UPDATED SEPTEMBER 2019
Want to know how to get to Antarctica? We detail the most popular ways to reach the great White Continent and give you the lowdown of the pros and cons of each method.
Because when it comes to reaching Antarctica…getting there is half the fun!
All up, there are about eight different ways you can get to Antarctica, however, as you’re soon bound to discover, not all are realistically feasible for us all. Antarctica is an enigmatic destination and expedition to the southernmost continent is usually described as the ‘ultimate journey’ anyone could ever take. In decades past, Antarctica was the kind of exclusive adventurous playground only a few lucky people could ever dream of visiting but, these days, the ‘end of the world’ is becoming more and more accessible to even the most ‘average’ of travellers, if such a thing exists.
Reaching Antarctica is infinitely easier now than during the Heroic Age of Arctic Exploration, the days of intrepid explorers like Robert F Scott, Ernest Shackleton, Australia’s own Douglas Mawson or Norway’s Roald Amundsen. Back then, men gave their lives – often literally – to explore this immensely enticing continent, leaving home for months and even years at a time, in search of glory, fame and the knowledge of exploring utterly uncharted lands and seas.
Nowadays, most of us just have to save a little and then hop on a plane and/or board an expedition ship, and relish in the incredible highlights Antarctica dishes up in grandiose fashion. And while the colossal sacrifices needed to reach and explore Antarctica may be a thing of the past…the incredible rewards remain the same.
Over 50,000 people cast their eyes on Antarctica each year and here’s how you can be among them:
1. Score a job on a Research Base
Many people mistakenly believe you need to be a glaciologist, polar ornithologist or atmospheric physicist to nab a job on one of the many polar research stations operating in Antarctica. Although these skills would certainly help (and lead to better-paying jobs) they aren’t strictly essential. There are all sorts of people and skillsets needed to keep scientific bases running this far south. From carpenters to plumbers, cleaners to kitchen hands, there are plenty of jobs available in Antarctica: if you try hard enough and talk to the right people, you could even have the chance of getting to Antarctica as part of a research trip
Around 30 countries have research stations in Antarctica and these bases can have a combined summertime population of around 4,000 people. We bet there’s also a need for an enthusiastic coffee-round-maker! If you hail from one of the countries to have a base in Antarctica (The US, UK, France, Australia, New Zealand, Argentina, Chile, Russian, and China, to name a few) you may be able to get a job within its Antarctica program.
The US and New Zealand run Antarctica programs out of Christchurch, New Zealand. The US, China, Argentina, Chile, Britain and many other countries run research programs out of South America. Australia, meanwhile, along with France and Italy, run research programs out of Hobart.
Pros of working in a research station: Working in Antarctica is a bucket-list experience for many. You could spend months on end dodging penguins on your commute to work, and get to see, breath, and feel a side of this incredible continent that cruise passengers never get to experience. For those who are passionate about the Antarctic and live, hope and breathe for a chance to stay there long-term, this option is ideal.
The cons: Very few people solve the problem of ‘how to get to Antarctica’ by getting a job there. To be honest, there’s got to be a better way than having to deal with horrendous wintertime conditions, no daylight for months on end and the kind of cold that might make your eyelashes freeze and fall off. How’s that for a commute? So, a passionate love for the hard-life at extremes is needed. Besides this, there are far more people willing to work here than there are jobs, so scoring a gig is crazy difficult. If that’s not enough, given the high cost of relocations to such a remote and desolate place, work contracts run for months on end. If you’re just looking for a quickie job placement of just a few weeks over the summer, this is certainly not the best option for you. You can read this interesting blog from a guy who worked tirelessly for four years to secure his gig on the ice.
2. Just fly from Australia!
Oh, if only it was as simple as taking a commercial flight to Antarctica! This is the war-cry of many a wanderlusting jetsetter and you’d be pleased to know that this is actually a viable option, albeit not in the way you think it is. From Australia, there are several chartered sightseeing-flights each year over Antarctica. They depart from several Australian cities, fly down to East Antarctica and over the Ross Sea region, gift you a spectacular visual spectacle, and then fly back. This would have to rate as the most magnificent day-tour ever invented and even though you don’t get to set foot on Antarctica, you will get exceptional views. If you’re Australian, you don’t even need to make sure your passport’s valid as flights depart from domestic airport terminals.
Aboard a privately chartered jumbo 747, your flight will be unlike any other you will ever take, as you swap views and share the palpable excitement with fellow passengers. Expert guides narrate the history and geography of the continent, and special screens relay images from down below. With unencumbered views and plenty of room to move around, this is one Antarctic ‘excursion’ you certainly won’t forget in a hurry.
