During the lockdowns of the covid-19 pandemic, I sat in my childhood bedroom and stared at the map on my wall. I thought of how it had been so long since I had been able to travel and how many places I still had to go. As my eyes ran across the unpinned places I had yet to visit imagining what it would be like to go I got caught on the thin, white landmass at the very bottom: Antarctica. The vast, far, and very expensive continent that I had always dreamed of visiting but figured I wouldn’t get the chance until later in life. But with months of no travel I had saved quite a bit of money. So, at that moment, I decided that when this pandemic was over, I was going to Antarctica.
I planned my Antarctica adventure as one of my ESBT group trips. After sharing on Instagram stories that I was ready to go I had plenty of followers express their interest as well. So, I reached out to my friends at Intrepid Travel and we put together a group trip. An 11-day journey to the end of the world. I had 11 other adventurous sign up to go with me and on January 12th, 21 months after I originally had the idea to visit, we boarded our ship, the Ocean Endeavour, and headed south to Antarctica.
My Antarctica voyage was, hands-down, the best travel experience of my life. While I’ve tried my best, my stories, photos, and videos just don’t do this place justice. It really is somewhere that you need to see and experience for yourself to understand why everyone who comes back claims that it is life-changing. But it’s also a huge trip to plan. So, if you are considering an Antarctica expedition cruise then this post is for you. Here’s everything you need to know about visiting Antarctica with Intrepid Travel.
The Best Time to Go to Antarctica
Antarctica is a seasonal destination. Antarctica cruises only run during the summer months, but keep in mind it’s in the southern hemisphere so summer in this case means November to March. Each month has its advantages.
November is the start of the season with the cleanest landing sites- not yet visited by other travellers and not yet navigated by pooping penguins. My cruise stuck to the Antarctica Peninsula but if you do an Antarctic expedition cruise that also goes to South Georgia November is a good time to see emperor penguins.
December is known for warmer weather, longer days, and active wildlife. Seal pups and migrating whales tend to be a highlight of travel during this month.
January is the peak of summer with plenty of sunlight. Whales, penguins (including chicks), seals, and birds are abundant. I went in January and we saw so much wildlife it was unreal.
February marks the start of peak season for whales. You will still see plenty of penguins and seals.
March is the end of the season, but there is still lots to see. It’s still peak whale season and there are plenty of seals. Penguins start moulting in March and might look grumpy but the chicks are bigger and more fun to watch. Prices also tend to be cheapest during this time as it is the end of the season.
An Antarctic Expedition Cruise: What Does That Mean?
The main way to travel to Antarctica is by cruise ship, but not all cruises are the same. Expedition cruises place an emphasis on adventure and shore exploration. The team is made up of scientists and experts in the field and education is part of the package. Expedition ships are also much smaller and built for the voyage. They able to navigate rougher seas and smaller bays, rather than typical cruise ships which place more of an emphasis on aesthetics and onboard entertainment.
In Antarctica, only ships with a maximum of 200 passengers are able to disembark and make landings. Larger ships can only sail by so keep this in mind when shopping around for the best Antarctica cruises.
How Much Does a Trip to Antarctica Cost?
While many find Antarctica as a destination intriguing, most people are quickly turned away by the price. So, how much does a trip to Antarctica cost? Well, it depends on several factors. My 11-day Antarctica expedition cruise with Intrepid Travel started at about $10,000 CAD per person. This is for a single bed in a 3-berth interior cabin. Bigger and private cabins are available for an additional cost. The most expensive option is the category 10 ‘owners suite’ which is closer to $20,000. Believe it or not, these prices are on the low end when it comes to Antarctica expedition cruises.
What is Included in the Antarctica trip cost?
Included in the cost is:
- 1 night at a hotel pre-departure
- Your cabin space on board the ship
- Some equipment and gear (more on this to come)
- Expeditions on land and via zodiac for up to 4 days of the trip
- All meals while on board
- Access to pool/hot tub/sauna/gym facilities
- Access to expert lectures
Antarctica Expedition Add-Ons
For an additional cost, you can choose to add some more activities to your Antarctica expedition cruise. If you are exploring Antarctica with Intrepid Travel these include the following:
Sea Kayaking Program: Instead of going out in the zodiacs, those who are part of the sea kayaking program will explore Antarctica by kayak. Opportunities are weather dependent but assuming it’s safe, you can kayak at every stop. Kayak experience is required. The cost of sea kayaking during my voyage was a little over $1099 USD. One member of my group joined the kayak program and loved it. However, she did choose to forgo kayaking a few times to get the zodiac/landing experience.
