What are you thinking of when you picture your Antarctica cruise? Pure wilderness, spectacular landscapes, a true sense of adventure and that same intense allure of the unknown that has drawn explorers here for almost 200 years. While the unknown is a huge part of what makes taking a cruise to Antarctica so exciting, one thing you know for certain – it will be one of, if not the most, unforgettable journey of your lifetime!
If you have decided to embark on an Antarctica cruise, then you have probably already been confronted by the huge mass of information available online and are now even more confused about where to start, right! We know this because we have done the exact same thing when booking our own cruise to Antarctica. In this article, we have gathered the best information we could find to help you to make the right decision for your cruise to Antarctica.
This article contains everything you need to know about how to choose the best Antarctica cruise for you!
Remember – and I will repeat this later – you will probably only do this once in your lifetime!
How to differentiate between the different types of Antarctica cruise out there – What sets them apart?
There are quite a few factors to consider in the search for the best cruise to Antarctica, including; type of Antarctica cruise; the size of Antarctica cruise ship; the price of Antarctica cruise; landings and activities on your Antarctica cruise; and most importantly – what do you want the most from your cruise to Antarctica!
Every cruise will be different, and every Antarctica cruise operator will do things differently, but there are the important common factors that you should take into account so that you know how to choose the best Antarctica cruise for you.
Note – There are many Antarctica cruise operators offering different types of packages and services, with almost 30 ships operating so far in 2017/18. We are travelling with Hurtigruten on the 16 days Discover Patagonia and Antarctica Expedition cruise, so for this article, we are using Hurtigruten when giving examples and quoting information about landing sites.
Here are the main factors you should be considering:
(Click on the orange links in the contents list below to jump to a specific part of the article)
- A comprehensive (but not exhaustive) list of potential Antarctica landing sites.
We’re going to explain each of these factors in detail and how they may affect the experience you have so that you can put them all together to choose your best Antarctica cruise! Of course, these categories are only guides, as many ships do offer a combination of facilities and experience.
(NOTE: There is also something called ‘Fly Cruises’, which is a combination of flying directly into the Antarctic region, taking a short cruise and then flying out again, but we’re not going to cover those for now, as they miss out on the all-important Drake Passage crossing! I may add something about them at a later date. There is also the option of joining a sailing yacht tour, but we’re going to stick with cruises here.)
Types of Antarctica Cruise
Knowing what types of cruises are available goes a long way to having the knowledge to choose the best Antarctica cruise for you. Here are the main types you’ll find:
Standard Antarctica Cruises
When talking about Antarctica cruises, it’s difficult to justify using the word ‘standard’ to describe anything, because there is nothing ‘standard’ about any of what you are going to experience, no matter which cruise you choose! These are the most popular type of cruises to Antarctica, as they often offer the best of all worlds – Comfort, facilities, price, activities and adventure. If you wanted a clearer picture of one of these cruises, then you could picture a very well-known cruise line which may operate in the Mediterranean or the Caribbean, then pick it up and drop it into the middle of the Antarctic! Obviously, this is quite exaggerative, but the point is that you get a similar level of comfort and facilities as you would with any regular cruise, with the added wow factor of travelling to Antarctica, although quite likely with higher passenger numbers.
Depending on which cruise it is, some of the offer the option of shore (or ice) based excursions as well. This does depend on their size, though, so bear in mind that ships carrying more than 500 passengers are not allowed to make any landings within Antarctica at all!
Expedition Antarctica Cruises
‘Expedition Antarctica cruises’ are something altogether very different to the ‘Standard’ type we just described, as everything about them is custom built around experiencing Antarctica up close and in person. In our opinion, this type of cruise offers the best overall Antarctica cruise experience, regarding balancing price, length, onboard comforts and landings. The ships themselves are more often than not purpose-designed-and-built for cruises to Antarctica. The level of amenities varies from company-to-company and from ship-to-ship, but most will provide much more than the bare necessities. Facilities like a panoramic viewing lounge, library, lecture rooms, movie rooms for documentaries and even a sauna and Jacuzzi are all quite reasonable expectations. As the name suggests, ‘expedition Antarctica cruises’ are designed to give you as much activity and adventure as possible, with plenty of landings throughout the journey. This does not mean that you need to be an extreme polar explorer, but you should have a desire to get into an inflatable rib and climb out onto the ice to experience this unique natural environment first-hand.
When we embark on our Antarctica cruise adventure in just a few days, it will be on an ‘expedition Antarctica cruise’ with Hurtigruten on the MS Midnatsol, with landings and activities planned almost every day of the 16-day itinerary. This particular cruise offers the landings, activities and onboard atmosphere of a smaller expedition vessel, but with many of the facilities and comforts of a larger luxury Antarctic vessel. This ship carries up to 500 passengers.
