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The Absolute BEST Milford Sound Cruise + How to Choose a Cruise

The Absolute BEST Milford Sound Cruise + How to Choose a Cruise

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Visiting Milford Sound is undoubtedly one of the best things to do in New Zealand. Almost 1 million people from all over the world visit each year and that number is only growing! While there are many ways to experience Milford Sound, the most popular way to explore Milford is on a Milford Sound cruise.

From the water, you can truly gauge Milford’s true size and beauty. You can stare up at the 83-meter (600-foot) sheer cliffs or spot some of Milford’s impressive marine and birdlife that call this ancient fiord home!

With a place so amazing it’s important to get your experience right. After joining lots of different Milford Sound cruises, I’ve come to realize that not every cruise is the same! My favorite experience has been a small boat tour that even includes kayaking in Milford Sound, so you can get close to everything.

Before you book your Milford Sound Cruise, I wanted to provide some insight from my past experience (some mediocre and some were EPIC!). So, here’s everything you need to know about a boat cruise in Milford Sound and what I consider to be the BEST cruise in Milford Sound!

Don’t have time to read the full article? The absolute best Milford Sound cruises are on small boats so you can get right up to the stunning landscape of the fiord. I personally loved taking the Small Boutique Cruise and this Milford Sound Scenic Cruise, both were fantastic experiences!

About Milford Sound, New Zealand

Milford SOund at sunset after our Milford Sound cruise
A stunning sunset in Milford Sound

To kick things off, let’s dive into a few facts about Milford Sound. For starters, Milford Sound, as it’s called, is in fact not a “sound” at all!

A “sound” is the word used to describe a gorge or valley formed by river erosion. Since Milford Sound is actually a glacier-carved valley, it isn’t a “sound” at all but rather a fiord (hence its location in Fiordland National Park). The mistake wasn’t corrected until the name had stuck and to be honest, Milford Fiord doesn’t really have the same ring to it!

Milford Sound has been a tourist attraction for over a hundred years, but in the early days, the journey to Milford was done on foot or horseback.

In fact, the road to Milford Sound from Te Anau wasn’t completed until 1953 when the Homer Tunnel was finally completed after 20 years of construction.

The closest town to Milford Sound is Te Anau. From Te Anau, Milford Sound is a 1.5-hour drive. From Queenstown, the drive takes around 3 to 4 hours.

The rock formations, waterfalls, cliff faces, and beautiful turquoise water are why Milford Sound is so spectacular and therefore so popular. Some refer to Milford Sound as the unofficial “eighth wonder of the world”.

After visiting Milford Sound for myself on a few different occasions, I completely agree!

Related Read: Take advantage of all the free and cheap things there are to do in Queenstown!

Is a Boat Cruise the Best way to Explore Milford Sound?

Looking out the back of a boat on a Milford Sound Cruise
I love bluebird days in Milford Sound!

Yes! Without a doubt, a Milford Sound cruise is the best way to explore Milford Sound. Of course, there are lots of other amazing things to do in Milford Sound but a boat cruise is accessible to everyone, affordable, and you get the see a lot of Milford Sound.

Other ways to explore Milford Sound that deserve a mention are by foot from the shore, on a scenic flight either in Milford Sound or from Queenstown, and via the Milford Track which finishes in Milford Sound.

There is one other way though that rivals a cruise, and that’s kayaking in Milford Sound! Although you can’t see as much of Milford Sound in a kayak, the feeling of being in a tiny kayak in Milford Sound is one Bailey and I will never forget!

With that said, you absolutely must join a Milford Sound cruise when you visit so, here’s my recommendation on the best cruise in Milford Sound!

Related Read: The South Island of New Zealand has no shortage of things to do so have a look at the best South Island destinations!

The BEST Cruise in Milford Sound

A woman looks up at the side of Mitre peak in Milford on a MIlford SOund Boat cruise
Mitre Peak from the side on our second Milford Sound cruise

Ok so, I haven’t done every single cruise in Milford Sound but I have done three – and that’s more than most people! The best part is that they were all different cruises so I have a really good idea of what makes up the best cruise in Milford!

