Preparing for a Trip to Antarctica: FAQs (Part 1: Planning)

Pleneau Bay, Antarctica

The decision to travel to Antarctica is a big one. It requires a commitment of both time and money and involves more planning and preparation than most other trips. But like all great travel adventures, this is part of the overall experience and part of the fun.

Having made the decision to return to Antarctica at the end of this year, I’ve found myself asking the same questions I did the first time round. With the benefit of hindsight, I’ve shared my answers to the most common questions asked about planning, packing, photography and the experience itself.

 

(These answers are my own personal opinions, based on my experience travelling with Quark Expeditions.)

Part 1: Planning

Do I have to join a tour?

Are there any ‘cheap’ options?

Are there different types of tours available?

Who should I book with?

What is the best time of year to travel to Antarctica?

What itinerary should I choose?

What additional activities are offered?

What ship should I choose?

Keep reading for the answers: 

 

FAQs: How to Plan a Trip to Antarctica

 

Do I have to join a tour?

Unless you are a scientist, medic or other specialist who has earned a placement at a research station, an adventurer who has secured funding to support an expedition or are wealthy enough to arrange your own private yacht, your transport options are limited. Whilst some travel companies have introduced flight options to bypass the Drake Passage or for those who are short of time, the most common method of visiting Antarctica is a group tour via a ship.

Are there any ‘cheap’ options?

Antarctica travel is undeniably expensive – but ultimately rewarding. Deals and discounts are sometimes offered throughout the year so it’s worth joining the mailing list or social media pages of polar travel companies. The biggest discounts are the ‘last minute deals’ offered on expeditions that still have spaces. These usually require the traveller to already be in Ushuaia and able to board within a day or two. These deals provide great opportunities for backpackers already in the area with flexible travel plans.

Zodiac Cruising - Danco Island, Antarctica

Are there different types of tours available?

All tours are similar in that you will be living on a ship and exploring the region via land and zodiac excursions. What makes each tour different is the length, itinerary and optional activities offered. Some tours offer camping and kayaking options, whilst others may be specifically tailored to those with an interest in photography. Longer tours include the Falkland Islands and South Georgia in the itinerary whilst others head straight to the Antarctic Peninsula.

Who Should I Book With?

There are a number of travel companies offering expedition cruises in the region, but some are simply agents booking a trip with a polar specialist on your behalf. If you choose to book this way, make sure you find out the ship you will be travelling on and the expedition company who is leading it. I prefer to bypass travel agents and book directly with the company who will be leading the expedition. I’ve travelled with Quark Expeditions to both Antarctica and the Arctic and had no hesitation booking through them again for my third adventure. They are polar experts who are professional, ethical, passionate and experienced. The sales team that I book through have all been to the polar regions themselves so have first-hand answers to any questions I’ve had.  And they offer a returning customer discount – always a bonus.

Grytviken, South Georgia

What is the best time of year to travel to Antarctica?

Antarctica travel is limited to the Southern Hemisphere summer months of November to March and each month offers a different experience. At the beginning of the season, temperatures are likely to be at their coldest and polar ice is still breaking up which may limit access opportunities. But the landscape is often at its most pristine and undisturbed with male elephant seals still in the area and penguins nesting on their eggs. The chicks that emerge from these eggs are introduced to the region in December and January, offering some incredible wildlife sightings. Whales are more common later in the season, but some of the other wildlife starts returning to sea. The ‘best time’ to visit depends on your own personal interests.

My interest is landscape and wildlife photography. I joined my last trip at the end of December and will be starting a couple of weeks earlier this year. There are no guarantees when it comes to Antarctica, but I’m hoping it’s a good time of year to experience some great wildlife sightings again.

What itinerary should I choose?

Antarctica travel generally falls into three itineraries:

  • Return voyages from Ushuaia (Argentina) to the Antarctica Peninsula (8-11 days)
  • Longer trips from Ushuaia that add the Falkland Islands, South Georgia and other islands to the itinerary (18-25 days)
  • Trips that depart from Australia or New Zealand, pass through the Ross Sea and often involve more time at sea.

Quark currently offer a variety of itineraries in the first two categories and my first experience took me through the Falkland Islands, South Georgia and the Antarctic Peninsula. As the Falkland Islands is an attractive travel location in its own right and South Georgia deserves its reputation as one of the world’s greatest wildlife destinations, there was no way I could return to the area without visiting them again. I also loved the longer itinerary that allowed me to completely disconnect and soak up my experience over a number of weeks. So this time I’ve added an extra five days to my itinerary, will be returning to the Falklands and South Georgia and will hopefully be crossing the circle and heading further south into Antarctica than the last time.

Zodiac Cruising - Danco Island, Antarctica

What additional activities are offered?

Depending on who you travel with, the itinerary you choose and the time of year you will be there, you may be offered additional activities such as camping, cross-country skiing, snow-shoeing, mountaineering, photography and of course – the polar plunge! After the exhilaration of the polar plunge last time, I’m choosing to keep this activity on the ‘once in a lifetime’ list and exchange it for some camping this time round. Many activities need to be booked in advance and it’s worth noting that some of them may be offered at the same time others are enjoying a zodiac cruise or landing.

What ship should I choose?

For some people, the ship ends up choosing them. For others, it is a key decision in the planning process. For me, the most important decision was the travel company, itinerary and month of travel. Once I made those decisions, the ship options were limited. For others, being on a smaller ship with fewer passengers or a larger one with additional comforts may outweigh other planning considerations. Regardless, you should set yourself realistic expectations by understanding the pros and cons of each type of ship before you make your decision. I’ve travelled on the Ocean Diamond and Sea Spirit and will be joining the Sea Adventurer later this year. I shared the Ocean Diamond with 150 other passengers (short of its 189 capacity) and expected around 110 on the Sea Adventurer.

Salisbury Plain, South Georgia

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Kellie is a traveller and photographer who is most at home when exploring the world beyond it. Through the intersection of her travel, writing and photography passions, she shares her experiences to inspire others to create there own. The desire to live life instead of existing through it has introduced Kellie to inspirational locations throughout seven continents and from this a passion for landscape and wildlife photography has evolved. She feels a particular connection to the polar regions and Africa. You can see more of her photography at www.kellienetherwoodphotography.com

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Preparing for a Trip to Antarctica: FAQs (Part 2: Packing)