One of the crucial decision points in every New Zealand itinerary is the journey from Queenstown to Milford Sound. The journey will either be a long one or an expensive one. It is a choice you will have to make, however, as we do NOT recommend missing out on the 8th Wonder of the World!
Despite its name, Milford Sound is, in fact, a fiord and the only fiord in New Zealand accessible by road. However, due to its remote location, its mountainous wilderness remains an unspoiled UNESCO World Heritage Site. Surrounded by sheer cliffs and dense rainforest with gushing waterfalls, it’s home to some of the most spectacular scenery in New Zealand, if not the world.
We both love Milford Sound and have visited several times, having driven, flown and taken both day cruises and an overnight cruise! This guide has been created to help you decide the best way to make the journey from Queenstown to Milford Sound, as well as all the stops to consider along the way. We have attempted to answer all of the most common questions and considered all varieties of traveler.
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Queenstown to Milford Sound Frequently Asked Questions
If you are seeking general information on the journey from Queenstown to Milford Sound, you will find that below. For specific suggestions, recommendations, and itineraries, you will want to skip ahead.
What is the distance from Queenstown to Milford Sound?
If you are traveling by plane, the distance from Queenstown to Milford Sound is a mere 71km (44 miles).
If you are traveling by car, however, the distance between the two is a whopping 290km (180 miles)! Unfortunately, there’s no direct route from Queenstown to Milford Sound, despite them appearing so close on a map!
How long does it take to get from Queenstown to Milford Sound?
The flight time from Queenstown to Milford Sound is 40 minutes each way, for a total flight time of 1 hour and 20 minutes.
That same journey by car would require 3 hours and 50 minutes each way, for a total of 7.5 hours without stops!
- Queenstown -> Te Anau = 171km (2 hours 8 minutes)
- Te Anau -> Milford Sound = 119km (1 hour 44 minutes)
The map below shows the driving route from Queenstown to Milford Sound. It’s worth noting that Milford Sound is a dead end. From Milford Sound your only way out by road is back via Te Anau. This should be considered as you plan your route.
What is the best way to travel from Queenstown to Milford Sound?
You have four options for traveling from Queenstown to Milford Sound:
- A 40-minute scenic flight
- A coach to Milford Sound
- A flight and coach combination
- A nearly 4 hour, but equally scenic drive
The options are the same for your return to Queenstown. If you are self-driving around New Zealand you may not be returning to Queenstown, however, most tours provide a return service to Queenstown. While it is possible to get one-way journeys, these usually work out more expensive. Most day tours to Milford Sound will also include a cruise of the sounds.
Like most travel considerations, the best option depends on whether you are more concerned with time or budget.
Queenstown to Milford Sound Tour: Fly and Cruise
If you are limited on time, the scenic flight will be your best option. A Fly and Cruise tour will allow you to experience a unique view of the Fjordland National Park from the air, followed by a cruise of the Milford Sound. Window seats are guaranteed by most tour providers but lunches are not necessarily provided so check with individual companies.
Approximate prices starting from: $585 NZD
Total tour time: 4.5 hours
Queenstown to Milford Sound Tour: Coach and Cruise
If you’re on a tight budget and unable to drive, your cheapest option will be a Coach and Cruise Tour from Queenstown. While you can enjoy photo stops and short walks on the way with the coach trip, these are far more limited. It also means a 12 hour day (approximately 8 hours of which will be spent on a coach). The plus side is, you can relax and enjoy guided commentary while taking in the views. If you’re going to take a coach, look for a tour operator that offers a glass roof option for unobstructed views.
Approximate prices starting from: $150 NZD
Total tour time: 12 hours
Queenstown to Milford Sound Tour: Coach, Cruise and Flight
A Coach, Cruise and Flight Tour is the most thorough way to explore Milford Sound with an organised tour. It allows you to experience Milford Sound from the air, water and the ground. However, it is more expensive than the cheapest flight and cruise option!
The benefit of this option is that you would get to see some of the scenic stops on the way to Milford Sound, with guided commentary en route. Although the stops will be more limited than self-driving. This tour does also include lunch.
