New Zealand Fjord Smackdown: Milford Sound vs Doubtful Sound

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When it comes to must-dos on New Zealand's South Island, there's one question that many travelers inevitably ask:

Should I go to Milford Sound or Doubtful Sound?

Both are fjords (not actually sounds; they were misnamed) on the southeast coast of New Zealand's South Island within Fiordland National Park. Milford Sound is the more famous of the two (Rudyard Kipling once called it the eighth Wonder of the World), but Doubtful Sound is also marketed to tourists.

Cruising Milford Sound in New Zealand
Cruising Milford Sound

The good news for the decisionally-challenged (like me) is that these are really the only two fjords you can visit and cruise through in New Zealand.

The bad news is that choosing between Milford Sound and Doubtful Sound can be really difficult!

Waterfall at Milford Sound

Milford Sound vs Doubtful Sound

In order to help you decide which New Zealand fjord experience is right for you, I've put together this “smackdown” that compares the two.

Accessibility

Neither Milford Sound or Doubtful Sound are particularly easy to get to. Fiordland National Park itself is pretty remote, and you have to cross a mountain range to get to it. The routes to both spots can sometimes close in the winter, and you'll pretty much need to allow a full day to visit either one.

Milford Sound is usually reached by the Milford Road, which anyone with a vehicle can drive when it's open. You can also reach Milford Sound via air, as it has a tiny airport within walking distance of where all the boats launch. Coach tours run almost daily to Milford Sound from both Queenstown and Te Anau. To give you an idea of driving times, you can expect to spend 5-6 hours one-way on a bus from Queenstown.

Milford Sound airport
The airport at Milford Sound

Doubtful Sound, in comparison, has no direct road access. In order to reach this fjord, you have to drive or take a bus to Manapouri, take a boat across Lake Manapouri, and then get on a bus to go over the Wilmot Pass and down into Deep Cove. As with Milford, tours run to Doubtful Sound from both Queenstown and Te Anau.

Rainbow over Lake Manapouri
Lake Manapouri

WINNER: Milford Sound, because it's easier to get to

Milford Sound – 1
Doubtful Sound – 0

RELATED: The Best Way to Visit Milford Sound: From Wanaka!

Cruise options

Once you get to your designated fjord, the thing to do, of course, is to go on a cruise. This is the best way to see the towering mountains, dark tea-colored water, and waterfalls that these fjords are so well-known for.

Cruising Milford Sound in New Zealand
A small cruise ship at Milford Sound

At Milford Sound, many companies offer cruises, either on their own, or packaged with transport options. Popular companies include Real Journeys, Mitre Peak Cruises, Great Sights, Jucy,Cruise Milford, Southern Discoveries, and Fiordland Discovery. Most companies offer options for full tours including coach transport (or sometimes air transport!), or just the cruise part if you're driving yourself to Milford. (See the end of this post for some suggested tours.)

At Doubtful Sound, there are fewer choices. In fact, Real Journeys used to be the only company that operated tours/cruises in Doubtful Sound. Today there are a few more choices, including Deep Cove Charters, Relaxing Journeys, and Fiordland Expeditions, though Real Journeys is still the leader in Doubtful Sound tours.

You can also do overnight cruises and kayaking tours on both Milford and Doubtful sounds, though the overnight cruise is a more popular option at Doubtful Sound since it's more remote.

Milford Sound, New Zealand

WINNER: Milford Sound, because you have more options to choose from

Milford Sound – 2
Doubtful Sound – 0

Prices

At Milford Sound, prices for cruises alone can be as low as $50 or $60 for a multi-hour sail around the sound. Cruises usually include some commentary about the waterfalls and wildlife you'll see, and there are usually hot drinks and snacks on board (for purchase, unless you book a tour that includes lunch). If you're booking a roundtrip coach trip from Te Anau or Queenstown, prices will usually be in the $115-$200 per person range, with tours starting in Te Anau always being cheaper. If you want to fly to Milford from Queenstown or Wanaka and then go on a cruise, expect to pay $250-$500 per person.

Milford Sound from the air
Flying in to Milford Sound

Doubtful Sound cruises tend to be a little pricier simply because you can't drive to Deep Cove yourself; every cruise will also include transport from Manapouri. Prices for Doubtful Sound cruises/tours will generally run in the $150-$300 range, with overnight tours running anywhere from $300 to $1000, depending on the company, time of year, and degree of luxury you're looking for.

