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ULTIMATE Guide for Traveling from Queenstown to Milford Sound

ULTIMATE Guide for Traveling from Queenstown to Milford Sound

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One of the most visited places from Queenstown is Milford Sound. In fact, some might even say it is more popular than Queenstown itself. Regardless, it’s safe to say that a trip from Queenstown to Milford Sound is high on everyone’s list of things to do in New Zealand.

I have been lucky enough to visit Milford Sound three times from Queenstown and during these visits have explored many of the top things to do in Milford – some that took my breath away and others not so much.

Most visitors, however, only get one chance. So I decided to write this guide to the perfect trip from Queenstown to Milford Sound.

This blog will help you plan your own trip from Queenstown to Milford Sound by outlining what I consider to be an ideal Milford Sound itinerary on a self-driven road trip, as well as some great tours to choose from if you don’t have your own wheels!

Don’t have time to read the full article? You can easily drive yourself to Milford Sound and book a Small Boat Cruise to experience the gorgeous fiord. Or, if you’re looking for a more relaxed experience, this tour includes transport from Queenstown and the cruise! But my favorite option includes a scenic flight for the most incredible views of Milford Sound!

How to get from Queenstown to Milford Sound

When it comes to getting to Milford Sound from Queenstown you have two options: drive yourself, or go on an organized tour. Here are some pros and cons to both options and points to consider before you make your choice!

Drive Yourself from Queenstown to Milford Sound

the trip from queenstown to milford sound in beautiful
The road to Milford is gorgeous!

If you already have your own wheels then this is a no-brainer, drive yourself to Milford Sound! But if you don’t, then you’ll need to get a rental car for this trip.

Driving yourself gives you a ton more freedom to explore all of the best things to do in Milford Sound. It also allows you to spend a night in Milford Sound or Te Anau (which I personally recommend and you can read more about below).

The only downside to driving yourself from Queenstown to Milford Sound is that you need to plan your own route. However, if you follow my road trip itinerary below, then you’ll see all of the best places and enjoy your trip for sure!

I recommend booking a Milford Sound cruise in the afternoon to allow yourself plenty of time to drive from Queenstown to Milford and enjoy the stops. If you choose to drive yourself, you absolutely need to book a cruise in advance. Our favorite cruise that departs from Milford (without transportation) is this 2-hour Nature Cruise. We love that it is a smaller boat so it can navigate into the tight areas in the fiord to give you an up-close experience.

Taking a cruise is the top of the must-do activities in Milford Sound, and since you drove yourself you’ll have plenty of time to see the other fun things in the area. You must book a cruise in advance (I can’t stress that enough!) so check your schedule and book this tour online here. Tickets are $149 NZD per person.

One thing to keep in mind though is that the drive from Queenstown to Milford Sound is roughly 4 hours (without stopping). So… should you do a day trip to Milford Sound? I wouldn’t if you’re self-driving. If you only have one day, take a guided day tour instead (more on that in the next section).

Note: The road from Queenstown to Milford Sound sometimes closes due to weather. If you’re driving yourself during the winter be sure to carry snow chains and know how to use them. All times of year check road reports before departing Queenstown just to be sure! Also, read our guide to visiting Milford Sound in winter!

Organized day trip from Queenstown to Milford Sound

A viewpoint on the road to Milford Sound
Pop’s Viewpoint on the road from Queenstown to Milford Sound. This is a stop on most bus tours from Queenstown.

Going on an organized tour from Queenstown to Milford Sound is the easiest way to make this journey. You don’t need to plan anything and you’ll visit Milford Sound in just one day! This is also a great way to enjoy the road trip, as there is a lot to see along the way. Having a tour guide will ensure you don’t miss any scenic viewpoints, sparkling lakes, or impressive waterfalls!

It also makes securing your spot on a cruise easier. Cruises of Milford Sound are a very popular activity, and the best ones fill up quickly. Booking a tour that includes a cruise will ensure you get a good tour, which is one of those small boats that allow you to get up close to the gorgeous scenery.

This option is perfect for people who don’t drive or are very limited on time.

With that said, visiting Milford Sound from Queenstown in just one day can feel very rushed and you’ll spend a lot of time just on the bus. Milford is about 4 hours from Queenstown, so it does make for a long day. But if you only have one day to see Milford Sound, it is totally worth it!

