How to choose the Best Milford Sound Cruise (2023 Guide)

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There really is no other way to appreciate the full majesty of this UNESCO world heritage site than by joining a Milford Sound cruise with one of the many companies that operate here.

To help you best decide which one you should take and all the intricacies of planning a Milford Sound cruise, this carefully curated guide to the best Milford Sound cruise will answer all those questions.

It can be a little overwhelming with so many cruise companies offering very similar experiences, and let’s face it not everybody wants to travel the same way.

Whatever your desires are- undoubtedly, visiting Milford Sound is hands down one of the best things to do in New Zealand and one you won’t soon forget.

You might have a lot of questions by now, like what’s the best Milford Sound cruise, or when is the best time of year to visit – we cover all of this and more but feel free to jump to certain sections.

When we holiday away and want to try awesome activities we personally use Get Your Guide. They offer their customers free 24 hour cancellation, skip the que access and their new reserve now, pay later option.

Best Milford Sound Cruise
When it rains in Milford Sound the landscape transforms

About Milford Sound

Renowned for its raw, untouched natural beauty, and designated as a UNESCO site in 1990 along with the rest of Fiordland national park – today it is known all over as one of the most beautiful destinations in the world.

However it’s not technically considered a ‘sound’ at all.

Milford sound is actually a Fiord– hence the name Fiordland national park.

This was a misnomer by the early European Captain John Grono who named it after his hometown of Milford Haven in 1823; as this narrow valley was carved out by Glaciers over millions of years in the making.

Milford Sound/Piopiotahi is one of 90 landmarks in New Zealand to be given a dual name under the 1998 Treaty of Waitangi; recognising its cultural significance to the Indigenous Maori and Pakeha people of New Zealand.

Since the construction of the Homer Tunnel gave access to Milford Sound in 1953, Milford sound has become one of the most visited tourist destinations in all of New Zealand in the later half of the 20th century.

A popular road trip from Queenstown or Te Anau, this journey only takes but a few hours along the Southern Alps through breathtaking scenery.

The most popular tourist attractions in New Zealand sit within the south west corner of South Island and include the Milford sound cruise, the Milford Track, a Milford scenic flight and the waterfalls and wildlife on display.

Rudyard Kipling described Milford Sound as the Eighth wonder of the world and if you haven’t been here yet, you’ll soon find out why.

Best time of year to visit milford sound

The warmest times of the year are typically between November and March reaching 28 degrees celsius, and the cool winter months with heavier snowfall between May and October, peaking in July.

Fiordland national park is known as one of the wettest places in New zealand and in fact the whole world, with an average annual rainfall of 6412mm (6.4m/251 inches).

It gets very wet; but this doesn’t mean that Milford sound tours stop running.

READ NEXT: Make sure you know what all the best things to do in Queenstown are 

We had no idea this was a thing until we heard it from one of our tour guides but more rain means all the waterfalls come out to play.

And by all we mean some 10,000 waterfalls come cascading down the side of the fiords, creating tens of thousands of new temporary waterfalls but also adding to the permanent ones like Stirling falls and Lady Bowen falls. 

We did our Milford sound cruise in June and we had a mix of both rain, snow and sun so choosing when to do your Milford Sound cruise depends on more than just the weather.

What’s the best time of day to do a Milford Sound tour

Every Milford Sound cruise company runs daily tours every 2-3 hours and through peak season they run more frequently.

Early morning is our preferred time as the sun is not as harsh, better photography conditions and less people!

Late afternoon means you might catch a sunset and still have a less crowded boat, with peak travel times being in the middle of the day as most will drive back to Queenstown or Te Anau.

Milford Sound
The sheer scale of boats through the Fiords is insanity

Is a boat tour the best way to experience Milford Sound

Overall yes, a scenic cruise is the best way to see all the major highlights of Milford Sound.

There are of course lots of other amazing things to do in Milford Sound but a boat cruise is our top pick.

Few experiences in Milford Sound let you see what you might see when you take a Milford Sound cruise, such as getting closer to wildlife like New Zealand Fur Seals at Seal rock, rare fiordland crested penguins and even seeing dolphins swimming.

READ MORE: There are so many other places to see in Milford Sound, find out here! 

Milford cruise
All cruises get up close and personal to the waterfalls so bring a rain jacket

Will I get wet on a Milford cruise

Most day cruises get up close and personal to Bowen Falls to the point of getting soaking wet- and it was honestly a highlight of the trip.

