The ABCs of a Luxury Trip to Antarctica: Amenities, Benefits & Cost
For many people, taking a trip to Antarctica is the holy grail of bucket list travel adventures.
We tend to use the saying “once in a lifetime experience” far too often, but a voyage to Antarctica really does fall into that category. Antarctica’s remoteness, and the substantial costs associated with getting there, make it difficult for most people to ever make a return visit. This is why it’s imperative to do proper research before booking an Antarctica tour in order to ensure the best experience.
No cruise to the icy continent will come cheap, but you do have the option of selecting from budget-friendly options or more luxurious alternatives. While it may be tempting to go with the cheapest cruise company, choosing to book a luxury Antarctica cruise may be the wiser decision when you factor in the many inclusions, comforts, increased duration, and enhanced itinerary that come along with it.
Less than 50 years ago, it was nearly impossible for anyone to reach Antarctica. But today, anyone with the desire and the money can do so. The hardest part is deciding which tour operator to go with. With countless companies offering dozens of different Antarctica itineraries, it can be quite confusing to know whether or not you should try to save a few bucks or splurge on your Antarctic holiday.
So, let’s look at what you get when you choose to go with the luxury option, and why it may be the best decision in the long run. We’ll help by break down the many different amenities, benefits, and costs associated with a luxury cruise to Antarctica. These “ABCs” will showcase why you should shy away from low-budget options and consider splurging for your once-in-a-lifetime Antarctica vacation.
ANTARCTIC CRUISE AMENITIES
To put it bluntly, the cheaper the cruise, the more basic your overall travel experience will be. While Antarctica itself is almost guaranteed to not disappoint, you don’t want your experience to be tarnished by a miserable journey getting there, or substandard ship conditions along the way.
It’s important to remember that your cruise ship is your hotel for the duration of your Antarctic journey, since there are no actual hotels on the continent. Therefore, you’ll want to make sure you’ll be comfortable throughout the epic voyage.
With a luxury Antarctic cruise, you can expect the following upgraded amenities when it comes to your personal cabin, onboard experiences, and cuisine:
Cruise Ship Cabins
With budget cruises to Antarctica, you may find yourself sharing a small cabin with one or more strangers. Cabins usually contain two to four beds and may not have an en suite bathroom, which means you’re forced to use shared bathroom facilities. You may also find yourself without a view, since your small cabin may be lacking a window or even a small porthole.
Luxury small ship cruise cabins, on the other hand, will usually be private and feature generous square footage. Most cabins will provide stunning ocean views, and some may even have spacious balconies with large sliding glass doors. You can enjoy the comfort of your own private en suite bathroom, which will have a shower.
Luxury cruise ship cabins may also provide you with large wardrobes for storing your luggage and belongings, as well as give you a generous seating area for spreading out a bit. Many standard luxury cruise rooms will also be equipped with a TV, DVD player, and possibly even WiFi, which can come in handy during your full days at sea, although service isn’t always reliable in this remote destination.
Prices will often be inclusive of your land-based accommodation the night before your departure. The quality of hotels booked for you before your cruise (many of which are in Ushuaia) will usually match the level of luxury you’ll experience aboard the ship.
Luxury cruise ships generally provide a considerably higher crew-to-guest ratio. This allows you to enjoy much more personalized attention than you would get on a budget Antarctic cruise. High-end tour operators realize that passengers will have differing interests, and will provide numerous onboard activities to keep all their guests entertained and happy.
While the highlight of your cruise will no doubt be the diverse array of Antarctic wildlife and stunning landscapes you’ll see on land, there are also full days at sea and plenty of time for relaxation on the ship in-between shore landings and excursions. A luxury cruise tries to always keep the excitement going by offering intriguing onboard activities.
There will usually be insightful talks hosted by expert naturalists, plus a library stocked with reference books that relate to Antarctic history and wildlife. This will allow you to search field guides to identify what animals you spotted each day, and dive deeper into the early Antarctic explorers. You may also have access to an onboard fitness and/or massage room, and many luxury cruise ships offer a sundeck with a hot tub or pool.
