Edited by: Juan Ruiz
& Keri Stooksbury
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Exploring the seventh continent is on everyone’s bucket list, right? That’s what I told myself as I perused Antarctic cruises for the hundredth time in February 2022, anxiously refreshing to try and find an option that was reasonably priced. Fortunately for me — and now for all of you — I managed to snag a booking while it was on sale.
In December 2022 I boarded a 10-night cruise headed down to the frigid Antarctic peninsula. Let’s talk about how it went.
I’ve been on a handful of cruises in my life, but I knew from the outset that heading down to Antarctica was going to be unlike anything I’d ever experienced. And although I’m more than comfortable traveling on my own as I do a majority of the time, tackling an adventure as extreme as Antarctica wasn’t something I wanted to do solo.
I’d spent a few years eyeing various travel offerings from a group dedicated to solo female travelers, cunningly named The Solo Female Traveler Network (SoFe). The network promises to group like-minded women together on adventures. So when I saw that the program was offering 25% discounts on bookings to Antarctica, I jumped on it.
It turns out that wasn’t actually necessary. Although I originally booked with SoFe, they ended up booking our actual cruises with Intrepid Travel, a much larger tour company with offerings around the globe.
One of the best benefits of booking with SoFe (and also Intrepid) is that there is no single traveler supplement fee. Rather than having a room to yourself, you end up with a roommate who has also booked alone.
Since I was scoring that 25% discount and owed no single traveler supplement fee, I went big when it came to booking my room, opting for a deluxe oceanview twin room. With the discount, my total booking came out to $9,593. Would this have been the same had I booked directly with Intrepid? I’m not sure, but it’s likely.
I know, that’s an exorbitant cost for someone to pay, especially when they’re used to traveling with points and miles. But short of booking a Lindblad Expedition, there was pretty much no other way for me to get down to the White Continent. So I sucked it up and paid using my Chase Sapphire Reserve®, which earned me 3x Ultimate Rewards on the entire purchase.
We value Chase points at 2.0 cents each, which means that the 28,779 points I earned came out to a value of ~$576. Is that a huge discount versus what I paid? No, but it certainly helps take out the sting.
If I’d wanted to redeem points, I could have instead opted to pay with my Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card. This would have allowed me to redeem my Capital One miles at a rate of 1 cent per point against travel purchases from the previous 90 days — though this wouldn’t really be the best use of my miles.
There are a few different ways to visit Antarctica. Your options are flying down and camping, flying down and cruising, or just cruising from start to finish.
Of these options, cruising the entire length of the journey is generally the cheapest. This is because you’ll spend 2 nights on either side of your trip transiting the Drake Passage. It’s not for the faint of heart due to its massive swells, but it can certainly save you some money on an already expensive trip.
That being said, once you’re actually down in Antarctica, nearly every option for exploring involves cruising. This is due to a variety of reasons, but mostly because responsible tour operators have committed to leaving no trace — and cruising is the easiest way to do so. It’s also much simpler to get around in Antarctica’s mercurial weather if you’ve got a big boat to do it with.
Hot Tip: Looking for ways to book your cruise? Check out our guide to the best websites for booking cheap cruises.
I wish I could say that heading from my home in California down to Ushuaia, Argentina was simple, but it wasn’t. Due to a series of mishaps, I missed my original flight from Los Angeles (LAX) to Santiago (SCL) and onward to Ushuaia (USH).
Instead, I was forced to rebook a last-minute ticket on United from San Diego (SAN) to Houston (IAH) and down to Buenos Aires (EZE). I then spent a night at the Park Hyatt Buenos Aires before heading down to Ushuaia (USH).
It was certainly an adventure, and the only reason I didn’t miss my cruise down to Antarctica was that I’d planned to arrive several days early. I’d recommend the same, especially since flights down to southern South America from the U.S. are generally only once per day.
Note that in order to board my cruise to Antarctica, I had to provide proof of my COVID-19 vaccination status as well as complete an antigen test shortly before departure. Check out Intrepid’s Safe Travels page for current requirements.
Although the cruise was billed as an 11-day adventure, I spent just 9 nights aboard Ocean Endeavour. This is because my first night was spent in a hotel (thanks to all those pre-departure briefings) and on my last day I was off the boat by 9 in the morning.
Here’s how my itinerary shook out:
I booked with SoFe because I was looking for a group of women to travel with. While that didn’t really happen (since we ended up as a very small group traveling with Intrepid and there were no activities together), I still had a great time aboard the Ocean Endeavour.
