New Zealand has two main islands, the North Island and the South Island. About 75% of the population live on the North Island, but there are still several major towns and cities in the South Island which makes transport between them common for both residents and visitors.
So, how do you get from the North Island to the South Island? You have two options – ferry or flight.
There are a lot of factors that will influence which option you pick, but my quick recommendation is this.
If you are short on time or get motion sickness, fly. If you are travelling with a rental car or have time to spare and want to experience the Cook Strait first-hand, take the ferry.
I’ve crossed between the North and South Islands using both methods, so here’s everything you need to know.
Overview of the North to South Island Journey
The Cook Strait, a 22-kilometre wide channel, separates the two islands. And the North Island and South Island are surprisingly different given that the stretch of water between them is relatively narrow.
Modes of Transport
There are two main ways to cross this strait: by air or by sea. New Zealand has lots of airports so flying between the two islands is fairly flexible and quick.
If you are travelling from Auckland in the north of the North Island to Invercargill in the south of the South Island, a flight would get you there in a few hours, while driving and the ferry would cost you two days.
The ferry is the more scenic option, but it’s obviously a much slower journey.
Preparing for the Journey
Regardless of your choice, preparation is key. Weather can greatly impact both ferry crossings and flights, so it’s wise to check forecasts and plan accordingly.
Booking in advance is recommended, especially during peak tourist seasons, to ensure you get the best rates and secure a spot on your preferred mode of transport.
As we move into the next sections, we’ll dive deeper into each option, starting with the Cook Strait ferry crossing, to help you decide which is the best fit for your adventure in New Zealand.
Taking the Ferry
The ferry crossing between the North and South Islands of New Zealand is a fantastic way to see the Marlborough Sounds, but it is also the only viable option if you have booked a rental car to take between the Islands.
You can also take the ferry as a foot passenger if you aren’t taking a car between islands.
Tip: Renting a car in Picton can be much more expensive than Wellington, so if you were planning to road trip from Picton around the South Island, consider picking up your rental in Wellington and taking the ferry. HOWEVER, not all rental companies allow their vehicles to cross on the ferry so check the terms carefully.
Two main ferry services operate between Wellington in the North Island and Picton in the South Island: the Interislander ferry and Bluebridge. Both offer several crossings daily, providing flexibility in planning your journey.
The two companies are roughly similar in pricing and comfort, although Interislander has more frequent crossings and larger vessels which may fare better in rougher water.
Booking a ferry ticket is straightforward. You can do it online through the ferry companies’ websites. It’s advisable to book in advance, especially during the peak season (December to February), as crossings can fill up quickly.
If you are travelling with a vehicle you need to make sure you enter the correct information about its size, for example, if you are renting a campervan rather than a standard car.
The ferries are equipped with amenities such as cafes, lounges, and viewing decks. The trip through the Marlborough Sounds, a network of sea-drowned valleys, is particularly stunning. Keep an eye out for dolphins, seals, and even whales, which are occasionally spotted during the crossing.
Be aware that the Cook Strait can be quite rough. The New Zealand weather around Wellington is notoriously windy, and this can also affect the crossing.
I was on a road trip around the country with a friend and we took our rental car on the Interislander. It was a very bumpy crossing and I was just about ok but my friend suffered some moderate seasickness.
Duration and Schedules
The ferry journey typically takes around three to four hours, depending on weather conditions. Both Interislander and Bluebridge offer multiple crossings per day, but schedules can vary seasonally, so it’s best to check in advance.
You also need to account for check-in times, which are typically around 1 hour before departure, but make sure you check the timing when booking.
Ferry prices can vary based on the time of year, the type of ticket, and whether you’re bringing a vehicle. Generally, expect to pay anywhere from NZD 50 to NZD 80 for a one-way ticket for an adult passenger.
Vehicle transport is an additional cost and will typically set you back around NZD 300 for one adult with a standard car.
Pros and Cons
- Pros: The ferry offers a more scenic and leisurely journey, with the chance to stretch your legs, enjoy the fresh air, and take in the stunning coastal views.
- Cons: The journey is longer than a flight and can be affected by rough weather, which might cause delays or cancellations. Seasickness can be an issue for some passengers.
Choosing to Fly
For those seeking a faster way to journey between New Zealand’s North and South Islands, flying presents a practical and time-efficient option.
Several airlines operate flights between Wellington (North Island) and major airports in the South Island such as Christchurch and Queenstown.
Of course, you can also take domestic flights from other locations in the North Island, such as Auckland and Rotorua. Just be aware that regional airports may only fly to bigger cities such as Christchurch.
- Air New Zealand: As the national carrier, Air New Zealand offers frequent flights with a range of fare types.
- Jetstar: Known for budget-friendly options, Jetstar is a good choice for cost-conscious travellers.
- Sounds Air: A smaller airline operating limited routes, including a Wellington-Picton flight.
Booking a flight through any of these airlines can be done online through their websites. Just be careful about booking luggage with your ticket as the standard allowance may be lower than for your international flight.
Duration and Schedules
Flights across the Cook Strait are short, generally taking about 1 to 1.5 hours depending on which airports you use.
Even flying the length of New Zealand from Auckland to Invercargill is only about 2 hours on a direct flight.
Airlines offer multiple flights daily, providing flexibility for travellers to choose a time that suits their itinerary.
Flight costs can vary widely based on the airline, time of booking, and class of service. On average, prices can range from NZD 50 to over NZD 200 one-way. It’s important to consider additional costs such as baggage fees, which can add to the overall expense.
Pros and Cons
- Pros: The main advantage of flying is the speed and efficiency of travel, saving time for other activities. Flights also offer an aerial view of the stunning landscapes.
- Cons: Flights are generally more expensive than the ferry, especially when accounting for additional costs like transportation to and from airports.
Where To Stay In Wellington
If you are looking for accommodation the night before your flight or ferry journey, here are my recommendations for Wellington.
Budget – The Marion Hostel is in the city centre and has both mixed and female-only dorms for budget-conscious visitors
Mid-Range – QT Wellington is a cool and quirky hotel, and it is right next to Te Papa Museum.
Luxury – InterContinental Wellington has large rooms, a central location and all the amenities you expect from a premium hotel.
Final Thoughts: How To Get From The North Island to South Island New Zealand
Hopefully, now you’ve got a good idea of the options for travelling between the two islands and know which one suits your needs. For further information about the differences between the islands, check out my North Island vs South Island comparison.
I also have a South Island road trip itinerary from Picton to Queenstown that will help you plan your South Island travel.
If your New Zealand travel experience is for an extended period you could even take the ferry from Bluff at the southern tip of the South Island to Stewart Island, the third biggest of New Zealand’s many islands.