This has always been an age old question when it comes to planning a day to Milford Sound and over time the preference of visitors has slowly been changing from doing a Milford Sound day tour from Te Anau. In this article we discuss what the statistics show, the benefits of either, safety risks, what is better for your experience and finally we give our opinion on what you should do.
It is important to note that Luxe Tours offers a Milford Sound day tour and we leave from Te Anau, so naturally it would be fair to assume that we are slightly bias. We have tried to remove that bias here. We could have left from Queenstown, but we chose to leave from Te Anau and there is four very important reasons for that which we will let you know.
Milford Sound is 120km (75miles) from Te Anau, and 288km (179miles) from Queenstown. The travel times, constant with no stops are 2-hours from Te Anau, and 4-hours from Queenstown. With regular rest/toilet stops and taking into account the popular photo stops along the Milford Road, the typical travel times are 3 hours from Te Anau and 6 hours from Queenstown one way.
When touring from Te Anau, typically 5 hours of the day is spent in a vehicle, compared to about 9 hours from Queenstown.
Both the Milford Road, and the road between Te Anau & Queenstown, has the highest accident rate for visitors proportionally in New Zealand with almost 40% of car accidents having visitors involved (NZ Safer Journeys report commissioned by the NZ Government).
Of the 869,000 visitors to Milford Sound in 2019, 55% of visitors stayed in the area (Te Anau, Manapouri or Milford Sound), while 45% stayed further away, mainly Queenstown (Milford Sound Opportunities Project research).
At Luxe Tours, we read through hundreds of reviews left on popular review websites TripAdvisor & Google to get a sense of what the feedback was from people's experience of Milford Sound when they travelled from either Te Anau or Queenstown. It was clear that Te Anau had a much more favourable rating as a departure town.
⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ "An enjoyable day out, the tour guide made us feel comfortable and relaxed throughout the day and the tour was a great length of about 7 hours" Assumed to be from Te Anau as a 7 hour return trip from Queenstown is almost impossible.
⭐️⭐️⭐️ "We took a day tour and cruise with ********** from Queenstown. While the scenery was amazing and our driver very hospitable, it was quite rushed the whole day and we didn't return till after dinner time. It was a very long time between lunch provided on the cruise in the early afternoon and dinner. Driving for almost 10 hours was quite tiring"
⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ "Milford Sound was incredible, but far too much driving from Queenstown".
⭐️⭐️ "Took the day tour option from Queenstown, it started off well but we got stuck in traffic in the first hour which meant the driver was rushing all the way to Milford and we missed out on lots of stops. Not the drivers fault but regret going from Queenstown".
⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ "Beautiful day out from Queenstown to Milford, but we fell asleep on the way home due to the big drive, would stay closer to Milford in future".
⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ "Very pleasant drive from Te Anau stopping at about eight different places. Our guide showed us some of his local "secrets" which were beautiful. Would highly recommend ******** for a day tour again!"
There is no doubt in anyones mind, whether it be tour operators, past visitors who have travelled these journeys, or experienced locals, that the drive into Milford Sound can be quite tiring but in particular from Queenstown due to the sheer time on the road.
The Milford Road is quite winding and narrow in big parts and takes a lot of focus from drivers. This is also the case for a 40 minute section of road between Kingston and Queenstown called the 'Devil's Staircase'. It has a notoriously high accident rate and interestingly enough this is loaded towards the latter parts of the day around 5 - 8pm (the time that most people will be on this piece of road if coming back from Milford Sound).
A big consideration is driving in winter, it gets dark in this area by 5pm and can start to get icy. The same can be said for mornings until about 10am.
The Milford Sound 'experience'
Currently underway is a long term project called the 'Milford Opportunities Project' which is assessing ideas for improving access to Milford Sound and improving the experience for both visitors and locals.
Common feedback from tour operators, locals and visitors is that the journey from Queenstown to Milford Sound is too rushed, too long and that the experience of Milford Sound is diminished. There is a strong feeling from everybody involved in this project that travelling from Te Anau allows:
More time to enjoy the sights,
More time at each stop instead of rushing off to the next one.
More cruise choice and therefore more choice of cruise price because all the cruises don't need to be loaded to a similar time for when Queenstown travellers arrive.
Safety is improved with less tired drivers on the road.
Costs are always important to consider and we understand that this can be front of mind. It would be easy to assume that staying in Te Anau either side of your Milford Sound tour day would be a lot more expensive because of an extra night's accomodation. Yes and no, this greatly depends on your style of accomodation but a few key points to understand:
You need two nights accommodation no matter what, one night either side of your Milford Sound tour.
Te Anau accommodation is cheaper than Queenstown for the equivalent quality. The average price for a night in Queenstown is $366. In Te Anau, this average is $265 per night (AirBNB one night on 1st November 2023 for two people).
If you stay for two nights in Queenstown (which you will need to), the average cost goes up to $434 per night on average, versus Te Anau at $277 per night.
If you stay in Te Anau the nights either side of your tour, you still be back in Queenstown the day after by 10am - 12pm anyway.
We are big advocates of taking your tour to Milford Sound from Te Anau and staying there the nights either side. It is far more relaxing to take the tour from Te Anau and shorten your time on the road down considerably. One big problem we see is some visitors rushing through from Queenstown, on a strictly tight schedule because they have to get to a Milford Sound cruise at a specific time, usually around 1pm. Due to a lot of people going on a cruise at a similar time, it means most travellers are arriving at photo stops at the same time, causing congestion and a not so good experience.
Our four important reasons why we suggest taking a tour from Te Anau are:
Safety: We have seen some terrible accidents over the years between Milford Sound & Queenstown (from cars, not tours), and these tend to be towards the end of the day and from simple mistakes such as crossing the centre line. It points to tired drivers.
The Environment: We suggest if you are coming from Queenstown in your own/rental vehicle that the best experience but also the best result for our environment and lower carbon emission output can be achieved by jumping onto a day tour from Te Anau to Milford Sound in the morning instead of self driving all the way.
Experience: Milford Sound is supposed to be a getaway from the real world, an experience and memories to treasure forever. It should be about connecting with nature, not staying connected to the road. We often hear from visitors that they wish they had stayed in Te Anau to break up the Milford Sound experience.
Timing is everything: If you leave from Te Anau on a new day, it means you have about 3 hours less of driving to do on your inward journey to Milford Sound. This means you can time the stops better and not be crowded with everyone else. At Luxe Tours for example, we tend to find a good spot in the times and often don't catch a lot of traffic.
There are some obvious advantages from taking your Milford Sound tour from Te Anau, but we completely understand that there are times where coming form Queenstown makes sense such as having an early morning flight or another tour out of Queenstown the morning after your Milford day., or perhaps you are doing the Milford tour as part of a bigger package. If you have the time & choice though, we highly recommend staying in Te Anau for two nights and enjoying your relaxing journey up the Milford Road!