I am one of the fairly small number of travelers who has been fortunate enough take a tour to Antarctica. Unlike for others, it hasn’t been a specific goal of mine for a very long time. Rather, as I started contemplating my lengthy travels in Central and South America, I started hearing about Ushuaia, the “end of the world.” Then I started to hear that Ushuaia is the embarkation point for most tours to the Antarctic peninsula and I started to realize that, yes indeed, that is something I wanted to do. Nearly two years after those first thoughts I realized this travel dream aboard the Marina Svetaeva, a Russian ship capable of carrying roughly 90 passengers.
As someone who isn’t that great with planning, you can imagine that in my early days my hoped-to-be Antarctic excursion was just sort of a hazy idea. As backpackers tend to be on a pretty limited a budget, I didn’t actually meet many people who had done the trip so getting first-hand information was hard. And, the idea of doing research so early on seemed too much for my planning laziness. Still, I did imagine it is expensive and that there is a limited season involved, so I did enough research to learn that season is roughly mid-November to mid-March and last-minute prices hover in the $3000-4000 range. Thus, when I set foot on South American land my Antarctica goal started seeming more real and I started considering my other travels in light of a need to reach Ushuaia before the end of the season in March and the need to have the money required. I don’t expect much sympathy here, but trying to decide what to visit and for how long, and what small luxuries to skip is not always straightforward when your planning horizon is roughly nine months. The big fear is becoming like your schoolboy self when faced with writing a paper and waiting until the last second. I didn’t want to enjoy Colombia, Ecuador and Peru so much, for example, that I was left with insufficient time to enjoy Bolivia, Chile and/or parts of Argentina.
In the end, I found myself arriving from Puerto Natales in Chile to Ushuaia on February 28th, 2011. It turns out that was enough time as several trips were still available in March, though it seems quite a few had left that weekend so perhaps arriving a few days earlier might have been even better in terms of options and waiting. Ultimately, I was left to decide amongst four trips, with prices ranging between roughly $3500 and $4000 for each.
- The option on March 4th, aboard roughly 90 passenger M/V Plancius, would have meant less waiting but it wasn’t doing a traditional trip, instead visiting some historical explorer sites. It actually sounded quite good, but one honest travel agent I spoke with told me that there had been reports of heavy ice which meant the “special” aspect of the trip would likely end up impossible to do. The cost would have been $3895, I presume for a shared quadruple but I never bothered to check this.
- The March 15th option originally was my top choice, even though it would mean being in Ushuaia for quite a long stay. That tour, also aboard the Plancius, was an extra day (12 instead of 11 typical of the classic route) and passed below the polar circle, which I thought would be pretty exciting. It cost $3075 for a shared quadruple, plus a 4% surcharge for using a credit card, which seems pretty silly to me. It also didn’t include a parka which would mean purchasing or renting one somewhere.
- The classic route option for March 10th aboard the Antarctic Dream sounded the most comfortable with a nicely appointed double cabin, but was also the most expensive ($3995) and, regardless, sold the last spot while I was waiting to speak with a travel agent.
- A March 8th option was another classic route that included a free night of camping and a $50 voucher to use for drinks and whatnot and cost $3490 for a shared triple cabin. In the end, this was the option I chose. Due to some business relations issues between the ship and One Ocean Expeditions the tour had actually been cancelled and then revived (or something like that). As a result it wasn’t full and we departed with a group of about 65 passengers representing 24 countries.
What’s Usually Included
A cruise typically includes just about everything except drinks (other than coffee, tea, and water) and a end-of-trip tip for the staff. On my cruise all tips were shared amongst all crew members but I don’t know if that is standard practice or not. I believe for budgeting purposes, US$100 is a reasonable tip for a discounted cruise option.
As for clothing, all cruises include rubber boots but some also include good parkas and water-proof pants while others don’t. With some cruises that include a parka you can take it home with you and with other cruises, like the one I took, it is just to be used during the cruise. If you do need to rent any clothes or gear, check out either Ushuaia Turismo or Ushuaia Extremo in town.
Gifts and snacks are also extra, but if the other cruises are anything like the one I took, there will be absolutely no reason for any snacks as the food provided is delicious and plentiful and even snack breaks are included!
My ship had a small gym and sauna and both were free to use but you should check if that is the case for the ship you choose.
You will need an emergency evacuation insurance policy which is probably not already included in whatever policy you have, so factor this into your expenses as well.
Finally, some cruises offer optional activities such as kayaking, ice camping, and helicopter rides. On my tour the camping option was included in the price but usually you will have to pay extra. For the record, my camping experience was very cold, but absolutely worth it.
