Dreaming of Antarctica: How to book the trip of a lifetime
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On Earth Day, April 22, 2020, we are publishing several environmentally themed stories. They’re a reminder that it’s possible to travel and minimize the impact on the environment at the same time. In this story about travel to Antarctica, we are highlighting the special care that travelers must exercise there.
Antarctica, the fifth-largest continent on the planet, is the most remote, mysterious and unknown territory on earth. Constituting approximately 20% of the Southern Hemisphere, it is larger than Europe, yet unique in that it has neither a native population nor a government. Instead, portions have been claimed by seven countries: Argentina, Australia, Chile, France, New Zealand, Norway and the United Kingdom.
Unfortunately, climate change has affected Antarctica significantly (as it has many other parts of the world). Who knows if it will still exist as we know it in a few years? It’s the only continent I haven’t visited and I want to see it before it is unalterably changed. However, it will also require budgeting well in advance — a trip there can easily cost $15,000 or more.
Here’s how I’m planning my bucket-list trip to Antarctica, hopefully for the end of 2020 or early 2021 — at the peak of summer in the Southern Hemisphere.
There’s no quick way to get there
This is one trip for which there are no shortcuts, especially for travelers from North America. Most Antarctica expeditions originate in the Southern Hemisphere, so get your stash of miles ready to help offset the overall cash cost you’re almost inevitably going to incur.
Where should you travel from?
Antarctica is also an inconvenient destination. (It’s even inconvenient for airplanes to overfly, let alone land, which is partly why there aren’t that many flights that cross oceans in the Southern Hemisphere.) The main jumping-off points for Antarctica are Patagonia, the southernmost region of Argentina, Australia and New Zealand.
Ushuaia, nicknamed the “End of the World,” is the capital of the Argentine province of Tierra del Fuego, which, in turn, is part of the region of Patagonia. The city is also the port from which most cruise ships depart for Antarctica. If you prefer a little less hassle, you may be able to book some luxury cruises out of Buenos Aires.
There are direct flights from Buenos Aires to Ushuaia. Many flights to USH depart from Buenos Aires’ Aeroparque airport (AEP) instead of Ministro Pistarini International Airport (EZE) — the usual arrival airport for flights from the U.S. Buenos Aires is a wonderful city with so much to explore, and so much delicious food and wine that I highly recommend a stopover of a day or two, just to rest and stretch your legs before continuing on. As an added bonus, your dollar will stretch quite far against the Argentine peso, and your tourism dollars will help boost the struggling economy.
Flights between Buenos Aires and Ushuaia are typically $200 to $300 one-way, although with the coronavirus pandemic, prices have dropped as low as $67 one-way during summer peak season (November through February). The main airlines serving the route are Aerolíneas Argentinas, which is part of the SkyTeam alliance, and LATAM, which leaves the Oneworld alliance on May 1, 2020, to begin its partnership with Delta Air Lines.
Once you arrive in Ushuaia, you can board a cruise you’ve already booked or wait to see if a last-minute cruise cabin opens up. If you have more free time than money, waiting for a last-minute deal is a one of the most affordable ways to get to Antarctica for a fraction of the usual price.
Punta Arenas, Chile
You can fly, drive or bus down to this southern Chilean city. The main airport is Aeropuerto Presidente Ibáñez (PUQ), and you can fly direct from Santiago, the capital of Chile. If you feel like adding some extra sightseeing, there are restaurants, museums and walkable options within the downtown area. Taxis are relatively cheap and easy to hail. You can even sail from Punta Arenas to Ushuaia via cruise ship — it’s a three- to four-night trip one-way.
Invercargill/Port of Bluff, New Zealand, or Hobart, Tasmania, in Australia
These cities are the jumping-off points for incredibly scenic cruise routes to Antarctica. It takes about seven days of sailing to get to Antarctica, but where’s the fun in that? Cruises from Tasmania take about 23 to 35 days in all, stopping at beautifully remote spots such as Macquarie Island, the Snares and Auckland Islands and Campbell Island, rich with unique wildlife.
What will you pay for a cruise like this? On average, expect to budget a cool $25,000 per person.
Standard ways to get to Antarctica
There’s no easy way to get to Antarctica, but the vast majority of visitors get to or near Antarctica by water. There are cruises to Antarctica from Chile, Australia, New Zealand and even South Africa, but most tourist expeditions depart from Ushuaia, Argentina.
Prefer to fly? You can do that, but none of your usual loyalty programs will get you there on points or miles. The majority of aviation into Antarctica is into King George Island, the largest of the South Shetland Islands, where you can transfer to a cruise ship for the next few days. A direct flight from Punta Arenas, Chile, to King George Island takes two to three hours one way, and allows you to skip the Drake Passage.
Unique ways to visit Antarctica
If you are a researcher, extreme marathoner or have other types of special skills or interests, you might be able to get there through some nontraditional routes.
