Is a journey to the White Continent worth the expense?
Ok, maybe it’s just me, but the more difficult a destination is to visit, the more that I’m drawn to it. Fortunately, my older son shares this desire. So when my husband and I gave him this bucket list trip to Antarctica as a high school graduation gift, he was wholeheartedly on board. Not to mention, we’d both be able to achieve our goal of visiting all seven continents.
There was just one problem. I’m especially prone to seasickness, and the mere thought of having to cross the wild and raging waters of the Drake Passage from South America to Antarctica made my stomach churn. Enter Antarctica 21, one of only two cruise operators (the other is Quark) that flies its passengers from Punta Arenas in Chile to the continent. Antarctica 21 was the first to pioneer this premium service in 2003. Today, it offers over 20 air-cruise departures each season aboard two different ice-class expedition vessels, the Ocean Nova and Hebridean Sky. In November 2019, it will add a third ship, the sleek Magellan Explorer, and a new itinerary.
We opted for the 7-night/8-day Classic Antarctica route along the Antarctica Peninsula on the Ocean Nova. (Know that this itinerary is really only 5 nights/6 days on the ship; the rest of the time is in the port city.) The 239-foot ship has the capacity for 46 crew members and 72 passengers, though we had only 68 on our sailing. Our fellow passengers representing 11 countries were more diverse than on our previous expedition cruises. More than half were visiting their seventh continent, and one family was visiting their seventh continent that year!
KidTripster Tip: Understand that no matter which cruise you take, you’ll only see a fraction of Antarctica. The continent is humongous - twice the size of Australia! But even though you’re only exploring the Antarctica Peninsula and surrounding islands, you’ll still be wowed.
KidTripster Tip: To travel with Antarctica 21, passengers must be at least 8 years old. To read why I think you should wait until your child is 13 years old, click here.
When to go?
The tourist season in Antarctica is short. Antarctica 21 runs cruises from early December to early March, depending on the ship. Passengers typically will book these cruises at least a year in advance, so you need to plan ahead. The cruises at the very beginning of the season tend to be the least expensive.
We were told by the staff that cruises over the holidays have the most kids, but they’re also more expensive. You’ll pay about $1600 (triple occupancy) to $2000 (double occupancy) per passenger more. Our holiday cruise had a large number of kids under the age of 18 - a total of 11 - mostly because of four Chinese families from Beijing who were traveling together with nine children. We had to travel during the holidays because of my son’s college schedule. But my advice to you? Skip a week or two of school and save the money. For one parent and one child, you’re talking about a savings of $4000. If your child is mature enough for this trip, he or she will probably be ok with very few peers on board.
There’s one other thing to consider when choosing your sailing date: the number of passengers on a tour. While we were waiting to board our flight back to Punta Arenas, we saw the next group of passengers getting on the ship. All the passengers - with the exception of just five - were part of two Chinese tour groups. It’s sometimes the case that Chinese tourists who are less comfortable speaking English will travel in groups that have an English-speaking guide; Antarctica 21 also provides these groups with a Mandarin-speaking cultural guide on board. Whether or not you’re able to communicate with the majority of passengers really could impact your experience on the ship. So before you book, ask the booking agent if any large groups already have reserved space.
Photo courtesy: Joaquin Beccar Varela
Saying that getting to Antarctica is challenging is an understatement. But the journey is part of the experience.
KidTripster Tip: Antarctica 21 does an especially good job of preparing you for your journey with online reading material and videos. After the cruise, you can access this same online account and download all the photos that the onboard photographer takes.
Let’s start from the beginning. You’ll likely fly from your home to Santiago in Chile on a major carrier. Depending on when you arrive, you may need to stay overnight. Next, you’ll take a 3-1/2-hour flight on either Sky or LATAM to Punta Arenas, located near the tip of South America. When you arrive, you’ll be greeted at the airport by a representative from Antarctica 21 who’ll transfer you to Hotel Cabo de Hornos in central Punta Arenas, just across from the main square.