Generally speaking, the season for Antarctica tours runs from early November to late March. For 2011-2012 the official dates are October 29 to April 3. A very common question that gets asked is when to go. Check out The Best Time To Visit for an answer, but the short version is that there is no best time. Each part of the season (beginning, middle, end) has different advantages and disadvantages. Study up on these and see which meet your personal preferences.
Researching and Planning Your Trip
- A Guide to Find Cheap Antarctica Cruises
- Antarctica Travel Forum
- Antarctica: The Last Frontier of Travel
- How to Find a Cheap Last Minute Cruise to Antarctica
- How to Travel to Antarctica
- How to Travel to Antarctica
- Planning your Antarctic dream vacation
- The White Continent or Bust – Antarctica
- Tips From the World’s End: How to make the most of an Antarctic adventure
- TravelWild Expeditions Blog
- Trip of a Lifetime: Antarctica Complete
A Note About Ship Size
There is no need to worry about the ships making these journeys, they are all up to the task. One issue that does merit consideration however, is the number of passengers that will make the voyage. I have since forgotten the exact rule, but basically the treaty governing Antarctica says that no more than a certain number of passengers can land at any given moment (around 100 I believe). Thus, the larger boats will have some issues. I was told that this is not a big deal as there are always passengers that choose not to go ashore. Um, sure. What I think really happens in these situations is that people are shuttled on and off land in shifts so that at any given time the limit isn’t being exceeded. Obviously, the more passengers the less time on land. Also, more passengers means more time required to ferry everyone in the limited number of zodiacs. I was really lucky to make the voyage with such a small group of passengers.
Travel Agencies and Tour Info
Before visiting any agencies, check out this official list of companies that run ship cruises to the white continent from Ushuaia and this list of departure dates. This will help you know what might be available when you start talking with an agency.
You basically have two options in booking a tour. You can do it online (or phone) from home quite a bit in advance or you can just show up in Ushuaia and hope for an available space on a soon-to-depart tour. Regardless, be sure to book with a company that is approved by the IAATO, an association of tour operators that promotes ethical travel.
Alicia Petiet runs Antarctic Travels and is recommended in the Lonely Planet. I didn’t know about the LP recommendation but ended up working with her as she was friends with the owners of the hostel where I stayed. Another guy I shared a cabin with also worked with her, but did everything by phone or email while he was in Toronto and he also had a very good experience. If you want to save some time and avoid investigating the various options I will list below, you could do a lot worse than starting with her. Alicia is originally from Argentina but spent much of her life in the US and now only lives in Ushuaia during the Antarctic cruise season. Overall, I found her friendly and very professional.
The following are the best websites I found, each having useful schedule and pricing information and usually more. Even if you plan to book something in Ushuaia with a local agency check out these sites to get an idea of how good a discount is on offer and what ships are leaving in your time frame.
- Adventure Life
- Antarctic Travels. Run by local Alicia Petiet (see above). Good website with tour details, schedule and pricing.
- Expedition Trips
- G Adventures (formerly GAP Adventures)
- Polar Cruises
- Quark Expeditions
- TravelWild Expeditions
- Ushuaia Turismo (Paz 865). This is one of the only local agencies that has a good website, on which you can find useful Antarctica tour information, including departure dates, prices, ship and cruise info, and current last-minute deal information.
Generally speaking you can get a better price if you book a last-minute deal in Ushuaia. Of course, just showing up and finding a good deal leaves you open to the risk of there being no space or deals at all though generally if you have time to wait that is rarely the case. Do keep in mind that Ushuaia isn’t the cheapest place to wait around so you will have to factor that into your overall cost considerations.
If you choose to work with an Ushuaia-based agency, I warn you that many don’t have websites and the sites of most that do are not very good (see above for two local agencies with good websites). Below are some local agencies that may or may not be worth checking out. Unless I write something specific about them assume I have no opinion about their quality.
- Alicia Petiet (see above)
- All Patagonia (Juana Fadul 60). Has an Antarctica page but with no useful information.
- Bajo Cerro Viajes (Rosas 172). Just a telephone number at the moment.
- Canal Fun (9 de Julio 118). Nothing at all about Antarctica on their website.
- Cecilia di Matteo (Roca 467).
- Compañia de Guias de Patagonia (San Martin 628). Another local outfit that actually has a decent website, including a listing of current last-minute offers.
- Magellania Nature Tours (Salvador Dali 2005). Nothing at all about Antarctica on their website.
