During my one year abroad in New Zealand I had encountered this question most often, should I go to Milford Sound or Doubtful Sound?
I think it’s time to finally get to the bottom of this, from my viewpoint and opinion. I’ve been to both and will provide pros and cons and all the details below. I have highlighted the differences between the tour operators at the bottom of this post to save you time.
Milford Sound (8th Wonder of the World)
First, what is Milford Sound and why should you visit it? Milford Sound is actually a fjord that was deemed the 8th wonder of the world by Rudyard Kipling. This is considered the most famous tourist destination in New Zealand. If you’re looking for a very scenic location with high overhanging cliffs then look no further this relaxing cruise takes you two hours through the fjords, surrounded by high landscapes and waterfalls.
First, what is Doubtful Sound and why should you visit it? Also not a Sound but a fjord. This fjord is 10 times the size of Milford Sound but does not have the high overhanging cliffs. If you’re looking for a remote, quiet, and scenic location with a longer cruise then this place is for you. Yes, there are plenty of waterfalls too especially if it is raining.
You have a few options to visit Milford Sound. First is where you’re coming from. You’re either going to be staying in Te Anau or Queenstown.
Queenstown is by far more of a popular tourist place to stay, so let’s start there. This is going to be a very long day, most tours drive to Te Anau to pick up other guests and your round trip time will be over 12 hours, where only 2 hours will be on the cruise. The bus ride is very scenic and you will get to make some stops in Fiordland National Park. Some photos below of the stops in Fiordland National Park.
Of course, if you’re looking to splurge you can certainly fly into Milford Sound from Queenstown. The cost of this is NZD 349 – NZD 430, for a round trip. I didn’t fly, so I can’t say much here but if you’re interested checkout Air Milford. On my trip with Real Journeys that the coach driver would try to upsell flights back to Queenstown for a discounted price. So if you change your mind for the way back it is an option.
I had planned my trip out to take the tour from Te Anau to Milford Sound to Queenstown. Most guides will do this but you need to contact them ahead of time, this is not an option when booking. I emailed Real Journeys when I did my trip and was able to bring my luggage from Te Anau and transfer it to Queenstown. There was an extra fee involved in doing this but it wasn’t much NZD 20.
Getting from Te Anau to Milford Sound is faster but only accessible by coach or driving yourself. This is an 8 hour day by coach.If you’re driving yourself or using a campervan make sure you download Campermate.
There is no road to Doubtful Sound—first, you must be transported by boat over Lake Manapouri (Photos below) and then by bus over Wilmot Pass—so it receives only a fraction of the visitors compared to Milford Sound. Doubtful Sound remains relatively untouched and is more of a wilderness experience.
Pros of Each Sound
|Milford Sound||Doubtful Sound|
|More Tour Options & Operators||10 Times Larger|
|Scenic Drive Thru Fiordland National Park||2 Cruises, 1 on Lake Manapouri|
|Cheap if you drive yourself (starting at NZD 70)||Fewer Visitors, Less Crowded|
|Higher Overhanging Cliffs||Longer Cruise Through the Sound|
|Easy to Access||Boats Have More Freedom to Explore|
|More Food & Drink Options||More Remote & Quiet|
Which One is Better
Honestly, I can’t tell the difference between one fiord or another. I can certainly see a difference in size, but beauty is the same for me. In my opinion, I would pick Doubtful Sound. The experience is significantly better. You get a second cruise out of it through a massive lake and a very scenic bus ride between the lake and the sound. It’s a more remote, more quiet, and very relaxing experience.
The world has deemed Milford Sound better and honestly, it probably is a better Fjord but Fjords are amazing and a trip through any of them is going to be an unforgettable experience. If you’re looking to get more out of your day and money go with Doubtful Sound. If you want to check off the bucket list item go with Milford. I’m glad I did both and I was unfortunate to not be able to go when it was raining, so I can’t compare the countless waterfalls between the two.
If you have the time and the money I highly recommend doing both.
Will I see Wild Life?
