The insider advice on this page is from Wendy’s Trusted Travel Expert for small-ship expeditions: Ashton Palmer of ExpeditionTrips.
Infectiously enthusiastic about small-ship cruising, Ashton Palmer spent nearly a decade as an expedition leader, guide, naturalist, conservationist, Zodiac driver, avid birder, and photographer in the last great wild places: the Arctic, Antarctica, the Amazon, and the South Pacific. And these are not just fleeting trips: He has traveled to Antarctica more than 50 times and spent a total of three months in the Arctic. In 1999, Ashton founded ExpeditionTrips in Seattle, where he and his 20-person staff work tirelessly on matching travelers with the right small-ship expedition. Trips range from the Galapagos to Papua New Guinea to the Russian Far East and, of course, to the two poles. Ashton knows all the players in the field, especially the ones in the Arctic and Antarctic, and provides unbiased guidance on every line and every ship. He’ll be the first person to tell you when a two-week trip to the Arctic may not be your cup of tea and when a specific ship or cabin just isn’t worth the extra expense. And because of his relationships with the top cruise lines and tour operators, Ashton often secures preferred rates or other perks (such as shipboard credits or a bottle of wine). He’s also a big proponent of independent exploration and will give you the tools to help you find your own way whenever possible. Ashton was also included in Perrin’s People, Wendy’s award-winning list of top travel specialists, which was published annually in Condé Nast Traveler magazine from 2000 to 2013.
Ships and Cruises
The Ocean Diamond (199 passengers) offers prime-season dates at a competitive price point (25 percent less than some other voyages of the same length). Its itineraries provide adequate time in Antarctica, and passengers can choose from a range of optional activities such as sea kayaking, stand-up paddleboarding, mountaineering, and camping (add-on cost only for those who are interested), as well as a complimentary photography program and snowshoeing excursions. This trip averages $800 per day per person (double occupancy) for an 11-day cruise.
Pricier but worth every extra penny, the National Geographic Explorer (148 passengers) is specifically designed and outfitted for this style of travel, whereas most others operating in the region are either repurposed cruise ships or Russian research vessels. Its itinerary maximizes the amount of time exploring Antarctica (the minimum is six days), the service onboard is excellent, and the food is great. Best of all, the naturalists and wildlife experts onboard, which can make or break your experience in this destination in particular, are the best in the business. Fares start at $1,000 per day per person and include accommodation in Buenos Aires.
Best large ship
The luxurious Seabourn Quest (450 passengers) is the largest cruise ship that calls on Antarctica (most of the ships average between 100 and 200 passengers). Other operators of large cruise ships offer a drive-by viewing only, but the Seabourn Quest offers a small, expedition-style trip with big-ship amenities: It has a variety of dining venues and bars, entertainment, a fitness studio, a casino, spa facilities, and more. Fares start at $13,000 per person for a 21-day trip including an exploration of the Chilean fjords, five days in Antarctica, one day in the Falkland Islands, plus Montevideo and Buenos Aires.
Best small ship
The National Geographic Explorer (148 passengers) is consistently exceptional in terms of the quality of its itineraries, the range of complimentary activities offered, the deep knowledge and experience of the guides and naturalists onboard, the excellence of the crew, and the purposeful design of the ship itself.
Best ship for families
While Antarctica is a destination that tends to appeal more to adults than to young children, Le Boréal (199 passengers) does operate a yearly family holiday sailing to Antarctica the Falklands, and South Georgia. This departure offers terrific rates for kids (up to 50 percent off published double-occupancy rates for children ages 7–18). The capacity is greater than most small ships, as Le Boréal can accommodate up to 264 passengers but the number in Antarctica is limited to 199. The ship has a variety of cabin configurations that lend themselves well to families (including quads and triples). There are specially planned activities through the Young Explorers program—this is the only trip with dedicated children’s-activity coordinators.
