Taking the Cook Strait Ferry Between Wellington and Picton (i.e. the Ferry to the South Island)
The country of New Zealand is split into two main islands, the North Island and the South Island. Apart from air travel, the most popular way of getting between the islands is via the Cook Strait ferry – the Cook Strait is the body of water between the North and the South Island. The Cook Strait ferries go between the North Island city of Wellington and the South Island town of Picton. (And no, there is no bridge between New Zealand’s islands)…
Because a ferry ride between Wellington and Picton is the best way to get between the North and South Islands when travelling New Zealand by road, we put this quick guide together about taking the ferry. There are lots to see on the 3h30min journey along Wellington Harbour, Cook Strait, Marlborough Sounds, Queen Charlotte Sound and Picton, and vice versa. You can’t even take a ferry trip in New Zealand without wanting to take some photos! We’ll go through some of the highlights and things to know about the trip below.
At the end of this guide, we have a list of 15 Things to Know About the Ferry to the South Island of New Zealand. Make sure to check it out!
Frequently Asked Questions About the Cook Strait Ferry
What are the most asked questions about the ferry to the South Island and North Island? We answer them right here!
What Ferry Routes are in New Zealand?
The Cook Strait is the route between Wellington and Picton where the main New Zealand ferry operates. There are two routes you can choose from: A ferry from Wellington to Picton and a ferry from Picton to Wellington. Other ferry routes to smaller islands such as Waiheke Island in Auckland and Stewart Island on the South Islands are also available, but in this article, we’ll cover only the main one: the Cook Strait.
Which Company Takes You Across Cook Strait?
How Long is the Ferry from Wellington to South Island (How Long is the Ferry Ride Between the North and South Island)?
Generally, it takes 3 hours to 3h30mins for the ferry ride from Wellington to the South Island and vice versa but this is subject to change depending on the weather.
How Many Ferries Travel a Day?
Up to five ferries travel between the North Island and the South Island, usually operating from 2.30am to 8.00pm.
What Departure Time Should I Choose for the New Zealand Ferry?
You can save money by taking the ferry by night but the journey is well worth the extra dollars so make sure that one of your crossings is done by day for a breathtaking cruise.
What is it Really Like to Take the Ferry in New Zealand?
I’m glad you asked! We have a short video below where we take you on the Interislander ferry from Wellington to Picton. Check out the boarding process, the journey, the operation bridge (where the captain operates the boat), as well as the disembarking process.
Interislander or Bluebridge? Which Ferry Company is Best in New Zealand
There are two ferry companies that operate on the Cook Strait: Interislander (more info on Viator, Tripadvisor and Klook) and Bluebridge. Both are very similar companies with a few minor differences. They both have food available to purchase on board, spacious lounges, upgrade options and seriously smooth boarding processes, even for tourists not used to manoeuvring their massive campervans. When it comes to choosing, you are more likely to pick the sailing with the best price and most convenient time for your itinerary.
Otherwise here are a couple of points of difference between the Interislander and Bluebridge ferry companies:
Interislander has bigger ferries, which tend to be beneficial for the feeling of being less crowded, for more to walk around and explore, and so sailings are less likely to be cancelled due to bad weather. Saying that, Bluebridge often transfer tickets at no cost to Interislander if their sailings are cancelled.
Bluebridge offers free movies and they have upgrades for private cabins with beds.
Booking Your Tickets for the Cook Strait Ferry
Book in Advance
When it comes to booking a ferry from Wellington to Picton or a ferry from Picton to Wellington, you’ve got to plan. Both Interislander (on Viator, Tripadvisor and Klook) and Bluebridge regularly sell out of tickets, especially in summer, so the sooner you book the better. Booking your tickets in advance is also the best way to find the cheapest deals. Otherwise, if you are renting a car or campervan, check if your rental company offers ferry discounts.
Consider the Different Fare Options
The Cook Strait ferry companies both offer different fare types, the cheaper option being non-refundable and the rest giving a full or partial refund. For a general idea of pricing, see the “New Zealand Ferry Price Guide” below.
Where to Buy Your Ferry Ticket
Tickets can be booked online through the company websites. If you are travelling with a bus company, like the hop-on hop-off buses or the national coach buses, then the Cook Strait ferry is likely to be included in your pass. Check with your bus operator. Your ferry ticket is also likely to be included if you are travelling New Zealand as part of a tour.
A Guide to Taking the Ferry as a Walk-on Passenger (No Vehicle)
Being a walk-on passenger is the cheapest way to cross Cook Strait, due to not having the extra charge for a vehicle. Nice!
Checking in at the Ferry Terminal
As a walk-on passenger, make sure to check into the passenger terminal of your chosen ferry company at Picton or Wellington at least 30 minutes before your departure time. This is a different terminal from where the vehicles check-in. Two luggage items weighing up to 30kg (66lbs) each can be checked in. Any excess baggage such as sporting equipment is a small fee. At the other end, you will depart the ferry into the passenger terminal where you will need to pick up any checked-in luggage.
Finding the Passenger Terminals
In Wellington, the passenger terminal for Interislander is at Aotea Quay, Pipitea, Wellington. For Bluebridge, the passenger terminal is at – it is just across the road from Wellington Railway Station.
In Picton, the passenger terminal for Interislander is at 1 Auckland Street, Picton. For Bluebridge, the passenger terminal is at . Bluebridge offers free shuttle services to the terminal from the Interislander Terminal Bus Shelter, Picton i-SITE and Oxleys Tavern (Corner of Wellington Street and London Quay).