There are other ways of course to enjoy Milford Sound such as a scenic flight from Milford airport, or even to join a scenic flight from Queenstown.

How long do tours run for

Most Milford Sound cruise operators run each tour up to 3 hours in total.

Companies like Southern discoveries run a 3 hour day tour that includes a stop at the Milford Sound underwater observatory, or Real NZ run both a day and overnight cruise from 2 hours to overnight.

We chose to make Milford Sound the final destination of a full day tour from Te Anau, stopping at all the best places to see in Fiordland national park

Personally we chose to do the Real NZ two hour day cruise and we absolutely loved it. They had great hot chocolates on board (it gets cold) and a 360 degree panoramic deck up top to take in all the sights and not miss a single thing.

A scenic cruise or nature cruise

There’s not a whole lot of difference between both of these types of Milford Sound tours except the length of the boat cruise.

Most of the best cruises in Milford Sound take you to see all the major highlights through the Fiords, however a nature cruise generally runs for 2 hours and gives you more time to admire the scenery. 

This nature cruise goes for 2 hours long and is one of our favourites of all the Milford Sound tours.

best cruise milford sound

Day cruise or Overnight cruise

The main difference here is price.

Day tours of Milford Sound will run from 1.5 to 2 hours + and will cost on average $109NZD.

An overnight cruise however (aside from going longer) will also cost you significantly more – in the range of $800-$1000NZD.

We personally chose to do the day trip instead of the overnight cruises to give ourselves more time to explore Milford Sound and the rest of Fiordland national park, given that we had our own rental van we wanted to make the most of our time using it.

milford sound best cruise

Our Milford Sound itinerary

We began our road trip all the way back in Queenstown and started the 2 hour journey to Te Anau in our rental van from Maui motorhomes.

We made a couple of stops along the way including at the Lake Wakatipu lookout spot on the Southern scenic route 41 minutes into the drive.

From here we continued onwards not stopping until we reached Te Anau and found ourselves a cheap overnight stay in the front yard of someone’s home who was advertising on Campermate.

We used Campermate quite a bit to help us find the cheapest accommodation possible; but this also meant we had no services like water or power, and so relied on our reserves to get us through the night.

Whenever we needed to fill up we would simply book a night or two in Te Anau or Queenstown to fill our reserves.

It’s not how everybody likes to travel but this is what we prefer.

From Te Anau we drove 2-3 hours along Milford road stopping at all places along the way before arriving in Milford Sound, and staying the night at the Milford lodge before heading back the following morning.

bet cruise milford sound

The Best Milford Sound cruise (in our opinion)

The Milford Sound nature cruise with an optional picnic lunch has everything you want in a Milford Sound tour.

Of all the many Milford Sound cruises on offer this has to be the best bang for your buck, the most epic activity to try in Milford Sound.

The option to cancel up to 24 hours in advance is such a great option to have as well as the new reserve now, pay later option with Get Your Guide.

See all the amazing sights on board Southern discoveries original and best cruise in Milford Sound like taking in the full force of the 15,000 year old Stirling falls, get up close and personal to Bowen falls and even get the chance to see the mysterious wildlife of Milford Sound.

Cruise length: 1 hour, 45 minutes

Pro Tip: bring a rain jacket and warm clothes

In particular why we think  this nature cruise is the best option for you is because Southern Discoveries have been operating in the region for more than 60 years by a locally-owned and operated family business.

  • Purpose built catamaran specifically for the Fiords
  • 360 degree panoramic open top deck for the best views
  • 1 hour and 45 minutes long
  • Visit all the waterfalls (permanent ones)
  • Sail by Harrison cove
  • Optional picnic lunch on request
  • reserve now, pay later
  • awesome nature commentary from experiences guides

In the true nature of sustainable practices they’ve worked with the Department of Conservation on the Sinbad Sanctuary project that helps protect vulnerable native birds living in Milford Sound (a portion of sales goes towards the SSP)

What you’ll see on the Best Milford Sound boat cruise

Having been carefully selected from one of the Milford Sound cruises above, these are the major highlights you’ll see when you explore Milford Sound.

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Stirling falls

The second of the permanent waterfalls here, Stirling falls drops 155 metres and is the one where everybody gets drenched when the boat goes almost under the falls.

