The International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO) estimates that 34,950 tourists will visit the 7th continent during the 2012-2013 season. The vast majority will arrive on a cruise ship, but arriving by sea is not the only way to witness the beauty of the region. Even if you do arrive by “boat,” cruise experiences vary widely; it is important to consider what you want from the experience and try to find something that fits your goals and concerns.
In my case, my number one goal is to step foot on the continent. It’s part of a bucket list item for me. I also want to learn things about this “extreme environment” that I can take back to my classroom. So I set out looking for a tour with experienced interpreters that offered “landings.” I also had to keep in mind a fiscally responsible budget and, initially, time constraints.
I can thank my wife for lessening that last constraint. Because of weather considerations, the tourism season in Antarctica goes from late October to early March. When I initially started hunting for a way to visit Antarctica, the plan was to go during “Winter Break” in 2013. However, try as I might, I could not find a trip that would fit within those dates. I could come close, but factoring in the air travel to get to there and back, it just couldn’t fit. When I inquired about possibly adding a few unpaid leave days to either the beginning or end of Break, I was reminded that this was against district policy. It is a common request and letting even one person do this would
make a lot of teachers-on-call happy open up a can of worms. My wife’s solution was both brave and elegant.
“Why don’t you just take a leave?” Hearing her say those words was shocking; it melted my heart. Needless to say, a “personal leave” would have serious ramifications for household income; coming from the household financial worry-wart verged on miraculous. The gift of time to write and visit Antarctica is the gift of a lifetime. Needless to say, I feel loved.
But I digress.
If you want to visit Antarctica, there are several ways to get there. The options keep changing, so be sure to research your options thoroughly. What I’ve listed below are some of the options I ran across during my search.
1) If you just want to see Antarctica, you can save a lot of money. To help preserve the Antarctic environment, cruise ships with more than 500 passengers are no longer permitted to offer landings to their guests. However, there are still several vessels from the major cruise lines that visit the area. Economies of scale and uncomplicated logistics make these look-but-don’t-touch cruises more affordable (some under $2000!) and, as an added bonus, Antarctica is often part of a diverse travel itinerary.
For example, one of the coolest cruises I ran across is a 68-day Holland America Cruise out of Fort Lauderdale aboard the 800 passenger ms Prinsendam. The itinerary for that cruise involves several stops in the Caribbean, Central America (including a Panama Canal crossing), and both sides of South America. Factoring in airfare, the cost of this amazing “sampler” tour is about the same as what I am spending on my excursion cruise. However, one of my criteria is the ability to actually step foot on the continent and spend a lot of time learning about it. That
and something my wife mumbled about getting a boyfriend if I was gone that long made scratching this option off my list easy.
2) If the prospect of sea sickness, cold weather, &/or snoring cabin mates is more terrifying than the fear of flying, another very cool “look only” option is taking an Antarctic sightseeing flight. Leaving out of various locations in Australia, this journey offers about 3 hours flying over Antarctica. The flights do not land. It’s an expensive sightseeing flight, but not as expensive as most cruises. It is also probably the least expensive way to cross “South Pole” off your bucket list.
3) Some tours actually do fly to Antarctica. Adventure Network International offers some amazing tours, including a camping trip to the South Pole and a trip to an Emperor Penguin rookery. Sadly, as much as any of these trips appealed to my adventurous side, they are comparatively expensive. They tend to start in price where suite travel on an excursion ship leaves off and the top end is in the “here, have a kidney” range. Very, very cool though.
4) Interestingly enough, the least expensive inland-by-air trip I could find involved running the race of a lifetime. Literally running. Looking into it a bit, it appears that the travel and accommodation logistics for the annual Ice Marathon run in Antarctica are actually provided by ANI, mentioned above. It costs 10,500 euros to register. You can choose to run either the half-marathon, full marathon, or 100k. As masochistic as it sounds, this trip is surprisingly compelling to me.
5) What I eventually decided on was an excursion cruise. These trips, in smaller ships, do offer the opportunity to go on shore. I will even have the opportunity to camp on land overnight (and add-in option) and, just to make the trip even more memorable, I selected a cruise scheduled to cross the Antarctic Circle. While I won’t be able to judge for myself until I’ve actually gone on the trip, Quark Expeditions came highly recommended from several sources. The timing was right, they seem to have the expertise I want, and the expense was doable, so I chose them. We will actually be alongside the Peninsula for 7 full days (tentative itinerary).
A couple of notes to end off with:
- Most ships cruise out of Ushuaia, Argentina or Punta Arenas, Chile to the Antarctic Peninsula. There are also trips from Hobart, Tasmania or Bluff or Lyttleton, New Zealand. These go to the Ross Sea.
- There are hybrid trips available. For example, Quark makes it possible to cut the occasionally rough two-day crossings of the Drake Passage off either end of a trip with their fly and cruise option. I couldn’t find pricing, but some of the cruises coming out of the Oceania side seem to offer excursions via helicopter.
- Don’t forget to factor in airfare to port and travel/extraction insurance. In my case, the cost of these alone is about the same an all-inclusive Mexican vacation for two. (This is definitely the most awesome gift I have ever been given!)
Which option would you choose? Have you gone to Antarctica? Anything you’d do differently if there was a “next time?”