The Milford Sound is a quintessential day trip on New Zealand’s South Island that tends to get lots of love. Take a look at just about any “Top Things to Do In New Zealand” article and you’ll probably find Milford Sound at the number 1 spot.
The Milford Sound is often referred to as the 8th wonder of the world, first dubbed so by Nobel laureate Rudyard Kipling. Many visitors say it’s the most beautiful place they’ve ever seen. Milford Sound is also the crowning jewel of what is mainland New Zealand’s only Natural World Heritage Site.
Despite all the accolades, we still often see questions throughout several travel forums asking:
It is undeniable that the Milford Sound contains some stunning scenery. But is taking a Milford Sound tour really worth it?
To answer that question, first let’s understand the drawbacks that make travellers doubt whether venturing out to Milford Sound can be justified.
Here are the most common concerns that leave people asking if the Milford Sound is worth it:
1) The Time and Drive from Queenstown to Milford Sound
Many travellers find themselves in Queenstown only to realize that the journey to Milford Sound can take up to 5 hours to drive to, each way. That’s potentially 10 hours in a car if attempting to tour Milford Sound in a single day.
That’s quite a long way, particularly for visitors who may be on a short weeklong trip with little time to spare. And if you don’t have wheels, you’ll need to catch a bus.
So it begs the question: is Milford Sound worth the long drive or bus ride?
2) The Cost of Milford Sound
The Milford Sound is a body of water after all, so you’ll need to take a ride on a boat to experience its glory. Unless you happen to have a good friend in Fjordland with a boat, you’ll need to join a cruise tour to experience Milford Sound, which will cost you a few dollars.
Prices for these Milford Sound tours run well into the hundreds of dollars for a day trip from Queenstown. It can get expensive. But we’ve also found some cheaper Milford Sound deals starting at $45 NZD. (We show where the best Milford Sound tour deals are towards the end of this post.)
But whether you’re paying hundreds of NZD or $45 for a Milford Sound tour, it all makes you wonder is it really worth it?
3) The Need To Take a Milford Sound Tour
New Zealand is a mecca for adventurers, backpackers, and independent-minded travelers.
We’re also of this mindset and often prefer not to take group tours. The allure of the Milford Sound draws people in. But once realizing it takes a packaged tour to reach this natural wonder, it leaves many backpackers asking is the Milford Sound really worth it?
4) The Hype
Finally, we often find that destinations in the world so full of superlatives can end-up being letdowns overall. Places like the famous Leaning Tower of Pisa often get picked on as one of those overrated attractions.
So we too questioned if Milford Sound could be an overhyped site in New Zealand. Is it all hype or is Milford Sound really worth the time and money that it takes to get all the way out there?
So… Is Milford Sound Worth It?
We simply couldn’t ignore the advice that others had left before us, citing a Milford Sound cruise as a “must do.” We set off on a group tour with Real Journeys to find out for ourselves and answer the question of “Is Milford Sound worth it?”
The Short Answer:
Milford Sound is worth it. If you find yourself on the South Island and are debating whether or not to go to Milford Sound, our advice is to just do it! You’ve gotta go. The Milford Sound is, indeed, an amazing place in the world to experience.
The Long Answer:
We’ll offer our two-cents on just why we think a Milford Sound tour is, in fact, “worth it,” by taking you through our experience. From driving or bussing, time considerations, stopovers in Te Anau and even whether the food and booze is worth it; hopefully this post may give you some additional perspective on aspects to consider before deciding whether or not to pursue that trip to Milford Sound.
For our Milford Sound tour, we hitched a ride with Real Journeys on the Milford Mariner for this quintessential New Zealand excursion, which starts at $85 NZD for the 2018-2019 season, for the 2½ hour Nature Cruise around the famed fjord. (Note: less expensive options are available and booking info is listed towards the end of this post.)
Is Milford Sound Worth the Drive?
Regarding concerns about time, you have to realize that although the drive to Milford Sound is a lengthy one, it is also an extremely scenic drive. Really, the drive out to Milford Sound is half the appeal. If you have a rental car, there are many opportunities to stop along the way and you definitely should. Pull over, snap some pictures, or take a short stroll. You will find plenty of chances to do all of that en route to the Sound.
It’s an incredibly scenic drive! Similar to Milford Sound itself, the route from Queenstown to Milford Sound has been anointed with a slew of superlatives. The “Milford Road” is said by many to be one of the most scenic drives in New Zealand. We definitely found this claim to be true, particularly so on the latter portion of State Road 94, which runs from Te Anau to Milford Sound.
