When Chris and I (Deah) set out on our year-long South American journey, we hoped that a visit to Antarctica would be in our near future. I set about to researching how to make that happen, and two months later, we were on a boat heading to our seventh continent. Here’s the most frequent eight questions I’ve heard from friends and travelers on how to score the very best deals to go to Antarctica.
1. What is the best time of year to visit Antarctica?
Aside from getting a paid or volunteer job at a research station, your only options for cruising to Antarctica are going to be in the Southern Hemisphere’s summer months- namely, November through February. This is the only time that the pack ice breaks up enough, and storms calm enough, to get ships in and out across the Drake Passage and to the continent. At the beginning of those months you will see more seals and more fantastic snow and ice, while in later months you will see more newly-hatched penguins born towards the end of summer. Cruises do tend to get more expensive as the summer goes on, although there are always last-minute cancellations.
2. What are the best sources for gathering information about trips to Antarctica?
I start my searches online for recent travel blogs so that I can read first-hand accounts of people who have recently taken similar adventures. Add keywords like “travel blog” and “backpacking” to rule out news articles and marketing sites for cruise lines (although those can have good info as well). Since travel has changed a lot post-Covid, add in “2022” to your search to get the most updated information. The website Cruisemapper has a wealth of good info as well.
The single best place I got information for this trip was by joining a private group on Facebook, the Antarctic Travel Group. By reading through the past several months’ of posts for that group, I was able to get a great overview of Antarctic travel: do’s and dont’s, what to pack, reviews of various cruise companies, and what to do in town before and after a cruise if you have extra time.
3. Should I just go to Ushuaia and wait at the dock?
It used to be that you could show up at the Ushuaia (Argentina’s most southern city) airport and get an empty seat on a resupply flight to Antarctica (not anymore). You can also get to Ushuaia and walk through the small town and talk to various cruise operators and look for a last minute deal. People get ill, miss a flight, or have other emergencies, and can’t make their cruise. Of course the cruise line still wants to fill that cabin, and may offer a serious last-minute discount.
However, you can essentially do the same thing by establishing a dialogue with cruise travel agencies online. I reached out to Intrepid, Hurtigruten, and Quark, and got standard email replies. However, I had best results by starting a WhatsApp conversation with Epic Polar and Freestyle Adventure travel agencies. By letting them know what places you’re interested in getting to, the size of boat you want, and the rough dates you can be available- and by touching base with them frequently- you can be first in line when they get an awesome new deal or a last-minute discount. We had all those text conversations while we were traveling around Chile, ready to take a quick flight or bus, rather than sitting around Ushuaia waiting.
4. What should I pack?
Layers. Layers. Layers. The cruises to Antarctica do go in the “summer” months, but it is still cold and windy at the lower latitudes. You will want a base layer (thermal leggings, long johns, or fleece-lined tights), t shirts, long sleeved shirts such as microfleece, and of course hat and gloves. Most boats require that you bring water-proof pants, to keep you dry while out in the zodiacs. We were already traveling when we booked our cruise, and were able to purchase rain pants in a hiking town in Patagonia. Our ship had a (free) launderette on board, so even though we went on a 17-day sailing, we only needed one set of everything.
Most boats (but not all- check with your travel agent or whoever you purchase from) will provide you with waterproof “muck boots” for the wet landings, and will provide a branded parka that you can keep after the cruise. Ours were 3-in-1 jackets, so they had a warm down layer and a waterproof Gortex outer layer. Don’t bother wasting room in your carry-on if you don’t need to!
5. What camera should I take?
In general, you want to take a camera that you’re already comfortable with. That being said, if there’s one place in the world where you might want something nicer than a cell phone camera or a simple point-and-shoot, it’s Antarctica. Many people on the boat- but not all- will have special lenses for long-distance, close-up photography. You can also rent one if you like to try one out. For us, Chris captured our best shots with his Canon 70D, while I used our iPhone 12 to create short videos, panoramas, slow-motion, and time-lapse shots.