Polar Photography Workshop: This program is spread across the duration of our Antarctica cruise. Those in the group attended workshops with the group leaders who were renowned expert photographers. The photography group also had their own zodiacs during all outings and were the first to depart every time. The cost of the polar photography program during my voyage was $1099 USD. Four members of my group were part of the photography workshop and loved it. As an outsider looking in, I would say this program had the best value.
Camping on Antarctica: This was a 1-night opportunity and, of course, was weather dependent. It’s definitely a once-in-a-lifetime experience but don’t expect a good sleep. You do not get a tent, but rather a thin matt, sleeping bag, and bivy bag to zip yourself up in. I did this and while I’m glad to be able to have done it I would never in a million years do it again. The cost of camping in Antarctica during my voyage was $399USD.
Keep in mind that the above three programs all have limited space and are booked on a first-come-first-serve basis. If you have your heart set on something specific, book it right away.
Furthermore, you may also get the option to do a day paddle or snowshoe. This is weather dependent and will be decided during the cruise itself. Should the expedition team decide to run these activities, you can sign up and pay on board.
On top of the ship and any extras, you will want to factor in some extra money for drinks on board. There is also a small shop for souvenirs (including postcards if you want to send one from Antarctica).
Don’t forget you will also need to book your flights separately. If you are departing from Ushuaia like I did, you will likely fly into Buenos Aires and then take another flight to Ushuaia. While this is a domestic flight, it’s still pretty expensive. My roundtrip from Buenos Aires to Ushuaia cost $700CAD on top of my flights from Canada to Buenos Aires.
Also, travel insurance is mandatory. While this shouldn’t be too expensive it will add an extra cost to your budget. For those looking for travel insurance recommendations, I use and love SafetyWing.
All costs incurred onboard are in USD and can be paid via cash or major credit card.
Life on Board the Ocean Endeavour
The ship serves as your home for the duration of the cruise. You sleep, eat, and hang out here when not on land. Keep in mind it takes two days to sail through the Drake Passage and you have to pass through it going down and coming back.
Entertainment on Board
This Antarctica expedition cruise isn’t like a typical cruise line with comedy shows and musical performances. While we did have a couple of musicians on board who sang/played for us some evenings, the entertainment provided came in the form of lectures. The Intrepid staff on board were a mix of scientists and experts in various fields. We learned about the local wildlife: different species birds (including penguins of course!), whales, and seals. We also learned about the history of Antarctica from famous explorers like Shackleton to lesser known women who had voyaged to the continent. My favourite lecture was hearing stories from crew member Simon who had several years of experience aboard Sea Shepherd ships deterring Japanese whaling ships.
All lectures were optional to attend but provided great experiences to learn more about the wildlife, history, and land we were visiting.
There were also evening programs in place. Our cruise was a mix between Intrepid and Chimu and for this cruise, Chimu was in charge of entertainment. I’ll be honest, it sucked. Their audience was very different from the Intrepid one and the evening events were very boring. But we just did our own thing instead.
What are meals like onboard?
All meals are served in the dining room on the Ocean Endeavour. Meal times were pretty consistent every day. Breakfast and lunch were buffet styles. Breakfast was the same every day with a mix of fruits, cheeses and meats, eggs, potatoes, waffles, toast, breakfast pastries etc. There was also an omelette station available (assuming the sea wasn’t too rough). Lunch varied daily with several options and a salad buffet. Dinner was usually a la carte with a rotating menu every evening. That being said, there were always several options always available you didn’t want to choose something on the menu.
Food allergies and intolerances were taken very seriously. One woman on our trip had a severe nut allergy and as such there were no nuts included on the menu. Another individual had a citrus allergy. Orange juice was available at breakfast but no other citrus fruits were around. Guests were also told of these allergies in advance and asked to avoid any of these types of snacks they may have brought on board.
Vegetarian options were always available. A couple from my group were vegetarian and while there was always something to eat, sometimes they did wish there were more protein options available to them.
As for alcohol, it was available at an extra expense. There was a wine package advertised at the beginning of the journey. You could order drinks with lunch and dinner in the restaurant and there was also an onboard bar which had plenty of options including beers, wine, cocktails, juices, soda, and more. There were fountains to fill your water bottle around the ship. There was also a small coffee spot with basic coffee, tea, and hot cocoa powder. You could order a speciality coffee at an additional cost.
