Antarctica has always been an exceedingly difficult place to visit. The incredibly harsh climate, tumultuous seas and lack of permanent human settlements has stymied humans ever since the first explorers came in the early 1800’s.
Visiting the elusive seventh continent used to be reserved for scientists and military expeditions until 1969 when Lindblad launched their first ice-breaker cruise ship. Today nearly 40,000 tourists a year visit Antarctica – mostly by cruise ship. Cruises remain the cheapest and easiest way to reach the White Continent.
Having just returned from an incredible cruise to Antarctica, I have decided to share my expertise on how you can visit!
Antarctic cruise operators are not your standard cruise companies. Their boats are specially built to withstand the icy waters of the polar regions. It is therefore unlikely you have ever heard of these companies unless you have visited the High Arctic. Do not worry about the lack of name recognition: all the companies here run high quality cruises. My ship was run by Quark Expeditions. Click on this link for a more complete list of Antarctic cruise operators.
Most cruises leave from Ushuaia, Argentina. From South America, it is a two day sail to the Antarctic Peninsula. Here are the various types of cruises you can take:
Note: All prices are per person in a twin-share or triple share cabin. List price refers to the price posted on the cruise website with no discount. See the section Booking “Cheaply” for strategies to booking below list price.
The Basic Cruise
This is the classic, most popular, and cheapest Antarctic cruise. From South America, you sail for 2 days across the Drake Passage. Then you spend 3-5 days on the Antarctic Peninsula and nearby islands. Then you sail back for across the Drake Passage for 2 days. The total trip time is between 9-11 days. List prices for these cruises are $7,000-$10,000.
Crossing the Antarctic Circle/Basic Cruise Plus
For those that want to see more of Antarctica, some ships offer longer stays on the Peninsula. You will still sail the 2 days across the Drake Passage, but then you will spend 6-7 days on the Antarctic Peninsula for a grand total of 12-13 days. A highlight of some of these trips is crossing the Antarctic Circle, a bucket list item for many. This cruise cannot run in the shoulder seasons (November and March) due to sea ice. List prices for these cruises are $9,000-12,000
Fly the Drake
Want to visit Antarctica, but afraid of sailing across the Drake Passage? Luckily, there is an option for you! Some cruise companies offer charter flights from Punta Arenas, Chile to a Chilean naval base on King George Island. The flight lasts about 3 hours. You will embark/disembark the ship there. Expect to pay double the basic cruise cost for this convenience, so between $11,000-18,000 list price.
South Georgia and the Falkland Islands Add-ons
Antarctica is not the only attraction in the area. The “nearby” Falkland Islands and South Georgia can also be seen on cruises from Ushuaia. According to many, South Georgia is actually more scenic than Antarctica and has a major king penguin colony.
Cruises that include Antarctica and these other destinations are around 19-23 days long. Cruises that just visit the other islands are usually 16-18 days long. Expect to pay $11,000-$15,000 list price for the cheapest cabin.
A small number of ships leave from Australia or New Zealand. Those are much longer (25-30 days) and much more expensive than the South America cruises. The benefit is that you get to see the rarely visited West Antarctica including the Ross Ice Shelf and Mt. Erebus. Prices start at around $20,000.
When to Go:
The Antarctic tourism season runs from November until March. This corresponds to the spring and summer in the Southern Hemisphere. Here is an overview of the different times to go.
Early Season: November – Early December
After the long winter, Antarctica will be covered in snow and will be at its most pristine. Icebergs will be plentiful and penguins will be less smelly. Weather is also the most unpredictable at this time of year. Cold weather, sea ice and strong winds may force the cancellation or rescheduling of landings.
Peak Season: Late December – early February
This is the middle of summer and the weather will be the warmest. Some of the snow has melted which allows for more landing opportunities. Most days will be above freezing with 20-24 hours of daylight. This is also penguin nesting season and it is possible to see baby penguins. Cruise prices are approximately 20-40% higher during this time.
Late Season: Late February – March
This is the end of the summer season. Much of the snow has melted and the sea ice has melted. Some of the wildlife has gone out to sea, but penguin chicks are still around preparing for winter. This is the best season to see whales.
Winter: April – October
During the winter, the ocean freezes over thus making it impossible for boats to reach the continent. Cruise ships do not run during this time. Many research stations close down as well.
While price and dates are likely the main factors used when booking a cruise, there are some other factors to consider.
Size of Ship:
In accordance with IAATO, only 100 passengers are allowed on land at any one time. While most of the ships have around that many passengers, there are some larger ships that have up to 300 passengers. A larger ship means you will spend less time on Antarctica and more time loading and unloading the ship.
Not every cruise that goes to Antarctica lands (or attempts to land) on the continent itself. Instead, these cruises land on the many islands just off the coast. The islands are just as beautiful as the continent, but many feel that a trip to Antarctica would be incomplete without actually stepping foot on the continent. Before booking a trip, make sure to confirm this detail with the cruise operator.
Some cruises offer optional activities such as stand-up paddle boarding, kayaking, mountaineering, skiing, or even camping on Antarctica. In most cases these optional activities must be booked in advance and have an additional cost. Expect to pay at least $800 for any additional activity. Not every ship offers each activity and some activities cannot be run in the shoulder seasons.
Antarctica is a very fragile environment. Utmost care must be taken to ensure that the landscapes and wildlife will be around for generations to come. In the absence of governing body, the cruise companies created IAATO, a self-regulating body that creates rules to conserve the land. Some of these rules include keeping distance from wildlife and coordinating so multiple ships don’t land in the same spot. Most but not all cruise companies are members of IAATO. Make sure yours is.
