Antarctica cruise options have changed dramatically since we began offering them. There are more small ships than ever cruising Antarctica with vessels and itinerary options for every style and budget. At the same time there has been a homogenization of ship types and cruise itineraries, which makes choosing a cruise more confusing than ever.
The Antarctica experts at AdventureSmith Explorations are here to help. We have compiled the most up-to-date information from our operator partners and culled the best tips from our Antarctica Adventure Specialists to bring you this comprehensive Antarctica cruise guide.
When to Go to Antarctica
Antarctic cruises operate during the austral summer usually beginning in November and ending in March. With the increasing popularity of Antarctic cruising, the season has lengthened, sometimes beginning in late October and running through early April. During this short austral summer, there is an incredible range of conditions and the best time to travel to Antarctica should be based on what one wishes to experience. Seasonal highlights can vary each year, roughly following the patterns below.
During the early-season months of October and November, sea ice is prevalent and the possibility of seeing sea ice is present, especially on the east side of the Antarctic Peninsula. Adelie, chinstrap and gentoo penguins are starting to come ashore, beginning courting rituals and nest building. Eggs are laid and incubated shortly thereafter. Emperor penguins can be viewed in the Weddell Sea and are occasionally visited by specially outfitted expedition cruises. Elephant seals are actively courting on South Georgia Island and fur seals are abundant on beaches. Female king penguins lay their eggs on South Georgia in November and can be seen carrying eggs on their feet. Fuzzy king penguin chicks from the previous season can also be seen in the rookeries.
This is the peak season in Antarctica with the best chance for calmer water while crossing the Drake Passage. Sea ice has receded allowing for more exploration ashore and farther south. Cruise prices are higher during the peak season due to increased demand. Long days with increased sunlight make great opportunities for photographers and lots of time ashore. Penguin chicks are hatching and gathering in nurseries leaving parents free to feed. Adult penguins returning to feed hungry chicks is a highlight. Whale sightings increase in the Antarctic Peninsula and seal pups can be found on the beaches of South Georgia. Sea ice is beginning to break up in the Ross Sea making visits to East Antarctica and the historic huts of Shackleton and Scott possible.
Whale sightings are at their peak in the Antarctic Peninsula, and many cruises offer whale-focused cruises this time of year. Receding ice pack makes more extensive exploration easier. Fur seals are found in increasing numbers on the Antarctic Peninsula and South Georgia. Penguin colonies are active with chicks beginning to molt, losing their fuzzy plumage and growing their adult feathers. Parents have abandoned their young and returned to the sea to feed. Many colonies of Adelie, chinstrap and gentoo penguins are empty by late February or early March.
It takes a specially outfitted ice-class ship to operate expedition cruises in Antarctica. In recent years a number of Russian research vessels that operated in Antarctica have retired, leaving a limited number of vessels in the world that can operate cruises in Antarctica. This shift has increased the number of upscale options but has also increased the price of Antarctic cruises. Because of this homogenization we now classify Antarctic ships as Luxury Expedition Ships or Expedition Ships.
Adding to the confusion is the fact that many ships are independently owned and thus operated by a number of cruise lines, sometimes in the same year. So choosing a ship does not necessarily mean choosing an outfitter.
For active guests, a good distinguishing factor between ships is the activity offered. All of the ships we travel with are expedition style, including a lot of time off ship exploring via Zodiac and hiking (and often snowshoeing), but some go above and beyond with even more adventure options like camping, kayaking, cross-country skiing, mountaineering and even scuba diving and stand-up paddleboarding. We’ve indicated the adventure options that may be available on each ship below; please note that all adventure options (besides standard Zodiac cruises, hikes and most snowshoeing options) must be reserved in advance at an added cost, except where noted as included.
Luxury Expedition Ships
National Geographic Explorer is one of the finest expedition ships in the world, and the crown jewel of the National Geographic fleet. State of the art, accommodating 148 guests in 81 outside cabins, she is built for polar waters, and includes top-tier guides and special guests from National Geographic, as well as an Undersea Specialist that operates a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) to extend your access into Antarctica’s underwater world. Kayaking is included in the cruise cost, an added bonus since most other Antarctica kayaking comes at a significant additional charge. A fleet of 36 two-person kayaks ensures that everyone who wants to paddle can.
