How to Plan a Trip to Antarctica
Everything you need to know ahead of your first trek to the White Continent
Some people might think that jonesing for a trip to the coldest and most desolate destination in the world is outlandish — but those who feel compelled to set foot on Antarctica can rattle off a laundry list of reasons why they’re called to the White Continent. Perhaps they want the bragging rights that come with visiting all seven continents, maybe they’ve had a lifelong dream of skiing at the South Pole or maybe they just really, really love penguins.
We all have our reasons for wanting to visit Antarctica. I’ve wanted to make the trek for as long as I can remember and as a travel writer, it felt inexplicably important to experience all seven continents early in my career. I made the lofty goal of setting foot on the seventh continent before turning thirty and recently realized that aspiration with a fair bit of planning (and squirrelling away money for about five years).
Although tourism in Antarctica has picked up over the last two decades, it’s still a relatively untouched part of the world that’s both difficult and expensive to get to. That said, it’s not impossible for the average traveler to get there and don’t need to be an expedition explorer or scientist to make the trek. These days, there are a few decent avenues that’ll allow you to experience the sights and sounds of Antarctica in comfort and luxury.
If you’ve always been drawn to the White Continent, you’ll want to read on. Below, I’m sharing what I wish I knew about Antarctica while I planned my trip as well as all the little details and decisions you’ll have to ponder before making your reservations. From the best time to visit to the various ways to actually get there, here’s how to plan a bucket list-worthy trip to Antarctica.
The Best Time to Visit Antarctica
It’s important to note that the tourism season in Antarctica is extremely short and as such, the demand is higher than most cruise itineraries and expeditions. If you have a time-sensitive goal in mind like I did or you have a specific date or timeframe that you want to visit it’s best to book your trip as soon as possible (at least a year in advance is recommended).
Tourists are only permitted to visit the White Continent in the Antarctic summer (late October to early March) when the weather is more temperate and visibility is easier for captains and pilots. That said, there’s no best time to visit during tourist season. There are pros and cons that come with visiting early in the season or near the end.
Those traveling to Antarctica in October and November will get to land on pristine and untouched snow before it has been tamped down by hundreds of tourists. Those visiting in December and January will experience the warmest weather and the largest abundance of baby penguins, whereas visitors in February will be privy to the largest amount of visiting whales and seals.
How to Get to Antarctica
Getting to Antarctica is unlike any other commute in the world, and there are only a small handful of options for civilians and scientists alike. Although tourism has increased over the past twenty years — the White Continent sees about 50,000 tourists each season — traveling to Antarctica is strictly controlled by the Antarctic Conservation Act laid down by the Antarctica Treaty.
In short, you can’t just book a commercial flight. The only way to reach the continent is by pre-permitted boat or chartered plane and while travel to Antarctica is much more safe and convenient than it was decades ago, the continent is still one of the most difficult destinations on earth to reach even during the warmer summer months.
The Drake Passage is known as the roughest waters on earth, and flying into the continent is no picnic either. That’s why it’s vital to select the option you feel you’d be most comfortable with depending on your specific preferences and comfort level. Here are the best ways to get to Antarctica at present:
Mid-size cruise: Mid-size cruise companies like Holland America Line offer budget-conscious sailing to Antarctica, however, it’s important to remember that ships with more than 500 passengers onboard are not permitted to land on the continent. You’ll still see the sights and sounds of the remote wilderness but won’t technically set foot on land.
Small boat expedition cruise: Small boat expedition cruises are still relatively economical but include expedition landings and activities such as kayaking and snowshoeing. I chose to go with Hurtigruten Expeditions due to the company’s commitment to sustainability; the hybrid-powered expedition ships don’t skimp on luxury but still offer a more eco-friendly alternative to sailing.
Fly-over chartered flight: If you don’t have the time or the desire to spend a week or more trekking to and exploring the White Continent, then a fly-over chartered flight to Antarctica might be for you. The 12-hour round-trip flight departs from Australia and offers guests the chance to view the southernmost continent from the comfort of a leather-backed business class seat.
