Choosing your route to Antarctica
You should take care to read the details of the trip you wish to book so as not to have any unpleasant surprises.
Cruises to Antarctica can start from several locations:
- Port of Ushuaia, Argentina
- Port of Punta Arenas, Chile
- Flight from Punta Arenas to King George Island
The flight from Punta Arenas is a good way to save time and avoid the famous Drake Passage, but the price of your trip will greatly increase.
Cruises departing from Ushuaia are the most popular and this is what I chose to do. This article will mainly focus on my journey.
You will need two days to cross Drake Passage and go to Antarctica, or rather, to the first sub-Antarctic islands. It is almost impossible to predict the intensity of the waves. It’s a matter of luck, or bad luck! For my part, I had a very calm day and a day where the waves were so high that it was not safe to go outside!
Two days to cross the Drake Passage and two days to come back… You’ve read correctly, any standard trip to Antarctica requires at least four days at sea. If you don’t start from a port, you will have to add days to the itinerary! So typically, a ten-day trip often translates into four days to explore, as there are embarkation and disembarkation days to consider.
People have told me that they were disappointed to spend so little time at their destination. The solution is to choose a longer trip!
Types of itineraries in Antarctica
There are two kinds of itineraries:
- Antarctica alone (choice of eight to sixteen days)
- “The full trip” (three weeks)
In my case, I wanted a trip to fully discover the icy continent, but also to visit the Falklands and the island of South Georgia. So I opted for the itinerary that included everything.
If you can afford this itinerary budget and time-wise, I strongly recommend it. Passengers on my boat were on their second trip to Antarctica because they felt they had missed out on something by not going to South Georgia.
The best time to go to Antarctica
The best time to go? It depends on your interests.
The peak season is from December to February, when the weather is the best, with a lot of sunshine and a lot of blue skies.
- October: positioning cruises in Antarctica and often the cheapest, but unable to venture everywhere, because the ice is still too thick
- November: snow and ice are in an almost perfect and clean condition for the most beautiful pictures of landscapes, glaciers and icebergs.
- December: the fauna wakes up, the penguins court each other and begin to fortify their nests in the colonies.
- January: the young penguins explore by themselves and are very curious; sea lions and seals are hunting penguins.
- February: best time for whale watching
- March: the days get shorter, the temperature becomes unpredictable and the sky is mostly overcast.
The destinations of a trip to Antarctica
My journey began in Ushuaia which is the southernmost city in America.
It is a port city surrounded by mountains and glaciers that is also called the “end of the world”. The roads stop here: route 3 goes to Buenos Aires if you prefer to take the bus for more than 40 hours! Travellers who stop there are usually there for a trip to Antarctica or as part of a trip to Patagonia.
There are very beautiful hikes to do in the Tierra Del Fuego National Park, which is 12 km (or 20 minutes) from Ushuaia. There is a bus to get there or you can rent your own vehicle.
There is also The End of the World Train, but I wouldn’t recommend it. Honestly, I think it’s just a tourist attraction.
As I boarded the boat, a person in charge picked up my passport and gave me a card to access my cabin and to carry as an ID during the outings.
The crew takes care of the entries and exits into and from each territory; you will get your passport back with several new official and unofficial stamps.
Then the naturalist guides showed up and gave us a coat (which you can keep) and boots (which you have to put on). The coats are very brightly colored to be able to find each other during outings.
After two days at sea we arrived in the Falklands.
Ownership of these islands is disputed by Argentina and England. Although the British won the war in 1982 under Margaret Thatcher, the Argentinians never accepted defeat. The capital, Stanley, is a small inhabited village where it was possible to buy what we needed. We were able to spend a full day here before going around the islands.
It was our first opportunity to see penguins and albatrosses in addition to being able to hike there. We wanted to stretch our legs after our days at sea!
Ornithology enthusiasts were very happy with the Falklands. Several endemic species can only be found here.
Then we went to South Georgia.
The only way to visit this place is by boat, as there is no airport. This island was the capital of whaling and fur seals hunting in the 19th century. Being a history buff, I loved it.
In Grytviken, you can still enter the church, which has been maintained, as well as the post office and a mini-museum.
Afterwards, we were able to visit the ruins of a former whaling station as well as the cemetery where Ernest Shackleton is buried. The latter is a great British explorer considered one of the first to venture into Antarctica.
The main reason why I absolutely wanted to include the island of South Georgia in my trip was because it is the only place in the world where you can see massive colonies of king penguins.
I’m talking about hundreds of thousands of penguins in one place! There were as far as the eye could see. A little tip: if you settle down and stay still, with a little patience, they will come to you!
In terms of fauna and topography, there is a lot of variety when compared with Antarctica.