National Geographic Orion is arguably the most sophisticated vessel in her class, and her small size (102 guests in 53 cabins) offers a more intimate experience. Luxury amenities include several cabins with private balconies, a glass elevator servicing all stateroom decks, a surround-sound theater and a whirlpool hot tub on the sundeck. She is equipped with a full complement of tools to explore the environment, including kayaks, Zodiacs and an ROV. As with her sister ship National Geographic Explorer, kayaking is included in the Orion’s cruise cost, an added bonus since most other Antarctica kayaking comes at a significant additional charge.
Splashing in 2020, the 126-passenger National Geographic Endurance is an educational polar vessel with a hull specifically designed to break through the tough pack ice, increasing your ability to explore hard-to-reach destinations and making new expeditions possible. She features expert onboard guides trained to National Geographic standards and a helicopter landing pad to further extend your range of exploration. Her signature bow maximizes efficiency and sustainability. Guests can enjoy included activities aboard Endurance with her onboard expedition tools consisting of cross-country skis, kayaks, hydrophones, underwater video cameras, a remotely operated vehicle and a video microscope.
National Geographic Resolution, a 126-passenger educational luxury polar expedition ship with a hull designed to break through the tough pack ice, is set to sail in late 2021. This ship honors Capt. James Cook, the legendary explorer who was the first to circumnavigate Antarctica and cross the Antarctic Circle. Like her sister ship, Nat Geo Endurance, she features a helicopter landing pad and expert onboard guides trained to National Geographic standards. Her signature bow maximizes efficiency and sustainability. Unique for the polar regions, Resolution’s included activities offer excursions on cross-country skis and kayaks, and educational tools for onboard learning including hydrophones, underwater video cameras, a remotely operated vehicle and a video microscope.
Launching in 2019, the 170-guest Hondius is one of the newest ships in Antarctica, and one of the only expedition ships built exclusively for polar cruises. The first Polar Class 6 ship and with 15 knots top speed, she is one of the strongest and fastest ice-strengthened cruise vessels available. Sustainability is also a focus of her design, with a flexible power management system, steam heating and LED lights. On board, the Hondius treats guests to colorful musical acts and performances, language courses and cooking and cocktail demonstrations, as well as interactive workshops that explore such topics as astronomy, navigation and botany. Her passengers may enjoy added-cost activities of kayaking, camping and even polar diving.
Expected in 2021, the 170-passenger Janssonius will join the small group of expedition ships built exclusively for polar cruises. Like her sister ship, Hondius, her Polar Class 6 rating and 15 knots top speed will make her one of the strongest and fastest ice-strengthened luxury expedition ships available. Her sustainable design features a flexible power management system, steam heating and LED lights.
Set to launch in 2019, the 71-guest Magellan Explorer is the first small passenger ship purpose-built for Antarctica fly cruises. Although the ship’s capacity is for 100 passengers, guests will be limited to only 71, making her a vessel with one of the smallest passenger counts in Antarctica. Guests can enjoy private balconies with every cabin. She boasts a modern design by renowned Chilean studio Enrique Concha & Co, and uniquely, an interactive science laboratory. Another Polar Class 6 ship, she features ice-detecting radar, state-of-the-art navigation, double hull construction, stabilizers and bow and stern thrusters for excellent comfort and maneuverability. Her kayaks offer an active exploration option at an added cost.
Hebridean Sky is a small, all-suite expedition vessel used by several Antarctic operators, both for long Antarctic cruises and shorter air cruises. She was built in 1992 under the name of Sea Explorer, refurbished and redecorated in 2005, and underwent an extensive multimillion dollar renovation in the spring of 2016, after which she was renamed Hebridean Sky. Her capacity varies according to outfitter, ranging up to 114 passengers; view her varying deck plans on the following pages: Hebridean Sky 21, (operated by Antarctica 21, 100 guests), Hebridean Sky (operated by Polar Latitudes, 114 guests). She carries a fleet of kayaks for closer exploration of the White Continent’s shoreline, and certain itineraries offer camping as an add-on activity.
Island Sky is an all-suite expedition vessel built in 1992 and refurbished in 2017 with elegant style. With 112 passengers, the Island Sky has a relatively small size compared to other polar vessels, which gives the feel of a private yacht. She uniquely offers participation in the Citizen Science Program, enabling guests to help add to the scientific data of Antarctica. Certain itineraries offer kayaking, camping and stand-up paddleboarding as an add-on activity.
Launching in 2020, this 200-guest ship is currently being built. She will feature twin helicopters and helipads for heli-skiing, heli-hiking and flightseeing; an innovative, internal 20-Zodiac hanger; and special provisioning and waste handling systems, enabling a 70-day operational range. Look for future routes into the Ross Sea and the remote western Antarctic “Phantom Coast.”
