Milford Sound By Air or By Land - Which is Right for Me?

Should you visit beautiful Milford Sound by motorcoach or scenic flight from Queenstown? This article will provide some pros & cons for each option.

Milford Sound.  The Eighth Wonder of the Wonder.  Few would argue it doesn’t deserve a must do spot on any New Zealand itinerary.  There are several ways to visit Milford Sound, but  I’m going to focus on using Queenstown as your base.  The choice of how to get there then becomes by motor coach or scenic flight.  I have visited using both of these options.  Each method has its pros & cons.  Both options will include a scenic cruise of Milford Sound.

The motorcoach tour option  

When you travel by motor coach you get to sit back, relax, & enjoy the spectacular scenery.  The landscapes will vary from sparkling lakes, to rain forest, to glaciers. Your coach journey includes a rest stop in the charming town of Te Anau.  Te Anau sits on the border of Fiordland National Park & is home to the second largest lake in New Zealand Lake Te Anau.  Here you can stretch your legs, grab a Flat White, & even do a little shopping.  From Te Anau you’ll continue thru Fiordland National Park ending at Milford Sound.  Depending on which tour company you use you will have a photo stop or two in Fiordland National Park before you arrive at the visitor center.  Most cruises run about 1 hour & 45 min.  Some ships give you the option to include a buffet lunch (pre booked & paid in advance), some have snack bars for you to purchase coffee, light snacks, beer, & wine.  Some even offer you the opportunity to be dropped off for kayaking before being picked up later in the day.  If you would like to bring your own food on board most ships allow this.  You could grab something in Te Anau or plan ahead & bring some food with you from Queenstown.

On board your cruise you will sail past iconic Mitre Peak which rises one kilometre out of the sea.  You’ll see spectacular waterfalls as you make your way towards the Tasman Sea.  Keep your eyes open for marine life such as dolphins, seals, & penguins. 

At the conclusion of your cruise you’ll board your coach for the return journey to Queenstown.  There should be a restroom stop in Te Anau, but it will not be as long as the stop on the way to Milford Sound.  You’ll be moving along at a good clip to get back to Queenstown so don’t expect a lot of stops or breaks. 

Pros & cons of the motor coach option

Pros - It’s the most affordable option (outside of driving yourself which isn’t recommended).   The drive itself is varied & spectacular.  Te Anau & beautiful Lake Te Anau worth seeing & you’ll get to see Fiordland National Park.  

Cons -  It’s a very long day.  The journey is approximately 12 hours round trip.  It could be a little less depending on how long your stops are, but expect at least 11+ hours.  It will be evening by the time you arrive back to Queenstown.  It could be late evening which means you’ll miss dinner unless you don’t mind eating late.  If you’re traveling with children don’t underestimate the amount of time on the bus.  Be sure to bring activities & snacks to keep them happy & occupied.

The fly/cruise/fly option

The scenic flight option is another fantastic way to experience Milford Sound.  You’ll board your plane (there’s also a helicopter tour option) at Queenstown airport. 

Most scenic flight tours include a complimentary round trip transfer from your hotel.  Once on board your aircraft prepare to be wowed!  The flight is approximately 35 min.  Your flight route will vary depending on tour company & weather, but you may fly over Skippers Canyon, the Paradise region (many scenes from the Lord of the Rings Trilogy were filmed here), & the Donne glacier.  Before landing you will fly over the fiord of Milford Sound.  

Upon landing you will either board a shuttle for a short 5 min. ride to the the visitor center or walk.  The walk is short & scenic (about 15 min. at most).  From here your journey continues on to the cruise portion of the trip just as it did on the motorcoach tour option.   Once your cruise is concluded you will be escorted back to the plane for your return flight to Queenstown.   You will likely fly home by an alternate route (weather dependant) giving you more opportunities to see dramatic landscapes & glaciers.

Pros & cons of the fly/cruise/fly option

Pros - Time. Your total round trip time including the cruise is 4 hours.  That leaves you the rest of the day to experience another activity or just enjoy Queenstown.  The scenery from your flight is spectacular!  Completely different from what you see while driving.  You’ll get up close to glaciers you wouldn’t otherwise be able to see.   You’ll get a great view of the Tasman Sea & Lake Wakatipu. 

Cons - The cost is higher.  You won’t get to see Fiordland National Park.  Scenic flights are 100% weather dependant.  I’ll say that again.  Scenic flights are 100% weather dependant!  If you have bad weather your flight may not be able to go up.  If bad weather rolls in at Milford Sound there is a possibility you might have to take the motor coach back.  There is no controlling Mother Nature. The tour company has no control over weather.  Please be understanding of this fact.  They really want you to have your flight/cruise experience.  However, their number one priority is your safety.  They will never jeopardize that by operating in unsafe conditions.  I always recommend scheduling your flight as early in your Queenstown stay as possible.  That way if your flight gets canceled due to weather you still have an opportunity to do it on another day.  I hope I haven’t scared you away from this option because it’s a great option (and my personal favorite).  My flight went with no issues.  It’s better to be prepared for worst case scenarios though to avoid disappointment later.

There are other ways to see Milford Sound & I would be happy to give you my recommendations based on your personal wants & needs.  I hope that you found this informative and are ready to make a visit to Milford Sound a must do while visiting New Zealand.


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