After a few days to explore, we sailed for another two days to Antarctica.
Along the way, there was a huge iceberg; we passed beside it for more than an hour! Also, as I went at the beginning of the whale season, there were two or three herds of whales that came close to our boat. Each time, there was an announcement on the intercom to let us know. We immediately stopped what we were doing and went outside to watch them blow and breach.
You can see that there were a lot of days at sea on this itinerary, but we were always very busy, because these are teaching moments. There is so much to learn on a trip and it was no different here.
Naturalists gave lectures on subjects such as fauna, flora, geology, photography, history, and so on. They try to prepare us for the next destination. These days also allowed us to rest, as the excursion days could be very busy.
The Antarctic Peninsula
When reaching the first sub-Antarctic islands, the landscape changed drastically.
These islands are part of the Antarctic continental plate. Lots of snow and ice in sight even though it wasn’t that cold. The sun and the wind had a huge effect on the temperature.
We set up on an Argentinian research base. It was the only time we were on the mainland, while the rest of the time we were concentrating on the islands which were much more interesting. The continent and the islands are separated politically between several countries according to the Antarctic Treaty.
The waters in Antarctica were very quiet, which was perfect for activities! In addition to the standard excursions, it was possible to do kayaking or stand-up paddleboarding on my boat. Don’t worry, we had a dry suit.
The landscapes were breathtaking.
We could feel the immensity of what surrounded us. Before I left, many asked me what there was to see in Antarctica. I used to say that I wanted to go there for the beautiful scenery since I am passionate about photography, but today I can’t find the words that can adequately describe what I saw or felt.
I really wanted to go float on my own little iceberg so when I was able to, my guides weren’t too far away with the zodiacs in case I went adrift.
We were constantly on excursions, either on land or in the zodiacs, looking for wildlife and admiring the scenery.
Every trip to Antarctica is different as there is no guarantee that you will see the same landscapes or animals. The landing spots were determined by the temperature at the moment. My only disappointment was not to have seen killer whales.
Speaking of experience, a trip to Antarctica is not complete if you don’t do the famous polar plunge! In a swimsuit! We were obviously tied.
And then straight into the heated swimming pool! The water was pumped from the sea and then heated. It was a particularly enjoyable activity at the end of the evening!
Our last stop was in Port Lockroy from where it was possible to send postcards.
There are four employees who operate this post office during the months of the tourist season. Port Lockroy is a British territory; the mail is sent by boat to Stanley in the Falklands and then by plane to England where it will be redistributed all over the world. The stamp will be that of Antarctica!
A little advice, don’t forget to send yourself one as a souvenir!
For those who would like a slightly more complete experience for their trip,it is possible to choose an itinerary with two or three additional days to get to the Antarctic Circle. In doing so, you will see very different landscapes further south.
And the penguins from the movie Happy Feet?
They are emperor penguins that are found much deeper in the interior of the continent so a standard itinerary will not allow you to see them. These more specific trips are offered by Quark Expeditions with an icebreaker, a helicopter and a trek to the colony. For those who want to go to the South Pole, it is also feasible.
It’s impossible to see everything at once!
Life on the boat
Between luxurious or basic cruises, there is no need to pay more for a boat versus an itinerary. Plan your trip according to your itinerary and your dates, that’s what’s most important.
Depending on your operator and the boat, you will have the choice of a single, double, triple or quadruple occupancy cabin. If you want to save money, you should of course take the triple or quadruple room. If you are alone, you will be paired with other passengers of the same sex. We spent a lot of time in zodiacs and on excursions so my cabin was almost only for sleeping. That being said, I took a single cabin and very much enjoyed having my own private space for my three-week cruise. I wanted to spoil myself.
As for the days at sea, they were filled with conferences. Then on the entertainment side, there were common rooms and there was always a movie at times when there was nothing else to do.
For people who suffer from motion sickness, it is best to choose a cabin on the lower floor and more towards the center of the boat.
Finally, the tourist season takes place during the southern summer, so there are over 18-20 hours of sunshine per day. An indoor cabin can be good for those who have difficulty sleeping.
The service on board was impeccable.
The cabins were cleaned 3-5 times a week, especially when going out on excursions or to eat. There was a restaurant on board for the main meals of the day. Lunches and dinners were buffet style and there were a la carte menus with table service for dinners.
In between, there were tea, coffee, chocolate and snack stations. I ate so well on this trip! The portions were very satisfying and varied from day to day. Special diets were also all accommodated (gluten-free, vegetarian, vegan, etc.) and allergies were taken into consideration.
A waiter would approach each passenger with a different diet at each meal to show them the dishes from the buffet that matched their needs or to give them a different à la carte menu. There was a theme at each dinner, often related to what had been done during the day. Birthdays were also celebrated.
