There are off the beaten path destinations, and then there’s Antarctica. One of the driest, coldest and windiest places on the planet, the majestic icy wilderness attracts scientists from around the world keen to study the unique environment.
Thanks to the ongoing success of the Antarctic Treaty, many countries are represented on the frozen continent across a handful of semi-permanent research settlements.
At the South Pole, the American-run Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station sits at more than 9,000 feet above sea level and is a dream destination for those studying astronomy and astrophysics. The landscapes and hardy wildlife of Antarctica are also a dream destination for curious travelers worldwide.
Tourism increasing in Antarctica
Despite its reputation as Earth’s final frontier, tourism is increasing. More than 105,000 people visited Antarctica during the 2022-23 tourism season, more than ever before.
Although there are airstrips on Antarctica, all but a few thousand tourists arrive by ship because there are no commercial flights or tourist infrastructure once you get there.
So, who flies? Unless you’re working on the continent, there are just a handful of companies offering fly-cruise package deals.
Otherwise, most cruises leave from Buenos Aires or Ushuaia, Argentina, or Puntas Arenas, Chile. Vessels cross the notorious Drake Passage, often calling at some remote islands on the way to the Antarctic Peninsula.
Various categories of ship make the journey to Antarctica, but most are expedition vessels ideally suited to the challenging conditions of the polar regions. Which one is right for you depends on what you want to get from the experience, and your budget.
Antarctica by cruise ship
Several cruise ship lines offer itineraries to Antarctica, often at attractive rates. While larger ships are often better suited to families, those seeking onboard entertainment, and budget-conscious travelers, their size limits their ability to offer a comprehensive experience of Antarctica.
For example, Norwegian Cruise Line offers this 14-day itinerary from Buenos Aires that includes one day of scenic cruising along the Antarctic peninsula and one day at Elephant Island, with no landings on the schedule. Celebrity Cruises offers a 14-night itinerary from Buenos Aires with similar scenic cruising opportunities.
Although there are other highlights on the itineraries and plenty of onboard activities, the limited time in Antarctica with no opportunities for landings won’t suit those who are looking for a more in-depth experience. For that, you’ll need an expedition cruise.
Expedition cruises to Antarctica
If you want to get much closer to the action in Antarctica and actually set foot on the rock and ice, you’ll need to join a much smaller vessel.
Expedition cruises have grown in popularity in recent years, with the likes of Quark Expeditions, Lindblad/National Geographic, Atlas Ocean Voyages, and Hurtigruten Expeditions offering a variety of trips to the Antarctic peninsula.
Smaller expedition vessels are better suited to the harsh conditions and can get closer to the landscapes and wildlife, offering landing opportunities by RIB boat.
In many cases, the smaller ships will block out several days for exploring the Antarctic Peninsula, with locations for landings chosen by the Captain depending on weather and sea conditions.
The biggest downside of expedition cruises is the cost. While a trip with the likes of NCL and Celebrity starts from just $1,500, an expedition cruise can be many times that. This 12-day itinerary from Hurtigruten Expeditions starts from $12,000 per person, but it includes more time in Antarctica, RIB boat landings, and the loan of all necessary equipment and clothing.
You could also consider fly-cruise options if you have limited time or you are concerned about travel sickness. Silversea, Antarctica 21, and Quark Expeditions are among the providers to consider.
These come at a high cost, but they do allow you to bypass the notoriously rough seas of the Drake Passage and start your cruise of Antarctica from the continent itself.
Antarctica by private yacht
Out of reach for all but the seriously wealthy, hundreds of visitors still go to Antarctica onboard sailing or motor yachts every year. Due to the strict safety and environmental requirements for visiting Antarctica by yacht, it’s essential to choose a company with a long track record of operations.
Working in Antarctica
Of course, if you’re keen to truly experience life in Antarctica there is the option to work there for a period of time, subject to medical and other background checks.
The United States Antarctic Program operates McMurdo Station, Crary Science and Engineering Center, the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, Palmer Station, and various field camps.
You don’t even have to be a scientist, as each settlement requires people with a variety of skills such as maintenance, logistics, cleaning, and food preparation. In fact, of the 3,200 people the U.S. sends to Antarctica every year, only about 700 are directly involved in scientific research.
At the time of writing, Leidos is the prime contractor supporting the U.S. presence in Antarctica and advertises opportunities for support staff.