A Guide to Taking the New Zealand Ferry By Car or Campervan
Taking a vehicle means you need to check-in at the vehicle check-in at least one hour before departure time. It also means you have to pay extra, so see the price summaries in the “New Zealand Ferry Price Guide” below.
Finding the Vehicle Terminals
As you approach the vehicle check-in area for your desired ferry company, markings on the road direct you to the right waiting area. Hand your ticket in at the ticket booth where the staff will then tell you where to park. You will then need to wait in a queue of vehicles and onto the ferry when instructed.
In Wellington, the vehicle terminal for Interislander is at Wellington Vehicle Check-In, Aotea Quay, Pipitea, Wellington. For Bluebridge, the vehicle terminal (same as the passenger terminal) is at
In Picton, the vehicle terminal for Interislander is at Interislander Picton Vehicle Check-In, 3 Auckland Street, Picton. For Bluebridge, the vehicle terminal is at
The New Zealand Ferry Price Guide
To give you a quick idea of New Zealand ferry prices, we have put this list together. Note that these prices vary depending on the season, how far in advance you book from your sailing date, and whether you purchase a basic or refundable ticket. Note that prices are approximate.
Wellington to Picton (to the South Island) Ferry:
- Passenger – NZ$50-$70
- Passenger + motorcycle – NZ$110-$150
- Passenger + car – NZ$175-$255
- Passenger + small campervan – NZ$205-$285
- Passenger + large campervan – NZ$310-$405
Picton to Wellington (to the North Island) Ferry:
- Passenger – NZ$50-$70
- Passenger + motorcycle – NZ$110-$160
- Passenger + car – NZ$200-$255
- Passenger + small campervan – NZ$205-$285
- Passenger + large campervan – NZ$310-$405
6 Ways to Save Money on the New Zealand Ferry
- Travel Light: The smaller your vehicle (or no vehicle at all) the cheaper your ticket will be.
- Travel Early: Early morning ferry crossing tends to be cheaper than at other times of the day. Plus sailing at sunrise is quite spectacular.
- Travel in the Off-Season: We are big fans of travelling in the off-season in New Zealand. Prices tend to be significantly lower during this time. Avoid travelling in the busy season (October to March) and you’ll get great deals on more than just your ferry ticket.
- Book Early: Both ferry companies tend to reward early birds with discounts, so as soon as you know your travel dates, book your ticket, and don’t wait until the last minute!
- Pick the Best Ticket Option: Bluebridge and Interislander have a range of ticket options from the budget non-refundable ones to the premium tickets. Check the inclusions in all options and pick the best for you. The price difference between the ticket tiers is massive!
- Travel with the Tribe: The actual best deals on ferry tickets when looking at it on a “per head” basis is with family passes.
What to Look Forward to on the Ferry Between the North and South Island
Trust us, the Cook Strait ferry in New Zealand isn’t just a means of getting from A to B, but it’s a pretty awesome experience in itself. Here are a few things to look forward to:
- On a clear day, you must go to the observation deck for some amazing introductory scenery for the North Island/South Island
- Sailing the seas and stretching your legs will feel like heaven after a long road trip
- The ferries offer local craft beers and wines making it a true Kiwi experience!
- Sailing at sunrise and sunset are the best times for sailing to enjoy the scenery
- There are lots to do around the ferries between watching movies, making use of the bars and cafes, and sitting back and enjoying the scenery.
15 Things to Know About the Ferry to the South Island of New Zealand (Summary)
Finally, the list below will summerise the information above as well as give you extra tips for your ferry crossing in New Zealand:
- There are two ferry companies in New Zealand: Interislander (more info on Viator, Tripadvisor and Klook) and Bluebridge
- The ferries run both ways: North to South and South to North. However “return tickets” offer a little discount
- Combining both companies, there are usually five crossings in a given day so you have plenty of choices to fit your itinerary
- You can take the ferry even if you do not have a car. Walk-on tickets are available too
- If you are travelling without a car, the luggage limit is 2 bags of 30kg (66lbs) max
- The crossing takes about 3 hours to 3h30mins but you should allow an extra hour and a half for boarding and disembarking
- You can not stay in your car or campervan during the crossing. So take what you need with you after your park your vehicle on the ferry
- The ferry can get quite cold during night crossing so make sure to dress accordingly. The outside areas can get very windy as well
- It is unlikely that you’ll get seasick on the ferry to the South Island. The boats are huge and rocking is limited. However, if you are very sensitive to this, get prepared by taking seasickness tablets
- While we are on the medical side of things, if it is a sunny day, slap that sunscreen on, on open water the New Zealand sun is unforgiving
- Despite having been built overseas, all power outlets in the ferries are Australia/New Zealand 3-pin plugs
- The cruise will probably feature some kind of wildlife to keep the kids busy such as dolphins and albatross. The Marlborough Sounds entrance is also spectacular
- No need to stress about parking your car or campervan on the ferry. During the whole process, you will be guided by the staff that will make it very easy for you
- Booking in advance and travelling out of the busy season are the two best ways to get a good deal on a ferry ticket
- Both companies have cafe/food facilities on board where you can get food, drinks and snacks (at “ferry prices”, of course) but you are allowed to bring food and snacks of your own.
More About Travelling Between the North Island and the South Island
Another cool way to travel from the North Island to the South Island is by flying. Check out The Guide to Domestic Flights in New Zealand. Otherwise, you might like these guides to help get around New Zealand:
- Bus Networks in New Zealand
- Buying a Car in New Zealand Step by Step
- Guide to Renting a Car/Campervan in New Zealand