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Milford Sound Tours: Small Group vs Large Group - a deep dive.

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Milford Sound is located on the West Coast of the South Island, New Zealand. It is 120km from Te Anau, and 288km from Queenstown. Part of Fiordland National Park and South West New Zealand, Milford Sound is part of the UNESCO Heritage status applied to this incredible area. Almost 900,000 visitors flock to Milford Sound every year to witness the breathtaking natural beauty, 50% of which choose to experience Piopiotahi (Milford Sound) by organised tour. In this article we break down the difference between a small group tour and a larger group tour, the pros & cons, pricing and even current operators you could choose from.


Small Group Tour definition: A tour vehicle such as a van, minibus, small coach with less than 21 seats.

Large Group Tour definition: A tour vehicle such as a large bus with more than 21 seats.



Why take a Milford Sound Tour?


Ask any local in Te Anau, the gateway township to Fiordland National Park and Milford Sound, and they will tell you that the famous Milford Road to Milford Sound is best viewed from a tour instead of trying to drive yourself. This is due to several key reasons:


  • The Milford Road is one of the most notorious roads in New Zealand, with sections of winding, narrow road. Some parts are single lane around blind corners.

  • Weather plays a big part in the journey, especially in winter with hazardous conditions often present such as snow, or morning black ice.

  • The Milford Road is spectacular, breathtaking and also very eye-catching, so much so that the scenery outside the windows is incredibly distracting for the driver. They either look out the window a lot of the journey & add significant risk, or they miss most of the journey until the destination. In this case, the journey is equally as important as the destination.

Now obviously we are are a tour operator to Milford Sound, so it would be fair to think that we are bias to tours. You would be right but mainly for the reasons above. As Te Anau locals, we have seen the consequences of getting the Milford Road wrong. That bias is okay for the sake of this article as we are focusing on which type of tour to take, not whether or not to take one at all.


Advantage of a Tour from Te Anau - Local Expert Guides


We have plenty of other articles that take you through why a Milford Sound Tour from Te Anau is a great idea, however it is important to highlight that no matter whether you choose a small group or large group tour to Milford Sound, if you do one that is from Te Anau, you are almost guaranteed to be driven and guided by someone who is a true local living in Te Anau and Fiordland. If the tour is from Queenstown, it is likely to be someone who doesn't live in the area that you are travelling to and going to experience. We know who we would much rather have! Te Anau locals know the nooks and crannies that some others don't and you will get a much more true Fiordland experience. You have to pass through Te Anau anyway on the way to Milford Sound so why not consider taking a tour from there?



Milford Sound Tour from Te Anau Itinerary

Luxe Tours Milford Sound Day Tour

Itineraries vary greatly between operators but you can expect as a general format to be picked up from your accommodation, or from a central spot in Te Anau. Following this you will depart your pick up point, bound for Te Anau Downs (approximately 25mins away) where there will likely be a photo stop and some fresh air. From there, you can have up to another 16 photo stops however while it is all good and well promising that, we have found at Luxe Tours that the sweet spots sits around 8 - 11 as more than that just doubles up on what you are seeing and the day becomes very drawn and out but also rushing from one place to another and not able to actually enjoy the experience.



There are about three serviced toilet stops between Te Anau and Milford Sound, with the main one being Knobs Flat, approximately 45mins from Te Anau. Most tours will arrive into Milford Sound for your two-hour cruise at about 1pm. This Milford Sound Cruise takes you along the 17km stretch of fjord out to the Tasman Sea for a brief visit, before returning to take in seal colonies and dozens of waterfalls along the mountain faces.


Following the cruise, your tour is likely to bring you back to Te Anau soon after, with maybe one or two stops along the way on the return leg. Some tours may do an earlier cruise and do the majority of the stops on the return, however at Luxe Tours we find that people are fairly tired by the end of the cruise and a relaxing, quiet journey back is just what's needed.


There can be options for fly-outs via plane or helicopter back to either Te Anau. Check out our helicopter option which is quite unique.


