I’m really excited to post this guest article mainly because Antarctica is very high on my list of places to go. Enjoy!
When my friend Amanda called me and asked, "how much is too much for a vacation?" I knew we had something epic in the works. Antarctica. It’s all I needed to hear, I was committed. But planning a trip to Antarctica is a huge project. There is a wide variety of options for visiting Antarctica, so we had to look at them all closely to decide what was right for us. I even made a spreadsheet. Yes I’m THAT geek. So here are a few things you need to think about when planning a trip to the great white south.
Antarctica is expensive, no matter which trip you choose. It’s important to decide how much you can handle spending before you get your heart set on the US$20,000 cruise. I’ve seen trips ranging from US$2,000 to US$30,000, and I wouldn’t be surprised if there were some outside of that. Look at what is included in the price of the cruise, if there are any excursions or side trips and how much they cost. Don’t forget to figure in the cost of your airfare and accommodations before and after the cruise. Ours started in Valparaiso, Chile and ended in Ushuaia, Argentina, so we booked flights into Santiago, Chile and out of Buenos Aires, Argentina. Find out if there is a fuel surcharge already included in the quoted price and if it’s fixed. One of the operators I contacted told me the fuel surcharge was not guaranteed and could go up.
Luxury, Amenities and Size of the Ship
Do you enjoy luxury cruises with very formal dinners, spas, casinos and fancy shows? Do you want to rough it a little in an expedition ship? Most Antarctica cruises seem to average 9-15 days in length, and since some of those days might be at sea, you want to make sure you’re comfortable with what your ship has to offer. Do you want to be on a big ship that holds a few thousand people or a small expedition ship that holds 100 or less? Or maybe something in between? Keep in mind that cruise ships have to abide by strict rules when it comes to bringing passengers on land in Antarctica. Each ship is only allowed to have 100 passengers on land at a time, and only for one hour at a time. So if you see a ship that holds 2000 people, you’re probably not getting off the ship, so definitely decide if it’s important to you to step on Antarctic soil or if you’re ok with just sailing by and seeing it. The ship me and my friend were on held 650 passengers, but they only took about 350 for the Antarctica trips. We were all able to get on land for an hour each day we stopped. They took us over on zodiacs, which are rubber motorized boats that hold about 12 people, so it’s a somewhat slow process.
What types of activities does the cruise offer that allow you to experience Antarctica? Some of the less expensive, larger cruises just sail by and maybe stop for a couple hours to allow you to view Antarctica, while others actually take you off the ship onto land. Some offer kayaking, cold-water diving, hiking, climbing, cross-country skiing, and camping overnight in Antarctica. Some ships also offer educational lectures relating to the animals, people and culture in the regions the ship is passing. Those were really interesting, and a good way to pass the time between meals and naps on the at-sea days.
Time of Year
Because of all the ice, Antarctica cruises only operate during the summer, typically November through March. There are advantages and disadvantages to going early, late or in the middle. The early part of the season is courting season for penguins and seabirds. The ice is just starting to break up so ships can’t go as far south. The middle part of the season is the warmest (keep in mind it’s still cold) and the days are longest. Penguin chicks start to hatch and the receding ice allows for further exploration. Towards the end of the season, whale sightings are at their best, penguins are starting to fledge, and there are more seals on the peninsula. The ships are also able to go even further south due to the receding ice. Our trip was at the beginning of February and I believe the temperatures were around 30F to 35F (-1C to 2C). We saw penguins that were bigger than chicks but didn’t quite have their waterproof feathers yet. We saw seals, although I don’t know what type they were. We saw a few whales off in the distance, but the best was when we were in the zodiac going back to the ship and a minke whale swam under our zodiac. Absolutely amazing experience.
In my search I did find a few options that involved flying instead of cruising. A travel company called Croydon Travel organizes a few charter flights from Sydney and Melbourne, Australia which fly over Antarctica. The flight time is between 11.5 and 12.5 hours on a Qantas Boeing 747. There’s also a company called Victory Cruises that offers flights to Antarctica. Some go to the islands, some to the peninsula, and they have a few different small aircraft on their fleet. These flight options are roughly comparable in price to the typical cruises, but much shorter, and with the Qantas trip you don’t get to step on Antarctic soil.
While I’m sure there are people who make repeat visits, for most it truly is a trip of a lifetime. Because of this, you owe it to yourself to really do your research and choose the trip that’s right for you. Be aware of potential scam tour operators, and plan ahead of time since some cruises book way in advance. The wide variety of cruise ships offering trips to Antarctica can be mind boggling and a little overwhelming, but if you figure out what you’re looking for ahead of time, the research process should be easier. Going to Antarctica was one of the most incredible experiences of my life. The whale swimming under our zodiac, the cute (but smelly) penguins waddling all around us, the gorgeous and unbelievably massive icebergs, they will all be one of my most cherished memories.
Ali Garland is a travel junkie who lives in Atlanta but is originally from New Jersey. She is always trying to fit more travel into her life, and her passion has led her to visit all 7 continents before her 30th birthday. She enjoys foreign languages, photography, and the rush that comes with purchasing a plane ticket. You can follow her on Twitter and her blog Ali’s Adventures.