Queenstown to Milford Sound Scenic Flight: The Most Beautiful Half-Day Trip in New Zealand

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Taking a scenic flight from Queenstown to Milford Sound was our biggest splurge in New Zealand, but we didn’t regret it for a minute.

Milford Sound is one of the highlights of the country with waterfalls and soaring peaks in a glacier-carved valley.

Accommodation is limited at this remote fjord in the southwest of the South Island, so most people visit on a day trip from Queenstown. We couldn’t face 10 hours on a bus, so we decided to fly instead.

We’re so glad we did as the flight to Milford Sound was just as spectacular as the cruise through Milford Sound, so it was a two-for-one experience—and the whole trip only took five hours.

In just half a day we saw the best of what New Zealand has to offer—rugged mountain ranges, snowy peaks, turquoise glacial lakes, braided rivers, lush farmland, dense native forest, gushing waterfalls, and even dolphins and seals.

We think flying is the best way to travel from Queenstown to Milford Sound if you have limited time and some cash to spare.

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Queenstown to Milford Sound Flight

We chose a morning flight with Air Milford and our adventure started with a pick-up from our accommodation in Queenstown for the short drive to the airport. 

After a briefing with our pilot, we were taken to our plane—a 13-seat Cessna Caravan with two seats on one side and one on the other.

It was a bit cramped in our two-seater, especially trying to manoeuvre to take photos, but after takeoff we forgot any discomfort.

The views from the air were astounding.

First we flew over huge Lake Wakatipu, on Queenstown’s doorstep, past patchworks of lush farmland and the rugged green mountains that surround the lake.

Flying over Lake Wakatipu near Queenstown in the summer on the way to Milford Sound

In minutes we were in another world entirely. We couldn’t believe how close we flew to the Southern Alps, at first a chiselled grey and soon covered in snow, even in summer.

View of Southern Alps near Queenstown on a scenic flight to Milford Sound

The landscape changed again as we flew over Paradise, one of the locations where The Lord of the Rings trilogy was filmed. Flat green farmland was surrounded by towering emerald peaks and crisscrossed with the surreal white and blue swirls of the wide braided river.

Paradise from above on a scenic flight from Queenstown to Milford Sound

Back over the mountains we returned to the snow and passed turquoise glacial lakes hidden in the peaks. The clouds came in and we were immersed in the Alpine world as we bumped along in our tiny plane.

Paradise and Southern Alps on a scenic flight from Queenstown to Milford Sound

Fiordland National Park, where Milford Sound is located, is one of the wettest places in New Zealand. As we approached we noticed the change from the drier brown peaks near Queenstown to the much lusher mountains where every surface was covered in dense rainforest.

Southern Alps on a scenic flight from Queenstown to Milford Sound

The forest-covered mountains reached to the sea and the wild green coastline was truly stunning and unspoilt with no roads in sight.

Entrance from the sea to Milford Sound taken from a plane from above

Finally we reached Milford Sound—which was misnamed as it’s actually a fjord formed by glacial action rather than a sound created by a river—and flew into the valley just above the cliffs that plunge into the emerald water.

Flying above the waterfalls and cliffs of Milford Sound, New Zealand

Our 35-minute flight was over too quickly, but we still had the main reason people come to Milford Sound to look forward to—a cruise down the fjord.

The Milford Sound airport

We opted for a 15-minute stroll from the “airport” (more like a parking lot) to the boat dock and fell in love with the area immediately. We were lucky with bright blue skies and a still morning sea that allowed us to see the iconic triangular form of Mitre Peak reflected in the water.

Mitre Peak reflected in the water at Milford Sound

Milford Sound Nature Cruise

The boating section of our trip was with Cruise Milford whose smaller boats (up to 75 passengers) allow you to get closer to the waterfalls and wildlife. Like most of the trips on offer, ours would take just under two hours which is enough time to cruise the length of the 16km (10-mile) fjord and return.

Cruise Milford boat for a nature cruise through Milford Sound

Our Cruise Milford boat

We chose an outside spot downstairs at the very front of the boat, which turned out to be perfect. I was glad I’d worn lots of layers to protect me from the chilly wind, though.

Mitre Peak is the first sight that struck me. The triangular mountain rises one mile above the sea and photos don’t do its grandeur justice. Before we’d even begun, Milford Sound was even more beautiful than I’d imagined.

Mitre Peak in Milford Sound
View from a Milford Sound cruise

As we were visiting in high season (early January) and Milford Sound is one of the most popular destinations in the country, we’d expected it to be crowded with boats, but there were only a few others around.

The advantage of flying is that you can arrive first thing in the morning and finish the boat trip before the coach tours from Queenstown even get there.

We sailed deeper into the fjord, close to forest-covered peaks and the many waterfalls that plummet down the sheer sides of the cliffs. Our boat even went under a couple of them—stand back if you don’t want to get wet! On a rainy day the waterfalls are supposed to be even more stunning.

Bowen Falls in Milford Sound
Milford Sound waterfall
Simon standing under a waterfall on a Milford Sound cruise

A highlight was a pod of bottlenose dolphins gliding and jumping alongside our boat.

Bottlenose dolphins at Milford Sound

A more common sight is fur seals who sun themselves on rocks.

Fur seals lying on a rock at Milford Sound

A spectacular finale was Pembroke Glacier, all that remains of the historic glaciers that carved out Milford Sound, an incongruous snowy peak in a landscape of green.

Pembroke Glacier in Milford Sound

Return Flight from Milford Sound to Queenstown

Although we wished we could stay at Milford Sound for days, we were excited about the return flight. I volunteered to take the seat next to the pilot, which I highly recommend for the views.

Flying over Bowen Falls in Milford Sound

We returned on a different route that was just as beautiful over craggy peaks, snowy summits, and glacial lakes.

Mountain view on flight from Milford Sound to Queenstown
Glacial lake in the mountains on flight from Milford Sound to Queenstown

We also flew over the immense Lake Te Anau, the second largest lake in New Zealand at 65km (40 miles) long.

Flying over Lake Te Anau on a Milford Sound scenic flight

Our final view was of the turquoise Kawarau River just outside Queenstown, which is a popular spot for jet boating.

View from above of Kawarau River near Queenstown

Summary

Small plane flying over Milford Sound

Our scenic flight and Milford Sound trip was one of the best things we did in New Zealand and well worth the splurge. I can’t imagine how else you’d see so much spectacular scenery in just half a day for minimal effort.

We highly recommend a Milford Sound flight if you can afford it. If not, you could take a bus day trip from Queenstown to Milford Sound instead.

Alternatively, base yourself in the closest town of Te Anau, a 2-hour drive from Milford Sound, which would make driving yourself more manageable. 

We’d love to return to Milford Sound for a longer stay to kayak through the fjord, hike the trails, and soak up the scenery when the day-trippers have left. Unfortunately, Milford Sound Lodge is the only place to stay and it’s very expensive and gets booked up far in advance.

Visiting Milford Sound on a day trip from Queenstown is a more practical option for most travellers and taking a scenic flight makes it an easy and breathtaking trip.

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Milford Sound Fly Cruise Fly Trip Details

We booked our Milford Sound Fly Cruise Fly Trip with Air Milford. It costs NZ $565 per person and takes four hours (five hours including pick-up from accommodation). 

We booked the 9.30am flight and were picked up from our accommodation at 8.30am and were back by 1.30pm. No food is provided except for biscuits and tea and coffee on the boat, so you might want to bring snacks. Warm and waterproof clothing is also essential.

Make sure you book the trip for your first day in Queenstown as flights are often cancelled due to weather, so you’ll want time to reschedule.

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