Consider Stopping in Te Anau to Break Up the Long Drive
If you’re worried about having a long day or a long drive from Queenstown to Milford Sound, another option to consider is breaking it up with an overnight stop in Te Anau. That’s exactly what we did and we found the town to be a very pleasant pit stop. So we now highly recommend. In Te Anau, there are restaurants, bars, shops, hikes, and even an excursion to see glow worms inside of a cave. (Glow worms guys!! It’s awesome!)
Another advantage of stopping overnight in Te Anau is since you are staying closer to Milford Sound, you have the option of taking a boat trip earlier in the morning or later in the afternoon. Those trips not only tend to be lower in price, but there’s another big advantage. There is less boat traffic in Milford Sound during these morning hours compared to the mid-day tours. This makes for a more serene time experiencing the natural beauty.
Additionally, for those without a car, you can easily make it from Queenstown to Te Anau by public transportation. There are regular busses from Queenstown to Te Anau. Once in Te Anau, you can join a Milford Sound bus tour from there. Doing it this way will cost less than if you were to take a bus tour directly from Queenstown (although this may come at the expense of convenience.)
If you have the time, it’s certainly well worth it to get to Te Anau on your own, staying there for a night, then joining a morning Milford Sound tour the next day.
Traveling Over The Milford Road
If you don’t have your own set of wheels, the best way to get to Milford Sound is to organize transpiration with the company you’ll be touring the Sound with to offer a worry-free connection to your boat tour. You can book coach + boat tours from either Queenstown or Te Anau. We hopped on a Real Journeys coach from Te Anau.
We had initially just considered this bus ride simply as transportation, a way to get from Te Anau to Milford Sound. But we were pleasantly surprised to discover that this bus ride turned out to be a full-on tour of its own. Our bus driver, Barry, provided interesting commentary along the entire way there with some deadpan humor occasionally thrown in for those who were really paying attention. Barry’s mellow and soothing voice provided an appropriate dialog to the amazing scenery we were passing. I seriously felt like I was inside a Bob Ross painting as Barry pointed out some little trees at the base of a mountain. (Bonus points to anyone reading this who gets this reference.)
The bus itself was nice. Yet what was really cool were the huge dome windows that curved right up around the top of the coach, enabling us to see the entire mountainous landscape that surrounded.
We weren’t just confined behind the windows. Barry also pulled over occasionally for us to get out and tramp around for a bit.
Here are a few of our favorite stops along the way.
Eglinton Flats provided a pleasant valley to stretch your legs.
Mirror Lake is not only a beautiful spot.
It’s very appropriately named.
Falls Creek provided some great views of the coastal mountains looming in the distance.
The glaciers are visible clinging to some of the mountain peaks. Always a stunning sight!
So is it worth it to take the coach to Milford Sound? We say, yes!
But this does depend on whether or not you already have a car. If you already have a rental car, I would just utilize that rather than letting it go unused for the day. But if you were without a vehicle, then we’d definitely recommend adding the coach trip to get you there in style as you learn a few things from Barry’s gentle narration.
Just sit back and relax!
Cruising on the Milford Sound
Once you arrive at the boat docks, it’s a smooth connection onto the ship. This is the main event. This is why you came here.
After a brief introduction from the Captain and the ship’s resident Naturalist, the boat embarks into the Sound. Excitement sets in.
Soaring limestone cliffs on either side of you. Towering snowcapped mountain peaks are off in the distance. Anxiously looking ahead, some amazing waterfalls begin to come into focus. But you can’t neglect the look back as the looming Mount Mitre starts to take center stage. It’s at this point where you may find yourself running all around the ship in attempts to take in all 360-degrees of the awesomeness that surrounds.
Further through the fjord, you now reach some enormous waterfalls just throwing water down the sides of sheer cliffs. There are two permanent waterfalls in the fjord, Lady Bowen Fall and Stirling Falls. You’ll get a nice up-close look at each of them, beginning with Lady Bowen Falls.
Our captain claimed Stirling Falls is three times the height of Niagara! It’s hard to believe. So to really get a feel for it, he drove the bow of the ship right underneath the pounding Falls. It was really cool and we were a little surprised this big ship could maneuver its way under the Falls.
Meanwhile, don’t get too distracted by the geology and forget about the Sound’s animal friends. Pods of dolphins can occasionally be spotted in the fjord, as can penguins (rare). We didn’t see any, but we did find some lazy seals sunning themselves on low-lying rocks below the looming granite crags rising above. They seemed to just be soaking in the amazing views.
Seals + mountains + cliffs + waterfalls + boat ride = worth it!
