franz josef helicopter new zealand

How To Book A Helicopter Flight in Franz Josef Glacier – What To Know Before You Fly

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Taking a helicopter tour over the glaciers on the West Coast is an absolute must do when you travel New Zealand.

Soaring above the mountains and seeing these snaking rivers of ice is something that will live long in the memory of any traveller as it’s one of the most unique experiences you can have whilst travelling anywhere in the world.

I was lucky enough to live and work in Franz Josef for three years and in that time I’ve learnt a lot about the West Coast, how glaciers form, how helicopters fly and countless other bits of useless knowledge that has been squeezed into my brain through working in such a unique environment.

Full disclosure, I worked for a helicopter company so what I’m explaining here was literally my job for a long time. I would get asked the same questions over and over so I think it’s only fair that I’ve put them into a guide for people that are looking to book a helicopter flight in Franz Josef Glacier.

This guide will focus on Franz Josef but it can also be applied to Fox Glacier as well as they offer very similar products.

I’ll answer the most common questions I had and explain everything during the process of your West Coast glacier flight.

How to book a helicopter flight in Franz Josef

Heli Hike vs Scenic Flight

A common question that people consider is whether to do a scenic flight or heli hike. Whilst both of these involve a helicopter flight, there are two very different experiences.

A heli hike involves getting changed into boots, outdoor gear and given crampons with an extensive safety briefing. You’ll then fly for 5-8 minutes up onto the glacier ice where you get out and are led by a guide to hike on the glacier for around 2 hours before flying back into town.

On the hike you guide will explain how the glacier is formed in great detail with the option of going into some ice caves and stepping over crevasses if it is safe to do so.

There are weight limits (max weight of a guest is 155kg) and a basic medical questionnaire will be given looking back at any old injuries or health conditions. A basic level of fitness is required which the guides will assess at check in.

A scenic flight meanwhile has very few considerations. I’ve seen babies as young as 6 months and people in their 80’s head on a scenic flight. It is also possible for wheelchair users to experience a scenic flight over the glaciers.

These flights are a lot longer than that of the heli hike, taking you high up into the mountains on the neve of the glacier (where the glacier is formed).

It is then normal for the helicopter to land on the snow, where you have the chance to get out and walk around on the snow for 6-8 minutes and take some photos before flying the length of the glacier again to get totally different perspectives of the river of ice beneath you.

All you need for this trip is covered shoes (so no sandals or toes showing) and a jacket if you are going in winter. If you take the flight in summer, the snow landing is only a couple of degrees cooler than being in the town and its perfectly normal to stand on the snow in shorts and t shirt!

Dan on the Franz Josef Glacier
Heli hiking on the Franz Josef Glacier
Dan heli hike franz new zealand
Stepping over the crevasses…

Which glacier is best to see? Franz Josef or Fox?

The two glaciers on the West Coast are both similar and different at the same time.

What makes them special is their accessibility to the towns themselves with walking options available. They are also two of only three glaciers in the world that end in a temperate rainforest.

The Franz Josef Glacier is the steeper of the two glaciers with a length of 9km and a drop from 3000m to 500m above sea level. The steepness makes it one of the fastest moving glaciers in the world. It also contains the Black Hole, a large protruding rock that the glacier flows around giving striking features.

The Fox Glacier is a lot more shallow but slightly longer at 12km. They are both incredible views to witness.

For me, the best option is to choose a flight which takes in both glaciers.

The Helicopter Line, Franz Josef, New Zealand

Which company should I go with?

There are a number of helicopter operators in Franz Josef but most of what they offer is the same.

If you’re looking for a heli hike, you have to book with the Franz Josef Glacier Guides or The Helicopter Line who actually offer a joint venture on the trip.

The Helicopter Line, Glacier Helicopters and Heli Services are the most popular operators in town. Mountain Helicopters and Glacier Country Helicopters also offer flights but may have slightly restrictive timings and availability as well as having to head out of town.

The first three mentioned all have very similar flight times and prices and can be found by walking into their stores on the main road of Franz Josef. Glacier Helicopters is the oldest operator in the region and all are New Zealand owned.