- Michay Turismo (Paseo de la Plaza 2085). Nothing at all about Antarctica on their website.
- Rumbo Sur (San Martín 350) is meant to be a good travel agency and is generally praised online, though to be honest when I visited they gave me bad information and bad service. When I last checked their website it had information from 2004/2005.
- Tierra del Fuego Viajes (Roca 63)
- Tolkar Turismo (Roca 157). Another useless website.
- Tolkeyen Patagonia (San Martin 1267). Nice but useless website with no information on Antarctic cruises.
- Ushuaia Outdoors (Gob. Godoy 55). No useful information on their website.
- Ushuaia Turismo (Paz 865). See above.
If you don’t currently have travel insurance that provides emergency medical evacuation coverage you will need to get some for the voyage. Below are a few different companies providing this coverage that I heard others recommend, though I can’t personally speak to the quality or reliability of any of them.
- On Call International
A simple quote system but the price returned seemed a bit high and it didn’t provide that many configurable items to possibly lower the cost.
- World Nomads
I didn’t really like their online quote system, which doesn’t offer many choices, thus you are unable to quote without trip cancellation coverage.
Seemed, for me at least, to be the cheapest primary coverage I found.
This site will probably yield you some cheaper results, but it appears that the coverages shown are secondary not primary. Fine for saving money if you already have good primary coverage, but beware if not.
What to Bring
Some of the links above offer some packing tips and here are a couple specifically focused on what to bring:
My personal suggestions include:
- If you are deciding whether to bring seasickness pills or not, be aware that in Ushuaia the only option is Dramamine, although I read somewhere that Bonamine is better, lasts longer (24 hours) and it doesn’t cause drowsiness so it might be better to bring that from home instead. The price I paid for Dramamine in Ushuaia was AR$31 for a pack of 12. I heard ginger gum helps prevent seasickness as well.
- While it wasn’t actually as cold in Antarctica as you would imagine, as in all cold climates the extremities suffer first and most so make sure to bring a good hat and/or ear muffs. I bought a a neck gaiter in Ushuaia right before leaving and I was incredibly glad I did. Good socks of course are a must. And, a tip on gloves, bring two pairs (at least): one thin and light enough that you can use your camera while wearing them and another thicker pair to wear over the lighter pair.
- A tip I read online is to get lamb skin innersoles for your rubber boots. I didn’t do that and I was fine but I do admit my toes were a bit cold on more than one occasion.
- We didn’t have too much trouble with snow, but bringing along a good pair of ski goggles might be a good idea in case there is a lot of blowing snow.
- I thought I might have a lot of downtime but actually with all of the lectures, excursions, meals, chatting with other guests, etc. I didn’t. Still, bring a book or two to read just in case. Our ship actually had a very small, but moderately interesting library.
- You can usually rent a dry bag onboard but verify this beforehand; likewise with binoculars
- Bring some Ziploc bags and elastic bands to use your camera on the zodiacs or for rainy occasions. If you have access to an underwater camera that would be perfect for capturing the sea life you will encounter very close to the zodiacs.
I won’t try to describe how amazing the trip I took was. Instead, I will tell you about some of the aspects of the voyage that really enhanced the overall experience. This is greatly aided by the fact that at the end of the trip every passenger received a CD with various information from the staff of One Ocean Expeditions (OOE).
Ocean Notes – Keeping the Passengers Informed
One very nice thing the crew did (I presume this is standard practice) was to post daily notes. Each usually contained an interesting quote, the itinerary for the day, some kind of historical information, various tips, a review of wildlife spotted the previous day, etc. As we were sailing aboard a Russian ship with predominantly Russian crew, each note also included a Russian word-of-the-day. Check out the PDF below for a compilation of all the various notes we were provided over the course of the journey.
What We Saw
As mentioned the daily notes listed some of the previous day’s animal sightings. A separate, more detailed tracking was also maintained and a copy provided on the CD. Download it below if you are interested in knowing what can be seen on a typical cruise.
Where We Went
Below is a geographical itinerary for our voyage.
What We Learned
One of the great things about any tour to Antarctica is the chance to learn a lot about what you will see and do. As there are two days needed to cross Drake’s passage there was plenty of time to attend information sessions. We learned details about penguins, whales and other marine life, sea birds, and much more. We also saw two great documentaries: The Last Husky, which starred our staff meteorologist, and Around Cape Horn.
From Whom We Learned: The One Ocean Expedition Staff
I was very happy with the quality of the OOE staff on the ship, both personally and professionally. I imagine the staff on most cruises to Antarctica are high caliber, but if you are interested in an idea of what you can expect check out the bios below.