Fly-in chartered flight: The fly-in itinerary is perhaps the most expensive and elusive; reserved for less than a thousand travelers each year. This option allows travelers to get a glimpse of continental Antarctica rather than just the Antarctic Peninsula, and the itineraries — which include camping on the continent, visiting the South Pole and spotting Emperor Penguins — are usually about five to seven days but flying in and out of Antarctica can be tricky to plan due to rapid weather changes and itineraries are never set in stone.
Fly-cruise hybrid: If the thought of crossing the Drake Passage is holding you back from embarking on an Antarctic cruise but you’d still prefer to see the continent from the comfort of a cruise ship, consider the popular fly-cruise hybrid. The two-hour flight departs from Punta Arenas, Chile and drops passengers at King George Island at the tip of the peninsula where they’ll transfer directly onto an expedition cruise ship skipping the Drake Passage and cutting out four rough days at sea.
How Much Do Trips to Antarctica Cost?
There’s no way around it: whether you’re cruising or flying to Antarctica it’s going to cost a pretty penny. I chose to save up for my expedition cruise on my own but most cruise lines offer a payment plan that allows travelers to pay for their trip in manageable installments.
Fly-over chartered flights: The most economical option is going to be the sightseeing fly-over flight. Although these itineraries are only about twelve hours in length they give travelers a taste of the White Continent for anywhere from $1,000 to $10,000. Keep in mind that the lower end of the scale is a middle seat with no direct access to a window; it’s definitely worth it to spend a little more to guarantee a good view.
Expedition cruises and fly-cruise hybrid: Expedition cruising is, in my opinion, the best way to see Antarctica for the first time — especially if you prefer to end your day of exploration with a glass of champagne and a hot shower. The cost of expedition cruising varies greatly depending on the cruise line, stateroom and length of the itinerary. Week-long trips in shared staterooms, for example, start at about $5,000 per person while a 30-day trip in an executive suite can cost closer to $30,000 and up per person.
Fly-in and camping: Visiting the South Pole is a privilege formerly reserved for researchers and expedition explorers, and while it has opened up to tourism it’s still extremely exclusive. The White Desert, for example, is the only hotelier in Antarctica and costs between $62,500 to $98,500 and up for a weeklong stay. Single-day trips from Capetown, South Africa to the Wolf’s Fang Runway are also available for $14,000.
What’s Included vs What Isn’t?
The initial fees for your trip to Antarctica cover a lot of the basics when it comes to life on an expedition ship or base camp. You likely won’t have to pay for your meals and most cruise lines will also offer complimentary wine and beer as well.
Activities like onboard lectures from scientists and experts and expedition landings are also wrapped into the initial fee as well as the gear you’ll need for said landings (think boots and a windproof jacket) — but that’s about where it ends. Depending on your travel package you’ll likely have to pay extra for the following:
Expedition activities: Although expedition landings and zodiac transportation is built into the initial cost of the trip, optional activities cost extra on most boats. Activities like kayaking, snowshoeing and overnight camping will run you anywhere from $50 for snowshoeing to $600 and up for overnight camping. Spa treatments will also cost extra, although most ships have hot tubs for passenger use.
Cocktails and aperitifs: Beer and wine will likely be included with dinner but you should expect to pay extra if you’d prefer an after-dinner nightcap or afternoon mimosas. Consider purchasing a drink package if you’re planning to indulge (most cruises offer drink packages for about $50 per person per day).
Flights to and from the starting point: Chartered flights that bring you to the cruise port tend to be included in the initial cost (most cruising options sail from Ushuaia, Argentina with chartered flights from Buenos Aires) but you’ll be expected to cover the cost of flying from your hometown to the chartered flight location.
Travel insurance: Most cruise companies will require passengers to purchase their own travel insurance to cover incidentals that might occur onboard. It’s recommended to purchase an insurance package that includes medical evacuation as there’s very limited medical care on board and cruising back to civilization isn’t exactly a feasible option for medical emergencies.
What to Expect
The sights and sounds of Antarctica are unlike anything else on earth; it’s not uncommon for even the most hardened travelers to experience a newfound sense of wonder and appreciation while taking in the grandeur and beauty of the untouched landscape. You’d likely be perfectly content to watch the landscape for the entirety of your journey but there’s going to be plenty to see and do while exploring the White Continent. Here are some highlights you can expect to experience on most expedition trips:
Whales, penguins, and seals: The best part of traveling to Antarctica is arguably the abundance of wildlife. Whales and seals are the most abundant in January and February while thousands of gentoo and chinstrap penguin colonies are easy to spot all year-round (although breeding tends to take place in December and January).
