We just returned from our epic Antarctica trip last month. It was costly and required three weeks of leave from work, a heavy investment in time and money.
Therefore, we spent a few weeks researching, comparing, and evaluating different options to ensure we picked the right tour.
This article is a collection of all the common questions before visiting Antarctica. The answers are based on our first-hand experience.
Please read before you embark on your Antarctic cruise.
1. Why should you visit Antarctica?
Travel to Antarctica touches on something that resonates within us, our desire to get to the end of the world, to follow the footsteps of famous explorers before us, to set our eyes on the landscape that few people have seen, to share the snow beach with the charismatic penguins, elephant and fur seals, to be enchanted by the magical moment of the Antarctic sunset, and to tick off one more item from our bucket list.
You would expect spectacular sceneries and unique wildlife only found in Antarctica: penguins, whales, massive tabular icebergs, hanging glaciers, and volcano mountains.
You will bring back nothing but memories and images that you will carry for the rest of your life.
2. How much does it cost to visit Antarctica?
Your Antarctica trip is one of the most expensive trips by any standard.
The cost for our Antarctica cruise is about USD 13000 per person. We joined the cruise by Ponant, a French company with a fleet of luxurious cruises. The journey took eleven days, excluding the traveling expenses from our home country. We took a double room with a balcony which is more costly than the shared rooms with only a widow.
As such, you also need to consider your flights and hotels from your home country because the expedition cruise will depart from Ushuaia and Punta Arenas, Argentina.
The destination is the Antarctic Peninsula, excluding Falkland and South Georgia Island. You need to pay more for the longer itinerary to include these places.
That said, there are other cheaper options if boarding a luxurious cruise is not in your plan. The cost we mentioned above is the upper end of most cruises.
3. How to choose the best Antarctica cruise?
Here are the critical things to consider, apart from the cost and itinerary.
- A small ship is better. One of the most important criteria is the size of the ship. A smaller ship can get closer, therefore, have more choices of landing sites. According to the regulation, one hundred people or less are allowed to disembark at a landing site each time. That means the expeditors of a large cruise ship must divide the passengers into many small groups and rotate the groups to get a fair chance to land. Indeed, this is not a desirable option.
- The cruise with a large observation deck with panoramic views is a plus point. You will expect to see flocks of seabirds, penguins jumping out of the sea, and whales slapping their tales. You will lose sighting opportunities if there is no observation deck with a good view. A cabin with a balcony is a huge advantage.
- Leisure facilities. We spent eleven days on our expedition cruise, with plenty of spare time between the expedition trips. Since Ponant is one of the luxurious cruise lines, it has all the facilities of a five-star hotel, with two bars/lounges and two restaurants. Other facilities include a gym, library, sauna, hammam, and souvenir shop. There were also performances and lectures at the theater daily. You can check out what is available on your chosen cruise.
- Cabin. Some cabins have balconies, while others only have small windows. Also, consider whether you need an ensuite bathroom or are okay with a shared room. All these factors affect the cost of your trip.
- The activities provided. The cruise selection also depends on what kind of activities you want to join. For example, some ships may provide kayaking and the polar plunge. Some expedition programs even include overnight camping!
4. What is the best time to visit Antarctica?
Most Antarctica cruises operate during the summer months from late October to February. During this period, the temperature hovered at zero degrees, with long daylight hours. The warmest month is January. Other months are not suitable because it is freezing, and the sea is covered by sea ice, which makes it inaccessible to many locations. During this period, most people come here to carry out scientific research.
You will expect to see different animals in different months. The diagram above is a helpful guide.
5. What is the most convenient way to visit Antarctica?
For the average tourists who are not scientists or researchers, the easiest way is to embark on an expedition cruise at Ushuaia of Argentina, where most of the Antarctic voyage departs.
There are no direct international flights to Ushuaia. Instead, you have to fly to Buenos Aires, then take the internal flight for about 3 1/2 hours to reach Ushuaia.
You will embark on your cruise at the port of Ushuaia and sail through the Drake passage for two days before reaching the Antarctic Peninsula.
Since there are no direct flights from Malaysia (where we live) to Ushuaia, and some flights are unavailable daily, we have to get a day before the cruise’s departure date. So we took the domestic flight from Buenos Aries to Ushuaia at the tip of South America, then embarked on our ship at the departure port at Ushuaia.
Since the arrangement for the Antarctica trip was complicated, getting your local tour agent to coordinate the trip’s nitty-gritty is best. So we engaged Sedunia Travel to make all the arrangements for us.
6. What is the ideal packing list for an Antarctica expedition?
The temperature during summer on Antarctic Peninsula is about two °C to 6°C during our visit in early December.
The most important thing to bring is a pair of waterproof pants because you will get wet when you disembark the Zodiac.
Other essential items for the Antarctica trip include sunglass, sunscreen, lip balm, and your camera. In addition, please confirm with your cruise whether they will provide the windproof and waterproof parka, which is essential for landing.
We have written an in-depth Antarctica expedition packing list. You can read that article and download the packing list here.
7. Is traveling insurance necessary in Antarctica?
We contacted a few travel insurance companies before our trip. Eventually, we bought international traveling insurance, which covers all the countries we stopped by during our journey from Malaysia to Ushuaia, Argentina.
Unfortunately, none of the policies cover Antarctica. The likely reason is that it’s a place that does not belong to any country.
