An expedition to Antarctica is not a budget trip. Rather it is an investment in future memories. During your trip, you may experience breathtaking encounters with penguins, whales, and other wildlife. You will hear heroic tales of endurance, see captivating landscapes and enjoy thrilling adventure activities. You will marvel at vivid blue icebergs and gasp at untainted glaciers and snow-covered mountains. The vast emptiness of the white continent is simply mind boggling and a tonic for the soul.
However, for a first time visitor, there are many things that are useful to know before you go. This post highlights ten things to consider before you book your expedition to Antarctica. We suggest questions to ask of yourself and potential travel operators. A cruise expedition to Antarctica is a big financial commitment so you want it to meet your goals.
1. When to go to Antarctica
As Antarctica is in the Southern hemisphere, summer is between November and March. These will be the months when you can expect to book an expedition to Antarctica. For the remainder of the year, the ice freezes making access to the Peninsula impractical.
That said, your experience will vary dramatically depending on the month you choose to travel. Swoop Antarctica offer a great guide to help you decide which month is most suitable for you. As a basic rule of thumb, if you want to witness mating season, go early. If you want to spot whales and entertaining chicks, later in the season is better.
Before you commit, identify what you hope to see and then select the most suitable month.
2. How to get to Antarctica
Getting to Antarctica is not for the faint hearted. We travelled from the UK and the trip splits loosely into 3 legs:
- Flights from Manchester to Buenos Aires (via London and Sao Paulo) – 21 hours
- Internal flights from Buenos Aires to Ushuaia. The flight is only 3.5 hours but once you factor in airport transfers and waiting periods, this leg takes the best part of a day.
- The final part is a 48 hour crossing of the Drake Passage by ship. Note, that whilst it is possible to fly into the South Shetland Islands, unpredictable weather often leads to significant delays. Furthermore, these flights will be part of a package as there are no scheduled flights to the Continent. You will also still need to join a cruise in the South Shetlands as there are no hotels in the Antarctic.
In total, you should expect your trip to take between 2 and 4 days. Obviously, you may be able to add short stopovers in between legs. For instance, we stayed in Buenos Aires for a few days, however we wanted a stopover in Ushuaia, which was not an option on our trip. Think carefully about any stopovers before you commit to a specific tour operator.
We travelled to Antarctica on the Scenic Eclipse, a luxury expedition cruise ship, and if you would like to hear more about our experience, sign up here. That way, you will receive notifications when new posts go live.
3. How to avoid Southern Ocean seasickness
Unless you fly, you will need to sail through over 1,200km of the Southern Ocean to reach the Antarctic Continent from South America, (the closest continent). There is no land to interrupt currents in the Southern Ocean, hence the ocean’s reputation as ‘the most powerful convergence of seas’. Crossings vary from tame to treacherous.
During our transit, we experienced a ‘mild Drake Lake’ with 4 metre waves. However, waves up to 12 metres are possible on a ‘Drake Shake’ passage.
There is no way of knowing what to expect when you book of course. Even if you have never experienced seasickness, unless you have previously sailed the Southern Ocean, it is best to play it safe. I took no chances during our crossing and used seasickness wristbands and tablets from the pharmacy. I don’t normally suffer from seasickness and was fine.
My husband did not use wristbands or take tablets on the journey south and was unwell for most of those two days. On the way back, he took tablets, donned wristbands and was fine. Come prepared for the Ocean and you will find those two days of travel much more enjoyable than if you succumb to seasickness. Despite a ‘Drake Lake’ crossing, there were plenty of people sick in bed on our cruise! Why take the chance?
If you prefer to avoid medication, you can also look into sea sickness patches or ginger supplements.
Check your Drake Passage forecast
If you wish to check the forecast for your crossing before you board, I recently came across this site. It provides expected wind speed, wave height and temperatures for your crossing.
4. Protocols governing your expedition to Antarctica
The International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO) manages the Antarctic Treaty which regulates all human activity in Antarctica. It includes protocols on wildlife and environmental protection designed to minimise disruption to both the ecosystem and indigenous wildlife behaviour. All tourists must comply with the Antarctic treaty and Environmental Protocol and other guidance.
If you do not wish to comply with the Treaty, do not book an expedition to Antarctica.
5. To land or not to land
Most expeditions to Antarctica are on cruise ships which must adhere to rigorous environmental and safety standards. Those with a capacity of more than 500 passengers cannot go ashore in Antarctica. If this is an essential component of your expedition to Antarctica, book a smaller ship. This register of all IAATO registered cruise lines will help you to shortlist companies that may be suitable for your needs.
