Almost all who get the chance to experience the wonders of Antarctica call it the trip of a lifetime, and many struggle for words when trying to describe the awe-inspiring mountains, glaciers, and wildlife they encountered on their adventure.
It can, however, be very difficult to understand the various options available to you for exploring this part of the world.
Below we review some of the best Antarctica tours on the market, followed by a guide on the key things to consider when conducting your research.
#1 Quest For The Antarctic Circle
|Age range:||12 to 99|
|Max Group Size:||134|
This 14 Day expedition gets rave reviews and it’s easy to see why.
In the safe and experienced hands of G Adventures, this journey takes travellers on a once-of-a-lifetime adventure deep into the Antarctic Peninsula.
The jam packed itinerary on this trip includes two daily excursions, while the manageable number of passengers improves intimacy and time-on-shore.
The high ice rating of the ship is also a big plus, allowing it to access areas other ships may struggle to reach.
Experts accompany you on this journey to provide daily lectures through an educational program along with daily briefings and recaps.
#2 Antarctica Complete
|Age range:||8 to 92|
|Max Group Size:||120|
Australian Aurora is one of the preferred operators in this region, and their Antarctica Complete tour is undoubtedly one of the best ways to explore this amazing part of the world.
Over the course of 23 days, this itinerary includes the Falkland Islands, South Georgia, and of course
the incredible Antarctica Peninsula.
This extended itinerary provides more time for the experienced expedition crew to design days to maximise experiences based on weather and ice conditions.
Whales, penguins, spectacular ice cliffs, snow hikes, incredible mountain peaks and glaciers are just some of the things you can expect to see on this adventure.
The passenger capacity of 120 works well with the 100-person on-shore limit, taking into account the passengers that opt for activities such as diving and kayaking at each stopping point.
With construction completed in 2019, the Greg Mortimer is a state-of-the-art purpose-built expedition vessel with an impressive 1A ice rating, designed to excel in polar conditions.
#3 Antarctic Explorer
|Age range:||18 to 99|
|Max Group Size:||189|
One of the most respected names in Antarctic travel, award-winning Quark are polar expedition specialists, undertaking tours to the most remote parts of the world for over 25 years.
With its larger ship size, this tour utilises zodiac excursions to explore various bays and surrounding areas at each anchor point. On-land excursions are always a highlight, with the capable Quark expedition crew leading ensuring you get best views of majestic mountains and glaciers.
Wildlife is also a focus, with whales, penguins and seals all possibilities for viewing.
Education is top notch on these expeditions, with Quark’s passionate and experienced team coming from a range of backgrounds including marine biology, history, and geology.
If you’re looking for a tour from a proven leader in Antarctic expeditions, Quark should be near the top of your short list.
#4 Discover Antarctica
|Age range:||12 to 99|
|Max Group Size:||198|
Utilising the classic itinerary designed to make the most of the days on hand, this journey will take you deep into the Antarctic Peninsula. Your days will be spent viewing and exploring mountains, glaciers, wildlife.
Highlight on this cruise includes the Lemaire Channel, Deception Island, Paradise bay and Neko harbour.
With an ice class rating of 1B, the Ocean Atlantic is one of the strongest ships to choose for your tour to Antarctica. This is a big ship, with passenger numbers to reflect it.
This will allow you to experience Antarctica in comfort and provides you with the opportunity to take advantage of the many features this ship has to offer. These include a full serviced bar, nautical lounge, polar library, gym, lecture theatre, and sundeck.
#5 Antarctica Peninsula Cruise
|Age range:||5 to 99|
|Max Group Size:||50|
|Ship:||MV Sea Spirit|
Maximise your time in deep south with this incredible 12 day tour from Trafalgar.
You will spend your days exploring on foot, zodiac and kayak, while evenings will be spent enjoying presentations and workshops by experts on this fascinating part of the world.
Keep an eye out for whales, penguins and other wildlife as you wind your way through glistening icebergs, this trip from Trafalgar is designed to be the trip of a lifetime.
Choosing your Antarctica tour
The important thing to do when starting your research into an Antarctica cruise is to first decide what you want to get out of the experience and which elements of the trip are most important to you.
This will help you build a list of priorities and narrow down your options. This is your best bet for finding the best tour to suit your needs and preferences.
Remember, there will inevitably be a trade-off between the different factors e.g. ships with fewer passengers (and therefore offering a more intimate experience) are likely to have less luxurious rooms.
Here’s the key things to think about before looking at Antarctica cruises:
Antarctica tours come in a variety of different flavours. While almost all would be considered a form of adventure travel, some are more adventurous than others.
Tours to this part of the world are often lumped into either “Ice Cruises” (or Drive By Liners) or “Expedition Cruises”.
Ice Cruises will generally be more similar to a traditional cruise. Passengers will have a more spacious room with an ensuite, a range of food and beverage options, multiple viewing and relaxation areas, and entertainment in the evenings.
Expedition Cruises are generally much more hands on and are focussed on exploring and experiencing the destination.
They are for the guests that want an immersive experience and usually assist with this by providing experts (often PHDs) to give talks and be on hand to answer questions.
Uniquely, many cruises to Antarctica now often combine elements of both, with luxury cruise ships being constructed to high ice ratings and tours offering a range of water and land excursions, with no need for “roughing it” while on board.
