A trip to Antarctica is one of the most grand, exhilarating and amazing adventures. Stunning scenery, peaceful landscapes, icebergs, snow, seals, a wide variety whales and of course, penguins! Sites and sounds you will not find anywhere else. Quite the powerful combination.
Before you go, though, you really need to do your research. A trip to Antarctica is a big investment, in yourself and your budget, so you really want to make sure to pick the right trip and ship for your personality, travel style and interests.
The options are many (and growing) and can be overwhelming. Following are 7 things you should consider when choosing your cruise.
Photo credit: Quark Expeditions - David Merron
One of your choices is whether you want to just see Antarctica, defined as cruise only, or if you want to step foot on the continent. A few mainstream lines include Antarctica on South America itineraries. The ships however, are usually not polar rated, so they will typically sail around the very tip of the peninsula, an area with less ice to navigate. I lovingly call these a “drive by” because it includes only scenic cruising – you will not get off the ship to set foot on the continent.
Most Antarctic cruises sail into multiple areas of the peninsula with numerous opportunities to hop on a zodiac to explore the bays, icebergs, wildlife or land on the beach and discover the area.
A third option includes taking a flight to Antarctica and meeting the ship. This option is perfect for travelers short on time and/or who want to avoid the Drake Passage crossings.
Antarctica cruises typically fall into 3 itineraries: Antarctica Highlights (10-12 days), Antarctica, the Falkland Islands and South Georgia (16-30 days) and Antarctica and Beyond (12 – 30 days).
Antarctica Highlights focuses on the Antarctic peninsula, its staggering beauty and abundant wildlife, including whales, seals and penguins with a or several stops in the South Shetland Islands.
Another popular itinerary includes the Falkland Islands and South Georgia in addition to the peninsula. The Falklands have a fascinating history, is home to about 2900 residents and 5 different penguin species along with dolphins and birds. South Georgia has no full time residents and is well known for its massive king penguin colonies (millions), 50 million seabirds and 5 million seals. Sir Ernest Shackleton, the British explorer, is buried here.
Less common itineraries include routes that cross the Polar Circle, the Ross Sea (typically a route from New Zealand or Australia) and Weddell Sea, known for its huge floating sheets of ice.
The shorter cruises typically sail from/to Ushuaia, Argentina, flight cruises from Punta Arenas. The longer cruises generally have you embarking in Buenos Aires.
Photo credit:(1) Quark Expeditions (2) Lindblad Expeditions (3) Quark Expeditions - David Merron (4) Quark Expeditions - Acacia Johnson
An Antarctic adventure is meant to be active, meant to have up close and personal experiences. You should have the ability to get in/out of a zodiac, maneuver uneven ground, walk, hike, climb, and if so inclined, kayak, ski, snow-shoe or brave the polar plunge. Otherwise you will be admiring the continent from a picture window or the deck of the ship. You need to ask yourself what types of experiences will be satisfactory.
NUMBER OF PASSENGERS ONBOARD
Size matters. The number of passengers onboard ship makes a big difference. Only ships with 499 or fewer passengers are allowed to make landings in Antarctica, and only 100 guests can go ashore at any given time. It goes without saying, the fewer the guests, the more landings each person will have access to during the entire voyage. This doesn’t mean guests can’t get off the ship – they can, for example go on a zodiac or kayaking tour, but the more guests, the fewer opportunities off the ship.
Ships typically range from 100 up to 499 passengers. Larger ships, especially those over 200 guests, often only provide one landing per day. The experience on board becomes important given you are spending more time on the ship.
Photo credit: (1) Scenic Cruise (2) Hurtigruten
SHIP TYPE AND SIZE
Though a few basic expedition ships remain, most ships you will be considering are quite modern, very comfortable and should be polar-class vessels with high ice ratings. In recent years, a good number of luxury ships have been introduced as well - all the creature comforts of home and then some, along with 5-star dining and even butler service. These luxury ships also have an array of “toys”, including helicopters and submarines.
Keep in mind – the smaller the ship, the more you will “feel” rough waters. If movement is a problem for you, take a look at some of the larger ships. While they may carry greater than 500 passengers, they will limit the number to under 499 when sailing in Antarctica.
Additional things to consider: Polar experience (company, captain and crew), onboard safety equipment, quality of the expedition staff, onboard lectures and programs, family/children programs (a trip to Antarctica can be an incredible trip for curious and adventurous children).
WHEN TO GO
The Antarctic season is during the Austral Summer, between November and March.
The best time to go? The good news is anytime is a great time. No matter when you go there will wildlife encounters and beautiful scenery. There are differences though between early, mid and late season.
Early season – November: The region still has a lot of snow and icebergs, giving captains the ability to “park the ship in ice”, penguins are coming on shore to start mating and are building their nests.
Mid-season – December and January: Peak season, warmest months, days are at their longest penguin chicks are hatching and adults are returning to feed the chicks, wide range of whales, playful fur and leopard seal pups.
Late season – February and March: Sea ice has drastically receded, allowing for more shore visits, wide range of whales, fur and leopard seal pups are growing, penguin chicks are molting and growing adult feathers.
Each season has its own magic.
An adventure to Antarctica is an investment. Not inexpensive any way you look at it for most travelers. Luxury ships will be on the higher end of the budgets, offering a good number of added amenities and upscale dining venues. Premium/deluxe brands offer great experiences as well but may not have all the extra amenities.
Additional activities like camping, kayaking submarine and heli-flightseeing will add to the total budget.
Sailings at the beginning and end of the season will be less expensive, and these are ones I’ve most often seen promotions on, including solo traveler waivers. Speaking of solo travelers, if you don’t mind sharing a cabin, several lines have shared cabin opportunities (twin, triple and quads, same sex).
An Antarctic trip is an adventures of a life-time and one of the most exciting journeys you can take, but requires an understanding to select wisely. For more information about Antarctica and your options, it would be my pleasure to assist you.
Call or contact Laurie@lakamatravel.com to get started.
Laurie Marschall - Owner and Founder