Franz Josef is a tiny town that’s the popular jumping-off point for seeing the glaciers in the area (there is more than just the Franz Josef glacier here). Travelers usually spend just a night or two here as there’s not much to do in the area aside from the glaciers and some hikes.
The Franz Josef glacier itself is located about 5km from town, and, with climate change eroding the face, it’s now a 40-minute walk from the parking lot to the glacier. Though the mountain town is beautiful and there are a few hikes to do, you don’t need more than two or three nights here (plus it’s super expensive here).
Come, hike, see a glacier or two, move on. That’s basically it.
This guide to Franz Josef will help you plan your (short) trip — and save you money in the process!
Table of Contents
Top 5 Things to See and Do in Franz Josef
1. Go heli-hiking
2. Raft on the Whataroa and Perth Rivers
3. Visit the West Coast Wildlife Centre
4. Go rainforest trekking
5. Walk the Historic Swinging Bridge
Other Things to See and Do in Franz Josef
1. Take a helicopter tour
Seeing the glacier from such great heights really gives you a new perspective of the area, plus the photos you get are always stunning. Explore the awe-inspiring ice falls of the glacier, cross the Southern Alps, and circle the top of magnificent Mount Cook. Tours start around 199 NZD per person and range from 20 minutes to 3 or more hours.
2. Soak in the Glacier Hot Pools
After all of the intense glacial hiking you are bound to do, head here for a soak (and maybe even a massage for good measure). For a soak and massage, expect to pay around 100 NZD. For just a soak, you’ll pay 29 NZD. The pools are suitable for people of all ages.
3. Visit Fox Glacier
If you’re craving more glacier views, head over to Fox Glacier. The glacier is only about a 40-minute drive from Franz Josef Township, making it an easy day trip. The Fox Glacier Valley trail is only a 1-hour hike (return) and takes you to the base of the glacier. There are other fun things to do in the area too, like the Minnehaha Walk bush path to a fern grotto to see the glow worms, and stunning Lake Matheson with its glass-like surface perfectly reflecting the surrounding mountain peaks.
4. Get off road
Several tour operators in the area offer exciting cross-country excursions via ATVs where you’ll be able to cross glacial pathways and rivers, and easily navigate the dense forests and muddy rivers on a 4WD. A tour with Across Country Quad Bikes starts at 180 NZD for a two-hour trip (they also have 3-seater buggies you can rent as well).
Skydive Franz offers skydiving opportunities starting at around 339 NZD for a 13,000ft jump. For a 20,000ft jump (the highest in New Zealand) expect to pay around 599 NZD per person. That’s 85 seconds of free-fall!
6. Kayak on Lake Mapourika
On Lake Mapourika, you can rent kayaks for around 59 NZD for a half-day, or participate in a full-day kayaking tour from about 120 NZD. You’ll paddle across the calm reflective waters of Lake Mapourika and the narrow inlets of the Okarito Kiwi Sanctuary. The tour takes you across the lake, past glacial walls, and through the rainforest. They also offer a hike and kayak combo, allowing you to step foot on the Okarito Kiwi Sanctuary.
7. Walk the Tatare Tunnels
The track takes you to tunnels that were blasted through bedrock and used to supply water to the Waiho River during the historic gold rush. The whole walk takes about 90 minutes (return). Take a flashlight so you can explore the old tunnel and see the glow worms. The trailhead in Franz Josef Glacier Village is at the cul-de-sac at the end of Cowan Street.
8. Hang out on Okarito Beach
This is a typical West Coast beach, more rugged and wild than calm and relaxing. It’s a great place to watch the sun set over the water. Come here in the early mornings between October and April, and there’s a good chance you’ll see a kotuku (white heron). They like to feed at the lagoon, which backs onto Okarito beach.
9. Hike to the glacier
If you want to see the glacier but don’t have the budget for a heli-hike, you can hit the trail to get a good view. The Glacier Valley Walk is a 90-minute hike (round trip) that will get you right up to the face of the glacier. For a shorter trek, the Sentinel Rock trail is only 25 minutes long and will give you a solid view of the glacier.
For more information on others destinations in New Zealand, check out these guides:
Franz Josef Travel Costs
Hostel prices – For such a small town, there are actually a lot of hostels here. Dorms with 4-6 beds cost around 28-32 NZD per night. Free Wi-Fi is standard and all the hostels here also have kitchens so you can cook your own food. A couple of the hostels also include free breakfast. Private rooms start at 90 NZD per night.