Cruise companies from all over the world operate in the Antarctic. As a result, some companies will speak multiple languages aboard the ship. While you are guaranteed to find English speakers on any ship, finding programs in other languages is more company-specific. My ship had a Mandarin translator. Other ships have Spanish or German speaking staff.
Most Antarctic cruises provide high-quality winter parkas to their guests. Some cruise companies let you keep the parka as a souvenir. The parkas would most likely retail for a few hundred dollars in the US.
Antarctica is one of the most expensive places in the world to visit. The remoteness, novelty of the continent, and unique operating costs such as evacuation insurance has caused prices to remain high.
Despite the sky high prices, there are ways to save money when booking Antarctic cruises. Here are two strategies:
Polar cruise companies regularly send out emails advertising deals for their Antarctic cruises. You cannot sign up for these lists on their websites. Rather, you have to email a sales representative who can place you on the list.
Cruise deals are usually last minute or for next year (I booked a cruise this way about 11 months in advance). They are also usually for shoulder season cruises (think November or March), but sometimes you will find a peak season deal. For the basic cruise, prices can drop to as low as $5,800 (a 20-35% discount). For the longer or more expensive cruises, discounts can be up to 50% (think under $8,000 for Fly the Drake or South Georgia/Falkland/Antarctica cruises).
Last Minute Deals
If you happen to be in Ushuaia or Punta Arenas during the season, you can score some of the best cruise deals out there. Basic cruise prices can drop as low as $5,000.
Sometimes, the deals are found on flyers posted around town. Sometimes, you have to visit a tour operator’s or local travel agent’s office.
In order to pursue this option, you need to have a lot of flexibility in your schedule. Boats can leave any day and it is possible that all the cruises are sold out and you won’t get on a boat at all. For the best chance of landing a last minute deal, try to be in Ushuaia during the shoulder seasons of November or late February/March.
What to Expect:
The mantra: “You get what you pay for” is definitely true when it comes to Antarctica cruises. While the cruises cost an arm and a leg, you will have the trip of a lifetime.
The Drake Passage
The waters in between South America and Antarctica are known as the roughest in the world. With no land at those latitudes to block the currents, ocean swells can be enormous: up to 12 meters tall (45 feet) in storms.
It is also likely that you will completely miss a storm and will only hit minor 3-4 meter swells (10-13 feet). With the ship’s stabilizers, this isn’t quite a bad as it sounds. This website provides current data on swells in the Drake.
Being in the open ocean is not easy and many people on the ship will get seasick. It is highly recommended to pack medication for seasickness.
Landings In Antarctica
On each day in Antarctica, ships attempt for two excursions. This can be either in the form of a landing or a scenic zodiac (dingy) cruise.
The cruise companies do not reveal each day’s itinerary until the night before. Therefore, you will not know where you going until you actually reach Antarctica. This is primarily due to the unpredictable weather. On my recent cruise, 50% of all the planned landings were changed due to weather. Despite that, the expedition staff was able to create a wonderful itinerary with amazing alternate landing sites. Regardless of which specific places you visit, you will leave Antarctica with a sense of awe.
Life on the Ship
This is a nice cruise- even on the cheapest boats. The food will be good, the cabin will be comfortable, and the service will be impeccable.
At the same time, the cruises are all small ships. Do not expect pools, casinos or multiple restaurants. However, there will be lectures, movie screenings, and group gatherings. Constant shipboard announcements and programs keep you busy. In short, you will not be bored despite the many days at sea.
The small ship environment creates a strong community that feels like a summer camp, but with alcohol. At the end of the cruise, I was sad not only to leave the boat, but also to leave my new friends.
Unless you are on a Fly The Drake or New Zealand cruise, you will most likely end up in the town of Ushuaia. While not considered a top destination in Patagonia, Ushuaia is a worthwhile place to spend a couple days before the cruise. Its title as southernmost city in the world attracts a strange and interesting collection of travelers. Most cruise companies will pay for a hotel in Ushuaia the night before embarkation.
Ushuaia is a fairly large city (80,000 residents). If you forgot to pack something for the trip, you can most definitely find it in Ushuaia.
Expect to pay between $300-500 roundtrip from Buenos Aires. Currently two airlines fly to Ushuaia: LATAM and Aerolineas Argentina. LATAM is the more reliable airline, but has less options. Aerolineas Argentina also has some flights to other destinations in Patagonia such as El Calafate and Bariloche.
Other than the flights, the main additional cost is insurance. All cruise companies require health insurance at a high level of coverage. Some but not all American insurance plans work, but make sure to check with your provider. Should your plan not work, the cruise companies can sell you the insurance. I was quoted about $500 as a healthy 27-year old man. Do not worry about evacuation insurance – that is included as part of the cruise price.
I would also recommend travel insurance for this trip due to the high costs and high chance that weather can adversely affect the trip.
As mentioned earlier, some cruises offer additional activities such as paddle boarding or camping. Those are not included in the cruise price and cost extra. Like hundreds of dollars extra.
Gratuities are only accepted at some companies. If accepted, tips are generally $15-20/day which goes to the ship’s crew. Make sure to research the gratuity policies before embarking on the trip.
Standard cruise ship policy is to not include alcohol in the ticket price. Generally, drink prices are reasonable.
There are also opportunities to purchase souvenirs on board and at the British station of Port Lockroy.