A visit to Antarctica is one of the most incredible trips you can take, even without considering the fact that it’s usually the final achievement for most people seeking to visit all seven continents.
There are several things unique to this experience and important to know for managing expectations. Here are some tips and information about what you can expect when taking a cruise to the White Continent. If you have any questions, please let me know in the comments or send me a message! I will also have an upcoming post with more pictures.
Beware: You may not visit the actual continent of Antarctica
I want to highlight this, since this is an expensive trip, and a lot of people travel to Antarctica with the intention of checking off their seventh continent. Many expeditions do allow you to go onshore, but almost all of the landings are on islands due to accessibility. My cruise tried to do at least one landing on the actual continent, but this is not always possible due to weather, limits on locations that can be visited, and the number of boats allowed at each location. If setting foot on the actual continent is important to you, be sure to temper your expectations.
Go in summer (December to February)
Tours take place during the Antarctic summer, with the peak being from December to February. I went in January, which provided the longest days and warmest temperatures (“warmest” being relative – see more below).
Book far in advance
I booked my trip about 15 months before, and some dates were already sold out. I suggest booking approximately 18 months beforehand to ensure you get the dates and cabins you want.
It takes a long time to get to Antarctica
Most cruises leave from Ushuaia in Argentina, the southernmost city in the world, or Punta Arenas in Chile. The usual route is to fly to Buenos Aires and then fly to Ushuaia (about 3.5 hours from Buenos Aires). From there, you board your ship and set sail across the Drake Passage, which takes approximately two days, arriving in the western peninsula of Antarctica. There are also options to fly to Antarctica from Ushuaia or Punta Arenas and board a ship there.
I suggest taking advantage of having to go through Buenos Aires and perhaps spend a day or two.
Prepare for seasickness
There’s not much movement of the ship when you’re near the continent, but crossing the Drake Passage can be absolutely horrible. I was lucky in that I encountered “Drake Lake”, a very smooth Drake Passage crossing, but I’ve heard horror stories about how rough the seas can get. Many people consider it a rite of passage, though.
Cabins in the center of the ship on lower decks will have the least movement. I also took scopolamine patches, which always work well for me. You will need a doctor’s prescription for them.
Some of your excursions may be canceled
My tour targeted two excursions per day – usually one landing on shore and one zodiac boat ride (no landing). It’s common to have to cancel a few excursions on each trip due to weather. We were actually quite lucky and did not have any canceled, but we did have some that were cut short due to worsening weather.
Your itinerary will likely change
While we had a planned itinerary at the start of the trip, it was always up for change. The captain always reviewed the weather and sea conditions for our next stop, and if the expected conditions were too bad he requested a different site. They are required to book each site, and the number of boats and visitors is limited, so you have to be flexible on where you’ll end up. On our second day in Antarctica, we were supposed to go to the South Shetland Islands, but extreme winds meant we had to find a new location. On the positive side, smooth sailing when we crossed the Drake heading down meant we made it half a day early, so we were able to add a stop in the South Shetland Islands at the very beginning.
It’s cold, even though it’s summer
During the summer, temperatures are usually around freezing. How cold it feels, though, can vary a lot. On overcast days with wind, especially if you’re out on a zodiac, it will feel significantly colder than windless, sunny days. If you’re onshore, there are some days where you can do short walks. Walking uphill through the soft snow is a bit of a challenge, so you’ll be much warmer on those days than when you’re just standing around or sitting in the boat.
For great suggestions on dressing for cold weather, see Becky’s SightDOING guide How to Dress for Winter Trips (Plus Packing Tips).
Here are examples of the two extremes of clothing layers I wore during excursions. To give you some perspective for my recommendations, I’m from Houston and not very used to cold weather. The parka, wind/water resistant pants, and boots were provided by our tour company; you’ll need to check with your operator to see if they do the same.