In terms of routine and well-being, there were yoga classes several times a day depending on the excursion schedule. A training room, a sauna and a swimming pool were also at our disposal. Being an all-inclusive cruise, only alcohol and optional activities such as SUP, kayaking and camping were extra. However, wine was included at dinner.
Each outing was approximately two to three hours for a total of two outings per day.
When it was our turn to go out, we had to get dressed in the mud room where we had assigned changing rooms. Then we lined up to be scanned and inspected before exiting.
According to IAATO (International Associaton of Antarctic Tour Operators) rules, boots and clothing (especially ankle velcros) had to be carefully cleaned to avoid introducing foreign diseases from one place to another.
Each zodiac could accommodate about ten people. There is no port, so it was often wet landings at the beaches. The boots provided are waterproof and you must bring your own snow pants or waterproof pants.
The naturalist guides disembarked beforehand in order to position themselves to direct us towards the points of interest. You are not left on your own to visit, but they do not accompany you everywhere either.
As for the zodiac rides, the naturalist guides also took care of them, so they could give us a lot of information.
The cost of a trip to Antarctica (and the points!)
Operators follow strict IAATO rules.
Some cruises may seem much less expensive than others, but that’s because they have more than 500 passengers and will only do a sail by so people can admire the landscape from the ship. If you wish to set foot on the mainland, you must choose a boat with a capacity of 499 passengers or less. In addition, a maximum of 100 people can disembark at a time.
They divided us into four groups of 50 and we alternated to disembark; one group in a zodiac, one group on foot and the other two were waiting their turn. That gave us plenty of time to visit.
That’s why I strongly recommend that you choose your boat carefully because if there are more of you, you will spend less time outdoors. Half of the group was made up of retirees, the other half was made up of backpackers, young professionals and a group from China of all ages.
The crew told me that holiday cruises are more popular for families with children because of the vacations.
Gadventures is based in Toronto and usually offers the best regular prices.
This company also allows you to earn a 2.5% cash back based on promotions via Rakuten.ca.
For my part, I chose Quark Expeditions because the dates suited me better and there was a very attractive promotion for single cabins.
The best way to pay for this cruise with points is with:
This is also a great opportunity to unlock welcome bonuses on several credit cards!
Here is an idea of the prices in quadruple occupancy:
- 10-11 day itinerary: Antarctica alone ~9 000$CAD
- 13-15 day itinerary: more of Antarctica ~12 000$CAD
- 20-22 day itinerary: Full itinerary (Antarctica, Falkland Islands and South Georgia Island) ~20 000$CAD
Here is an idea of the prices for the optional activities (price varies according to the duration of the trip):
- Camping ~500$CAD
- SUP ~450$CAD
- Kayak ~1200$-2000$CAD
I consider this a journey of a lifetime.
I think it’s worth planning it in advance to be able to do the trip you want, especially if your vacation time is limited. A friend waited a whole year for new departures, as the next ones were all booked up for kayaking, which she absolutely wanted to do. Kayaking is almost always full months in advance, on all trips. To get the best prices, you must either book long in advance (12-18 months) or at the last minute.
For those who have a lot of time, no fixed schedule and are very spontaneous, you can pay up to 50-60% less for last minute departures.
These trips can be purchased directly in Ushuaïa or with Freestyle Adventure Travelagency.
You may not be able to book the desired boat, route or optional activities within a month of departure.
To get to Ushuaia, you have to turn to a Skyteam program since the Buenos Aires (EZE) – Ushuaïa (USH) road is served by Aerolineas Argentina. You can transfer American Express privilege points to Delta Skymiles for example. A flight paid in cash costs around 250$CAD for a round trip.
In Buenos Aires, you can stay in Marriott hotels (Park Tower and Sheraton), but there are plenty of hotels and inexpensive Airbnb like in Ushuaia.
It is strongly recommended that you purchase trip cancellation insurance in addition to what credit cards offer. Most credit cards with travel insurance will not cover more than $1500-$2500.
Important notes and conclusion on Antarctica
Here are a few important notes that I thought it would be useful to remind you of:
- Canadians do not need a visa
- Doctor and pharmacy on board
- Necessary equipment: sunglasses, snow pants or waterproof pants, hat, scarf, gloves, dress in layers (0-20 degrees).
- Temperature variations between outside and inside the boat can cause condensation that can damage your photo equipment.
- Extra batteries and memory cards – a hard drive is a must!
It was a rewarding experience for me and I developed a taste for polar expeditions.
Being a very experienced traveler, I found it increasingly difficult to find places that could surprise and excite me. Antarctica deserves a big WOW, in capital letters!
If you want to follow my adventures on Instagram, my account is @wanderingaline!