At the bottom of this blog, I’ve outlined the best tours from Queenstown to Milford Sound including options that reduce driving time! But if you feel confident that this is the best tour option for you, you can book it in advance here!

Related Read: Looking for another beautiful place to visit on the South Island? Check out Mount Cook National Park, home to New Zealand’s highest mountain and tons of hiking trails!

Staying in Milford Sound Overnight

the milford sound lodge is one of the best options of where to stay in milford
The Milford Sound Lodge!

In my opinion, the only way to truly explore the spectacular stops in Fiordland National Park on your way from Queenstown to Milford Sound is to spend a night in Milford Sound.

Without stopping, the journey to Milford Sound from Queenstown is 4 hours.

That makes a round trip 8 hours (maybe more depending on weather and road conditions)! Staying the night will give you plenty of time to stop and check out the places mentioned in this blog and properly explore Milford Sound.

One of only two accommodation options in Milford Sound is the Milford Sound Lodge. The Milford Sound Lodge is located only 2 minutes from Milford Sound. Rooms here are not cheap, so instead, I recommend taking your campervan or car and getting a powered site. On my last trip to Milford, this is what Bailey and I did and found it to be the most affordable, but still comfortable, option. You’ll need to book your spot in advance for both the lodge and the campground, as it fills up quickly.

The second accommodation option is an overnight cruise. I can’t recommend this enough, however, I understand it may be out of some visitors’ price range as they certainly aren’t cheap. But, if you’re looking for a big-ticket activity while traveling around New Zealand, this overnight cruise certainly won’t disappoint!

The ensuite cabins with a fiord view are the definition of luxurious, and there are even hot tubs on the top deck and kayaks you can use. Plus, dinner and breakfast are included so you can simply relax in the most beautiful setting possible! You can check overnight Milford cruise prices and availability here!

Where to Stay in Te Anau

Enjoying views pon the Kepler Track, New Zealand
View from the Kepler Track of Lake Te Anau. This trail starts only 5 minutes from Te Anau town.

There are plenty of places to stay in Te Anau which is the closest actual town to Milford Sound. These places are generally cheaper and better in terms of facilities and service.

Te Anau to Milford is about a 1.5-hour drive. In town, there are tons of restaurants and large grocery stores. There are also a few fun things to do in Te Anau, so you might enjoy hanging around here for an extra day.

Some of the top activities in Te Anau are visiting the glow worm caves, where you can see the cave light up from the glow worms that live in the dark cave. This is only found in New Zealand and Australia, so it’s a super unique thing to do. I also love hiking the Kepler Track, which is one of New Zealand’s Great Walks.

But possibly the best way to explore Te Anau is to take a scenic flight, as this area is crazy beautiful! You can soar over Fiordland National Park in a helicopter, and then land on top of a glacier to get breathtaking views. This is another big-ticket item that will make your adventures in New Zealand incredibly memorable.

Te Anau is a great place to visit Milford from, you can also join a tour to Milford Sound from Te Anau to make your day even easier! Since Te Anau is much closer than Queenstown, you can have more time to enjoy the journey to Milford. Once you reach the sound, a 2-hour cruise is included, as well as a picnic lunch. Visiting Milford is the most popular thing to do in Te Anau, so be sure to book your tour early to secure your spot.

Here are a few places to stay that we personally love in Te Anau:

Budget Options:

Te Anau Lake Front Backpackers – This is the perfect option for solo travelers or backpackers as they have affordable dorm beds, tents, and private rooms right in town!

Te Anau Lakeview Kiwi Holiday Park – This holiday park is a peaceful and gorgeous option for all travelers. They have powered campsites as well as private rooms and cabins! The shared common areas come in very handy.

Midrange to High-end Options:

Fiordland Lakefront Motel & Apartments – This hotel offers gorgeous apartments perfect for couples or families. They are located right in town, have an amazing view, and have excellent reviews!

Radfords on the Lake – This hotel offers apartments as well as beautiful suites. They are only a 3-minute walk to the town center and located right on the lake with incredible views.

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, for more info, read our detailed review about Viator here.

Queenstown to Milford Sound Itinerary for an Epic Road Trip

Roadtripping the South Island is one of my favorite ways to experience New Zealand, everywhere you go is incredibly scenic! The road from Queenstown to Milford Sound is no exception, so slow down a bit and enjoy the drive, if your schedule allows.