KidTripster Tip: Both the airports in Santiago and Punta Arenas are chaotic with long lines to check baggage and long lines at security. I’d recommend arriving at least three hours in advance of your flight. And on your return flight, make sure to budget several hours between arriving in Santiago from Punta Arenas and departing Santiago for home. You’ll need to pick up your luggage in the domestic terminal and then check your baggage again in the international terminal. You’ll also need to deal with passport control.
KidTripster Tip: I will never fly LATAM again. The check-in process at the airport was a nightmare. We were unable to check in online or at the airport kiosk, so we found ourselves in an extremely long line. Problem was there were several lines - none of them marked - and no employees to direct passengers to the correct queue. It created a lot of needless stress and worry about whether we’d make it to the gate in time. Once we got on the plane, we only were offered water for a 3-hour flight - no snacks or other beverages. I haven’t flown Sky, but I really don’t think it could be worse than LATAM.
Ideally, you’ll fly sometime the following day from Punta Arenas to Antarctica on a DAP Airlines charter flight. I say “ideally” because it’s not a given. These flights are completely weather dependent, and as you might image, Antarctica can have itself some weather! Antarctica 21 has a 4-day contingency plan, meaning the company tries to get you to the continent within four days. If the weather doesn’t cooperate, the trip will be cancelled, and your money will be refunded.
KidTripster Tip: For this reason and because of the possible need for medical evacuation, travel insurance is required to travel with Antarctica 21. If you weren’t able to fly, your travel insurance would cover the cost of your flights and an additional hotels. I did a lot of research regarding travel insurance prior to departure. I went with World Nomad. I think that this company offers the best coverage for the money. Since then, KidTripster has partnered with World Nomad. If you purchase a policy through this link, KidTripster gets a small commission at no additional cost to you. Thanks for your support!
We were fortunate and flew out at our scheduled time on the first day. DAP operates a regular commercial flight. In fact, it’s nicer than most American carriers with complimentary chocolates when you board and a full meal during the short, 2-hour flight. Plus, the planes are painted like penguins!
KidTripster Tip: Don’t spend the extra money for “preferred seating” on the flight to and from Antarctica. Instead, aim to be near the front of the line when it comes time to board, so you can snag a window seat. Avoid a seat near the wing as your view and any photos you may want to take will be obstructed. The flight won’t be full, so your chance of seating in a window seat is fairly good.
You’ll land on a gravel runway at Frei Station, a research base on King George Island near the Antarctica Peninsula. It’s a short walk from the airstrip to the shore, where the ship awaits.
Where to stay?
My son and I found our cabin on board the Ocean Nova to be quite comfortable. Our room was set up with two twin beds with the option of pulling down two additional bunks overhead. While you may be able to get more people in a cabin if you had young children, I wouldn’t attempt it with teens. In addition to limited room, there’s the issue of storage. While we had plenty of closet space for two, three or four would have been pushing it. And keep in mind, you’ll have lots of outdoor gear with you - jackets, snow pants, hats, gloves, and boots. For a full list of what you should bring, check out our packing list.
KidTripster Tip: If you sign up to kayak, you’ll have additional gear to store in your room. We ended up pulling down one of the bunk beds just to have extra storage space.
The mattresses were high-quality and very comfortable. The large window has a black-out shade. You’ll need it as it never gets truly dark during Antarctica’s summer. Ever morning, you’ll get a wake-up call over the in-room speaker. The expedition leader also uses this system to communicate with you regarding activities and alert you to wildlife sightings. Each cabin has a private bathroom with a shower, toilet, and sink.
The housekeeping staff on board is excellent. Rooms are cleaned twice a day - once in the morning and again in the evening. Your cabin steward even leaves chocolates on your pillows each night.
One of the most frequent questions that I’m asked is, “What is there to do in Antarctica?” Plenty. However, it’s unlike any other cruise that you may have taken. There are no ports of call because there are no ports! Occasionally, you’ll anchor near a small research outpost, but you’ll likely see no one but your shipmates for the entire week. This cruise is for those who enjoy the wonders of nature. If that’s not your jam, Antarctica isn’t for you.
You’ll have at least two excursions each day - one in the morning and one in the afternoon. Some will be landings where you can take short hikes; some will be Zodiac rides where your driver will search for wildlife or navigate through spectacular ice formations. Additionally, you can kayak or snowshoe for an extra fee. (More on that below.)