For those traveling with a tent, there is camping available in the area. For a basic plot without electricity expect to pay about 15 NZD per night (for two people).
Budget hotel prices – There aren’t many budget hotels in the Franz Josef area. The most budget-friendly hotels and motels start at 120 NZD and include basic amenities like Wi-FI, TV, and a coffee/tea maker.
Airbnb is also limited here, but you can find private rooms for as low as 85 NZD if you get lucky and book in advance. For an entire home or apartment, expect to pay at least 140 NZD. Since there are only a handful of listings here, you’ll want to book in advance to secure a place.
Food – There aren’t a whole lot of cheap food options in Franz Josef. Meals at a restaurant or a cafe cost about 12 NZD for a sandwich or salad, but even a simple pad thai or a bowl of noodles can cost from 24 NZD. A beer will cost you about 11 NZD.
Most restaurants in Franz Josef are pretty expensive due to the large number of tourists in town and the cost of getting the food to this remote part of the country. You’ll find pizzas, curries, or pasta dishes from 25 NZD. Seafood dishes are from about 30 NZD.
If you choose to cook your own food, plan to spend between 65-80 NZD per week for basic staples like rice, pasta, vegetables, and some meat. Grocery shopping options are limited too so stock up before you arrive to save money.
Backpacking Franz Josef Suggested Budgets
On a backpacker budget, you can visit Franz Josef for 70-80 NZD per day. On this budget, you’ll stay in a dorm room or camp, cook all of your meals, do free outdoor activities, have a drink or two, and walk everywhere. If you plan on drinking more, I’d add another 10-20 NZD a day since drinks are expensive here.
On a mid-range budget of about 225 NZD, you can stay in a budget hotel or Airbnb, eat out more, do some paid activities, share a car rental for a day or two to explore, and enjoy a bunch of drinks out.
On a luxury budget of 525 NZD, you can stay in a nice hotel, eat out for all your meals, rent a car to get around, do a heli-hike, go skydiving, and enjoy all the region as to offer. The sky is the limit!
You can use the chart below to get some idea of how much you need to budget daily, depending on your travel style. Keep in mind these are daily averages — some days you’ll spend more, some days you’ll spend less (you might spend less every day). We just want to give you a general idea of how to make your budget. Prices are in NZD.
Franz Josef Travel Guide: Money-Saving Tips
If you’re planning on doing big adventure tours in Franz Josef, your budget will go out the window super quick. Things are expensive here! However, if you stay at cheap accommodations, Couchsurf, limit your drinking, avoid eating out, and visit during the shoulder season, you’ll be able to cut your costs. Here are some additional tips to help you save money in Franz Josef:
- Cook your meals – The town has limited dining options, and, since Franz Josef receives a lot of tourism traffic, prices are pretty high. You’re better off preparing your own meals to save yourself some money.
- Hike – If you can’t afford one of the guided glacier treks or helicopter rides, there are tons of free hiking trails around the area. You can try a rainforest trek on the Forest Trail, or hike to the glacier face from the car park (the Sentinel Rock trail, for example, is only 20 minutes).
- Use bookme.co.nz – This website offers last minute deals for activities. if you’re looking to do a heli-hike or some expensive tour, check this website first. If you’re flexible, you can save upwards of 30%.
- Hit happy hour at Monsoon Bar – If you’re planning on drinking, this bar has cheap beers during happy hour.
- Bring a water bottle – The tap water in New Zealand is safe to drink so bring a water bottle with you to save money. LifeStraw makes a reusable bottle with a built-in filter so you can always be sure your water is clean and safe!
- Get a campervan – Campervans litter New Zealand because they serve as accommodation and transportation all wrapped up in one. For budget-conscious travelers, that’s a win. Be sure to download the awesome Campermates app, which lets you find nearby campsites, gas stations, and dump stations.
Where to Stay in Franz Josef
Despite being a small town, Franz Josef has some nice hostel options. Here are my recommended places to stay in Franz Josef:
How to Get Around Franz Josef
Franz Josef is a tiny town so you can just walk everywhere. There’s actually no public bus system or taxi companies. If you’ve booked tours, your transportation is usually included. Otherwise, you have a few other options.
Shuttles – The round-trip Glacier Shuttles bus to the glacier costs 15 NZD (return). It will pick up and drop off anywhere in town, though you can also walk to the glacier from town. It takes about 40 minutes to go from town to the park’s gate.
The shuttle also offers round-trip routes to Lake Matheson for 30 NZD, Okarito for 30 NZD, and Lake Mapourika for 15 NZD.