Maybe, on my trip to Milford Sound, we did get to see some New Zealand Fur Seals. I didn’t see dolphins but on rare occasions, you could see them. I did see Dolphins on my trip through Doubtful Sound. However, New Zealand prohibits the ship from chasing or going near dolphins, so you can only hope that the dolphins come to you. If you’re really lucky you might even see penguins and maybe even a whale!
Is it Better in the Rain?
I was reminded on both my Milford Sound and Doubtful Sound tour at least 10 times between the time I booked and the time the tour ended that it is better in the rain. The rain brings out all the waterfalls in Fiord so yes this does sound better but I had a great time in sunny weather. I plan to go back again and try for a day in the rain to compare.
Who Should Go Where?
As you’ve noticed from reading this post each location has its Pros and Cons. Each traveler is going to want something different, and thankfully regardless of which one you choose you won’t be disappointed.
- You’re traveling on a budget or have your car, then definitely go to Milford Sound.
- Want the Freedom to explore New Zealand on the way. If you’re driving by yourself and want to explore more than do Milford, you won’t have much to explore between Te Anau and Manapouri for Doubtful Sound.
- You want to see Fiordland National Park since the bus tour stops a few times this would be your best option.
- This is going to be your first Fjord.
- You want the bucket list item checked off.
- You want to travel with fewer tourists.
- You want a more romantic tour option.
- You want to do an overnight cruise.
- You like cruises (this has two).
Both offer the same tour options. However, to kayak in Doubtful Sound you do need to do the overnight cruise. It seems the overnight cruise is better on doubtful sound. On the overnight cruise on Doubtful Sound, you’re able to fish for your dinner if you choose too and if it’s warm enough they have a place for you to swim.
Before I outline some tour operators and options, the first thing to do when traveling to New Zealand is to download the app BookMe or use their website. This site is great for last-minute deals, for visiting the fjords, look three-five days in advance. All the tours below are with companies I have used so I can at least tell you that they’re legit, I did not do all of these tours though.
- 2-hour Cruise
- Book Cruise Only NZD 69
- Book Cruise & Bus from Queenstown NZD 179
- Book Cruise & Bus from Te Anau NZD 129
- Overnight Cruise
- Double Occupancy NZD 249 per person
- Single Occupancy NZD 460
- Kayak Only NZD 129
- Scenic Flights
- Fly Cruise Fly NZD 389
- Cruise & Bus from Queenstown NZD 209
- Cruise & Bus from Te Anau NZD 179
- Overnight Cruise
- Double Occupancy NZD 449 per person
- Single Occupancy NZD 831
- Kayak Only from Te Anau NZD 199
- Scenic Flights
- Fly Cruise Fly from Queenstown NZD 1,535
What Businesses Offer Tours
Below is a list of operators that offer cruises and transportation for Milford Sound. I am not going to include data on kayaking, overnight cruises, or flying. The companies have very similar itineraries and what’s included. For Doubtful Sound, only two companies operate Real Journey and Go Orange (Currently not operating doubtful sound tours). Real Journey does not have bus transportation to Manapouri, so for now I am going to leave this out.
Here is a basic itinerary and what’s included for Milford Sound:
- Depart Queenstown at 07:25
- Stops in Te Anau to pick up other tourists 10:20
- Makes Stops in Fjordland National Park
- Arrives at Milford Sound at 13:20
- 2 Hour Cruise throughout Milford Sound
- Drops off Tourist in Te Anua at 17:30
- Arrives Back in Queenstown at 20:00
- Lunch included & Free Wifi when available
- Great Cancelation Policy (Cancel for Free up to 2 Hours Before Travel)
GreatSights Starting at NZD 179 (Queenstown) at 163 NZD (Te Anau)
Awesome NZ Starting at NZD 179 (Queenstown) at NZD 129 (Te Anau)
Real Journey Starting at NZD NZD 179 (Queenstown) at NZD 129 (Te Anau)
I hope this helps! Drop questions and comments below. Thanks for reading and liking my post. I appreciate the follows.