5 Questions You Should Ask Before Taking an Antarctica Cruise
Stepping foot on Antarctica—for intrepid travelers, it’s that elusive last passport stamp to complete the seven-continent collection. For those who’ve been around the world (and back), it’s a badge of honor, a feather in the goose-down puffy coat, an icebreaker (pun intended) at parties and, until space travel is a thing, the final fill-up on that travel bucket list.
And with all that’s happened in 2020, when we can get back to traveling internationally—wouldn’t it be epic to come back with something big and something brand new?
But you don’t just book a trip like an Antarctica cruise on a whim. You’re going to have questions. After all, you may only do this once in your lifetime—so you want to get it right the first time.
And, as one cruise insider told us, it’s important to ask the right kinds of questions. So with that in mind, we lined up a few queries to get you started, as you picture yourself among the penguins of Antarctica.
What are the Basics?
Forty-eight expedition cruise ships will offer 2021 Antarctic sailings, including new luxe-adventure cruise line Atlas Ocean Voyages, which will begin cruising the waters around the continent in late 2021. The American winter is the Antarctic summer, so cruise season is November through March in Antarctica—meaning it is possible to spend Christmas as far as possible from the North Pole if you so choose. During this milder season, average January high temperatures on the Antarctic Peninsula are in the low 30s (about the same temps as Chicago.)
Most cruises will depart from Ushuaia—a small port city on the Tierra Del Fuego archipelago on the tip of Argentina. Getting to Ushuaia on your own via commercial flights isn’t cheap and may involve long layovers. Most cruise agents will tell you to either book your flights through the cruise line (that way, if you’re delayed, they will get you to the ship) or if you book yourself, give it a one- or two-day buffer to allow for weather delays or issues with luggage (no one wants to go to Antarctica without their warm winter clothes).
Atlas Ocean Voyages offers private chartered jet service to Ushuaia as part of their “all inclusive all the way” promise, taking away a lot of the concern about logistics and cost (and luggage). Here's how it works: Say you're in Indianapolis. Rather than trying to line up flight schedules from several airlines, you just drive the closest included gateway (Chicago), board your commercial flight to Orlando, where you'll then take a private chartered jet nonstop to South America. That's already included in the cruise price.
These extra bonuses are kind of a running theme with Atlas, which is helmed by an executive team of cruise pros that decided to start a cruise line that they’d actually want to sail on.
Do I Want a Big Ship Experience or a Small Ship Experience?
With so many cruise lines sailing the Antarctic Ocean, the ship sizes run the gamut from under 100 passengers to more than 1000 guests.
Small ships usually belong to the more-expensive cruise lines, and you’ll find options that focus on more rugged expeditions with a bare-bones on-ship experience as well as higher-end options that go all-in on luxury, but offer less on the adventure side. You’ll have a more intimate cruise journey here, but keep in mind that an Antarctic cruise includes a lot of time at sea—so if there’s less space, fewer luxuries (like no gym or spa) and a smaller menu of dining options, you’ll be spending a lot of time in your stateroom.
Big ships can be a good option for the casual cruiser who doesn’t want to lose the traditional cruise experience of dining around the clock along with a variety of stateroom options from an inside cabin for the budget-conscious to a family-sized suite. Families with smaller children or travelers with mobility challenges may consider a bigger ship. One big caveat with a big ship, however. Due to international treaties, ships over 500 passengers can not launch expeditions to Antarctica. In other words, your on-ship experience is cushier, but “on-ship” is the only place you’ll ever be. Cruise insiders call these sailings “drive-bys”—as you sail by Antarctica, but never actually get boots on the polar ice.
Atlas Ocean Voyages fits into that just-right category. Their new ship World Navigator is built to use one-fifth the fuel of a conventional cruise ship, and can switch to a quiet electric-hydro propulsion system in ecologically sensitive areas like the waters around Antarctica. The Polar Category C and Ice Class IB vessel can sneak into spots other ships can’t reach, getting the 186 passengers on board closer to the abundant wildlife.
And while on board, you're hardly roughing it—thanks to a stateroom that includes a queen bed and ocean views (9 of the 10 stateroom types have a walk-out or Juliet balcony, perfect for whale watching.) The indulgence continues with L'Occitane en Provence amenities in the luxury marble bathroom with a spa shower. Top that off with activities like Pilates and spinning, locally inspired gourmet cuisine to fuel your adventure (room service is also included) and unlimited premium pours for your nightcap near the polar ice cap.
