A Milford Sound tour will be a highlight of your journey to Fiordland in New Zealand. Rain or shine, the fjord on the West Coast of New Zealand's South Island is one of the world's must see destinations. A tour to Milford Sound is a common mode of transport and as many of our other articles explain - the journey is equally as beautiful and full of wonder as the destination. Therefore, it is crucially important to choose the right tour for you. In this article, we break down 10 things to look out for and help guide your decision of which Milford Sound tour you will take.
1 - "We do 20 stops on the way the way to Milford Sound."
The road to Milford Sound is 120km long from Te Anau and 288km from Queenstown, you can do a tour from either with from Te Anau being highly recommended.
The road has a lot of winding corners and travelling at the road speed limit of 100 the whole way is simply not possible. It takes time, about 2-hours from Te Anau and 4-hours from Queenstown, if you were to drive with no stops. However you want to do all the best stops, of which there about seven great and very popular stops, with then a few extras such as waterfalls that local guides from Te Anau might know about.
However there are some Milford Sound tour's stating "we do up to 20 photo stops during our tour".
It is possible, however it takes two hours to drive to Milford, followed by a two hour cruise and then two hours back to Te Anau. With passenger loading, unloading, some stops that have walks and then the remaining stops which you would spend 5-10mins at each, it becomes either a very, very long day, or a blitz of rushing from place to place. Neither is that enjoyable.
If you are coming from Queenstown, it really isn't possible, there is only enough time for the drive, the cruise and about 10 photo stops depending on the specific locations the tour chooses to visit.
Recommendation: There are about seven great photo stops that aren't to be missed, and then about five others that we at Luxe Tours think are great too. Beyond that, it's too many and you will come to regret the start/stop nature of your tour.
2 - Where is your 'local' guide from?
Many Milford Sound tours tout their 'locally' guided tour. Queenstown is not local, it is 288km away in a different region entirely from Milford Sound. When you look on a map, Queenstown and Milford Sound look almost right beside each other, however there is no direct road connection through the gap that seperates them. You must travel through Te Anau to get to Milford Sound.
There is a large chunk of people working on short term work visas in Queenstown due to it being a visitor destination and quite often you will find that your tour guide is not originally from New Zealand.
Te Anau is where the truly 'local' guides are, the men and women who live and breathe Fiordland (the National Park that Milford Sound resides in) and in most cases have travelled to and from Milford Sound most of their lives.
Recommendation: A local guide knows the spots to show you in any weather that others don't. Choose local!
3 - Time of departure.
There is a sweet spot of when to depart Te Anau for Milford Sound and we recommend it being around 9am.
If you are coming on a Milford Sound tour from Queenstown, you will usually depart between 6:30am and 7:30am (and return around 7:30pm - 8:30pm).
There are tours that depart as late as 11am for a cruise in Milford Sound at 1:30pm. This leaves very little time to enjoy the Milford Road which has many spectacular locations to get out of the vehicle and enjoy.
Recommendation: Find a tour departing Te Anau between 8am - 10am.
4 - Is the price fair?
We run a tour business, we know the margins.
You should expect in 2024 to pay between $179 - $249 for large and small group Milford Sound tours departing from Te Anau, and $269 - $309 for a Queenstown departure.
On top of this, there will likely be options to add food/lunch packages.
Typically you can expect to pay a bit more, usually $20 - $40, for a small group tour as in recent history these have become more popular. They offer a more hands on guided journey to Milford Sound and less crowds as you explore at each stop along the Milford Road.
"Make sure you see the interior of the vehicle you are travelling in - Luxe Tours is the most affordable option out of Te Anau currently at $179 per adult and we have the newest vehicle - a 2023 Mercedes Sprinter with a luxurious fit-out. If you are not confident of the operators interior quality, ask for a photo from them." Katelyn, Luxe Tours Guest Experience Manager.
5 - The scenery is the same no matter the tour.
We suggest not getting too hung up on which Milford Sound tour to take, the main reason being that the road into Milford Sound is the same one that every tour and every visitor will experience. There is no other road access to Milford Sound.
This means that on the same day, at roughly the same time, you are going to see out the window what a visitor in the bus or coach in front of you is seeing.