The wildlife viewing in Antarctica is extraordinary and only equal to a previous trip that my family took to the Galápagos Islands. First, there are the whales - more whales than I’ve ever seen. We were fortunate to have one sighting of a pod of Orcas playing on the bow of the ship and several sightings of Humpbacks that breached and jumped repeatedly. It’s possible to see Antarctica Minke and Fin whales, as well. We saw most of the whales from the ship, but one of the Zodiac groups did encounter a Humpback at close range.
KidTripster Tip: Antarctica 21 is a member of the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO) and abides by certain rules in regards to interacting with wildlife. The ship and Zodiacs will keep a safe distance from whales, but you’ll get close enough to take some outstanding photos.
You’ll also see countless bird species and a number of different kinds of seals - Southern Elephant, Weddell, Crabeater, and Leopard - lazily lying on ice floes.
But the stars of the show are the penguins! So many penguins! We visited several locations that had colonies of penguins - mostly Gentoo. We also had one landing where we saw four different species in one colony - Gentoo and Chinstrap plus a single Adele and a single Macaroni penguin, my favorite. But nothing compares to what we witnessed at Baily Head on Deception Island, the site of the largest Chinstrap colony in Antarctica - 106,000 penguins! I’m not easily wowed, but as I walked in the valley at Baily Head with masses of penguins clinging to the rising cliffs on one side and the mountainside on the other, I was in awe. This isolated colony with its cackling birds and newly-born chicks was the most amazing nature experience that I’ve ever had. My hard-to-impress teen also was left speechless. This one landing alone was worth the journey to Antarctica. Look below for some of the penguin photos.
KidTripster Tip: Antarctica is a photographer’s dream. For more on what kind of equipment to bring and photography tips, click here.
KidTripster Tip: I should point out that no itinerary in Antarctica is fixed. One cruise on the Ocean Nova will be different from the next. Landings are determined by weather and sea conditions. Even the expedition team is uncertain of where they’ll be taking you until they get there. Staying flexible is the key. So while you may not get to go to Baily Head on your voyage, you still will see sights that will amaze you… guaranteed.
KidTripster Tip: Wanting to see the majestic Emperor penguins from the movie March of the Penguins? Or the large King penguins. Sorry, they don’t live in the areas explored on this cruise.
Sea kayaking & snowshoeing
As mentioned above, you can pay extra for the privilege to sea kayak and snowshoe… a lot extra. Sea kayaking on this cruise costs an additional $895 per person; snowshoeing runs $195 per person. There’s no preset schedule; the activities are offered depending on weather and location. For example, snowshoeing was offered two times on our cruise; on the previous cruise, it was offered seven times. My son and I did both activities. For a detailed reasoning of why I recommend paying for snowshoeing but not kayaking, click here to read my day-by-day account of the cruise.
KidTripster Tip: Spots for both kayaking and snowshoeing will fill up. If interested, you should reserve your spot when you book the cruise.
Photo courtesy: Joaquin Beccar Varela
What to do on the ship?
If you’ve been on other small ship cruises, you know that they lack the “bells and whistles” of mega ships - no swimming pools, no climbing walls, no ice skating rinks. Frankly, that’s one of the reasons that I enjoy expedition cruising - its simplicity. But that also means that you won’t find kids’ clubs or kid-centric programs either. In between the daily excursions, there is downtime. Mostly, you’ll find passengers in the Panorama Lounge or the library, enjoying the passing icescapes out the window. Groups play board games or cards together. A few work out in the small, onboard gym. Some immerse themselves in a good book, while others - like me - sort through the hundreds of photos that they just took hours earlier. The children that I observed on the cruise made their own fun.
KidTripster Tip: Encourage your child to spend some time with the crew on the bridge. The Ocean Nova has an open bridge policy.
KidTripster Tip: I also suggest encouraging your child to read about Antarctica and some of the famous expeditions prior to or during your cruise.
KidTripster Tip: You can get WiFi on the ship, if you pay an additional $59 per device. It works most of the time. You can post a photo to Instagram, but it’s not fast enough for big downloads or streaming. I did use the WiFi to make a phone call to my husband and youngest son on Christmas Eve, which is pretty incredible when you think about it!
