It seems Antarctica as a destination has recently picked up steam over the past several years (December 2013 at the time of this piece). As such, I was able to just barely dig up enough information to not be completely at the mercy of travel agents and booking agencies. The information has primarily been in forums and travel blogs such as this. Also special thanks to Niall Battson to make certain a lot of uncertainty I initially had. I hope this additional blog piece (a culmination of 4 months of work), will be another informative piece giving travellers more confidence.
Types of trips – The trips that I’m talking about are those that allow frequent opportunities to step on Antarctica for hours at a time. There are cheaper and larger cruise ships that travel down to see the continent but never step on land for any significant period of time. I would classify this in the same category of going to a country without ever having stopped to eat outside the airport. It doesn’t count.
There are also trips that one can book that fly you all the way and land far inland into the Antarctic continent and operate choppers and base camps inland. The volume is relatively low and prices consequently high, starting around $40K.
Most of the “affordable” trips to Antarctica start from southern city of Ushuaia in Argentina, which I will describe below. One of the sites, www.wanderingtrader.com had a good summary of the three main types of trips of which I will summarize again.
- Antarctica Classic – These trips are 9-11 days in total length, with about 5 days on the western side of the Antarctic Peninsula. The remaining days are spent travelling by sea or air (out of Puntas Arenas, Chile)
- Falklands, South Georgia and Antarctica – These trips are about 19 to 22 days in lengths with about 2-3 days in the Falklands, 3 to 4 days on South Georgia, and 4 to 5 days on Antarctica. The remaining days are spent travelling by sea.
- Extended Antarctica – These trips are 12 to 15 days and feature longer trips around the continent and visit places such as the Weddell Sea or venture further south on the Peninsula such as the Antarctic Circle (only really possible later in the season when the ice pack can be navigated).
Types of ships – There are several ships that travel down to Antarctica. Polar Cruises at www.polarcruises.com has a good overall summary of the current ships that operate in the area.
Pricing – One can get sticker shock at the list prices of these trips when first looking at them. The average starting price of these trips is $10K per person when sharing a cabin with your partner, friend, or paired stranger. It does not include airfare, but should include all meals. The fare is non-refundable generally about 90 days prior to departure. For many, myself included, it was definitely on the top 3 most expensive trips that we’ve taken. Prices come down heavily in the last few weeks before the trip departs. Booking about 5 weeks prior and closer to the departure date, one can save a pretty penny as long as one is comfortable with some uncertainty and sometimes negotiation. Most sites will not advertise openly lower fares and some will not budge. The more flexible and/or longer you can keep your travel windows, the more one can save. (I’m willing to answer any questions on this through private messaging as long as you subscribe to this blog)
How to book –There are various ways one can book without going through a travel agent.
- Direct through the vessel operator
- Working with an Antarctica Trip Organizer such as the US-based companies Expedition Trips, Quark, Polar Cruises. There are numerous of these.
- Book with Ushuaia Travel agencies
I’ve found the first two methods to be relatively equivalent with the exception of the 2nd being slightly better as they are generally willing to work with you on price with some due diligence on your part and as long as you are in the aforementioned 5-week window.
While I have not done the option of working with the Ushuaia travel agencies, I know of numerous people who have done it. This is the best option if price is your primary deciding factor. The product is the same, and in my opinion the best way to book if you have the time to wait in Ushuaia for last-minute deals (in which you can save several thousand dollars) Still expect the rock-bottom floor price to be in the $3500 range for the cheapest trips with the fewest amenities, and don’t expect these prices for the longer extended trips.
When to Visit– I hope most of you already realize three things.
1) The Antarctic winter is effectively devoid of sunlight for most of the day making a trek down there to sight see much more difficult.
2) No vessels travel when the ice is too thick during the winter and spring time. The continent’s ice expansion effectively doubles Antarctica’s size. And at the time of this writing, no tourist ice breaking vessels operate in Antarctica.
3) Antarctic seasons are the opposite of the Northern Hemisphere.
Vessels operate generally from the October to March time frames.
October/November – Ice is in pristine conditions and generally very dense. Penguins start laying eggs. Much seal activity especially in South Georgia.
December/January – Penguin eggs start hatching. Ice pack begins to loosen.
February/March – Penguin chicks have all hatched. Ice pack at its loosest. Whales become more abundant.
Expect Variability en Route – Our chief expedition member put it best when he said this isn’t like a trip to Disneyland where one can say like clockwork that on day 1 we go to the Magic Mountain and start our day 9 AM at the Space Mountain ride. Antarctica has no schedule. Ice pack and weather conditions change frequently and ice maps are only updated once every three days. There may be days where landings are impossible. That being said, hopefully your ship’s crew can maximize your chances given the conditions.
Starting Destination – As stated before, most trips start out of Ushuaia. Very few will depart from Puntas Arenas, Chile (generally for flying the Drake) or Buenos Aires generally the very first trip for a vessel beginning its Antarctic operations.
Most will fly to Ushuaia. At the time of this writing only two airlines serve Ushuaia. The Chilean LAN airlines, and the home nation’s Aerolineas Argentineas. Aerolineas has the largest quantity of flights and most will fly from AEP with the remainder starting from EZE. LAN will also operate out of Buenos Aires but also from Santiago Chile. (At the time of this writing LAN was not flying into Ushuaia on Sundays.)
If you are a backpacker, then there are countless ways to get into Ushuaia which I will not cover here due to lack of knowledge.