Car rental – If you want more flexibility to explore the area, you need to rent a car. However, there are no car rental offices within Franz Josef. In New Zealand, car rentals can be found for as little as 35 NZD per day though you should expect to pay double that if you don’t book in advance. You’ll need an International Driving Permit to rent a car here.
Bicycle – Bike rentals aren’t cheap, costing around 40 NZD per day.
When to Go to Franz Josef
Franz Josef experiences pretty mild temperatures year-round. The winter months are from June-August and temperatures range from 41-57°F (5-15°C). There’s rarely snow in town, although it does sometimes snow atop the glacier. The weather is pretty consistent meaning there’s less chance of your heli-hike tour getting canceled. You’ll also avoid the typical crowds of visitors (and you’ll save money on accommodations too).
Summer is from December to February. This part of New Zealand offers much more sun than other parts of the country. It doesn’t get dark until 10pm, and temperatures range from 53-77°F (12-25°C). This makes summer one of the best times for enjoying outdoor activities like hiking (or patio drinks until late in the evening).
Keep in mind that the Franz Josef area gets a LOT of rainfall — up to 8 meters per year. Be sure to pack some rain gear just in case.
Also, note that the weather changes very frequently here so be flexible with your plans. Your tour could get suddenly canceled even as you’re getting on the helicopter if the wind and clouds change — and they do a lot!
How to Stay Safe in Franz Josef
On the whole, New Zealand is a very safe place to backpack and travel and Franz Josef is no exception. That said, it’s always best to trust your instincts when it comes to safe travel. Take the same normal precautions as you would at home (like being aware of your personal belongings at all times). Make copies of your important documents, like your passport, too.
If you’re doing any hiking, always check the weather in advance and bring water and sunscreen. If you have a vehicle, don’t leave any valuables in it while you’re out hiking or overnight. Break-ins are rare, but it’s always better to be safe than sorry.
The emergency number is 111.
As earthquakes and tsunamis do occur in New Zealand, consider downloading the Hazard App from the Red Cross. It has all kinds of advice and tips for natural disasters and will also send out warnings and notifications should a disaster occur.
Overall, you’re unlikely to encounter anything problematic here, but keep in mind that this is mountainous, glacial terrain. If you’re doing any adventure activities like heli-hiking, always respect your surroundings and your guide’s instructions. They know the landscape better than anyone else, and if you don’t want any broken bones (or worse), pay attention to what they have to say.
Always trust your gut instinct.
If you don’t do it at home, don’t do it when you’re here. Follow that rule and you’ll be fine.
The most important piece of advice I can offer is to purchase good travel insurance, especially if you’re participating in any adventure activities. Travel insurance will protect you against illness, injury, theft, and cancellations. It’s comprehensive protection in case anything goes wrong. I never go on a trip without it as I’ve had to use it many times in the past. You can use the widget below to find the policy right for you:
Franz Josef Travel Guide: The Best Booking Resources
These are my favorite companies to use when I travel to Franz Josef. They are included here because they consistently find deals, offer world-class customer service and great value, and overall, are better than their competitors.
- Skyscanner – Skyscanner is my favorite flight search engine. They search small websites and budget airlines that larger search sites tend to miss. They are hands down the number one place to start.
- Momondo – This is my other favorite flight search engine because they search such a wide variety of sites and airlines. I never book a flight without checking here too.
- Booking.com – The best all around booking site that constantly provides the cheapest and lowest rates. They have the widest selection of budget accommodation. In all my tests, they’ve always had the cheapest rates out of all the booking websites.
- Airbnb – Airbnb is a great accommodation alternative for connecting with homeowners who rent out their homes or apartments.
- Hostelworld – This is the best hostel accommodation site out there, with the largest inventory, best search interface, and widest availability.
- Couchsurfing – This website allows you to stay on people’s couches or spare rooms for free. It’s a great way to save money while meeting locals who can tell you the ins and outs of their city. The site also lists events you can attend to meet people (even if you’re not staying with someone).
- Intrepid Travel – If you want to do a group tour around Sweden, go with Intrepid Travel. They offer small group tours that use local operators and leave a small environmental footprint. If you go on a tour with anyone, go with them. And, as a reader of this site, you’ll get a discount when you click the link!
- Rome2Rio – This website allows you to see how to get from point A to point B the best and cheapest way possible. It gives you all the bus, train, plane, or boat routes that can get you there as well as how much they cost.
- World Nomads – I buy all my travel insurance from World Nomads. They have great customer service, competitive prices, and in-depth coverage. I’ve been using them since I started traveling in 2003. Don’t leave home without it!