Therefore, We strongly advise being extra cautious during your Antarctica trip. Antarctica is remote, too remote to have any medical assistance except your doctor on board. The worst thing you do not want is to have a medical evacuation, meaning the ship has to head back to Ushuaia if an emergency return is necessary.
8. What is the typical itinerary for an Antarctica expedition?
The classic Antarctica cruise will visit the Antarctic Peninsula. Our Antarctica trip only involved the Antarctic Peninsula, which took us eleven days to complete.
After crossing the Drake passage, we visited places near the South Shetland Islands and proceeded to the Antarctica peninsula. Most of the expedition cruises will land at locations near King George Island. Our first landing site was Penguin Island, just next to it.
The best mindset is to be aware that this is not a typical cruise but an expedition. Be prepared for anything unplanned. Nature dictates everything here, not us. The actual landing sites may differ from the planned itinerary, as the weather and the sea’s condition is always dynamic in this environment. For example, our captain announced that too much ice in the sea prevented him from getting close to Portal Point. Therefore our expedition leaders had to make alternate plans to visit the caves near the Spert Islands. Overall, we were fortunate that the weather was good, and could land at most of the planned locations.
The longer itinerary includes subantarctic islands such as South Georgia and the Falkland Islands. This option will allow you to see the sub-Antarctic landscape and a wide variety of wildlife, including king penguins.
9. What do you expect when the ship crosses the infamous Drake Passage?
You might have heard about the story of the Drake passage. Drake passage is a 600 nautical mile waterway from Ushuaia, the southernmost city of Argentina, to Peninsula Antarctica.
It is one of the most treacherous seas in the world, with waves ranging from three to four meters high. Most modern Antarctica cruise ships have advanced mechanisms to stabilize the ship, making your journey more comfortable. However, many passengers still got seasick while crossing the Drake Passage.
Here are some tips to make you feel comfortable:
- Take seasick medicine. Dramamine (dimenhydrinate) pill and seasick transdermal patch (Scopolamine) are the most common one. Please take it at least six hours before crossing the Drake Passage.
- Book the cabin near the center of the ship. You will experience fewer rolls and shakes while the ship is crossing the rough sea.
- Eat some nausea-reducing food. The restaurant staff suggested we take green apples and ginger juice.
- Avoid looking at the shaky stuff near you. Instead, keep your eye on the horizon instead of looking at something close to you.
The Antarctic water is relatively calm after crossing the Drake Passage, and seasick medicine is unnecessary once you reach there.
10. What to wear on the Antarctica expedition cruise?
Our expedition cruise, Le Lyrial, is fully air-conditioned. A collared shirt or any smart casual attire is fine for most occasions. Nevertheless, bring your jacket and camera wherever you are on the cruise. You will not know when a whale slaps its tail near your ship, and a gigantic iceberg floats by. It is too cold to take photos on the deck without a jacket.
We also bought formal wear to attend a gala dinner with the Captain. Please check with your cruise if it is necessary.
11. What do we expect to see during the Antarctica trip?
The scenery in Antarctica is jaw-dropping. You will be greeted with snowy beaches, volcanic mountains, spectacular icebergs, and massive glaciers.
You will see the penguins hatching their eggs and squawking, chicks chirping, seals belching and growling, and humpback whales slapping their tails.
You will also see the elephant seals fighting, the skuas stealing the penguin eggs, and many seabirds circling above you.
If you visit the Antarctic Peninsula, you will meet the Gentoo, Chinstrap, and Adélie penguins. However, you are unlikely to see Emperor Penguins unless your Antarctica trip includes the Weddell Sea.
Here is the link to our blog post about our itinerary for all our landing and the Zodiac cruises.
12. Can I get close to the wildlife?
The International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO) has issued some guidelines while watching wildlife in Antarctica.
- The suggested minimum distances from seals ashore are 5 meters (15 feet).
- Keep a minimum distance from jousting elephant seals of 25 meters (75 feet).
- Never approach the penguins closer than 5 meters (15 feet).
- Do not walk on moss and lichens. They grow very slowly, and you will destroy them if you do so.
You must not walk on the penguin highways as the penguins create the trails to walk to the nesting grounds. Also, always give way to the penguin if they are in front of you,
13. What can I bring back from Antarctica?
You can bring back nothing except memories, photos, and videos.
It is strictly not to remove any rocks, bones, eggs, plants, or man-made artifacts from Antarctica. When you return to the ship after the shore expedition, you must scrub your boots with a brush to remove any soil that might bring back from Antarctica.
On the other hand, strict biosecurity procedures are necessary to prevent any non-native species from being introduced to Antarctica. Therefore, the expedition team will ensure all the clothes and bags are free from any foreign matter, especially the velcro fastenings. They will also check your boots, tripods, and walking sticks to ensure they are thoroughly clean.
14. Where is Antarctica located?
Antarctica is a cold, remote area in the southern hemisphere. Situated almost entirely South of the Antarctic circle, it is also the fifth-largest continent in the world. It is also the coldest, driest, and windiest of all the continents.
15. Who discovered Antarctica?
According to Wikipedia, the first confirmed sighting of Antarctica was on the 27th of January 1820. After that, the Russian expedition discovered it.
The first landing onto the Antarctica mainland is thought to be the American captain John Davis who claimed to have set foot on the white continent on the 7th of February 1821.