What are the cabins like?
As mentioned earlier, there are a wide variety of cabins available. If you are travelling on your own and do not pay for a single room then you will be partnered with someone of the same sex in a shared cabin. Some cabins are interior, meaning they have no windows. Some cabins will have a full window (or more) or just a porthole. Bathrooms are small but functional and include basic toiletries, towels, and hair dryers. Rooms also have storage space and televisions where you can watch a couple of rotating movies or tune into the lectures.
I had a category 8 room (pictured above) which had a double bed, desk, couch, armchairs, and a window. It was incredibly spacious which was really nice. I chose to spend most of my time in the common areas with my group than alone in my room so having a big room wasn’t a big priority. That being said, I was seasick the first day and having my own space was really nice for that.
On top of the daily scheduled lectures, there were also wellness programs run by one of the staff members. She did a rotation of yoga and sauna stretching. These were available to book down at the reception desk on a first come first serve basis and filled up very quickly. Of course, this was also dependent on the state of the weather and how much the ship was rocking.
There was a gym space with some basic equipment that was free for everyone to use as well as two saunas; one of which could be booked for private sessions. Once we got through the Drake passage there was also an outdoor heated pool and hot tub for anyone to use.
Crossing the Drake Passage
Unless you plan on flying to Antarctica (which you can do for a steep price), you will have to sail through the infamous Drake Passage. The Drake is known as the roughest sea crossing in the world and historically has downed hundreds of ships and taken the lives of even more sailors. Of course, with today’s technology, it’s much safer and ships will plan their route accordingly. That being said, it can still be very rough. If you are lucky, you’ll get the ‘Drake Lake’ which are calmer waters. The opposite, however, is the ‘Drake Shake’ which has huge swells.
Do people get seasick?
Yes. Definitely. The Drake isn’t like typical waters. I’ve spent a lot of time on boats between cottage life, sailing trips, a Panama Canal cruise, and of course dozens of dive trips out into the open water on small boats. I’ve never been seasick before and yet I got incredibly sick my first day and spend almost the full day in bed. It was awful.
I highly suggest getting proper medication beforehand and starting them your first night before you enter the Drake as a preventative. It’s much easier to prevent than ‘stop’. I asked my pharmacist for pills and didn’t realize the ones she gave me had no medicine and were just ginger. They did nothing. I called the ship’s doctor who gave me some more tablets but I was too sick and couldn’t keep them down. In the end, I was saved by a member of my group who had some extra Scopolamine patches which, thankfully, worked really well for me. Keep in mind that they do have some big side effects so discuss with your doctor. Also, they are not available in Canada.
Was it scary?
Honestly, no. But I’m not afraid of boats. That being said, there were some Drake Shake injuries on board. We had to navigate a storm on the way back and experienced a full day of the Drake Shake. The waves were 10m high, which was more like 20m with the dips in the swells. We have hurricane-force 2 level winds and the boat tilted 21 degrees at one point- we were pretty close to being told to confine in our cabins. Thankfully it didn’t get to that stage, however, one woman did get stuck in an elevator and another lady did fall and break/crack a rib. She was seen by the doctor and given the OK but the only thing you can do for that type of injury is let it heal on its own.
Keep in mind that this type of ‘shake’ was only considered a level 5 on a scale of 1-10. If it is bad, ships will delay. We met some people in Buenos Aires who spent an extra day cruising to avoid a storm. This is an Antarctica expedition cruise- it is built for this. Plus, the captain and crew know what they are doing and will not go through if it’s too dangerous.
Excursions in Antarctica
On the 11-day Antarctica expedition cruise, the goal was 4 days ‘in’ Antarctica with two expeditions each day, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. Of course, everything is entirely weather dependent. Our voyage went much further south than normal as we were trying to avoid the storms and we got incredibly lucky by getting to do two experiences each of those four days. However, I’ve heard that the goal is to hit 50% of this since the weather and conditions can turn so quickly and be unpredictable. Despite our luck, we still experienced some of that and changed our plans last minute due to ice and wind.
For the excursions, they are typically divided into zodiac cruising and landings. For most stops we got to do some of each but some places were zodiac only. On the days where you did both, it was usually about 45 minutes or so on the zodiac, then an hour on land. On days when it was zodiac only it was about 1.5 hours. If something exciting was going on (ie: whales nearby) we stayed out a bit longer.
