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How to Choose an Antarctic Cruise

by Todd Smith

Small ship cruises to Antarctica are the hottest ticket in expedition cruising right now.  Below are some tips and things to consider when choosing your Antarctic Cruise.

Plan Ahead for Antarctica Expeditions!

Congratulations, you have made the decision to travel to Antarctica, one of the most spectacular and remote locations on Earth.  Visitation to Antarctica is limited, the season is short, vessels are small, and spaces fill up fast.  Many Antarctic cruises are often sold out 9 – 12 months in advance.  For the best selection of Antarctic cruises and available cabins advance reservations are encouraged, and often required.

When To Go

The Antarctic cruising season operates during the Antarctic summer which begins in November and runs through March. A select few specialty cruises do sail outside these months in October and April. The early season runs November through early December and consists of the Antarctic spring and early summer. This time of year winter pack ice is melting and breaking up and the scenery is spectacular with white landscapes, pristine glaciers and blue icebergs.  Travelers can witness spectacular courtship rituals of Penguins, seals hauled out on ice with Elephant and Fur seals establishing their breeding colonies and colorful spring wildflowers on South Georgia Islands and Falkland Island.  The early season also finds the best value in Antarctica cruising with prices as much as 25% off high season rates.  Antarctic summer runs from the middle of December through the end of January and are normally Antarctica’s warmest months with temperatures as high as mid 50′s Fahrenheit (13 Celsius).  Long Antarctic days with 20 hours of sunlight allow for full days of exploration and incredible photographic opportunities.  During mid summer Antarctic Penguin chicks hatch and chicks on South Georgia and the Falkland Islands are emerging.  Fur seal pups are breeding and are visible on South Georgia and the Falkland Islands.  Receding ice during mid summer allows for deeper exploration than early season.  Late summer cruises operate in February and March.  This is when receding pack ice allows for exploration farther south.  Whale sightings are at their best, penguin chicks are starting to fledge and more fur seals are found on the Antarctic Peninsula.  View our website for more information on Antarctica Climate.

Choosing Your Antarctic Cruise

We suggest that travelers select their Antarctica cruise by first choosing their itinerary, then choosing their vessel.  First ask yourself, “How long do I have to spend on an expedition cruise to Antarctica?”  To a large extent this will determine what type of cruise is selected.  There are three types of Antarctica cruises that are distinguished by the length of the cruise and regions visited.  The shortest and most common Antarctic cruises are 11-15 days and include an exploration of the Antarctic Peninsula.  Travelers seeking a more in depth exploration will want a longer 15-25 day cruise that includes the Antarctic Peninsula plus a visit to the remote South Georgia Islands and the Falkland Islands.  The third and final category of Antarctic cruises are specialty cruises.  The specialty Antarctic cruises have a specific focus such as the Antarctic Air Cruise, Emperor Penguins of Snow Hill Island, Crossing the Antarctic Circle or the Antarctic Peninsula Trekking Voyage.  Visit our website for a full selection of Antarctica Cruises. Specialty itineraries, such as the Antarctic Air Cruise or Emperor Penguins of Snow Hill Island cruise aboard only one ship, making vessel choices unnecessary. Common itineraries like the Classic Antarctica or South Georgia, Falkland Islands & Antarctica offer a wide range of ships and operators to fit every budget.

Choosing Your Antarctic Ship

Once you have an understanding of what length and style of cruise interests you, it is time to consider your small ship.  Our Antarctica ships and trips are hand picked and scrutinized for safety, service, itinerary, and expedition leaders. We are Antarctica Cruise experts, we have cruised aboard or personally inspected every ship on our website, and we are here to make sure you choose the correct ship for your interests, ability and budget.  If you have any questions about ships please do not hesitate to call us. You will see other sites categorizing Antarctica small ships into many different types including icebreakers, luxury expedition ships, expedition ships, adventure ships, research ships and others.  Despite all these descriptions small ships in Antarctica come in three basic types: cruise ships, expedition ships and research vessels.  Cruise ships operated by Princess, Holland America and others carry 3000 or more passengers. Expedition ships carry 60-200 passengers and have been designed and built for the purpose of taking passengers to remote polar locations.  Research ships carry 48-150 passengers and were originally built for polar research and exploration (mostly from the former Soviet Union) but have been renovated to comfortably bring passengers to remote locations.