Approximate prices starting from: $620 NZD
Total tour time: 7 hours
Queenstown to Milford Sound: Self Driving
If you are time-rich, however, driving from Queenstown to Milford Sound is a significantly better option. This is doubly true if there are two of you (or more)! Driving means the expenses can be split, whereas with tours the total expenses increase with more people. While the drive is very long, it is absolutely beautiful and chock-full of amazing sites, hikes, and vistas to explore.
While there are a few options for traveling to Milford Sound, there is only one road providing access; Milford Road or State Highway 94.
Scenic Flights from Queenstown to Milford Sound
One of our fondest memories of all of our time in New Zealand was our scenic flight from Queenstown to Milford Sound. While we had each visited Milford Sound by vehicle more than once, this was the first chance we had to see the incredible Fjordlands from the sky.
Of course, the drive to Milford Sound was also one of the highlights of our trip! The good news here is that both options are good ones! Choosing the right method for you will come down to time, budget, and the size of your party.
How long is the flight from Queenstown to Milford Sound?
The flight from Queenstown to Milford Sound is only 71km (44 miles) and takes 40 minutes each way.
How much does it cost to fly from Queenstown to Milford Sound?
The prices for flying from Queenstown to Milford Sound vary by time and season, but a roundtrip flight typically costs about $500 NZD (~$300 USD). You can book a one-way flight, but at $420 NZD you are saving almost nothing.
We usually recommend booking a roundtrip flight package that includes a cruise of the Milford Sound. This increases the price to about $585 NZD. There are a variety of operators who provide tours, and most have fixed pricing in this range.
We have mentioned the coach/cruise/fly package as well. This includes a coach from Queenstown to Milford Sound, a cruise of the sound, and a flight back to Queenstown. While you will get to stop at some of the scenic lookouts, we personally feel the joy of the drive comes with the freedom to stop and photograph. It is also almost as expensive as the flight and cruise tour option.
Is a scenic flight from Queenstown to Milford Sound worth it?
Those short on time will find a roundtrip flight from Queenstown to Milford Sound is not only worth it, but indeed the best option! The views from the sky are absolutely stunning. A scenic flight is a bucket list item for most travelers, and this tops the list of options. I have rarely seen better views from the sky than those you’ll find over the Fjordlands.
Most operators will also take you on a different flight path on the return journey so you get to see different parts of the sounds from above.
Should you fly to Milford Sound from Queenstown?
If you are a solo traveler with limited time on the South Island, flying to Milford Sound is your best option. With no one to share the expense, it will cost you almost as much in gas and car rental making the long journey by car. Beyond that, you have will have difficultly finding affordable accommodation nearby. The flight is also incredibly scenic and time-efficient.
However, if you are traveling with a party, the total cost of flying gets substantially more expensive with each member. Meanwhile, splitting gas and car rental means it just gets cheaper and cheaper if you go via car. Though time may still be some concern, the road to Milford Sound is an adventure all of its own!
Driving from Queenstown to Milford Sound
The drive from Queenstown to Milford Sound is a destination and an adventure in its own right. While the journey is a long one, it’s also one of the prettiest drives in New Zealand’s South Island.
For anyone with at least two weeks available and decent physical mobility, this will be the option we recommend. As you will discover in the itinerary below, there are a ton of recommended stops, hikes, and points of interest along the way that you simply miss by doing the scenic flight.
What’s more, the scenic flight limits your ability to enjoy and photograph the sights of Fjordlands National Park during the best light of the day.
How long is the drive from Queenstown to Milford Sound?
The drive from Queenstown to Milford Sound is 290km (180 miles) one-way, which would be about 3 hours and 50 minutes if you never stopped… but we promise, you will be stopping often!
Unless you are planning on staying at the expensive Milford Sound Lodge, you will also need to factor in a drive OUT of Milford Sound as there is no other lodging or camping available. The closest campsites are 1-2 hours away, with the closest town of Te Anau a 2 hour drive away. This can make planning difficult and needs to be carefully considered.
Should you drive to Milford Sound from Queenstown?
Almost anyone with at least two weeks to travel the New Zealand South Island should make the drive to Milford Sound from Queenstown.
You definitely do not want to miss seeing the Milford Sound, and we recommend driving over flying so you can enjoy the many sights along the way. This is especially true for people traveling in groups, as the cost of gas gets cheaper as you divide it amongst you, but only multiplies for booking flights.
