lunch or dinner.

Just like the TSS Earnslaw, there is a fully licensed bar on board, so you can grab some drinks with your friends or family while taking in the sights. At $59 NZD per person, this boat cruise is a steal, so it’s a great option if you’re traveling on a budget.

Note: Both the TSS Earnslaw and Million Dollar lake cruises travel pretty much the same route, so there is no need to do both. Choose just one and spend the rest of your valuable time in Queenstown exploring all of the other epic things to do!

TSS Earnslaw Historic Steamship Cruise 

bailey stands at the front of the TSS Earnslaw in Queenstown
Take the chance to get onto Lake Wakatipu!
Bailey enjos the view from the top fo the TSS Earnslaw in Queenstown, New Zealand
Book in advance!

Your first option for cruising on Lake Wakatipu is onboard the TSS Earnslaw. This historic cruise departs from the Steamer Warf right in Queenstown town center, and their standard cruise lasts for 90 minutes before docking back in Queenstown. Onboard, you can explore the historic ship or even relax to the sound of live music. 

The TSS Earnslaw lake cruise departs all year round with the exception of one week in June or July when they close for maintenance. There are multiple departures each day to choose from that vary from season to season.  The inside area of the boat makes it a comfortable activity in Queenstown even in the winter!

Expect to pay $99 NZD for the standard cruise, but there are upgrades available and extended tours (more on that below!).

TSS Earnslaw Cruise Pros 

the engine room of the TSS Earnslaw cruise
The workers in the engine room!

I love the TSS Earnslaw because of how unique it is! I mean, where else in the world can you ride on a steamship from the early 1900s?!  

That’s right, the TSS Earnslaw is a historic coal-powered steamship that runs pretty much the same as it did back in the day 100 years ago! Once onboard, you can actually explore the ship and even watch the workers as they shovel coal in the engine room – it’s pretty neat! 

Also, the ship is huge and really fun to explore. There are wrap-around decks, bridges, upper and lower levels, an inside restaurant and fully licensed bar, an engine room, a mini-museum, as well as an outdoor viewing deck. They often even have a pianist onboard which really sets the mood. It’s exactly how you’d imagine a 100-year-old steamship to look and the vintage décor is picture perfect! 

Related Read: Riding the TSS Earnslaw is also one of the best things you can do in Queenstown with kids – kids love to explore this ancient boat!

TSS Earnslaw Cruise Cons 

standing at the front of the TSS Earnslaw boat on a cruise from Queenstown, New Zealand
Enjoying the view from the very front of the Earnslaw!

An experience as unique as cruising Lake Wakatipu in a historic ship doesn’t come without its cons though. First of all, this coal-powered ship isn’t the most environmentally friendly option. It’s old and coal-powered – need I say more? 

Second of all, a lake cruise on the TSS Earnslaw is more a bit more expensive than the Million Dollar cruise. Although both cruises last for the same amount of time, expect to pay $40 NZD more per person. If you’re on a budget, this might be something important to consider.  

And last, I found the TSS Earnslaw ship itself to be very busy. Although the ship is huge, they really do pack it full, and sometimes finding places to sit was a challenge. I mean, I spent most of the time wandering around anyway, but at the end of a long day, it would’ve been nice if there were enough tables for all of the guests onboard! 

Types of Experiences Available on the TSS Earnslaw

Bailey enjoys dinner at Walter Peak Farm in Queenstown
Walter Peak!
Sheep shearing at Walter Peak Station
Sheep shearing at Walter Peak Station

Going on a cruise in Queenstown can be more than just a ride on the lake. There are options for add-ons to the TSS Earnslaw cruise which can include farm tours and a tasty meal!

Walter Peak BBQ 

This cruise takes you from Queenstown across Lake Wakatipu to Walter Peak High Country Farm where you’ll enjoy a huge gourmet BBQ! Seriously, it is delicious! 

You can do the BBQ cruise for either lunch or dinner with 12 pm daily departures and select 6 pm departures. The entire experience lasts for about 3.5 hours and costs $189 NZD for the dinner (seafood is included) or $175 NZD for lunch. Discounts for children (ages 5-14) are available, and infants are free.

Walter Peak Farm Tour 

If you want to tour Walter Peak Farm without a BBQ, then this cruise and farm combo tour is perfect! It is also 3.5 hours long and includes a farm demonstration, tour, and the opportunity to feed various animals. It’s a very popular tour for families with children.  

Expect to pay $145 NZD for an adult with discounts for kids. The tour departs daily at 12 pm.

Related Read: Going on a lake cruise is one of the best adventure activities in Queenstown – what an epic way to explore the area!

Million Dollar Cruise

Bailey enjoys the Million Dollar Cruise in Queenstown New Zealand
I love my home!

The second option you have for choosing a lake cruise in Queenstown is onboard this Million Dollar cruise. Their comfortable boat offers incredible views, and like the TSS Earnslaw, the Million Dollar cruise lasts for 90 minutes, but because it’s a faster boat than the Earnslaw, you’ll get much further down the lake before turning around!

The Million Dollar lake cruise departs year-round with multiple departure times. As for individual tickets, you can expect to pay $59 NZD for their standard scenic cruise.

Million Dollar cruise pros

Views out the back of the boat on the Million Dollar Cruise in Queenstown New Zealand on Lake Wakatipu
The Remarkables!

