Antarctica Travel 101: What To Expect on a Cruise to Antarctica

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Antarctica. The last continent. The last true wilderness.

Before I left on my 12-day cruise to Antarctica, people warned me about how this place changes you. They were so right.

I have never before in my life seen such pure unobstructed beauty.

It is by far the most incredible place in the world that I have ever been, made even cooler by the fact that I can now say I have been to all 7 continents!

But Antarctica travel isn’t so easy—getting here 3-days at sea crossing the infamous Drake Passage—the roughest sea in the world.

Having just come back from this tour to Antarctica, I thought I’d take a minute (or 10) to tell you all about the experience, and what you can expect if you’re interested in Antarctica travel as well.

I will start by describing my experience + activities, and will then answer questions you all have been asking me.

Let’s go!

travel antarctica

Our Ship: On Board Oceanwide Expedition’s M/V Ortellius

I traveled to Antarctica on an organized tour with Oceanwide Expeditions on board their ship, M/V Ortellius. The ship left from Ushuaia, the southernmost point in Argentina. If you’re looking for a little luxury before or after your cruise, here’s where to stay in Ushuaia.

The adventure was put together by Haley Woods of the Facebook community Girls Love Travel, and in total there were 50 women from around the world traveling from our group. On a ship of 120, that meant we took up almost half of the boat.

The other half was comprised mostly of older couples and a few solo female travelers, who were pretty excited to see us there!

This tour was a 12-day “basecamp” trip, meaning all activities are included in the cost.

There are really only a handful of companies that travel to Antarctica. If you’re planning on visiting Antarctica during their season (December to March), remember, function over form.

The two companies that come most highly recommended are Quark Expeditions and Oceanwide Expeditions. I will get into the differences between the two later, but essentially, activities are included on Oceanwide Expeditions basecamp trips, where Quark charges you per activity. The other main difference: on Oceanwide, they give you rubber boots but no jacket, whereas Quark gives you boots and a jacket (and you keep the jacket at the end of your trip).

How was the food on the ship? Incredible! Fresh baked bread, meals like rack of lamb and tenderloin — I had low expectations for ship food and was so impressed!

Our group at the bar, our daily hangout spot!

Cruise Antarctica: Picking a Ship

If you’re traveling to Antarctica it’s either via a small ship like Ortellius (under 200 people) or a larger cruise-ship that holds 500+ people.

What you want is a smaller ship.

Antarctica is governed by a treaty between 40 nations, and you cannot have more than 50 people on land at one time.

So, larger cruise ship companies are not often able to land. Imagine seeing Antarctica, but not being able to touch it. It would be terrible!

Our ship was not much to look at—it was small and industrial, with a reinforced hull for ice-breaking—but there wasn’t a hot tub on the roof, nor a spa, nor the traditional makings of a “cruise.” Truth be told, when I looked at it from the harbor, it looked TINY.

But it quickly became our home.

The top level of the ship was a bar and lounge area where we gathered for happy hour and debriefings every day.

Other than that, the ship had a dining hall and a lecture room, which we never used as the sea was rough and the room had no windows.

When we weren’t eating in the dining hall or listening to something up at the bar, I was in my quad room cabin with my cabin-mates, and we all became very good friends by the end of the trip.

Crossing the Drake Passage: What to Expect

They say you either get the “Drake Shake” or the “Drake Lake.”

At its worst, the Drake Passage can bring waves of up to 100 feet.

Having lived through rough seas before (when I sailed around the world with Semester at Sea in 2012) I was pretty terrified of the Drake Passage and the thought of feeling like I was going to die at sea again.

So of course, we got the Drake Shake, both ways.

On the way to Antarctica the waves were roughly 15 feet. On the way back from Antarctica, they were even higher, at about 35 feet.

But I never once felt unsafe.

I also did not get seasick, though many people did. My poor roommate was sick alllll over the floor and the bathroom and then spent the first 2 days of the voyage on the floor unable to move.

Our doctor on the ship passed out Scopolomine patches that go behind the ear for 6 Euros, and they really helped.

We spent the Drake Passage mostly watching movies and sleeping. The ship had three channels that they were streaming movies on, and the beds were very comfortable and sturdy.

Most people found they felt the best when they were laying down, so that’s mostly what we did.