There will be a large outdoor deck that allows you to take in the majestic scenery and any nearby Antarctic whales, as well as indoor observation lounges for when the weather isn’t cooperating. The ship will most likely also offer a fully stocked bar if you want to kick back and enjoy the scenery with a cocktail or socialize with fellow passengers.
Cruise Ship Cuisine
Because some journeys to Antarctica can last several weeks, you’ll want to be sure you’re going to eat well on your Antarctic cruise.
While budget cruises will simply provide basic meals, luxury cruises will often offer fine dining options, which may feature up to five courses. Instead of a simple buffet, you may enjoy ordering off an a la carte menu featuring a variety of delicious meals. You may even find that beer, wine, and spirits are included.
Luxury cruises may be better equipped and more apt to cater to your individual needs, which can be important for those with food allergies or strict dietary needs. You’ll also be able to select your own table, should you choose to dine with fellow passengers that have become close friends during the voyage.
The menu on a luxury cruise will be well thought out and varied, with skilled chefs making sure to keep your taste buds from getting bored. You may also be treated to special dinners, such as barbecues on the outdoor deck when the weather is suitable. Complimentary snacks and fresh hot coffee and tea throughout the day are another frequent perk of traveling on a luxury cruise.
BENEFITS OF LUXURY ANTARCTIC CRUISE
In addition to the upgraded amenities offered by luxury Antarctic cruises, there are many other benefits that come with not settling for lower quality budget trips to Antarctica.
Luxury cruises will usually offer extensive and exciting itineraries that will have you visiting more destinations than you would typically see with a budget option. You’ll more often than not be treated to a smaller ship that caters to 150 passengers or less, allowing you to enjoy a much more rewarding experience.
The activities offered on the Antarctic Peninsula and Sub-Antarctic islands will also be more plentiful, and are usually included in the base price of the cruise. So let’s take a closer look at what a luxury cruise will offer in terms of the itinerary, ship size, and activities.
Antarctic Cruise Itinerary
While budget Antarctic cruises may simply leave from Ushuaia (on the southern tip of South America) and head directly to the Antarctic Peninsula, luxury cruises usually include visits to South Georgia and the Falkland Islands.
This will allow you to see impressive colonies of Magellanic and rockhopper penguins. You may get to visit Shackleton’s grave and Elephant Island, where he and his crew sought refuge after losing their ship, the Endurance. Luxury cruise ships are equipped with a knowledgeable crew that knows the best times and places to spot wildlife throughout your journey.
While budget cruises may be as little as eight days in length (half of which is spent crossing the Drake Passage), luxury cruises can last up to three weeks or more. While the extra length will naturally equate to higher costs, you probably won’t feel the need to make a return trip to Antarctica to experience the things you missed on your initial visit.
Considering the high cost of flights and the time it takes to get to the southern tip of South America to board your Antarctica cruise, you don’t want to incur these costs a second time because you tried to pinch pennies during your initial visit.
Cruise Ship Size
For many people, taking an Antarctic cruise is very personal and can be an almost spiritually transformative experience. So the last thing you want is to have to share the experience with several hundred or even thousands of other passengers.
Unlike many budget cruise operators, the primary aim of small ship luxury cruises is to limit the number of passengers in order to make your overall experience more special. Smaller ships with fewer people allow you to spread out more easily on the ship. And only ships carrying less than 500 passengers are allowed to dock and have their passengers actually set foot on land in Antarctica.
One of the key highlights of a cruise to Antarctica is being able to walk among myriad different species of penguins and seals as well as visiting scientific research bases. If you choose to take a budget cruise, you may only get to see the continent from the deck or window of a ship.
Because they have fewer passengers, smaller luxury ships allow you to experience shore excursions much more efficiently, without having to line up for a considerable amount of time to catch a Zodiac boat. This allows you to spend more time exploring the continent and offshore islands on foot.