The pros of sightseeing flights to Antarctica: This is an excellent option if you suffer from seasickness and if you’re short on time for the foreseeable future and simply cannot wait to see Antarctica. These chartered flights cost less than a trip to Europe and your physical condition is of no hindrance. Do remember that you need to be somewhat ‘agile and nimble’ to enjoy all the activities included on Antarctica expedition cruises. If you’re looking for that special ‘WOW’ experience, say, for your 90yo grandmother (who’d arguably have a hard time on Zodiac expeditions from cruise ships) then this option definitely fits the bill.
The cons: There’s something inherently painful about getting an eyeful of this Antarctica…and not be able to set foot on it. There also seems to be quite an ethereal feel to this option, as guests report not really being able to absorb the immensity of the experience until it’s all over, way too soon. This may indeed be a cheap option to get to Antarctica, but it’s still a lot of money for a scenic overfly that lasts about 12 hours and does entail you being in Australia, at the right time of year.
3. Fly to Antarctica from South America
Flight options aren’t only restricted to Australian departure points. The Falkland Islands (or Las Malvinas as they’re called in Argentina) are technically in the sub-Antarctica region, and you can reach them by plane. Sure, it’s not Antarctica per se, but the Falklands do boast some amazing sub-Antarctica wildlife such as huge penguin and seal colonies.
This is the only location in the sub-Antarctica region that you can catch a regular commercial flight to – but only from Santiago (Chile) and only once a week. There are also UK Air Force flights to the Falklands twice a week from RAF Brize Norton, within the UK, and sometimes – provided they have spare seats – they may allow paying passengers to tag along.
Lastly, there are also specialised flights to Antarctica itself, both to bases on the Antarctica Peninsula but most commonly to King George Island. King George Island is often referred to as the unofficial capital of Antarctica because of the large number of research bases it hosts. It also has its own runway (proper land runway, by the way, not an ice runway). These flights are generally flown out of Punta Arenas in Chile, and you need to talk to someone like Chimu Adventures to book these trips as they aren’t flights you can book online. Feel free to contact us at any time if you’d like more details on these sorts of flights to Antarctica.
One particularly magnificent option is to fly from Punta Arenas to the base camp at Union Glacier, the only private seasonal campsite in all of Antarctica. Once there, you can indulge in spectacular activities deeper south than with any other option. You can reach the South Pole in a matter of hours flying on a Russian Ilyushin II-76 jet, camp there overnight and even head off on an out-of-this-world skiing excursion. You can visit this camp only in November, December and January each year.
The pros of flying to Antarctica from South America: If you’re an avid wildlife lover and simply don’t want to cruise, this option will get you closer to some of the most wildlife-enriched destinations in the region. The Union Glacier stay is particularly coveted and an out-of-this-world Antarctic experience.
The cons: Flying to Antarctica, in general, means you miss out on the whole ‘adventure journey’ part of an expedition cruise, a sort of rite of passage, if you will, which many cruise guests cherish endlessly. The price is also to be carefully considered. These flight options aren’t exactly cheap: if you booked a cruise ahead of time you could actually sail there, see more, stay longer and still spend much less. Aside from this, there really aren’t that many cons if you absolutely cannot sail, for whatever reason, or can’t set aside a couple of weeks for a cruise.
4. Charter a private luxury yacht
There are a few ice-strengthened luxury yachts available for hire to private groups to take to Antarctica. These options are arguably the most expensive but are often used by people wanting a particular itinerary (to diverge from the regular cruise itineraries) or by prominent individuals who want to travel to Antarctica out of the ogling public eye. Are you one of the world’s rich and fabulous individuals? Then give us a call here at Chimu Adventures, as we have access to a range of private luxury yachts ready to take you to Antarctica.
The pros of chartering a private yacht to Antarctica: Hmm…let’s see, this one may be tough. How about the ability to leave the paparazzi behind (assuming they’re stalking you in the first place) and getting a totally private Antarctica experience on your own luxury yacht, which comes complete with private chef, stewards, stewardesses and all the opulent comforts you never knew you really needed this far south? A magnificent experience that may not be for everyone, private yacht Antarctica charters can offer everything your heart desires and your wallet can afford.
The cons: An exclusive option that’s definitely out of reach for most mere mortals, these Antarctica luxury private yacht charters are as expensive as they are unforgettable. If you’re contemplating how much you may get for your kidney on the black market, it’s safe to say you should just keep scrolling down!
5. Take a cruise ship from Australia or New Zealand
Other than Ushuaia in the southern tip of Argentina, the only other regularly active ports with commercial cruise trips to Antarctica are Hobart (Australia) and Bluff (in New Zealand). Although there are fewer departures from Australia and New Zealand, these voyages do offer a completely different experience, one that is far away from the well-trodden tourist wave.
From Australia and New Zealand, you can access East Antarctica and cruise the Ross Sea. This area is where a lot of the heroic age of Antarctic exploration played out and you can visit the huts built by the likes of Scott, Shackleton and Mawson.