The Million Dollar cruise is a wonderful modern alternative to the TSS Earnslaw. While it doesn’t offer the dinner packages that the TSS Earnslaw does, you really can’t go wrong with this affordable option, with tickets priced at $59 NZD per person.

Besides the price, I find the actual Million Dollar boat to be a bit more comfortable. There are plenty of tables in an indoor area that is spacious with plenty of windows. Outside, there is a top viewing deck with rows and rows of chairs. With their fully-licensed bar, you will easily be able to find somewhere to relax while sipping a wine or coffee.

And finally, the Million Dollar cruise actually covers more ground than the TSS Earnslaw. Both cruises depart from the same area in Queenstown and head down Lake Wakatipu towards Glenorchy. The Million Dollar boat is faster, and you’ll get to see scenic spots like the Kawarau Falls Dam, which you wouldn’t see aboard the TSS Earnslaw.

Related Read: The Million Dollar cruise is one of the best cheap things you can do in Queenstown!

Million Dollar cruise cons

Views of the mountains from the Million Dollar Cruise in Queenstown
I used to live on that hill!

The downside to the Million Dollar cruise is the lack of history and places to explore on the boat. The TSS Earnslaw is a piece of Queenstown’s history, while the Million Dollar boat, well, isn’t. Besides an indoor and outdoor seating area, there isn’t much to explore on the boat itself. This cruise is mostly about sitting back and relaxing in Queenstown while enjoying the views!

Related Read: A scenic lake cruise is easily one of the most romantic things to do in Queenstown – find out what the rest are if you’re on a couples getaway in Queenstown!

banner asking people to click to join the Queenstown Diary Facebook Group

Queenstown Lake Cruise FAQs 

Standing at the front of the boat on a Lake Wakatipu cruise
Those views though!!!

Important Tips for Booking a Queenstown Cruise 

views from inside on a cruise in Queenstown
You don’t even have to go outside to enjoy the views on a cruise in Queenstown.
  • Book online in advance – Queenstown lake cruises do sometimes get fully booked. To avoid disappointment you should book online in advance.
  • You can eat and drink onboard – Both boats have a fully licensed bar as well as a snack bar. You can bring some of your own snacks and water and such, just not your own alcohol (duh!)
  • Have sun protection – The sun in New Zealand will burn your skin really fast! If you plan on enjoying the outer decks on the lake cruise be sure to wear sunscreen and a hat.
  • Lake cruises are fine in the rain – With indoor areas, a cruise on Lake Wakatipu is one of the best things to do in Queenstown when it’s raining. With that said, if you really want to enjoy the views, be sure to go on a day when the cloud cover isn’t low and covering the beautiful mountain peaks!

Must-Do Activities While in Queenstown

Bailey enjoys wine at Gibbston Valley Winery near Queenstown
The wine is so good!
Bailey smiles at the Camera on a Milford Sound cruise with a waterfall in the background
Obviously yes!

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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Day Trip to Milford Sound With Picnic Lunch – This tour will give you the ultimate ability to explore the beauty of Milford Sound in Fiordland National Park. Not only will your guide stop at several impressive viewpoints on the way from Queenstown but there is also a cruise in Milford Sound included. This small-group tour goes for $249 NZD a person and I think it’s a really great value for a more personalized experience.
  • 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

Hot Tub over looking the river and mountains at Kamana Soak in Queenstown, New Zealand
Photo credit: Kamana Lakehouse

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!

Dorms are around $55 NZD, and private rooms begin around $210 NZD. The Absoloot Hostel is easily one of the top cheap hostels in Queenstown and can be booked on Hostelworld.com or Booking.com.

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 posing on the TSS Earnslaw in Queenstown
Thanks for reading and I hope you have as much fun on a lake cruise in Queenstown as I always do!

A cruise on Lake Wakatipu in Queenstown is so much fun! Honestly, it’s one of those things that I really think most tourists should do while in Queenstown. There is no better view than from out on the water!

For more ideas for exploring Queenstown, be sure to have a look around this website. As a local, I have tons of info to share on Queenstown and other nearby towns, and this blog is exactly where I do it! Here are a few specific blogs you also may find interesting:

Best stops from Queenstown to Milford Sound

How to Pick the Best Milford Sound Cruise: 5 Best Cruises

12 Things to Know BEFORE Booking the Doubtful Sound Overnight Cruise

Kate

Wednesday 11th of August 2021

Million dollar cruise is way better than both of these by far

Bailey

Thursday 12th of August 2021

Hey Kate!

I have not done the Million Dollar Cruise at this point so I could not include it. What is it you loved so much about the cruise and disliked about the other two?

Hopefully, I get to try it out for myself sometime soon!

Thanks Bailey

Roger Reynolds

Saturday 16th of January 2021

Have done T. S. Earnslaw 4 times. It is great, a living museum with lots of character. Really enjoyable. The Spirit is like my local Pirtsmouth to Ryde, Isle of Wight passenger ferry - faster but just a ferry boat. T. S. Earnslaw all day long.

Bailey

Monday 18th of January 2021

Hey Rodger!

You are right the TSS Earnslaw really is an amazing cruise and a floating museum. If the price isn't a factor it's certainly a hard cruise to beat in Queenstown.

Thanks Bailey