I had brought books to read—I didn’t read them.

Our routine to get through it became eat, watch movies, sleep, repeat.

And then on the third day, we entered Antarctic waters and it was suddenly calm. I will never forget the thrill of seeing my first iceberg. Until that point, I almost didn’t realize where and what I was actually doing.

 

The Activities: What You Do in Antarctica

Oceanwide Expeditions basecamp tours include activities at no additional cost. These activities include kayaking, mountaineering, camping and snowshoeing.

The fact that their activities are included is unique, as many tour companies (like Quark) do not offer this. Kayaking is then an additional $7-900 expense, for example.

The crew did a great job of managing expectations from the get-go. As we were the first ship of the season (!!), they didn’t know what the conditions would be like of the places we were visiting.

They explained that the weather is fussy and can change in and instant, and so activities may get cancelled in the interest of safety.

I wasn’t able to go kayaking as both times I was scheduled we had bad weather, but I was able to do everything else. Here’s a breakdown:

travel antarctica cruise

Camping

The chance to sleep in the open-air on Antarctica was one I couldn’t pass up.

To camp on Antarctica, the crew will give you a large bag that includes a bevy sack, two thick sleeping bags and a liner to go within them.

You will then “dig your grave” –dig a large hole to sleep in and construct a shelter of snow blocks around you to protect you from the wind.

This was pretty tiring, to be honest, as I kept falling into the snow and then had to dig down to where my boots had sunk.

And then you just kind of lay in it and try to sleep. You can’t bring food on land so there was no campfire/snack/ traditional camping situation happening.

I had visions of watching the stars dancing unobstructed from my sleeping bag and got excited thinking of all the star-trail photos I was going to take.

The reality though was that the sun didn’t set until about 1 a.m., and even then it was never really dark. What sticks out most to me was the incredible silence—and then the roaring sound of ice calving and avalanches in the distance at night.

All in all, I spent the night mostly just cold, uncomfortable, and trying to talk my brain into enjoying it.

It just wasn’t my jam.

Oh, and you’re not allowed to go to the bathroom on Antarctica, and while we had a tiny portable toilet, the prospect of getting out of all of my sleeping bags and falling through snow to get there just didn’t sound appealing. So I held it.

They give you most everything you need for the adventure. But there were some things I was glad I had.

Gear Required:

 

Mountaineering

I didn’t know if I was going to be able to go mountaineering on this trip, mostly because I just couldn’t fathom spending $400 on the required boots that I would never again wear in my New York City life.

But I got lucky when one of the other girls shared my shoe size, and was kind enough to lend me her boots.

Trekking up a glacier turned out to be the highlight of my entire trip, and I highly recommend you give mountaineering a go.

To go mountaineering, the crew first outfits you in a harness and crampons.

They take care of almost everything, helping to put your crampons on your shoes and then putting you in small groups tied together via a rope for safety.

I wore a pair of thermal tights and rain pants, a thermal top and hoodie, and a rain jacket over that, and was warm enough that I had to take off my buff, gloves and beanie at times.

Gear Required:

Kayaking

 I unfortunately didn’t get to go kayaking as the weather was fussy both times I was scheduled, but it looked amazing!

They give you all the required gear when you go kayaking, including neoprene booties, wetsuit and water jacket, and you just wear a thermal top and gloves.

What to Wear in Antarctica

My trip to Antarctica came up rather last minute. My friend Haley from Girls Love Travel called me with one seat left on her boat, and I said yes and went for it with 10 days notice.

    So, I turned quickly to Amazon Prime and started ordering a ton of what I needed. Here are actual links to exactly what I packed and what I needed, as well as what I didn’t.

    [Note: affiliate links ahead].

    Obsessed with this penguin beanie (link below)

    Packing List for Antarctica

    If I had it to do over again, I would NOT pack:

            • hand warmers (there were so many on the ship and I never used them)
            • thick gloves (the thinner ones were so much easier to pack and take on and off)
            • tennis shoes (never needed them)

    travel antarctica, taking a cruise in Antarctica

    What I Wish I Had Packed

    Better sunglasses, and rain pants. I went back and forth on the rain pants and ultimately left them out but I really needed them as I was frequently sitting on ice and snow.