One option is by participating in the World Marathon Challenge, where athletes run a full 26.2-mile marathon within seven days on all seven continents, including in Antarctica. Heads up: It’s not cheap at more than $40,000 per person, and registration slots are extremely limited. In 2020, the World Marathon Challenge chartered a Boeing 757 operated by Titan Airways to ferry marathoners to and from Cape Town, South Africa, to Novo Station, a Russian base on the Antarctic mainland.
Some National Geographic explorers have the unique privilege of visiting the North and South Poles as part of their jobs. But Nat Geo has also partnered with Lindblad Expeditions to offer 14- to 24-day cruises for explorers who are looking for more nature-focused experiences.
As with most Antarctica trips, the cruises aren’t cheap — they range from just under $15,000 to a whopping $113,000. But the multi-week itineraries look really exciting, and include adventures such as photography expeditions with hands-on training. As a former full-time photographer, I would find one of these a dream come true.
For geoscience researchers
Scientific researchers also have an inside route to the southernmost part of the world. Geoscientists can visit Antarctica for research purposes, but you’ll probably have to be there for a month or two.
For the rich
Is there anything money can’t solve, at least where travel is involved? If you’ve got the dough, skip the plebeian routes and charter a private Gulfstream jet through White Desert Antarctica. As a bonus, you’ll also be able to visit one of The Points Guy’s favorite countries: South Africa.
You can book “The Greatest Day” package for a one-day trip from Cape Town, South Africa, to Wolf’s Fang, Antarctica. It takes five hours one-way to arrive there. You’ll pay “just” $13,500 for one person, or $150,000 for the whole jet, which seats 12 — talk about an epic party.
If a single day is too short of a trip for your taste, choose the five-day, $58,000 “Early Emperors” package which also includes round-trip flights. This package allows you to spend some quality time with baby emperor penguins.
Or you could go for broke — literally — and splurge on the “Emperors and South Pole” package, which offers exactly what it suggests: An eight-day luxury trek to the South Pole. I’m not sure how the company is juxtaposing “luxury” with “endless ice,” but at $92,500 per person, I hope they have it figured out.
If you’re the sort of person who likes to plan every detail of your upcoming flight, Antarctica Flights offers an experience that’s a lot more similar to a typical commercial travel experience, including seat maps and special flights for significant dates including New Year’s. You’ll get champagne to ring in the coming year.
The best time of year to visit
The best time of year to visit Antarctica is when it’s winter in the Northern Hemisphere and summer there. You’ll have the best chance of seeing unique animals including baby penguins, whales, seals and a variety of bird life between the months of November and March. If you’re sailing to Antarctica, you’ll also have the highest likelihood of experiencing a calm Drake Passage in the summertime. Unfortunately, as with any peak season, this is also when you’re most likely to run into other tourists.
Can I get there on points?
Use points to offset your cash expenses
Again, Antarctica isn’t a budget trip and most of your big expenses will have to be paid in cash. But that doesn’t mean you can’t use credit cards to your advantage.
Cards like the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card allow you to use your miles to “erase” charges on your statement, and you can do the same with Chase Ultimate Rewards. Keep in mind that this isn’t usually the best use for your hard-earned points, since TPG is all about redeeming points and miles for outsize value. Your best way for determining value would be to use TPG’s monthly valuations guide to compare the cost of paying for your trip in cash versus using points and miles to cover those expenses.
One way to knock a few thousand dollars off the cost of your travels is by booking your positioning flights on miles. You can easily get to Argentina, Chile, South Africa or Australia and New Zealand on points. TPG has published an extensive number of deal alerts to all of these destinations in the past, so be sure to sign up for our newsletter to receive alerts, or follow us on Twitter to find out when they are published.
Book your cruise on Hyatt points
I was pleasantly surprised to discover that World of Hyatt partners with Lindblad Expeditions for luxury excursions. Lindblad’s smaller vessels are perfect for travelers who want to disembark in Antarctica, because ships with more than 500 passengers aren’t allowed to deposit anyone on land. Lindblad partners with National Geographic for its routes, including a handful of Antarctica sailings each year.
Unfortunately, you’ll need a lot of Hyatt stays (or spend) to visit on points: Lindblad’s Journey to Antarctica: The White Continent cruise costs between $14,940 and $73,100 in cash or a whopping 933,750 to 4,568,750 World of Hyatt points to book — per person.
Even though Hyatt points are worth 1.7 cents apiece by TPG’s current valuations, resulting in a very reasonable cash conversion value of $15,873.75 to $77,668.75, I still think I’ll be paying for my cruise in cash. After all, my Hyatt points are far more valuable when used toward, say, a stay at the beautiful Palacio Duhau Park Hyatt Buenos Aires in the lovely Recoleta neighborhood of Buenos Aires on my way down to or from Ushuaia or Punta Arenas.
