Like any travel writer worth his or her salt, one of my life’s goals has been to visit all seven continents. Unfortunately, I couldn’t afford the price of Antarctic cruises…until a couple of years ago, when I discovered the secret to scoring a cheap fare. If you’re in the same boat (no pun intended), read on, because I’m going to tell you all the steps to take to find an affordable trip to Antarctica.
What Type of Antarctic Cruises are Best for You
First and foremost you should decide which type of Antarctic cruise is best for you. They basically fall into four categories:
Luxury Antarctic Cruises
I’m stating the obvious when I say that luxury Antarctic cruise ships are, well, more luxurious. Luxury ships tend to be larger, which allows them to offer a wider range of amenities. Yoga and meditation classes, spas, swimming pools, fitness centers, multiple dining rooms with private seating, fine wines and champagne, movie theaters, 24-hour butler service, and free wifi are the norm. I even read about one that offers two seven-seat helicopters and a seven-seat submarine for eye-popping exploration of the Antarctic. On the positive side, larger vessels tends to be more stable in what can be very rough seas. But a larger ship also means more passengers, up to 500 in some instances.
Most cruise operators are voluntary members of the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators, the primary goal of which is to “advocate and promote the practice of safe and environmentally responsible private-sector travel to the Antarctic.” IIATO rules limit the number of visitors who can land on an Antarctic site at any one time to 100. Thus, if a cruise ship with 200 passengers makes a landing, they must either split the landings between two different locations or do consecutive landings with only 100 persons per trip. The more passengers, the less potential time each person will have to spend ashore walking among the seals and penguins. Of course, all that luxury also comes with a fairly steep price tag, so if you’re looking for a deal, scratch this option off your list.
The greatest fear associated with Antarctic cruises is the dreaded 50-hour Drake Passage. Widely considered to be the roughest sea crossing in the world, the Drake Passage can make the most seasoned sailor turn a bilious shade of green. However, fly-cruise packages allow folks who suffer from sea sickness to take a two-hour flight from either Punta Arenas, Chile, to King George Island in the South Shetland Islands. Here they rendezvous with the ship, which proceeds through generally calm seas to Antarctica’s Weddell Peninsula. I considered booking a fly-cruise trip, however my research turned up several drawbacks.
First, fly-cruises usually don’t begin operating until December, as the runway on King George Island is not free of ice until then. But by December, the icebergs have already started to melt and the landscape starts turning dirty brown with penguin poop and mud. If you dream of seeing immense, freshly calved icebergs and pristine white Antarctic landscapes, a fly-cruise trip is not for you. Second, fly-cruises have become so popular that discounts are rare. More importantly for me, the planes that fly to King George Island are smaller prop airplanes that have limited luggage capacity. Each passenger is allowed one 15 kg (33 pounds) checked bag and one one carry-on item, which must weigh no more than 5 kg (11 pounds). No additional personal item is allowed. The weight of the electronic equipment I must carry to do my job meant the fly-cruise option wasn’t possible for me.
Antarctic expedition cruises are conducted in smaller ships that carry less than 200 passengers. These smaller, more maneuverable ships can access sites that are inaccessible to larger cruise ships, providing a greater range of diversity for wildlife viewing. In most cases, expedition operators offer two Zodiac expeditions per day, morning and afternoon, at two different sites. With fewer passengers, these outings last longer, allowing more time for passengers to explore, hike, photograph, or simply sit in contemplation. They also carry special gear and equipment such as kayaks, paddle boards, and special gear for camping overnight on mainland Antarctica. Yet despite their smaller footprint, expedition ships still offer a variety of cabins, ranging from triple shared rooms to spacious suites with private balconies. It was this category of Antarctic cruises that I eventually chose.
When to Travel to Antarctica
Antarctic cruises are available from November through March, although late October or early April cruises are sometimes available. The following will give you an idea of what you can expect to see or experience at different times of the season:
December: Generally considered the best month to visit Antarctica. Long daylight hours and warmer temperatures provide the best opportunities to view the animals of Antarctica. Since December is the most popular month to cruise the Antarctic, it is advisable to book well in advance to get the best possible price.
January: With 24-hour daylight, January is also considered peak season. The delights of January include fluffy penguin chicks and abundant whale sightings, however the snow will be trampled from previous tourists and dirty from penguin excrement.
February: Prime whale-watching season, as well as the best time to see seal pups and visit wandering albatross nesting sites.
March: Still a great time to spot whales and fur seals, though the penguins will be molting and unattractive. With snow cover at its lowest, the landscape is not particularly photogenic, though Antarctic sunsets can be spectacular in March. Finally, as this is the least popular month to visit, deeply discounted fares are often available.