Icebergs and glaciers: The landscape in Antarctica is otherworldly; watching icebergs float by while sailing through the peninsula will probably be one of your most memorable experiences. The abundance of glaciers and icebergs dotted along the Antarctic Peninsula shapeshift and change each season which means no two experiences in Antarctica will be the same.
Lectures and science-focused experiences: The time onboard while sailing through the Drake Passage can be long, but most expedition cruises fill the time with lectures and science-focused experiences led by professionals in their fields. Expect multiple optional lectures throughout the day as well as engaging activities like photography tutorials and live music performances.
Zodiac cruising and expedition landings: The weather changes in an instant in Antarctica, but depending on the cruise line you can expect zodiac sailing and landing experiences almost every day. The majority of expedition landings will last about an hour but sometimes expedition leaders will cut the trip short or extend the landing based on the weather conditions.
Snow sports and activities: Most cruise lines and fly-in expeditions will include a variety of optional snow sports and activities that range from kayaking, snowshoeing, hiking, camping, whale-watching and even submarine touring.
What Will The Weather Be Like?
Looking up the average temperatures in Antarctica can scare even the most hardened of expedition travelers. Temperatures at the South Pole can dip as low as -45°F in the summer months whereas the Antarctic Peninsula is no colder than New York or Boston. Temperatures on the peninsula (the only place cruise ships sail) are a balmy 33 to 36°F in the summertime.
The wind and precipitation in the summer months are slightly more temperate than in the winter time, especially in January and February, but early-season cruises in November and December can still see rapid changes in snowfall, rain and wind which can often cause itinerary changes and pivots.
What to Pack
Most tourism companies suggest packing cold-weather clothing such as wool socks, scarves or neck gaiters, layering heat-tech clothing, snow pants and a good beanie, but I found there were a handful of items that I wished I packed, as well as stand-out items that I was so grateful to have on hand. Here are some less-obvious packing essentials that’ll make your experience that much better:
- Mirrorless or DSLR camera: Yes — if you’ve been on the fence about investing in a decent camera there’s no better time than before a trip to Antarctica. The wildlife and breathtaking scenery are abundant and a smartphone camera will simply not do it justice.
- Binoculars: It might seem nerdy or unnecessary but you’ll be grateful to have a decent pair of binoculars while sailing through Antarctica; they’ll allow you to get a better look at the textured glaciers and spot whales and other wildlife from miles away.
- Antarctica guidebook: I brought the Lonely Planet guide to Antarctica and was so grateful that I did. There are times when you won’t have access to the internet (and cell service is nonexistent) but being able to read more about the specific landing points you’ll be visiting (which are determined just one day in advance) make the experience that much richer.
- Waterproof dry bag: You’ll be flying over the Antarctic waters via zodiac boat on a daily basis and it can get really wet. A waterproof dry bag is essential for keeping your tech and other essentials dry and secure during expedition landings.
- Portable humidifier: Despite its snow and ice, Antarctica is touted as one of the driest climates on earth, thus your stateroom is also going to be extremely dry. I’d seriously consider packing a portable humidifier for added comfort while onboard and sorely wish I had one while I was in Antarctica.
- Waterproof gloves: Don’t assume your leather or wool gloves will do the trick in Antarctica. The zodiac crossings tend to be a little rocky and you’re almost always going to get splashed. Waterproof gloves will ensure your hands stay warm and dry on the zodiac and while exploring the land as well.
- Ski goggles: The snow and ice juxtaposed against the sun can be seriously blinding, but wearing sunglasses on the fast-moving zodiac is a bit of a gamble as well. Ski goggles give you the visibility you need without the risk of having your glasses fly into the water.
- Moisture-wicking pants: Do not wear jeans underneath your snow pants — just don’t do it. If water or snow manages to get through your outer layer and onto your jeans you’ll run the risk of getting frostbite or hypothermia. Instead, look for moisture-wicking or quick-drying pants that won’t irritate your skin if they become wet.
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