What are the odds that the most frigid cruise destination is so darn red-hot? Chalk up Antarctica's soaring popularity to multiple factors: adventuresome travelers seeking more far-flung destinations, cruisers craving less-crowded ports, the ticking clock of climate change and Baby Boomers checking off their travel bucket lists.
Such intense interest in Antarctica has motivated expedition lines to amp up their offerings. Cruisers can now choose from economical to extravagant expedition ships, varying cruise lengths, diverse itineraries and uber-active excursions -- mountaineering, anyone? We've done all the research on the best cruise lines sailing Antarctica, so you get the fun part -- choosing which one best suits you.
Just remember that all promised ports and excursions are based on weather conditions. In the Antarctic, the real boss is never the ship captain; it's always Mother Nature.
Why: The only tour operator on our list, Abercrombie & Kent (A&K) specializes in luxury Antarctic expeditions, chalking up about 200 polar expeditions in more than 25 years. For these Antarctic expeditions, A&K charters the 199-passenger Le Lyrial, a ship from French line Ponant. With A&K, you enjoy this stylish ship's sumptuous amenities (such as a salon, spa, fine dining and pool), in an all-English-speaking sail. (Cruise directly with Ponant, and the cruise will be bilingual in French and English.) And, here's another major plus: A&K brings their own distinguished lecturers and expedition team members onboard, guaranteeing A&K's notable quality.
Who Will Like it? Luxury cruisers who prefer all-inclusive sailings, staterooms with balconies and included pre-cruise hotel stays with sightseeing. A&K devotees who like personalized attention and excellent pre- and post-cruise extension offers. Passengers who want lectures not just by scientists but also by historians and Polar Medal winners (honorees for significant achievement in polar regions), too. Lastly, families seeking a family-friendly cruise during the December holidays, with youth-focused onboard workshops and excursions.
Itineraries: Cruises run from 13 and 18 days. A&K Antarctica voyages also add a two-night pre-cruise handpicked luxury hotel stay in Buenos Aires, and roundtrip charter flights between Buenos Aires and Ushuaia, Argentina, the embarkation and debarkation ports. Cruise extension possibilities include a four-day Iguazu Falls pre-cruise package. The 18-day expedition adds South Georgia and the Falkland Islands to this compelling Antarctic itinerary.
Why: Hurtigruten's history sure is impressive; its founder began polar explorations more than 125 years ago. Hurtigruten's price point is generally lower than luxury lines, but newer ships -- the 530-passenger Roald Amundsen in 2019, and its near identical twin, Fridtjof Nansen, in 2020 – vibe more upscale and provide a modern Scandinavian ambiance and coveted features, such as outside cabins and private balconies. Fancier aft suites possess private outdoor Jacuzzis. As the world's first cruise ships to run on hybrid battery technology, these new ships are also more environmentally sensitive, designed to cut CO2 emissions and fuel consumption by sailing with electrical propulsion. And, they move quietly, allowing passengers to revel in nature with reduced ship noise.
Who Will Like it? Cruisers who care more about active, adventuresome polar explorations than a frilly onboard experience, or seek a somewhat more economical expedition. Passengers seeking longer cruises and a smaller environmental footprint.
Itineraries: Expeditions run from 12 to 23 days. Some begin in Buenos Aires; others start in Santiago and include more of South America, such as Patagonia and the Chilean fjords. Good opportunities to explore the Falklands and South Georgia, too.
Why: Combine Lindblad Expeditions' 50-plus years of experience with National Geographic's iconic photographers, experts and, often, researchers and scientists, and we're talking a match made in an educational adventure heaven. The casually elegant 148-passenger National Geographic Explorer, and more luxurious, newer vessels 126-passenger National Geographic Endurance and twin National Geographic Resolution sail Antarctica. Among the amenities are fine dining, hot tubs, yoga classes, spa services and fitness center.
On the new twin ships, passengers can overnight in a geodesic glass igloo perched atop the observation deck. These ships are also equipped with X-Bows, offering smoother sails in rougher seas. The bridge is always open, too. All vessels provide kayaks and Zodiacs, and possess ROVs (unoccupied remotely operated underwater vehicles) capable of reaching 1,000 feet (far beyond a diver's reach) to reveal vast stretches undersea. Videos captured are shared with passengers and transmitted to aid scientific research. Onboard naturalists use a video microscope to magnify images of the marine ecosystem -- another science geek wowser. Families are welcome, too, with many activities designed for multigenerational cruisers to enjoy together throughout the Antarctic cruise season, not just during the December holidays.
Who Will Like it? National Geographic devotees -- from magazine admirers to those who've already toured or cruised with National Geographic -- who like the scientific bent. Photography enthusiasts, who want to learn from and shoot pics with a National Geographic photography expert. Kayakers scoring multiple opportunities to paddle. Active explorers, who care more about adventure than fancy-pants cruising. Parents who can book a Journey to Antarctica: The White Continent itinerary, filled with special activities for children and teenagers.