The times mentioned below are just guides and you can fit in lunch or snack breaks anywhere you choose. This Queenstown to Milford Sound itinerary still gives you plenty of time to make it to Milford Sound before sunset.

You can book a rental car or a campervan online in advance to enjoy this epic road trip!

1. 6:30 am – Leave Queenstown

Devils Staircase as Bailey drives back to Queenstown on a road trip
Devils Staircase!

For this journey, it is important to leave before 7 am. Not only does this give you more time to explore but it will ensure you beat the 20+ buses that leave Queenstown every morning. Getting stuck behind them could slow your journey down a lot. If you can, leave even earlier!

2. 8 am – Stop in Mossburn for fuel

This is a rather funny place to see spectacular things, but Mossburn may surprise you! This place is always around 20-30 cents per liter of fuel cheaper than Te Anau and Queenstown.

If you live in Queenstown (like I do), cheap fuel is a pretty spectacular sight to see! This is the best place to fuel up before heading to Milford Sound. On a full tank, you should be able to make it from Mossburn to Milford Sound and back again (fuel up again on your way out!).

3. 10 am – Visit Mirror Lakes

Mirror Lakes on the road to Milford Sound from Te Anau
Mirror Lakes on a foggy morning

After another 2 hours of driving through Te Anau and into Fiordland National Park, you will drive by (on your left) Mirror Lakes.

On a calm day, the lakes here reflect the mountains that surround them almost flawlessly. Even if it’s cloudy this is still a great stop and it only takes 15 minutes!

Mirror Lakes is very clearly signposted and you can’t miss it!

Related Read: Milford Sound is one of the top places to visit on New Zealand’s west coast, but don’t let that be your only stop! Check out our guide to the 25 BEST Things to do on New Zealand’s West Coast.

4. 11 am – Lake Marian

Bailey sitting on a rock at Lake Marian on the way to Miflord Sound

There are two options for the 11 am slot so read below for the other hike you can do on the road to Milford Sound.

Only a short 30-kilometer (18.6 miles) drive from Mirror Lakes is the Lake Marian Track parking lot. The parking lot is actually located off Hollyford Road so you will need to turn off here to get to the parking lot. The turnoff is really well signposted so it’s easy to spot. Once you have turned off the parking lot is 2 minutes up the road and again is signposted.

Lake Marian is one of the most beautiful alpine lakes I have seen in New Zealand. For this reason, I find this to be a must-see place during your trip from Queenstown to Milford Sound.

The Lake Marian Track is not short (10 km/6.2 miles) and if you’re reasonably fit I would allow 3 hours to walk there, relax, and then walk back. This may sound like a lot of effort, but trust me, it’s so worth it!

Or…

11 am – Key Summit

A man walks along the trail of the key Summit on the road to Milford Sound
Walking along the top of the Key Summit!

The Key Summit track starts from the Divide Car Park around a 20-minute drive from Mirror Lakes. There is a small car park on the side of the main road where the track begins and it is well signposted.

The Key Summit is actually part of the Routeburn Track and takes you high above the Southern Alps for a 360-degree view of Fiordland National Park.

The hike is also around 3 hours return (6.8 km/4.2 miles) but this activity is only good on a clear or semi-clear day. If Fiordland National Park is covered in clouds you won’t see much from the top, but if it is clear you will be rewarded with incredible views!

I would still say Lake Marian is my preferred option, but this is also another choice. If you really love hiking and have the time and energy, do both!

5. 3 pm  – The Chasm

the chasm on the way to milford sound from queenstown
The Chasm! A really easy quick stopover on the way to Milford Sound!

The Chasm is located only 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) from Milford Sound and is the closest attraction. The Chasm is a waterfall that has carved its way through thick rock and left a rather neat rock formation behind. At the waterfall, there is a bridge that allows you to walk right over the top of the falls and get an amazing view from above.

The walk to the waterfall is only 5 minutes and there is plenty of parking. The car park is well signposted too.

6. 4 pm – Arrive at the Milford Sound Lodge

the sunset in milford sound
Enjoying the sunset in Milford Sound!

Any time after 4 pm you will arrive at Milford Sound. You may arrive much later if you stop for lunch or at additional places, but don’t worry, in the summer it doesn’t get dark until after 8 pm! Now you can check into the Milford Sound Lodge, have a bite to eat, and head to the foreshore for sunset.

Sunset is one of the most peaceful times at Milford Sound as all the tourists have left you will almost have the place to yourself!