Antarctica is a highly-protected continent, and Intrepid is one of the best when it comes to ecologically-responsible tours. As an Australian company, it goes way above and beyond to ensure that all of us tourists don’t leave a lasting impact on the land. Among its many commitments, it only carries up to 199 passengers per trip. This is thanks to the 1959 Antarctic Treaty, which limits the activity allowed in Antarctica. A limited number of passengers per day are allowed to visit a specific site. So while you’ll see big cruise ships heading down to Antarctica, most of them simply sail on by. That, or they’ll hold a lottery to see who’s allowed to depart.
By limiting its passenger count to 199, Intrepid ensured that everyone who paid to cruise down to Antarctica was able to actually set foot on Antarctica.
Although the Ocean Endeavour was originally built to hold upwards of 300 passengers, thanks to the Antarctic Treaty there were less than 200 of us on board (a total of 133 guests). This meant that a number of cabins sailed empty, though I did find myself with a roommate thanks to my booking with SoFe.
There are 9 decks aboard the Ocean Endeavour. Our cabin was on Deck 7, which was extremely convenient as we were next to the dining room, spa, gym, and main lounge.
The cabin itself was more spacious than I’d hoped for, with 2 twin beds, a closet, several shelves, hooks to hang our gear, and a desk.
We also enjoyed a desk with a few drawers, though we didn’t realize at first that the drawers had latches to keep them shut. We spent a wide-eyed night hearing them slam to and fro with the waves.
I told myself the desk was necessary to sit down and work during my off-time, but we all know that never happened.
Note that while we did use the safe, at one point it errored out and a wallet was stuck inside. Housekeeping was able to unlock it.
All in all, I was pleased with the size of my room and the ability to store all my stuff. There were cheaper options available, including a triple room with 3 twin beds, but I would have felt claustrophobic without a window.
The bathroom was small but no smaller than I’d normally expect when sailing on a cruise ship. It included a sink, toilet, and shower, as well as a hair dryer.
Probably the worst part about this bathroom was attempting to stay upright while sailing the Drake Passage. There are grab bars for a reason — so plan to shower one-handed while rolling around in the waves.
Note that I brought my own toiletries, including shampoo and conditioner. I’m glad I did since the options provided by the cruise ship were absolutely awful. My roommate ended up with staticky hair after just a couple of nights.
I don’t consider myself a food snob, but even if I did, I think I still would have stuffed myself on this boat. There’s simply no other way to tell you that the food onboard was delicious.
Depending on the day, we generally had a breakfast buffet, plated lunch, and plated dinner. Everything but alcohol was included and the range of meals was generous.
Each day there was an omelet station, as well as a large selection of fresh bread and other dishes, including corned beef hash and eggs Benedict.
Among the buffet offerings were fresh fruit and vegetables, boiled eggs, bacon, sausage, pancakes, and French toast.
Breakfast hours varied slightly, but you could generally expect to be served from 5:30 a.m. to 8 a.m.
Depending on the day, we either had a plated lunch or a buffet option. The menu changed daily and offered a variety of options.
Although I preferred it when we had plated meals (which was the majority of the time), the buffet during lunch or dinner was also tasty and fresh.
Lunch times also varied based on what we were doing, but generally spanned from 12 p.m. to 1:30 p.m.
The dinner menu also changed on a daily basis. Because it was unlimited, I was able to order as much — or as little — as I wanted.
Among my many choices was a rotating selection of desserts and side dishes.
Dinner was served in a rotation based on groups (which were assigned after boarding). Each night, half the guests went for dinner first, followed 30 minutes later by the other half. Dinner hours were typically between 6:30 p.m. and 8 p.m.
Although I partook just once, on sea days there was an afternoon tea offering between lunch and dinner. It had all the goodies you’d expect, including scones and finger sandwiches.
No cruise ship would be complete without the alcohol, right? The Ocean Endeavour had its own fair share of lounging spaces, but the most popular was the Nautilus Lounge, where the staffed bar served drinks. There was a nightly happy hour and drinks were reasonably priced — think $4.50 for a happy hour cocktail and $6.50 for full price.
You’d hope that a ship such as ours would contain a lot of amenities, especially since you spend so much time onboard. Happily, the answer is that: yes, there’s a ton to do. Although we had just over 100 passengers on the ship, there was a wide range of amenities from which to choose.
I enjoyed spending time at the spa, especially after hiking around in my heavy gear for many days. I found prices to be similar to what I’d pay in California, though San Diego certainly doesn’t include the rolling waves I experienced on the ship.
During the course of the cruise, I enjoyed 3 massages.
Did I optimistically bring workout gear? Yes. Did I ever actually work out? Obviously not.
However, for those who were extra enough to work out in addition to tramping around the White Continent, there was a decently-furnished gym with some resistance machines and aerobic equipment.