Launching in late 2018, the 176-guest World Explorer is designed with distinction, comfort and refinement in mind. This 1B ice-class, purpose-built vessel boasts private walk-outs or Juliet balconies for each cabin, a glass-domed lounge for unimpeded ocean viewing. She also distinguishes herself with a focus on health and wellness throughout, including a gym, sauna, spa, outdoor heated pool and running track. Guests aboard World Explorer may enjoy optional activities like kayaking, camping and stand-up paddle boarding (additional charge).
Passengers aboard the 189-guest Ocean Diamond have the distinction of sailing the first carbon-neutral voyages in polar travel history as the ship’s operator offsets the ship’s emissions. Her cruising speed of 14 knots saves up to 12 hours on the Drake Passage crossing. And her passenger elevator makes it easy to navigate between her five guest decks. She offers a unique massage & wellness program, complete with yoga classes, aromatherapy treatments and massage therapy. Ocean Diamond carries a fleet of kayaks for up-close adventure options, and certain itineraries offer field camping.
Ocean Endeavour is a well-appointed 199-guest expedition ship offering a superb guest experience with a nautical lounge, two restaurants, sundeck, ample deck space for observation of polar landscapes and a bright contemporary aesthetic throughout. This vessel is swift, cruising at 15 knots, and has more adventure options than the standard Antarctic vessel, including camping, kayaking, mountaineering and photography workshops, and is one of only two ships in our current fleet that offers stand-up paddleboarding and cross-country skiing options.
Ocean Adventurer is a classic, handsome expedition ship carrying 132 passengers on several iconic Antarctic routes. She is a traveler’s favorite because of her intimate feel with ample public spaces. Ocean Adventurer is also home base for several fly-cruise options. Designed to carry travelers in comfort to the most remote corners of the world, Ocean Adventurer was built in Yugoslavia in 1976, refurbished in 1999 and had further upgrades in 2002, 2014, and most recently 2017. She offers guests a fleet of kayaks, as well as camping options on several itineraries.
The all-suite, 114-guest Sea Spirit was designed with a grand style with all the amenities of a fine hotel, including elevator access to all passenger decks. Her cabins are incredibly spacious, with the smallest suite on the Sea Spirit being 215 square feet, and the Owner’s Suite an outstanding 437 square feet. She is a swift vessel, cruising at 15 knots, and offers a fleet of kayaks and camping gear for those who want to venture closer to the icy landscapes and varied Antarctic Peninsula wildlife.
Plancius was built in 1976 as an oceanographic research vessel for the Royal Dutch Navy and sailed as such until June 2004, when she switched over to passenger expeditions. Carrying 116 guests, Plancius has a wide variety of cabins and ample space on five decks. Her polar cruises are primarily defined by an exploratory educational travel program, with as much time ashore as possible. Plancius has one of the most robust adventure options; choose from the likes of kayaking, overnight field camping, mountaineering, photo workshops and even scuba diving.
Ortelius is a 116-guest expedition vessel, and the sister ship to Plancius. Her lower guest count assures a flexible polar experience with maximum wildlife opportunities and as much time ashore as possible. A $1 million cabin reconfiguration in 2014 brought Ortelius to an upscale hotel standard, and her activity options include kayaking, camping and scuba diving. Her 15 minutes of fame came in December 2008, when she transported guests to a Metallica concert at the Carlini Argentine Base, which secured Metallica’s status as the first band to play on all seven continents.
At a nimble 345 feet in length, holding 134 guests, the M/S Expedition is an ideal vessel to ply polar waters. Her large outside decks offer panoramic views and her cabins are some of the largest in the industry, all boasting an ocean-facing window or porthole. A well-executed adventure program with optional kayaking and camping, friendly guides, affordable prices and an included expedition parka are highlights of trips aboard Expedition.
The 72-guest Ocean Nova was built in 1992 in Denmark to navigate the ice-choked waters off Western Greenland and now is a home base for fly-cruise itineraries operating in Antarctica. Her Danish roots are apparent in her clean, very modern design. At 240 feet in length and with her low passenger count, she is the smallest of all the Antarctic vessels in AdventureSmith’s current Antarctic expedition offerings. Choose this vessel if you want the most intimate of Antarctic experiences and a nimble ship. Ocean Nova carries a fleet of kayaks for those who wish to further explore Antarctica off ship.