Best ship for a solo traveler
With only a few exceptions, almost all ships cruising to Antarctica allow solo travelers to book shared cabins with other solo travelers of the same gender; this is a characteristic unique to this destination. If you’re willing to share, then you can travel in a twin, triple, or quad cabin at rates that are significantly lower than paying a single supplement (which can be up to twice the double-occupancy rate) for your own private cabin. Occasionally, ships will waive the single supplement fees, but this is typically a seasonal promotion and based on availability.
The “best” ship really depends upon your preferences. Personally, I’d suggest booking passage on one of the larger ships—more passengers likely translates to more travelers who are also traveling alone. The National Geographic Explorer (148 passengers) has good single-cabin options, as well as a terrific variety of excursions and activities throughout the day, casual dining experiences, and a highly attentive level of service for each guest.
Best ship for foodies
The Silver Explorer (132 passengers) offers multiple dining options, from 24-hour in-suite dining to sophisticated international cuisine, including signature dishes created exclusively by Les Grands Chefs Relais & Châteaux.
Category 2 cabins aboard the Expedition, which start around $8,000 per person for an 11-day itinerary. Staterooms such as No. 216 are not only the least expensive in the twin-cabin category but also well located in the midship section, the most stable part of any vessel. A midship stateroom on a lower deck is typically less expensive than a higher cabin with larger windows or a veranda, but on an expedition-style cruise most of your time is spent outside the cabin—so paying the premium for a higher deck may not make much sense. That $8,000 fare on the Expedition, by the way, includes a pre-cruise night in Ushuaia, Argentina. The ship has an attractive but simple decor and appeals most to active travelers (á la carte activities include kayaking and camping).
Cabins worth the splurge
In the small-ship category, the Owner’s Suite aboard the Silver Explorer (132 passengers) is 728 square feet, with a 158-square-foot veranda, walk-in wardrobe, living room, full bathroom with tub and shower, queen or twin beds, and private butler service, among other amenities. The 19-day itinerary that includes South Georgia Island and the Falkland Islands is upwards of $50,000 per person (double occupancy). The Silver Explorer is a luxury expedition vessel, so there is a smart casual dress code for evening meals, the service is uncompromising, and the ship is nicely decorated.
On the Seabourn Quest (450 passengers), the 914-square-foot Wintergarden Suite includes a glass-enclosed solarium with a tub and a daybed, a separate bedroom with a queen or twin beds, a spacious bathroom with whirlpool tub, guest bathroom, living room with convertible sofa bed for one, dining table for six, veranda, large windows, two closets, and two fully stocked bars. In 2017, the 24-day itinerary that includes South Georgia Island and Patagonia is approximately $75,499 per person (double occupancy).
Best cabin for families
Expedition ships typically do not have adjoining rooms, so if you’re traveling with young children, triple or quad cabins are usually best. Le Boréal (199 passengers), Expedition (132 passengers), Plancius (116 passengers), and Ortelius (116 passengers) all have quad cabins. Plancius and Ortelius are research vessels that also take passengers, but they’re for more adventurous travelers.
Where to Cruise
The best itineraries include South Georgia Island, where you can see wildlife species in ridiculous abundance. This island is very different from the Antarctic continent. I always say that South Georgia reminds me of the Swiss Alps, with snow-capped peaks and green valleys—but it’s the Swiss Alps teeming with wildlife. Because South Georgia doesn’t become icebound in the winter and is uninhabited by people, the native species can live in these sub-Antarctic islands year-round. The rugged coastlines are home to massive colonies of king penguins (the ones with orange and yellow markings on their beaks and necks), as well as hundreds of baby fur seals that nest in the green tussock grass. Disembarking a Zodiac and walking onshore with tens of thousands of king penguins is an experience that you cannot have anywhere else on the planet.