The pros of cruising directly from our shores: The landscapes in the east are very different from the Antarctica Peninsula. On this side of Antarctica, you’ll sail longer and will visit more remote sub-Antarctic islands, will encounter much bigger icebergs and have a greater chance of spotting Emperor Penguins, a rare sight on the western peninsula. A magical realm of dramatic nature, eastern Antarctica is the remotest region of the continent that is offered to commercial tourism and sailing directly form Australia/New Zealand is the only way to reach it.
The cons: Out of a 21-day cruise (about the shortest on offer) you’ll spend 12 days cruising the open seas with no land in sight, and that’s far too much sea-time for some. Moreover, this option is the most expensive one for Australians and New Zealanders already living in their country (even when you take into consideration the need of an international flight to cruise from South America) let alone anyone wishing to travel to Australia or New Zealand, to cruise from there.
6. Take a flight + cruise from Punta Arenas in Chile
Get yourself to South America and your options magically multiply! With this option, you can fly directly from Punta Arenas (Chile) to several Antarctic destinations, including the South Shetland Islands and South Georgia, and cruise Antarctica from there.
South Georgia is one of Antarctica’s most incredible quiet achievers. Not many people have heard of it yet all who have been, claim it to be an unrivalled highlight. The sheer concentration of wildlife and outstanding landscapes are breathtaking to say the least, and even if you were to ‘only’ visit this island, particularly, you’d certainly not feel like you’ve missed out on anything. South Georgia really is that special and home to the world’s largest colony of Emperor Penguins.
There are also options to fly to King George Island and then take an Antarctica cruise from there. This is a more expensive option than a regular Antarctica cruise but it does have the benefit of avoiding sailing across the infamously choppy Drake Passage. A minus for some, and a plus for others and a great way to combine the flying and cruising options.
The pros of Antarctic fly+cruise: If you’re short on time, flight + cruise tours from Punta Arenas are probably your best option as you can cram in an awful lot of Antarctic experiences in a short amount of time. This is arguably the main reason why 5% of visitors to Antarctica choose to visit this way, making it the second-most popular way to get to Antarctica, after cruises from Ushuaia.
The cons: While there are still plenty of options from Punta Arenas, it still can’t compete with Ushuaia for price and variety of vessels and itineraries. You can easily get a cruise from Ushuaia which includes a stop in South Georgia (a highly recommended option!) and get the best of both worlds that way.
7. Take a cruise ship from Ushuaia, Argentina
Around 90% of people who visit Antarctica choose to go on an expedition cruise ship and, of those, 90% of them leave from Ushuaia, Argentina.
Ushuaia expeditions generally all go to the Antarctica Peninsula, which is only approximately 1000 km away, as opposed to 3000km from, say, Australian and New Zealand. Greater choice of vessels and itineraries, and less sailing time: this is what makes cruising from Ushuaia the most popular option of all. During Antarctic cruising season, ships leave almost daily, and the choice of vessels is extensive.
From the ‘classic’ 10/11 day trip to the Antarctic Peninsula to more comprehensive itineraries which include cruises within the Antarctic Circle, jaunts along the Weddell Sea, and visits to the Falklands or South Georgia islands, you’d be surprised at the sheer amount of options and budgets available. And here at Chimu Adventures, we’d be happy to navigate you through the selection process.
The pros of Antarctic expeditions from Ushuaia: This most ‘classic’ way of reaching Antarctica brims with unique experiences and offers the most in terms of activities, both on land and in the water. If you dream of kayaking, SCUBA diving, hiking, camping on ice and endless wildlife watching expeditions in Antarctica, then this is the option for you. Visit the most established side of the continent, on the most established of cruising routes, and this awe-inspiring freezing cold wonder of nature will be your magnificent oyster. What’s more, cruises combine transport, accommodation and meals all in one neat little bundle, so they do turn out to be quite fantastic value. If you live in Australia or New Zealand, note that these will still be the most affordable Antarctic expeditions available to you.
The cons: Standing on the bow of your expedition ship watching whales breaching and sea leopards sunbathing on ice floes, you’d be hard-pressed to find any cons on a cruise to Antarctica from Ushuaia. Unless you hate cruising with a passion, in which case a flight might be best for you. In any case, remember that the seas around the South Shetlands and the Antarctic Peninsula are sheltered and the overwhelming majority of expeditions encounter only calm seas, after the Drake Passage.
At Chimu Adventures, we may not be able to secure you a job on a research station…but we can certainly book flights, private yachts, and cruises from Australia, New Zealand, or South America. A journey to Antarctica is not a cheap trip, no matter which option you choose, and for many, it is a once-in-a-lifetime bucket-list experience. That’s why it’s crucial to choose the right expedition ship, the right flight and the right itinerary to suit your needs and desires. So don’t delay your Antarctic dream any longer! How to get to Antarctica, you ask? With our help! We’ll get you to this most enticing of destinations whichever way you please, and help you achieve your dream of experiencing what can only be described as the most beautiful place on earth. See our comprehensive collection of Antarctic Expeditions.
By Chad Carey & Laura Pattara