Originally built for the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration, the ice-strengthened Ushuaia polar vessel is very well appointed with ample deck space and an open bridge policy that invites you to observe the navigational operations of the ship. At only 90 guests and 278 feet in length, the atmosphere is intimate and time on land is ample. This ship offers both private and semi-private facilities, making some of its cabins more affordable. Ushuaia is the only ship in AdventureSmith’s current offerings that does not have kayaks aboard, but it does include the standard hiking and Zodiac cruise (two landings per day on the Peninsula) off-ship activities.
How to Choose Your Antarctica Cruise
Antarctica cruises can be separated into three categories based on where they operate. They are also distinguished by the length of the itinerary.
By far the most popular and affordable Antarctica cruises are trips to the Antarctic Peninsula. Beginning and ending in Ushuaia, Argentina, routes are fairly standard, crossing the Drake Passage, spending several days along the Antarctic Peninsula’s western shore, then returning via the Drake, typically over 10-13 days. Many of these classic routes include a stop at the South Shetland Islands, and longer routes may include Elephant Island or aim to reach as far south as the Polar Circle.
Antarctic Peninsula, South Georgia & Falkland Islands
For those with more time, we recommend adding South Georgia and the Falkland Islands, which extends trips to an average of 20 days, but adds in the good chance of seeing King penguins, which you cannot see on a standard Peninsula cruise. These routes sail the Southern Ocean northeast to the Falkland Islands, a destination famed for its penguins (5 of the world’s 17 species summer here), birdlife and human history at the Stanley settlement. Then your route heads southeast to South Georgia, the site of explorer Shackleton’s grave and an astounding amount of penguins (read more about South Georgia Island wildlife), west to the Antarctic Peninsula, and then completes the loop north through the South Shetland Islands back to Ushuaia.
Beyond the Antarctica Peninsula
Though technically in the Antarctic Peninsula region, expeditions to the Weddell Sea are often on routes of their own, not including time on the Antarctic Peninsula proper. These expeditions aim to visit more secluded Emperor penguin rookeries and some include helicopter transfers for a truly once in a lifetime penguin encounter. We recommend these Weddell Sea–specific itineraries typically for people who have already visited the Antarctic Peninsula. Beyond the Antarctic Peninsula routes also include variations from Australia or New Zealand instead of South America. AdventureSmith’s experts can advise on these routes.
Antarctic Air Cruises
No longer a new option, air cruises offer an alternative to longer Antarctic cruises. When we first began offering air cruises, we thought it was the desire to eliminate crossing the Drake Passage that would be the primary appeal of this trip. We have learned that it is in fact the shorter time frame that appeals to most travelers, especially American travelers with limited vacation time.
Booking Activities on Antarctic Expeditions
While all Antarctica expeditions on small ships offered by AdventureSmith Explorations include time off ship exploring by Zodiac and hike, most require you to book coveted added-cost space for excursions like kayaking, stand-up paddleboarding, skiing, mountaineering, camping and even scuba diving. Thus, if you’re interested in a particular activity, you’ll want to know all your options. Most ships require you to pre-book and commit to an activity over the whole voyage, while some are beginning to offer one-time excursions. Learn more about this and more expert tips: 6 Things You Need to Know Before Going to Antarctica.
Price & How to Find the Best Deal
During the economic downturn, cruise lines offered significant last-minute discounts. For many years the Antarctica cruise market was trained to wait for the best price. This is no longer the case. Antarctic cruise lines now incent travelers for booking early, and the best prices are found by booking at least 9-12 months in advance. Most cruises will sell out by the time they depart, so waiting for a deal is no longer the best strategy for saving on an Antarctic cruise.
Solo Travel in Antarctica
Solo or single travelers have lots of options aboard Antarctic cruises. Many Antarctic cruises have double, triple or even quad cabins that are available on a share basis. Sign up to share with same-sex roommates, and you can save a bundle. In most cases travelers are guaranteed the share rate, even if a roommate is not found. This helps keep solo travel costs down. If you prefer to have your own cabin there are ships that offer single accommodations. For those that do not have single or solo cabins you can book a double cabin as a single, but expect to pay a single supplement. Antarctica single supplements are usually 1.5-1.75 times the standard double rate for one person. Solo travel is more common in Antarctica than other destinations so finding a roommate share is usually not a problem and ships are accustomed to catering to single travelers.
When you travel to Antarctica, cold weather is expected, but you might actually be surprised how pleasant it can be. Though Antarctica holds the record for the lowest temperature ever recorded on Earth, -129F, during the summer months when expedition cruising takes place (November-March) the winds abate considerably and the weather is surprisingly comfortable, averaging between 20 and 50F. Add to that 18-24 hours of sunlight, and you’ll see why extensive exploration by small ship cruise is possible here.