Glacier Heilcopters also has some excellent branding…

Dan taking photo in helicopter, branding, Glacier Helicopters, Franz josef, New Zealand
Image Credit: glacierhelicopters.co.nz

How many types of scenic flights are there?

Most operators have 2-4 different options when it comes to scenic flights over the glaciers. Some are as short as 12 minutes and don’t allow you to have a snow landing.

A popular option is a 20 minute flight which flies up the glacier, allows a snow landing and then returns to town following the same route.

A 30-35 minute flight options will often allow you to see both the Franz and Fox glaciers and have one snow landing.

Do they fly in bad weather?

The helicopters do not fly in bad weather. If clouds roll in and you cannot see the glacier, then the helicopters can’t see and won’t fly, it’s as simple as that.

With the West Coast getting nearly 5m of rain per year, only 50-60% of flights get the go ahead to fly in the window of good weather thats available. That also means that nearly half of all flights are cancelled due to weather.

If you have your heart dead set on flying above the glaciers, keep a reserve day or two in your schedule to ensure you have the best weather. If you are road tripping around the South Island, make sure to check the weather forecast before you set off to avoid disappointment.

It is recommended to stay at least one night in Franz Josef, if not two or three, so that you can have the best chance of flying over the glaciers.

The snow fields above the glaciers

Where do you land on your flight?

On a heli hike, you will be dropped off at the designated site to be led by your guides.

On a scenic flight, you will touch down on snow at one of the many landing sites on the glacier. The pilot will usually decide which site is best to land taking into consideration the conditions on the day. Unfortunately you don’t get to choose where to land but will be an incredible experience wherever you touch down.

What about Fox Glacier?

It is possible to fly over Fox Glacier from Franz Josef and vice versa. Most people decide to stay in Franz Josef as it is a bigger town with a greater selection of tourist amenities than Fox. But if you’re looking for more seclusion, Fox Glacier might be the choice for you.

Most of the companies listed above can be found in Fox. The only difference would be if you wanted to heli hike on the Fox side which means you would have to book with Fox Glacier Guiding.

Sunset over Fox Glacier
Sunset over Fox Glacier

What about the environmental impact?

Flying jet fuel burning helicopters over a glacier and in a national park obviously isn’t the most environmentally friendly thing to do. Flights can only occur during set hours to avoid noise pollution in the national park to protect wildlife. Some tourists are critical of flying over the glacier in this manner, but many of those same tourists have taken an international flight to get to New Zealand in the first place.

I believe this is a personal decision that you’ll will have to make yourself.

Are there private charter options available?

Most operators will allow private charters. If sharing a helicopter isn’t your idea of a good time, get in contact with one of them to see if you can charter an entire helicopter for just you and your friends and family with the potential to fly a unique route.

As you would expect, this would be a lot more expensive.

How should I book a helicopter flight?

The best way is to get in contact with the companies themselves via their website or phone. Sometimes you have a requested time and they will give you a time closest to the one you want.

It is also possible to walk into the offices and book a flight. I have witnessed guests walk in and fly within the hour if they are incredibly lucky. However during the peak season (December to February) you may be waiting a day or two if they are fully booked up. Asking at the desk may get you a slight discount if you ask nicely enough but is unlikely at peak times.

Alternatively, if you are after a discount booking site, bookme.co.nz does have cheaper deals but doesn’t offer a full selection of dates, times or flight options. This is mostly used by backpackers on a budget.

I highly recommend making your booking for early in the morning as mornings generally have the best weather conditions and also allows you the chance to rebook later on in the day if it doesn’t go ahead.

Dan in front of Glacier helicopter, Franz Josef, New Zealand
Up on the snow in shorts and T Shirt

Should I take a helicopter trip over the Franz Josef Glacier!

Yes!

It is genuinely one of the best experiences you will ever have. From working there and taking helicopter flights countless times, I was still amazed every single time I flew above the glaciers. The number of people that came back from flights with their jaw touching the ground made you feel great about your job.

Hopefully this guide has told you everything you need to know before you book your helicopter flight in Franz Josef. After working there for 3 years, I know the ins and outs of helicopter flights over the glaciers. Reach out here or on Instagram for any other questions I may not have answered and I hope you enjoy your flight!

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