There was also a pool and hot tub on the ship, though neither was like any I had ever experienced. I brought a bathing suit but didn’t end up jumping into either. There was a multitude of reasons for this, but mainly because the pool and hot tub were only filled while we weren’t moving, and only then with seawater that had been warmed.
The ship also featured 2 saunas on the upper decks. While one of them could be reserved for personal use, the other was always open.
I never saw anyone actually using the sauna, but I did find plenty of wet hats, gloves, and scarves hung out to dry after expeditions.
There were lockers and showers available for the sauna as well.
I brought my e-reader with me on the ship, which was a good thing since there was so much downtime while traveling. For those who weren’t well-equipped, the ship also offered a small library at the Compass Club.
Although I packed my snow boots, I needn’t have bothered. Intrepid provided all travelers with a waterproof jacket, muck boots, and an inner liner. These were kept downstairs with the rest of your gear in the mud room.
Do you need Wi-Fi to survive? If so, don’t go to Antarctica. While the ship ostensibly had Wi-Fi, access was highly dependent on weather and disappeared entirely once we actually reached the continent.
Wi-Fi onboard was charged by the minute rather than the amount of data you consumed. I am a weak person and spent $200 for roughly 6 hours of connection, though much of that was spent cursing frantically as the log-out screen errored out while still charging me.
To make my point clear: it took me 2 hours to download a single white noise soundtrack I had forgotten to add to my phone before departure.
Long story short, the internet is expensive and costs a lot of money. Don’t buy it.
Apparently, our stateroom TVs showed Antarctic-themed shows and movies. I didn’t realize this until the last day, as our TV was broken. However, I’ve heard the selection was fairly limited.
Was this ship full of perky bingo games and karaoke parties? No, it wasn’t. But I was happier for it, and there were still a lot of different things to do. We spent 4 of our days at sea, which meant there were a lot of hours to fill. The crew did a great job with this.
One of the coolest things about a trip to Antarctica is that basically all the crew onboard are wildly fascinating. Want to hear a talk from someone who’s lived on the science station? Check. Interested in knowing the details of every fish below the Antarctic Circle? Check.
There was more to know than there was time to fill, and although I didn’t manage to make it to every lecture — there were a ton — I enjoyed the ones I attended.
I can’t say enough great things about the staff and crew aboard the Ocean Endeavour. Perhaps because there are so few passengers, it was a really personalized experience. We got to know plenty of folks by name and enjoyed spending time with all of them.
Since the ship was fairly small and there were so few passengers it really felt like a personalized experience. This was especially true for housekeeping, which visited our room twice per day. However, this wasn’t some “we come in the morning and hope you’re not there” deal — rather, they watched out to see when we left (for breakfast, workouts, or whatever) and took the opportunity to clean the room without interrupting our day. This was true whether I left the room at 7 or noon.
While gratuities weren’t mandatory, we did have the opportunity to add them to our onboard accounts. We were provided with a sheet recommending tip quantities for the staff. I opted to pay $10.50 per day plus an additional cash tip for housekeeping.
Is this the part you’ve all been waiting for? It’s the whole reason I booked, after all. Although it took us 2 and a half days to get down to Antarctica, the journey was worth it. Here’s a breakdown of all the locations we explored — and although the weather was cold (at around 25 degrees Fahrenheit), we were able to successfully make 100% of our landings.
Note that Z means we had a zodiac cruise and L means we actually stepped foot on the ground.
Have you guys heard of the Drake Passage? Probably. Thanks to a relatively narrow distance between the Antarctic Peninsula and the outcropping of Argentina, the water through here is rapid and unpredictable. This meant that nearly all of our time at sea was spent staggering around, clinging to the walls, or not sleeping while the boat rocked relentlessly.
For what it’s worth, the crew assured us that we were experiencing extremely good weather, with waves at around 20 feet high. While I don’t get seasick, nearly everyone else on board did, and the ship doctor spent a great deal of time passing out anti-nausea medication. You’ve been warned.
Why waste all your time heading to Antarctica if you don’t actually go to Antarctica?
Perhaps the most exciting part of my journey was when I first set foot on land.
Was it as good as I’d hoped? No, it was better. I wish I had the words to describe to you the overwhelming awe that permeates these moments. You feel so large and so small and just so utterly, utterly grateful.
In order to make landings, we had to first disembark the Ocean Endeavour and climb onto a zodiac.
These zodiacs held 10 people and were able to land directly onshore, though it meant that every landing was a water landing. Fortunately, the company provided us with waterproof muck boots.