Keep in mind though that Antarctica is the world’s coldest, windiest and driest continent. So you must be prepared to protect yourself from the wind, and to moisturize and hydrate to compensate for the dry air. In Ushuaia, Argentina, where most Antarctica travelers embark and disembark, summer temperatures average 40F for the low and 60F for the high.
Getting to Your Antarctic Cruise/Ushuaia
The vast majority of Antarctica cruises, especially those to the Antarctic Peninsula, begin and end in Ushuaia, Argentina. Flights from North America typically depart late and arrive to Buenos Aires, Argentina, in the morning. A transfer from Argentina’s Ezeiza International Airport (EZE) to the Jorge Newbery Airpark domestic airport (AEP) is required. With no traffic, this transfer takes about 45 minutes, but also consider traffic and the time it takes to get through customs and migration. We recommend travelers leave at least 4 hours to make a connection between airports in Buenos Aires. Additional options for embarkation and disembarkation include Puerto Madryn, Argentina; Punta Arenas, Chile; and Montevideo, Uruguay. Some trips even begin in Buenos Aires, Argentina, or Santiago, Chile.
Seasickness in Antarctica
Travelers to Antarctica should be prepared for the possibility of rough seas. Cruises to the Antarctic Peninsula cross the Drake Passage, which is known as one of the roughest seas in the world. Cruises take two full days to cross the Drake Passage each way from Ushuaia. Once ships arrive in Antarctica, seas tend to be calm as ships cruise in protected waters close to shore. Longer expeditions that include the Falkland Islands and South Georgia require additional days at sea, which can also cause seasickness, depending on current conditions. Read our tips to combat seasickness.
Preparation for your Antarctic Expedition
AdventureSmith travelers are prepared for their expeditions through one-on-one correspondence with an Adventure Specialist and an extensive pre-cruise planner with packing lists, reading lists and answers to most common questions. Our team has traveled extensively in Antarctica, collectively on most of the ships we offer, and can provide very detailed expectations on what you can expect on the voyage and the ship, what to pack and how to get the most out of your Antarctic experience. Our team can also recommend flight consolidators that can help you find the best flight deals and manage any trip support you may need if there are airline weather delays or other issues. Our website is full of helpful tips and shared experiences to help you make the most of your Antarctic experience.
Travel Insurance & Emergency Medical Evacuation
Most Antarctica cruises require a minimum amount of emergency medical evacuation insurance coverage, generally over $200,000. This coverage is typically not included in your personal health insurance. We recommend travelers consider a comprehensive travel insurance policy that will include emergency medical evacuation as well as cancellation coverage. A select few Antarctic outfitters include this insurance in the trip cost, so be sure to check with your Adventure Specialist on the inclusions of your expedition.
Why Travel to Antarctica?
The White Continent is truly a bucket list destination—a land like nowhere else on Earth. Due to its remote location, infamous Drake Passage crossing and extreme weather, making a trip to Antarctica is no easy endeavor but the reward is experiencing a remarkable landscape and wildlife like nowhere else on the planet. Penguin rookeries offer landscapes filled as far as the eye can see with the little tuxedo-colored creatures. Towering giant blue icebergs dwarf all that surrounds them. Whales and marine mammals are abundant in Antarctica where travelers can view species rarely seen farther north such as leopard seals and massive blue whales. The human history of exploration and hardship in Antarctica is an important part of any Antarctic cruise and an unexpected highlight for many travelers. Antarctica is a hotspot (or cool spot?) for photographers and photo enthusiasts with picture-perfect landscapes and accessible wildlife. On an Antarctic cruise you will find yourself surrounded by like-minded travelers and fascinating crew members. Friendships are often forged on Antarctic cruises that remain many years after the excitement of the cruise has faded. Finally, there are the bragging rights. Antarctica is on every nature and adventure traveler’s list, but few actually set foot on the continent. You’ll be telling stories of your Antarctic adventure for years to come.
Antarctica is a place that if you’re lucky enough to go, it’s likely to be just once. It’s important to make this travel experience the best it can be for your style of travel and interests. Choosing experts like AdventureSmith or your trusted travel agent to help you find the best trip and ship is invaluable. After reading our Antarctica cruise guide above, contact the experts at AdventureSmith to customize your Antarctica expedition and learn from our firsthand experience traveling on this White Continent.
Note that this Antarctica small ship cruise guide was originally published in August 2015, and is updated periodically by our experts to keep it current for AdventureSmith travelers, present and future. Our most recent update occurred May 2018.