Antarctic regulations restrict the number of passengers that can disembark each day to 100. So if your ship caters to more people, you may not be able to enjoy shore excursions every day of your cruise. Smaller ships can also reach many destinations that are completely off-limits to the larger ships.
Seeing Antarctica’s stunning sights with your own eyes is remarkable in its own right, but a luxury cruise experience will take things further by offering adventurous activities while you’re there.
This includes taking Zodiac cruises to get closer glimpses of wildlife and zip between icebergs. Luxury Antarctica tour operators will provide the rubber boots, parkas, and other necessary gear you need for shore excursions free of charge, which is not the case on many budget cruises.
All luxury cruises to Antarctica offer exceptional opportunities to walk among gentoo and chinstrap penguin colonies as well as see crabeater, leopard, and elephant seals up close. Lucky passengers may also spot several different species of whales along the way, and—depending on the destinations visited—possibly emperor penguins.
COST OF A LUXURY ANTARCTIC TRIP
Regardless of whether you choose a budget or luxury Antarctic cruise, the fact is that it’s going to be an expensive holiday. Antarctica’s extreme environment doesn’t make it an easy place to reach, nor is it cheap to operate a ship in such conditions. Many ships are specially designed to withstand the harsh environment in order to keep their passengers safe at all times.
While budget cruises to the Antarctic can be purchased for $5,000 to $10,000, luxury cruises can cost double this amount. Although it may be tempting to opt for a cruise that’s half the price, you’ll definitely want to carefully check the inclusions of each cruise. By the time you consider the costs of things like buying gear and paying for activities that may not be included in a budget option, these additional expenses can quickly start adding up.
Budget Antarctic vacations may be half the cost of more luxurious ones, but they’re often less than half the duration of the best luxury trips. You most likely won’t be able to visit exciting destinations such as the Falkland Islands and South Georgia, and you’ll have far fewer wildlife sightings as a result.
Luxury cruise prices may be inclusive of hotel nights before your cruise and all transfers. They may also include the fees associated with all shore excursions, your gratuities, food and alcohol, and access to many more amenities. All of these things may incur extra fees when booking a budget cruise option.
Another opportunity cost to consider is the level of experience and professionalism provided by most luxury Antarctic trips. Luxury cruises have a highly qualified team of historians, ornithologists, naturalists, geologists, marine biologists, and skilled Zodiac drivers.
Luxury cruises will provide passengers with onboard lectures that give you insight into what you can expect to see each day, and help you understand the importance of the landscapes and wildlife you’re observing.
When to Book to Save Money
While you may have heard that you can save money on Antarctic cruises by picking up cheap last-minute deals, many of the most exceptional cruises to Antarctica get booked out months or even a year in advance.
To ensure you get the exact luxury cruise you desire, it is often vital to book early. You may even find that some early bird prices are cheaper than those last-minute deals.
The Antarctic cruise season runs from November to March, with the starting and ending months generally offering the cheapest rates.
PROTECTING ANTARCTICA AND ITS FUTURE
While providing a memorable experience for passengers is extremely important to luxury cruise operators, it’s equally important to protect Antarctica’s natural wonders so they can be seen by generations to come.
Before booking your vacation in Antarctica, make sure your cruise company is a member of the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators (IAATO). Companies belonging to this association adhere to strict standards that help to ensure the protection of the Antarctic region. They’re all required to follow a strict set of safety and environmental guidelines: waste is brought back to the home port, and great effort is made to leave the frozen continent as it was found.
Thankfully, most of the world seems to agree that the protection of Antarctica is important. This has led to more than 50 countries signing the Antarctic Treaty since it was created in 1959. The treaty’s aim is to prohibit military activities, mining, and waste disposal in and around Antarctica. It also encourages scientific research that can help conserve the precious Antarctic ecosystem.
As long as we continue to manage travel to Antarctica wisely, we can ensure that the continent’s unique magic will continue to dazzle visitors well into the future. –Megan Jerrard
BIO: Megan Jerrard is an Australian Journalist and the founder and Senior Editor of Mapping Megan, an award-winning travel blog bringing you the latest in adventure travel from all over the globe.