Choosing an Antarctic cruise

Polar cruising is expensive and there are a some key factors to bear in mind when you make your choice. It's best to call us at an early stage to talk things through.

Key factors for many people are often:

  • the places you would most like to visit
  • the wildlife and special landscapes you would like to see
  • the style of boat and the degree of comfort you are looking for
  • when you would like to travel and the amount of time you can spare
  • the other parts of Chile, Argentina or further afield that you would like to visit in the rest of your holiday
  • the budget you are setting aside for this trip

It is best to call us and talk things through. There is a lot of information here to help you begin to assemble your ideas, and we hope this will help you build a picture of your own perfect trip, but nothing beats a chat with a knowledgeable adviser.

Where in Antarctica?

The most interesting and accessible part of Antarctica is the Antarctic Peninsula, the slender arm of land that reaches out towards the tip of South America. Almost all tourist visits to Antarctica go here, almost all of these are by boat, and almost all are 'expedition cruises' with guests setting out from the ship for shore landings and other activities on and around the Peninsula and its many islands.

Ships tend to offer different voyages at different times of year. At the start of the Antarctic season some are sailing down from the Arctic and are able to offer cruises from Peru or Brazil as they journey south.

Voyages try to keep clear of seas that are heavily iced. After the height of the Antarctic summer when the ice has receded there are longer cruises that sail further south along the Antarctic Peninsula, or into the Weddell Sea.

Most voyages to the Peninsula will also visit the South Shetland Islands, not just because they are en route, but also because their slightly milder conditions encourage a wide variety of wildlife in large numbers.

There are also voyages that include visits to the Falklands and South Georgia, as well as the Antarctic Peninsula, for a very comprehensive experience.

Most ships depart from Ushuaia in Argentina. Some sail from Punta Arenas in Chile.

Fly or sail to Antarctica?

An obvious influence on sailing to from South America to Antarctica is the ocean in between - the Drake Passage. This is a fickle piece of water, putting it mildly. It is sometimes almost flat calm, and sometimes very rough. On a smooth day it is the 'Drake Lake', in a storm it is the 'Drake Shake'. Ships allow two days each way for this, but it usually takes a day and a half.

If you are a nervous sailor, or just keen to save time, then you could choose to fly and gaze out on this part of the Southern Ocean from the comfort of an aircraft seat. This is only possible during the short flying season from December to February, it is expensive, and only available for a few boats. You can fly one way, join the cruise when it arrives in the south and sail back, or fly both ways.

You could also fly for a rather expensive day trip to the South Shetlands (so not quite as far south as the Peninsula itself), or all the way down to the South Pole for a very expensive but astonishing experience.

There are no scheduled flights, all are by charter.

Size of ship

The size of the expedition cruise ship you choose will have some important implications for your trip.

Large boats are generally more comfortable to sail in. Sheer size helps to reduce the movement of any ship in the rough seas of the 'Drake Shake' and larger decks give more space to stretch your legs if you happen to be crossing the 'Drake Lake'. Some boats have advanced stabilisation systems which can help reduce the amount of movement in heavy seas. Some have more decks than others of the same length, which increases the amount of space on board.

Generally (but not always) the larger the boat the more passengers it will carry. There are good arguments in favour of boats that carry fewer passengers. There are tight restrictions about which ships can put passengers ashore and where, and how many passengers can be ashore at the same time.

Some ships carry fewer passengers than would be normal for their size. For example, at 514 feet, the 'Silver Cloud Expedition' is relatively very long for this part of the world, but for Antarctic cruises she only accepts 200 passengers on board at most. She carries up to 240 passengers in other waters, but by limiting her numbers to 200 in Antarctica she can visit a full range of Antarctic visitor sites. Similarly 'Akademic Ioffe' and 'Akademik Sergey Vavilov' are as long as other boats that carry twice as many passengers to the region, so you get the benefit of some extra stability and space while still being allowed to land at any of the sites.

You should bear in mind that at any site in Antarctica only 100 passengers at most can go ashore at any time. So the boats that carry over 100 passengers must operate a shift system, putting the first 100 passengers ashore, and waiting until they come back before sending the next 100. This can greatly slow the whole process, and it will usually mean that each passenger spends less time ashore. These boats will generally arrange for the other passengers to be doing something else meanwhile, such as a zodiac cruise or kayaking, so the time is by no means wasted.

A few sites are restricted to just 40 or 50 visitors ashore at any time, and some historic expedition huts etc can only cope with a handful of visitors at once.