More than halfway up the cruise, most tour operators will venture past here on the return journey to the wharf.

Make sure you have a rain jacket if you sit at the bow of the ship because you will get wet.

Bowen Falls

Bowen Falls

The first of only two permanent waterfalls in Milford Sound, this beautiful fall is on the northern side of the fiords and is easily seen from both your cruise boat and on the opposite side of the fiords when you try the Milford Sound foreshore walking track.

It’s fed from the Bowen river and actually provides the town with all its hydro-electrical energy- talk about sustainable!

Mitre Peak

The most photographed mountain in Milford Sound and now somewhat of an icon, the Maori name for Mitre Peak is Rahotu.

Its pointed summit is visible from the shoreline and straight after a visit to Bridal Veil falls on the southern side of the fiords.

Underwater observatory

The only way you’ll get to visit the world famous Milford Sound underwater observatory is by taking a Milford Sound cruise into Harrison Cove.

The sheltered, crystal waters of the cove are the perfect place to go kayaking in Milford Sound from the Milford discovery centre.

A trip to the underwater observatory is also an incredible activity in Milford Sound, where you’ll see the famous black coral and fish and stingray species.

Seal Rock

This is the best place to see New Zealand fur seals sunbathing on the rocks by the water or frolicking in the Tasman sea.

They were once hunted to the brink of extinction but thanks to conservation and protection efforts their numbers are back to thriving.

Fairy falls/Bridal Veil falls

Whilst this non-permanent waterfall isnt as big as her cousins, Fairy falls are unique in that only the smaller boat tours with smaller vessels get close enough to fill your glass up with fresh glacial water.

Bridal Veil falls lie just before fairy falls and must be viewed relatively quickly as the boat will surely pass by them quicker than the blink of an eye.

How to get to Milford Sound for a cruise

There are dozens of options to choose from when it comes to booking your Milford Sound cruise, so we’ve listed 5 alternative tours you can have a read of and see which one peaks your interest.

Full day tour by road from Queenstown

Get picked up in the centre of Queenstown and begin your drive though the southern alps into fiordlands along the Milford road.

They run a 12.5 hour bus and cruise trip from Queenstown that stops at all of the following:

  • Te Anau for a break
  • Eglinton valley photo opportunity
  • Mirror Lakes (break/photo opp)
  • Milford Sound cruise
  • Return to Te Anau for another break
  • Head home to Queenstown

There are 3 access decks you will visit where you can take amazing photographs from exploring some of the best mountain landscapes anywhere in New Zealand.

Your coach trip will take you all the way to the Milford Sound cruise wharf where you’ll wander at sites like Mitre Peak, bowen falls, stirling falls as well as New Zealand fur seals.

Of all the nature cruises of Milford Sound this is the longest of the journeys but also gives you the most intimate tour.

There is a slightly cheaper option that more or less travels to the same routes as the one above and it is run by Pure Milford.

Milford Sound flight/boat cruises from Queenstown

Flight time: 40 minutes, weather dependant

Cruise time: 2 hours

Pick up/drop off: central Queenstown

Get the best of both worlds and take a 40 minute scenic flight in a fixed wing aircraft that departs from Queenstown and lands at Milford airport.

The best part of this tour is that the Milford Sound boat cruise is a small yet intimate 2 hour guided boat tour along the Tasman Sea with complimentary tea and coffee by your knowledgeable hosts.

Included in this tour is hotel pick up and drop off from centrally located accommodation in Queenstown.

Explore Milford Sound in this one of a kind 5 hour day trip, for less than $600NZD, you can even reserve your spot now and pay later if you change your mind.

Full day tour from Te Anau

Tour length: 12 hours total

Cruise length: 2 hours

If you have already moved on from Queenstown and found yourself in Te Anau then the good news is that this tour will pick you up from your hotel in Te Anau and take you along the Milford road to the sounds.

Follow the exact same route that we did on our self-guided drive from Te Anau to Milford Sound and experience the glacially carved valleys, lush green rainforests and mountain peaks.

If you haven’t already you can book your accommodation in Te Anau to explore more of this beautiful local town and grab yourself a nice coffee before the drive.

Milford Sound overnight cruise

Spend the night onboard the Fiordland Jewel boat cruise surrounded by the beauty of Milford Sound in the peaceful night sky, and even watch the stars from the top deck hot tub.