There are other things to look out for when choosing a tour, such as the mentioned cost, time of departure, amount of stops and the one below - What type of vehicle does the tour operate?
Recommendation: On almost every Milford Sound tour, you are going to see and experience very similar scenery and locations as to others. Some tours will have a few extras but don't stress too much about the main sights.
See our Milford Sound Tour Breakdown here at Luxe Tours.
6 - What type of vehicle does the tour operate?
If you think you would prefer a larger group tour which would typically be in a large bus, then there isn't too much difference across the buses, apart from perhaps leather seats versus frabric, or a window top ceiling versus none.
When it comes to small group tour, the most common vehicle operated is a Mercedes Sprinter, ranging from a 12 - 18 seat configueration. Seats can be leather or fabric, some coaches will have USB charging, some will advertise WiFi (more on that later) some maybe even a group entertainment screen.
One thing we think you shoud look out for is high-performance air conditioning, the regular air conditioning units in the Sprinter and most other vans as well, is usually not enough to keep up with very cold or very hot days when there is 12 people in them.
Recommendation: The vehicle is what you are going to spend between four - nine hours in depeneding on your depatrue point, don't be afraid to enquire with the tour operator as to what they have.
7 - "WiFi onboard our vehicle."
Some Milford Sound tour operators have WiFi available in their vehicle for the journey. The problem with this is unless it is Starlink, which in most cases it isn't, the WiFi will only be in range for about 10% of the Milford Road between Te Anau and Milford Sound.
There is 4G available, which tours then tap off, in Te Anau, Te Anau Downs, Eglinton Valley, Mirror Lakes, Knobs Flat, Homer Tunnel and then Milford Sound. Around these locations, you will have about 2- 4km of 4G/WiFi available, then it will go dark again.
In our opinion it is not something that changes the dial between which Milford Sound tour you take. Part of the Milford experience is the disconnection from technology and time in nature.
Recommendation: Having WiFi onboard is not effective between Te Anau and Milford Sound and we believe it is not something that should be a deciding factor in choosing a Milford Sound tour.
8 - You might miss out with Booking Sites.
Tripadvisor and other large booking sites such as Get Your Guide are fantastic for finding Milford Sound tours and working your way through what might suit you in one place.
However we have found that we are limited as a tour operator on what we can offer for two reasons:
These booking sites charge a commission to the tour operator for having someone book a ticket through their site. This can range from 15% - 30%. This means some tours cannot always be offered through the platform because the operators margin is similar or smaller to the commission.
These platforms have limited capability in being able to add extra's such as food options or tour add-ons.
You may get onto your tour, only to find out that you had an option to do something extra and have missed out.
We highly recommend in all instances, going to the tour operators own website and checking what might be available.
It is also great to book directly with the operator as they then receive all of the tour price! Most tour businesses, especially in Te Anau, are locally owned so support local!
Recommendation: Always check the tour operators website to see all possible tour options and support the business directly if possible.
9 - Does the operator have other tour packages?
There can be an advantage in finding and booking a Milford Sound tour where the operator has ther add-on options, some of which may include:
Milford Sound Helicopter Tour
Milford Sound Plane flight
Other tours in Fiordland
Special package discounts
If you book a combined package of a couple of tours, not only are you likely to get a discount overall, but also those packages are likely to offer a really good highlights itinerary so you see the best of this area.
10 - Is the Milford Sound tour eco-friendly or sustinable?
Te Anau, Milford Sound and Fiordland are beautiful places that have vibrant, wild and active eco-systems that are important to New Zealand and the world. Protecting them as best as possible is crucial.
There is no hiding that tours are the biggest emitters of carbon poullution in Fiordland but some tours have ways of offsetting this to create an equal benefit back to the enviornment.
For example at Luxe Tours, all of our onboard packaging, paper, cups, waterbottles, is all either compostable or recylable. We have an internal composting system for all our waste. We also plant a native tree for every guest that travels with us which over the next 20 years will well and truly cover that guests portion of the tour.
Recommendation: The little things matter, aim to leave no footprint behind. Look for a Milford Sound tour that is working hard to benefit the area.