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How to get to Antarctica: Traveling to the Earth’s southernmost

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Antarctica is one of the last untouched frontiers on the planet. A largely uninhabitable region, 98% of Antarctica is covered in ice so thick it plunges to an average depth of 1.9 km. It is also the coldest place on earth and has one of the highest elevations. Although it is the fifth largest continent, it is only inhabited by some 5000 people, mainly scientists, who have been known to take up residence in the region at different times of the year.

The urge to travel to this remote continent, despite its harsh conditions, was sparked by the adventures of famous explorers, Ernest Shackleton and Robert Scott. For modern day travellers, an Antarctic trip is far less treacherous a prospect than it was in the past. Read on to find out what is your best option to get to Antarctica.

How to travel to Antarctica: Fly or cruise?

The decision whether to fly or travel to Antarctica by cruise ship depends on three things: how much time you have, what you wish to see and how much money you would like to spend. Read below for quick facts about the different travel options.

When to go to Antarctica
A cruise passes through a mountain in Antarctica

Cruise to Antarctica

  • This is the most popular way to see Antarctica.
  • A cruise can take anywhere from ten days to three weeks.
  • There are various routes to take depending on where you wish to depart from.
  • There are smaller and larger cruise ships travelling to Antarctica, each of which have benefits and drawbacks (discussed in detail below).
  • Travelling by ship is also the most environmentally friendly option. Not only does it negate the need for construction of permanent dwellings and other infrastructure on the continent, it also has a lower carbon footprint than air travel.

Here are three cruise tours to check out:

10-day cruise to Antarctica’s Polar destinations

Antarctic Explorer from Buenos Aires 10 Days

Crossing the Circle: From Buenos Aires

Fly to Antarctica

  • These days, flying to Antarctica is becoming increasingly popular.
  • There is no commercial airport in Antarctica.
  • Arriving by plane involves the use of private air travel and can be rather limited.
  • Hop on a jet from Cape Town and spend as much as eight days or as few as 12 hours in Antarctica.
  • Fly over Antarctica as part of a sightseeing tour.

Fly-cruise option

  • You could opt for a fly-cruise option which shortens the trip’s overall length and bypasses the dreaded Drake Passage.
  • The option allows you to experience both flying and cruising to Antarctica.

Here is a fly-cruise tour that you might like: Antarctica Express: Fly the Drake from Punta Arenas

A map on how to get to Antarctica
Map of routes to Antarctica

There are many starting points for a journey Antarctica. Here are the most popular routes to Antarctica, with different start points, pathways, and modes of transportation. 

1. Ship Cruise from Argentina

Getting to Antarctica
A group of King Penguins in Falkland Islands

Although there are other South American ports such as Tierra del Fuego in Argentina and Port Stanley in the Falkland Islands offering departures for Antarctic cruises, departing from Ushuaia is by far the most popular route to take when going to Antarctica.

Ushuaia is situated closer to the Antarctic peninsula than other departure points, hence less time is spent travelling to Antarctica and more time is spent on the peninsula. The most scenic of all Antarctic regions, the Antarctic peninsula is a mountainous area where one will see icebergs, glaciers and abundant wildlife.

The Antarctic peninsula is most easily accessed by travelling from South America. Cruises from South America can be as short as 6 days and would usually include the South Shetland islands. Longer trips offer the opportunity to visit the Falkland Islands and South Georgia.

There are a variety of cruises, departing Ushuaia, to Antarctica. Cruise types, dates and itineraries are varied and there is plenty of availability.

Duration: 6 to 24 days
Cost: Between USD 6,000 and USD 25,000*
Good to know: If you are travelling to South America as part of your Antarctic tour, make the most of your trip by visiting some incredible South American destinations. Some suggestions are, the Galapagos Islands, Rio de Janeiro and Machu Picchu.

Here is a Antarctic ship cruise that starts from Ushuaia and takes you through Drake Passage, Antarctic Peninsula, Falkland Islands and other interesting destinations.

2. Fly-cruise from Chile

Fly-cruising to Antarctica
The shoreline of King George Island en-route to Antarctica

In order to reach the Antarctic peninsula, the Drake Passage must be crossed. It takes two days to cross the Drake Passage by ship, and rough seas may be encountered depending on the weather. However, it is possible to avoid the Drake Passage crossing by choosing a fly-cruise package. This involves flying to King George Island, where you will join a cruise before returning by plane to the mainland. This gives you an opportunity to cruise along the western peninsula where waters are calmer. You can also go ashore to experience the same sightseeing and wildlife opportunities as you would with a longer cruise.

Duration: 8 days
Cost: Between USD 10,000 and USD 15,000*
Good to know: If you have limited time and do not wish to spend more time on a ship than is necessary, then the fly-cruise option is ideal.

Here is a suitable fly-cruise tour from Punta Arenas for those wishing to avoid the Drake Passage.

3. Ship cruise from Australia or New Zealand

More of an expedition than a cruise, you are unlikely to encounter other vessels or people, apart from your shipmates. You will see huge icebergs, Mount Erebus (an active volcano), the Ross Shelf, emperor penguins, scientific bases and the sites of historic 20th century Antarctic expeditions. If you are looking for a feeling of vast openness, isolation and remoteness, this is the trip to take!