WINNER: Milford Sound because of its more budget-friendly options

Milford Sound – 3
Doubtful Sound – 0

Number of tourists

Milford Sound is New Zealand's top tourist attraction; multiple boats from multiple companies sail the fjord every single day. And while the boats are usually on the small-ish side and not packed full, there's no chance that you'll sail Milford Sound alone. You'll definitely see other boats and probably kayakers, too. (Some New Zealanders will tell you that Milford Sound is crowded during the high season, but this is subjective – it is more crowded than other parts of New Zealand, but we're definitely not talking Disney-level numbers of people.)

Waterfall at Milford Sound
Sharing a Milford waterfall with some kayakers

Conversely, since it takes more effort (and usually more money) to reach, Doubtful Sound sees far fewer tourists than Milford. When I went to Doubtful Sound in the off-season (in May), the boat I was on was the only one sailing in Doubtful Sound that day. We saw no other humans, and even stopped at one point to turn off the boat motor and just listen to the sounds of the fjord.

Cruising Doubtful Sound in New Zealand
An empty Doubtful Sound

WINNER: Doubtful Sound if you want a more intimate fjord experience

Milford Sound – 3
Doubtful Sound – 1

Views

Milford Sound is most well-known for Mitre Peak, the iconic mountain that's one of the first things you see when you arrive at Milford. Cruising in this fjord, you'll also see waterfalls (Bowen Falls and Stirling Falls are the two that will be there even if it's not raining), towering mountains, and eventually the Tasman Sea. And the Milford Road should be mentioned here, too, because it and its stunning scenery will inevitably be part of your trip, too. Be prepared for snow-topped mountains, naughty kea birds, and glacier-fed rivers.

Waterfall at Milford Sound
Bowen Falls

When you go to Doubtful Sound, you'll see similar towering mountains and waterfalls to what you find in Milford – but even more of them, since Doubtful Sound is considerably larger than Milford. Here, you'll also cruise into some of the narrower “arms” of the fjord, which really hit home how tall the mountains are and how deep the water is. And don't forget that a trip to Doubtful Sound actually includes *two* cruises, since you also get to cross Lake Manapouri by boat.

Cruising Doubtful Sound
Mountains at Doubtful Sound

WINNER: Tie, because the Milford Road and Mitre Peak are cool, but I also loved cruising into some of the narrow arms at Doubtful Sound

Milford Sound – 4
Doubtful Sound – 2

Wildlife

The wildlife you can see in both Milford and Doubtful sounds are very similar: sea birds, penguins, and fur seals are common (there's even a large rock in Milford Sound called “Seal Rock,” where you can often find seals sunning themselves). And it's not uncommon for pods of dolphins or even the occasional whale to be spotted in the fjords. In both places, the captain/crew on your boat will keep an eye out for wildlife and let you know if/when anything is spotted.

Seals at Milford Sound
Fur seals at Milford Sound

WINNER: Tie, because you can see the same wildlife in both places

Milford Sound – 5
Doubtful Sound – 3

Weather

The weather in Fiordland National Park is often characterized by how wet it is; the region sees rain more than 200 days per year, with rainfall totals usually measured in feet rather than inches. Weather at both Milford Sound and Doubtful sound can be hit or miss, and a rainy day can suddenly become sunny – or vice versa. I've visited Milford Sound twice in mostly-sunny conditions, while it rained during my whole tour of Doubtful Sound.

Milford Sound, New Zealand
Milford Sound in the sun

You should essentially plan for rain when going anywhere in Fiordland National Park, and then be pleasantly surprised if you get a sunny day.

The good news is that both sounds are incredible no matter the weather. When it's raining, the mountains flanking the fjords become covered in thin waterfalls. Add in some low-hanging clouds and mist, and it's equally as magical in the rain as it is in the sun.

Waterfalls at Doubtful Sound
Doubtful Sound in the rain

WINNER: Tie, because both sounds have very similar weather

Milford Sound – 6
Doubtful Sound – 4

Winner for overall experience

So, if we go by the tally, Milford Sound is the “winner” of this smackdown. The famous fjord is more accessible, generally cheaper to visit, and is home to all the awesome views and wildlife you see on all the postcards.

Mitre Peak at Milford Sound
Mitre Peak at Milford Sound

BUT, that doesn't necessarily mean I think you should skip Doubtful Sound.  😉

I actually think each fjord is better suited to a specific type of traveler.

