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Dreaming of Antarctica? Here’s Everything You Need to Know About Planning a Trip

It seems everyone is going to Antarctica these days, leaving the rest of us wondering just how to plan our own trip to the White Continent.

Interest in Antarctica is booming. According to the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO), a group that advocates for safe and environmentally responsible travel to the continent, the number of passengers making landings in the region grew from 19,065 in 2011 to 55,164 between 2018 and 2019. It’s looking increasingly like the 2022-2023 season will be the first “normal” one since the beginning of the pandemic, and already it’s shaping up to be bigger than ever.

If you, too, are interested in seeing the electric blue glaciers, rollicking penguin colonies, and vast expanses of ice yourself, it’s important to know that Antarctica is not a trip that can be planned on a whim. Considering most itineraries average two weeks and staterooms don’t come cheap, it’s really a once-in-a-lifetime adventure for most and one that demands some forethought.

How do you even begin to choose? We’re here to help. Beyond the obvious considerations, like the length of journey, cost, and destinations visited, we’ll spell out other elements to ponder in your Antarctic expedition cruise, like the size of the ship, what excursions are offered (and how active they are), what sustainable practices the brand follows, and beyond.

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Consider the Length of Your Journey

However many days the cruise company says the expedition is, subtract at least four days. Those are the number of days it takes to cross the Drake Passage—two days there and two days back. On those days, it’s unlikely you’ll get off the ship. That means your seven-day trip really only includes three days ashore. For some people, that might be enough, but others may need or want more time. Current sailings range from a week to more than a month. The longer you sail, the more you can see. But that also means the longer you’re away from home. 

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Keep an Eye Out for Extra Fees

Some of the most affordable Antarctic cruises start at about $6,000 per person. At the high end, they can exceed $50,000 for a top-tier suite on a luxury ship. But there are a lot of variables between those two figures, including how long the trip is, how comfortable the rooms are, if you’re traveling alone (there may be a single supplement), and if it’s peak season. Other considerations include whether flights, Wi-Fi, alcoholic beverages, gratuities, port fees, and all shore excursions are included in the price. Before you decide, it’s important to factor in all additional costs. A budget-style vessel might end up costing the same as a mid-range ship if there are extra fees.

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Other Destinations You’ll Visit

The simple truth of Antarctic sailings is that no two itineraries are ever identical, even if it is the same provider. While companies may have a rough idea of where they will take passengers on the Antarctic Peninsula, it all depends on ice conditions and weather. That being said, if you book a trip that has other stops along the way—like the Chilean fjords, Falkland Islands, and South Georgia—you can count on visiting those destinations.  

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Keep an Eye on the Number of Passengers

The number of people on a ship can significantly affect your sailing. Only 100 guests from a ship are allowed on land at any given time due to IAATO regulations. For vessels with more than 100 guests, that results in shifts—some go ashore while the others wait onboard. That can mean less overall time onshore or less ground covered than if you were sailing with a smaller vessel. It’s also important to note if a ship has more than 500 guests, it cannot make any landings during the entire sailing.

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Shop Amenities

This ship is going to be your home for at least a week, so it’s worth choosing one that meets your needs (whatever those may be). Amenities may include multiple options for dining, a designated bar or two, a gym, a spa, a library, Wi-Fi, room service, rental gear like coats and boots, and beyond.

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Off-Ship Excursions

There are a few elements to consider for off-ship excursions. The first is if they’re even offered (as mentioned above, ships with more than 500 people can’t make shore landings, but they could feasibly do zodiac rides). Second is, how many excursions are offered per day? And third is, what are the activities, and are they appropriate for your skill and comfort levels? While zodiac rides are usually mellow and most hikes can be adapted to fitness levels, kayaking can be too much for those with mobility issues. These activities are how you’ll get up close and personal with Antarctica, so it’s essential to choose a ship with excursions within your comfort range.

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Ice Breaking Ships Have Come a Long Way

We’ve come a long way since Captain Cook and Ernest Shackleton tried to sail to Antarctica in terms of ship capability. Take the National Geographic Resolution and National Geographic Endurance, both owned by Lindblad Expeditions. The sister ships are equipped with the patented Ulstein X-Bow, a bow that allows the vessel to move more smoothly through the water (even in the infamously rough Drake Passage) and drive deeper into the ice without getting stuck. They also have thrusters that can rotate the ship in any direction and engines that breeze through the water at 16 knots (which, if you didn’t know, is fast). That all translates to a more enjoyable experience onboard and a greater likelihood of getting up close to the animals and ice you came to Antarctica to see.

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Sustainable Practices

Antarctica is arguably one of the last truly wild places in the world. Now, more than ever, it’s important to consider our environmental impact on the continent. IAATO has long imposed strict guidelines to ensure the companies that bring travelers to Antarctica are doing it responsibly. Some ships take it a step further by doing ocean clean-ups, implementing programs that cut down on food waste in the dining rooms, and using products like biodegradable soaps onboard. Many cruise companies have their practices listed on their website, making it easy to find one that best aligns with your values.

While most companies that sail to Antarctica are members of IAATO, it’s not always the case. The benefit of traveling on a ship that carries that distinction is that there are additional protocols regarding proper staffing, crew experience, proper disposal of waste materials, and training on keeping a safe distance from animals.

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Citizen Science Program

Not all ships offer citizen science programs, but if you’re hoping to gain a greater understanding of Antarctica’s landscape and its animals, it’s worth finding one that does. Simply put: the programs allow guests to assist in observing, recording, and reporting on data for professional scientists onboard. They teach you more about the study subjects, be that penguins or microplastics in glacier ice, and you aid them in doing meaningful work.

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Choosing When to Visit

The best time to visit Antarctica is between November and March, and most cruise operators know that—you’ll be hard-pressed to find a sailing outside of those months because the continent is made inaccessible by ice. Each of the available months offers something different, though. November has the largest icebergs, and elephant seals are mating. December sees 24 hours of sunlight and better access. January is marked by the arrival of penguin chicks and seal pups. February is peak whale season. And March is when you’ll see leopard seals hunting.

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Choosing a Departure Port

The vast majority of cruises to Antarctica depart from a port in South America, usually Ushuaia in Argentina, Punta Arenas in Chile, or Montevideo in Uruguay. Each generally sails to the Antarctic peninsula (sometimes with stops at the Falkland Islands and South Georgia). A small number of cruises visit the Ross Sea side of Antarctica, but those depart from Hobart in Australia or Lyttlelton or Bluff in New Zealand. The further your departure port is from the continent, the longer you’ll be at sea.

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Pre- and Post-Sailing Offerings

Depending on how much time you have, you might want to consider choosing a trip that plans excursions in the port city or the capital city of the departure country (Buenos Aires in Argentina and Santiago in Chile are popular picks). You’ll have to remember to pack a few warm-weather outfits, but it could be a nice way to extend your trip and visit a new destination.