The Hurtigruten MS Fram on the other hand offers a similar level of facilities and comfort but carries fewer passengers; up to 318 in total.
There is also a whole new generation of ‘low-emission and low-noise’ Antarctica cruise ships on the horizon, with the (up to) 530 passenger hybrid ship MS Roald Amundsen leading the way and joining the Hurtigruten fleet in 2018.
Research Vessel Antarctica Cruises
Research vessel Antarctica ships tend to be a lot smaller, carrying as few as 46 passengers, up to just over 100. Many of these ships are true to their name and have previously served as Antarctic research vessels during their early years, before being converted, refurbished and repurposed as Antarctica cruise ships. Their small size creates a more intimate environment where everyone will get to know each other on board and there will be plenty of opportunity for landings, often where the larger ships cannot. While the comfort and amenities won’t be anywhere near what you’ll find on a luxury ship, research vessels are still warm, comfortable and offer a unique experience.
These ships are usually described using words like ‘tough,’ ‘capable,’ and ‘cosy,’ which are all very reassuring words when you’re sailing somewhere as remote as Antarctica! A research vessel would offer the best Antarctica cruise for someone willing to forgo some extra comforts and luxuries in favour of a more raw experience.
Luxury Antarctica Cruises
Luxury will always be luxury and cruises to Antarctica are no different. A luxury cruise to Antarctica is a complete polar contrast (pun intended!) to something like a research vessel and a significant step up from the ‘standard’ and ‘expedition’ cruises in terms of facilities, service, catering, design and practically anything else that is possible to upgrade or ‘gold-plate’. The major differences will be in the size of the rooms, how fancy the dining experience is and having butlers to serve you in your premium suite!
However, don’t let this level of luxury put you off by thinking that these luxury Antarctica ships don’t offer any adventure. There are still plenty of chances for landings and activities, plus any guides, speakers and other special guests will be people at the very top of their field. Some carry only up to 200 passengers (some are larger) and have more landing craft than they need, so there’s no waiting when you want to go on shore. After, a major part of luxury is not having to queue! If you can afford it, then why not?! Simply put, these are the best Antarctica cruises for those working with a much higher budget.
Price of Antarctica Cruises
Price is always a major factor in any choice we make and unfortunately it is often the primary factor, but since we didn’t want it to be we put it second here!
Factors which will affect the price of your Antarctic adventure are; length of cruise; facilities, the inclusion of food and drinks, the level of service and landings and activities. The more you have of any of those things, the more expensive your cruise to Antarctica is going to become! Another major price factor is whether or not your Antarctica cruise will take you beyond the boundary of the Antarctic Circle or not. Most cruises to Antarctic will go as far as the Antarctic Peninsula, but not as far as the Antarctic Circle. All operators will offer an option to go further down the Peninsula, but of course, it will cost more.
Lower Budget Antarctica Cruises
The first thing to take into account when planning and budgeting for a cruise to Antarctica, is that everything is relative – even a ‘lower budget’ cruise to Antarctica is expensive, with prices starting at about $5000 USD per person, possibly with a shared cabin, for 5 to 7 days with not many landings and activities.
Higher Budget Antarctica Cruises
If you increase your budget up to the $7000 to $10,000 range, then you can extend the length of your trip, from 10 days up to even 16 days, depending on the operator and the type of trip you go for.
Highest Budget Antarctica Cruises – Money no Object!
Pushing your budget all the way up to $15,000 to $20,000 can mean a combination of things for your cruise to Antarctica – a longer cruise of up to 20 days; a higher level of luxury; and more activities. If you have a whole month to spend in Antarctica, then prepare to put almost $30,000 US on the table for a 32 day Ross Sea and Antarctic Peninsula Cruise! The longer and very high budget cruises will often include the Falkland Islands and South Georgia, which are not part of most other Antarctica cruise itineraries, and possibly even venturing deeper beyond the Antarctic Circle.
Landing Destinations, Excursions and Activities
Just being in Antarctica is something truly incredible in itself, sailing across the notorious Drake Passage and on through the vast white wilderness is truly a humbling experience. But the part of a cruise to Antarctica that we’re all looking forward more than anything else, are the landings and excursions! It’s a very human trait to feel such strong desire to step on something with your own two feet to fully experience it. It’s never enough for us to simply hear a story about a place or to see it in pictures, they only drive the urge to go there and find out for ourselves. This innate need for the first-hand experience must be what has driven humans to explore the Earth for thousands of years, and it is exactly that which still makes us so excited to set foot on Antarctica today.
The landings you will make on your cruise to Antarctica are one of, if not the most important part of your adventure, so ensure you research your cruise properly and question you Antarctica cruise operator in detail about your landings, to ensure you choose one which provides what you’re looking for.
