How to get to Antarctica: The pros and cons of flying vs. cruising
Planning a trip to Antarctica? The first thing you need to do is decide on how you want to get there.
The vast majority of people who travel to the White Continent reach it on a cruise vessel that departs from South America.
Such trips typically start with a two-day crossing of the notoriously rough Drake Passage — the waterway between South America and Antarctica — followed by five or six days of exploring the coast of the continent and then a return trip across the Drake.
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But there's a second, less common way to go.
A handful of tour companies operate so-called "fly-cruise" trips to Antarctica that use hardy airplanes to fly tourists directly to the continent — no sailing across the Drake required.
On such trips, travelers still explore the coast of Antarctica by cruise vessel. But they don't board the vessel that will take them exploring until after they land on the continent.
Related: What it's like flying to Antarctica on a chartered plane
As I saw during a test of one of the fly-cruise trips this winter, it's a very different experience from the traditional sail-across-the-Drake trip to Antarctica (one of which I also did this winter — yeah, I'm a little obsessed with polar regions).
So which is the better way to go?
The short answer: There is no short answer. There are pros and cons to both, and the type of Antarctica trip that is right for you may not be the same as the type of Antarctica trip that is right for your neighbor. It will depend on several factors including your tolerance for rough seas, the time you have to travel and your budget.
Here, a look at some of the advantages and disadvantages of the two major ways to get to Antarctica.
The all-cruise option
As noted above, most travelers to Antarctica reach the continent on a cruise vessel that departs from South America — usually from Ushuaia, Argentina, or Puntas Arenas, Chile. Both are located at the very southern tip of South America. There also are a few cruise vessels that sail to Antarctica from Australia and New Zealand, though this is less common.
In most cases, such vessels are expedition cruise ships — small, hardy vessels with their own landing craft that are specifically designed to travel to remote, hard-to-reach places.
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In many cases, the voyages are operated by small companies that are specifically known for expedition cruising, including Lindblad Expeditions, Hurtigruten Expeditions, Quark Expeditions and Oceanwide Expeditions. But quite a few more-traditional cruise lines — including Silversea Cruises, Viking and Hapag-Lloyd Cruises — also operate expedition ships specifically built for travel to Antarctica and other polar regions.
Advantages of an all-cruise trip
The biggest advantage of an all-cruise trip to Antarctica is also, for some, its biggest disadvantage (more on this in a moment): It gets you into the Drake Passage.
As mentioned above, the Drake can be notoriously rough. Indeed, it's known as one of the roughest waterways in the world. It's not uncommon to encounter waves of 10 or 15 feet during a Drake crossing and, as I've experienced myself, the waves can be much higher.
That may sound like nothing but a disadvantage. But to many travelers — including me — crossing to Antarctica in such seas is an integral part of the experience of a trip there. It's part of understanding the remarkable history of Antarctic exploration, for sure, as it offers a taste of what the great Antarctic explorers such as Ernest Shackleton and Roald Amundsen had to endure in their epic journeys to the continent a century ago. It's also part of understanding the true remoteness of Antarctica, as the journey covers such a massive stretch of ocean.
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Bird-loving travelers who cross the Drake Passage by ship have the opportunity to see such remarkable bird species as the giant albatross, which you normally won't find in Antarctica.
In addition, the two days of crossing the Drake Passage at the start of an all-cruise Antarctica trip gives the guides on such trips a chance to prepare you for what you're about to see. Typically on such trips, specialists in such topics as Antarctica wildlife, geology and history will hold introductory lectures during the crossing that will help you put things in context upon arrival.
If nothing else, the two days provide a much-needed period of transition for travelers who have just left the frantic, crowded, modern world and soon will be thrust into a land of utter emptiness and wonder.
For some, braving a possibly rough trip across the Drake Passage is also a rite of passage. If you've gotten to Antarctica by ship across the Drake Passage, you've earned it.
Disadvantage of an all-cruise trip
As noted above, the biggest disadvantage of an all-cruise trip to Antarctica is the very same thing that some see as its biggest advantage: It gets you into the Drake — not just once, but twice.
Some people, including me, love cruising in big waves. It can be thrilling to experience the power of the ocean in all its force. But even those of us who love big waves have our limits. For someone who is prone to seasickness even in relatively calm seas, a transit through the Drake Passage can be a downright miserable experience.
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Note that contrary to what you may hear, the Drake Passage isn't always fraught. While waves up to 25 or even 35 feet high at times are not uncommon, it can also be almost perfectly calm, a phenomenon known as the Drake Lake.
I experienced these calm conditions myself during my outbound crossing to Antarctica on a Lindblad Expeditions trip in January. On the way back, in contrast, we hit nearly 20-foot-high seas.
The 'fly-cruise' option
Fly-cruise tours to Antarctica typically start with a two-hour flight from Punta Arenas, Chile, to a Chilean research base on Antarctica's King George Island, thus skipping a ship crossing of the Drake Passage. The Presidente Eduardo Frei Montalva base, as it's known, has a gravel runway that is just long enough to handle some relatively small, hardy jets.
