If you’re like me, Antarctica is a bucket-list destination that spurns images and ideas in your head of a vast, barren landscape scattered with penguins. Expectations (and nerves) run high when deciding upon which cruise to book: they are all pretty expensive, so there's an added pressure of needing to choose the right one while also figuring out things to know before traveling to Antarctica.
The questions that ran through my mind were persistent. Will I be rowing myself through icebergs to get to shore? Will I be showering and sleeping in facilities akin to a freighter ship? Will the tiniest shards of ice tear open the ship? Will I survive the famous Drake Passage crossing? Wait, what exactly is the Drake Passage crossing? Should I bring ski clothes? Should I bring a bathing suit? Will I get frostbite?
Well, you’re in luck. As it turns out, nearly 30,000 people visit Antarctica’s various corners each year (a number controlled and monitored by the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators via the Antarctic Treaty), and if they can do it, so can I and so can you. Here's everything I learned after my first trip to the land of ice, wind, and penguins:
1. It's BOTH The Size Of The Boat And The Motion Of The Ocean That Matters
There are a variety of options for passenger ships, each with different capacities for passengers. This can range from the capacity to carry a couple dozen passengers to the capacity to carry close to 1000 passengers. The size of the boat you choose will affect the overall experience you have. Personally, I opted for Hurtigruten Midnatsol, which has capacity for about 970 passengers. As a result, it's larger than many ships, so it's able to feature a lot of cruise ship-style amenities that the smaller ships cannot (dining room, bar, shop, fitness center, sauna, even whirlpools!) — but it's also still small enough to navigate into the canals and narrower landscapes that the biggest ships cannot.
Most importantly, ships of more than 500 passengers are not permitted to let guests ashore (we don’t want to overcrowd the penguins). Though the Hurtigruten Midnatsol can carry up to 970 passengers, it does not when it's sailing Antarctica — affording everyone more space.
2. Pack Warm Things, But It's Not AS Cold As You Imagine It Is
When we think of Antarctica, we think of cold. And yes — it's pretty cold up there! But, will you freeze your tooshie off? I was surprised to find out that the answer isn't quite a hard "yes." First off, inside the ship, there will likely be good air conditioning and heating systems to ensure you're too warm and not too cold — and, my ship even had the option to adjust the temperature inside cabins.
Weirdly, when you're off the boat, it also won't be as cold as you think — and it definitely will not frigid if you’re dressed appropriately. Most sailings are in northern hemisphere winter (summer in Antarctica), and the temperatures hover around the freezing mark of 32 degrees Fahrenheit.
3. Don't Forget Gloves
So, temperatures might not be below 32 degrees Fahrenheit, but what will be present is lots of wind, which can pack a punch and drop the wind chill factor. To counteract this, please learn from my mistakes and bring a good pair of gloves. During my trip, my fingers were always frozen because I foolishly thought two pairs of mittens instead of heavy-duty gloves were enough. They were not.
4. The Cruise Line Will Give You Some Snow Gear To Wear, So Don't Worry About Buying Tons Of New Things
This doesn't mean you should under-pack, of course: You should still bring a good hat, scarf, several layers, long underwear, thick gloves, a puffy warm jacket, and some hand warmers. However, you likely won't need to bring any heavy-duty type stuff, because your cruise line may supply them. For instance, on my trip, we were all given special waterproof boots to wear, which were designed to protect the natural environment on the continent — the safest way to avoid visitors from introducing anything harmful to the land. Definitely double check with your cruise line to make sure they supply these, but it's likely they will. Additionally, many cruise lines will give you a water and windproof jacket to use while you're on board.
5. Everyone Will Rush To Take A Picture Of The First Iceberg They See — But Don't Worry If You Don't Get A Great Picture Of It
The landscape varies incredibly, from the volcanic sand beaches of Deception Island to the mountainous terrain you'd imagine in the Rockies rather than Antarctica. Icebergs, surprisingly, will only begin to appear about a day into the Drake Passage crossing — meaning that everyone will be rushing to snap a pic of the first ones they see since anticipation will be built sky high. Definitely still try to get a picture if you can, but if you don't manage, it's alright — there will be plenty more icebergs to take pictures of, so all is not lost. Soon, you will be surrounded by them, and not only that, but penguins will be jumping from them, swimming through the water, and hopping ashore to find their colonies. Now that's a great picture.
6. You'll See Animals Other Than Penguins
Of course, swarms of penguins will be around, and you will be able to spot them from about a mile away thanks to the reddish snow beneath them (yes, that’s their poop). However, you won't just see penguins — you will also see seals, whales, and a large variety of amazing birds. Antarctica isn't just penguins!
7. But Yes, Penguins Are As Cute As You Think They Are
Yes, they are as cute as they appear in the movies and on TV. They walk and act like humans in tuxedos. They side hug and greet each other with ceremonial bows. They are loud, and you might find that they smell given that they do their business where they sleep. You might even witness penguin fights, penguin kisses, and even penguin parenting.
8. Penguins Aren't Afraid Of Humans
They are not afraid of humans, as they do not see us as predators. Typically, cruise visitors are not allowed to come within 15 feet of them although penguins have no fear and may approach even closer to you. They are curious, but busy performing their daily tasks. They cluster together in colonies for warmth, camaraderie, and protection from predators like birds and seals.
What may appear like an obedient line of penguins is actually known as a penguin highway. For convenience, they often travel in each other’s tracks because their short legs have a hard time pushing through the snow.
9. Bring Anti-Nausea Medication, Even If You Don't Normally Get Motion Sickness
The Drake Passage is the infamous stretch of rough water that separates South America. Waters can be rough (dubbed the “Drake Shake”) or calm (known as the “Drake Lake”). The ship will rock and roll more often than not, so come prepared with medication if motion bothers you.
10. The WiFi Isn't As Bad As You Think It'll Be
Some ships offer plenty to do when you’re not heading ashore. Aboard Hurtigruten Midnatsol, the WiFi was much faster than I expected — although it comes with a cost. Still, kind of cool to think you can still get a reliable dose of the internet even when you're in the Antarctic circle.
11. There's No Set Itinerary
One of the first things you learn about the itinerary is that there is no itinerary. Each day, the expedition team and captain decide when and where it is safe to do landings or sailing excursions depending upon weather conditions. Passengers are ready and waiting when the time is right. In other words, this type of vacation is perfect for anyone who considers themselves the spontaneous type.
12. The Cabins Are Actually Really Cozy, Even Though You're Surrounded By Ice
Sure, the cabins aren't like hotel rooms — I mean, the ship is rocking back and forth on water — but they're still plenty comfortable. You can do laundry on the ship, too! There is one thing for sure: even though you're surrounded by ice, you'll be cozy AF.
If you do decide to visit Antarctica, these tips should ensure you have a great time — with the added bonus of looking like a total Antarctica pro while you do it.