With that said, my favorite Milford Sound Cruise is hands down the Small Boutique Cruise! But why?

Well for starters, these sightseeing cruises are longer than many scenic cruises so you get to spend more time in Milford Sound. Another reason is that the boats are smaller as they need to navigate closer to the rocks to see wildlife. This means you get a more personal experience!

The last reason is that on a Small Boutique Cruise, you will get a professional nature guide who is an expert at spotting wildlife, the most likely animals to be seen are dolphins, fur seals, and penguins! So not only do you have a chance to see them up close but you also get to learn all about them!

If you want an even longer and equally good if not better version of the Milford Small Boutique Cruise, then join this Milford Sound Scenic Cruise, you’ll be out on the water for 2 hours and the boat is much smaller and more exclusive feeling! It holds up to 65 people whereas the Sightseeing Cruise can hold up to 75 people.

One nice thing about both of these cruises is that when booking they will give you the option to add on an additional lunch for a few more dollars, what could be a better place for lunch than being aboard the best cruise in Milford with 360-degree views!?

However, don’t take my word that either of these is the best cruise in Milford Sound, you can see all cruise reviews online and book here!

I recommend booking the Small Boutique Cruise and the Milford Sound Scenic Cruise in advance, both are very popular options and might fill up if you wait!

Important Info: You can’t join either of these cruises on any tour from Queenstown or Te Anau, only self-drive visitors can make the departure! If you’re driving yourself, consider spending a night in Milford too!

Highlights on the BEST Cruise in Milford Sound

Now that you’ve chosen your cruise (I hope) it’s time for a little look into some of the highlights in Milford Sound you’re going to see on a cruise!

1. Bowen Falls

Bowen Falls in Milford Sound
The beautiful Bowen Falls

This is the first waterfall you’ll see, and it is powerful! On the right-hand side as soon as you depart from the jetty, you will see this magnificent waterfall and know that going on a Milford Sound cruise was the right choice!

Bowen Falls actually provides all the power in Milford Sound and is one of the permanent waterfalls in the fiord.

2. Mitre Peak

getting to milford sound
Mitre Peak from the foreshore in Milford Sound!

Mitre Peak is a large pointed mountain that has become somewhat of an icon for Milford Sound. It’s the most photographed mountain in Milford Sound and is one of my favorite mountains in the world!

While you can see Mitre Peak from the shore, you get up close on the boat cruise and see her from a completely different angle!

3. Fairy Falls

Fairy Falls in Milford SOund on our Milford boat cruise
Getting super close to Fairy Falls

Fairy Falls is a semi-permanent waterfall in Milford Sound. Although not always there, Fairy Falls hangs around for most of the year. This waterfall is a popular place for boat cruises to stop and fill up your glass with some of the purest water in the world!

However, you’ll only do this on a Small Boutique Cruise or the Milford Sound Scenic Cruise as the Scenic Cruise boats are far too big to get close enough! That’s part of the perks of smaller boat tours- you get to see a lot more!

4. Seal Rock

fur seals at milford
Can you see the seals hanging out on the rock?

Seal Rock is the best place in Milford Sound to see, you guessed it… seals! New Zealand Fur Seals were almost hunted to extinction however these days they’re protected and Seal Rock is their favorite place to hang out.

If it is a nice day out, you will likely be lucky enough to spot some Fur Seals sunbathing on the rocks. We saw a couple of them, some napping, swimming, and one was actually roaring at us! They were fun to watch!

5. Stirling Falls

stiriling falls in milford sound
Get ready to get wet!

This is the waterfall that you get up close and personal with on a Nature Cruise. The boat driver drove us right up to the falls and from the front of the boat you would get soaked (they provided raincoats onboard.)

We could even collect the fresh water in a cup to drink afterward, having some of the freshest water in the world!

Related Read: If you are already thinking about booking a Milford Sound tour then you’ll also want to consider the best tours in Queenstown which is nearby!