Who should go to Milford Sound?

Cruising Milford Sound

I think Milford Sound is best for:

  • People traveling on more of a budget
  • Those who want to have more control over their fjord visit (i.e. those who want to self-drive)
  • People who have never cruised a fjord anywhere else in the world

Who should go to Doubtful Sound?

Cruising Doubtful Sound

Meanwhile, I think Doubtful Sound is best for:

  • People who have already visited Milford or similar fjords elsewhere (like in Norway)
  • People who are looking for a more intimate fjord tour with fewer tourists
  • Those who want to do an overnight trip (I think Doubtful is better suited to overnight stays!)

Or, you could of course just visit both fjords and decide for yourself which one is better!

PRACTICAL INFO

Here's some useful information for those who want to book a trip to either Milford Sound or Doubtful Sound:

Tours

Want to plan a trip to either Milford Sound of Doubtful Sound? Here are some tours I'd recommend:

For Milford Sound:

For Doubtful Sound:

If you want to wait to book (i.e. if you want to try to plan around weather), bookmark bookme.co.nz, where you can often find really great last-minute deals on all sorts of Milford Sound cruises and tours.

Clouds at Milford Sound

Where to stay

Milford Sound actually does have accommodation options right at the head of the fjord; check out the Milford Sound Lodge for some relaxing luxury before or after your cruise.

If you're planning to start your tour from Te Anau, check out Radfords on the Lake (the #1-rated hotel in Te Anau), Fiordland Lakeview Motel and Apartments, or Blue Thistle Cottages.

If Queenstown will be your jumping-off point, check out the Queenstown Park Boutique Hotel (#1 in the city), the Matakauri Lodge, or the Hilton Queenstown Resort & Spa.

What to pack

Like I mentioned earlier, both Milford Sound and Doubtful Sound can be very wet. I therefore would pack a good rain coat (this one is my current favorite), comfortable shoes, and warm layers. A hat and gloves would not be a bad idea, either, even if it isn't winter – it can be very windy and cold on the water!

And check out my New Zealand packing list for even more suggestions.

So after reading this, which Sound would YOU visit?

 

Pin it for later:

Milford Sound vs Doubtful Sound in New Zealand

 

"It's a dangerous business, going out your door. You step onto the road, and, if you don't keep your feet, there's no telling where you might get swept off to." - JRR Tolkien

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43 Comments on “New Zealand Fjord Smackdown: Milford Sound vs Doubtful Sound

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  1. Still sad I never did the Sounds… need to get back to New Zealand finally and do both! And actually do the South Island finally. Thanks for the smackdown tips!

      It’s tough to fit everything into one trip! There’s just too much to choose from in New Zealand.

    These are some of the awesome-st places, so it doesn’t matter which one you pick! But, I like your choice for the fact that Milford is easier to reach, but then I’m curious about Doubtful too.

      They’re both incredible! I think it really just depends on what kind of trip you want to plan. 🙂

    I never realized that New Zealand had incredible fjords! Thanks much for the tips – will add this to the dream list adventure that I keep trying to sell the husband on, mostly with promises that we’ll also do the Lord of the Rings tour when we go 😀

      A visit to Hobbiton is required for any Lord of the Rings fan! 😉 But yes, the fjords are also incredible!

    Wow this is such a timely post as in 3 months I’ll be heading to New Zealand on my working holiday. I think Milford would be the best option for me. I’ve never visited any Fjords before. Thanks for the info Amanda!

      Whoohoo! Yes definitely make sure to get to one of the fjords while you’re there!

    Hey there! Amazing pictures of new Zealand !!There is just so much to see and explore

      There really is! I’ve been multiple times and still haven’t seen everything I want to!

    Wow! Both of these fjords seems so picturesque and stunning, Amanda! When would be the best time of the year to explore them?

      You can technically visit both year-round, though I probably wouldn’t plan a trip in the winter when mountain passes can close and it gets VERY cold (on top of wet) in the south. Summer (December-March) is warmest, but also the busiest. I would say the shoulder season (April/May and November) might be the best time to go to New Zealand in general!

    Awesome post, we are spending a two and a half weeks in New Zealand next year. I think I might need to add at least one of the fjords into our itinerary.

      Absolutely!! Fiordland National Park is really incredible, and definitely worth at least a day, especially if it’s your first trip to New Zealand!

    Your photos are beautiful!! Never been to NZ, hoping to go one day soon!