Franz Josef Gear and Packing Guide
If you’re heading on the road and need some gear suggestions, here are my tips for the best travel backpack and for what to pack!
The Best Backpack for Travelers
Straps: Thick and cushy with compression technology that pulls the pack’s load up and inwards so it doesn’t feel as heavy.
Features: Removable top lid, large pocket at the front, hydration compatible, contoured hip belt
If you want something different, refer to my article on how to choose the best travel backpack for tips on picking a pack and other backpack suggestions.
What to Pack for Your Trip
- 1 pair of jeans (heavy and not easily dried, but I like them; a good alternative is khaki pants)
- 1 pair of shorts
- 1 bathing suit
- 5 T-shirts (Unbound Merino is my preferred company. If you’re a member of NM+, you can get 15% off your purchase)
- 1 long-sleeved T-shirt
- 1 pair of flip-flops
- 1 pair of sneakers
- 6 pairs of socks (I always end up losing half)
- 5 pairs of boxer shorts (I’m not a briefs guy!)
- 1 toothbrush
- 1 tube of toothpaste
- 1 razor
- 1 package of dental floss
- 1 small bottle of shampoo
- 1 small bottle of shower gel
- 1 towel
Small Medical Kit (safety is important!!!)
- Hydrocortisone cream
- Antibacterial cream
- Hand sanitizer (germs = sick = bad holiday)
- A key or combination lock (safety first)
- Zip-lock bags (keeps things from leaking or exploding)
- Plastic bags (great for laundry)
- Universal charger/adaptor (this applies to everyone)
- LifeStraw (A water bottle with a purifier)
Female Travel Packing List
I’m not a woman, so I don’t know what a woman wears, but Kristin Addis, our solo female travel guru, wrote this list as an addition to the basics above:
- 1 swimsuit
- 1 sarong
- 1 pair of stretchy jeans (they wash and dry easily)
- 1 pair of leggings (if it’s cold, they can go under your jeans, otherwise with a dress or shirt)
- 2-3 long-sleeve tops
- 2-3 T-shirts
- 3-4 spaghetti tops
- 1 light cardigan
- 1 dry shampoo spray & talc powder (keeps long hair grease-free in between washes)
- 1 hairbrush
- Makeup you use
- Hair bands & hair clips
- Feminine hygiene products (you can opt to buy there too, but I prefer not to count on it, and most people have their preferred products)
For more on packing, check out these posts:
Franz Josef Travel Guide: Suggested Reading
Island of the Lost: Shipwrecked at the Edge of the World, by Joan Druett
Auckland Island, located 285 miles south of New Zealand, is a place with year-round freezing rain, wind, and little food (but apparently, a lot of seals). Simply put, it’s not a place you want to get shipwrecked on. Yet in 1864, Captain Thomas Musgrave and his crew did just that — and a few months later, on the opposite side of the island, so did the crew of the Scottish ship Invercauld. This well-written account of how the two crews survived (and didn’t survive) offers insight into leadership, camaraderie, and coming together in crisis.
The Luminaries, by Eleanor Catton
Eleanor Catton’s Man Booker Prize-winning book is a parody of the 19th-century novel is considered a modern classic. The year is 1866, and Walter Moody has come to New Zealand to get involved in the gold rush. When he arrives, he happens upon 12 men who have met in secret to talk about several mysterious events, including the disappearance of a wealthy man and a prostitute’s attempt to end her life. Moody is drawn into the circle, and the book soon turns into a thrilling page-turner that will keep you hooked the whole way through.
Squashed Possums: Off the Beaten Track in New Zealand, by Jonathan Tindale
This one is a fun, humorous travelogue that will get you super excited about your trip. In Squashed Possums, Tindale shares his adventures (and misadventures) from a year spent exploring the lesser-explored areas of New Zealand. He makes himself a home in an abandoned caravan, and then lives out four seasons getting acquainted with the terrain — including the coldest winter in decades.
A Land of Two Halves, by Joe Bennett
After having spent ten years in New Zealand, Joe Bennett decides to figure out why he’s still living there. A notorious restless traveler, Bennett finds himself examining all the reasons why these two islands have captivated him for a decade — so he packs his bags and heads out on a hitchhiking adventure around the North and South Islands. His encounters along the way are an enlightening look at life in New Zealand!
Franz Josef Travel Guide: Related Articles
Want more info? Check out all the articles I’ve written on backpacking/traveling New Zealand and continue planning your trip: