Antarctica is a place of extremes: It’s not only the southernmost continent, but also the coldest, driest, and windiest. A trip to Antarctica isn’t a vacation so much as an expedition, an exciting journey into a wild and inhospitable land -- and it can only be done via ship. An Antarctic cruise is a bucket-list experience for many and the cost and distance required make it a once-in-a-lifetime one as well. To ensure you have the experience you want, here are five things you should know before you book an Antarctica cruise.
1. This is not a one-week trip.
A trip to Antarctica is not only an investment in money, it’s a serious investment in time to travel to the southern end of the earth. If you’re going to go all that way, you’ll want to save up some extra vacation days so you can make the most of it.
It takes about 48 hours to sail from Ushuaia, Argentina to the edge of Antarctica, and most cruises offer seven to 10 days on the continent. Add in travel time to and from Ushuaia (nicknamed the “End of the World”), you’ll need at least 14-18 days. If you’re short on time, you can skip the boat journey across the Drake Passage and opt for a fly-in cruise instead, which will maximize your time on the continent.
2. Your ship will be your home, so choose wisely.
Most ships offer two land excursions per day, with each one lasting one to two hours. The rest of your time in Antarctica will be spent on the boat, and thankfully most cruise lines make that time very comfortable. However, not all lines and ships offer the same amenities. For example, Silversea cruises offers all-suite accommodations with butler service, and WiFi and all drinks are included. For roughly the same price, Abercrombie and Kent cruises also include gratuities and in-room dining. Hurtigruten cruises cost a bit less, but WiFi and all drinks (even soda) costs extra. Most, but not all, ships have on-board saunas, Jacuzzis, and fitness centers; some also have spas and specialty restaurants. On some ships hotel-like suites are the norm, while on others the utilitarian cabins feature twin bunks. It’s wise to make a list of what features are most important so you can compare prices based on the amenities you most care about.
3. It might not be as expensive as you think.
A trip to Antarctica isn’t cheap, but with a bit of flexibility, you can pull it off for less than you might expect. Cruises on the lower end of the budget spectrum range from $6,000 to $9,000 per person for a two-week trip, not including airfare (but remember, they often charge for extras like drinks, WiFi, and excursions like kayaking and camping; more expensive cruises sometimes include those in the fare). However, at the beginning and end of the season, you can often snag a deal, and if you can be flexible and book once you arrive in Ushuaia, you can save even more on a cut-rate, last-minute deal on a ship with unsold cabins.
4. You don’t need to buy that much gear.
Antarctica is 98 percent ice; it’s cold there. However, cruises visit during the continent’s summer, and on most days that means a temperature between 30 and 35 degree fahrenheit. That’s not even as cold as winter in Chicago, so leave the massive sub-zero parka at home. Most ships provide passengers with a warm waterproof jacket, that when layered over a baselayer and fleece, is more than enough to keep you toasty for most days (of course, if you’re coming from Florida or have a low cold tolerance, you might prefer a warmer coat). Most ships also provide knee-high waterproof muck boots, necessary for keeping your feet dry when climbing in and out of zodiacs on shore.
The bottom line is that you don’t need to spend hundreds of dollars on gear. A thick pair of long underwear, warm fleece, waterproof pants, wool socks, warm hat, and waterproof gloves will cover just about any conditions you encounter.
5. Every day will be an adventure.
Modern cruise ships may make the journey to Antarctica much more comfortable than it was in Ernest Shackleton’s day, but it’s still an adventure to a wild, unsettled place. While the ship’s captain may have a plan for the day, everything is dependent on the weather and the ice, which means plans can change quickly. You have to deal with a fair bit of uncertainty, but that’s part of the thrill and the changeable nature of the schedule makes it feel like even more of an adventure.