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Where to Start with Planning a Trip to Antarctica

Antarctica is a true bucket list destination that few people will experience in their lifetime. For many, including me, it is the most elusive of continents. It is costly to reach and incredibly remote.

If you are reading this, it’s likely because you also dream about visiting Antarctica someday. It can feel overwhelming to figure out where to start with planning a trip to Antarctica. Here are some key decisions and initial steps to take when planning an Antarctica adventure, based on my own experience.

Text: Antarctica travel planning tips (including 4 questions to ask yourself). Images: a seal sleeping on an iceberg, a zodiac boat among sea ice, and a chinstrap penguin up close.

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When is the best time to go to Antarctica?

A zodiac boat cruises through sea ice in early December in Antarctica.
Early in the season (spring), there is more sea ice which can restrict where zodiac boat and ships can go in Antarctica.

Travel to Antarctica is possible during the spring and summer in the southern hemisphere, generally between late October and March. This varies depending on weather and conditions from year to year.

There are many factors to consider as far as when is the best time to go to Antarctica, like the wildlife, conditions, and cost. I address some of these in question 3 below. 

But honestly, the best time to visit Antarctica is whenever you are able to! I traveled over the Thanksgiving holiday to minimize my time off of work and because it was best for my personal schedule.

Pro Tip: Departures in the shoulder seasons (October-November and March) are less expensive, though you can find last minute deals in any month if you are flexible.

How do you get to Antarctica?

The MS Fridtjof Nansen is one of Hurtigruten's ships that sails in Antarctica.
Hurtigruten’s MS Fridtjof Nansen as seen from a zodiac boat in Antarctica.

Unless your budget can accommodate the more than $80,000 per week or $10,000 for a day trip to the White Desert Hotel in Antarctica, you will likely be taking a boat to reach Antarctica.

The most affordable and direct way to reach Antarctica is by boat, leaving from southern Argentina or Chile. This is where the Antarctic Peninsula stretches up towards South America. 

There are now ways to fly to the Antarctic Peninsula and join a cruise ship if you want to avoid the Drake Passage, but expect to pay 20% extra and know that flights are frequently delayed due to the extreme conditions. 

While it may be tempting to bypass the Drake Passage, it is a truly unique and unforgettable experience. If leaving from Ushuaia in southern Argentina, plan to spend a minimum of 10 days on the ship with additional days before or after in Buenos Aires or elsewhere in South America.

Where to start with planning a trip to Antarctica

In order to sift through all of the options, I recommend starting by understanding your boundaries and goals when planning a trip to Antarctica. Here are four questions I recommend asking yourself to begin the planning process.

1 | What is your budget?

Gentoo penguins walking in opposite directions in Antarctica.
Gentoo penguins appear to be dancing with each other in Antarctica.

The cost of cruising to Antarctica starts at $5000 and can exceed $15,000. At the low end of the range, expect budget accommodations, which may include shared bathrooms and bedrooms, or last minute deals. For budget expeditions, pay close attention to what is and is not included such as flights to/from the embarkation location, excursions, drinks, airport transfers and lodging the night before or after. Some budget Antarctica tours may be “cruise-only” meaning they will not have excursions that take you on land.

On average, Antarctica cruises cost between $8-9000. This may include a charter flight within the country of departure, but does not include the flight from wherever you may be traveling from. 

This cost assumes double-occupancy. If you do not share a room onboard, the cost will likely go up significantly (can be up to an additional 75%). There are some expedition companies that have no or lower single-occupancy costs. For a limited time, Hurtigruten is waiving the single-occupancy fee. 

When it comes to budget, also consider whether you have everything that is needed on an Antarctica cruise packing list. If not, build in the costs to purchase necessary gear.

2 | How many days can I dedicate to this trip?

The shortest expedition cruises to Antarctica that allow you to actually set foot on the continent generally start at 11 days to and from Ushuaia. With travel time, the journey is at a minimum about 2 weeks. 

If you would like to explore more of the Antarctic region, including places like South Georgia and the Falkland Islands, there are itineraries for several weeks (21+ days). The cost for these will obviously be much higher than the shorter expeditions. 

3 | What do I most want to see in Antarctica?

A Weddell seal rests on an iceberg in Antarctica.
A Weddell seal rests on an iceberg in Antarctica, seen in early December.

There are so many different reasons to visit Antarctica. If there is something in particular you want to see or experience, be sure to plan your visit around that. Here are a few tips for what to expect in each season in Antarctica.

Spring in Antarctica begins in October and goes through November. During this time expect significant sea ice coverage and colder temperatures. The ice can restrict where ships are able to land for excursions, but also makes for dramatic photography opportunities of the landscape. Penguins will begin building their nests and elephant and fur seals will be starting their courting and mating rituals.

Summer in Antarctica runs from December through January. This is the most popular time to visit Antarctica. Some of the sea ice has melted, allowing better access to landings for ships. There is less likelihood of spring storms and greater possibility of a calmer Drake Passage crossing (no guarantees!). During this period, penguins and other wildlife are the  most active. Penguins will lay eggs in early summer and by mid-summer (late December, early January) they will be hatching. Seals are on land to give birth and whales are more predictably active. This is also a great time to see glaciers calving.

Fall in Antarctica begins in February and goes through March. February is when you will see baby penguins and seals most active as they prepare for their first winter. This is also the best time to view whales predictably, including the potential to see large pods. Expect the temperatures during this time to be dropping and the ice coverage to be at its lowest. 

Kayaking on an Antarctica expedition cruise with Hurtigruten
Kayaking in Antarctica with Hurtigruten with views of glaciers, penguins and icebergs.