Bear in mind also that there are limits on the amount of time that visitors can be ashore at many sites (usually up to 3 hours), and there are places where more than one site can be accessed while the ship waits.

If you are after a good general experience of Antarctica then you don't really need to worry too much about all this: captains are skilled at managing the different factors for their size of ship so that their guests have a good experience and the treaty guidelines are properly followed. If you have particular interests, want the best chance to see some special wildlife, go ashore at a specific place, or experience a special activity such as camping for a night on the snow, tackling crevasse-ridden glaciers, or snow-shoeing like an explorer, then there will be some ships or some voyages that suit you best.

Finally, not all of us are as fit as we used to be. Jumping in and out of a zodiac on to a windswept beach might be a challenge. In that case, you might be best in a larger boat that puts less emphasis on going ashore, but offers plenty of awe-inspiring sights and experiences from the ship itself.

We've said this before, but it is worth repeating: nothing beats a chat with a knowledgeable adviser. So do call us to help choose the boat and the voyage that will suit you best.

Small ships (fewer than 100 passengers)

Small ships are able to offer the most intense experience of Antarctica. In the parlance of the Antarctic Treaty system these are 'Category 1' ships and they can visit any of the permitted landing sites. They can put all their passengers ashore at any one time at almost all sites, so each passenger can have the most time there, and so can go further and do more.

Some of these ships are comparatively large and enjoy the best of both worlds in terms of the stability that comes with size and the experience that a smaller number of passengers allows.

Small - Mid-sized ships (101-120 guests)

These ships can land their passengers at any of the permitted sites. At sites limited to 100 passengers, they will typically offer tempting alternatives so that everyone who wants to go ashore can do so.

Mid-sized ships (121-200 guests)

These ships can land their passengers at any of the permitted sites, but where there is a limit of 100 ashore at any one time they will usually need to operate a rationing system or shifts.

Large ships (201-500 guests)

Ships in this category cannot land their passengers at some visitor sites. At others where there is a limit of 100 ashore at a time they will operate a shift system. These limitations do impact their guests on-shore experience, although there may be compensations in terms of comfort and facilities on board.

The voyage

Expedition cruise ships sailing the South Atlantic and Antarctica offer a wide choice of voyages and itineraries.

There are a hundred sites around the Antarctic Peninsula alone, from sailing channels to landing sites, and research stations to glaciers. Choosing which sites most interest you, and working out which ships visit them, is a daunting task.

Your best solution is to call us (sorry, we keep saying this). We can talk through what you are looking for and the choices that might work best for you. We provide a lot of information here on this website, so please browse our Guide to Antarctica, the different ships we offer, and the variety of cruises they have available. Check our blogs for news and features, and sign up to our newsletter for the latest updates.

A very important note on published itineraries

All ships agree their itineraries with the authorities well in advance so that landings do not clash and sensitive sites do not receive more people than their conservation needs allow.

However everyone recognises the obvious: that polar conditions can intervene at short notice, and planned itineraries must be altered.

When poor weather sets in, when icebergs make a normal passage difficult, or some other sea-faring issue crops up, captains get on the radio with each other and the IAATO Ship Scheduler to agree the necessary changes. The level of mutual cooperation is very good, and together they try to ensure that despite everything passengers on every boat have a good variety of polar experiences and the best chance to see Antarctica's wildlife - especially the key species of penguin and seals.

Having said all that, and having made the point that any plan has to be taken as an aspiration and not a prediction, most cruises do follow their published itinerary quite closely - probably 9 times out of 10 on average. So it is reasonable to choose a cruise on the basis of the visitor sites included on its published itinerary - especially if you are keen to see particular species, photograph a particular scene, or follow in the footsteps of one of the great explorers. Just remember that if you set your heart on stepping ashore at a particular landing site you could well find that Fate has other ideas.

Some boats are particularly reluctant to provide a detailed sequence of their landing sites around the Antarctic Peninsula. Where we have given a sequence our purpose is to help you compare boats on the basis of how their voyages are likely to pan out, and you should never take this as a reliable route for any boat - it may just be our interpretation from the information available to us in order to give some better indication of what you might see than a bland '4 days around the Antarctic Peninsula' or some such, which is how some of the most reticent ships may describe their itineraries.



Start planning your trip to Antarctica

Let us know what kind of boat and voyage you are most interested in, and when you are thinking of travelling. We'll get back to you with some initial ideas and advice.

Call us on 020 7281 7788 ( Mon-Fri 9:15-5:45). Or we'd be happy to call you back.

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