Itineraries: Itineraries run between 14 and 35 days. The latter is titled Epic Antarctica;
From the Peninsula to the Ross Sea & Beyond. This ultimate adventure allows passengers to set foot where few or no cruisers ever do, to see hundreds of thousands of king penguins and to explore the sub-Antarctic islands, too. The shortest include an overnight hotel and touring in Buenos Aires or Santiago before chartered flights to and from Ushuaia. Other itineraries offer visits to the Falklands and South Georgia, and Patagonia.
Why: Bilingual French line Ponant sails five 199-to-200-passenger posh expedition yachts to the White Continent: L’Austral, Le Boreal, Le Lyrial, Le Soleal and new-build icebreaker Le Commandant Charcot. These ships teem with amenities; think two restaurants and bars, swimming pool, library, tea room, hair salon, gym and spa with a hammam. In inimitable French style, the vessels are simply gorgeous, sleek – sexy, even – conjuring up the ocean and its array of moods and colors. No surprise, the cuisine’s outstanding, with an emphasis on modern French fare.
All but Le Commandant Charcot showcase underwater multisensory lounges, located eight feet below the water line. Called Blue Eye, each lounge features two glass portholes shaped like a whale's eye looking out to the marine world. Walls digitally project images filmed live by underwater cameras. Special microphones (hydrophones) transit the sounds of the sea into the lounges. Sofas (dubbed body listening couches) subtly vibrate in sync with the aquatic acoustics.
Le Commandant Charcot is particularly environmentally sensitive; it’s powered by liquified natural gas among several green attributes. Designed to explore the extreme regions of the Northern and Southern hemispheres, it can safely cut through ice more than 8-feet deep and may reach destinations previously unimagined by polar cruisers. It’s loaded with amenities like a heated indoor resistance pool and spa with nail bar.
Who Will Like it? French-speaking passengers or Francophile cruisers who love Gallic flair and cuisine. Passengers who want to see and hear Antarctica's underwater life over cocktails. For Le Commandant Charcot, cruisers keen to explore Antarctica on uncommon routes with minimal environmental impact, and to work with onboard scientists on citizen science experiments – all with the utmost of pampering.
Itineraries: Many itineraries run between 11 and 16 days. Most begin in Buenos Aires or Santiago and sail from Ushuaia, Argentina. One of the most fascinating Is the Weddell Sea & Larsen Ice Shelf on Le Commandant Charcot sailing roundtrip Ushuaia; if lucky, count on sighting emperor penguins as the journey’s ultimate prize.
Why: Quark Expeditions offers many ways to explore Antarctica, from budget-minded vessels like the cozy 128-passenger Ocean Adventurer to more upscale ships like the 199-passenger Ultramarine, with two twin-engine helicopters, spacious suites and 20 quick-launching Zodiacs. This line notably features late winter (Antarctica's late summer) sails -- a chance to see the region in a different season, with nesting penguins and returning whales.
Quark's 172-passenger World Explorer’s amenities include all-suite accommodations, polar library, gym, pool, sauna and spa, plus activities such as kayaking, camping and stand-up paddleboarding. Quark also offers options for those fearful of the roundtrip two-day Drake Passage crossing, which may involve turbulent seas. The eight-night Antarctic Express itinerary lets travelers fly over the Passage, land on King George Island in the South Shetlands and then hop aboard a shorter cruise that immediately begins exploration on Ocean Adventurer or World Explorer.
Who Will Like It? Passengers seeking a gentler-on-the-wallet experience, preferring some cruise ship comforts, but care little about private verandas or butlers. Uber-active cruisers eager to camp overnight, snowshoe, mountaineering and cross-country ski and still travel upscale. Those who prefer flying over the Drake to either save time with a shorter vacay, or avoid seasickness concerns. Cruisers wanting bragging rights for crossing the Antarctic Circle -- many expeditions don't venture that far south – or to see the rare king, or even rarer, Emperor penguins.
Itineraries: Itineraries can run between eight and 20 days. The shortest voyages fly over the Drake Passage. Longer voyages include the Falkland Islands, South Georgia and South Shetland Islands. Consider the 14-day Emperor Penguin Quest: Expedition to Snow Hill the holy grail of Antarctic itineraries. On sleek new Ultramarine, passengers depart from the ship on twin-engine helicopters to fly to a rarely visited rookery within feet of the most coveted penguin species on the planet.
Why: Long-known for its luxury ocean liners, Seabourn introduced its devotees to Seabourn Venture, its first expedition vessel in 2022. This 264-passenger ship features many of the alluring amenities of its more traditional siblings. Think casually elegant clubby style – this time, more reminiscent of a posh ski resort in warmth and coziness – perfect for a vessel with polar pursuits. Passengers are pampered by a most attentive crew and all-inclusive amenities such free-flowing alcohol and caviar, all-suite digs and a photo studio. Come Fall 2023, Seabourn Venture’s twin, Seabourn Pursuit, debuts.