There was also always a ‘zodiac only’ option for individuals who didn’t want to go to shore. In which case they would get the longer cruise.
Zodiac Excursions in Antarctica
Zodiacs are types of boats used. They are sturdy and made for adventure but inflatable. You sit on the sides so you have great views as you zip around the bays and icebergs. It can be chilly so dress warmly. You definitely want to make sure you have waterproof layers on (and a waterproof bag for your belongings) because there can be some spray. Lifejackets are provided and mandatory to wear at all times.
Some of our excursions involved a lot of driving around while others we turned off the motor and floated. This allowed the wildlife to get really close. We had a leopard seal underneath our first day, a humpback whale surface literally 5m beside us on our third day, and on our final day, a dozen or so Gentoo penguins swam around and under us. It was absolutely incredible being this close to the wildlife and for those wondering- yes, I always felt safe onboard.
Shore Landings in Antarctica
We would also use the zodiacs to transport us from the ship to the shore. This means that we often had wet landings (again, you get waterproof boots and need to have waterproof pants). Sometimes the landings could be a bit slippery and rocky but there were always expedition team members to help you get on or off. Some of the terrain for our landings was steep and the conditions could be icy, but walking poles were available to those who needed them.
Once on land, there were specific trails made for us to follow. Oftentimes these crossed over ‘penguin highways’ which are the routes penguins take. This means we had to occasionally wait for penguin traffic to pass which is just about the cutest thing ever.
Most of our landings took us close to penguin colonies. The winter had been really harsh and many eggs hadn’t hatched but we did see a couple of penguin chicks at two of our stops: fluffy little grey babies. The team was really good at spotting them and then helping you figure out where to look.
What can you see?
Every trip is different and there are no guarantees but we saw tons of wildlife during every expedition and even just from the ship.
Penguins: Gentoo, Adelie, and Chinstrap
Seals: Weddell, Crabeater, Leopard, and a baby Elephant Seal
Whales: Humpbacks, Orcas, and Minke
There were also a bunch of different types of birds. I was sick during the bird lecture and missed the names of most of them but I know we saw some terns and albatrosses.
Of course I can’t not mention the landscape. While icebergs and mountains may not seem super exciting compared to penguins and whales, the landscape in Antarctica is stunning to see. Even when not out in zodiacs its worth being out on the deck of the ship to watch.
The Antarctica Polar Plunge
One of the highlights for many Antarctica travellers is the polar plunge! It’s a tradition on Antarctica expedition cruises and assuming the weather and conditioners are ok, all guests will have the chance to participate. Your polar plunge might take place in a bay where you jump off the boat or it could be at a beach where you run in.
Our polar plunge took place in Hidden Bay and we jumped off the ship. As a safety precaution, you wear a harness around your waist and there is a doctor on standby. The water during my plunge was -0.5C and the air was around -1C. It was actually snowing.
Some people are concerned about the wildlife in the water for the polar plunge. Keep in mind that the captain and crew will only do it if they deem it to be safe. Orcas have never killed a human in the wild and leopard seal attacks are incredibly rare. There are no polar bears or sharks in Antarctica. As for sea monsters, well those can be anywhere!
There is no charge to do the polar plunge, anyone is invited to participate! We had warm towels ready for us when we got out and an optional shot of vodka. After you can go to the sauna, pool or hot tub, or to your room for a hot shower.
Packing List & Provided Gear
I have an entire post dedicated to what to wear in Antarctica so I suggest you give it a read for my best tips on advice on what to pack for everything from clothing to cameras.
As for the gear provided by the ship, our Antarctica expedition cruise provided us with insulated puffer jackets which we got to keep at the end of the trip. These were handy for layering for excursions and for wearing out on the deck. We then also got to borrow expedition parkas and muck boots for the duration of the trip.
When you fill out your final paperwork you will be asked for your shoe size as well as your clothing size for the jackets. The boots will all be regular size but they do have some wide-width options available on board if needed. Jackets go up to size men’s 3XL.
I found the size chart to be accurate but there were some mix-ups in my group and the wrong size puffer jackets were provided. Most were able to exchange, but the larger sizes run out much more quickly so if you are unsure or in-between sizes, go bigger. It’s easier to size down. If your measurements exceed what’s listed on the size chart you will need to bring your own gear.
Is Travel to Antarctica Ethical?
This is a huge question. It comes up a lot in relation to Antarctica travel and was something we also discussed several times in lectures on board as well.