As I briefly mentioned above if you want to make your experience even better then book a Milford Sound overnight cruise to finish off this epic day.

7. Explore Milford Sound

The Milford Sound Swing, New Zealand
The Milford Sound Swing, New Zealand

The next day you will have the whole day the explore Milford Sound! Some of the best ways are on a Milford Sound boat cruise as well as a kayaking trip. I personally recommend this nature cruise and kayak combo – it is great value and the best way to really explore Milford Sound!

On this tour, you will board your Milford Sound cruise and head into the fiord for some sightseeing over a picnic lunch! Once you reach Harrison Cove, you will hop in a kayak and follow your guide to get an up-close look at the fiord. This was my favorite way I’ve experienced Milford Sound, I felt so small on a kayak in this grandiose place! There are only 8 spots for kayaking, so you’ll want to reserve your spot well in advance so you don’t miss this epic experience.

There are also a few hikes around Milford Sound as well as a water taxi that takes you to Lady Bowen Falls.

Since you have already stopped at many of the best stops on the way to Milford, today you can spend most of the day at Milford Sound exploring all the best things to do!

If you leave for Queenstown in the afternoon you will be back before dark. Allow 4 hours to drive from Milford Sound to Queenstown without any stops.

Tours from Queenstown to Milford Sound

If you prefer to take a tour from Queenstown to Milford Sound you have lots of options! The main things you’ll want to take into consideration when choosing the right tour from Queenstown to Milford Sound are your budget and the amount of time you’re happy to spend on a bus.

Here are the 3 best tour options going from Queenstown to Milford Sound:

1. Bus & Cruise

exploring milford sound on a boat
Look at that rainbow!

This is the most traditional tour from Queenstown to Milford Sound. It is also the cheapest option but with the most driving time.

On this bus and cruise tour, you’ll get picked up from your hotel in Queenstown in the morning and make several scenic stops along the road to Milford. It is a full-day tour lasting about 12 hours where the majority of time is spent on the bus. With that said, it is a very relaxing and scenic bus ride where your guide offers tons of commentary.

This tour is great because it is on a very comfortable bus with a glass roof so you don’t miss a thing! Once you reach Milford, you’ll jump on a cruise of the fiord. The cruise included is my top choice because it is on a smaller boat (holds up to 25 people) and has an experienced nature guide on board! You’ll spend an hour and 45 minutes in the sound going through valleys, lakes, waterfalls, and mountains, and get to have lunch. This tour is $289 NZD per person.

This is easily the most popular way to visit Milford Sound from Queenstown, so be sure to book this tour in advance.

You can check all the other tours from Queenstown here!

2. Bus, Cruise & Fly

stiriling falls in milford sound
You’ll see so many waterfalls in Milford Sound!

To me, this is absolutely the perfect tour from Queenstown to Milford Sound. You’ll take the bus from Queenstown to Milford making tons of stops at attractions along the way.

Once in Milford Sound, you’ll go on a boat cruise before taking a scenic flight back to Queenstown!

On this tour, you’ll get to see the amazing scenery and stops along the road to Milford, but also get to see Milford from a boat out on the water, and then finally from up in the air! It is the most thorough way to enjoy Milford Sound.

Not to mention, the flight back to Queenstown takes less than 40 minutes so you’ll be back well before dinner which significantly reduces the amount of time you need to spend on the bus. This is really the ultimate tour as you’ll see as much as possible thanks to all of the different angles.

This tour includes all transportation fees (bus, boat, and flight), as well as lunch and your expert guide. You can book this 9-hour tour here for $725 NZD.

Related Read: If you’re an outdoor enthusiast like me, you’ll swoon over Franz Josef Glacier. The best way to see this old glacier is by taking the Franz Josef Glacier Walk!

3. Fly & Cruise

boarding the milford sound boat cruise
One of the many Milford Sound cruises!

This tour is best suited for someone who does not like road trips and is very short on time. Or for someone looking for an incredibly unique way to experience Milford Sound!

On this 5-hour tour, You’ll fly to Milford Sound, then go on a boat cruise before flying back to Queenstown (taking a different scenic route of course). This entire trip can be done in half a day because the flights from Queenstown to Milford Sound are very quick, only about 40 minutes.

The only downside to this tour is that you miss out on the attractions on Milford Sound. But with that said, the views from above are some of the best ever and it goes a little beyond Milford Sound so you’ll get to view the Tasman Sea and glaciers as well! So you’re not really missing out on this epic experience!

