Looking for last-minute Antarctica tickets? Eight FAQ answered

King penguins antarctica

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.

Our itinerary was perfect for us!

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.

November is the best month for ice and snow

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.

If a cruise might be in your future, this is a great site to start your searching.

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.

I’m sure there are other groups, but this one was a wealth of information

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.

You want to fill that last-minute cabin, don’t you?

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 Freestyle Adventure and Epic Polar 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.

Large cruise ships can only sail near the continent, not land, so if you want to get out and touch the Antarctic continent, opt for a small-to-medium size

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.

Expedition-style cruises do not use tenders to get you to a dock. They use zodiacs, and most landings will be in 6 inches to 2 feet of water. The muck boots and rain pants (or ski pants) will keep you dry underneath while you’re on shore

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!

Our 3-in-1 parkas kept us warm and dry, even on zodiac rides. Don’t overlayer- you can actually get too warm!

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.

These king penguins were captured by our Canon

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.

A tip from Renato: focus on one individual in a sea of many

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.

Although you will see penguins and seals in Antarctica, the truly massive colonies live in South Georgia Islands. Don’t miss those!

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.

Thanks to our lessons in whale behavior, we were able to anticipate where these humpbacks would breach next.

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.

A photography lesson from Renato

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!

Do we need to keep this picture of a penguin jumping into the Antarctic? Yes. Yes we do.

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.

Just imagine the medical attention you’d need if one of these seals came for you.

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.

Luckily no medical attention was needed after I attempted this- twice.

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.

“Pssst! Check out those savvy travelers- what a great deal they got!”

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!

Great Destinations from DC by Plane, Train, Bus, or Car

Do you live in the Washington DC area and are looking for a quick vacation spot that is close to home? Are you visiting DC soon and want to add in a day trip to somewhere outside the city? Do you wonder how how find direct flights from nearby airports? Do you need some packing tips? If so, check out this presentation:

Do you love Washington DC? What is your favorite place to visit outside the city itself? Let us know in the comments below.

Six steps for getting in your steps while on vacation

I rarely have enough discipline to follow much of an exercise regimen when I’m traveling. I do, however, follow an eating regimen; mainly, I eat everything I want in a new place for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Throw in some happy hours and some wine tastings, and that’s a lot of excess calories.

Pastel Com Nata in Lisbon? Yes, please!

However, there are ways to combat the battle of the bulge when visiting Europe or any other new place. All it takes is some good walking shoes, a hat or umbrella, and some sunscreen. Here’s how you can continue to get in your steps while you’re traveling- and keep eating all those delicious new foods.

1. Use public transport

When we arrive in a new country, rather than take a taxi straight from the airport to our hotel, we generally opt for public transport. That usually means walking to one end of the airport, and scouting out the metro, train, or bus stop closest to arrivals and departures. Finding a ticket machine takes a few more (hundred) steps, and then we’re on our way. Once we arrive in our neighborhood, it’s often another few blocks to our accommodation. Day one: we’ve added at least 1000 steps getting to our new “home”.

In Frankfurt, it’s easier to take the train!

2. Visit a museum

Every national capital, plus most other cities in the world, boast some museum that they are very proud of. We love to walk through these museums and learn about the history of the area, all while (usually) enjoying the air conditioning. Some museums literally take more than half a day to go through thoroughly, while others may only take an hour or two. But either way, you’ve upped your total steps for the day by walking through all those exhibits. Keep an eye out for a day of the week or month that most museums are free!

The Mexican Anthropology Museum will take hours to fully visit

3. Take a free walking tour

About ten years ago, the concept of the free walking tour started rippling across Europe, then Asia, then South America. The idea is that you join a group tour at a designated meeting spot, the guide shows you all the city they love, and you pay whatever you think the tour was worth. I have only very rarely seen people skip out on paying the guide- most people seem to enjoy the tour and pay the guide anywhere from $10 to 20€ per person. Over the years, we have taken free walking tours everywhere from Beijing to Cuzco, and have never had a bad time. A walking tour can last from 2-3 hours, and can easily add 6000 to 8000 steps to your day.

A free walking tour in Delhi showed us the famous sights, as well as recommending us a fantastic place for lunch!

4. Ride the bus out, walk back

A great way to see part of a new city while getting in your steps is to once again utilize public transport. We will identify a neighborhood that looks interesting, then take a subway or bus ride to a sight in that area. A one way ticket usually costs less than $2. Then, we spend the rest of the day leisurely wending our way back to our place. We stop at bookshops, restaurants, parks, or bars along the way if we get tired. If you don’t have a local SIM card, no problem. Download the maps.me app, and you’ll have offline maps all the way.

Take the iconic yellow Lisbon trams all the way to the end- then slowly roam back

5. Take a day hike

A hike through a national park or a state park is a perfect way to spend a day of your vacation. Be sure to carry plenty of water, and a snack or picnic lunch if there’s no food to purchase within your park. If you’re less sure of your own ability to navigate a hike in the wild on your own, see if there’s a guided ranger walk- inquire at the visitors center. We’ve had some fascinating ranger walks at national parks and learned a lot.

Plitvice National Park in Croatia was a fabulous day hike

6. Make your vacation a long-distance hike

This one’s a bit drastic, but it does work. Consider turning your entire vacation into one… long… walk. If you’re okay with carrying a tent, sleeping in the wild, and cooking your own food, consider a long hike such as the Appalachian Trail or the Pacific Crest Trail- or even just a section of it. If you are already shaking your head NO NO NO, then consider a hike such as the Camino Santiago, or hiking a circuit in Nepal such as the Annapurna. Known as “teahouse” hiking, these kinds of hikes mean you sleep indoors every night, and go to cafes or alburgues for your meals. All you have to do is walk each day!