After floating through a narrow section of the fjord, you eventually round a few corners to reach the wide-open Tasman Sea. Its here that you look back into the fjord, which appears somewhat hidden, and realize how Captain James Cook easily missed the fjord’s entrance when he first sailed by it in the late 1700s.
A pleasant surprise for us was the lack of Milford Sound being crowded. Knowing that it’s one of New Zealand’s most popular tourism destinations, we figured the Milford Sound would be buzzing with boats whisking group after group all through this waterway. Yet during our entire tour, we only encountered two other boats. The Mariner’s sister ship, the Milford Wanderer cruised near us for much of the journey and we crossed paths with only one other boat early in our voyage.
The Milford Sound is said to have about 400,000 visitors per year. For perspective, compare that with the Grand Canyon’s nearly 5 million visitors annually and you’ll realize that a trip into the fjord actually isn’t a crowded paradise-lost after all.
The ship itself was nice and there always seemed to be plenty of space. Occasionally areas in the front of the boat would start to get a little bit packed, so we often found the stern (back) of the ship to be a perfect place to go and take unobstructed pictures of the amazing surrounds! With it being such a nice day, the comfy interior, which still afforded fantastic views through the windows, was virtually empty. This was a great place to relax and hide out!
Is It Worth Taking a Longer Milford Sound Tour?
Some cruises take a 90-minute tour of Milford Sound but we chose a tour that ran for nearly two and a half hours. Our verdict: We thought this longer Milford Sound tour was most definitely worth it. The shorter tours will save you about $20-$30 NZD, but we think it’s worth spending the extra cash for the extra hour. After coming all the way out this way, why rush the experience and see the entire Milford Sound?
It’s nice to have the extra time to really enjoy it. A full two and a half hours out on the water accomplished that for us. You don’t want to race through all that beautiful scenery. Instead, be like those seals you’ll see and just soak it all in!
There are even longer options if you want to consider doing an overnight journey and bunk up on the ship. The cabins that opened up to the outside looked pretty comfy!
Is Lunch Worth It at Milford Sound?
Whether starting in Te Anau or Queenstown, the trip to Milford Sound ends up being a pretty full day. So chances are, you’re going to want some lunch at some point along the way. Coffee and tea were complimentary to satiate your caffeine fix, but you’ll have to plan accordingly to ensure you’ll eat.
On our excursion, you could add boxed lunch that started at $17 NZD and needed to be preordered. Instead, we went to the supermarket and packed our own lunch. The boxed lunches aboard the ship looked good and are definitely convenient. But is it worth it to buy lunch on a Milford Sound tour?
We say: no. At $17 for a sandwich and some snacks, we say it’s worth the extra effort to bring your own takeaway, which is permitted on these Milford Sound tours.
Are Drinks Worth It?
Beer and wine onboard our ship was surprisingly reasonable (by NZ standards). A can of Tui beer runs $5.50 and bottles of Monteiths (4 varieties) were $6.50. Prices for a glass of local wine start at $10 or get an entire bottle for $38. Liquor was also available. You’re on holiday, so why not have a little booze cruise while on the Milford Sound tour.
So is it worth it to have some drinks? We say, yes! Make some friends and split a bottle of wine or go with a beer or two.
Is a Milford Sound Tour Worth It in the Rain?
Throughout the photos, you may have noticed that we were very lucky to have clear blue skies during our trip, which we understand is rare for this rainy area of New Zealand. But is the Milford Sound worth it in the rain?
I probably wouldn’t let a rainy forecast factor much into your decision on whether or not to pursue a Milford Sound tour. The reason why I say this is three-fold.
1) The weather seems to change so frequently in this part of the world and we found many forecasts to pan out incorrect.
2) If it does rain and you don’t want to get wet, there is plenty of space in the enclosed part of the boat with wide windows to still take in all the spectacular, albeit rainy, views.
3) The Milford Sound can still be very enjoyable in the rain. The Captain of our ship explained that during and after rains, the two permanent waterfalls become more powerful and impressive. Additionally, there are dozens more waterfalls that spring up along the sides of the Sound and also on the mountain walls during the drive in on the Milford Road.
So, is Milford Sound Worth Going to in the Rain? While we can’t answer from firsthand experience, the Captain and Barry the bus driver both assured us that it is, in fact, worth it. Misty peaks emerging up from low lying clouds with many more waterfalls raging on in many different directions sounds like it could be a magical sight. So it still seems to be worth the trip in the rain. But we’ll still keep our fingers crossed you get blue skies too!