Antarctica Cruise Ships

Large cruise ships do not have ice strengthened hulls and have no business cruising in Antarctic waters.  Their recent entry into the Antarctica cruise market is a disturbing trend and we do not sell or support these large ships cruising in Antarctica.  It is reckless to take ships to Antarctica that are not ice reinforced and lack double hulls.  Furthermore large ships carry heavy fuel oil which causes far more damage than diesel if it spills.  We support recent efforts by The Antarctic Treaty Organization to require ships in the region to have reinforced hulls.  We also support IAATO (International Association on Antarctic Tour Operators) rules prohibiting ships with more than 500 passengers from conducting Antarctic shore landings and we are disappointed that companies like Norwegian Cruise Lines and Discovery Cruises have chosen not to comply.

Antarctica Expedition Ships

Expedition ships such as Orlova, National Geographic Explorer, Clipper Adventurer and Antarctic Dream are comfortable, sturdy vessels specially designed and built for adventure travel in remote locations.  As such expedition ships have ice strengthened hulls and all the amenities one would expect on a small ship cruise.  They offer more comfortable accommodations and higher quality of onboard service and dining than research ships. They have larger cabins, many with view windows and private bathrooms.  Theses ships have more deck space for watching wildlife, more common areas such as a library, lecture room, salon or bar, larger galley and dining room and more convenient deck plans with cabins located close to observation decks. Expedition ships typically accommodate 60-150 passengers.

Antarctica Research Ships

These ships were originally built for polar research (mostly in the former Soviet Union) and have ice-strengthened hulls. They have been extensively refitted to comfortably accommodate travelers but still retain a more industrial feel and layout than expedition ships.  Many research ships such as Molchanov, Multanovskiy and Akademik Shokalskiy are typically smaller, around 50-passengers and offer more active programs. The accommodations on these vessels are simple and comfortable, but not luxurious.  Many cabins aboard research vessels have shared bathrooms while private bathrooms are always available.

Getting To Your Antarctica Cruise

Most Antarctica cruises begin and end in Ushuaia, Argentina. Flights from North America typically pass through Buenos Aires.  Most flights will depart the United States in the evening, arriving in Buenos Aires first thing in the morning.  There are numerous flights each day from Buenos Aires to Ushuaia. Many cruises include a pre-cruise overnight in Ushuaia. For those that do not we recommend travelers plan to arrive Ushuaia one day before the cruise is scheduled to depart to ensure boarding.

Seasickness in Antarctica

Travelers should be prepared for seasickness on an Antarctic Cruise. Trips to the Antarctic Peninsula require a crossing of the Drake Passage, widely known as one of the roughest crossings in the world. A typical Antarctic Peninsula cruise takes two days to cross the Drake Passage on the way down and two more days to cross on the way back to Ushuaia. Once ships reach the Antarctic Peninsula waters tend to be calm as the ships cruise in protected waters close to shore.  Longer trips to South Georgia Islands and the Falkland Islands require days at sea, crossing open water which can also be rough, depending on local weather conditions.

AdventureSmith Explorations

Most important speak with an experienced polar expert.  We are award winning Antarctica small ship cruise specialists with a focus on guided small group nature tours and custom travel for individuals, couples, families and small groups. Our founder and president Todd Smith helped pioneer expedition cruising and our staff has decades of experience guiding, arranging, and selling wilderness adventures. We offer first hand knowledge, personal service, sustainable practices, and unbeatable prices.

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