You want to travel to Antarctica, but quickly realize that overnight accommodations and infrastructure are limited. In fact, your only option aside from signing up for a contract at a science station, is to book an Antarctica expedition or cruise. Over 30,000 travelers tour Antarctica each year, and there are more than 20 cruise lines operating some sort of Antarctic cruise on both large and small ships- along with a few in between! Here is an overview on how to choose the right Antarctica cruise specifically for you.
Budget, the place to start.
Any sort of trip planning starts here and you’ll find right away that if you wish to disembark your ship and explore Antarctica ashore, rates go up, and ship size goes down. And unlike other types of travel, luxury does not always increase with price! With Antarctica travel, the keys to a worthy cruise are time of year, number of days in Antarctica, access to the regions you want to explore, and the caliber of the expedition and naturalist staff that accompany you. This typically means that despite the higher fares on small ships, the value is tremendous when compared to larger ship programs that only provide scenic by way cruising. With small ships you really experience Antarctica through Zodiac explorations, landings and adventure options.
What is included?
The cost for a small ship Antarctic cruise varies based on trip length, the ship and cabin selection, and travel dates. Typically the cruise fare is more inclusive than on larger cruise ship, covering accommodations, meals and some beverages, guide services, landing fees, shore excursions, Zodiac expeditions, rubber boots for shore landings, and expert presentations.
What is not included?
While each cruise to Antarctica varies, generally the fees usually don’t cover airfare to or from the point of embarkation/disembarkation, some soft drinks and most alcoholic beverages, tips to your guides, laundry and other items of a personal nature, and optional adventure activities.
Where you will go and what you will see.
Where you go affects not only just pricing, but your experience as well. The majority of 10 to 14-day expedition cruises depart from Ushuaia, located at the southernmost tip of Argentina, crossing the famed Drake Passage by sea or occasionally by air (with ship embarkation in the Peninsula region). Cruises then explore the western side of the Antarctic Peninsula and the South Shetland Islands, each made up of small islands, channels and inlets. Expect to see tabular icebergs, ice sheets and glaciers, 4 – 5 penguin species, seals and whales and sea birds. A few Antarctica cruises venture south to cross the Polar Circle and while these definitely provide travelers with unique bragging rights, they typically only add more days at sea onto the itineraries without much corresponding value in terms of increased wildlife sightings, Zodiac exploration or landings.
A few itineraries venture to the Weddell Sea which is found on the western side of the Peninsula. Some of these cruises are operated as a stand-alone itinerary, or more commonly in combination with an Antarctic Peninsula cruise. In this region, the tabular icebergs are larger, and so are the penguin colonies- and sometimes you even see emperor penguins. You can expect to see leopard seals in the water, Weddell seals lounging on ice floes, and hopefully encounter whales as you traverse the seas of the Antarctic convergence zone.
Longer 14 – 24 day Antarctic Peninsula cruises venture northeast to the wildlife-rich sub-Antarctic islands of South Georgia and the Falklands where you find even more species of penguins – including massive colonies of king penguins. Huge elephant seals, albatross in their nests and sea lions are also highlights of this region along historical explorer sites.
For the past few years a new crop of tours in Antarctica have begun to operate which combine cruising the Peninsula or sub-Antarcitc regions via small ship with a full expedition staff, but which utilize flights on small BAE jets to transport travelers across the Drake Passage by air rather than sea. Given that the cruise portion of these expeditions are of comparable quality to most of the other Antarctic small ship expeditions, these really can be a great option for those who are very short on time or who fear a rough crossing the infamous Drake Passage. The drawbacks are firstly price- rates are much higher for these cruises, demand is high, and there is a risk of the very weather that causes the Drake to ‘shake’ as the saying goes will interrupt and cause delays in the flight schedule which then unexpectedly can cut into the time spent on the expedition.
When to travel?
The Antarctic travel season revolves around the Austral Summer, from early November through early March, when sea ice breaks up and snowfall and storms decrease. From April through October, it is next to impossible for any ships to break through the heavy pack and sea ice.
The most desirable time to visit starts the 2nd week of December through January when the weather is most reliably, and, importantly, most Antarctic penguins hatch– and during the accompanying holiday season and Argentina’s high travel season, demand can definitely outrun supply for popular trips. However, for those wanting to do a longer trip that explores the Falklands and South Georgia, the best time of year depends on what you are hoping to see and experience- January gets you better weather and potential access in the polar zones as well as an increase of whale migration in the Southern Ocean, but October and November bring the truly extraordinary mating and birthing season for the massive elephant seals found in and near South Georgia Island as well as the chance to see the magnificent waved albatross in their nests. Massive colonies of king penguins breed year-round, making South Georgia & The Falklands a great option during the entire season.
With Antarctica expeditions cruises, you’ll find discounts scarce when compared to the large cruise ship industry. Demand is high for Antarctica cruising and tours, and while some companies will discount to fill every berth, many of the higher quality ships do not offer last-minute discounts at all, but instead offer early booking incentives which often align with the lower air fares.
If you can make arrangements quickly, and you love the thrill of the bargain hunt, then you’ll want to take advantage of the approaching ‘season’ or mid-season discounts. These can range from 10% up to 50% off full fares, but your choice of departure dates and cabin is limited. Airfare increases, eating into your cruise savings, and sometimes flights to Ushuaia can be full prior to your cruise, making it necessary for you to arrive days ahead of your cruise, adding several nights accommodation cost to your trip.
Life on board ship.
Depending on the type of small ship you choose, the level of accommodation, service, food and even adventure options ranges from ‘spartan’ to luxurious. Finding a ship that has what you want, means that you must look carefully at ship photos, deck plans and public areas (observation lounge, lecture media rooms etc) and adventure options. You’ll then want to balance that against the ships that have the itineraries that work for you in your timeframe.
How to Choose?
To find the best itinerary, decide what is most important to see and hone in on the programs that deliver this. Then you’ll want to rank trips breaking out cost against the number of days exploring (vs days at sea), against what is included and not included in the types of ships you desire.
With so many things to consider when booking a cruise to Antarctica, it is always good to connect with travel veterans, read reviews, and research companies. And while you will find many large companies with a vested interest in selling you on their expedition, and also many travel or big ship cruise agents who will only point you in the most obvious directions, there does exist a small niche of travel professionals who specialize in small ship expedition travel. They’re services are usually free, but their value to you as an expert and a more objective evaluator is enormous. They can save you hundreds if not thousands of dollars and hours of research. They can also add tremendous value to your trip with insider ‘been there, done that’ tips. Traveling to Antarctica is for most people a once in a lifetime experience that involves a significant amount of time, effort and money so it’s best to use all your available resources, including those of a professional adventure cruise specialist.