Many people ask me what my favorite destination was of all my travels. I always tell them the same: Antarctica. “How did you get to Antarctica?!” is the obvious follow-up question. When I explain to them that it wasn’t that challenging, cold, or exclusive, they usually add Antarctica to their (usually long list of) bucket list destinations. In this article, I share my in-depth knowledge about the preparations for my Antarctica trip, how to visit Antarctica for under €5.000, the best time to visit the icy continent, the different ways of transport that get you there, how long it takes, and much more.
Although it has been a while (I visited Antarctica in 2011/2012) I have done my desk research to ensure the information is still up to date. If you find something that is incorrect, by all means, let me know by contacting me or commenting at the bottom of this article.
My Antarctica itinerary
A lot of people have been asking me about the specifics of my Antarctica trip, so I decided to sum it all up in one chapter.
I visited Antarctica by heading out to Ushuaia in early December with about 2 weeks to spare to look into hitchhiking to Antarctica or at least getting the cheapest ticket possible. I found out that hitchhiking is not possible (anymore) but I managed to get an Antarctica cruise-and-flight package for $4.750. Keep in mind, this is in 2011, so prices will definitely have changed since then.
Basically, I used a list of local travel agents I found on another travel blog and visited all their offices in Ushuaia personally every day. Luckily, Ushuaia is a tiny town, so they are all within walking distance of each other. Meanwhile, I was staying at the Cruz del Sur hostel, which was cheap and not too shabby. After a few days, I found my last minute deal via the Ushuaia Destiny agency. Although Ushuaia is not a mega interesting place to stay, there is a lot more to do than you might think! Check out this “Gringo travel guide” for Ushuaia.
I booked an 8-day Antarctica trip. It started in Puntas Arenas (Chile) and a one-night stay at a hotel and the bus trip there were included. I had to be at the tiny Puntas Arenas airport the next morning to take the DAP airline to Antarctica. Yup, there are jumbo jet planes heading there. We landed on gravel, in one of the Russian bases on the peninsula. From there, we walked to the Explorer-type boat and navigated through penguin-filled islands and magnificent ice sculptures. The route we followed was the classic Antarctican peninsula route. The boat took us back all the way to Ushuaia.
How to prepare for your Antarctica trip
When I was first researching my trip, I got both excited and confused. Clearly, I needed layers and layers of (fake) fur to survive in the continent’s harsh conditions? Where can I buy this, and how expensive would it be? Would I need any other gear? Until pretty much the day of departure, I didn’t really have a clear idea of what to expect. I was wandering around in Ushuaia and decided to buy a warm North Face beanie, which was a good idea. As is seemed, all other clothing was complimentary on my trip!
Best time to visit Antarctica
For tourists, it is only possible to visit the continent between November and March. The low temperatures and fast-changing weather conditions (in particular the movements of sea ice) make it a dangerous endeavor in the rest of the year, and practically all agencies offer only boats from November till March. December and January are considered the prime time for tourism on Antarctica because of the mild temperatures.
What is the weather like?
Antarctica is the coldest, windiest and driest continent on earth. During the austral summer, the temperatures can rise to about 50°F (about 10ºC) and there will be 24-hour daylight. That in itself is a very odd experience, as you have to almost force your body to go to sleep with the lack of a natural transition between day and night. On my trip, it helped that there were shutters for the (small) window in my cabin, which filled the room with instant darkness.
I was very surprised to find that it actually isn’t bone-chilling cold all year long. Then again, I had never really bothered to look up the weather in Antarctic peninsula before I knew I was going to attempt to go there.
Make no illusions here, however. Antarctica is a vast continent, and different places have different climates. On the east side (when looking at a flat map) for instance, at the McMurdo scientific station, the temperatures range from –26ºC (−14.8 °F) in August to −3 °C (26.6 °F) in January. On the South Pole, the highest temperature ever recorded was −12.3 °C (9.9 °F) in 2011.
Antarctican weather can be vicious and highly irregular, as I noticed on one of the expeditions on land. We got transported to the shore with a temperature of +4ºC (39°F), but after about 10 minutes of roaming around a sudden snowstorm made the visibility very limited with a temperature drop to -10ºC (14°F). You can imagine that the crew called us back to the boat straight away; the last thing they want is to lose sight of (one of) their passengers.
The Rothera weather station is located in about the middle of the peninsula, so it gives you a good idea of the temperatures you can expect.
Which clothes to bring
I visited Antarctica at the end of an 8-month long journey starting in Alaska. I never really properly prepared for the last bit of the trip, since I didn’t know if I would even make it that far at all! Luckily I did, and even with my minimal set of clothing and other gear I was able to have an amazing time. Here is what I brought with me:
- 5 pairs of underwear. Merino wool undies are my favorite.
- 5 pairs of socks. I like Nike’s dry-fit model as they dry overnight after washing them.
- 1 pair of jeans
- 3 cotton shirts
- 1 sweater
- 1 double-lined Star Wars themed jacket
- 3 t-shirts
Nothing out of the ordinary, right? I only had a 65L backpack, so this is all I could bring. If I would have done it now, I would have brought my Heat Holders Thermal Socks and Heat Holders Gloves, which I absolutely love, together with some thermal long-johns and long-sleeves thermal t-shirts.
What really made the difference, however, is that the travel agency I booked with provided the ‘real’ Antarctica-ready clothes:
- a thick water and windproof multi-lined jacket
- water and windproof rain pants
- rubber snow boots
- waterproof gloves
As I traveled in the Antarctican summer and temperatures were -10ºC (14ºF) at worse, wearing the full outfit was even pretty hot!
What gear to invest in
Other than the clothes above, I really didn’t need much else. Of course, a good photo/film camera (I love my Canon Eos M3) with extra batteries and SD cards is no luxury, as you will be able to take world-class pictures here. I loved using my tripod as well, as the ship’s deck is steady enough for it and you have plenty of time to get some good shots on land. The live vests (right on the picture) were complimentary. You really don’t need much on the boat; if anything it feels like a floating 4-star hotel. Of course, you will be cut off from the world for the length of your trip; I’m afraid there is no wifi on the boat or anywhere else (although I’m sure that might change in the future). If you want total (unnecessary) luxury: I did saw one of the guys on the boat use a satellite phone.
Guidebooks about Antarctica
Although I did all my research online, in hindsight I would recommend doing some guide-reading beforehand. For itineraries, high-res images, some background information about the places you will visit and city maps (handy if you get lost in Ushuaia), check out Lonely Planet’s guide on Antarctica. There are some good guidebooks out there for spotting wildlife as well. Check out Tony Soper’s “Antarctica, a guide to the wildlife“, Peter Carey and Craig Franklin’s “Antarctica cruising guide” and the Kindle version of Marilyn J. Landis Flanigan’s “An Adventurer’s Guide to Antarctica and the Subantarctic Islands“.
Ways of getting to Antarctica
There are the luxury all-inclusive cruise ships, which give you a hint of the continent but certainly not the up-and-close experience. If you like swimming pools, world-class food, yoga classes and a gym with a view, this could be a good option.
Another option is a chartered “explorer style” boat, which is smaller and therefore able (and allowed) to moor at certain bays and pass through narrower channels. Rubber dinghies take you to land as well, where you will have close (but don’t come too close) encounters with the wildlife. This is the option I ended up booking, and I’m very glad I made that decision.
Part of the trip I booked included a flight, which was awesome. Oh yes, you’ve read that right, there are flights to Antarctica! You won’t even have to sit in a shitty 2 propeller-type plane either; the planes are big and comfortable, just like any medium-distance flight. Did I tell you that you land on gravel? Read on below.
Big cruise ships
- Last-minute deals
- Lots of luxurious extras like yoga classes and top-class food
- More stable in harsh weather conditions
- A crew of 300
- You can’t get off board at any time, so you won’t set foot on the actual continent
- You need binoculars, most wildlife will be far away
- Cruise environment, so easy to lose focus on the outside world
- Usually more expensive than a smaller boat
- Big boats cannot get in shallow channels or bays
- Very big cruises (500+ passengers) do not go to Antarctica, because of the large environmental impact
Smaller “explorer type” boats
- Last-minute deals
- Luxurious food
- You can go on land twice a day via sturdy rubber boats (called dinghies), although this can be limited if there are more than 100 passengers on your boat.
- Cheaper than a cruise
- These boats can get to pretty much every bay or channel
- Wildlife is really close to the ship
- Fewer guests, so fewer people to deal with (if you’re an introvert like me)
- Daily lectures about the Antarctican wildlife and history on the boat
- A simple cabin
- Can get quite rocky in harsh weather conditions
Food on the boat
One thing you definitely don’t have to worry about on your cruise to Antarctica is the food. All the meals were included in the price of the tour. I am talking breakfast buffet, lunch, afternoon tea, three-course dinner. I don’t have any pictures of the food (I guess it wasn’t such a big deal back in 2011), but trust me, it was delicious! The only thing you would have to stick to is the schedule: breakfast at 07:00, lunch at 12:00 and dinner at 19:00. Other than that, we weren’t on land long enough to get hungry or thirsty.
Flights to Antarctica
Yes, it is possible to visit Antarctica by plane. Instead of passing the infamous Drake passage between Ushuaia and King George Island (basically between Argentina and Antarctica), you also have the option to fly over it and land on an improvised gravel-paved (!!) airstrip in a jumbo jet. I have never clapped harder when the pilot landed the huge plane like it was a routine flight to Heathrow. I combined a flight from Puntas Arenas (Chile) to King George Island (on the Antarctican peninsula) with an 8-day boat trip, which would take me all the way back to Ushuaia (Argentina). Read more about the different routes.
Flights over Antarctica
The other option here is to fly over Antarctica, never actually landing there. The Australian flight operator called Antarctica Flights charters a Qantas 747 jumbo jet and flies over the continent. You would have to be in Australia for this, however, as they only fly from the airports of Sydney, Melbourne, and Perth. They have a cool New-Years-Eve package as well, including champagne!
Hitchhiking to Antarctica
This is a bit of an urban myth I’m afraid, but I hope someone can prove me wrong. I remember seeing a video update on Youtube of a blogger who has managed to hitchhike to Antarctica. Unfortunately, I can’t remember his name, but I remember him saying that he simply went to the shore looking for a captain. This must have been ages ago, as at the time that I was there (2011) there was a high steel fence around the whole port with 24-hour security. You can’t simply walk to the shore; you need official permission (or a ticket) to do so. Trust me, I tried.
My mission was even more daring: to hitchhike to the South Pole. This would mean freeloading my way to one of the scientific bases, which have very limited resources. It was hard to find anything on the subject, so I asked around for tips on how to visit Antarctica by hitchhiking on the Antarctica themed forum on the Couchsurfing website.
A girl known as “Sandwichgirl”, who has been working at the McMurdo science research center, told me “people who are not working at McMurdo are generally not allowed there“. I like the word generally, but I guess in this case she means that only in emergency situations people could be transported there. That’s how far I got on the topic of hitchhiking. Most of the advice pointed me towards working on Antarctica, but I will cover this topic in a later update on this article.
Routes, costs, and duration
Have you been wondering about how to visit Antarctica? There are more ways to get to Antarctica than you can probably imagine. At least, that was certainly the case for me. The most common route starts in Ushuaia (Argentina), where you will take a boat to visit the Antarctic Peninsula. Usually, it is also possible to combine this trip with a visit to the Falkland (Islas Malvinas) or South Georgian islands, and there is the option to go as far as passing the Antarctic circle.
A variation on this route, the one I did, goes from Ushuaia to Puntas Arenas (Chile) by bus, and then by plane from its tiny airport to a gravel patch on the King George Island; one of the northern island of the Antarctic peninsula.