Chris hikes from Mexico to Canada on the PCT

What are some of the ways you get in your exercise while you travel? As for us, we are currently in Portugal, and starting next week, we’ll be on the Camino Portuguese. Check back soon for an update!

Why you should visit Mexico City and Puebla, and what to eat while you are there

20211123 Mexico City flag

After 18 months of staying in the US, Chris and I decided to dip our toes into the international travel scene again for my fall break. We chose Mexico for several reasons: direct flights, cheap prices, and easy entry requirements. As of November 2021, Americans do not need a Covid test to enter Mexico- just one to re-enter the US. We booked our tickets on Volaris airline, a Mexican carrier, and we were ready to go.

Plaza Constitution: the heart of Mexico City

Leaving your car at the airport for more than a few days can be expensive, so I looked up some cheaper parking options. We went with parkingaccess.com, which wound up being $35 to park our car at a nearby hotel for the duration of our trip. Be sure to read the fine print when choosing where to leave your car- try to pick a hotel with a free airport shuttle option (otherwise you’ll up your costs by having to take an Uber the last mile), and some local options provide covered parking, while others don’t.

Continue reading “Why you should visit Mexico City and Puebla, and what to eat while you are there”

Could you Downsize from a Townhome to a 40 Liter backpack?

suitcases stacked

Four years ago Chris and I rented out our house, stored all our belongings, and backpacked southeast Asia for a year. At that point we had only lived in our home for two years, so we hadn’t acquired too much stuff, and we could utilize a free pack/move/store deal attached to Chris’s retirement. So I didn’t really have to do much to prepare.

Everything we own, packed and ready to store for a year (2014)

This year, as we started making plans to take a year off and travel around “middle” Asia, I realized we would have to do it all ourselves. We needed to start thinking about downsizing our ever-growing belongings, storing what was left, and what to do with our house. After much discussion and analyzing, we decided to sell our house instead of renting it out. Thus, our downsizing and decluttering would need to take place at the same time as getting the house ready to show and sell.

For Sale!

I started by reading a couple of books for some guidance: The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, by Marie Kondo, and later, The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning, by Margreta Magnusson. I listened to “The Year of Less” by Cait Flanders. These books helped me get a handle on what to keep. We also watched the Netflix documentary “Mimimalism”, and perused their website. Through a Twitter tip from a cyber-friend, I discovered the “Sell All Your Stuff” blog, and started reading their posts. In a happy coincidence, my friend Amy, also on a decluttering kick, invited me to join the Poshmark and Mercari sites, two apps that allow you to list your items and sell them online.

Items out, cash in!

Around the time that we started getting serious about culling and Goodwilling items, two friends came visiting to DC. We had actually met Tricia and Kurt on our cruise from LA to Australia four years earlier, and had told them about our year-long travel plans. Unbeknownst to me, they had followed my blog for the intervening years and had decided to they should also downsize, rent their home, and head overseas. I like to think we inspired them! When we reunited with them in DC, something they said made me really think. I asked them about how they were able to get rid of the things in their homes… those awards, those paintings, those souvenirs that you like…. but don’t necessarily want to keep your whole lifetime. Tricia told me “I looked at every item and thought “If I died, would my kids keep this? If yes, we put it in storage. If not, it went to Goodwill or was sold”.

Tricia and Kurt, loving their on-the-go lifestyle!

And so I resolved to do the same. At around the time we started working with a realtor to sell the house, I started listing unused or seldom used furniture on Facebook Marketplace, and I doubled my efforts on Poshmark and Mercari. My efforts paid off, and I earned about $2400, while still keeping items we will need when we eventually “land” again in the US, such as our bed, some clothing items, kitchenware, etc. For items that didn’t sell well, or were just too low-priced to be worth my time, I offered up to my local “Buy Nothing” group on Facebook.

Camping out- after we sold our couch and coffee table

After leaving our house in June, we are taking a 4 month road trip, first to Alaska, and then down to Burning Man festival. We were able to think of our car as an intermediary between having a house full of stuff, and only a backpack. We created a camping kitchen kit, a first aid kit, and a car emergency kit. We separated the items we would need for our “bedroom” in our tent, and we will take more clothes than we probably need, because we have the room in the car and because we will pass through several temperate zones. Once we return from camping, we will need to once more downsize that load of stuff into just what we can carry in our Osprey backpacks. For more information on what we carry for long-term backpacking travel, I wrote a post about that here.

We’re pretty good at car camping!

Parting with items is hard- whether it’s selling them, donating them, or giving them to a friend who has always admired them. But you also feel a little bit lighter with every item that leaves your house. As Americans, we are pushed by a consumer-driven economy to buy, buy, buy. We are bombarded with dozens of advertisements a day. We mortgage houses that are too big for us, and then shop to fill them up with items. Chris and I have talked a lot about how we want our next space to look. We plan to combine offices, for one- both of us only use our “office” a few hours a week. Although we’ve had a full guest suite, I think next time it will be a fold out couch in the shared office instead (sorry, Micah). Public libraries and nearby stores often loan out items such as kitchen items (ice cream makers!) and tools (Autozone and Home Depot), so you don’t need to keep all those barely-used items at your house. Also check your local Buy Nothing group: I had a hankering to try dehydrating some foods and asked for a lesson from a neighbor; after trying it out for a weekend, I realized I did not actually want to purchase or own a dehydrator! There’s probably dozens of items in most of our homes that are rarely used.

combo.jpg
Okay, ours probably won’t be this fancy but I can dream, right?

What are some creative ways you’ve been able to downsize? And what are the must-haves we need to take on our road trip? Leave me a comment below: