Antarctica may be melting 15% faster than it was last year.
On Jan. 22, a new study was published highlighting the severity of the continent’s ice loss. According to the Associated Press, it’s melting at a rate more than six times faster than it did in the 1980s.
The study describes “four decades of mass balance in Antarctica that reveal a mass loss during the entire time period and a rapid increase over the last two decades …”
For travelers, the urgency to visit the frozen continent (and snag that coveted Port Lockroy passport stamp) may be more pronounced than ever.
TPG contributor Daniel Hank traveled to Antarctica five years before his wife and daughters were able to make the trip. While Hank described waiting the entire trip for a photo of a calving glacier, he told TPG that his wife and daughters heard ice breaking off frequently overnight.
If you’re not deterred by noisy ice falls and freezing temperatures, there may be no better time than now to cross this destination off your to-do list. Here, seven tips for traveling to the southernmost continent.
Stock up on Miles
No matter what kind of trip you’re planning, most Antarctica expeditions originate in the southern hemisphere. Generally speaking, cruises depart from Argentina, Chile and South Africa, with a few beginning as far away as Australia and New Zealand. But the majority will depart from the so-called End of the World: Ushuaia, Argentina, on the southernmost tip of South America. Hank was able to use 12,500 Delta SkyMiles each way for nonstop Aerolíneas Argentinas flights between Buenos Aires and Ushuaia. LATAM also flies nonstop between the two Argentinian cities, and you can book award flights with American AAdvantage miles, Alaska Mileage Plan miles or British Airways Avios.
Use a Travel Agent
“Like mots travel junkies, I do a fair amount of planning,” Hank told TPG. “I typically try not to use travel agents. [But] in the case of Antarctica, I totally needed that help.” Hank used ExpeditionTrips, considered one of the foremost travel companies for Antarctica journeys. But there are a number of other travel companies and specialists that can help you pull together this once-in-a-lifetime journey, and they can help you identify which cruise is right for you. Travel Leaders, for example, can help connect you with an Antarctica travel specialist near you.
Shelley Fry, marketing and media manager for ExpeditionTrips, said a travel advisor can help you evaluate the different programs and identify which one makes the most sense for you. “Is comfort important? How important are the naturalist guides and optional activities?” These are just a few of the questions Fry said you should be asking yourself before booking a trip to Antarctica.
Silversea Cruises, for example, specializes in ultra-luxury expedition sailings, and is offering travelers all-inclusive Antarctica packages that include roundtrip airfare and a one-night pre-cruise hotel stay, as well as transfers between the airport, hotel and ship. And next year, polar cruise company Quark Expeditions will launch a new vessel with two helicopters and fast-loading Zodiacs.
Book a Small Sailing
Passenger capacity can really range, but travelers should consider opting for smaller, more intimate vessels if possible. According to IAATO (the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators) no more than 100 people are allowed on the continent from a vessel at any given time. This, Hank pointed out, is why you’ll notice that (on a boat of 200, for example) half the cruisers will be on land while the other half are in kayaks or Zodiacs. And if you’re on a vessel with more than 500 passengers, IAATO says passengers are not permitted to land ashore — definitely something to consider if you’re dreaming of close encounters with waddling penguins.
Travel Between November and March
Fry has been to Antarctica on a handful of occasions, and she told TPG that, “The season generally runs from November into early March, and the weather — while always unpredictable — tends to be nicest midway through the season.”
If you’re looking for savings, shoulder season bookings (early November and late February or early March) can be less expensive, Fry said, because of either “shoulder season pricing” or “special savings.” February and early March, conveniently, are also the best for whale watching. But Fry said that best time for viewing penguins is generally mid-December through early February.
Consider Pier Sales — Maybe
According to Hank, there is one “super cheap way of doing Antarctica” — at least relatively speaking. They’re called pier sales, and they’re essentially last-minute spots on expedition vessels. If you have an indefinite amount of time to hang around Ushuaia waiting for someone to miss their sailing or cancel last-minute, you can score a steeply discounted rate.
Fry said ExpeditionTrips has “heard of travelers finding great rates [with pier sales], but that the trade-offs can be significant,” and that they’re “always a gamble.”
“They’re only suited to extremely flexible travelers with lots of time on their hands.” After all, there’s no guarantee, especially during peak season, that accommodations will open up. You also won’t have any say about the type of trip, vessel or activities.
Watch Out for Misleading Trip Names
If you think you’re going to do Antarctica on the quick, think again. “The average time on the ship for an Antarctic Peninsula trip is about 11 days,” Fry said. If you’re looking for something shorter, know you may not be getting the full Antarctica experience. “There are some six-day programs,” Fry said, but even with Antarctica in the trip name, they “don’t actually take you down to the Antarctic continent itself. If time and budget are tight and you want to see penguins in the South Shetland Islands, though, it can be a very fun trip.”
Get a Bird’s Eye View
If you can’t commit the time or money to a multi-day expedition, AvGeeks should consider one-day sightseeing tours over the continent. A company called Antarctica Flights takes travelers on a chartered Qantas 747 from cities across Australia. Unfortunately, you won’t earn miles on the 5,900 to 6,500-mile trip. The next flights depart from Melbourne and Sydney in February, and start at $1,199 AUD (about $860).
Feature image by Daniel Hank.