Some cruises have an additional photography course “add on”, typically an extra $1000, which gets you invited to lectures and small group landings with an expert photographer. Our ship, the SH Vega, had award-winning photographer Renato Granieri. He gave several photography lectures to any interested guests, as well as a link to his photo album of the cruise when we disembarked.
6. Are all cruises pretty much the same?
Not really. Ships can vary in size, from about 100 passengers up to 2000 or more. They can vary in the level of luxury- the MV Ushuaia is a former NOAA research vessel, very basic, while we traveled in the Swan Hellenic Vega, which was pretty much five-star (not our usual scene!). I researched other cruises that had add-ons such as arctic camping, kayaking, snow-shoeing, and photography. Some cruises are “classic” Antarctica, meaning they essentially leave Ushuaia, cross the Drake Passage, visit the South Shetland islands, and attempt to reach the Antarctic peninsula. Other ships, such as ours, leave from Buenos Aires, and ours included stops in the Falkland Islands (Malvinas) and South Georgia islands. With all ships, there is no guarantee that wind and weather will allow for a landing on the continent- but do check ahead of time that your ship has applied for and secured permits to at least try. Every ship that goes to the Antarctic is a part of IAATO, and they coordinate all the permits and ensure that Antarctica stays as pristine as possible.
7. What do you do while you’re on board?
It can easily be two or three days’ sailing between Buenos Aires, Falklands, South Georgia, Shetland islands, and Ushuaia, so there will be days at sea with no landings. Some ships have a sauna, gym, spa, and pool, as well as a beauty salon and massage room. Ships have both “formal” and “informal” dining. Even the formal dining, an amazing five-course dinner, is less “formal-wear”- our ship specifically asked us not to wear high heels on board. And there are several lounges, a science lab, and a library. Did I mention wine tastings and cocktail parties with caviar? That too.
In between landings, on most ships, various expedition leaders and experts will give talks or lectures, which may be video-recorded and viewable from your stateroom. We had a lecture on the Falklands Conflict, photography workshops from Renato, tales of PolarAJ’s North Pole trek, and history lessons about Ernest Shackleton and other polar explorers. We also had Citizen Science opportunities to identify bird species, whales, seaweed, and clouds.
If all that’s not enough, we had a selection of movies on our tv (similar to the kind on airplanes), and we had free WiFi for the duration of the sailing. I know that some other ships have a WiFi package that costs extra. Or you can choose to disconnect and spend your time editing your 8000 penguin pictures!
8. Do you need insurance?
Yes. You really do. Because we have trip insurance through our United Explorer credit card, and are extremely flexible with our travel style, we rarely opt for extra travel insurance. However, most Antarctic cruises will require that you get an additional medical and evacuation insurance that covers up to $500,000 per person. Read these carefully- they can be quite sneaky in the wording and not “actually” cover Antarctica. I used insuremytrip to get a baseline idea of policies, but based on a tip from my ATG Facebook group, found a very reasonable policy via our USAA banking/insurance company. For less than $200, we were able to insure our trip against medical complications.
I can tell you that the day we left port, two other ships had to return home early due to medical emergencies on board. They were in the Drake Passage and could not get a helicopter evacuation. Once they returned to port, passengers scrambled to get a different flight home, hotel stays, or an alternative sailing. Also on our sailing, we had a passenger with a medical emergency while in the Falkland Islands, who needed hospitalization and a flight back to South America. And, tragically, another ship on our sailing route had a terrible zodiac accident resulting in two deaths. They immediately headed back to Ushuaia. All of this is to say that you may be the person on board needing medical attention, or you may have your travel arrangements affected by external factors. Antarctic travel is very precarious- and passengers tend to skew toward the mid-elderly- so be prepared and protect your trip.
Going to Antarctica was a dream come true for us. I was incredibly happy to finally make it happen, after thinking about it for YEARS. Best of all, we were able to purchase last-minute tickets at less than HALF the price listed on the ship’s website. By doing our research, reaching out to agencies, and being super flexible, Antarctica was finally within our reach.
Questions about visiting Antarctica? Drop them below and I would be happy to answer. Let’s get you that fantastic deal to the White Continent!