The Ultimate Guide to Antarctica: How to Plan Your Trip

Antarctica is a land like no other. We asked expert Burnham Aldridge for all the essential information about traveling to this incredible frozen continent.

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Photo © Getty Images: David Merron Photography

Since the 1960s, tourism in Antarctica has increased steadily, and now more than 30,000 people visit the continent each year. But, reaching Antarctica hasn't always been easy. Back in the day, sailing was the only way to get there.

Now, travelers are spoiled for choice with the option of a two hour flight from Punta Arenas in Chile, or a cruise from the southern tip of the South American continent.

Most visitors get to Antarctica by cruising through the notoroious Drake Passage, which departs from Ushuaia in Argentina. 

We asked Antarctica expert, Burnham Aldridge, to tell us what he's learned from his numerous visits – his first was when he was just twelve years old!

Best Time of Year to Go to Antarctica

Tourist season in Antarctica runs during the continent's version of summer, which starts in late October and ends around late March.

Depending on when you visit during this five month period will determine the wildlife you’re likely to see, as many of Antarctica’s creatures are seasonal visitors.

Late October to Early December

Late October is when summer in the southern hemisphere is ending, so visitors during this period will see incredible ice sculptures and huge, pristine icebergs.

From mid-November, seabirds and penguins begin their courting rituals and elephant seals establish their breeding colonies. Most species of seals can be spotted on the pack ice around this time, and the Falkland and South Georgia Islands are particularly beautiful thanks to the spring wildflowers blooming.

It's still quite cold, generally just below freezing, and your ship will probably have to break through the ice – especially during late October.

Mid-December to January

This is the height of Antarctic summer, and the busiest time to visit. There are a few weeks around Christmas when the sun does not set, so the days are long and bright – which is a huge bonus for photographers. Temperatures are at their warmest and it’s often a balmy 50ºF (10ºC) on the Peninsula.

Most wildlife is in full swing here, and you will see the first penguin chicks emerge. The first signs of seal pups occur during this time, and whales can be seen too.

February to Late March

The best sunsets and sunrises occur in these months, which make for the most incredible photo opportunities. Penguin chicks on both the peninsula and the outlying islands begin to fledge, and fur seals are most commonly seen along the peninsula. This period is by far the best time to see whales.

By March, the weather is once again cooling and you should prepare for below freezing temperatures. 

Sunset over Pleneau Bay Glacier, Antarctica. Photo credit: Getty Images/Mark Connell

What Type of Cruise Ships are Available?

Selecting a cruise ship will impact how you experience Antarctica. Size is the big factor when it comes to deciding on a cruise ship.

Antarctica cruise ship sizes range from vessels that carry less than 100 people to ships that can carry more than 1,000. Ships with over 500 passengers onboard are not permitted to make shore landings, so you will be restricted to your ship for the entire voyage.

However, larger vessels are far more steady and don’t experience the same motion as smaller ships. This is particularly helpful if you suffer from seasickness, as the swaying and rocking of the ship will be less of a concern.

Although ship motion is generally not an issue around the peninsula itself, it’s certainly an issue while passing through the Drake Passage. The passage is often rough, and smaller vessels will take longer to cross the passage than the larger, faster ships.

Ships with less than 500 passengers will make shore landings throughout the trip. For anyone who wants see wildlife up close, a smaller ship is definitely the best option. It’s important to consider that only 100 people are allowed on-shore at one time, and if you're on a cruise with 400 passengers, you might be waiting for some time before it's your turn.

Generally, the smaller the ship, the less luxurious it is. On the smallest vessels, accommodation is fairly tight and there is far less room to move around on-board. 

A cruise ship exploring Antarctic waters during summer months. Photo credit: Getty Images/Fiona McAllister Photography

What to Expect Onboard a Cruise in Antarctica

Again, ship size will impact your onboard experience. The bigger vessels are very well equipped with several dining rooms and bars, a sauna and sometimes a hot tub or small pool. Your actual accommodation will be similar to a standard hotel room. The size of your room depends on how much you pay, and the cheapest option usually comes in a twin or triple room. Larger rooms have a sea view, and you'll be provided with a separate table and sofa.

On small vessels, you can forget any sauna or hot tub. However, connecting with a smaller community is one of the best things about a small boat. On small vessels, the crew will often join you for meals in the main dining hall. While your accommodation wont be as spacious, it has been described by some as "cozy and comfortable".

Both large and small cruise ships will provide three inclusive meals a day. Sometimes this will be a buffet-style meal, but more often than not it will be a standard menu. If the weather is good, the larger vessels will often provide tables outside for meals. Drinks are usually purchased separately.

Almost every Antarctica cruise will provide onboard lectures by professional wildlife experts. The larger vessels will often provide several experts, ranging from geologists to historians. These lectures are obviously optional to attend, however, the lectures are fascinating and make the whole experience far more enlightening.

What to Expect in Antarctica

No two Antarctica trips are the same. With the everchanging melting and re-freezing of ice, Antarctica's landscapes are always in a state of flux. Whta you will see is natural ice sculptures, large blocks of floating pack ice and glaciers the size of cities. 

When you picture Antarctica, you might think of a barren land of ice and snow. While this is true for much of the interior, the Antarctica Peninsula actually features lots of rock and land where no ice or snow is present. This is where you will find the most wildlife, and where most cruises make shore landings.

Upon a shore landing, you’ll be free to wander with your group. Visitors are not allowed to get too close to the wildlife – despite penguins often waddling within feet of of you. Expect to see large colonies of both penguins and seals and, depending on when you travel, courting rituals and territorial battles. Whales are a common sight later in the season, and albatrosses will often follow your ship.

Although emperor penguins are considered the flagship species for Antarctica, these are rarely seen on the peninsula. To see emperor penguins you need to travel into the interior of the continent. King penguins are spotted in the thousands on South Georgia, as are the enormous elephant seals.

Adventurous visitors can seek out a number of activities, including scuba diving, skiing, climbing, and swimming.     

Peninsula cruises are actually not as cold as you might expect. Temperatures are generally above freezing, and while a good winter coat is needed, there's no need for a mountaineering suit. There is very little snow, and you’ll mainly be walking on rock, sand and ice. The sun shines more often than not, and as you'll be moving quite a lot on land, you'll be kept warm. 

People walking by a lake in Antarctica. Photo credit: Getty Images/Robert Young

What to Pack for Antarctica

Packing layers is the key to staying warm in Antarctica.

  • Bring a good fleece, waterproof overcoat, and long-sleeved thermal underwear
  • Pack a good pair of sunglasses, as the UV intensity in Antarctica is strong, and the glare off the ice is blinding
  • High SPF sunscreen
  • Hand lotion and a chap-stick, as you'll get very dry hands and lips outside
  • Pack your camera and a pair of binoculars to see into the distance
  • Avoid cotton clothing, as it won’t allow air and moisture to pass through your layers of clothing
  • Waterproof pants are essential, so that you can walk through snow or sit on the wet ground
  • Bring a daypack so you can carry your camera, water, sunscreen and food on land
  • Gloves and beanie to protect your extremities, and pack a pair of glove liners.

Many of the top cruise operators will provide warm coats and gloves. However, don’t rely upon this as it’s not guaranteed.

Grippy, waterproof walking boots are essential. You don’t need to purchase boots that can withstand -50ºF/C, but you will need boots that keep your feet warm and dry. You’ll also be making a lot of zodiac beach landings, so find a pair of boots that extend up your leg.

No matter when you go and who you travel with, Antarctica will blow you away. It’s an environment unlike any other place on earth, a pristine wilderness that will leave you with only one thought – I wish I had longer there.

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