Antarctica is the southernmost continent that’s still a mystery to most travelers. This frozen landmass is governed by few different countries (including the United States) and there are no cities or hotels there either, only a few research stations. If you want to cross the 7th continent off your bucket list, here are a few things you must know about traveling to Antarctica.
How to Get to Antarctica
Since there are no commercial flights to Antarctica, finding flight deals is virtually impossible; instead, you’ll have to book a trip through an expedition company. Most operators start in Argentina or Chile, traveling by ship through the Drake Passage into the Antarctica Peninsula. This requires at least 4-5 days at sea or longer, depending on how many stops you make.
A faster option is to take a Fly-Cruise, such as one offered by Quark Expeditions. This 8-day journey takes 70 passengers on a charter plane from Punta Arenas, Chile to King George Island, a military base in Antarctica, in just 2 hours. This way, you get to avoid the rough seas and spend more time exploring the scenery and wildlife in the peninsula.
What Do I Pack?
Because the weather in Antarctica is unpredictable, it’s important to pack appropriately for your adventure of a lifetime. You may need to spend some money on warm winter clothing, mainly base layers, wool socks, hats, waterproof gloves, and UV sunglasses. Most tours will give you walking boots and a parka, so you don’t need to carry these. There are no shops in Antarctica, so make sure to carry all your necessary toiletries and medications with you.
What Do I Do There?
Being in Antarctica means you are in a remote location, away from civilization, alone with nature in its raw, original form. While you sleep and eat on a comfortable cruise ship, you spend the days hiking, kayaking, whale watching, walking along penguins, zodiac cruising, birdwatching, and learning the history of abandoned whaling stations. Depending on where you land, you’ll see different species of seals and penguins, while the scenery may change each day from towering icebergs to barren volcanic mountains.
One of the most fun activities is taking a polar plunge – a quick dip into the chilly Antarctic waters in your bathing suit! Also, make sure to step foot on the continent and take a picture holding the Antarctic flag, so you can boast to your family and friends that you are a true explorer!
On board, expedition leaders present educational sessions about glaciers, geography, history, and more. Meals are always communal so you also get to meet people from all over the world.
How Do I Choose a Tour?
Travel to Antarctica used to be rare and available to only scientific explorers and wealthy adventurers. But today, there are about a dozen companies offering tours ranging from $5,000-$50,000.
You first need to decide how long you want to go for – most trips are 8 to 25 days, depending on how much ground you’d like to cover. The longer cruises go on to South Georgia and Falkland Islands as well.
The second thing to consider is the size of the ship. Smaller ships have less amenities but are more expedition focused, so you’ll have more time to go onshore. Ocean Adventurer is one of the most popular ships that can take 128 travelers aboard; its newly renovated vessel comes fitted with Rolls Royce engines, which significantly increase fuel efficiency and minimize carbon footprint.
According to the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO), ships with over 500 passengers are not allowed to make any landings. You don’t want to travel all the way to Antarctica and not step on to the continent!
When Do I Go?
Traveling to the Polar regions requires advance planning as the sailing season is only from November to March, which is summertime in Antarctica. This is when temperatures are higher, there’s more sunshine, and days are long, although it can still be quite cold, windy and even snowy during summer.
Depending on which month you travel to Antarctica, you can expect to see different things. Earlier in the season, expect to see penguins laying eggs and thicker snow-covered glaciers. As temperatures increase, you can hear the eggs crack and fall; see cute, furry brown penguin chicks; and have a better chance of viewing orcas and humpback whales.
Most expeditions will sell out a year in advance and last-minute discounts rarely come by.
How Can I Be Sustainable on My Visit?
Before booking your trip, make sure to check various tour companies’ website to find out about their involvement in sustaining the polar regions. Learn how they reuse or recycle waste, avoid single-use plastic, consume fuel, reduce emissions, and engage in the community.
During your visit, remember to carefully follow the instructions of your expedition leaders. Wash your boots both before and after leaving the gangway and don’t carry any food onshore. Also, keep your distance from any wild animals you may see, as you’ll be walking among millions of penguins and it’s important not to disturb their nests or travel routes.
When traveling to Antarctica, you will be reminded that its nature, not you, in charge. There will be weather-related delays and detours. You may plan to visit one area, but end up in another due to high winds or melted glaciers. Remember that you are one of the few people in the world that have been able to step on the 7th continent. No two tours to Antarctica are alike, so savor every moment!
All images by Sucheta Rawal.
Editor’s note: The author of this post may either have a relationship with or received other compensation from the product or service providers that are featured in this writing.