Once on land, strict rules apply to prevent visitor contamination. This means you cannot place any items on the ground, including bags. You should think very carefully about the items you wish to take onshore to avoid the possibility of dropping items. On our first shore excursion, I took a back pack and soon realised it was more hassle than it was worth. Trying to get items out of the bag without placing it on the floor was only possible because I was with my husband.
If you want to take water onshore, you could consider using a water bladder instead of a water bottle. By a stroke of luck, I had my running bladder with me which was a godsend on shore visits.
6. Time onshore is limited
IAATO also restricts the maximum permitted time for each land visits to between 1 and 3 hours. No more than 100 passengers can land at any one time. You therefore need to be mindful that you will have to adhere to a strict timetable during your visit. You can read further details of the restrictions here.
7. You will undergo decontamination
Before you can land on shore, you need to undertake a thorough clothing check to ensure they do not contain seeds or other contaminants. Staff onboard will help with this process. For instance, on Scenic Eclipse we attended a mandatory clothing check before we received clearance for landings.
Depending on the type of excursion, you may need to wade through decontamination tanks before and after boarding the zodiacs. On excursions where close contact with wildlife is the norm, the decontamination process will be more thorough and involve the additional rinsing of shoes and clothing. You may also need to take time to remove any stones or other objects from your clothing.
These processes are essential to ensure a positive impact in Antarctica so you should take your responsibility seriously. Do not be the person who puts gloves on the ground to make it easier to take photos!!
8. Set itinerary or not?
If you wish to visit a specific place in Antarctica you may wish to investigate whether the ship operates a fixed itinerary. On the Scenic Eclipse, no pre-scheduled formal itinerary exists. This is because the weather in Antarctica changes quickly. Dark grey clouds rapidly replace bright blue skies, sunshine turns to snow and storms hustle into wind free bays.
Each evening, the Captain and Discovery team review the weather and sea conditions to plan the following day’s activities. Given many expeditions to Antarctica promote kayaking, paddleboarding (SUP), helicopter flights and other experiences, seeking optimum weather conditions may take precedence over a specific itinerary.
I personally felt this approach helped us achieve our trip of a lifetime. The few amendments which were made to our daily itinerary simply added to the experience.
9. Shore excursions and activities
Even on smaller cruise ships, the logistics of trying to get all guests in and out of zodiacs and kayaks for cruises or shore excursions can be mind boggling. We booked the the Antarctica in Depth expedition on Scenic Eclipse. The tour included two zodiac outings a day which were a mixture of cruises and shore excursions. In addition, guests could sign up for kayaking and SUP excursions which would sometimes clash with the scheduled zodiac trips.
When you consider which company you may wish to travel with, useful questions to ask are:
- How many excursions are included daily?
- What kind of excursions does the company offer?
- How do you sign up for activities?
- How does the company ensure all guests have a chance to experience different excursions?
- Does the company attempt to minimise clashes between activities or will you have to prioritise?
- Are there any additional costs for activities? (On Scenic Eclipse everything is included in the price except helicopter flights or submarine trips.)
10. Check what extras apply
Our cruise included everything including WiFi and tips. Some cruises include everything except tips (an expensive extra) whilst others include the basics.
It pays to check whether your trip includes the following so you can budget accordingly.
- Alcoholic drinks – some companies only include drinks with meals
- Tips – these can add more than 10% to the cost of your trip.
- Excursions – how many are included and which are extra?
- Flights – many operators include flights but others do not. Some offer packages with and without flights to allow for stopovers. If you have your heart set on a stopover, again you should ask the question.
- Transfers – are airport transfers from home and/or to the ship included?
- Spa access – many ships levy a charge for access but not Scenic Eclipse. For the avoidance of any doubt, treatments are extra!
- Wifi – in my experience, paying for Wifi onboard can become an expensive extra so it pays to check any additional costs.
Why should you book an expedition to Antarctica?
Despite the cost and the rules, an expedition to Antarctica is a dream trip. Visitors to Antarctica leave a piece of their heart behind and return home with a yearning to return to this magnificent place. A place filled with wonderous close encounters with curious whales, seals and penguins. A place packed with glittering icebergs, snow covered mountains and jaw dropping glaciers.
There is nowhere quite like it and no photos or videos truly convey the magnitude of the continent. You simply have to see it to believe it!