Visiting Antarctica from Hobart in Australia or Invercargill, Port of Bluff or Dunedin in New Zealand involves an eastern approach, via the Ross sea, as well as a visit to the Eastern Antarctic shore. It takes about 7 days to reach Antarctica from Australia or New Zealand. The trip normally includes stops at wildlife-rich islands such as Macquarie Island, Snares, Auckland and Campbell Islands. Because it takes longer to reach the peninsula from the east than it does from the west, the trip can take anywhere from 26 to 30 days and tends to be more pricey.

There are also fewer vessels departing from Australia or New Zealand, and thus less choice with regard to dates and itineraries.

Duration: 26 to 30 days
Cost: USD 16,000 and USD 30,000*
Good to know: Vessels departing from New Zealand and Australia are smaller and carry no more than 50 passengers. These trips are rare and should be booked well in advance to avoid disappointment.

4. Flying-in from South Africa or Chile

Cape Town in South Africa
Cape Town is one of the locations from where you can fly in to Antarctica

Flying to Antarctica is quite rare, with fewer than 500 people per year choosing this option. The key motivating factors for flying to Antarctica include reaching the South Pole, exploring the Antarctic interior (which is not accessible by ship) and spending extended time with penguins.

The flying season is short (December to February) and there are no scheduled flights. Flights need to be specially booked or chartered through a specialized tour operator, such as those based in Punta Arenas, Chile and Cape Town, South Africa.

Departing Punta Arenas, the flight from Chile is a mere 4 hours by private Jet. You will land on an ice runway and make camp at Union Glacier Camp. Spend a day acclimatizing through light activities and take another flight to the geographic South Pole on day 3. Return to Union Glacier Camp where you will spend a further two days exploring and taking in the landscape. Tours can be switched up with other highlights such as a visit to the penguin colony.

There are three types of trips available from Cape Town to Antarctica. You can opt to stay for 8 days, 4 days or as little as a single day. The longer 4 and 8-day trips involve landing at an airstrip in Queen Maud Land and staying in a luxury tented camp which accommodates only twelve people at a time. Travel does not get more exclusive than this!

Duration: 1 to 10 days
Cost: USD 15,000 to USD 84,000
Good to know: This type of trip includes bragging rights such as skiing at the South Pole, sleeping in an igloo and camping with emperor penguins.

Here are some more tours to Antarctica from Punta Arenas.

5. Flying over Antarctica — departing from Chile

For those with money to burn and an appetite for the truly outlandish, Antarctica can be seen from the comfort of a private aircraft.

Duration: 1 day
Cost: USD 6,000
Good to know: For a few thousand dollars more you can opt to land at the South Pole for a longer, more interactive experience.

Choosing a Cruise liner

The type of cruise liner or expedition vessel you choose may be one of the most important decisions you will make regarding how to visit Antarctica. The vessel size will impact the type of journey you have. Ships range from carriers accommodating between 50 and 500 passengers. Large cruise liners are sturdier and passengers are less susceptible to motion sickness. They are also often more spacious, better furnished and offer on-board entertainment.

Smaller vessels on the other hand can access more ports and have shorter disembarkation queues. It is important to ensure that the operator you choose is a member of the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators (IAATO).

When to go and what to pack

Antarctica in Spring
A humpback whale swims in the freezing waters of Antarctica

Antarctica is often described as a frozen desert because it receives so little rainfall (10 cm per year). While the landscape is barren, it is nevertheless breathtakingly beautiful. The glaciers are a wonder to behold as is the spectacular wildlife. There are penguins, seals and whales to be seen in Antarctica. A camera and a good pair of binoculars are great to have when travelling to Antarctica.

The best time to visit Antarctica is during summer i.e. between November and March. While the region remains cold, temperatures vary between 5° C (41° F) and 15° C (59° F). It is important to dress for the weather. Thermal underclothes, knee-length waterproof boots and pants as well as a good jacket are essential items to pack.

Sunburn is a genuine concern when visiting Antarctica because ultraviolet rays are reflected off the snow. During the summer months, you can generally expect between 16 and 24 hours of sunlight each day. There are times of the year, such as midsummers day, when Antarctica receives 24 hours of continuous sunlight.

Finally, if you’re taking the cruise option, it is important to carry anti-nausea medication as seasickness is a common problem for ocean travellers.

Travel tips

  • Since no country can lay claim to Antarctica, no visas are required. You will however need to apply for a permit to travel to Antarctica. This can usually be arranged through your tour operator.
  • Activities, such as snorkelling, kayaking and skiing often cost extra and must also be arranged with your tour operator up-front.

Many well-travelled voyagers consider Antarctica to be the seventh continent and as such the final destination to check off their bucket lists. With the many travel options available, deciding how to get to Antarctica may require some careful consideration. Whether you choose to fly or cruise, a trip to Antarctica promises to be as otherworldly an experience as one is likely to encounter.

Note: Prices listed are as of February, 2018.

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