Antarctica is considered to be one of the last pristine places on the planet and many believe that tourism shouldn’t operate here, it should be left alone. Others, including IAATO, argue that tourism here can be done responsibly and can be incredibly educational and help better preserve this piece of the world.
I am no scientist or expert. But, as a traveller who is constantly learning and striving to be as responsible and ethical with her travel, here’s my take.
To start with, we like to say this part of the world is untouched. In some ways it is. There are no cities or towns. It’s wild nature. But humanity has, willingly or not, still touched it. Garbage can still make it this far and wash up on the shores. It’s also one of the places in the world where the ozone layer is the thinnest.
The Intrepid Travel Antarctica expedition cruise also places heavy emphasis on the importance of visiting this part of the world responsibly. A huge part of our cruise was education; not just in terms of the onboard lectures but when out on the zodiacs exploring. Our guides aren’t just your average adventure junkies. They are bird and whale experts. Scientists, activists, and environmentalists who advocate for eco-friendly travel. We also leaned about Citizen Science projects such as Happy Whale and were encouraged to partake in these programs during our time onboard and into the future.
There is also a huge process and a number of rules for all our land visits. Gear had to be approved and cleaned before leaving the boat. If it didn’t meet the requirements, you weren’t allowed to wear it to shore. We washed our boots and stepped in a special solution before and after every landing. We stuck to specific paths and guides covered up any holes made by our steps in the snow after every outing.
There were dozens of rules for keeping our distance from the wildlife and even in terms of interacting with the environment. There was no sitting or lying on the ground to get better photos. From what I saw, our group as a whole was very good at sticking to these rules. The couple of times people did fall out of line and go off the path etc. they were quickly seen and called back in place.
Personally, I think that seeing Antarctica and how special it is made me care even more about protecting it. To be able to get so close to wildlife and know that the seals, penguins, and whales could afford to be curious because we weren’t a threat to them was truly incredible (Antarctica’s flora and fauna are protected). It was a reminder of what the world should be. Maybe what it could be, and now that I’m back I find myself even more aware of things I can do to lessen my carbon footprint in my day-to-day and travel life.
At the end of the day, it’s a personal decision and something you can argue both ways. If you do decide to visit this part of the world then be sure to choose an Antarctica expedition cruise with a reputable company, like Intrepid Travel, that prioritizes ethical and responsible travel.
Is an Antarctica Expedition Cruise Worth it?
Yes. Absolutely, 100% yes.
Without a doubt, my Antarctica expedition cruise with Intrepid Travel has been the highlight of my travel career. There is nowhere in the world like it and as much as I try my stories and photos do not do it justice.
I wrote a postcard to myself while I was there. I wrote, “if the world ever loses its magic, come back to Antarctica.” Because truly, ‘magic’ is the best way to describe this piece of the planet.
I hope that if you dream of going to Antarctica that you get the chance. It is a huge cost but for me, it was absolutely worth it and I will return one day.
Is the Intrepid Antarctica Expedition Cruise solo-traveller friendly?
Definitely! There were plenty of solo travellers on board! If you want to pay more for a private room you can. Otherwise, you will be paired with someone else of the same gender. Since it’s the same group on board for the full duration its also very easy to meet people.
Do you see many other ships?
Typically, no. Only so many people are allowed to disembark in one place in Antarctica so it’s not like usual cruise ports where you will have multiple ships in place at once. Most Antarctica expedition cruises don’t see other ships at all for the duration of the journey, except for maybe some small sailboats (yes, people actually sail here). Again, we were avoiding a big storm system and ‘safe’ patches were minimal so we did actually see two other ships briefly in passing: A Quark ship and a National Geographic ship. But they had their own stops and we just crossed paths briefly on the first day. After that, it was just us, the ice, and the wildlife.
Do cabins go on sale?
Occasionally yes, they do. Which is fantastic for saving money however its normally closer to the departure date at which point extras like kayaking and photography programs are already booked up. If that doesn’t matter to you then you can wait and see. Keep in mind the longer you wait, the more expensive flights will be as well and as I said earlier they aren’t cheap to begin with. If you are already travelling, your best chance at getting a deal would be to hang out on the docks of Ushuaia and get a last minute spot. However, it’s not guaranteed and only worth it if you are already there.
Will you be running another ESBT group trip to Antarctica?
A number of people have expressed interest so I’m definitely open to doing another one. I share most details about group trips on Instagram (@hannahlogan21). You can also keep an eye on my ESBT Group Trip page and what’s happening and where we are going next.