No travellers visit Antarctica during the winter when the temperature plummets and the polar ice becomes hard to traverse. Most vessels sail from November to March.
Planning Your Trip
1. What will the weather be like and just how cold could it get?
The weather in Antarctica is completely unpredictable, so it’s best to prepare for the worst and hope for the best! The winds can be some of the strongest in the world, and things can easily change within an extremely short amount of time. If you get caught in a storm, it could be quite hairy, and you may not be able to disembark the ship, but Antarctica does experience lovely calm sunny/blue sky days too and I was lucky to get two of these on my trip. In terms of the temperature, during the Antarctic summer (tourist season) the temperature tends to vary between -20 and 10 degrees, influenced by the inevitably unpredictable wind chill factor. As long as you are well-equipped when it comes to clothing, you’ll be absolutely fine!
2. When is the best time to go?
Anytime within the Antarctic summer season (Oct - March) is a good time to go and there is always something exciting going on. Early on (Oct - Dec), the snow is more pristine, and you will be making some of the first footprints of the season on the continent which is quite special. This is the time of year which can mean being able to see spectacular and huge tabular ice bergs. It also works out at the cheapest time to go, until you get to the Christmas period. In early January, penguin eggs start hatching and the wildlife is more abundant. There is gradually less snow, and more and more rocky areas become visible and available to walk on, which means you can explore a bit further afield. Whales are best in February and March, though we still saw quite a few around in December.
3. How far in advance should you book an Antarctic cruise?
Antarctica is extremely popular, so to secure your preferred boat/dates it’s best to book 12-18 months in advance. It is not a cheap trip, so it’s not ideal to have to make any compromises. Early bird discounts are also often available, which can mean quite big savings if you are able to commit quite far in advance. That said, last minute deals can also be excellent so it’s always worth checking this if your dates are flexible.
4. How do you choose which boat to travel on?
There are many excellent boats on offer, and it often comes down to availability if you have fixed dates or are looking relatively last-minute. Otherwise, important considerations are level of luxury, budget, ice class, itinerary, and activities offered on board.
Remember that sometimes the cheapest cabin on a luxury boat is the same cost as a high-level cabin on a more basic boat, and in this case, you can get more value for money by taking advantage of the superior facilities that the more luxury boats have to offer.
5. Does the size of boat matter?
There are several points to consider when it comes to the size of the boat. Many people do prefer to go for smaller boats for a more intimate experience (e.g. 70-90 people), and on a smaller boat you do find there is more of a family feel and that you will get to know everyone very easily. However, larger boats provide more stability and can mean more facilities on offer. There is a limitation of 100 people on land at any one time in Antarctica, so if your boat has more people than that then there will be a shift pattern for excursions. That said, this is dealt with very effectively by the staff, and usually it will mean that some people head out on zodiac trips whilst others spend time on land, so it shouldn’t put you off the slightly larger vessels.
6. What are your top clothing tips?
Take plenty of layers with you - dressing like an onion is key. Usually your cruise company will provide the top layer jacket and sometimes the trousers and boots, but this is worth checking. If they don’t and you have to get your own, it’s very important that this top layer is properly waterproof and windproof. For the base layers, I would recommend 2-3 sets of thermals to interchange for a 10-day trip (I took about 4 which was complete overkill!) - these can easily be re-used and remember a lot of the time you will be on the boat and not needing thermals. Merino wool is particularly good for not smelling even after multiple wears. You’ll then want a middle fleece layer, so fleece pants/jacket and/or a light down-style jacket puffy jacket. 2-3 layers of gloves are essential - at least a thin base layer (easy to find in places like Decathlon) and a thicker waterproof layer. When taking photos, you’ll need the thin layer to keep your fingers warm whilst you operate your camera. A neck buff is ideal, and either a beanie or deerstalker hat is great - I had both and used both in different conditions! Bring plenty of thick socks too; wet feet are miserable!
7. Is there anything to definitely not forget?
You’ll be sent some packing advice from the cruise that you book with, and check what they do and do not provide, but my top things not to forget would be:
- High factor sun cream, and take it with you on excursions, even if it isn’t sunny because that could quickly change!
- Lip balm, ideally with sun protection
- Extra memory cards and camera batteries
- Important medication as well as spares
- Good books/music/programs to watch
- Moisturiser (the environment is very drying both on and off the ship)
- Pack of cards
- Notebook to record your experiences
- Dry bag for excursions
8. Do you need specialist travel insurance?
It’s extremely important to have travel insurance that will cover your voyage, particularly evacuation in case of a medical emergency. Most cruise ships will require the details of this as mandatory, and it may involve taking out a higher level of insurance than you have previously had so it’s important to look into this.
9. Do you need to be fit to travel to Antarctica?
The main thing is that you need to be able to get in and out of zodiacs and walk on uneven terrain including the possibility of falling into fairly deep snow. Other than that, it’s unlikely you will be doing arduous hikes, so a high level of fitness is not generally required. However, if you have any medical conditions it is important to speak to your doctor about where you will be going because medical assistance in case of emergency is not straightforward and can take days.