On this overnight cruise you’ll be served breakfast, lunch and dinner on board the 24 metre, 3 deck Catamaran that sleeps a maximum 20 guests each night with en-suites for each cabin.

For those looking to participate in the helicopter flights there’s even a helipad on the top deck for flying high above Fiordland national park.

The spectacular scenery is perfect for nature lovers as you cruise Milford on this 5 star Milford Sound overnight cruise.

This overnight cruise will cost your around $999NZD

Other activities in Milford Sound

Whilst Milford Sound boat cruises are the ultimate activity here there’s plenty other activities to try in Milford Sound. 

Kayak Milford Sound cruise deals

Make your day even more adventurous by choosing this cruise and Kayak tour of Harrison Cove.

This small, 8 kayak tour group takes you to the Kayak pontoon after you visit the underwater observatory and you get to kayak around the cove with all equipment provided.

They also offer complimentary tea and coffee as well as a picnic lunch afterwards.

Hike the Milford Track

Dubbed the finest walk in the world, this 4 day trek ends a short 20 minute boat ride from the Milford Sound.

As part of the great walks season, the Milford Track is the perfect segway to begin your exploration of Milford Sound.

What better way to finish the 53.5km one way circuit than by joining a nature cruise from companies like Mitre peak cruises or Southern discoveries.

Weather on a Milford Sound Cruise tour

As we mentioned previously, this part of New zealand receives the most rainfall per year, and even on a sunny day you should not expect the sun to stay clear all day long.

What you’ll find however is that when it does rain, up to 10,000 temporary waterfalls appear cascading down the sides of all the mountains in the park, looking like something out of Jurassic park.

January is typically the wettest month of the year with an average of 15 days of rainfall per month, however February is by contrast the warmest month of the year.

July is the coldest month of the year with a top temperature of 9 degrees celsius, being the middle of winter for the southern hemisphere.

That being said, Laura and I visited in May/June and we had a cracker of a day on our cruise. The following day however it rained a lot!

Always check the updates for the weather in Fiordlands national park. 

Driving on the roads from Te Anau

If you choose to drive yourself to Milford Sound then it’s important to stay up to date with the road conditions.

The roads are prone to being closed due to heavy snowfall, particularly between Te Anau and Milford Sound so always make sure you have snow chains on your vehicle.

We were lucky enough to have left the area well before it started snowing but we know of people who were caught in the middle of it, and you don’t have much choice but to wait for the roads to be cleared prior to leaving.

Where to stay in Te Anau

Depending on your budget there are plenty of places to stay in Te Anau, ranging from backpackers style through to complete luxury.

Mid-range accommodation

Tasman Holiday Parks was less than 5 minutes from the centre of town and had great powered campsites perfect for our rental van.

For less than $50/night we enjoyed a well supplied communal area with a laundry, very clean bathrooms and good, free wifi.

Mid-range luxury accommodation

To really enjoy a night’s stay in complete comfort and satisfaction then the Fiordland lodge, 5 km from the centre of town has your name on it!

These luxurious self-contained lodges with amazing views of Lake Te Anau are a great way to start or end your Milford Sound cruise.

Mid-range luxury alternative

Whilst this place isn’t in Te Anau, Milford Lodge is an incredible option that had everything from non-powered/powered sites right through to epic mountain view chalets.

Their private mountain or garden view rooms are some of the most elegant rooms on offer and well worth the price. 

We wish we could have stayed longer in their powered sites but our journey had to move forward. 

We made good use of their kitchen and communal area that had a strong, free wifi connection as well as very friendly staff in the Milford kitchen that serves up incredibly delicious food.

Laura and I got engaged here in Milford and celebrated over dinner at the Milford Lodge and we cannot recommend this place highly enough. 

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Christopher Aiello
Christopher is the head writer and co-founder of Chris and Laura Travels. Having travelled to over 27 countries and counting, he has a passion for adventure travel in a responsible way. Christopher and Laura currently live in Melbourne but share their time between down under and the Canadian Rockies of Alberta. We aim to inspire others to get outside and explore through our storytelling imagery and video. Keep up to date on where we are by visiting us on our Instagram page or find out more of our story on our About us page.

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Chris & Laura

Australian and Canadian freelance photographers & storytellers addicted to travel,  inspiring you to travel the world.

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