These cruises are 17 to 25 days in length, and most ships only operate one or two such itineraries per season, typically in December and January. I do not recommend the shorter trips (17 to 19 days), as they compromise by cutting out time in Antarctica. The very best itinerary is the comprehensive 24-day voyage offered by the National Geographic Explorer (148 passengers) or the National Geographic Orion (102 passengers), which still offers five full days in Antarctica, in addition to spending adequate time exploring these fascinating sub-Antarctic islands.
Best short cruise
Trips of at least 11 days are the optimal way to experience this destination, but travelers pressed for time can opt for an increasing number of “air-cruise” options. Vessels such as the Island Sky (110 passengers) and the Hebridean Sky (100 passengers) offer 7- and 8-day itineraries where you fly from Punta Arenas, Chile (rather than sailing from Ushuaia, Argentina), and embark the ship on King George Island. The scheduled time in Antarctica is three or four days, but flights are dependent on weather conditions and may be delayed.
Exploring Paradise Bay via Zodiac or sea kayak. Nothing quite compares to gliding along glasslike water, surrounded by sculptural, bright blue icebergs and crisp white peaks. If you’re lucky, you may even see a few whales.
When arriving in St. Andrews Bay on South Georgia Island, you’ll be greeted by a colony of 200,000 (yes, 200,000!) brightly-colored king penguins waddling against a backdrop of towering mountains and glaciers. The best pictures are on shore, and the best time of day is early morning or early evening—depending on weather conditions. This bay is also home to 6,000 elephant seals in the height of the breeding season (in early November) – and they are fearless, not to mention adorably curious about their human visitors. Travelers routinely get some of their best photos in this spot.
Port most worth the trek
Prion Island, a tiny islet off South Georgia Island, is one of the few places on the planet where you can come face to face with a wandering albatross on the nest. This magnificent species has the largest wingspan of any living bird, ranging from eight to 12 feet, and can weigh up to 30 pounds.
When to book your cruise
You should try to book your Antarctica expedition approximately 18 months prior to departure. Itineraries and rates are typically released in June or July (of the previous year), which is when you’ll find early-booking discounts and prime-cabin availability (the least expensive and most expensive cabins sell out first.)
The Antarctic season is November through February. The snow and ice are at their most pristine in November or early December. For wildlife, the very best time to go is the latter half of December; by then, thousands of penguins, including their fluffy chicks, have made their home along the coastline. The sea ice has usually broken up enough to allow great access, and December and January (middle of the austral summer) offer the likelihood of better weather. February is best for whale watching, because the sea ice has fully melted, allowing the migratory whales to surface and feed.
March. Most penguins have fledged, the rookeries are extremely soiled, and inclement weather becomes more likely.
If seeing penguin chicks or whales is important to you, also avoid November, as it is too early in the season.
Selecting an itinerary that’s too short. A trip to Antarctica is an investment of not just money but also time. It takes several days to reach the continent (including crossing the Drake Passage), and because of unpredictable sailing conditions, an extra two to four days can make a significant difference in your experience. Eleven-day itineraries provide a cushion for challenging weather conditions and ease you into the trip. I’d also encourage you to build in an extra day or two to relax when you arrive in Argentina or Chile (the usual points of embarkation) so that you’ll be refreshed and more present with the experience once you reach Antarctica. I have never met anyone returning from the Great White Continent who complained that the trip was too long—rather, people wish they had more time.
By and large, all shore excursions are included in expedition-style cruising. The whole point of going all this way is to set foot on the continent of Antarctica (amid thousands of friendly penguins), and all of the expedition ships deliver on that experience. But for something unique, there is polar snorkeling, which is offered on select sailings aboard the Polar Pioneer (54 passengers) at an additional cost of $975 per person (no experience is necessary). What could be more fun than snorkeling with penguins and exploring turquoise bergy bits from beneath the water’s surface?
There really are no bad shore excursions in Antarctica. But, personally, I might skip the (optional) “polar plunge” into frigid Antarctic water, because it’s just really, really cold!