Milford Sound Cruise FAQs

boarding the milford sound boat cruise

The Best Time of Year for a Milford Sound Cruise

exploring milford sound on a boat
Look at that rainbow!

Unlike the Milford Sound Track, a Milford Sound cruise is amazing at any time of the year! In fact, going on a cruise in Milford in winter (as we did once) was perfect because it was not very busy and the surrounding mountains were covered in snow! We found parking without any problems, there was no traffic on the roads, and our boat cruise wasn’t packed full of people.

The summer months (December to February) are the busiest season which means if you are driving there yourself, you will need to be patient in order to find parking if you arrive after 10 am. Parking is also no longer free and costs $10 an hour! If you’re parking, I’d plan to allot 45 min – 1 hour to park, walk to the meeting point, and board the cruise.

Summer tip: Be sure to book your cruise in advance as the smaller cruises book up well in advance!

Weather on a Milford Sound Cruise

Milford Sound on a cloudy day
Milford Sound on a cloudy, rainy day is still beautiful!

It rains a lot in Milford Sound, up to 250 days per year, and on the days it isn’t rainy it is often cloudy.

Milford Sound is beautiful in the sun, however, it’s equally as beautiful in the rain. When it is raining more than 1,800 waterfalls can be created from the surrounding cliffs!

When it stops raining, 90% of these waterfalls dry up within hours. So while we are always glad to have a bright and sunny day, we do miss all the waterfalls!

To be honest though, Milford Sound is better without rain and best just after rain with sunshine. So, if you can, go on a day without rain but, don’t let the rain ruin your experience because the odds are against you!

Tips for Going on a Milford Sound Cruise

The Milford Sound Swing, New Zealand
The Milford Sound Swing, New Zealand
  • Bring bug repellent – Our tour provider told us to bring some when we booked our Milford Sound Cruise but I didn’t think it would be necessary since it was winter…I was wrong. The bugs are bad and they leave nasty bites. I am not sure if they are sandflies or midges, but they are annoying regardless!
  • Pack lots of snacks and water – Your day could be a long one and food and water are expensive in Milford Sound. Our cruise did, however, include lunch, snacks, and water.
  • Be prepared for any weather – We didn’t think we would get sun so we didn’t bring sunscreen or sunglasses, both we could’ve used! A rain jacket and umbrella would also be useful.
  • Allow plenty of time to get to Milford Sound – the tunnel near Milford Sound sometimes makes you wait up to 20 minutes before passing through. Road conditions can also slow down the drive by a lot!

Related Read: Be sure to check out our Milford Sound Swing post here so you learn about how to find it during your visit! This is an iconic photo spot- did you even visit Milford Sound if you don’t get a photo here!?

How to get to Milford Sound for a Cruise

There are literally hundreds of ways to experience Milford Sound in your own unique way!

To help you choose here are the 6 best ways to get to Milford Sound to enjoy a Milford Sound cruise!

1. Full-day Tour from Queenstown

Another common stop on the way to Milford Sound fro  boat cruise
A common stop on the way to Milford Sound in the Eglinton Valley

Without a doubt, a day cruise in Milford Sound from Queenstown is the most popular and convenient way to explore the fiord! With most of the trips from Queenstown, you can choose the type of cruise you do, add lunch, or even a kayaking trip!

From Queenstown, the drive to Milford Sound takes around 4 hours each way on a tour bus. Luckily though, the drive (between Te Anau and Milford) is also an attraction on its own and most of the companies who travel to Milford stop at some stunning spots along the way. It’s a double-feature tour!

My favorite tour from Queenstown to Milford Sound is this full-day small group tour. With over 1,000 positive reviews- I’d say it’s a fan-favorite as well. Many of these tours will be huge, so I love that this one has a max of 16 people. Not only will you have a 2-hour small-boat cruise, but you’ll make lots of stops as you travel to Milford to break up the drive. This tour includes all entrance fees for the national park and cruise, lunch, a tour guide, and transportation, you simply show up and enjoy!