Sharing Photos and Videos
Finally, one excellent aspect of the trip was the sharing of favorite photos and videos. The staff set up two high resolution Mac computers in the main salon and encouraged all the passengers to put their favorite photos and videos on either of the computers. At the end of the trip a compilation slideshow was made using these images and, of course, they were available to for anyone to download at any time. Since there were some talented photographers with nice cameras amongst the passengers I was able to bring home some great shots I never could have gotten myself.
The food we had on the ship was absolutely fantastic. Every meal had two separate menus (with multiple options on each menu) to choose from and the primary chef was very talented, as were the support staff. The variety of dishes prepared was also impressive. And, all of the desserts and snacks were prepared freshly by a genuine pastry chef and were sinfully good. Likewise with the homemade bread. I warn you that taking an Antarctic cruise carries a significant risk of gaining weight.
The Captain and Ship
As I mentioned, I sailed aboard a Russian ship with Russian captain and crew so communication barriers definitely existed. Still, all the crew I interacted with were friendly and the captain made his control room available for all passengers and was usually willing to answer questions when he wasn’t busy. I have no basis for comparison, but overall I thought the ship was fine. The OOE staff seemed to be excited about switching to a much better ship (IOFFE) for the 2011-2012 season, a ship they had used previously but was unavailable for the 2010-2011 season.
A Very Cool Video
I already mentioned the CD each passenger receives at the end of the trip. This video is from an older cruise (February 2010 based on the date of the video file) but was included on the CD. I think you will agree it is pretty cool.
A Not-so-cool Video
I don’t want to scare you, but do keep in mind that you will be taking a large boat into very rough seas and it’s not inconceivable there could be problems. In fact, recently the Clelia II and Polar Star both experienced problems, with the former experiencing engine and/or stabilizer problems and the latter hitting a large rock. Here’s dramatic footage of the Clelia II in rough seas.
More Photos and Videos from Around the Web
Here are sore great Antarctic photos and videos I came across:
- Recent Scenes from Antarctica
- Photo Essay: Unreal Antarctica
- Antarctica Orcas
- The Lemaire Channel – Antarctica
- You Know You Want It: MORE Antarctica Photos
- Our Antarctica Photography Guide
- 21 Photos from Antarctica: The B-Sides
- John Greengo: Episode 006 – Antarctica Recap
- John Greengo: Episode 004 – Antarctica
- Antarctica Shoot from Matt Rutherford on Vimeo
- Antarctica Pictures
- A Rare Look at Antarctica, 1911-1914
- Amazing Antarctica in Photos
- Antarctic Ice
- Photo Essay: Unreal Antarctica
- Ice: A Photo Essay
- Photo of the Day – Antarctica ice arch
- Panorama: Antarctica Zodiac Ride in Hanusse Bay
- My Antarctica Video: 5 Things I Learned in Antarctica
- Antarctic Odyssey, Through the Eyes of a Polar Pioneer
Personal Experiences and Stories from Around the Web
Here are the stories of others who have made the voyage south that I found interesting to read and think you will also:
- Awesome Adventures – Antarctica Edition
- Departure for Antarctica in 17 Days. Or Not.
- Interacting with Penguins – Antarctica
- Icebreakers in Antarctica
- The White Continent or Bust – Antarctica
- Nerd’s Eye View ‘Antarctica’ Category
Other Useful Links Around the Web
Have you ever bought a new car and suddenly you start noticing all the others just like it on the road? That’s how it was with my trip to Antarctica. After returning I started noticing interesting related articles and links. Here are some that I came across that don’t quite fit into any of the specific topics I discussed above.
- Deep Below Antarctic Ice, Lake May Soon See Light
- Robots in Antarctica? Closer than you think!
- Hidden ecosystem discovered after huge crack forms in Antarctic glacier
- In a Changing Antarctica, Some Penguins Thrive as Others Suffer
- Chile plans to build museum in Antarctica
- Antarctic tourism drops in 2010
- Chasing leopard seals in Antarctica
- Antarctica updates, July 2011
- Antarctica cruising continues to decline
- Japan’s Tsunami Rips Icebergs Double the Size of Manhattan From Antarctica
- 6 Tips to Avoid Sea Sickness
And Finally a Few More of My Photos
Taking an Antarctic cruise is a big investment in time and money, but in my opinion, absolutely worth it. If you ever get a chance to do so, I cannot recommend the experience highly enough. It was absolutely one of the best travel experiences of my life.