Who Will Like It? Luxury cruisers who want every ounce of Seabourn indulgence coupled with spine-tingling adventures. Foodies, who, with eight dining experiences to choose from, will never grow tired of the cuisine. Travelers who dreamed of exploring Antarctica while residing in a two-story suite.
Itineraries: While Seabourn Venture replaces Seabourn Quest for most polar itineraries, the older, popular Seabourn Quest still offers some lengthy voyages encompassing Antarctica with other nearby destinations. Many Seabourn Venture journeys are 13-days, with five days exploring Antarctica via treks, kayaks and Zodiacs. Longer sails include the Falkland and South Georgia Islands.
Why: Known for its posh eponymous river cruise line since 2008, Scenic next conquered the ocean by debuting Scenic Eclipse in 2019, with near-twin Scenic Eclipse II making its splash in 2023. Billed as "six-star discovery yachts," the glam ships feature 114 all-veranda suites (200 passengers in polar waters), 10 dining experiences, nine lounges and bars, gym and even a yoga and Pilates studio. Exploration amenities include custom-made Zodiacs, paddleboards, kayaks, two seven-passenger helicopters and one seven-passenger submarine. Some 20 polar specialists lead the way. The environmentally conscious Eclipse features GPS dynamic positioning and customized zero-speed stabilizers up to 50% larger than other ships.
Who Will Like it? Cruisers seeking the ultimate hybrid of a luxury cruise ship and an environmentally conscious expedition vessel. Adventurers wanting to try more unusual Antarctic experiences, such as snowshoeing, viewing wildlife from a submarine or soaring above ice floes in a helicopter. Big spenders, who long to see Antarctica while traveling in the lap of luxury (think pampering butlers) and in spacious accommodations. (Entry-level suites begin at 344-square-feet.)
Itineraries: Itineraries run from 13 to 22 days. The 13-day cruises sail roundtrip Buenos Aires; 19-day voyages include South Georgia and the Falkland Islands, while 22 days include the Chilean fjords. Scenic also offers a 15-day Antarctica and the Weddell Sea; this rare itinerary includes helicopter excursions to Snow Hill Island and its Emperor penguin colonies.
Why: Silversea manages to combine an ultra-luxury cruise ship experience with an adrenalin-charged expedition. The line now sails three 200-passenger ships to Antarctica: Silver Cloud, Silver Wind and Silver Endeavour. All vessels are all-suite and all-inclusive, from complimentary Wi-Fi to white-gloved butlers indulging every passenger no matter the suite status. Silver Endeavour, the line’s newest expedition vessel, takes both adventure and pampering to new heights. It touts a PC6 ice-class rating, one-to-one crew-passenger ratio and Otium, a new spa concept that debuted on Silver Dawn driven by decadence. Outings are twice-daily in 18 Zodiacs led by a 20-member expedition team or in the 14 onboard kayaks.
Who Will Like It: Silversea or other luxury-ship aficionados who embrace an all-inclusive, uber-pampering cruise style, even in Antarctica. Expedition buffs seeking an extravagant adventure. Spa devotees, who love massages and other treatments while indulging in hand-fashioned chocolates and bubbly. Cruisers who want to swim in a glass-enclosed heated pool as Silver Endeavour sails by icebergs.
Itineraries: Itineraries range from 10 to 18 days. Lengthier cruises include visits to such destinations as the Falkland Islands and South Georgia. To bypass the notoriously rough waters of the Drake Passage, passengers can book an Antarctica Bridge sail, which are five-to-15 days. Passengers fly business class to and from King George Island in the South Shetland Islands and board Silver Endeavour from there.
Why: Viking has entered into the expedition genre with two custom-built vessels, Viking Polaris and Viking Octantis. Both sail to Antarctica with 378 passengers. These new vessels feature many of the amenities favored by Viking fans, such as a light airy Scandinavian design, Nordic spa and king bed staterooms and suites with spacious baths and heated floors.
Who Will Like It: Devotees of Viking’s ocean liners and riverboats. Cruisers who appreciate the inclusive nature of Viking journeys. Those who wish to partake in citizen science experiments and spend time with research scientists. Anyone fearful of embarking and debarking exploration boats; these two ships feature a sheltered Hangar where passengers easily get in and out of Special Operations Boats from inside the ship, well protected by elements. Couples who wish to snap wildlife photos while in hands-free two-seater kayaks powered by pedaling. Cruisers yearning to explore Antarctica by submarine.
Itineraries: Most routes run 13-to-19 days from Buenos Aires to Ushuaia, Argentina. The cruise includes time to explore Buenos Aires, a visit to Tierra del Fuego National Park and up to nine full days exploring the Antarctic Peninsula.
Updated October 24, 2022