Visiting Milford from Queenstown is a popular option, so be sure to book this tour in advance before it fills up. You can secure your spot for $289 NZD!

There are ample tours from Queenstown that travel by bus, take around 12 hours, and leave around 7 am. It’s a long day but as I’ve said, it’s super convenient and easy for those who don’t have a car!

2. Full-day Tour from Te Anau

A viewpoint on the road to Milford Sound
Pop’s Viewpoint on the road from Te Anau to Milford Sound

Te Anau is only a 1.5-hour drive from Milford Sound so it’s common to join a tour from there. Although the tours from Te Anau to Milford Sound are almost identical to the tours from Queenstown, but you have the added bonus of being much closer to Milford meaning you can spend more time in the fiord and less time on a bus.

This 9-hour tour from Te Anau also stops at some of the most impressive places on the road to Milford Sound! Once you arrive at Milford, your 2-hour small boat cruise and lunch on board are all included in the tour price. This is another low-stress tour option, so you can simply enjoy Milford Sound.

Tours from Te Anau also don’t leave until around 9 am so you get a little bit of a sleep-in on your holiday! You can reserve this tour for $264 NZD per person, and I recommend booking it in advance.

The problem I have with this option is that if you have a car and have already driven yourself to Te Anau, it makes sense just to drive yourself to Milford Sound too! With the info in the next section, you’ll know all the best places to stop on the way.

You should, however, spend a night in Te Anau or Milford Sound (more on that later) so you have plenty of time to explore the area!

Why We Book Tours with Viator

Viator is a trusted online booking system for tours around the world! We almost always book our 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! Or, read our complete Viator review to learn more about what we think about Viator.

3. Self-drive to Milford Sound

Bailey sitting on a rock at Lake Marian on the way to Miflord Sound
If you stay in Te Anau you can hike to Lake Marian on your way to Milford Sound

This is my top choice when it comes to experiencing Milford Sound in an adventurous way but also on a budget. My personal recommendation is to spend a night in Te Anau (or Milford Sound) and leave from there. It’ll give you more time to explore the stunning stops along Milford Road and still join a cruise later in the afternoon.

If you don’t already have a car, simply rent one in Queenstown for your epic road trip to Milford!

If you’re leaving from Queenstown or Te Anau and want even more time then consider staying at the Milford Lodge. The Milford Lodge is the only hotel in Milford Sound and it’s located only a 5-minute walk from the foreshore. It’s not the cheapest place to stay but if you have a campervan then you can get a powered site for only $120 per night – not bad considering its location! Alternatively, they offer budget dorm rooms all the way to chalets for $700 a night!

If you want additional options, check out our blog post on where to stay in Milford Sound!

I have stayed at the lodge and it gave me an entire day to drive from Te Anau to Milford Sound. I stopped at places like the Lake Marian Track, Mirror Lakes, and the Key Summit and still had time for a cruise the next day! Both of my favorite Milford Sound cruises mentioned earlier, the Small Boutique Cruise and the Milford Sound Scenic Cruise are self-drive options and depart from the Milford Sound Visitor Center.

If you’re self-driving then be sure to read my post on the perfect Milford Sound itinerary from Queenstown. Although the article starts in Queenstown, just use the stops and estimated times as a guide from Te Anau onwards.

Related Read: Use this outline of several different New Zealand road trip itineraries to help you start planning your trip!

4. Bus tour from Queenstown to Milford with a Scenic Return Flight

Milford Sound Nature Cruise
The best cruise in Milford Sound!

The next way I highly recommend you to consider is the bus ride to Milford Sound with a return flight back to Queenstown. The reason you must take the return flight on the way way back is so you don’t miss the stops on the way to Milford Sound (the buses drive straight back to Queenstown without stopping after the cruises).

Although this way is a lot more expensive, just think of the adventure! The flight from Milford Sound to Queenstown only takes around 40 minutes and flies straight over the Southern Alps!

As you can imagine, this way is much quicker, and instead of the 4-hour drive home, you’ll be taking the fast way home cutting off over 3 hours of your day! You’ll see Milford from the road, water, and air – it’s really the full tour of Milford!