Milford Sound Tour from Queenstown Itinerary


If departing from Queenstown, you can expect an extra five hours (return) of driving. Due to this the stops on the way to Milford Sound are similar along the Milford Road however sometimes due to time constraints or delays that have built up over the day, some stops may have to be foregone to make the cruise boat time, or to get back to Queenstown.


Extra stops from Queenstown include often one or two at the edge of Lake Wakatipu near Queenstown, then the option of a couple of coffee/cafe stops between Kingston and Te Anau although most operators tend to really push through this leg and then start stopping from Te Anau onwards.


Small Group Milford Sound Tours


Small group tours are becoming increasingly popular with many operators to Milford Sound reporting being booked out many of the days in Spring, Summer and Autumn. Perhaps a side effect of the pandemic, it seems more people are choosing to experience the day tour with less people.


Vehicle Type

Luxe Tours NZ

The most popular vehicle for a small group tour in New Zealand and to Milford Sound is the Mercedes Sprinter. Depending on the exact model, you can expect to see between 10 seats and 18 in the rear behind the driver, over three different sizes of vehicle. The most common tends to be the 319 Sprinter with 11 passenger seats. Often tour operators will fit spacious leather seats in for passengers but a handful still have cloth seats. Sizes can go up to the Sprinter 519 which can accomodate up to 19 seats.


Operating the Mercedes Sprinter out of Te Anau & Queenstown in their main fleet is Luxe Tours, Fiordland Tours, Trips & Tramps, Cheeky Kiwi & Altitude Tours.


What to expect of a Small Group Tour

  • 7 - 11 people in the coach with you during the busy spring/summer/autumn months of October - May. This can tend to be less during the off season months of June - September.

  • One driver who is also your tour guide for the day.

  • A more spacious (compared to a bus) seat with potential add-on's such as arm rests, drink holders, tray tables in front, seat pockets, USB charging, onboard book-guides, small storage space above or in the rear, water/refreshments supplied and good air conditioning.

  • More photo stops, mainly due to the ability for smaller vehicles to get into certain stops that are tighter on space.

  • More nature walks or opportunities for interaction with nature due to less people for the guide to look after.


Pricing

You can generally expect to pay a bit more for a small group tour to Milford Sound for several reasons including:

  • The tour operators costs are spread out over less people in a vehicle. While costs are obviously lower than that of a larger bus tour, they do not stay proportionate as the amount of people decreases and therefore the size of vehicle needed.

  • You can expect a more one on one, quality level of service and care from your tour guide and driver. Simply they have more time to look after 11 people, than they do with 45.

  • Small group tours are becoming more in demand due to the level of service and ability to reach photo stops and places that larger buses can't.

As of November 2023, the pricing for small group tours to Milford Sound was in the range of $199 - $299.

Operator

From Te Anau

From Queenstown

$179

N/A

$199

N/A

$245

N/A

$264 (inc Lunch)

$289 (inc Lunch)

N/A

$299




 


Pros/Cons of a Small Group Milford Sound Tour


It is really important to note that while some of us may perceive a certain aspect of any type of tour to be an advantage, for others it may be a disadvantage. In this table, we break down opposing views, that way you can decide how many line up with your feeling of the tour you wish to have.

Advantages for some guests

Disadvantages for some guests

​Less people around, more opportunity for prime photo spots, interaction with the guide, and quicker vehicle loading.

Less people to interact with on the tour or talk to.

Smaller vehicles that are tailored for small groups of people, able to reach more tighter spots along the way.

Some people prefer the feeling of being up high on the road in a large vehicle.

​Premium travel for everybody at a fair price.

​Some guests prefer the slightly lower prices on larger group tours or are touring on a budget.

A driver & guide who tends to be more interactive, able to answer more questions & spend more time showing the finer details of the Milford Road.

Some guests can prefer to be left alone and just enjoy the scenery or don't wish to interact much.

Typically more nature walks included that range from 5 - 25mins and take in waterfalls not seen from the road.

Don't wish to do walks or are unable to. Larger group tours tend to do the shorter options of 2 - 5mins.


"If your goals are more about the destination, than the journey, then I would recommend a large group tour for a slight price saving, quicker to the destination. If you relish the journey and want to explore more nooks and crannies of Fiordland, the little spots you wouldn't have seen on Google or Instagram, then a small group tour can be very advantages."