Another, far less common route, starts in Invercargill/Bluff (New Zealand) and takes you in a loop through the Ross Sea, McMurdo scientific station and back. In a variation on this route, you end in Hobart, Tasmania (Australia). Scientists tend to fly this route, although I have not heard of any civilian charters.
The last know route is entirely by plane, starting in either Sydney, Melbourne or Perth and flying over the Antarctic continent, without landing.
How much does a trip cost?
There are many different ways to visit Antarctica, all at a different cost. As you can imagine, a boat trip will cost less, and visiting a remote area will be much more costly than staying far from the shore on a cruise ship. That said, the cost of a trip varies from about $4.000 to $75.000.
The most common route, from Ushuaia to Antarctica, is also the cheapest, especially if your itinerary is flexible enough. You can find out how to visit Antarctica for less than €5.000 by looking into the last-minute deals. I’ve heard about $3.000 trips, but as I couldn’t even find these myself in 2011 it seems a bit of an urban legend (or, of course, prices have risen). I got my own last-minute deal for $4.750, for an 8-day trip departing from Ushuaia. The regular price for a trip like this, meaning when you would book this trip months ahead with a tour operator, would be around $10.000.
The alternative route, from New Zealand (or Australia) to Antarctica, is much more expensive. Since the amount of boats doing this route is limited, prices easily hit $20.000.
Another alternative is flying over Antarctica instead of actually setting foot on it. There are New Year’s Eve packages and regular flights, leaving from different cities in Australia (Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide). The price is considerably lower: for about $1.200 you can book an economy window seat.
There are luxury trips as well. For instance, you can fly from Cape Town to the South Pole. This will cost you € 64.000. Yes, you read that right.
Ushuaia (Argentina) to Antarctica
When I arrived in Ushuaia, I went looking for a last minute deal and eventually found one. It was an 8-day trip around New Year’s Eve which started in Ushuaia, included a bus journey to Puntas Arenas in Chile, from where I flew to the Russian base on the Sub-Antarctican King George Island. Then, by boat, I visited Paulet Island, Brown Bluff, Deception Island (Whalers Bay), Cuverville Island, Neko Harbour, Lemaire Channel, Yalour Islands, Jougla Point & Goudier Island (Port Lockroy), Neumayer Channel and back to Ushuaia.
- This is the most common route for Antarctic tourism
- Trips usually take around 10 days
- There are cheap flights from Buenos Aires to Ushuaia
- The boat trip from Ushuaia to the peninsula (through the Drake Passage) takes 2 days
- It is possible to take a bus from Ushuaia to Puntas Arenas (Chile), spend a night there and fly to Antarctica on an early flight. This flight takes 2.5 hours.
- My itinerary included the flight mentioned in the previous point, and the boat back to Ushuaia via de Drake Passage.
- The weather, compared to the rest of the continent, is relatively calm on the peninsula.
Invercargill (New Zealand) to Antarctica
A route that is quite popular for scientists heading to the largest scientific station on Antarctica, McMurdo Station, which is capable of supporting up to 1.258 residents. As a tourist however you can still visit this part of Antarctica, but it’s going to cost ya. You can even get a glimpse of the scientific station itself! A trip on this side of the continent is different from the more common Antarctican peninsula route:
- As said before, a trip on this route is very expensive. While the Argentina – Antarctica route will typically cost about USD 5.000 – USD 10.000, for this route you should think more in the direction of USD 20.000.
- Crossing the South Pacific Ocean will take you 12 days in total, so 6 days either way. This is calculated even without visiting the Sub-Antarctican Island such as the Campbell Island, Macquarie Island and Auckland Island which are often on the itinerary.
- Because of the previous point, boat trips usually take around 30 days.
- The trips are usually booked far in advance. As the supply is low and the demand is high, you will have to plan your trip up to a year in advance to be able to book it.
- The weather conditions are harsher here, which could cause alterations in your initial itinerary.
