It's often called the trip of a lifetime, but for many the cost of getting to Antarctica is off putting due to the huge costs and confusing itineraries which each travel agency claiming to offer the best experiences. So today we decided to look at the best Antarctica tours available.
The secret to travelling to the bottom of the planet, to see the amazing glaciers, snow, sea-life and if you're brave enough, an ice swim, is to book your tour up to 2 years in advance. Doing this, you can secure a cheap tour almost guaranteed.
If you're ready to get the lowdown on the best Antarctica tours, with maximum satisfaction continue reading below and learn more. Grab your camera, winter gear and book your tour.
1. Antarctica Classic
Starting with the best Antarctica tour in our opinion, at the cheapest price of any other Antarctica tours we could find, this 11 day tour has rave reviews from over 200+ previous adventurers, which is quite a lot considering most people never leave positive reviews online.
The tour begins in Ushuaia and offers 9 nights aboard the semi luxury G Expedition vessel which is a 1B class ship cable of carrying 134 passengers and a handful of crew.
The G Expedition was recently refurbished in 2009 and offers comfort, space and expertise, along with the latest safety equipment, kayaks, zodiacs and full immersion cold weather survival suits for all passengers and crew on board.
You'll feel right at home with breakfast, lunch and diner served in the Albatross dining room, with a quiet library and fully stocked polar bear pub bar available too.
The tour offers a choice of 5 different cabins where you'll either stay alone, with a friend or as a group. Depending on your budget you can opt for an internal room with a small window or something larger.
The tour begins on the second day where you'll leave the mainland behind before sailing through the Beagle Channel and on to the Drake Passage with a 1000km crossing named in honour of Sir Francis Drake from the 16th-century.
The drake passage is well known for it's abundant wildlife including whales and albatross, as well as your first glimpse of ice bergs.
Days 5- will see you experience the South Shetland Islands and Antarctic Peninsula where (weather permitting) you'll get two shore landings per day to encounter Gentoo, Adelie penguin rookeries, Weddell, crabeater, leopard seals, orca, humpback and minke whales.
It's important to note that you need to add kayaking to your package which costs $1289 per day or ice camping ($499+) which is pretty pricey but is a full day experience accompanied by skilled guides. You must book this prior to your trip to ensure enough kayaks are loaded on to the ship.
If you're looking for the best budget Antarctica tour, this is definitely the one for you. If you book far enough in advance you can score yourself a seriously discounted adventure of a lifetime.
2. Quest For The Antarctic Circle
This tour follows the same style as the Antarctica Classic with the main difference that they include a couple of days down in the Antarctic Circle. While most tours turn back, this one will have you going further south than 99.9% of the other travellers that make it down there.
You'll get to experience some colossal icebergs as well as countless numbers of penguins, who travel together in large colonies. You'll eventually push on and actually cross the Polar Circle.
Once you've done that your tour will return via the Drake Passage back to Ushuaia.
If you want to experience the Polar Circle then you need to spend the extra money and purchase this tour, which turns in to a 14 day tour instead of 12 days.
You'll still be able to take advantage of the same excursions such as ice camping and kayaking which both need to be booked prior to the tour start date.
If you can spare two extra days and have the cash, this is the a good budget tour to consider.
3. Best of Antarctica
Intrepid tours offer their own version of the G-Adventures classic, aboard their own vessel called the Ocean Endeavour, which is their largest boat capable of carrying up to 200 passengers.
A larger vessel than other expedition ships, it is equipped with more luxuries such as saunas, heated salt water swimming pool, gym's and yoga space. Additionally there is a spa on board.
Cabins are more luxurious too, all coming with ensuite facilities and external views (except single interior state rooms). Cabins are also serviced daily, much like a true cruise ship.
An on board bar and dining room is the perfect place to get acquainted with your fellow travellers, as well as eating breakfast, lunch and dinner which is provided.
Similar to other days, the boat departs on the second day and you'll spend 9 nights on board. The first few days will be cruising down the Beagle Channel and into the Drake Passage.
By the end of day four and hopefully after seeing a lot of marine wildlife, you'll make it to dry land, where your excursions will begin. They offer 2 per day, weather permitting.
The best excursions are definitely the Zodiacs which whizz through the water and get you close to the wildlife which include penguin rookeries, spot humback and minke whales and if you're lucky maybe even some leopard seals.
You can book excursions such as kayaking, stand up paddleboarding, ice camping, cross country skiing, mountaineering and snowshoweing on various departures so be sure to check at the time of booking and add these to your itinerary.
This tour doesn't cross the Polar circle and on day eight actually starts the return journey to Ushuaia. During the three days at sea you can make use of the on board facilities and share those all important photos with your new travel buddies.
4. Antarctica Express Air Cruise
Antarctica21 offers some of the most affordable sail in fly out Antarctica expedition tours at very affordable prices. When you sit down and work everything out they are actually similar to full 9 day tours, but you only have to cross the Drake Passage once.
They offer various departure dates in 2020 and 2021 and use various 72 passenger vessels including Ocean Nova, Hebridean Sky and Magellan Explorer.
These vessels are all very modern indeed with the Megellan Explorer only being launched this year and features a stylish design and luxurious cabins.
Ocean Nova is also fairly modern and features a ton of tech to ensure you have a safe journey.
By only offering comfort for up to 72 passengers, some of which will actually fly to and from Drake Passage, you've got a really small and quiet ship, that makes the experience much more enjoyable.
You'll journey down the Beagle Channel and Drake Passage and also board a Zodiac at Cape Horn if the weathers on your side.
Down at the South Shetland Islands you'll enjoy more Zodiac excursions as you visit a penguin colony and take endless photos of the ice bergs, glaciers and wildlife.
The boat then continues to King George Island where you'll walk through Chile's Frei Station and Russia's Bellingshausen station directly to your awaiting plane. This small plane will fly you all the way back to Punta Arenas, Chile.
You can also choose a seat on the plane, window? for an extra $245 USD.
This tour also offers on board lectures and programs by expert naturalist guides as well as how to take the best photography.
5. South Shetlands + Antarctic
The last tour we're looking at is a 9 night tour that starts on the very first day and heads straight for the Beagle Channel and on to the Drake Passage.
This tour spends 2 days in the South Shetland Islands with landfalls in King George Island, Deception Island and Half Moon Island. Weather depending you'll get on to land and checkout the extint volcano of Deception as well as see nesting Wilson's storm petrels and chinstrap penguins.
The tour then proceeds to the Antarctic Peninsula where you'll get to head out on the Zodiacs and kayaks, weather depending of course and even go for a swim, attached to a rope!
The vessel then returns to Ushuaia and you'll enjoy a few days at sea before disembarking.
The Ocean Atlantic is an expedition vessel with an ice-strengthened hull that was recently renovated and offers capacity for 200 passengers. On board you'll find a gym, libary, lecture theatre for on board learning, a polar boutique and a sundeck for observation.
Below deck there's a fully stocked and staffed bar, a nautical lounge and a TV room. Readers rejoice over a library and there's a dining room for your breakfast, lunch and dinner.
If you want to explore the South Shetland Islands then this budget tour is a good idea as most don't stop off here, instead heading straight for the Polar Circle or Peninsula.
Choosing The Best Antarctica Tour
When looking for the best tours, it can be difficult to look at what you want to experience. Ultimately the best experiences are usually reserved for those with the deepest pockets, however you should look at what your budget can afford and then look at the various options.
Just because you're on a budget doesn't mean you can't enjoy the same as those on longer, more luxurious tours. Ultimately you may have to trade different features for different experiences.
Below we'll look at different factors to consider when choosing your Antarctica cruise.
Length of Tour
The first thing you'll want to consider when choosing an Antarctica tour is how long you've got to work with. At a minimum you'd be looking at 9 nights away from dry land.
This is due to the time required to cross the Drake Passage from Ushuaia, where most tours actually start. This is the lowest port in Argentina that connects passengers from flights to their cruise ships.
If you're short on time then you can find some operators that allow you to take a flight from Argentina down to King George Island in Antarctica and join your ship there. It's actually pretty uncommon for those on a budget to fly as the cost can be huge.
Shorter tours almost never stop at additional ports such as the Falklands or South Georgia Islands, so if you want to visit those locations you'll need to choose a longer tour.
Unlike a traditional cruise ship, most tours are fixed, meaning you can't simply extend the tour to visit another port. You'll likely need to agree to a fixed length during the time of booking. You can often add land based excursions or additional nights if required.
Style of Tour
Nearly all budget tours start from Ushuaia in Argentina which means you'll need to get to this city from your hometown in Australia. This can add to your costs dramatically, especially during peak time. Flying in economy class can still add thousands to the price of your cruise.
With that said you should look at the price of tours departing from New Zealand as well. While they are infrequent, you might actually find a longer tour that works out to the same price once you factor in all your costs.
Most people combine their tour with a holiday in Argentina, such as Buenos Aires.
Tours are usually split up into two main categories, Ice Cruises or Expedition Cruises.
Expedition cruises are often the preferred option among travellers as you get a hands on tour which often includes Zodiac boat tours, walking on the ice, swimming and tracking wildlife. Many tours also include on board conservation studies, lectures and access to scientists.
Ice cruises are luxury cruises to Antarctica and include access to better facilities, more comfortable accommodation and better dining. It's unlikely any water based activities take place and is a more relaxing and photogenic approach to travel.
In a more recent trend, some tour operators combine both ice cruises and expeditions to give travellers a little bit of both.
On board Accommodation
If you're on a budget you can save a lot of money by choosing an older vessel with very few, if any, luxuries on board. This might be sharing with a person you've never met before or sleeping in a dorm room.
For those looking for more comfort but still within a budget, travelling with a companion and sharing a twin room can lower your costs. While single rooms do exist, there's often a surcharge for having such a room. This can be expensive, especially if the tour is popular.
Most ships are fairly old and won't have the luxury modcons that you see on Caribbean cruise ships, but offer a more rustic and heritage instead.
Most tours are small in comparison with larger cruise ships you'd experience in Europe. On average Expedition cruises usually accommodate 100 - 150 passengers.
Some of the larger ships can accommodate much more (up to 500 at a time), although these are likely to be Ice Cruises instead. Other smaller research trips may only have 30-50 passengers.
The disadvantage to larger ships is that according to rules set out by the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators (IAATO), only 100 passengers can disembark the vessel at any one time. This means you'll likely need to take turns when partaking in land or water based excursions.
That's another benefit to choosing an expedition cruise as they often have two groups and you'll go out and return at a set time, ensuring everyone gets the same experience level.
Ship Ice Rating
You can't take any cruise ship down to the antarctic because it would probably sink as soon as a piece of ice went through the hull. All the boats that offer tours down there are specialised and have reinforcements made to their hulls.
Some are specifically designed to be operated as ice breakers which are even safer. Most ships offer a ranking based on the Swedish Ice Class which uses 1A Super, 1A, 1B and 1C to determine the level of strength in the stern and hull.
While some tourists are confident they aren't going on any ship that isn't 1A Super, most of the budget ships are often 1A and 1B instead. However, regardless of the ice rating, there have been very few fatal accidents concerning boats down in Antarctica lately.
Tour Activities & Excursions
Why go all that way and not even get off the ship? If that's what you want then choosing an Ice Cruise is perfect but for those of you looking for once in a lifetime activities, you'll be pleased to know there is a wide range of Antarctica excursions and activities on offer.
Most common is Zodiac tours where you'll head out on the water on small rafts with engines that are capable of high speeds. From these boats you can get up close to wildlife such as whales and also glaciers. Taking photos from these boats is amazing.
Most expedition boats also offer kayaking in the form of sea kayaks. These are usually 2 or 3 person and offer pedals for aiding with your steering. Life jackets and drysuits are nearly always included and should be worn at all times.
Less popular is helicopter excursions which can be expensive but a once in a lifetime opportunity should you have good weather and visibility.
Another popular activity on longer tours is the ability to camp on the ice, sleeping in high tech sleeping bags and then returning to the ship the next morning for a hot shower.
Other activities such as snow shoeing and skiing is also possible on some tours. Additionally you can even go for an ice bath (I give you 15 seconds in the water) or take a snorkelling tour.
There will be endless photo opportunities and longer tours always spend more time taking excursions on the Antarctic peninsula.
Research & Charitable Work
While most tours offer on board scientists and research academics, you might be able to join tours that are heading down to perform specific research or charity work.
This is especially common on tours that leave from Wellington or Bluff in New Zealand. While getting on such a tour can be difficult, you can always be on the look out.
If you want to learn more about the environment or local wildlife, nearly all tour operators offer some form of education on the days at sea, when there's not much else to do except stare at the endless scenery or get to know your fellow adventurers.
Travel Insurance For The Best Antarctica Tours
While most tour operators offer some form of insurance, you will need your own emergency medical evacuation insurance before you'll be allowed on board. The minimum recommended coverage is at least $100,000 USD per person.
However, you probably want to look at coverage of at least $1 million dollars. Getting air lifted out of the Antarctic by helicopter or plane from a foreign country is bound to cost a fortune so ensure you have adequate cover that covers medical evacuation.
You should purchase your travel insurance as soon as possible after purchasing your tour. Don't wait until you're heading to the airport, or worse, actually in Agrentina.
You can check out the best cruise ship insurance providers here.