Trip to Antarctica
Have you dreamt of traveling to Antarctica, but aren’t sure of the logistics? Antarctica is beautiful and unique, but it can be a challenge to get there. Here’s everything you need to know about how to take a trip to Antarctica.
What You Need to Know
The Antarctic tour season is restricted by weather and the sun, so tours take place during the Antarctic summer and spring, which run from about late November to late March. Tours (and all other activity on Antarctica) are regulated by the Antarctic Treaty. The vast majority of Antarctic tour companies are registered with International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO), whose mission is to “advocate, promote and practice safe and environmentally responsible travel to Antarctica”.
There are two major types of tours you can take — those that make landings on Antarctica, and those that don’t.
If You Just Want to See Antarctica
The simplest way to see Antarctica (outside of video) is by doing a flyover. Some companies offer flights departing from Australia that literally just fly over portions of the Antarctica without landing on it. If you take a tour like that, you’ll have spent about 4 hours seeing the continent from the windows of the plane, but won’t set foot on it or see any wildlife that doesn’t look like specks. That type of tour may work well for folks without a lot of time, or those who are well enough to travel but not well enough to be away from easy access to emergency medical facilities for potentially days at a time.
You can also travel to Antarctica on large cruise ships, and see it and probably some wildlife from the deck of the ship. Large ships are not allowed to make landings because they carry more than 500 passengers. Because of their size, these ships won’t be able to get as close, but you may be more comfortable on them for that same reason.
If You Want to Land on Antarctica
If you actually want to set foot on Antarctica, there are two major ways to do so: by a combination fly/cruise, or by sea on a ship or yacht that carries between 13-500 passengers.
The fly/cruise option
The lesser-known way to travel to Antarctica is to do a combination flight + cruise. These fly/cruise tours generally leave from Punta Arenas, Chile or Ushuaia, Argentina. With some tours, you cruise all the way there (crossing the Drake) and partway back — returning via ship to the South Shetland Islands. You then board a plane and return to your port of departure.
With tours, such as Antarctica XXI, you fly both to and from King George Island in the South Shetland Islands (skipping the Drake entirely) and then cruise along the Antarctic Peninsula — disembarking via Zodiac each day to land. That’s the type of trip I’ll be taking later this year. Antarctica XXI had exactly what I was looking for: the ability to skip the unpredictable Drake passage, plus plenty of landings on Antarctica itself, and travel times that fit my schedule.
Cruising is by far the most common way to take a trip to Antarctica. You can go on ships of a variety of sizes and comfort levels. Be aware that because only 100 people can go ashore at one time, you’ll be likelier to spend more time ashore if you choose a ship that carries fewer passengers.
Cruises to Antarctica typically leave from Punta Arenas, Chile; Ushuaia, Argentina; Bluff, New Zealand; or Hobart, Australia. Cruises may last anywhere from as little as 5 days to more than 30 days. Of those days, a good portion may be spent in transit sailing to and from Antarctica — especially from the further ports of departure.
When cruising, you’ll cross the infamous Drake Passage — one of the roughest crossings in the world. Despite its notoriety, you might luck out and the 550-650 mile crossing could be calm. (You’re dealing with Mother Nature, so you never know what you might get.) Needless to say, it’s a good idea to take seasick prevention measures.
What to Expect
Since there are no hotels or restaurants on Antarctica, you’ll almost certainly be doing your sleeping, eating, and drinking on board your ship. (However, it is possible to camp on Antarctica if you book that type of tour.) Companies will generally have shipboard educational programs or speakers to keep you informed, and will likely have Internet access if you need to keep in touch with home. Depending on the tour you are with, you may be able to add activities like mountaineering, skiing, snowboarding, SCUBA diving, snowshoeing, or kayaking.
You can expect to see a variety of wildlife (most likely seabirds, penguins, and seals) and some breathtaking scenery. Bring your camera and plenty of memory cards and batteries (batteries wear out much faster in the cold) plus a waterproof bag to store them in while not in use. Your tour company will have a list of clothing suggestions and important things to bring.
Common landings include Hope Bay, Paradise Bay, and Deception Island, although itineraries will vary and may change. No matter how you plan your trip to Antarctica, it’s smart to have a flexible outlook since weather could play a large factor. Good tour companies put the safety of their passengers first, which means they have contingency plans in case of bad weather. (For example, Antarctica XXI has an entire alternate itinerary in place, in case we are delayed. We’d still see penguins and other wildlife, and would be refunded a portion of the costs.)
You should absolutely make sure to get evacuation insurance when booking your trip, since costs for evacuation from Antarctica can be extremely high. You’ll want to be covered if there are any injuries or other issues far from home. Not only is emergency medical and evacuation/repatriation insurance highly recommended, it may also be required by your tour company. Trip cancellation and trip interruption insurance is also a good idea.
Of course, in addition to the trip to Antarctica itself, you’ll also need to plan on getting to and from the departure port. This means that (depending on your citizenship and where you’ll be landing prior to departure for Antarctica) you may need visas or have to pay additional fees. For example, my flight will be landing in Chile prior to departure for Antarctica, and so according to the Embassy of Chile, as a US citizen I’ll need to pay a $160 reciprocity fee.
It can be challenging to get there, but Antarctica is definitely worth the trip. There truly is nothing else like it.
photo credit: Photo used with permission, Antarctica XXI, © Buo Zhang