Affordable Antarctica – Relatively Speaking
By Ted Scull.
It is well understood that anyone looking at the QuirkyCruise site will likely have aspirations to travel aboard ships that do not resemble giant floating resorts with thousands of folks aboard. Lots of cruisers love them, but here we prefer to cover ship travel that provides experiences shared with a much shorter passenger list.
Perhaps it’s a ship that can take us to smaller ports in popular countries that avoids the crowds. Maybe it’s entirely another world, well over the horizon, and in a class by itself.
Antarctica Dreaming ….
One such place is Antarctica. It was once only sought after by trophy hunters with some seeking fame, intrepid explorers, scientists representing many fields of interests, and governments looking after their national interests by establishing bases there.
In the southern hemisphere summertime, it’s a white winter paradise with deep blue skies and amazingly sculptured ice formations. Strutting penguins in the hundreds that may scoot across the ice on their bellies, while leopard and Weddell seals lounge on the shoreline. The volcanic soil from still active Deception Island is surprisingly warm.
Why so Costly?
Antarctic cruises are expensive because the high costs of operating ships to get there and back. As they are going remote, they must be totally self-sufficient. They must carry special equipment for going ashore and also employ a staff of salaried naturalists who are an integral part of any expedition cruise.
The vast majority leave from the southern extremities of South America with Ushuaia, Argentina handling the most sailings and Punta Arenas, Chile in second place.
International flights arrive at Buenos Aires or Santiago, then it’s an additional 3.5 air hours to the ship at either port. At the minimum, there will likely be one-night hotel stays at the beginning and end of the Antarctic voyage. If you choose additional days in Argentina or Chile, the cost per day will be lower than aboard ship. Hey, it’s worth considering as you have come all this way.
The shortest cruises last about ten or 11 days with four or five days ashore in the South Shetlands and the Antarctic Peninsula. The other half is crossing the Drake Passage twice. The days aboard are anything but a waste of time with the naturalist team preparing you well for what’s ahead and putting everything in perspective on the way back.
Longer cruises add more landings in Antarctica as well as exploring the Falkland Islands (a British dependency) and include extra sea time. Adding South Georgia requires another week and a lot of sea time but for those who can afford it, the rewards are far more birdlife than you are likely to see anywhere else, dramatic landscapes, and connections to the legendary Shackleton Expedition.
So, what are the less expensive ships like, and will I miss something by not being able to spend more for an upmarket ship with all the bells and whistles?
Let’s Start with the Latter…The High End
The upper end of the cruise market has developed a following that often places the high-end amenities of suite accommodations (with balconies), haute cuisine, fine wines, abundant staff, spas, and some with helicopter rides as de rigueur when they cruise.
Once such luxury was not available on expedition ships and now with the burgeoning popularity of cruising to the White Continent, many cruise lines have built expedition ships with all the creature comforts and even the thrills of diving in a submersible and winging over the ice in a chopper.
All this luxury costs plenty so per diems start at roughly $1,000 per day and continue on up from there.
Now, Let’s Consider the Affordable Antarctica Options
The lowest rates for expedition travel start at about $500 per person per day, maybe lower if promotions appear when cabin space is still available closer to the departure dates. Preparing to make an Antarctic expedition takes some thought, organization and preparation. One does not just pack a suitcase and head to the ship.
The lower brochure rates are generally available on older ships that may have started out as a research vessel or a working ship in Scandinavian waters, while others were purpose-built when Antarctica began to become a sought-after destination.
These sturdy ships, fully paid for and generally debt free, often have lots of character not found on sleek new ships. And what’s equally important, they offer simpler types of accommodations that bring the rates down and offer travelers affordable Antarctica.
Affordable Antarctica: Cabins & Amenities
Cabins may be smaller and have a porthole rather than a picture window, beds may be referred to as berths or bunks, some configured side by side with a night table in between. Some may offer an upper berth for a third person.
These cabins may be sold as a unit or to single travelers (of the same gender) willing to share and save a bundle over a single-rate single occupancy cabin. Some few may be inside, that is without a porthole or window, again at an even lower rate. Time in your cabin other than sleeping is minimal because of all the goings on beyond your sleeping quarters.
Most cabins will have private shower, toilet and washbasin, and some few may share these facilities with a small number of other cabins. With the latter, the passage rate drops even further.
The public spaces are shared by all and will invariably include a dining room, a separate bar/lounge, and covered, sheltered and open spaces for viewing from the ship. The shared experience with the others aboard will, for most, will be a major plus for the amazing experience ahead.
Affordable Antarctica: Expeditions Lines Offering Lower Rates
(As prices fluctuate, rates listed here are a starter guide.)
$4,860 for 10 days (4 days in South Shetland and Antarctica Peninsula).
Vessel: USHUAIA carries up to 90 passengers; ex-NOAA built 1970 and speed of 11 knots. Cheapest rates are in an upper/lower berth double with porthole, washbasin and shared shower facilities between two cabins; also single berth in a triple with three lower berths, private facilities and a window.
$6,099 for 11 days (6 days in S. Shetland and Antarctic Peninsula); $7799 for 13 days.
Vessel: G EXPEDITION built in 1972; 134 passengers; speed of 13 knots. Category 1a is 2 upper berths and 2 down with private facilities; porthole; Cat 1 with 1 upper berth, 2 down; full private facilities, porthole; Cat 2 with twin beds, full private facilities; porthole, no single supplements.
$4,800 for 11 days (March 2020); $5,700 for 11 days (December 2020)* (with 4 days visiting Antarctic Peninsula, South Shetlands).
Vessel: OCEAN ENDEAVOUR carries 199 passengers; speed of 15 knots. Triple with 3 lower berths and inside; twin with 2 lower berths and porthole; upper and lower berth (76 sq. ft.). *OCEAN DIAMOND takes 189 passengers; speed 15 knots. All cabins exterior, though some with partially blocked views; single cabins with no supplement, twins and some with a third berth.
Affordable Antarctica: Discounted Sailings
These rates above are all from the brochure (printed and online at the time of writing), so sally forth as it’s the discounted sailings that can bring on other higher-priced lines that may match the per diems above.
And the trio of lines already presented will also offer discounts bringing per diems well under $500 a day, so your budget may be able to spring for a longer cruise that adds the Falkland Islands and maybe even South Georgia.
Yes, some discounts as high as 50% are close-in departures but press on and they may exist much further out with some still 50% off and then a sliding scale 40%, 30%, and 20%.
QuirkyCruise.com covers 22 lines that offer Antarctic Expeditions, so there is a lot of inventory that needs to be sold. Look for last-minute discounts, if you can gather yourself together for an expedition a month or two ahead. There are plenty of options, but it is too changeable to list them here.
Also, if you like to book well ahead — 12-18 months — you can lock in favorable rates.
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