We made a total of 6 landings during the cruise, including Portal Point, Neko Harbour, Damoy Point, Joule Point, Port Lockroy, and Mikkelson Harbour.
While most of these included visits to local penguin rookeries, at some of them we also explored preserved ruins of past expeditions.
We also made a stop at Port Lockroy, which is maintained by the United Kingdom.
Along with a stop at the gift shop, we were able to mail out postcards from Port Lockroy. Apparently, it takes about 3 months to receive anything you send — I’m still waiting on the one I sent myself.
Hot Tip: Travelzoo occasionally sells discounted cruises to Antarctica, so make sure to keep your eyes peeled.
If you, like me, thought that Antarctica was relatively empty of wildlife, I’m here to tell you otherwise. Is it mostly birds? Yes. But it’s a lot of birds and they’re really cool.
There are also a ton of seals and more whales than you can shake a stick at.
No, seriously, we spotted thousands of animals during the journey.
I’m a writer, not a zoologist, so the best I can tell you is that we saw birds, whales, and seals.
However, along with our other departure information, Intrepid also sent along a record of all the wildlife we saw and when.
Although we did end up on land 6 different times, we also conducted a few different zodiac cruises.
There were multiple reasons for this: sometimes there was no good location to land, if we were last off the ship we might have needed to wait for others to leave, or the weather didn’t always allow for an immediate landing.
But cruising around was nearly as fun as walking around, and significantly easier since we didn’t have to tromp around in our gear. Plus the views were still pretty amazing.
Although all our landings and zodiac cruises were included with the price of the booking, there were optional add-ons.
Those who booked the photography course enjoyed dedicated zodiacs and time away from the other guests. You didn’t need to bring your own camera or have any experience; everything was taught on board. The total cost for the photography program was an additional $1,230.
If kayaking was more your thing, you could also sign up for the sea kayaking program. Again, this took place as an alternative to regularly scheduled activities, and kayakers were meant to go out a total of 6 times at a cost of $1,230. However, windy weather meant they only made it out once — but prorated refunds were automatically given to guests.
I’m not great at kayaking, but my roommate, Diana, convinced me to try out the day paddling. Day paddling differs from kayaking in that you’re on top of an inflatable kayak rather than inside a rigid-form one. It’s also only offered in the most serene of circumstances, which can mean that day paddling isn’t always available.
Diana and I joined up together in an inflatable kayak for an additional $150. Although I was very nervous at first, I’m so glad that I did it.
Day paddling only took place once and lasted about an hour, though we spent the last twenty minutes or so hanging out with the whales nearby.
Snowshoeing was also an option for those who were interested. I didn’t partake since it involved an extra 5 miles of hiking in my already overwhelming gear, but it looked like fun. This was the least expensive add-on and charged just $100.
Hey, we know you already paid for a bed and a toilet, but what if you decided to sleep on the ice in a bag instead? Just kidding — the sun doesn’t go down so there’s no sleeping involved!
Anyway, if you wanted to camp overnight you could pay an extra $449 and snag the opportunity to pee in a bucket in front of everyone.
One of the final activities available before returning to Argentina, the Polar Plunge was something about half of the guests participated in. I wasn’t one of them, but everyone who joined in looked like they had a fun (albeit cold) experience. The Polar Plunge was totally free, though it didn’t take place until our very last day in Antarctica.
Before taking this trip I meandered the halls of the internet trying desperately to find accurate information as to what I should bring. While most of the products were winners, quite a few weren’t. So, here are some of the items I found most useful during my trip:
Note that you may have a tough time redeeming points for your cruise, but that doesn’t mean you can’t earn a little extra when doing your clothes shopping. Consider checking out the best credit cards for clothes shopping for ideas on maximizing your points.
Traveling down to Antarctica has long been on my bucket list. While it was a costly experience, especially for someone who is used to traveling with points and miles, I’m so glad I did. It’ll probably be a few years before I can afford to make it down to Antarctica again, but trust me — I’m already looking.
The information regarding the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card was independently collected by Upgraded Points and not provided nor reviewed by the issuer.
Although prices can vary, expect to pay somewhere between $7,500 and $13,000. However, be aware that booking last minute or waiting for a sale can get you a better deal than this.
Antarctic cruises can be rough, especially if you encounter the Drake Passage on a bad day. If you’re prone to seasickness, consider flying down and meeting your cruise ship in Antarctica rather than making the crossing.
The summer season in Antarctica is relatively short. You’ll want to visit between November and February for the best opportunities to spot wildlife and have good weather.
There are many different cruise lines that make their way down to Antarctica. However, in order to have the best chance of stepping on land, you’ll want to aim for a ship carrying fewer than 200 passengers.
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