Antarctica Cruise: 7 Important Things to Consider When Booking

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One of the most iconic destinations on the planet is Antarctica. This bucket list trip is truly a trip of a lifetime. It is one of the most revered of travel destinations and for great reason. However it can feel quite overwhelming when planning a trip. It is not cheap to visit Antarctica and you want your trip to be the best it can be. Below we share important things to consider when booking your Antarctica cruise based on our experience of researching our trip as well as visiting the White Continent recently. 

Planning an Antarctic adventure? Check out our other posts here:

Top 7 Things to Consider When Booking an Antarctica Cruise

As with any destination, one of the most difficult parts is often the initial research. For destinations that are not heavily visited, it’s not always easy to find word of mouth feedback or people to talk to about what is the most important things to consider.  After returning from our first trip to Antarctica and speaking with many people who have been recently, we have come up with the most important things to consider when booking a trip. 

Number of Guests & Size of the Ship

Choose a small ship for your Antarctica cruise to ensure you get on land as often and for as long as possible
Magellan Explorer, by Antarctica 21

The absolute most important thing to consider in my opinion when booking a cruise to Antarctica is the number of guests on the ship. Larger cruise ships with more than 500 passengers cannot ever get off the ship in Antarctica. There are strict rules in the Antarctic Peninsula about how many people can land at a time and when they can land. Only 100 people at a time can set foot on any one location in Antarctica, which means the more people on your boat, the less time you will have for excursions. 

For a ship with less than 100, you will often have 2 excursions per day – either on land or by zodiac boats. For ships with more than 100 passengers, the ship will either dock in the area for the entire day letting off half the passengers in the morning and the other half in the afternoon or guests will have less time on land to accommodate several groups of people.

For our ship, the Magellan Explorer, we had 93 passengers, which meant that the entire ship was able to go to every landing or zodiac cruise. When spending this much money, you want to have the ability to see and do as much as possible, which is why we feel the best way to ensure this is by booking a small ship with less than 100 passengers

Many itineraries to Antarctica are called expeditions, rather than a cruise as there is no set itinerary. Instead, you are exploring the Antarctic continent looking for good weather conditions, unique wildlife and beautiful scenery. This is the wonder of an Antarctic expedition cruise.

Amenities On-board the Ship

For many passengers on Antarctic cruises, the amenities on the ship are just as important as the ones off the ship. Do you want a balcony? Do you want a pool, jacuzzi, hot tubs or a spa? All of the various ships offer different amenities and you will pay the price for what you want. Whether you are interested in luxury Antarctica cruises or small expedition boats, there is something for everyone. 

On our recent sailing with Antarctica 21, we had only a small sauna and a small gym. We had plans to use both, but honestly we were so busy we didn’t have time for either one!

Friends were on an Atlas Ocean Voyages sailing and they had a pool, 100 meter track, rooftop jacuzzi and more. That said, their ship also had more than 100 passengers so they were often rotating landings and were potentially spending more time on their boat than we were. Their boat had yoga classes, live music and more. If these type of amenities and activities are important for you, make sure to carefully research your boat and it’s offerings. 

For those with mobility issues, it is also important to consider whether you need a boat with an elevator. Our ship was only 3 main floors and did not have an elevator. The World Traveler by Atlas does have an elevator, which can make moving around the ship easier for those with mobility limitations. 

Itinerary & Type of Excursions

Snowshoeing in Antarctica
Snowshoeing Excursion

For many people, their only aim is to get to Antarctica, but for others who might be returning or who have specific interests in mind, it is important to research the various cruise itineraries carefully. Different cruises offer various activities such as wildlife watching, shore landings, kayaking, and even camping on the Antarctic continent. Choose an itinerary that aligns with your interests and desired level of activity.

Many of the ships cruising the Antarctic Peninsula offer things like sea kayaking, but you must know that it is often VERY limited. Our ship had spots only for 10 kayakers and many of those spots were booked out a year or more in advance. If this is an activity that is very important, you will need to book well in advance and/or choose a ship that has many spots. I know that Aurora cruises have more spots for kayakers than some of the smaller boats.

Additionally, some trips do not cross the Antarctic Circle. If this is something that is important for you, choose an itinerary that includes this.  In general most small boats tend to cruise along the South Shetland Islands with one or two continental landings

Kayakers out exploring with a humpback whale checking out the scene on an Antarctica cruise
Kayakers out exploring with a humpback whale checking out the scene

Other activities to consider or look out for on ships include snorkeling (yes you can do this!), submarine rides, helicopter rides from the ship to view glaciers, overnight camping on ice, and so much more.

I will tell you that one of the biggest issues we faced on our ship was a serious case of FOMO. If we chose to do one activity, we always felt a tinge of jealousy at what the others were doing. Everything here is so fabulous that you have to make choices on what is most important to you and try not to get jealous of the experiences others are having. Easier said than done I can tell you!

Duration & What You Want to See

Antarctica cruises vary in length, typically ranging from around 10 days to 21 days. One important factor is to consider how long you want to be out on the water, but also what you want to see. The Antarctic season runs from November to March, with each month offering different conditions and experiences.

