With its enormous ice shelves, vast emptiness and ethereal silence, Antarctica really is like nowhere else on earth. Its landscapes are a study in the color white: how it reflects light, accentuates mountains and crumbles atop the sea. Yet, it’s often the animals who leave the biggest impression. There are the tuxedo-clad penguins, who belly-surf out of the ocean to guard eggs from soaring skuas. Then there are the humpback whales, who breach from steel-grey fjords, and the doe-eyed Weddell seals, who ham it up for distant cameras while resting on wondering ice floes.
In Antarctica, everything is spectacularly extreme, from the constantly shifting weather patterns to the snot-freezing mid-day temperatures. Yet the journey can be remarkably pleasant thanks to increasingly comfortable expedition cruises, which shuttle you to remote bays for half-day adventures before you return to a warm shower and three-course meal. Sure, you’ll probably experience rough seas and frozen fingertips, but that’s a small price to pay for the journey of a lifetime.
What is an expedition cruise?
Unless you’re planning your own expedition, you’ll visit Antarctica as part of a group tour, almost certainly on a ship. This has the advantage of combining your transportation, meals and accommodations, and also means that no infrastructure has to be built ashore in Antarctica’s delicate environment.
Expedition cruises to Antarctica are a world away from the cruises you might be familiar with in the Caribbean or Mediterranean. The boats are smaller, the amenities are fewer and the focus is almost always on science, history, education and adventure. That said, due to the remote nature of the trips, prices are noticeably higher.
How much will my trip cost?
The sad reality is that there’s no such thing as a cheap Antarctica cruise. Per person, per day rates can range anywhere from $500 (for a triple room in the interior) to $1,500 (for a double suite with a balcony), including all meals, some drinks and basic shore excursions. This can drop slightly at the start and end of the season (which runs from November to March), but don’t expect to pay any less than $6,000 for the entire journey.
There are some easy ways to cut down on costs, including booking early for “two-for-one” airfare subsidies or shipboard credits. Alternatively, you could also chance it and show up in the main ports of departure and hunt for last-minute unsold cabins, which can go on sale for up to half the retail price.
The absolute cheapest way to visit Antarctica is to do a “scenic sail” past the islands of the Palmer Archipelago on one of the extended South America cruise itineraries from Buenos Aires or Santiago (via San Antonio, Chile). Be forewarned, however, that these bigger boats do not have landing privileges, so you won’t be able to leave the ship.
What are the itineraries?
A whopping 98% of all trips to Antarctica begin at the southern tip of South America. Ushuaia, Argentina, has historically been the most popular departure point, though an increasing number of operators are now based in Punta Arenas, Chile, too. Expedition companies enjoy sailing from here because they have relatively easy access to the Antarctic Peninsula and its offshore islands in the South Shetlands and Palmer Archipelago. Longer itineraries will tack on the wildlife-rich South Georgia and the history-rich Falkland Islands, while a few companies opt instead for the glacier-filled fjords of Patagonia.
A handful of ships depart each year on specialized itineraries to the Ross Sea from Bluff, New Zealand. On rare occasions, cruises sail from Hobart, Australia, and Cape Town, South Africa, too. These tend to be longer and more expensive journeys with about five rough days at sea before you cross the Antarctic Circle and reach the seventh continent.
All companies post rough itineraries for their journeys, but the reality is that weather, not clocks or calendars, determines timetables here. In general, most ships plan day by day, with the expected plans for the following morning announced the evening prior.
Best companies and ships
Choosing which ship to sail on is one of the most difficult parts of planning a trip to Antarctica. All of the recommended companies below are members of the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators, or IAATO, whose goal is to "advocate and promote the practice of safe and environmentally responsible private-sector travel to the Antarctic."
Magellan Explorer from Antarctica21
Anyone who’s heard nightmares about the notoriously choppy Drake Passage may want to consider an air-cruise option like Antarctica21’s Magellan Explorer, which maximizes time on the seventh continent. Guests fly from Punta Arenas to Chile’s Antarctic base on King George Island, where the 73-passenger ship sets sail. The Magellan Explorer is intimate with all exterior-facing cabins and one of the highest guide-to-guest ratios, meaning departures from the mudroom are quick and you can spend more time at each site. As a bonus, the ship carries kayaks and a dedicated guide for those who prefer to explore each site by paddle.
MS Roald Amundsen from Hurtigruten
The world's first hybrid electric-powered exploration vessel, the 500-passenger MS Roald Amundsen entered Hurtigruten’s fleet in 2019 with the goal of making travel to Antarctica more sustainable. One of the larger ships sailing in polar regions, it boasts tons of amenities, including three restaurants, a science center and a wellness zone. Itineraries tend to run at least two weeks and take in either the Patagonian fjords or the Falkland Islands, too.
MV Hondius from Oceanwide Expeditions
The 170-passenger MV Hondius is one of the most economical options for travel to Antarctica, matching exceptional polar capabilities with an excellent price point. While the cabins aren’t as large or luxurious as others on this list, it makes up for it with special excursions, such as camping, snowshoeing and mountaineering. For those brave enough – and experienced enough – to try polar scuba diving, it’s also one of the few ships equipped for underwater activities.
National Geographic Endurance from Lindblad Expeditions
Lindblad was the original pioneer of tourist trips to Antarctica, and its newest ship, the 126-passenger National Geographic Endurance, shows that it’s mastered how to usher people to the end of the earth in style. Not only are there rare-in-Antarctica features such as a spa, yoga studio and infinity-style hot tub, but there’s also two glass-walled “igloos” where you can stargaze in the evening. Plus, the ship carries a National Geographic photographer to help you master those penguin shots, as well as toys like kayaks, snowshoes and cross-country skis for plenty of polar exploring.
Viking Octantis from Viking Cruises
River cruise companies have recently moved into the open ocean with the launch of new ships like the 378-passenger Viking Octantis, which debuted in early 2022. This luxurious ship boasts floor-to-ceiling windows in its all-veranda cabins and lavish add-ons, including helicopters and submarines. It also replaces the traditional mudroom with an industry-first in-ship marina that lets guests depart from a stable surface, shielded from wind and waves.
Heritage Adventurer from Heritage Expeditions
One of the few ships sailing to the Ross Sea side of Antarctica, the 140-passenger Heritage Adventurer departs New Zealand each January on 28-day journeys, which typically take in the Ross Ice Shelf (the world’s largest body of floating ice), Cape Adare (Antarctica’s largest Adélie penguin rookery), and a number historic huts that recall the “Heroic Era” of Antarctic exploration. Along the way to and from Antarctica, the ship also stops at New Zealand’s Subantarctic Islands and Australia’s Macquarie Island.
Ocean Endeavor from Intrepid Travel & Chimu Adventures
An affordable option from two trusted travel brands, itineraries on the 200-passenger Ocean Endeavor range from 11 to 21 days and include a range of activities from photography lessons to polar camping. All trips leave from Ushuaia and typically take in South Georgia and the Falkland Islands. While cabins are basic – and many rooms lie in the dark interior – the boat does feature a gym, small spa and heated saltwater pool. It’s also one of the few ships that offers dedicated single cabins for solo travelers.