    I got supremely lucky that one of my roommates was over-prepared and had 3 pairs so that I was able to borrow a set of packable rain pants + rain jacket (thin, worn over layers).

    Other than that, I honestly felt pretty good about my packing list.

    The ship was really warm and I wore my tank tops almost all the time. I was happy I had them. The buff and beanies and gloves, as well as the drybag/ packpack that I bought, were essential.

    I was also glad I had my thick rubber flip flops, as the rocks were sharp when we did the Polar Plunge and I wore them in. Other people wore reef shoes, which helped as well.

    Combatting Sea Sickness 

    The best method seems to be a patch behind the ear. Second best is Dramamine, and you actually WANT the drowsy kind so you can sleep off the sea sickness.

    Internet and Cell Service in Antarctica

    Nope. Doesn’t exist. The ship has “wifi” that you can pay for, but it is very expensive and very unreliable. I know a few girls who paid 150 Euros only to have their entire account drained with 2 Facebook posts.

    For me, it was a welcome chance to unplug.

    Money & Cords

    You won’t need money on the ship, except to tip. Plan on $10/day, in USD or Euro. The boat and crew are Europe-based and they don’t take pesos. I had a ton of Argentine. pesos I never used.

    You will want an adapter that is C-style (2 prong) as the outlets are European.

    Should You Take Your Electronics?

    I debated this—did I want to take the chance on bringing my laptop at sea? Ultimately, I did, because I was working before and after the ship in Ushuaia. But I probably would not bring my laptop if I didn’t have to work remote.

    What Animals Can You Expect to See?

    Penguins! The most common type of penguins you will see are Gentoo and Chin-Strap Penguins. Large emperor penguins are mostly on the interior of the continent.

    You will also see a variety of birds, as well as whales. We saw Humpback, Orca and Minke whales at sea.

    You will not see polar bears – they live up in the north in the Arctic.

    Are People There?  

    Some. There’s a few research bases in Antarctica and in the peninsula. We were the first ship of the season, so only one of these bases was manned. I met three researchers, who were there to monitor the Gentoo penguins and how they mate.

    I could never imagine living the way they do, in a base without running water. They literally rely on ships to dock so they can shower and get water and provisions.

    It was really interesting to think of the how and why they came to be living there. But the views they see everyday are stunning.

    antarctica travel

    Highlights From the Trip

    When I look back at my Antarctica travel experience, a few things really stick out to me.

    1. The Polar Plunge: I almost gave it a pass, but I am so glad my roommates talked me into doing this. Running into freezing water in Antarctica with a group of giggling new friends was too fun to not do.
    2. Mountaineering: Trekking with crampons upon a glacier that very few people have ever stepped on was such a cool feeling. And the panoramic views were incredible! For an activity I was on the fence about initially, I am so glad that I went mountaineering.
    3. Meeting New Friends: Traveling with Girls Love Travel was incredible! I loved being able to get to know so many like-minded women. I made friends from all over the world, and already have travel plans with a few people!
    4. Seeing My First Iceberg: There are no words to describe that feeling. They are HUGE! I mean the size of islands.
    5. Hot Chocolates Every Day: The bar had a serve-yourself section with coffee and hot chocolates and cookies and we definitely took part!
    6. Penguin Selfies: Can’t Get Enough

    Would you ever travel Antarctica? Would you consider taking a cruise to Antarctica? Do you have any questions I can answer? Let me know in the comments below!

     

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    About Author

    Kelly Lewis is the founder of Go! Girl Guides, the Women's Travel Fest and Damesly. She's an optimist, an adventurer, an author and works to help women travel the world.

    3 Comments

    1. Kelly!!!
      AWESOME RECAP! Totally sharing this!!! xox
      So super glad that when we chatted (while you were at the grocery store LOL) that I was able to get you to go on this epic adventure! Having a chance to hang out with you on the boat, and in our penguin onesies was so wonderful! Love you lots – nest time I see you will be at Women’s Travel Fest in March! Have an amazing trip to Cuba and fab holiday season! xoxoxox
      #gltAntarctica / #gltLOVE

    2. Hi Kelly,

      We loved reading about your trip and are happy you loved your time in Antarctica. Thanks for sharing your story.

      All the best,

      Oceanwide Expeditions

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