      It’s one of my favorite countries in the world – I can’t stop going back over and over!

    Just sooo much beauty here! It would be hard for me to choose! Great, informative post! Thanks for sharing!

      It’s a tough choice to be sure!

    I’ve been to Milford Sound, but now this makes me want to see Doubtful Sound, too!

      It’s definitely worth visiting both! I can’t really pick a favorite because they’re both so beautiful!

    Milford Sounds looks more appealing, based on the photographs but that’s probably just because you had nicer weather on your trip. It does sound like you really need to experience both though! Something to consider on my next trip to New Zealand! Are you going to go again when you visit next year?

      The sunshine definitely helps with photos, but going to Doubtful Sound in the rain was its own kind of magical! And as of right now we don’t have a fjord tour on our New Zealand itinerary, but we haven’t 100% settled on everything yet – so who knows!

    Wow, such a great comparison of the two! These are definitely on our list to visit and I didn’t realize we would have such a hard time choosing. But your tallies help tremendously! Thanks!

      Happy to be able to help! But yes… a tough choice for sure!

    This is such an excellent guide! I’ve yet to visit NZ but this makes a great resource and makes me want to go even more. I had no idea there was also a Doubtful sound!

      Glad I could introduce you to Doubtful Sound then! 🙂

    When I was trying to decide, years ago, the lady at the tourist booth asked one question – do you like crowds of people, or being far from them? I chose the latter and she sent me to Doubtful Sound. Because it’s a full day adventure you get lunch (albeit not a gourmet lunch) on the boat. My pickup in Manapouri was 8am if I recall correctly, and I was dropped back there at about 6pm. By which time a group of us who had spent the day chatting then went out to find a place to eat. I drove up to Milford the next morning – there are amazing photos to be had from the harbor without joining the hordes on the boats. And if you do as I do, heading up early, you can get there just as the breakfast place is opening. There are no busses filled with people in Milford at 8am – you see them all heading up one after another when you’re driving back after a hearty breakfast and pics of the harbor. And there are a lot of great places on that road to stop the car and go for short walks.

      Great tips! Depending on time of year, the “crowds” at Milford can barely be called crowds, though (at least, compared to “crowds” at other places I’ve been like the Grand Canyon!). But yes, far fewer people visit Doubtful Sound!

    Great write-up Amanda!

    I’ve not yet been to New Zealand and even though I would like to say I’d do both, it probably wouldn’t work out that way in reality! In that wise, I’d choose Milford Sound purely because it has more options so that you can be far more flexible when the time comes.

    Choices! Choices! I’d like to do everything!

      You wouldn’t think a country as small as New Zealand would have so many options, but it really does!

    Fiordland National Park is my favorite place in New Zealand! I was lucky enough to take a little hike around Mildford Sound, and it was amazing. I didn’t visit Doubtful Sound, and now that I see these pictures… I regret it! Next time I’ll pay a visit there for sure!

      You’ll have to go next time for sure, though I’m sure hiking around Milford was just as amazing!

    I must say I love New Zealand and have visited Milford sound, not Doubtful sound yet. It was interesting to read your article comparing them both. It’s not easy to make your choice when you are limited in time. This looks a great tool for doing that. Your pictures are just incredible. Thanks for sharing!

      Thanks, Anita! Like I said, Milford is usually the “standard,” especially on a first trip to New Zealand. But Doubtful Sound is a great option too!

    I’m always looking for tours with the least amount of people, so when I saw that paragraph Doubtful Sound immediately became my winner!

      It would definitely be the one for you, then!

    A fab comparison – I think I have to go bak – all my photos of Milford Sound are literally walls of water and my memories are of being very very wet!

      Haha that’s what my photos of Doubtful Sound look like! But it still managed to be very beautiful.

    Those photos with the low-hanging clouds are absolutely gorgeous! I’ve never heard of Doubtful Sound – I feel like Milford Sound is constantly on my radar. One of these years, I’ll finally make it over to Australia and New Zealand!!!

      Both are excellent choices – you can’t really go wrong!

    I have only visited Doubtful Sound (purely because I was travelling with my sister who had already been to Milford Sound). I absolutely loved our trip which did feature both rain and sun. I loved the part of the tour when they turned the boat off and asked everyone not to click their cameras. The almost-silence broken only by the sound of waterfalls was magical. I’d be interested in visiting Milford Sound too one day.

      I thought that was the best part at Doubtful Sound, too!

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