You don’t turn 50 every year! A momentous occasion like this demanded an equally momentous trip which led me to plan one to Antarctica.
Would YOU also think of undertaking the adventure of your lifetime? It’s arduous but doable if you’re ready to deal with all the complexities, planning & preparation related to undertaking a journey to the remotest & most inhospitable corner of our planet!
I’ll try to break it down & make it simpler for you so even if you actually don’t end up going, this should make an interesting reading.
When To Go
The first question that comes to mind is when do you travel to Antarctica. The Antarctica visit season lies roughly between Nov end to Apr first week which happens to be summers there at that time (Southern Hemisphere!) allowing ships a passage in between the Antarctica landmass. For the rest of the year, the continent is frozen rock solid.
You can choose to travel at any time in between this period but the wildlife that you can expect to see changes with each month. The beginning of the season allows views of the icebergs in their most pristine & unspoilt shapes. You also get to see the penguin rookeries with freshly hatched chicks. The later part of the season gets you better sightings of the whales & the orcas while the icebergs have by now begun to melt & shores have probably become muddy with the visit of the thousands of tourists before you. So take your pick accordingly.
How do you travel to Antarctica
There are three ways of travelling to Antarctica – by sea alone, by air alone or a combination of a sea + air option.
If you want to take a sea cruise then there are two main areas from where you can set sail. The most popular & economical (??) is from Ushuaia in Argentina or Punta Arenas in Chile. This option offers you the widest range of ships, itineraries & budgets.
The second option is to board a ship from New Zealand or Australia. These turn out to be more expensive (the ones on the other side aren’t cheap either!) but they take you to a more untouched & virgin part of Antarctica where you have much fewer tourists to spoil your experience.
If you have deeper pockets or are a man (or woman) in a hurry, then there are a variety of flight or flight + ship options also available from both these areas plus from Cape Town in South Africa. These of course come at a much higher cost.
When to Start Planning
Even with all the exhorbitant pricing, trips to Antarctica fly off the shelf like hot cakes! So you have to give yourself a lead period of AT LEAST 6-8 months to carry out all the research, select your trip, ship, cabin class & make the booking. Most operators will ask you to pay up 50% of the total cost immediately & the rest in 2-3 time bound instalments.
The itineraries can range from as less as 8 days to a couple of months with proportionate costs. Longer than 15 days cruises also take in the Falklands Islands & South Georgia which offer a more intimate experience of wildlife sighting than Antarctica itself.
Once you have decided to visit Antarctica, the next step is to look for a suitable operator. In most cases, the operators are only agents who match the customers with their ships. You also have an option of making your bookings directly with the ship owning companies.
The ships are classified by their size. The bigger ships offer more luxury but are restricted by their size to enter deeper between the islands & icebergs. The smaller ships are more basic in their amenities but are able to offer a more intimate experience. The current rules in force allow only 100 people to go ashore at any one time. So on bigger ships with more than a 100 passengers, one would have to wait for his/her turn to do a shore landing. That would also translate into a fewer number of such landings in a day for the entire ship. In comparison, on smaller ships with less than a 100 people, everyone can go ashore at the same time which means that the ship can then move forward & plan more number of such landings per day.
The accommodation ranges from personal suites to shared cabins with the latter having a choice of sharing with 2,3 or more cabin-mates. Of course the costs go up with each level of privacy that you may seek, starting from USD 4000-5000 to upwards of USD 15000! Yes you heard that right! Antarctica doesn’t come cheap!
So after having figured everything else out, you now have to make your flight bookings. Assuming that you have decided to board the cruise from Ushuaia in Argentina, you have to work out suitable flight connections. There are no direct flights to Ushuaia from India. So you have to first reach Buenos Aires (Argentina’s capital) & then take a domestic flight further south to Ushuaia. For us, the best connections to Buenos Aires are available through 1 or 2 stopovers in Europe or the MIddle East. You obviously want to keep a day’s buffer on arrival & departure just to cater for uncertainities.
All this done, you now have to take care of the Argentine visa. For Indian passport holders, Argentina has extended an online e-visa facility (called the Electronic Travel Authorisation or ETA) available at a cost of USD 50. Of course if you don’t want to pay anything, you can also submit your visa documents in person at the Argentine embassy in Delhi (for those living in the north) & at the consulate in Mumbai (for those living in Maharahtra & select southern states), go through the interview process & expect to have your visa approved in about 8-10 days.
Contrary to what you may think, the temperatures in Antarctica aren’t that low & may range from +5 to -5 degrees celcius during the summer season. The windchill factor of course makes it feel colder sometimes.
While on board the ship you can expect to wear comfortable lounge clothing with protection from cold. For shore landings, add an extra layer of parka or a heavy jacket. In short, dress as you may for a high altitude trek – layer up with inner, middle & outer layers.
You may need some money for spending at the shore. Peso is the official Argentine currency though US dollars & Euros are also widely accepted. At most establishments you can also pay using your credit cards so you actually need the Pesos mostly just to pay for the taxis. For expenditures onboard, keep your credit card handy if you aren’t carrying enough USD/Euros. The gratuity to the staff of course has to be paid in cash at the end of the trip.
With this I hope I’ve answered most of your general queries about a trip to this faraway land. I’ve done my homework comprehensively. So if any of you would wish to plan a similar trip for the 2020-21 season, please don’t hesitate to ask. It shall be a pleasure to knock one up for you.
For my more exciting blogs on the trip proper, please wait till I return 🙂 🙂
Disclaimer – I have used some stock images for this blog as I don’t have my original shots yet.