This tour is $732 NZD and includes transportation from Queenstown via bus, your Milford cruise, and the scenic flight. It’s about an 8-hour day and doesn’t include lunch so be sure to bring extra money. Be sure to book this tour in advance, as it’s a popular option!

You can also view a range of scenic flight options here!

5. Scenic Flight to and from Milford Sound

A helicopter flies though Milford Sound, New Zealand
A helicopter flies over Fiordland, southern New Zealand.

If you really want to shorten the trip and enjoy a day in the air then flying both to and from Milford Sound is a great option.

These fly/cruise/fly tours are the most expensive and often cost $600-$1,000 NZD with a cruise included. However, with this option, you can leave at 7 am and be back in Queenstown in time for lunch!

This half-day tour is a great option for those on a tighter budget, but still allows you to have two flights and a boat cruise! Departing from Queenstown, you’ll fly over the gorgeous Southern Alps and land in Milford. Then head on a 2-hour cruise, and if there’s time to spare you can explore the sound on foot for a bit before flying back to Queenstown. This 5-hour tour is $645 NZD and can be booked in advance here!

However, if you’re looking to make the most out of your scenic flight experience, you can land on top of a glacier too! This helicopter tour from Queenstown soars over Milford Sound and lands for a 2-hour cruise. Upon flying back, you’ll land on top of Mt Tutoko to walk on a glacier. On the helicopter flights, you’ll have commentary from your pilot and might even spot dolphins and seals in the water.

While this scenic flight is a bit more at $1,330 NZD per person, it’s a seriously epic experience. You can book this tour here!

You will miss the stops on the road to Milford Sound but with the views you get from both flights, you won’t really care!

6. Milford Sound Overnight Cruise

Milford sound sunset
Can you spot the overnight cruise in Milford Sound??

My last option is something I have never had the pleasure of doing but honestly is a dream of mine! Spending the night on a Milford Sound cruise is the most epic way to explore the fiord.

Just imagine Milford Sound with almost no other people around, and quiet in all its beauty! Yep, I’m already jealous of you just thinking about doing it!

There are a few different ways to join an overnight cruise. You can either drive yourself to Milford Sound, get picked up in Queenstown, or even Te Anau! Regardless though, this is one experience that’s truly unchallenged!

Currently, there is only one company that runs overnight cruises in Milford and you can check availability and book online here!

Road Conditions on the Drive to Milford Sound

Waiting at the Homer tunnel on the road to Milford Sound, New Zealand
Waiting at the Homer tunnel on the road to Milford Sound, New Zealand

If you’ve decided to drive yourself to Milford Sound then it’s important to check the road conditions before setting off. In summer you likely won’t have any problems, but in winter things are different.

We had perfect road conditions on all our visits, but I could see how the drive could be slow and somewhat dangerous during icy road conditions. The last 20 minutes or so before getting to Milford Sound is very steep and narrow.

You can check the up-to-date road reports for updates before departing Te Anau to avoid road closures in the winter and disappointment.

Related Read: If you’re visiting Milford Sound in winter be sure to read our complete guide before you go! We include the best things to do and tips for getting there.

Staying Overnight in Te Anau

where to stay in te anu
Fiordland Lakeview Motel and Apartments in Te Anau!

By staying in Te Anau the night before and after your Milford Sound cruise you will be less rushed and able to spend one full day at Milford Sound (and even stick around after the cruise to wait for sunset!)

In Te Anau, there are quite a lot of different places to stay including really nice caravan parks with rooms available at great prices. We stayed at the Lakeview Kiwi Holiday Park and it was great! But there are lots of other options too!

Some great options for where to stay in Te Anau are:

Te Anau Lakefront Backpackers (budget hostel)

Located right in the town center this is the perfect choice for the budget traveler. They offer dorm beds as well as private rooms and have communal kitchen facilities and common spaces available. This is a great social hostel – perfect for meeting other travelers.