The expedition team gives lectures after lunch or after dinner on different facets of Antarctica - the wildlife, the human history, and their own personal experiences on the continent. Many of the guides have spent several seasons in Antarctica and have stories to tell. Because of our late arrival, whale sighting interruptions, and the Christmas holiday, we only had two of these lectures on our particular sailing. It’s really my only disappointment with the cruise; I would have liked to have more educational opportunities. But again, it harkens back to what I mentioned about remaining flexible while traveling in Antarctica.
One of the highlights for my son on the ship was the Polar Plunge. Yes, people voluntarily leapt into the frigid Southern Ocean for an Instagram-worthy video and bragging rights. Take a look here. The icy plunges were quickly followed by shots of vodka for all participants who were of legal drinking age. Let me go on the record as saying that no amount of alcohol - before or after - could have gotten me in the water. None.
KidTripster Tip: Just how cold is Antarctica? The answer: not as cold as you may expect. We were blessed with exceptional weather. The temperature generally ranged from 32°F to 36°F; with the wind, it felt more like 24°F. Still, we weren’t complaining. But remember, Antarctica is unpredictable, so it’s best to come prepared for the worst.
Where to eat?
I have sailed on three big ship cruises and four expedition cruises. Of them all, Antarctica 21 had the best food, hands down. That’s an especially noteworthy feat when you consider the planning and logistics involved in an Antarctica cruise. No one is running to the grocery store in port for a forgotten item! Truly, the food quality was exceptional - from the mushroom soufflés to the Caribbean lobster to the Baked Alaska (and dozens of other mouth-watering desserts). There are selections to satisfy ever palate.
KidTripster Tip: Do you have a dietary restriction? It’s not a problem. Just let the booking agent know in advance. The chef will accommodate you.
More so than other small ship cruises that I’ve been on, Antarctica 21 strikes the perfect balance between speed and service. Breakfast and lunch are served buffet-style, so you don’t have to sit through a lengthy table service. At dinnertime, salads and soups are available on the buffet, appetizers are preset at your seat, and entrées and desserts are served at the table. Each night, there’s a choice of three dishes - meat, seafood or vegetarian. All are equally delicious.
And like on most cruises, you eat more than you should! In addition to the three meals, you can indulge in an early risers’ breakfast of fresh pastries, afternoon snacks, and evening hors d’oeuvres. My always-hungry son was more than satisfied. Beverages, including lattes and espressos, are complimentary and available all day. Chilean beers and wines are served with dinner. Any other alcohol can be purchased at the bar.
Well now, here’s the rub. As you may expect, a trip to Antarctica isn’t cheap. In fact, it’s probably the most expensive vacation that you’ll ever take, making it truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
The cruise is priced per person. The first four cruises in December are the least expensive. For a twin cabin on the Ocean Nova, it’s $12,995 per person; for a triple cabin, it’s $11,395 per person. I’ll give you a second for that to sink in.
What does that include? The cost covers your hotel expense and some meals in Punta Arenas for two nights (one night prior to your cruise and one night after your cruise) or more nights, if your cruise is delayed. It covers your flights to and from Antarctica on DAP Airlines. It covers all your food and drinks (minus non-dinner alcohol) plus all your excursions (minus kayaking and snowshoeing).
It doesn’t cover your flights to Punta Arenas or your required travel insurance. It doesn’t cover tipping. Like other expedition cruises, tipping is customary but not compulsory. The suggested amount - which is split among all crew members - is $15 per passenger per day.
KidTripster Tip:Antarctica 21 offers a 5% discount for children, ages 8 to 12.
KidTripster Tip: If you decide to do the Drake Crossing by ship instead of by plane with another company, you’ll save roughly 25%. For us, that wasn’t a viable option.
Is it worth it? That’s a very personal question. For me and my son, it was. We’ll never forget Antarctica. It was almost other-worldly. And I’ll never regret the opportunity to share it with my son. For that, I feel truly blessed.
Want a more in-depth look at this trip? Read editor Shellie Bailey-Shah’s day-by-day journal before deciding if it’s a trip for your family.