If you have your heart set on experiences such as camping, kayaking, polar plunging, or snowshoeing, make sure your expedition company offers those. Many expedition companies limit the number of passengers who can participate in these activities and use a lottery system to fill the spaces. 

Pro Tip: To protect the environment, only 100 people are allowed on land at a single site in Antarctica at a time. For this reason, smaller ships may offer more or longer opportunities to be on land. Hurtrigruten’s MS Fridtjof Nansen has capacity for up to 500 passengers, but generally operates around 300. Despite the larger size, they are very efficient with managing the excursions and maximizing passenger’s time off the ship.

4 | Is this experience for you?

Me in a zodiac boat in Antarctica with icebergs behind me
Each afternoon, weather permitting, we went on a zodiac boat ride to look for wildlife.

Traveling to Antarctica is one of the most incredible adventures of my life, but after experiencing it I will say that it is definitely not for everyone. Be honest with yourself about whether this adventure is for you!

Temperatures generally range from the teens to 30’s Fahrenheit during the daytime. This is comparable to a relatively warm winter day in Minnesota. On land, the time is spent being active which makes it easier to stay warm. On the ship, time spent outdoors can be limited to what you’re comfortable with.

Crossing the Drake Passage is unlike anything I’ve experienced. If you’re lucky, you’ll get the calm waters called the “Drake Lake” but most likely you’ll get a taste of the “Drake Shake.” There are great options to avoid sea sickness on the Drake Passage, but may not work for everyone.

These are called Antarctica “expeditions” for a reason. This is not a cruise. What’s the difference? Well, expeditions center on education and exploration. There are endless lectures and workshops on board, wellness activities, and outdoor adventure experiences like camping, snowshoeing and kayaking. While there may be a bar (or several) on the ship, it’s likely you’ll be exhausted at the end of each day. 

Some ships and expeditions are more accessible than others. If you have mobility or health concerns, talk with companies before you book to make sure they will work for you. Most landings on my expedition were “go-at-your-own-pace” so you could do as much as you were comfortable with.

The Prepared Girl’s Guide to Packing for Antarctica

Make packing for Antarctica easy with this downloadable and printable packing list.

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    The first step towards planning a trip to Antarctica

    Once you can answer these four questions, you’ll be well on your way to checking this incredible destination off of your bucket list!

    Related content to read next:

    What to Wear for Winter Hiking: A Prepared Girl’s Guide

    What to Expect on a Bucket Camping Safari – Another bucket list experience!

    Check out my Antarctica travel page for even more inspiration and tips!

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    14 thoughts on “Where to Start with Planning a Trip to Antarctica

    1. This Big Wild World says:

      So glad you found it helpful! Hope you get to check Antarctica off your bucket list soon!

    2. Adrienne | Destinations & Desserts says:

      Antarctica is my #1 bucket list destination, and this is such a useful and informative post!

    3. This Big Wild World says:

      I understand, Marga! It’s a costly and remote adventure, truly a dream come true. So glad you enjoyed my photos – hope you get to experience Antarctica someday.

    4. This Big Wild World says:

      I could’ve stared at those cute little penguins forever! It was absolutely incredible to see them in the wild, their natural habitat.

    5. This Big Wild World says:

      I completely agree, Linda! It’d be sad to pay all that money and make the journey only to find out it’s the wrong timing for wildlife or conditions you really wanted to see. I was pleasantly surprised by how warm the temperatures were. I brought more layers than I needed.

    6. This Big Wild World says:

      Thank you! Yes, it’s so nice that there’s an option now for those who can’t or prefer not to cross the Drake Passage!

    7. This Big Wild World says:

      Antarctica was truly a dream come true – I hope you get to visit someday! I’m not sure what temperatures you are used to, but I found it to be warmer than I expected. During the day temperatures were in the mid-30’s (Fahrenheit). I actually laid on a deck chair in the sun on a few days!

      The kayaking was absolutely worth the cost! We got to paddle up close to a colony of penguins and watch them from the water. So cool!

    8. This Big Wild World says:

      Totally agree, it is a significant cost and extended time to be away but so worth it. I think you’d love all of the excursions and even the on-ship workshops. The cost of the White Desert Hotel is certainly not in my budget but I wouldn’t complain if someone offered me a free trip there 🙂

      The Drake Shake was pretty bad for the first 24-36 hrs. We had 33 foot (~10 m) swells for most of it and many of the on-ship services were closed or limited during that time (which was fine because most of just wanted to lay in bed). The sea sickness meds I brought worked wonders and after that we had smooth sailing!

    9. Marga says:

      What a dream! I really love to visit, but not sure if it’s possible in maze wildest dreams! Your pictures are stunning and really hope to make it someday!

    10. Kiki says:

      This is a detailed post on planning a trip to Antarctica. The dancing of penguins is so adorable. But I guess it is worth the expense visiting it and seeing all the beautiful wildlife.

    11. Linda (LD Holland) says:

      I must admit we spent a lot of time thinking and researching when we planned our trip to Antarctica. When I talk to people they start with weather concerns. But time of year, what you want to see and how long you want to go are bigger questions to answer.

    12. Dionne Evans says:

      Learned a lot, I never knew skipping the Drake Passage was even an option! Loved your photos.

    13. Valentina says:

      Wow, visiting Antarctica is one of my dreams! It looks so wonderful but also so cold; that is the only thing that worries me, to be honest. And that kayak experience, that must have been wonderful. I definitely have to plan to visit it!

    14. Josy A says:

      You know, this is the only kind of cruise/expedition I’d be tempted to do (although it is such a huge time and cost commitment!!) I LOVE the idea of all the excisions but I am completely horrified by the idea of $10,000 for staying in the White Desert Hotel!

      How was the Drake Shake for you in the end?

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