As of now, it’s unclear whether or not cruise lines will still be operating their Antarctica routes toward the end of 2020. The novel coronavirus has impacted virtually every corner of the world, and it wouldn’t be a surprise if Antarctica was no exception. For now, I’ll cross my fingers and hope for the best. And it seems that the cruise lines are doing so as well, since you can still purchase passage for 2020 and 2021 cruises on many websites.
Important reminders and tips
Take care of the environment
The pristine environment of Antarctica is vulnerable to climate change and human presence, so be sure to follow the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO) guidelines for your visit. If walking on the continent is important to you, book a cruise on a smaller vessel; you won’t be allowed to disembark on Antarctic ice if you arrive on most ships carrying 500 or more passengers. Even if you sail on a smaller ship, only 100 people are allowed on shore at any given time, with a 1:20 guide-to-passenger ratio required.
You will also need special permits to enter any protected areas, so be sure to complete any necessary paperwork before departure.
Even if you never purchase travel insurance and rely exclusively on your credit card’s trip protection benefits when you travel, TPG strongly recommends purchasing an independent travel insurance plan for a trip of this magnitude. In the event that you need emergency evacuation or to cancel at the last minute, it will be a relief to know that your finances won’t take a hit.
Plan ahead for motion sickness
Last summer, I took a sunset cruise in Santorini with some friends for a post-wedding party. As we were boarding, we heard the captain apologetically telling the previous passengers, “Sorry for the choppy waters today.” I don’t usually get seasick, but I was really grateful I’d taken some prophylactic Dramamine 45 minutes prior.
As you can see from the video, the motion of the boat was fun for a couple of hours — for some of us — but it would be brutal for two days for any traveler unaccustomed to this amount of motion. I ended up having a great time that evening, but many of the other guests did not and it took them the rest of the evening to recover.
Back on the subject of Antarctica, have you heard of the infamous Drake Passage? Travelers say that it’s no joke. The waters between Cape Horn and the South Shetland Islands, known as the Drake Passage, are the convergence point for the Atlantic, Pacific and Southern Oceans and are unavoidable if you’re sailing between South America and Antarctica. The Drake Passage produces some of the choppiest waters in the world. It isn’t a quick pass-through, either: The Drake Passage takes about two days to navigate — in each direction. So even though you’ll be in a far larger vessel than my small Santorini yacht, it’s a good idea to plan ahead for potential motion sickness.
Most reports I’ve read on the Drake Passage say that it’s not that bad if you hit it at the right time. But this is the ocean we’re talking about, and two or more days going through choppy waters will take a physical toll on any landlubber.
If you are also unsure of your sea legs, bring whatever works best for you: Medication, motion sickness patches, acupressure point bands. For the amount of money you’re spending on getting to Antarctica, the last thing you want to do is feel miserable and exhausted when you get there.
Consider using a travel agent
Many TPG readers pride themselves on pulling together their dream trips on their own. But when it comes to Antarctica, even seasoned travelers can benefit from the services of a professional travel agent.
TPG contributor Daniel Hank told TPG’s Melanie Lieberman that “in the case of Antarctica, I totally needed that help.” Hank used ExpeditionTrips, which is considered one of the foremost travel companies for Antarctica journeys, although there are many other travel companies and specialists who can help you ensure that your once-in-a-lifetime experience goes without a hitch. Travel Leaders, for example, can connect you with an Antarctica travel specialist near you.
How I want to go, and how I plan to pay for my trip
Personally, I’m planning to keep things simple. I’ve decided against planning a November trip. My birthday falls at the end of January, so that’s probably my top choice for a departure time: What a memorable way to ring in a new year.
I will probably use my United Airlines miles to book a cheap award flight from Texas to Buenos Aires to visit some friends for a day or two, then fly to Ushuaia. Depending on how my finances look at that point, I might try working from the End of the World for a few weeks in hopes of scoring a budget cabin on a cruise ship headed to Antarctica. I’m not planning any activities ahead of time; I just want to be there and experience whatever comes up in the moment — yes, even if it’s a choppy Drake Passage.
If I had my choice, I’d love to cruise to Antarctica on one of the National Geographic routes through Lindblad. I was a professional photographer for a number of years before joining TPG, and I would love to dust off my fancy lenses and get some hands-on tutelage from nature photography professionals for a memorable excursion. But regardless of my cruise line, my camera gear will undoubtedly accompany me to Antarctica.
I have an annual travel insurance plan which has treated me very well over the two years that I’ve had it. I plan to pay cash for most of the Antarctica portions of my trip, using my Chase Sapphire Reserve for its excellent travel benefits. As for lodging on my way down south, I tend to rely on Hotels.com for cheaper accommodations in nonbranded hotels, although I do have a significant stash of Marriott and Hilton points as of now.
Antarctica isn’t a bucket-list place for everyone; in fact, I probably wouldn’t have considered visiting even five years ago. But it’s almost a mythical destination, and I can’t wait to go. If you’ve been, please leave me your best tips in the comments below and if you’re also hoping to go sometime in the near future, tell me how you want to get there.
Featured photo by Shutterstock.
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