Remember, you will probably only do this once in your lifetime!
Here are some of the most popular landing sites which you could encounter on your cruise to Antarctica: (source – Hurtigruten Antarctica Landing Sites)
Deception Island, South Shetland Islands, Antarctica
This ring-shaped island was formed by a volcanic caldera – a crater caused by a volcanic collapse – and an opening in the ring allows ships to navigate inside. Here you may visit Whalers Bay, an abandoned whaling station and a derelict British base.
Two Monkeys Travel – How to choose the best Antarctica cruise – Deception Island © David Stanley
Half Moon Island, South Shetland Islands, Antarctica
Renowned as having some of the most spectacular scenery in the Antarctic, Half Moon Island is home to chinstrap penguins, several other bird species and several species of seal. The island has a 2000 metre walking track on the southern side which allows visitors to close to the wildlife.
Two Monkeys Travel – How to choose the best Antarctica cruise – Half Moon Island © Christopher Michel
Yankee Harbour, South Shetland Islands, Antarctica
This natural harbour was once a safe haven for sealers, who have left evidence of their presence along the shores. Now Antarctica cruise visitors come to see the 4000 breeding pairs of Gentoo penguins which live here!
Two Monkeys Travel – How to choose the best Antarctica cruise – Yankee Harbour © PhilWolpe
Cuverville Island, Antarctica
Cuverville Island is home to the largest colony of Gentoo penguins and sits in the middle of an iceberg-filled channel which the ship must carefully navigate through.
Two Monkeys Travel – How to choose the best Antarctica cruise – Cuverville Island © McKay Savage
Neko Harbour, Antarctica
Yet another Gentoo penguin colony, Neko Harbour is one of the few permitted landing sites on the Antarctic mainland.
Two Monkeys Travel – How to choose the best Antarctica cruise – Neko Harbour © Christopher Michel
Paradise Bay, Antarctica
Another rare mainland landing site, this sheltered harbour is surrounded by dramatic scenery, is the location of Argentine and Chilean bases and is, of course, home to more colonies of penguins!
Two Monkeys Travel – How to choose the best Antarctica cruise – Paradise Bay © Warren Talbot
Lemaire Channel, Antarctica
This beautifully yet inhospitable Antarctic passage draws you into the 11 kilometres long and 1.6-kilometre wide channel. The still, dark waters often casting a perfect reflection of the imposing, jagged cliffs on either side.
Two Monkeys Travel – How to choose the best Antarctica cruise – Lemaire Channel © Christopher Michel
Petermann Island, Antarctica
This island is located in the Penola Strait and provides some of the best opportunities for iceberg and whale-spotting, as well as amazing views of the Antarctic Peninsula.
Two Monkeys Travel – How to choose the best Antarctica cruise – Lemaire Channel © Christopher Michel
Port Lockroy, Antarctica
This former British base was in service from 1941 until 1962, after which it lay empty for over 30 years. In 1996 the Antarctic Heritage Trust converted it into a museum which still provides visitors with a unique insight into the history of life on a base in the Antarctic.
Two Monkeys Travel – How to choose the best Antarctica cruise – Port Lockroy © McKay Savage
Wilhelmina Bay, Antarctica
A large bay full of ice and icebergs, surrounded by massive mountains and glaciers, combined with its role as a choice feeding ground for whales, make Wilhelmina Bay one of the most spectacular locations to experience some of the wildlife on a cruise to Antarctica. Oh, there’s also a big whaling shipwreck there from 1916!
Two Monkeys Travel – How to choose the best Antarctica cruise – Wilhelmina Bay © Rob Oo
Antarctic Sound, Antarctica
The Antarctic Sound lies at the north-eastern end of the Antarctic Peninsula. Huge tabular icebergs which have broken away from the Antarctic continent are brought here by the strong currents of the Weddell Sea.
Two Monkeys Travel – How to choose the best Antarctica cruise – Antarctic Sound © Andreas Kambanis
Brown Bluff, Antarctica
This towering volcanic cliff is positioned at the very tip of the Antarctic Peninsula; it’s rusty rock colour creating a stark contrast against the backdrop of snow and ice. The beach at the foot of the 745-metre high cliff is littered with ‘lava bombs’ and is home to a variety of wildlife, including Adélie penguins, Gentoo penguins, kelp gulls, Cape Petrels and Weddell seals. Couldn’t find a photo of it, so here’s some more penguins!
Two Monkeys Travel – How to choose the best Antarctica cruise – Not Brown Bluff! © Chadica
So there you have it, our complete and comprehensive guide on how to choose the best Antarctica cruise to suit your needs wants and your dreams of an Antarctic adventure! We will do our best to ensure that the information within this article is kept up to date, however, please use it as a guide and check with individual operators for the most accurate information of cruises to Antarctica.