Katelyn Pascoe, Guest Experience Manager, Luxe Tours



Large Group Tours


Large Group Tours, or for want of a better term - Milford Sound Bus Tours, are the tried and true way of travelling to Milford Sound over the decades, and while small group tours are becoming increasingly popular over the last 10 years, there is still a place for larger buses and the amount of people they can transport at once.


Vehicle Type

Large bus tour NZ

A larger group tour of say 21 people of more is very likely to be on a typical sized bus and have capacity for 40 - 50 guests. There is a middle ground with the inclusion of smaller buses seating 20 - 35 people from some operators but when you think of buses you are likely to find Mercedes, Scania and Volvo being on the Milford Road.


Well know companies operating these size buses and group tours in Milford Sound are RealNZ, Southern Discoveries and Great Sights. There are of course others who operate single buses for specialised tours with certain countries, languages or the likes of Contiki Tours every so often with their publicly closed off tour, but on the whole the three above are the most substantial operators in Milford Sound.


What to expect of a Large Group Tour

  • Up to 50 people, most cases between 40 - 50.

  • Large bus with seating configuration of two / two and an aisle between

  • One driver and on rare occasion a seperate guide.

  • Tours to Milford Sound tend to be shorter in length due to the bus not being able to access as many of the stops along the Milford Road. Usually around seven hours.

  • Not as many stops accessed.

  • Up high off the road and some buses have glass ceilings for maximum mountain viewing.

  • Tend to have larger windows.

  • Very low or none at all nature walks.

  • Departure tends to be from one or two central points.

Pricing

You can generally expect to pay a bit less for a large group tour to Milford Sound for several reasons including:

  • The tour operators costs are able to be spread out over more people in a vehicle. While costs are obviously higher than that of a smaller group tour, they do not stay proportionate as the amount of people increases and therefore the size of vehicle needed.

  • You can expect less one on one with the guide or driver and less time for questions due to the simple fact they have more people to look after. We would expect their service to still be of a high standard however.

  • There is efficiency in numbers, as with anything and larger operators are able to manage expenses through bulk pricing of amenities, fuel, cruise operations.

  • The two largest tour operators - RealNZ and Southern Discoveries, have their own cruise operations and so are able to really compete with overall pricing.

As of November 2023, the pricing for large group tours to Milford Sound was in the range of $169 - $280.

Operator

From Te Anau

From Queenstown

RealNZ

$215

$255

Southern Discoveries

$215

$265

Great Sights

$185

$249

Pros/Cons of a Large Group Milford Sound Tour


It is really important to note that while some of us may perceive a certain aspect of any type of tour to be an advantage, for others it may be a disadvantage. In this table, we break down opposing views, that way you can decide how many line up with your feeling of the tour you wish to have.

Advantages for some guests

Disadvantages for some guests

More people around to interact with, make relationships with during the tour.

Too many people and prefer to enjoy the tour within a family/friend bubble.

Larger vehicles, high up on the road to give a feeling of safety, usually comfortable travelling.

Not able to fit into smaller spots for photos or to see some attractions.

Reasonable pricing, good for those on a tighter budget or potentially famalies travelling with a few members.

Not the same amount of amenities provided compared to a small group tour such as refreshments, food, extras.

Less interaction with the driver or guide as they have more people to look after, left to yourself a bit more.

A lot of guests relish the information and being able to ask questions as you travel along and be heard.

Less nature walks and usually slightly quicker to get to Milford Sound itself.

Want to experience native forest in the National Park and see more big waterfalls/chasms.


Reccommendation


It will sound clique but we recommend finding the right Milford Sound tour for your own style of travel. We highly recommend at the very least doing a tour, we highly recommend at the very least doing that tour from Te Anau, however it is your personal style that will choose between a Small Group Tour or a Large Group Tour. The latter is more direct, less photo stops but less driving time also, in a big grand bus. A small group tour is more personal, generally a bit more depth to the experience with a few more photo stops and nature walks included due to the size of vehicle. A visit to Milford Sound is likely to be a once in a life experience so doing it right and not being afraid (if able to) to spend a little to truly get the best value.


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