Remember for any cruise you choose, the first day will include boarding towards the late afternoon and the last day will be reserved only for breakfast and disembarking. Therefore, a 10 day cruise is essentially only 8 days out at sea. 

The other option to consider is what do you want to see? Are you interested in seeing the pristine white continent covered in snow? If so, head to Antarctica at the start of the season to see the winter conditions as they begin to thaw.

Interested in seeing more penguins? Your best bet is to visit during December and then January to see penguin chicks. 

What type of penguins can I expect to see? If you are heading down to the Antarctic peninsula you can generally expect to see Gentoo penguins, Adélie penguins and Chinstrap penguins. If you want to see King penguins you will need to go South Georgia Island or the Falkland Islands For the elusive Emperor penguins you will need to go well below the Antarctic circle.

At the end of the season, towards March, you will be certain to see many humpback whales but possibly less penguins.  As with any nature focused trip, it is unpredictable, but choosing the time of year you go will help check off the boxes for what your most important goals are. Regardless you will most likely see fur seals, leopard seals and elephant seals.

From the bustling extraordinary wildlife of early summer to icy landscapes of late summer, there is always something amazing to see whatever time you visit the continent. If I were to recommend the best time to go, I would say February, which is also high season and when everyone else wants to go!

During the height of the season, there can be as many as 80 ships in the Antarctic Peninsula. Towards the end of the season, there may be as few as 15. If you truly want to feel like you are alone there, go towards the beginning and ends of the season.

Educational Opportunities

One of the most unexpected, but most loved aspects of our cruise was the educational components offered. During our Drake Passage days, our schedule was filled with educational lectures ranging from the history of Antarctic exploration, science of ice and icebergs, marine biology of the wildlife we would see, lectures on birds aka penguins and so much more. 

The expedition team that were providing these lectures were not just young kids, they were all professionals in their field, offering detailed scientific knowledge in easily digestible formats. For those interested in truly learning more about this amazing part of our planet, I highly recommend making sure that your boat has plenty of educational offerings.

In addition to our lectures, our boat was also one of 15 boats that participate in Citizen Science programs while in Antarctica. I didn’t even know this was something to consider, but now that I know, I would highly recommend finding a boat that offers these programs. It is a very unique experience to help collect samples that will lend information to the scientific databases. 

Gifted Clothing & More

One thing that many cruises offer is a winter parka that you can use during your trip and take home as a souvenir. Our boat did not include this. While initially I felt bummed that we weren’t going to be offered these parkas, I also recognized the environmental impact of providing jackets for people who may never use them again. This was reinforced for us when we saw several shops in Ushuaia offering to purchase these parkas.

Instead of being gifted parkas, they can be rented easily in Ushuaia before departure, through the ship itself or you can use your own winter gear such as ski clothes. For our cruise, we opted to use our own ski clothes which worked out quite well. We knew our clothes fit, we knew how to layer them for optimal warmth and we didn’t add to environmental waste.

For many visitors to Antarctica however, this is almost as important as the cruise itself, so consider for yourself if this is a deal breaker for you.

Regardless of the parka, almost all cruise lines will offer the use of specialized waterproof knee high boots to be used while on excursions. This is important for a variety of reasons. There are strict rules about what can go on land and the cleaning process needed before and after landing. These boots are perfect for the conditions of Antarctica, they don’t let in water when you have wet landings and they keep your feet nice and warm when it is cold outside.

Book IAATO Partnered Ships Only

For me, as someone who believes it is important to protect our world and especially one as pristine as the Antarctic, I believe it is imperative to choose a boat that is partnered with IAATO. The International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO) is a voluntary organization that advocates for safe and environmentally responsible travel to Antarctica. 

Tourism in Antarctica is skyrocketing, with more than 40% growth in passenger numbers forecast for the next season.  Interestingly, 80% of visitors are landing at at only 20 landing sites, there’s a huge strain on a tiny portion of this precious continent. Facing these and other environmental challenges head-on is the purpose of IAATO.

This year for example, the avian flu has made its way to Antarctica. IAATO quickly put into place strict rules and regulations about how guests can interact with the wildlife and act on landings. 

Going to Antarctica is a massive privilege that should not be taken lightly. The white continent faces unprecedented challenges and deserves to be approached conscientiously and respectfully, and this responsibility lies with the tourists to ensure they are supporting businesses that also see this as being important. 

To find out more, you can read the guidelines on conduct here, but you should also receive this from your boat before departure. 

To Fly or Sail the Drake Passage?

One of the most heated topics in Antarctic cruise is whether to sail or fly through the Drake Passage. For many, there is a strong fear in taking a small boat around Cape Horn, however with modern expedition ships this passage is not as bad as it once was! For those who cannot fathom the idea of spending 3-4 days going through potential rough waters, there is an option to fly. Flights leave from Punta Arenas to King George Island. Of course this adds significantly to the price of your trip, but it is still a magical way to get to Antarctica. 

If you would like more assistance with booking your trip to Antarctica, I am happy to assist you through my travel advisor services or I highly recommend looking to Adventure Life Travel who are very knowledgeable in the field. Either way, put this on your bucket list and make it a reality! Visiting Antarctica is truly an adventure of a lifetime trip that will never leave your heart and soul.

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