Travel tips for driving from Queenstown to Milford Sound
Before you embark on your drive from Queenstown to Milford Sound, it’s worth being aware of a few things…
Fuel and supplies
Fill up on supplies and petrol at Te Anau. You will not find any petrol stations or shops between Te Anau and Milford Sound.
Mobile phone service
From Queenstown, you will have mobile phone service until Te Anau. Once you leave Te Anau, there is limited coverage along the Milford Road.
There are limited facilities between Te Anau and Milford Sound. Public toilets can be found on the Milford Road at Knobs Flat and The Divide. However, it’s worth using the bathroom at Te Anau before you set off on the final leg to Milford Sound.
The weather can change dramatically as you get closer to Milford Sound, even in the summer. Be prepared for any weather! If travelling in winter, you are legally obliged to carry snow chains and know how to fit them to your vehicle.
It is worth checking the NZTA road status page for current road conditions before setting off. The road between Queenstown and Milford Sound can be closed during the winter at times.
Ensure you drive sensibly based on current conditions and be aware that you will be sharing the road with other cars, coaches and motor homes. Traffic can be heavy so plan accordingly, particularly in the mornings when people are arriving for cruises.
Queenstown to Milford Sound Road Trip Itinerary
We recommend at least a two day, one night itinerary for properly exploring the region between Queenstown and Milford Sound. There are a ton of stops along the way! Careful planning is essential as you have only two options for accommodation at Milford Sound: Milford Sound Lodge or an overnight Milford Sound cruise.
Accordingly, we have created what we consider the perfect Queenstown to Milford Road trip itinerary. We will discuss the many hikes, viewpoints, and points of interest along the way, as well as timing and options.
If you have the budget and foresight to book accommodation at the Milford Lodge or an overnight cruise, you will have a lot more flexibility as to when and how you explore Fjordlands National Park and Milford Sound. For most of us, however, your options will be limited due to lack of lodging and campsites.
Keep in mind that this itinerary is suggested for people who have at least two weeks for exploring the South Island. If your time is more limited than that, you should strongly consider the scenic flight from Queenstown instead.
The last thing to note is that those of you opting for a tour to Milford Sound from Queenstown will be at the mercy of your tour provider regarding the itinerary, and will be in and out the same day.
Queenstown to Milford Sound Road Trip Itinerary: Day 1
As has been discussed, the drive from Queenstown to Milford Sound is a long and beautiful one, with tons of stops along the way. We suspect that the majority of our readers will be staying the night in Te Anau, but we wanted to be sure to include all options so you can consider the right one for you. Your one BIG decision is where you will stay…
Option 1: Stay at Te Anau
We suspect that most of you will be electing option 1, which is to find accommodation or camping near Te Anau. This is the closest town to Milford Sound, but is still 2 hours away! It is important to realize this.
The drive from Queenstown to Te Anau is between 1.5 and 2 hours without stops, though you will probably do a fair share of that. We recommend browsing our Ultimate South Island New Zealand Map to have a look at all the points of interest around Queenstown and en route to Te Anau to decide which interest you most. There is really no particular rush for Day 1 as you will not have time to get all the way into Milford Sound, enjoy a cruise, and get back to Te Anau all in the same day.
Instead, use the map suggested and enjoy the scenic beauty along the way. Te Anau is a beautiful place to watch sunset, so we recommend trying to arrive by then at the latest.
Be sure to book your Milford Sound cruise for the following day. We recommend booking the earliest available cruise and going straight down to the Milford Sound, skipping all the stops on the way and seeing them instead on your way back. Don’t even worry about breakfast as most cruises provide it!
Option 2: “Nearby” Campsites
We put “nearby” in quotes because there are no campsites near Milford Sound except for at the Lodge (which only offers camping for self-contained vehicles). The closest one WAS Gunns Camp, which is still an hour away, but that has been closed indefinitely due to flooding.
If you are camping, just google Campsites near Milford Sound for a list of options, but be warned that they fill up quick! Book ahead if possible, otherwise you may need to skip some stops to arrive early enough to secure a place.
Option 3: Milford Sound Lodge
This is the best and only place to stay at Milford Sound (with the exception of an overnight cruise). However, because of this, it is also an expensive option and books up months in advance. Prices start at around $350 NZD for bed and breakfast. They do also have a campsite for self-contained vehicles only.
