In response to the onslaught of Antarctic questions, and the distinct lack of information online, here is pretty much everything we know about booking last minute cruises to Antarctica. Please keep in mind that this is based on our experience, and conditions and availability may change dramatically. If you have other info please leave a comment to help out others.
The best place to get an overview of all the ships that go to Antarctica is at http://www.polarcruises.com/. When we booked, we could get last minute rate info about three weeks in advance. Best to email too soon, and follow up as you get closer to Ushuaia. The lowest rate we heard of was $3,600 for a shared triple. Most last minute rates run in the $4-5,000 range for better suites on better ships. There are a lot of things to consider when booking, here is what we learned:
Ushuaia isn’t a bad town, but it isn’t a place you'd want to hang out for weeks waiting for a cruise. There are many agencies in Ushuaia that take last minute bookings via email. This will give you a good idea what is available and you can arrange your travel accordingly. Google for agencies and you’ll find plenty.
The cheapest full price tickets are $4,500. This is a shared quadruple cabin with a shared bathroom area on a 10-day cruise with close to 200 passengers. Plus, drinks cost extra. Ticket prices go much higher though. More days on land, more islands visited, open bar, ensuite cabin, less than 100 passengers. All of these things will increase the cost of the tickets. I tell you these details because they do make a difference, more on that later. In reality, the normal price for a cruise on a smaller ship in a double cabin is about $10,000 per person.
The bad news is that the cheap $4,500 tickets don’t usually go on sale (not that we ever saw). If they do go on sale it’s less than a 20% discount. The good news is, the $10K tickets do go on sale. And there are huge discounts (50-70%). Ultimately, you will pay more, but believe me when I say that you get what you pay for.
Bottom line: If you are looking for a $2,500 cruise, it’s not going to happen. If you want an awesome $10-20K cruise for less than half price, your chances are good.
When deciding whether to book the $4,000 deal or the $5,000 deal, there are a few important considerations. You’ll have to decide what matters to you.
Ship sizes vary between dozen passenger sail boats and 250 passenger cruises. Most of the deals available are in the 100-250 passenger range. In my opinion the smaller the ship, the better the cruise will be. Less people = better service. But that's just my opinion, take it as such.
The biggest reason to go on a small Antarctic ship is that some of the places you visit restrict the number of people that can be on shore at one time. This means that you get less time on land when you are on a bigger ship. Cruises deal with this in different ways. For example, we went to two places where the landing was limited to 50 people or less. The crew split our ship into two groups. One group went on shore while the other group cruised around in zodiac boats looking at icebergs and whales. It didn’t seem like much of a sacrifice to me. But if there were 250 people and we had to split into 5 groups, I could see how things would get messy.
The basic 10-day cruise goes like this: 1 day embarking, 2 days crossing the Drake, 4 days doing “landings” weather permitting, 2 days back across the Drake, 1 day disembarking. More days means more time exploring the Peninsula. Our weather was good and I thought five full days of landings was plenty. It may very well be that you’ll have at least one or two days where the weather is bad and you’ll be forced to stay on board. Extra days would be invaluable in this situation.
There are also 12-day cruises that include an extra day or two to take you across the Antarctic circle. If that's on your bucket list, this is your best option.
To include a visit to South Georgia Island and the Falklands you have to go an additional 5-6 days. Both of these places, especially South Georgia, are great places to see wildlife. Not that you won’t see a ton on the peninsula, there is just more here. Our goal was to see big ice and not spend 7 days at sea. This combined with the extra cost made the decision to stick to the peninsula easy for us.
On pretty much every ship your food and services are all provided. The only unknown are the beverages. Our ship had and open bar. Wooooooooo! Eleven days of free drinks was worth a bit of extra cash to us. It may not be for you. We have heard that some of the cheaper “backpacker” boats charge extra for non-alcoholic drinks, like tea and coffee. Consider what it's worth and make your decisions accordingly.
Most ships charge extra for the limited spaces to go camping and kayaking. Camping is around $225 per person for a night (8 hours) sleeping on the snow. Kayaking in $1,000 per person and happens nearly every time the ship makes a landing, weather permitting. Of the 11 landings we did, kayakers were able to go out 7 times.
Based on what we saw on our cruise I can say the cost for both activities is more than fair. We did the camping and it was without a doubt the highlight of our trip. The kayaking was sold out, but the people that did the kayaking raved about it. They had many incredible experiences that you couldn’t replicate by sitting on a zodiac or tromping around in the snow.
IAATO is a voluntary organization that exists to protect the Antarctic environment. Antarctica has no governing body and the existing treaty does little to protect against hordes of tourists. Moral of the story, to keep Antarctica the wild and pristine wilderness that it currently is, you should ONLY go with a company that is a member of IAATO.
What does this really mean for tour companies? It means they don’t dump gray water into the Arctic habitats. You don’t trudge over 50 year old moss, you don’t taunt the penguins, you don’t eat on land, you don’t take feathers and rocks home. In short, it means that you give a damn about protecting this place. All of the ships on the polarcruises.com website are members of IAATO.
We booked an 11-day cruise on through Daniela (contact info above) while roasting a lamb in El Calafate. It was about one week before the ship was scheduled to leave. Our options were $4,900 for a shared triple on a smaller ship, or $5,300 for a double for Kobus and I and a triple Jared would share with two other random people.
We booked the $5,300 option for one reason, and his name is Mike. He had just come back from a cruise on the Sea Spirit and couldn’t shut up about it. This was a “luxury” ship, with an open bar, 114 passenger limit, and an extra day on land. The double cabin combined with the open bar, made this our best choice. We paid an additional $225 per person to spend a night sleeping on the ice.
Shockingly, all three of us were upgraded. Our standard porthole cabin became a “superior suite” with a big window, and Jared’s shared triple became a single on the same deck. Honestly, the cabin quality on this ship was so amazing that the upgrade was not really that significant. The lower deck cabins were in fact bigger than ours, the only difference was the porthole rather than a window. Not a big deal except if you get seasick when you can’t see outside. (The portholes are closed on the Drake crossing.)
The ship and crew were fantastic. As former cruise ship staff, we know this drill, and I can say that this ship was run amazingly well. Incredible food, snacks, push-button espresso machine, service that was out of this world. (Have I mentioned the open bar yet?)
Bottom line: It was worth every single penny. Trust me, I still feel a bit sick when I think of paying $5,300 for 11 days of my life. But, I don’t regret it. If you have the cash, this is the place to spend it. If you don’t have the cash, put it on your list. They’ll be some proper trip updates coming in the next week or two where we’ll talk in more detail about what we did.
Please leave a comment! This information is hard to come by and changes frequently. If you have different experiences or know of other resources, please leave a link here.