Choosing an Antarctica itinerary can be overwhelming: it’s usually a once-in-a-lifetime trip, so you want to make the best decision possible – but what factors should you consider? We’ve used our experience to compile the Top 7:
There are dozens and dozens of Antarctica trips available – but once you’ve seen a few of them, a pattern starts to emerge. Almost all of them depart from either Ushuaia or Punta Arenas – and they fall into three categories: a) trips that go to the Antarctic Peninsula b) trips that go to the Antarctic Peninsula Plus at least one other destination – and c) Special Departures. The last category includes the few itineraries that fall outside of the other two.
Antarctic Peninsula Trips
These are the shortest, most basic, and easily the most popular choice. Itineraries focus on spending time exploring the peninsula itself, allowing for landings on the continent and excellent wildlife viewing in a compact timeframe.
Antarctic Peninsula trips are also more readily available and affordable than other itineraries; almost every operator has some version on offer – ranging from scientific icebreakers to intimate yachts or luxury ships. In some cases you can even choose from Cruise Only or Fly and Cruise options.
Peninsula Plus Trips
Other variations on the basic itinerary include the Antarctic Peninsula plus a journey around the stunning Chilean fjords or the wild coast of Argentina – or sometimes an operator will offer only one of South Georgia or the Falklands in addition to the Peninsula trip. Without question though, the combination of Antarctica, South Georgia and the Falklands is by far the most popular (and with good reason).
These itineraries include just about everything else: specialty photography trips or journeys to commemorate a special historic voyage such as the Shackleton trip. There might be a departure aiming to reach a difficult-to-get-to place such as the Weddell Sea or below the Antarctic Circle. Almost all of these are one-offs, and they offer a rich variety of experiences beyond the norm.
Sure, Antarctica is pricey – it’s a long way away and there aren’t any cheap hotels or Air B&B’s – but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to go on a budget. If you’re totally flexible and adventurous, you can fly to Ushuaia or Punta Arenas during the Antarctic season (November to March or April) and wait for a last-minute deal. They do sometimes crop up, and if you’re lucky you can get there for a sweet price.
For most of us, that isn’t an option. Luckily, lots of operators offer early booking deals in the fall, before the start of “the season”. These can include airfare rebates or cabin discounts, or even free pre- or post-hotel stays. It’s best to ask when you’re booking, because they come and go quickly and not all offers are even advertised.
If you miss the early booking deals, don’t worry. During the season itself there can still be great prices available, without going to the tip of South America to wait. There are many reasons why discounts are offered, but one big factor is group bookings. As groups book and cancel, pricing and availability fluctuate – so if you’re lucky you could benefit, or you could be forced to look at other dates if you don’t book early enough.
Since trips to Antarctica really do depart almost every day between November and March or April, this part depends on your schedule. Just like safaris in warmer climates, different times of year are great for different reasons: if you go in the early part of the season, you might see baby penguins – but later departures offer penguins plus the chance to see Southern right whales as they feed off the rich Antarctic waters. It’s all going to be amazing, just start thinking about what your main interests are and when you can get away.
However – if you are struggling to fit this trip into your vacation allowance, it’s important to note that not all itineraries are created equal! Some operators consider Day 1 to be the day you depart from North America – others start Day 1 on the day you embark the ship in Ushuaia or Punta Arenas. This can make a pretty big difference.
The type of vessel you travel on will have a big impact on the type of experience you have. Most Antarctica operators use small to mid-sized expedition ships, ranging in capacity from about 100 to 200 passengers – any more than that makes getting on shore difficult: Antarctic regulations dictate that no more than 100 people can be on land at any given time. At a minimum all of these vessels are classified to have ice-strengthened hulls – some are bona fide icebreakers.
There are also a growing number of operators offering small, boutique-style departures with 30 or fewer passengers on expedition style yachts. While at a considerably higher price tag, these customized journeys allow greater flexibility, intimacy and opportunity to view wildlife. Private charters are also available of course – offering the ultimate in choice!
5. INCLUSIONS AND OPTIONAL ACTIVITIES
Beyond the cruise itself, meals onboard, shore excursions and expert expedition leaders, what’s included for the price you pay will vary enormously by operator. Inclusions could be a cozy winterized parka, pre-or post hotel nights, the services of a personal butler, alcoholic beverages or speciality coffees; some operators give you the chance to participate in scientific research, and others include boots to borrow while on your trip. There are many options.
Another big differentiator between ships, trips and operators is available activities. Depending on your interests, you could easily find yourself kayaking or camping overnight on the continent itself – snowshoeing, SUPing, hiking or mountaineering are also options. Most of these are extra and must be pre-booked – only one or two operators include activities such as kayaking or yoga and wellness classes at no additional charge.
6. GETTING THERE
Not only is the Antarctic Peninsula quite a long way from the tip of South America, it also happens to be across one of the notoriously rough bodies of water in the world; The Drake Passage. Until recently, the only way to get across was via ship – but now, with some operators, you can choose to fly one or both ways across.
Potential seasickness aside, meeting your expedition ship in Antarctica can save time, money and even the environment. Compared to a multi-day journey in a large vessel, a short (3-4 hour) flight requires significantly less fuel and produces less waste. So you can even feel smug!
7. OPERATOR REPUTATION
The tour operator you use can make a huge difference to the type of trip you have. Some operators are deeply invested in the continent, having specialized in Antarctica for years – these companies and have a stellar history of environmental protection and support; they obey International Association of Antarctic Tour Operator (IAATO) regulations and are proactive in their approach to low-impact travel.
Others have added Antarctica on to their existing South America itineraries, offering only the shortest glimpse of the white continent – and little or no opportunity to disembark at all. These operators are known for their party-type atmosphere on-board, and include extras like nightly shows or casinos. And while that might be your thing, it’s important to know what you’re getting into ahead of time instead of being disappointed when you get there.
Antarctica is a pretty magical place – and although tourism is increasing every year, it is still one of the last great wildernesses left on this planet. If you’re planning a trip, it’s a wise idea to contact an expert to get the best advice.