What people don’t tell you before you book an Antarctic cruise

Antarctica is an unforgettable destination, but time on the continent is precious and precious – Andrea Klaussner/Hurtigruten

Antarctica, once off-limits to all but scientists at research stations, is becoming an increasingly popular cruise destination. According to the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO), commercial tourism began in the late 1950s when approximately 500 paying passengers traveled aboard Chilean and Argentine naval vessels to the South Shetland Islands on supply missions to research stations.

“The first ship built specifically to take paying passengers to Antarctica was the ice-strengthened m/v Lindblad Explorer, built in 1969. She paved the way for tourists to visit and enjoy the world’s last untouched continent. ”

When IAATO was founded in 1991, approximately 6,400 tourists visited Antarctica on 10 expedition ships. In the 2022/23 season, 71,346 passengers visited 60 ships. In addition, there were 32,730 ‘cruise only visitors’ – visitors on board ships with 500 passengers or more, who are not allowed to go ashore.

Antarctica is an unforgettable destination, but time on the continent is precious and expensive. Forewarned counts for two. Here are some things cruise lines don’t tell you.

emperor penguin colony with frozen icebergs in the backgroundemperor penguin colony with frozen icebergs in the background

Unpredictability is to be expected and routes and landing points may change depending on the weather – Moment RF/Getty

The itinerary is subject to change

When you take a closer look at the itinerary details, you will notice that the details are vague on a day-to-day basis. This is largely due to the weather. Storms and katabatic winds can explode in an instant; a sudden drop in temperature early in the season can cause the ice to reform and canals to become frozen overnight.

Anchorages are affected by weather and ship size, but a typical itinerary visits Fournier Bay, Paradise Bay, the Lemaire Channel, Port Lockroy (although off-limits for now), Neko Harbour, Deception Island and Elephant Point in the South Shetland Islands.

In February 2024, @runedvacation posted on TikTok that a cruise line had made a last-minute name change to its itinerary through its app. Instead of visiting Paradise Bay on the Antarctic Peninsula, the Norwegian Cruise Line ship visited Admiralty Bay in the South Shetland Islands (a group of islands 75 miles north of the Antarctic Peninsula), before heading to the Falklands.

“Part of the wonder of Antarctica is its unpredictability,” says an IAATO source: “Remember, it may be the most pristine place on Earth, but it is also the most hostile place on Earth. It is always best to approach your journey with an open mind.”

You must undergo a medical examination

A ‘fit for travel’ medical form requires a signature from a GP, and a fee is usually charged for this service. With some operations this is not possible, which means that you will have to make an online appointment with the ship’s doctor at your own expense, possibly in a different time zone.

Antarctic PeninsulaAntarctic Peninsula

Travelers should remember that Antarctica is the most hostile place on Earth – Stone RF/Getty

If someone dies, your cruise may be canceled

Death on a cruise – it’s more common than you might expect and it’s a horrifying fact that most cruise ships have morgues.

King George Island, the largest of the South Shetland Islands and located 75 nautical miles off the coast of Antarctica, has an airstrip that can accommodate medical emergencies, but flights are weather dependent. Scheduled lines do what they can to limit the impact on passengers, but there is always a chance that your ship will have to return to the port of Ushuaia in Argentina, cutting your trip short. Always read the fine print.

The fine print?

It is unlikely that you will be offered a free replacement cruise. An HX spokesperson said: “In cases where a cruise is significantly shortened due to a medical emergency, we will ensure guests are accommodated with alternative arrangements at no additional cost. In addition, we offer reasonable compensation if necessary. This could take the form of onboard credit, future cruise credit or a refund, depending on the specific circumstances of the disruption.”

You must always take out insurance

Check your insurance policy three times before this unique trip. Tim Riley, managing director of The True Traveller, says: “If the ship has to divert because someone becomes ill, that is always built into the terms and conditions of a cruise. Most cruise passengers just accept that this can happen.”

Aviva says: “If a cruise is cut short because a fellow passenger requires medical attention, this will not be covered by an Aviva policy. However, if an Aviva customer became unwell and required medical attention or had to return home early, this would be covered by the terms of the policy.”

Cuverville landing siteCuverville landing site

Passengers at the Cuverville Island landing site, Antarctica – Ted Gatlin

Don’t assume you’ll go ashore

This is not always stated on cruise websites. On the Antarctica Cruises homepage, Celebrity Cruises says: “Cruises visit a number of locations on and around the Antarctic Peninsula.

“Gaze at the dramatic landscapes of Antarctica in the company of expert naturalists as you slowly glide through iceberg-strewn waters in search of penguins, seals and whales.”

Look is the operative word. In accordance with IAATO protocol, ships carrying more than 500 passengers cannot disembark their guests. Sightseeing is done from the ship and passengers still cross the Drake Passage, which means a four-day round trip.

In 2026, Celebrity Equinox, carrying 2,852 passengers, ‘visits’ Elephant Island in the South Shetland Islands and the Gerlache Strait, Schollart Channel and Paradise Bay in the Antarctic Peninsula. If you want to admire the scenery and wildlife from a distance, the price difference is approximately £8,000. (The Celebrity cruise costs from £1,957 pp.)

Bird flu has reached Antarctica

In December, the Antarctic Wildlife Health Network reported the first suspected case of bird flu in Antarctica. In February, a case was reported at Argentina’s Esperanza Base research station.

During a visit to the peninsula in January, we were not allowed to sit, squat or place bags on the ground. Additional biosecurity measures may impact field trip locations. A popular stop for visitors is Port Lockroy (Godier Island), where visitors can walk around a historic research hut, observe the island’s penguin colony, and send a postcard from the post office. On December 5, 2023, the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust closed the island to visitors. It is not yet known whether the island will reopen for the 2024-2025 season.

Research station in AntarcticaResearch station in Antarctica

You can come across some research stations throughout Antarctica, but most are closed to visitors. Pictured: King George Island, Antarctica – Moment RF/Getty

The sun may not shine

We’ve all seen the photos of icebergs and peaks reflected in glassy bays and pink sunset skies. But don’t expect wall-to-wall sunshine. You may not see the sun for an entire week, which can impact activities, views and wildlife sightings. However, it is unlikely to ruin a trip.

There are no polar bears

Polar bears inhabit the Arctic, which is located in the Northern Hemisphere. With the exception of the Galapagos, penguins are the hot-ticket sighting in Antarctica. In its latest State of Antarctic Penguins report, the non-profit penguin monitoring organization Oceanites counted more than six million breeding pairs across the five species at 740 locations in Antarctica. The South Shetland Islands are home to three species of penguins, along with Antarctic terns, giant petrels, leopard seals and whales.

Read more: Discover the secret of the perfect Antarctic adventure

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