The Best Splurge In Queenstown: Flying to Milford Sound

I spent the final week of my recent trip to New Zealand in Queenstown, so-called adventure capital of the world. It’s the kind of place that’s stupid-stunning from every angle, which tourism has fully exploited by offering just about every adrenaline-inducing outdoor adventure you can think of. Because really, if you’re going to drop a few hundred dollars throwing yourself off of ledges, bridges, and mountains, you might as well do it in a location as beautiful as this.

nz scenic flight
A surprise to exactly no one who’s been reading this blog for any amount of time, these thrill-seeking activities weren’t on my New Zealand agenda. Well, paragliding was on my list, but it didn’t happen because I only had a few good weather days to work with and I had other priorities: hiking, biking, and the half-day trip to end all half-day trips — the Milford Sound Fly-Cruise-Fly package.

For what will indubitably be 4 of the most beautiful hours of your NZ trip (nay, life), you can fly from Queenstown to Milford Sound, do the classic cruise around the fjord at Milford, and hop back on the plane back to Queenstown.

Or, you can drive from Queenstown to Milford Sound in the same amount of time that all of the above awesomeness takes to complete… then do the cruise and make the 4 hour drive back to QT.

I don’t know about you, but one of these options sounds infinitely more epic to me.

scenic flight from queenstown

And so, on the only clear blue sky day I had my entire 3 weeks in New Zealand, I flew from Queenstown to Milford Sound with Air Wakatipu. One thing I really liked was that afterwards, they sent us the GPS map from our flight, outlining the exact route we took to Milford and back (which we flew counter-clockwise). It’s like they knew it would come in handy for blog posts like this! ;)

milford sound flight path

Queenstown and Milford look not-too-far apart on the map, but there isn’t a direct road between them because of all the mountains, lakes, and other scenic phenomena that stand “in the way”. Furthermore, Milford isn’t along the road to any other attraction really, so no matter where you’re driving from you’re going well out of your way to get there and then have to return the way you came.

If you have limited time on your New Zealand trip, it makes so much more sense to fly instead and save yourself a half day of travel. Heck, even if you do have the luxury of time like I did, you won’t regret flying to Milford. The views look a liiiiiiiiittle something like this:

nz scenic flights

new zealand scenic flight
These were the only snow-capped mountains I glimpsed from the plane, just northwest of Queenstown toward Mt. Aspiring. If you fly from late-autumn to early summer, you’re likely to see many more snowy peaks on your scenic flight. There wasn’t much residual snow in April when I was there.

One really awesome (but also frustrating) thing about this scenic flight to Milford is that the views can be drastically different from either side of the plane. Our pilot would point out some crazy electric-blue lakes on the other side that I could barely see, but then we’d fly by other cool things like heart-shaped lakes on my side that the left siders probably couldn’t see. No matter which side of the plane you’re on, you’re gonna see some pretty spectacular scenes out your window.

scenic flight from queenstown

nz scenic flight

This trio of different-colored lakes looks like something you’d see on the Tongariro Crossing on the north island. Really though, how does this exist? How can one lake be emerald green while another one nearby is a milky blue? Mind: blown.

scenic flight from queenstown
I was happy to be on the right side of the plane when we reached the west coast. Check out this sun-drenched view of the northern reaches of Fiordland National Park!

new zealand scenic flight
Then we turned south to enter Milford Sound, absorbing a completely different view of the fjords to the south and the little beaches along the coast.

new zealand scenic flight
Entering Milford Sound was like a dream (come true). I kind of felt like I was in a video game, soaring between the fjord walls and closing in on the landing strip as we touched down.

I’ll save the slew of Milford Sound photos I took for a separate blog post!

queenstown scenic flight

new zealand scenic flight
We took a different route back to Queenstown that provided drastically different scenery to what we had witnessed on the way down to Milford. We right siders were treated to sweeping views of Lake Te Anau, the south island’s largest lake. If you’re driving to Fiordland National Park, the town of Te Anau (on the southern tip of this lake) is the jumping-off point to both Milford and Doubtful Sound.

queenstown scenic flight

queenstown scenic flight

queenstown scenic flight
This time, we flew right over Lake Wakatipu before landing in Queenstown. I was especially eager to see this lake from a different vantage point, as most of the walks and viewpoints in town yield approximately the same (but beautiful) view from above.

milford sound fly cruise

milford sound fly cruise

Mountains and valleys, rivers and lakes: I’d say that sums up Queenstown and the surrounding area to a T.

milford sound fly cruise

milford sound fly cruise

All of these photos were taken with my 70-200mm lens (except for the very first one, which I shot with my wide angle 16-35mm lens). While you do get pretty close to some of the peaks, having a big zoom lens allows you to hone in on details, like where the mountains meet the lake. But more importantly, it’s trickier to avoid the parts of the plane and the glare on the windows unless you can zoom through them. For that reason, I would make sure you’re shooting at at least 50mm (on a full frame camera). If you don’t know what any of that means, you’re probably fine if you have a camera that zooms.

scenic flight from queenstown

scenic flight from queenstown

In the spirit of full disclosure, the rad guys at Air Wakatipu let me fly with them for free on standby. I was fully ready to plunk down NZ$489 had I not been able to get onto one of these flights, and I can assure you it is 100% worth the money.

The Milford Fly-Cruise-Fly package is an awesome option if you’re short on time on your New Zealand trip and have your heart set on making it to Milford Sound. Combine that with the fact that this is one of the most scenic flights you could possibly do in the whole world and I’d say I’m pretty justified in asserting that of all the fun, exciting, and wallet-draining things you can book, this is far and away the best value activity in Queenstown.

scenic flight in nz

Thank you to Air Wakatipu for hooking me up with a standby flight to Milford. Note that all opinions expressed here and elsewhere on this blog are my unbiased own, and are uninfluenced by any gifts or incentives I may receive.

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Scenic Flight from Queenstown to Milford Sound in NZ

Lindsay Buckley is the photographer and travel blogger behind Frugal Frolicker. She's a New Yorker currently based in Sydney, Australia, documenting outdoor travel experiences Down Under and beyond. Follow along with Lindsay's travel photography on Facebook and Instagram, and be sure to sign up for the monthly Frugal Frolicker newsletter!

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  • Hey Juliana! I would definitely recommend early morning. My flight was around noon and it was really bright – not super ideal for photos. 4pm could work too, depending on the time of year (i.e. if it’s summer and sunset is at 10pm, it’ll probably still be pretty bright). I sat in the front of the plane next to the pilot (is that what a copilot seat is?) and it was great because I could shoot out the front and the side, while the 2 people in the back just had their side windows.