After landing at King George Island, passengers on fly-cruise trips walk to a nearby bay for a Zodiac boat transfer to an awaiting expedition cruise vessel. From there, they are quickly off on a five- or six-night exploration of the nearby Antarctic Peninsula and its environs.
At the end of the exploration, they fly back to Punta Arenas from the same base on King George Island at which they arrived.
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The number of tour companies offering such trips is much more limited. They include Silversea Cruises (which just began such trips in December), Antarctica 21 and Quark Expeditions.
Such fly-cruise trips are still relatively rare. About 90% of travelers to Antarctica still arrive at the continent by ship.
Advantages of a fly-cruise trip
There are two big advantages to a fly-cruise trip to Antarctica. First, you get to skip the Drake Passage. As I already suggested above, that can be a very big deal to someone who is prone to seasickness. For people who are particularly sensitive to motion, flying there really is the only viable option for a trip to Antarctica, unless you want to risk being miserable for up to four days (don't forget you'll have to cross the Drake twice on an all-cruise trip).
For the record, these post-flight sailings don’t entirely remove the possibility of experiencing rough seas. After leaving King George Island, expedition ships must cross the 60-mile-wide Bransfield Strait to reach the Antarctic Peninsula — and the strait is a body of water that can be choppy, as I saw for myself on the first night of my fly-cruise trip this past winter with Silversea. We hit seas around 10 feet high in the strait, leaving many passengers feeling queasy or worse.
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But the good news is that the Bransfield Strait crossing is relatively quick. We entered it in the evening and were through it by wake-up time the next day. Once at the Antarctic Peninsula, the seas are relatively calm.
The second big advantage of fly-cruise trips to Antarctica is that they are shorter than what is typical for an Antarctica trip — something that should appeal to would-be Antarctica visitors who are limited in the number of days they can get away from work.
Antarctica trips that include ship crossings of the Drake Passage usually are at least 10 nights in length, not including the time it takes to get to and from the southern tip of South America. By cutting out the days crossing the Drake Passage, fly-cruise tour operators are able to offer an equal amount of time exploring Antarctica on a trip lasting just eight nights, including two nights in a Punta Arenas hotel — one before the flight to Antarctica and one afterward.
Disadvantages of a fly-cruise trip
The big knock on fly-cruise sailings to Antarctica over the years has been that there is a risk that poor weather at the landing site at King George Island could cause flights to and from the island to be delayed. The landings on the rough airstrip at the Chilean base require that pilots have a visual sighting of the runway.
Some companies, such as Silversea, have taken this into account in their itinerary planning. To allow for delays caused by shifting weather, Silversea has built a wide “weather window” for the charter flights to and from Antarctica into its itinerary. Silversea's trips begin and end with a night at a hotel in Punta Arenas, with downtime there built into the itinerary that creates a significant amount of wiggle room for when the flights can occur.
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If the weather is right, the flights to Antarctica will take place the morning after passengers arrive in Punta Arenas. But they can also shift earlier or later if the weather isn’t cooperating. The flights back to Punta Arenas from King George Island can be similarly adjusted.
In addition, Silversea has booked extra nights at the hotel it uses in Punta Arenas, at its expense, just in case the flights are significantly delayed and passengers have to spend an extra night in Punta Arenas either on the way in or the way out, though such an occurrence would be rare.
I saw this weather-window strategy in action myself during my fly-cruise trip to Antarctica this past winter. The day before we were supposed to fly back from King George Island, a large storm front moved in over it with low-lying clouds and fierce winds. The storm not only made it difficult for the charter planes that were supposed to take us back to Chile to land at the island, but also made it difficult to operate the Zodiac boats that would be shuttling us from the ship to shore.
As per the plan, we arrived back at the bay at King George Island early and waited for a clearing in the weather that would allow our flights home to take place. Such a window finally appeared in the late evening of the last day of the trip. We took off for Chile at around 11 p.m., about nine hours later than we would have if the weather had been ideal.
Another possible downside to the fly-cruise trips to Antarctica is that they are typically more expensive, on a per-day basis, than all-cruise trips.
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At Silversea, which offers both types of Antarctica trips, eight-night fly-cruise itineraries start at $16,600 per person, including flights — more than $2,000 per day.
Fares for Silversea's traditional Antarctica sailings that involve a crossing of the Drake Passage start at $11,900 per person, about 40% less.
In both cases, the fares above are highly-inclusive “door-to-door” pricing that comes with private executive transfers between your home and departure airport, international flights to South America and regional flights, airport transfers in South America, pre-cruise hotel stays, all shore tours, drinks and gratuities. Silversea also offers less expensive “port-to-port” pricing that strips out the international portion of the flights and transfers.
There's no right answer to the question of how to get to Antarctica, whether by ship or plane. I know which way I lean. I prefer to go by ship, as I relish the experience of following in the footsteps of the great explorers in crossing the sometimes rough Drake Passage. But other travelers will be better off, for sure, going the fly-cruise route, whether because they are prone to seasickness even in moderate seas or just can't take all that many days off for travel.
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