Choosing an Antarctic Itinerary
Believe it or not, Antarctica itineraries range from one day to more than a month. The shortest visit entails a two-hour flight from Punta Arenas, Chile, to King George Island, followed by a five-hour tour and a flight back to Chile, all on the same day. The latter is a 35-day cruise from New Zealand, which is beyond the scope of this article. Other than those two outliers, the most common itineraries for Antarctic cruises leaving from Ushuaia or Punta Arenas range from seven to 10 days in length. Longer itineraries that include stops at the Falkland Islands and South Georgia are also available. Keep in mind that the longer the cruise, the higher the price.
How to Get the Best Price
Armed with the above information, in late 2018 I began searching for an affordable seven to 12-day cruise in December or January 2019, departing from either Punta Arenas or Ushuaia. Initially I was very discouraged by the high prices. The average cost of Antarctic cruises is $600 per day per person, with the average cruise package being $10,000 per person, based on double occupancy. Put in plain English, that means if you want a cabin all to yourself, the average price will be $20,000. And this price is usually exclusive of flights and accommodations before and after the cruise. But don’t panic. I’m going to show you how to shave thousands of dollars off the average price.
One way to save is to share a room with a stranger. Most cruise companies offer double and triple shared cabins. You book a bed in a cabin and the company puts you together with one or two strangers of the same sex. While I was willing to share with one person, I was not willing to share with two strangers. It was a good call. I later learned that the triple cabins on my ship were all on the lowest deck, with only a single porthole that offered a “partially blocked view.” One woman who had chosen the triple room told me her room was so small that she could barely walk around the bed.
A second way to to score a deep discount is to work with a local tour companies. Several such companies in Ushuaia have been authorized to market the unsold inventory of expedition cruise companies. If you’re a bit of a gambler, you can fly to Ushuaia, walk into one of these tour companies, and book a last-minute walk-on cruise. Although rumors abound that you can arrive, book a cruise, and sail on the same day, I found that this is not possible. Cruise operators require a day to process passenger paperwork and required health insurance, so last-minute cruises must be booked a minimum of 48-hours in advance.
Another consideration is that hotels in in Ushuaia are limited and often fully booked weeks in advance of cruising season. If no last minute cruises are available during the time you are booked into a hotel, it can be challenging, if not impossible, to extend your stay. In recent years, however, the popularity of Air B&B properties in Ushuaia has provided more flexibility for those willing to take their chances on a last-minute walk-on cruise. But I needed to be on Easter Island by New Year’s Eve, so this was not a viable option for me.
By some fluke, I stumbled on another alternative that would save me thousands of dollars without the need for 100% flexibility. I discovered Freestyle Adventure Travel, one of those local tour companies in Ushuaia that I mentioned above. Freestyle works with eight or nine expedition cruise operators, all of which have vessels that accommodate less than 200 passengers. They market excess inventory from these operators via their Facebook Page and email newsletters. Freestyle is not allowed to disclose the name of the operator in those newsletters or emails, however they can provide specific information if you contact them directly.
I signed up for Freestyle’s emails and followed their Facebook Page the moment I found them. For the next few months I heard nothing, but then in March 2019 the offers began flooding my Inbox. I read the fine print and occasionally contacted Freestyle for more information. In every case, I had a reply within a day. No question was too insignificant for them.
In mid-October I received an email from Freestyle announcing a 50% off sale. I was tempted to book a bed in a twin cabin with an obstructed view on a 12-day cruise aboard the 189-passenger Ocean Diamond for $5,848. But since this was a once in a lifetime trip to Antarctica, I decided to splurge. I booked a shared Veranda suite aboard Quark’s 176-passenger World Explorer. The 12-day voyage cost $7,598, including one night pre-cruise accommodation in Ushuaia. I didn’t have to buy waterproof pants and gloves, which are mandatory for the Zodiac trips. Freestyle lends them to all their customers free of charge. I even lucked out on my roommate, who was absolutely delightful.
It’s been a few months since I returned from Antarctica. At the conclusion of the cruise, I was so overwhelmed that I really didn’t know what to think of the experience. In many ways, it was overwhelming. At the very least, I suffered sensory overload. It was hard to wrap my brain around school-bus size whales swimming directly beneath my cabin balcony, or standing on a rocky beach, surrounded by a couple thousand curious penguins. During the ensuing months, the surreal nature of the voyage has faded. Today I focus on how grateful I am to have been able to make this once-in-a-lifetime journey. And how lucky I was to be able to score such a great price with the help of Freestyle Adventure Travel.