I have the dream (or bucket list) of visiting some of the remote places on earth. In the beginning of this year, I realised that there was no progress at all on that list!! I was traveling a lot but mostly to standard places. Antarctica was in the top of the remote places list and I decided to visit. Also, the visit to Antarctica enabled me to ‘tick’ all continents though it was not the primary reason of Antarctica. This post intends to provide information and tips on Antarctica travel.
It is very rare to hear in India of someone going to Antarctica. I think there are few reasons for that.
- Expensive – It is going to be the most expensive trip. Travel to Europe or US looks very cheap in front of it.
- Distance – Antarctica is very far from India. It takes enormous amount of time to get to that continent.
- Not easy – It is not a luxury trip. It demands a lot of dedication from person. The ship rolls a lot in Drake passage, temperatures are low, fluctuating weather and activities for the whole day.
- Lack of advertisement – Antarctica is not advertised much when compared to US, Europe or South East Asia.
Lesser visit from Indians means lack of information specific for Indians. In this post I would like to put in some practical information about planning a trip to Antarctica.
Antarctica is the southernmost continent bigger than Europe and Australia. Ice covers 98% of the continent with average thickness of 1.9 km!! That’s lot of ice. It has the highest average elevation compared to all continents. It holds the record of lowest temperature on earth (-89°C). Geographic South Pole is in Antarctica.
There are no roads, railways, towns or restaurants in Antarctica. In fact, regulations prohibit taking food out of ship into Antarctica!! Even nature call cannot be attended in land!! The shoes has to be cleaned before leaving the ship!! These rules are basically to ensure that Antarctica does not get impacted by outside factors. The only possibility of seeing Antarctica for a normal person is from ship where you can land at specific places. There are now flights to some airstrips in Antarctica. That would help you to enter into Antarctica but still you need boats to roam around.
Best time to travel
Antarctica has only two seasons – summer and winter. For six months of the year, it is completely dark. The sun never sets in summer. With this situation, it is only possible to visit Antarctica in summer months between October and March. Antarctica is in Southern Hemisphere and hence the seasons are opposite to that of northern regions.
South America. Ushuaia in Argentina is the nearest place for Antarctica. During summer months, ships leave for Antarctica every day. There are few ships that leave from Punta Arenas in neighbouring Chile. It is possible to travel from Australia or New Zealand but the journey is along and very expensive.
Visiting Antarctica does not require any visa as it is not governed by any single country. International treaty allows people from any country to travel to Antarctica for peaceful purposes. But you need either Argentina or Chile visa depending on the port of embarkation. Argentina has complex visa process when compared to Chile. More on that in another post.
Choosing cruise operator
This will be most important part in planning Antarctica trip. With so many operators, it is really hard to search them and chose. There are few points that need to be considered while choosing the cruise ship.
- Number of people on board: The rule in Antarctica allows only 100 people from a ship to land in Antarctica at any given point of time. The landing opportunities decreases for people in a ship having more than 100 travellers. Landing is not allowed for any ship above 500 passengers!! Less people means lesser crowd during landing. This is the most important point to consider.
- Itinerary: There are trips ranging from 10 days to 25 days to Antarctica. Most cover Antarctic peninsula but few of them cross Antarctic circle. Some trips cover Falkland and South Georgia islands also. You can decide based on your interest and amount of money you can spend. Note that Falkland and South Georgia has additional visa needs as they are governed by UK.
- Luxury: The ships can be categorised into luxury and expedition. As expected, expedition ship costs less and is more geared towards Antarctica landing. Some operators provide an option of day trip to Antarctica over flight. It is expensive and does not include any landings. Few are now offering to fly and then take a cruise.
- IAATO: It is important to check whether the operator is part of IAATO (International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators)
It will be a difficult task to find the ships and itineraries. But there are aggregators like polar cruises who help on this matter. They provide the list of ships, itineraries, availability and pricing information.
Antarctica on budget
Antarctica is very expensive. But there are few ways to reduce the cost a bit.
- Book early. The Antarctica trips gets booked more than an year in advance. Planning early will give you more options and deals.
- Go in the shoulder season of October and March. The cost is very less during that time. But also note that the amount of day light in Antarctica will be less at that time. There is also possibility of ice sheets blocking entry into Antarctica. In my personal opinion, it is not the best time to travel.
- Look for last minute deals in Ushuaia.
If you search for budget travel to Antarctica, you will see that the third option is very popular. Come to Ushuaia and cruise operators having empty slots are desperately waiting for people!! Not any more. As I said earlier, it is very hard to get seats during season in the last moment. Some seats do get available but the price is not very cheap when compared to booking in advance. Also, indefinitely waiting in Ushuaia is not an option for Indians due to visa constraints. Argentina allows only one month to stay.
I started looking at the cruise operators in the beginning of this year. I chose M/V Ushuaia based on my needs, availability, timing and budget. Instead of going via travel agents or aggregators, I contacted the company directly over email. The responses were quick and positive. My main concern was about vegetarian food. They promised to take care of it. I had to transfer 30% of the amount at that time and the remaining 3 months before travel. Since it was an international money transfer, I could not do it online and had to visit the bank branch. The process was straightforward though it involved a bit of paperwork. I was happy that all transfers were done before rupee plummeted against dollar. That saved significant amount of money.
Antarctica is a remote place and any medical emergencies requires air evacuation which can be extremely expensive (above 50 lakh rupees) and many times not possible. So, health insurance with medical evacuation was compulsory.
I booked air ticket to Buenos Aires 5-6 months before the travel. Air France via Paris provided the best fare at that point of time. Ushuaia, the southern most point in the country is about 3,000 km from Buenos Aires and Air travel was the most practical option. I booked via Aerolineas Argentina. Online booking was bit tricky though. The website did not show India in the country list. I chose US. But the payment was rejected with the reason that my credit card was not from US. I tried selecting EU and it worked!!
Is it worth?
It depends on individual. Some get satisfaction by investing in properties or bank deposits. Few people like to watch a movie in a mall or eating out each week. Similarly travel brings joy to people who look at investing for experience. Coming back to the point, trip to Antarctica was fully worth though it was expensive. The kind of experience I got in Antarctica was completely different. Antarctica is huge and I saw a minuscule part of it but I must say the experience exceeded all my expectations.