Te Anau Lakeview Kiwi Holiday Park (mid-range budget)

This holiday park is where we stayed as it had budget private rooms as well as powered campsites (perfect for Daniel’s parents who were with us and had rented a campervan,) It is located just outside of town but in a very beautiful and peaceful area. There are tons of communal facilities and the park is kept very clean.

Fiordland Lakeview Motel and Apartments (high budget)

If you want a beautiful, comfortable, and somewhat luxurious place to stay then this is it! Right on the edge of the lake, this motel offers apartments that suit couples or families. Every room has a balcony, WiFi, air conditioning, a kitchen, and there are BBQ facilities onsite!

Click here to browse other accommodations available in Te Anau.

Renting a Car or Campervan in New Zealand

small campervan in new zealand
Mad Campers is one of our favorite campervan rental companies.
Bailey stands infront of a JUCY campervan in New Zealand
JUCY is another favorite!

The first step to planning your New Zealand road trip is choosing your set of wheels! Most people rent a campervan or motorhome to get around, but you can also just rent a normal car and stay in hotels (as opposed to camping.)

You can search for rental cars online here in advance to compare car models and prices.

You can also do this with motorhomes and campervans on a website called Motorhome Republic. It shows all of the available campervans and motorhomes for your specific New Zealand road trip dates. You can compare prices and company reviews here too!

Personally, we have rented a campervan from a company called Mad Campers before and had a great experience. Mad Campers is for budget travelers and they offer 1 and 2 berth campervans that are very comfortable and perfect for a road trip in New Zealand! You can read our full Mad Campers review for more info!

We also have a discount code for our readers. Use DTRAVEL5 at checkout to get 5% off your campervan rental with Mad Campers!

The only downside to Mad Campers is that they have limited inventory, so they might already be sold out for your travel dates. In that case, your next best option is JUCY. We love JUCY because they have such a range of both cars and campervans available so you’re pretty much guaranteed to find something to suite your budget and travel style. You can check prices, availability and book with JUCY online here.

Kiwi Motorhomes is another company we personally recommend but specifically for motorhomes! They offer luxury motorhomes (as opposed to budget campervans) at really reasonable rates. Check out our full review on them as well as more info specific on renting a motorhome in NZ in our guide!

Kiwi Motorhomes has actually given us a discount code for our readers too! Use the code DEST5 at checkout to get 5% off your motorhome rental!

Don’t get Caught without Travel Insurance!

We never travel without travel insurance! We’ve had a few instances during our travels when one of us has ended up in the hospital, and travel insurance has saved us thousands of dollars over the years!

SafetyWing is our go-to insurance, we both have policies with them whenever we travel.

They offer travel medical insurance that’s super affordable (only $45 USD per 4 weeks!)The only thing to note is that the insurance must be purchased once you’ve left your home country – we typically buy it as soon as we land at the airport.  

We’ve personally used SafetyWing for many different trips, and we’ve been reimbursed for countless expenses when we’ve fallen ill. SafetyWing even covered our flights back to Canada in full when the pandemic first happened (when last-minute flights before the borders closed were super expensive!) While most travel insurance companies left people stranded, SafetyWing fully reimbursed us for our last-minute, pricey flights!

Also, because it is so affordable, there really is no excuse not to take out a policy. Check prices and get a quote online here with SafetyWing (you can even take out a policy if you’re already traveling!)

Thanks for reading!

Daniel and I pose for a photo on our Milford Sound cruise
Thanks for reading!

Milford Sound is still one of my favorite places in New Zealand and on a Milford Sound cruise, you really get the best experience! I hope this blog has helped you plan your adventure in this stunning fiord and if you have any questions please leave them below!

If you liked this blog then be sure to check out all our New Zealand travel guides as well as the blogs we have about Milford Sound! We have so much info on New Zealand that will make your trip easy to plan! A few other related articles you might like are:

The best (and worst) waterfalls in the Catlins

25 BEST Things to do on New Zealand’s West Coast

ULTIMATE Guide to renting a campervan in New Zealand