- You feel more isolated on this trip than “usual” for Antarctica, as the trips are usually longer (average of 30 days instead of 8 days for the peninsula cruises).
Ushuaia (Argentina) to Bluff (New Zealand) via Antarctica
This uncommon, but very exciting route can be done by boat in just over 30 days. You will depart from Ushuaia and follow the more common Antarctic peninsula route. But, instead of doing a loop, you will continue on following the coastline going west, through the Amundsen Sea (chance to see Emperor penguins!), Ross sea, Cape Evans, Drygalski Ice Tongue and heading to Bluff (New Zealand) via Campbell Island.
Cape Town (South Africa) to Antarctica
This is where you enter the domain of luxury. Yes, it is possible to fly from Cape Town (South Africa) to the geographical South Pole, but it comes hefty price tag. The only agency (to my knowledge) that organizes trips on this route is White Desert. They have an excellent website even worth checking out if you’re not planning to book.
Where to book you Antarctica trip
Figuring out how to visit Antarctica can be quite mesmerizing. I’ve been there; I’ve run into a lot of outdated information, monstrous blocks of unreadable text and 1995-style agency web pages. Tourism in Antarctica still has a long way to come. I guess it can be fairly easy to book if you have the money: you call a tour operator, pay the full price and everything will be arranged for you. For a budget traveler like myself, it’s a lot harder, as I won’t give in until I’m absolutely sure I have found the lowest price. Luckily there is a way to get last minute Antarctica deals, which I will describe later on in this chapter.
Common tour operators
If you only have a limited amount of time, say 2 weeks, and money doesn’t play a (big) role when it comes to your holidays, this would be the most convenient option. You can call or e-mail a tour operator, and they provide you with different options and their availability. There are plenty of tour operators around, just do a quick Google search on “Antarctica cruises“. A few well-known ones are Intrepid Travel, National Geographic, G Adventures and AdventureSmith Explorations.
Smaller Antarctica specialists
There are a few tour operators specialized in expeditions to Antarctica (and often also the Arctic), which could provide you with a lot more in-depth information about the continent and the practicalities of getting there.
How to visit Antarctica for less than €5.000
2018 update: I have spoken to several Antarctica agencies at the International Travel Convention (ITB) in Berlin and they told me that there aren’t as many last-minute deals around as there used to be. While there were plenty of boats to choose from in 2011, they assured me that 95% of the boats are full nowadays. Of course, this number can go up and down every year. But as there are a lot of agencies I still believe there is a chance of finding a last minute deal if you have a time buffer to get out there and look for them. I would love to hear from you if you have managed to get a good deal!
For budget travellers, this is a great option if you’re interested in doing the most common route, from Ushuaia to Antarctica. When your travel itinerary allows for a bit of risk-taking, you would be able to find a trip at 75% up to 50% off the regular price. Many of these agent will only publish these deals about 10 days before the departure date, which usually means you will already have to be in Ushuaia. This harbour town isn’t really worth staying at for too long, so I would recommend heading out to El Calafate and/or El Chalten and do some world-class hiking in the Fitzroy mountains. Meanwhile you can call or mail the agents below from there to see if there are any new deals coming up.
Important to note: You will need to transfer a large sum of money to the agent, or pay by credit card at their office. Make sure that your bank knows that you will do so beforehand, otherwise they might give you a call. Also, make sure you are actually able to transfer the amount internationally, and what the extra fees might be in doing so.
* The agency I used on my Ushuaia to Antarctica tour.
I borrowed the list of agencies above from fellow blogger Marcello’s excellent guide to find cheap Antarctica cruises, which I used myself to travel to Antarctica in 2011. I e-mailed all agencies to check if they were still operational. Marcello keeps the list up to date himself as well, grab it by signing up for his newsletter through the link above.
What you can expect to see in Antarctica
If you think all you’ll be seeing are mountains of ice for the duration of your Antarctica trip, you’re only partially correct. On the day(s) getting to Antarctica (especially by boat), your view will consist of nothing more than the deep blue sea. When you finally reach the sub-Antarctican islands, the fun begins: you start off with small blocks of floating ice, but soon you’ll see different shapes, shades and forms of ice.