What is your requirement for your cabin? Do you want as close to a luxury cruise as possible or are you happy with a tiny room with bunk beds?
Most people wanting to do an Antarctica Cruise will be somewhere in between these two options, but make sure the cabin will suit your requirements before you book.
Solo travellers are very common on polar trips. If this is you, you’ll also need to make a decision about sharing a cabin. Paying an additional single supplement is an option, but it is expensive.
While it can be a roll of the dice in terms of who you end up rooming with, given the type of person who books this type of trip, more often than not you’ll end up with someone you get along with, and maybe even make a new friend!
Size Of Ship / Number Of Passengers
The number of passengers on board an Antarctica Cruise can range from 50 up to 400.
Generally speaking, smaller boats will offer a more intimate experience.
They will usually give you more time on land and allow for better access to experts in the expedition staff.
Smaller ships also generally offer better access to various parts of the boat, making them better for observing and photographing.
Common downsides of a smaller ship include more basic accommodations, food, and a rougher ride, particularly for the Drakes Passage crossing.
On a larger ship, you are generally going to have a higher level of comfort in all areas. Cabins will be bigger and there will be a range of relaxation areas and often an observation lounge.
Food is more likely to be of a higher standard and you will often have access to a range of other facilities like a gym, sauna and library.
Larger ships will generally also fare better in rough seas, reducing the chance of sea sickness.
The main downside to larger ships is the reduced amount of time on land. According to regulations set by the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators (IAATO), only 100 passengers are permitted to disembark at any point in time.
This means that on larger ships, you may need to take turns in shifts to be on land, or some groups may do other activities like zodiak cruising, while the others explore on land.
This is the reason most ships hover around the 100 passenger mark.
You often have more restricted access to various parts of a larger vessel, such as the bow, which can reduce opportunities for photographs.
Also worth considering is the environmental impact of your visit. Bigger ships have a larger impact on the environment and the wildlife that lives in it.
Tours generally have a certain “flavour” to them. Some are designed to be action and adventure packed, while others are more focused on cultural experiences.
Some of the best tours combine elements of both.
Do you enjoy good amounts of fee time to explore while on a tour? Make sure you select a more relaxed option that doesn’t have a jam-packed daily schedule.
Tours generally have an age range that they have been designed to suit. It should be displayed in the tour information, but if not, feel free to send them an email and ask.
They also differ in terms of the level of physical fitness required – be sure to check this out before you book if it is a concern.
Ice Rating Of The Ship
One common comment from people who have gone on Arctic and Antarctica Cruises is that they were glad they were on a ship rated with a high ice class (or they wished they were on one that had higher).
Ships built to travel in or near ice need to be built with additional strength in the hull, along with a range of other structural improvements to ensure it can withstand impact with ice.
Each ship is rated based on its ability to travel through ice of varying levels of thickness.
The most commonly used measure is the Finnish/Swedish Ice Class which ranks ships as 1A Super (highest rating), 1A, 1B, or 1C.
More often than not, the ice rating of your ship won’t make a difference to your experience.
However, ice is unpredictable, and there’s every chance that sites and routes will become unavailable for your ship if it is rated at the lower end of the scale.
There are many activities made available as optional extras on an Antarctica trip.
While expensive, they are often the highlights for many peoples.
Common activities include:
- Sleeping on the ice
- Helicopter excursions
- Snow shoeing
- Polar snorkelling and diving
- Zodiac raft cruising
- Photo opportunities and workshops
Note that the activities may or may not already be included in your itinerary – it varies between operators, so check with the company you book through.
Also, note that these activities usually need to be booked well in advance of your trip.
Many people find that once deciding on which activities they are keen for, there are no spaces left.
One of the decisions you’ll need to make fairly on in your research process is where you want to depart from and which route suits you best.
Almost all Antarctica trips start and finish in Ushuaia.
Ushuaia is the southernmost city in the world, located in Argentina at the southern tip of South America. It is a busy small city and a center for adventure activity in the region.
If you are concerned about the extended time at sea (or are short on time), crossing the Drake Passage, then consider a “Fly Cruise Combo”.
Many tours start with a flight from Argentina to King George Island in Antarctica, where the cruise starts.
The popular option is to return by ship via Drake Passage after exploring Antarctica. However, there are expeditions available that allow you to do the return leg via airplane also.
Consider also whether you want Falklands and South Georgia Islands included in your itinerary. With abundant wildlife and dramatic landscapes, many travellers find these islands to be some of the highlights of the trip.
Finally, there is the option of departing from Australia of New Zealand. The key advantages here are avoiding a very long flight to South America, as well as the opportunity to take a much less-explored route around Antarctica.
You’ll also get to see sights like Mount Erebus, Scott Base, and The Ross Ice Shelf.
At the time of writing there are no departures from Hobart, however there are expeditions departing from Invercargill / Bluff in New Zealand.
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Once you have an idea of the type of expedition you want, some rough timing and your point of departure, it’s time to start looking at some options for operators.
In addition to reading what the operator states about their expedition, it’s always a good idea to read as many (genuine) traveller reviews as possible, to get a feel for what people liked and didn’t like about their experience.
Tour Radar is a great resource for this, providing genuine traveller reviews of all the major operators.
They are also a great option for booking your trip itself, as they offer a best price guarantee, instant booking confirmation, and 24/7 access to expert customer support.