We personally love this tour as it includes a nature cruise in Milford Sound as well as promises to take two different routes on the flights. You won’t have to fight for seating as each person gets a window seat on the plane! Because of how time efficient this package is there are a few different time slots you can choose from instead of an early set time like the longer full-day tours have.

This tour includes your flight and cruise fees, commentary from the pilot so you know what you’re looking at, and light refreshments (lunch is not included). You can book this tour in advance for $662 NZD per person!

Renting a Car or Campervan in New Zealand

Bailey takes a selfie with a JUCY campervan
Ready to hit the road!
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!

JUCY is our personal favorite campervan rental company in NZ. 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 suit your budget and travel style.

We’ve actually secured an exclusive discount code for our readers with JUCY. Just click here to browse their availability and use the code DTRAVEL24 at checkout to get 5% off! What a good deal!

You can check prices, availability and book with JUCY online here.

Star RV is another company we personally recommend but specifically for motorhomes! They offer larger motorhomes (as opposed to budget campervans) at really reasonable rates.

Star RV has actually given us a discount code for our readers too! Use the code DTRAVEL24 at checkout to get 5% off your motorhome rental! Note, this code is only valid for bookings made before June 21, 2024 with travel dates before Dec 21, 2024. Click here to browse availability, prices, and book with our discount code!

Thanks for reading!

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

I hope this blog has helped you plan your trip from Queenstown to Milford Sound! If you have any questions please leave them below.

You might also find all of our other Milford Sound blogs helpful! We also have hundreds of blogs about New Zealand and tons specifically related to the South Island. Some articles you might like are:

7 EPIC South Island Destinations – The BEST Places to Visit on the South Island, NZ

33 Free and Cheap Things to do in Queenstown, New Zealand

10 Things to KNOW about Freedom Camping in New Zealand

Kathy

Sunday 26th of November 2023

Thank you for a well written, informative blog with links to your recommended tour providers. We will probably do fly, cruise, fly due to motion sickness issues, the risk of bad weather, and because... well, we can. Is there much risk of weather cancellations for the fly- cruise- fly tours in April?

Destinationless Travel

Sunday 26th of November 2023

Hey Kathy,

Glad you like the blog!

April is a pretty nice month. Of course there is always a risk but it's reasonably low in April.

Thanks

Jignesh

Saturday 18th of November 2023

Hi...question if renting a car from Queenstown to Milford Sound is cheaper (incl fuel) for the day trip like starting at 7am and back by 7pm OR taking a coach and cruise tour is cheaper for a family of 2 adults and 1 child? If we self drive, and go through the details of spots you mentioned, is the cruise a must or can give it a miss?

destinationlesstravel

Monday 20th of November 2023

Hey jignesh,

That depends on the cot of your rental car but most often than not yes it should be for a family of 3 but not by much. You need to ask yourself if you really want to do all that driving yourself?

If you self drive, you still need to do a cruise to truly see Milford Sound in my opinion.

Thanks Daniel

Fabricio

Wednesday 28th of December 2022

Thank you for your dedication to writing this guide. I’m staying in Kingston and will do the trip to Milford Sounds tomorrow on my own, and your advice made me change my plans a bit, so I don’t risk arriving late for the cruise.

Cheers!

destinationlesstravel

Friday 30th of December 2022

Hey Fabricio,

So glad to hear!

Have a great trip! Bailey

Anne Flett

Wednesday 5th of October 2022

Great information, thank you.

Molly Tanner

Monday 6th of January 2020

I do NOT recommend Lake Marian hike if the weather is not good. I went today and was super disappointed with the view. The hike itself was ok and not particularly challenging taking about 3 hours return, but totally not worth it if it's raining or cloudy. Much better to spend your time elsewhere in my opinion. We waited for an hour hoping the weather would change but gave up. Most people took a quick photo and then turned around to head back with similarly disappointed faces. The advice about the gas station and general itinerary was spot on though, thanks!

destinationlesstravel

Monday 6th of January 2020

Hey Molly!

Yes, the weather can be a pain around Milford Sound! So sorry you didn't get better weather I really hope you do on other parts of your New Zealand trip.

Glad you found the information helpful and yes the gas station is much cheaper!

Please let me know if you have any questions about your trip.

Thanks. Daniel