If you have the budget and foresight to book a room at the Milford Lodge, then you will want to get a very early start from Queenstown so you have time to see as much as you can on the way, catching sunset at Milford Sound before retiring for the night.
Do not worry about the stops you did not have time for on the way as you can visit them on the way back!
Similarly, you will want to book your Milford Sound cruise for the earliest departure the following day. This will allow you to catch sunrise at Mitre Peak, which is the best time of day to photograph Milford Sound, then catch your cruise. Don’t worry about breakfast or coffee as most of the cruises provide that!
Option 4: Milford Sound Overnight Cruise
The final option is to book a Milford Sound overnight cruise. This option is more expensive at around $565 NZD, although prices vary with the season. However, it includes a 3-course buffet lunch and hot breakfast, as well as kayaking or a small boat excursion, in addition to accommodation. Additionally, it allows you to experience being immersed in the Fiords at both sunset and sunrise and gives you more time to spot wildlife.
If you do decide to book an overnight cruise, they depart in the afternoon and arrive back in the morning. This will give you time to see a few stops on the way to Milford Sound and any others the following day on the way back.
Queenstown to Milford Sound Road Trip Itinerary: Day 2
Those staying at Milford Lodge or those who are truly ambitious should aim to be at Milford Sound for sunrise. We recognize that this means waking up very early and driving 2 hours in the dark for most people. We also recognize that this is not fun at all! However, sunrise is truly the best time to be at Milford Sound for photography. Furthermore, getting there early opens up a lot more options for the rest of your day.
If you are unwilling to do that, we don’t blame you one bit! In this case, you will still want to book an early cruise and aim to arrive an hour before departure to find parking and get checked in.
There are multiple advantages to booking the earliest cruise available. The first is that it gives you the most time to explore the rest of the Fjordland National Park on your way back to Te Anau. The second is that this is when the light is best for photographing. Last, most serve food so having breakfast on the cruise means you will not have to take time out of your morning for it!
The other option is to book the LAST cruise to Milford Sound and see everything you can on the way. This allows you to explore as much as possible on the way, enjoy your cruise, and stick around after to photograph sunset. You will be driving back to Te Anau in the dark in this scenario, but at least you will have seen everything.
There are too many points of interest to name all of them between Queenstown and Milford Sound. However, we have listed our favorites in the following section.
Places to see between Queenstown and Milford Sound
We’ve alluded to the many points of interest between Queenstown and Milford Sound that you will want to stop for, and we want to highlight some of our favorites. However, there are plenty of places that don’t have names or pins that will compel you to pull over and grab a photo.
If nothing else, these are the places that we recommend saving time for and keeping on your radar.
Right as you leave Queenstown, you will follow a lakeside stretch of curved road known as the Devil’s Staircase. It is absolutely beautiful and has plenty of places to turn off for photos, which you’ll want to take advantage of.
The small town of Kingston is based at the head (or is it the foot?) of Lake Wakatipu. While we would not dub this a “must-see”, those who have the time and enjoy quaint towns with pretty views should consider a quick stop.
Think of The Key not as a stop, but as an area of beautiful countryside. There is not one particular viewpoint or stop, but we found this area very pretty as we drove through. It begins around the area where Hwy 84 meets Blackmount Redcliff Rd.
Te Anau Lakefront
When you arrive in the town of Te Anau, most of the stores and action will be along the lakefront stretch. This is a beautiful city with stunning views all around, and the lakefront is a great place to take in sunrise and have a beverage or meal.
To be honest, this stop is very pretty but has always felt a bit overrated to us. It is usually too overrun with tourists to really enjoy. However, it is right on your way and requires only a few minutes.
The Mirror Lakes are supposed to be a place where the calm waters provide a mirror reflection of the Fjordland scenery, but in 4 or 5 visits we have rarely had a mirror reflection of note.
Perhaps we have just had poor timing.
Another quick stop, but a beautiful lakeside vista featuring the imposing mountains and rugged landscape of the region. There is no hike required, so you may as well pop in!
