When I went to Antarctica back in 2008, meeting someone who also had been to the windiest place on Earth was a rarity. 8 years later to the present time, it seems visiting Antarctica is more common and acceptable. I no longer get the “I don’t believe you” look when I say I have been there.
According to the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators of IAATO, tourism in Antarctica has grown by 300% from 2000 (with 12,248 visitors) to 2015 (with 36,702 visitors).
With the above, I understand more and more people have been thinking of going there, so I would like to answer some of the most common questions (except for #1) I get from people who are interested in visiting Antarctica.
Question #1: Which is better to take; a small ship or a big ship?
If you are in the process of planning your trip to Antarctica, this should be your number one question because it will dictate what cruise line you need to reserve and ultimately, your itinerary.
And the answer to the question above depend on these 2 questions:
1. What do you want to get out of your experience? Would you be happy cruising past icebergs while you are in the comforts of the ship or would you rather kayak around the icebergs? There is no right or wrong answer. It’s what you prefer.
2. How is your physical health? Will you be able to hike or get on and off a zodiac (small inflatable crafts) or do you have mobility problems?
Cruise ships to Antarctica that carries more than 500 passengers cannot land passengers onshore to explore. However, cruise ships carrying less than 200 passengers may land passengers using zodiacs, so if you wish to do some exploration on the continent, you need to go with smaller cruise lines.
The tradeoff is, of course, on bigger ships, it will feel more stable than smaller ones (at least that’s what they say), which could be important especially when cruising on the Drake Passage.
Personally, I took the smaller expedition cruises that went further south than most cruises, as we crossed the Antarctic circle and experienced 24-hour daylight. We were way down there!
Question #2: How much money do I need?
Shouldn’t this be the number #1 question? I say no.
After you make a decision what you want to do, think of how much money you have and how much more money you need to afford the cruise that you want. I want you to think first about what you want to get out of your experience and make the money work. If you have to take a second job or work extra hours, do it, so you can achieve what you have been dreaming of. I had to do this. I worked extra hours as a Paralegal to get there.
For most people, going to Antarctica is a once in a lifetime experience, so why not make it memorable? If you are not going back there again, make it everything that you dream of. The price difference, if any, will be all worth it.
Going to Antarctica is not cheap. I spent an average of $800 per night for 2 weeks to get down there – and that was just for price of the cruise. It might be different for you, but that was a lot of money for me. Was it worth it? Yes. Can it be cheaper? Absolutely. Look for deals, but may mean you have to go at a last minute.
So what are the expenses you need to be ready for:
1. Of course, the actual cruise price
2. Your airfare to your port. Mine was in Ushuaia, Argentina, so I had to fly from Houston to Buenos Aires to Ushuaia.
3. Some cruise lines have fuel surcharges. Since you have to reserve your spot way in advance, they cannot predict if the fuel prices will increase significantly before you go, so they keep this open. Mine had a fuel surcharge of USD$750 by the time I need to go.
4. Most cruise ships will require you to have a travel insurance with emergency evacuation.
5. Doctor’s fee to get a “good health” clearance. Mine asked for this.
6. And other optional stuff like new clothes, shoes, camera alcoholic drinks while on board, etc.
Question #3: When should I go?
Remember that Antarctica is in the southern hemisphere, so summer there is winter here for us in the northern half of the planet. Most cruises start in November to March, so you have a short window. The ice needs to melt a bit, so ships can pass.
Question #4: How should I pack?
Yes, Antarctica is cold, but believe it or not, it could also get sunny and hot. The weather there changes within an hour. Not exaggerating. One day we were having burgers and beer on the deck of the ship and after an hour, we experienced one of the worst snow days while we were there.
Having said that, the best advice I can give you is layer up. There is no need to bring multiple heavy jackets. One is enough but layer up inside. I wore multiple compression tops and t-shirts and sweaters inside. Besides, most cruise lines will also make you wear their “uniform” jacket when you get off the ship, so that is another layer of clothing you do not have to bring.
They also make the inside of the ship warm and comfortable, so you will not always need those heavy jackets.
If hiking is also part of your itinerary, bringing those bulky heavy jackets could be annoying. I had the opportunity to hike hills down there. By the time I got to the top of the hill, my back was dripping with sweat. I was able to easily take some layers off and put it in my backpack. Again, layer up.
Question #5: Will I have phone signal?
No, there is no phone signal down there. You cannot update your Facebook status :-). However, I was able to send short telegram-type message to my family for a small fee. Ask your cruise line if they have that service. I think I paid somewhere $5 for 2 or 3-sentence messages to my family to tell them I am alive.
Question #6: Can I travel solo?
This was me. I traveled by myself. I contacted the cruise company if they can match me with another solo female traveler. They did. Just an idea for you if you do not mind sharing the room with someone, so you do not have to pay the “solo” surcharge
It was actually pretty cool to travel solo. I’ve met some pretty cool people while down there. 8 years later, I still keep in touch with a few of them and have seen them multiple times across the globe! Just be friendly and nice
Question #7: Will there be restrooms/toilets when I land?
Don’t laugh. I have been asked this question before and for some folks this is a real concern. No, there are no porta potties when you land. Not unless you are going to one of the research centers down there. They most likely will have a restroom if you really need to go. Most landings are only for a couple of hours or so anyway, so hopefully, you can hold it.
Question #8: I suffer from motion sickness. What should I do?
I will not discourage to not go but you must be prepared. Have some motion sickness medicine with you that will knock you out. You might want to read up on the “Drake Tax”. Also, carry some crackers or biscuits with you in case you cannot get up to eat during schedule meal time. Always have water beside your bed. Get this ready as soon as you settle in your cabin.
If you can afford it, pick a room with portholes, so you can open it and get some fresh air if you need to.
Question #9: Did you get to do everything that you wanted?
If you plan to visit Antarctica, you need to have a bit of sense of humor and know how Mother Nature works, so the answer is “no”. You are about to embark on a journey to one of the harshest environment on Planet Earth. You (and your cruise Director) cannot plan for something and be mad if Mother Nature steps in. Your safety should always be the priority.
In my itinerary, I was supposed to go camping on ice and visit one of the Russian research centers and have a shot of vodka with them, but these didn’t happen due to heavy winds. We could see the location from the ship, but heavy winds prevented us from even going ½ mile closer to shore and anchor down. One of our zodiacs even got trapped and enclosed in icebergs. Oh, I have stories to tell, but the point here is “be flexible” and relax. There is no point in arguing with Mother Nature.
Question #10: Is it dangerous to go down there?
I am not going to lie, going down there requires a bit of adventurous spirit, but I think that is why you are even reading this because you have it! It is not for the faint-hearted. It takes some preparation, planning and research and the risks are real. Just know that you will be exposed to harsh elements. Always follow the instructions of your expedition leaders or Cruise Director.
If you have read this far, I am quite sure you are serious about going to Antarctica. I say go back to question #1 now and start planning your trip!