Am I a Traveler or a Tourist?
This is at the heart of what kind of cruise experience you should choose for yourself in Antarctica. A tourist will be content to sail the waters off the Antarctic peninsula, see the penguins, seals and whales from afar and been-there, done-that. Thousands of tourists choose this option every year.
A traveler will want an experience like that available on Atlas Ocean Voyages: putting on the complimentary parka and grabbing their courtesy binoculars from your room before boarding a Zodiac for a quick trip across the blue-gray Antarctic waters so they can step foot in the middle of a Gentoo penguin colony. Watch your step, there’s guano all over the place—but you're in complimentary knee boots and that smell will be part of the story you tell later, when you show off your penguin pics to your friends back home as you share which of the six different types of penguins in Antarctica is your favorite.
Atlas itineraries in Antarctica feature three to five days of something called Captain’s Choice, meaning that no two sailings are ever alike. Based on the changing weather conditions and wildlife activity, expeditions are planned daily to maximize the experience and avoid weather cancellations. You might sail through Neptune’s Bellows on a stop at Deception Island, so-named because it’s the caldera of an active volcano. Or you might check out the large Adelie penguin colony on Paulet Island. You could sail into the clear waters of Andvord Bay to see glaciers calving into the sea, before disembarking at Neko Harbour. Finally, you might get the chance to visit Goudier Island and drop a postcard (or two) in the mail at the world’s southernmost post office at Port Lockroy. Whichever 'choice' adventure you end up taking, don't miss Apres Sea afterwards to compare notes with your fellow travelers over drinks and snacks.
Forget Once in a Lifetime, Do I Want a Once-in-400-Years Experience?
Are you an umbraphile? If you are, you might already know that every 400 years or so, there’s a complete solar eclipse in Antarctica that travels in reverse—east to west. (So for reference, that means the last one in that direction happened just about when the Pilgrims were cruising the North Atlantic on the Mayflower.) On Dec. 4, 2021, you could be on a much nicer ship in the middle of a 12-night sailing dedicated to maximizing the eclipse experience. Atlas Ocean Voyages has reserved the best “parking spot” in the Scotia Sea to watch the eclipse as the world goes dark for a few magical minutes.
The Solar Eclipse itinerary is one of three Antarctica itineraries on offer in the 2021/2022 season by Atlas Ocean Voyages. Beginning in November, the Antarctic Discovery is a nine-night sailing that crosses the Drake Passage to explore the wildlife and wonder of the South Shetland Islands before up to 8 Captain’s Choice landings along the Antarctic Peninsula, where guests can go ashore and mingle with the penguins or hike the glaciers. With twelve different sailings, this option is the best fit for most travelers.
What do you get the person you love who already has everything for Valentine’s Day? How about a Red Nose, which comes from crossing the Antarctic Circle. This February 2022 sailing is an extended version of the Discovery cruise itinerary, with the added bonus of crossing the 66th parallel and crossing off the bucket listiest of travel experiences. But beware, this Valentine’s Day gift will be a tough act to follow in future years.
Do I Have to Mortgage My House to Go?
Cruising the Antarctic—no matter the cruise line—is not cheap. After all, this is not a 4-night Caribbean cruise we’re talking about. Prices will range from a few thousand dollars per person to upwards of fifty grand for the cruise. This isn’t a trip you’re going to nickel and dime—if you’re going to the ends of the earth, you might as well go all the way. But that other stuff adds up. And, you don’t want a trip to the White Continent to leave you seeing red.
With Atlas Ocean Voyages, all of these “extras” are included in the upfront cost, which provides peace of mind and saves you quite a bit of money in the process.
You can be smart with your money by keeping a few things in mind.
- What are you paying for flights? Roundtrip flights to Ushuaia are generally $1,600+. If your cruise fare already includes flights like the private chartered jet service from Atlas, it can save you a few thousand bucks right off the top.
- What are you paying for amenities on board? Dining, drinks, Wi-Fi—if those are those added costs on the cruise line you choose, your final bill could be much higher than you expected as these itineraries include more days at sea than most cruises. Again, Atlas includes those in the cruise cost.
- What kind of deposits are required and do I have flexibility if I can't travel? Look for a cruise line that offers reduced deposits and the flexibility to change your booking as close as 15 days before the sailing, like Atlas Ocean Voyages.