A decision every visitor to Milford Sound must make is whether or not to drive themselves, or take one of the tours on offer. Obviously we, Luxe Tours, offer the latter and so you might think we would be a bit biased, fair thought. We have tried to be as neutral as possible when answering whether or not a paid tour is worth it.
Milford Sound is a wonder to behold. It's stunning postcard worthy scenery is often referred to as the "eighth wonder of the world". It is visited by nearly 900,000 people every year and is listed as one of the top ten attractions in Lonely Planet's world guide. It is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Interestingly of all the visitors that flock down the Milford Road and deep into Fiordland, only approximately 27% (2014-2019) take a paid tour.
Considering that the vast majority of visitors are international tourists, some would be forgiven for thinking that tours would make up a higher proportion of choices. Why is it not the case? The answer is a domino effect.
Feedback from international tourists in the Milford Sound Opportunities Report 2021 found that many believed they would be able to take more time at stops and liked the freedom to explore on their own in their own time. Feedback following their day found the opposite happened, and they found they ended up in queues, traffic and didn't know where to go at times. Many commented they wish they had taken a tour.
Many visitors (55%) wanted to stay the night close to the Milford Road corridor, such as in Te Anau, to be able to have a break and spend more time in the area, rather than travelling back to Queenstown or elsewhere afterwards (45% of visitors).
There was a lack of tour options just from Te Anau though and the ones that there were filled up fast, so people simply chose to hire a car and do the full trip themselves.
What is the cost of a Milford Sound day tour?
Day tour from Te Anau (adult)
Day tour from Queenstown (adult)
Southern Discoveries (Bus)
Great Sights (Bus)
Altitude Tours (Small Coach)
Fiordland Tours (Small Coach)
Cheeky Kiwi Travel (Small Coach)
Luxe Tours (Small Coach)
Tour operator prices for 2023/2024 being advertised at time of writing.
The prices above represent the initial cost or base cost for each operators tour into Milford Sound. It is important to note that out of the operators above, RealNZ, Southern Discoveries and Great Sights do their main group tour on a large bus, whereas Altitude Tours, Fiordland Tours, Cheeky Kiwi and us here at Luxe Tours offer the day trip experience in a more private group setting with smaller vehicles. Each have their pros and cons.
What are the pros and cons of driving ourselves?
Choice of when to pull over, what stops to visit and time to take throughout the journey.
The driver doesn't get to witness much of the beauty themselves as focus on the road is crucial.
The comfort of your own vehicle.
Don't know where to stop, self drive groups tend to only stop at stops that are well sign posted and miss the special ones that local guides know of.
Overall saving of cost.
Parking at Milford Sound is a bit of a walk versus being dropped at the cruise terminal by a tour.
Privacy in your own vehicle.
Unguided and no information as to what you are looking at along the way and the special areas.
Flexibility of when to depart accomodation & take your bags with you in the car.
Can be quite stressful at times if the weather turns on you, especially in winter.
What are the pros and cons of taking a tour?
Everybody can equally be able to take in the scenery and not need to concentrate on the road.
Cost for a group will typically be higher compared to going in own vehicle but this comes with a lot of pros.
Safety with experienced Milford Road drivers and guides who understand the unique roads.
Often not as much choice as to where you want to stop, although smaller operators can often accomodate or do include many stops.
Often avoid large crowds. Especially the smaller private operators who have a bit more flexibility in their schedule.
Sometimes you won't be able to find a spot if tours are booked up, especially in summer. Need to get in early!
Tour operators and guides know the stops worth making and can allocate more time to the best ones.
Make sure you get to where you need to be on time and typically straight to the door of the cruise terminal.
What is often included in Milford Sound tours that may not be obvious?
There are often inclusions in tours that are unlisted or not obvious on a tour operators website. Some of the things you can expect to find in a tour, particularly private or small group tours, are:
Guided expert commentary on the area and of all the key spots along the Milford Road.
Guided walking into the photo spots such as Mirror Lakes, or The Chasm.
Cruise ticket including nature guiding onboard the boat.
Small snack options.
Onboard entertainment or information by video.
Seat type on board the vehicle - some will have USB charging, drink holders, curtains, table trays & other comforts.
Further options can often be added to your tour that take the hassle out of having to organise anything extra for the day such as:
Lunch and snacks.
Environmental benefits of Milford Sound tours.
Something at Luxe Tours that we are very conscious of is our environmental impact due to tours. Most tour operators in some way are involved in reducing this impact across tourism in Fiordland. For example at Luxe, we donate a native tree for every guest on our tour.
One of the big benefits of tours is that we are grouping more than just a few people together into a vehicle. Often tour vehicles are newer, more up to date vehicles that meet latest emissions standards such as our van - the 2023 Mercedes Sprinter. At Luxe Tours, we produce approximately 49kg of carbon emissions each tour. We well and truly offset this, even just by donating native trees, something we are very proud of.
The impact of hundreds of vehicles driving into Milford Sound is so much so that the New Zealand Government is considering a ban or toll of private international vehicles driving into the area, and making tours the only options to reduce this carbon footprint as well as de-congest the road.
It is likely obvious that we are big fans of tours as they allow you, as our guest, to enjoy your whole day without stress, with full guidance on both the area but also safety, and while they can cost more overall, you are more likely to have the complete Milford Sound experience that you see advertised online and around the world.
With all the information we have, what we see from tour operators and considering the feedback from visitors across the board, we think that a paid tour is absolutely worth it and actually the best way to see Milford Sound, learn about the area and get the full experience!
When making the final decision, you may want to consider some of the following articles to help:
Learn more about the Luxe Milford Sound Day Tour HERE