But wait, there is more! Even though the weather conditions on Antarctica are harsh, there are several different sea animals to spot here.
Apart from the wildlife, there are a few other things to do in Antarctica, which you can read about below. Believe it or not, you can even swim in the Antarctic sea!
Spotting Antarctican wildlife
First of all, let’s get the most common misconceptions out of the way:
Apart from several penguin species, Antarctica is home to lots of other wildlife species:
- Many types of whales
- Many types of sea birds
- Many types of seals
- Even a tiny wingless insect called “Belgica Antarctica”
On my trip, I saw several of these animals, and as it was light (with bright skies) for 24 hours a day it was quite easy to spot them. The most naive and playful of them all must be the penguins. It is tempting to walk right up to them and give them a hug, but it is actually not allowed to approach them within 5 meters (15 feet), especially in breeding season. That said, some curious penguins simply approached me while I sat down at a distance.
Swimming in the Antarctic sea
The guide on the boat I was on called it a “stupid tourist thing to do”, but nevertheless it was an awesome experience: swimming in Antarctica. It was just a quick dive, which I captured on video (see below). No, I didn’t get hypothermia, although I wouldn’t stay in the water for longer than I did. Luckily for me, there was a Russian family on the boat as well, who offered me a gulp of their Vodka; that surely warmed me up quickly 🙂
Visiting the British post office
Although there aren’t any people permanently living in Antarctica, there are a handful of places (mostly research stations) where people work for a few months per year. Usually, this is between November and March, when the weather is more or less bearable for humans. One of these spots is Port Lockroy, formerly a whaling station and renovated into a British post office in 1996. It’s turned into a cool (literally) little museum and gift shop, where you can see how the port was used back in the early 1900s. In the gift shop, you can buy (and send!) yourself a postcard. Don’t expect it to arrive very soon, as a staff of 4 has to process the 70.000 postcards sent on average in the tourist season.
Hiking the Antarctic mountains
If your trip is on a boat with less than 100 people, chances are that you will be able to make regular trips to the “mainland” of Antarctica (about 2 per day, fewer people means you’ll be able to see do more). This happens with small but sturdy rubber boats called dinghies. Once you’re on the land, you will either be able to roam free (within sight) or follow the group for a hike to a viewing point. Apart from the fact that I really like hiking, it is quite special to see Antarctica from a higher perspective. You will be able to use your expedition boat as a reference to judge the massiveness of the ice around you (which is otherwise quite hard).
Visiting an old whaling station
The whaling industry was huge in the early 1900s. Every piece of the animal was used: the blubber, meat, bones, and intestines were used to extract oil from, and the bones and meat were turned into fertilizer and fodder. Antarctica also housed a handful of whaling stations, and on my trip, I was able to finish one. It looks like it hasn’t been touched since the 1900s, and nature has taken over since. All metal was thoroughly rusted, and some parts (the massive gears for instance) were half buried in the gravel).
At the tourist office in Ushuaia, you are able to get a passport stamp with “Ushuaia – Fin del Mundo” on it. Be sure not to close your passport straight away after the stamp has been placed, as it won’t be dry yet.
Somewhere on your boat tour, you will be asked to provide your passport. Not because you need to go through immigration, but because you will get an awesome Antarctica stamp in your passport! Be sure to keep the passport when it expires and you got yourself an awesome souvenir.
On one of the last days of the boat trip, the captain announced that the nautical map (the map that was used to plan the route) was up for auction. The proceeds from the auction would be donated to a charity involved in the saving of the sea albatross. I had mixed feelings about the auction itself, it seemed that it had become a battle of egos and family honor; the final amount ended up having three zeroes. Then again, it did go to charity.
To make things “official”, you get a certificate as well, stating that you have walked on the Antarctic continent (only if you actually have, of course). Surely that will look nice on your wall!