Final Thoughts: Is Milford Sound Worth It?
We say an enthusiastic yes!
Of course, this is all just our two cents, so take it as you want. But I will add that we travelled for a month throughout New Zealand and never did we hear anyone say “Nah, I wish we hadn’t gone to the Milford Sound.”
Instead, everyone we spoke to seemed to have similar sentiments and raved about their experience and it became a conversation point to bond over. In our informal poll of people we crossed paths with, everyone agreed that the Milford Sound was, in fact, worth it!
If You Go To Milford Sound:
Cost & Info of This Milford Sound Nature Cruise:
We quite enjoyed and recommend this Nature Cruise on the Milford Mariner. We definitely give our experience on the Milford Mariner a good review. Summer rates for this Milford Sound tour start at $91 NZD for the cruise only ($79 NZD during winter). The package including coach from Te Anau begins at $160 NZD, or $199 NZD from Queenstown.
The Milford Mariner also does overnight Milford Sound excursions with kayaking and meals included.
How To Get to Milford Sound
You can either:
- take a bus, or
- even splurge on a flight!
If you don’t have your own car, cheap rentals are available in Queenstown. Hiring a car in Queenstown can sometimes be even less expensive than taking the bus, particularly if so if you have a group of four that can share the cost. I wouldn’t attempt to do the drive in one day though because it would involve 8-10 hours of driving there and back. Instead, consider a two or three-day rental and stay in Te Anau. This will also give you time to stop all along the way, where there are many worthwhile short treks. We found the best prices for rental cars in Queenstown by searching on Priceline, with rates starting at about $65 NZD per day, including taxes.
Travel by Bus: While there is an Intercity bus that goes from Queenstown to Milford Sound, we recommend to use caution in taking it in combination with a separately booked cruise, because the tours may not line up perfectly. And if there is any delay with the bus, you’ll risk missing your Milford Sound Cruise. Instead, take a Milford Sound tour that includes a bus transport, whether from Te Anau or Queenstown.
Travel by Bus in Combination with Milford Sound Cruise Tour: If you’re going to take a bus, it’s best to book one in combination with the cruise for a seamless connection. We suggest several bus + cruise options in the next section.
Splurge: Fly to from Queenstown to Milford Sound: If you have more money than you do time, this is most definitely the best way to go. Avoid the round trip 8-10 hours on the roadway to Milford Sound and instead experience it from above! By air, you gain a whole new perspective of the snow-covered mountain peaks and lakes as a pilot takes you in a small plane over the Southern Alps. The flight takes only a bit more than a half-hour each way, making it possible to experience the grandeur of Milford Sound in about four hours total from Queenstown, rather than the 14-hours roundtrip day trip by bus. It’s a pricey proposition, but if you can afford it, it looks to be well worth it for this once-in-a-lifetime premium experience! Check prices here for round-trip flights including a Milford Sound nature cruise.
Be Sure To Book Milford Sound Tour In Advance during High Season
If you’re planning to take a Milford Sound tour during the high season, particularly during a holiday weekend, be sure to book your Milford Sound cruise well in advance! Milford Sound tours are very popular trips in New Zealand.
Your ideal time or tour may be booked full if you don’t get a chance to reserve your space in time. We recommend to book your Milford Sound cruise through Viator since they have a low-price guarantee AND they allow free cancelation if your plans change. This gives peace of mind to secure your booking in advance before these trips become fully booked.
Preparing for a Day At Milford Sound: What to Bring
- What to wear: Wear comfortable clothes and non-slip shoes, appropriate for boating. You can check the weather for Milford Sound here and dress accordingly.
- Camera: Don’t forget your camera and be sure you fully charge it the night before. Also, ensure there’s plenty of space on your memory card because you’re probably going to take way more pictures than you realize.
- Prepare for Rain: If there’s even a slight chance of rain in the forecast, which is likely, bring a poncho or rain jacket. Also, consider a waterproof bag to keep that camera safe from rain.
- Lunch: Be sure to pre-order your lunch or bring your own.
- Drinks: Bring something to quench your thirst. While there is water available during the cruise, it probably wouldn’t hurt to bring a bottle for the ride to Milford Sound.
- Cash money: Bring some cash if you want to indulge in any drinks or snacks while on the ship.
Bathrooms at Milford Sound
There are toilets on the boats and at the docks. There are no restrooms on the bus, but one bathroom break is provided during the drive from Te Anau to Milford Sound. No stops upon the return. Plan accordingly.
Finally, simply be prepared for a relaxing and memorable day in New Zealand. Enjoy it!