Coldest: Zodiac tour on a cloudy, windy day
- Wool base layer
- Puffer jacket
- Wind/water resistant pants
- Heavy socks
- Insulated waterproof boots
- Neck gaiter (better than a scarf for excursions)
- Glove liners
- Waterproof zodiac gloves
Warmest: Walking onshore on a sunny or slightly overcast day
- Wool base layer
- Parka (you may take it off later, but you’ll always have this as your outermost layer, since it’s water resistant for the Zodiac ride between the ship and shore)
- Wind/water resistant pants
- Heavy socks
- Insulated waterproof boots
You will see wildlife
You will see a lot of penguins! I find that people are usually most excited about seeing them, but you will also see different types of seals, whales, and birds. It’s possible to spot humpbacks and orcas from the ship.
You could see something at any moment
It didn’t take long to get in the habit of carrying my camera with me everywhere. You never know when a whale will pop up next to the boat or the light will look just right. You’ll probably also want to keep a jacket with you for those impromptu dashes outside.
Summer days in Antarctica are long
During mid-summer it doesn’t get completely dark. Our ship had good blackout curtains, though, so that wasn’t why I struggled with getting enough sleep. I’m a night owl, so I usually just don’t get tired while it’s still light out. It was incredibly easy to lose track of time in the evenings, and it was sometimes midnight before I’d realize it. You’re also up relatively early for excursions.
The benefit is that the the sunsets last forever! And they’re incredibly gorgeous.
You can be as busy as you want
There are certainly opportunities to keep busy on the ship. A lot of lectures were offered, and you can also spend quite a bit of time on deck taking pictures of the changing landscape or whales, if they’re spotted. Also, there’s always happy hour! (It’s not like you’re driving anywhere!) Some cruises offer more active options, such as sea kayaking, and some ships have gyms.
On the other hand, if you want downtime, it’s okay to skip some of the offerings. In fact, I even skipped one excursion that went onshore. That may seem ridiculous considering what it took to get all the way to Antarctica, but on that day I was having a glorious afternoon on deck with an incredible view, and it was nice to just relax and enjoy the views and peace when everyone else left the ship. I still don’t regret my choice.
Watch out for the sun
The glare off the snow, ice, and water can be intense. Those of you who are from colder climes and used to snow may be more prepared for this than I was. On the afternoon I just mentioned, I picked up a pretty good sunburn while sitting on deck. You’ll want to wear sunscreen, and make sure you always have your sunglasses with you.
The penguins can struggle to walk too
Though most of the time the penguins move right by as you’re trudging through the snow, sometimes they struggle too! Watch them move along the penguin “highways”, sometimes walking, sometimes falling to their belly and sliding. Though you’re not allowed to approach the penguins, it’s perfectly fine if they come up to you.
Icebergs are incredible
Beyond the sheer size of some of the icebergs, I was amazed at all the different shapes they took. What really captured my attention, though, was all the amazing shades of blue that can be found in the ice and the water surrounding them.
You’ll never forget your visit to Antarctica
I’ve been to a lot of places in the world and plan to visit a lot more, but Antarctica definitely stands out in my mind, and it always will. Its wildness, remoteness, and stark beauty is captivating. If you ever have the opportunity to go, you won’t regret it.
My Camera Equipment
On this trip I used a Pentax K-3 and 50-200mm f/4-5.6 lens, both of which are weather sealed. The lens covered probably 95% of my shots. Having the long lens was great for wildlife, and I actually like taking landscapes with a telephoto. However, there were a few times when I needed wider and ended up using my phone. I wouldn’t want to lose the 200mm reach of the lens I had, but I wish I had a second lens (maybe 15mm or 21mm) with me for wide shots when the ship was sailing closer to shore. I have been using Pentax for years and love the brand.
Details about my Antarctica trip
I traveled with Abercrombie & Kent on Le Lyrial, a Ponant ship (no compensation provided). They were great, and I highly recommend them, but there are also many other companies that offer Antarctica cruises.