The Homer Tunnel itself is of little interest. However, you’ll usually find roadside parking just before you enter it with beautiful views of sheer cliffs and towering waterfalls. The parking depends on construction, however, and the waterfalls depend on snowmelt and rainfall.
On some visits, we have been absolutely compelled to stop, while others we drove right past.
After you have gone through the Homer Tunnel, which is quite a feat of engineering we might add, you will exit to a breathtaking view of sheer cliffs, open sky, and a snaking road cutting through it all.
The 1855 Lookout will be your first and one of your only options for pulling over to photograph. Expect some cheeky kea to distract you with their beauty while stealing everything shiny they can get their mischievous beaks on!
A short hike leads to a narrow gorge called The Chasm. It is definitely neat to see, but difficult to capture in a photograph. Still, it is well worth the easy hike and is another spot where the kea birds tend to congregate.
Milford Sound Foreshore Walk
This is an easy stroll along the foreshore of the Milford Sound, and is where all of the iconic photos of Mitre Peak and the sound are taken. It is where you will want to be for sunrise if possible, though it is beautiful any time of day.
*Te Anau Glowworm Caves
We put this one with an asterisk because it’s “on the way” in terms of departing from Te Anau. However, you can only access the caves by booking a tour.
If you are staying the first night in Te Anau (as suggested in our itinerary), you could consider getting there early enough to sneak this little adventure in!
Hikes in Fjordland National Park
Those of you who have the time and desire can consider one of the longer hikes below. We have personally done the Key Summit Trail and the Lake Marian hike, but have not done Gertrude Saddles. It looks stunning but requires a full day.
For those with more time, you could even consider a multi-day hike along the Milford Track.
If you are hellbent on doing a hike in Fjordland National Park, Lake Marian is the one to do. The hike itself is fairly average, but Lake Marian is an absolute oasis.
Tucked into the high mountains, this emerald-green lake provides the perfect place to have a swim in the right season, or just relax and meditate.
Key Summit Trail
While this is one of the more popular trails in the area, neither of us found it worth the time and energy. That said, we’re sure many will argue. We should note that our enjoyment of a place often correlates directly with whether or not an area inspires us to photograph it. The views from the Key Summit Trail simply did not.
We recommend using the time you would have spent for Key Summit for one of the Wanaka hikes instead. In particular, the Roy’s Peak hike is a similar commitment and far more rewarding!
As we mentioned, we have not done the Gertrude Saddles hike, but the photos we’ve seen promise incredible views. Consider this one If you have an extra day and are looking for a good hike in the area.
Other Useful New Zealand South Island Travel Guides
We have prepared a variety of useful travel guides just like this one to help you plan the best vacation to the New Zealand South Island possible. If you found this guide helpful, you may want to queue up and even bookmark some of our others.
We consider this to be the single most useful resource you will want to bookmark for traveling the South Island. On our Ultimate New Zealand Map, we have pinned EVERY point of interest we know of on the entire South Island, and have included a photo we have personally taken at each.
While we have created this as a 7 day itinerary for New Zealand’s South Island, many mild-paced travelers will find it the perfect 2-week itinerary instead. If you are planning a one or two week visit to the South Island, we have created this ultimate itinerary and several variations to ensure you maximize your time in this beautiful country.
If you have not yet booked flights, this guide is an important first resource to consult. Choosing your definition of the best time to visit the New Zealand South Island will impact the entirety of your trip, and should be carefully considered.
Did you know the length of day nearly doubles between the winter and summer solstice?!
Did you know it is possible to see the AURORA AUSTRALIS (aka Southern Lights) the right time of year?
If you have not considered these and other factors, you will want to at least peruse this guide.
While not everyone is a photographer, most everyone is planning a New Zealand vacation with the intention of exploring its natural beauty. This guide reveals our favorite South Island New Zealand landscape photography destinations, and uncovers many hidden gems as well.
Final Thoughts on Traveling from Queenstown to Milford Sound
We hope you have found this guide useful in deciding how you will make the journey from Queenstown to Milford Sound. We take great effort in trying to cover everything our readers may want or need to know, and are always interested in improving our guides. If you have comments, questions, or suggestions, please leave them in the comments below.
Most importantly, enjoy your time in Middle Earth! The South Island of New Zealand is one of the most beautiful places we have ever photographed; we truly hope you take home memories as precious as we have.