The words "cheap" and "Antarctica" don't often go hand in hand. Traveling to the White Continent is, after all, a long-distance journey into a challenging environment. It's not too surprising that Antarctica cruises command high price tags, particularly when you consider how luxurious polar expedition ships are today. Most Antarctica cruises start around $10,000 per person based on double occupancy, but there are ways to make a trip to Antarctica more affordable. They just involve some compromises. So if you are looking to save money and get the best value, here are some tips to save money on your next Antarctica cruise.
There's really only one sure-fire way to travel to Antarctica on a major budget, and that's by booking a sail-by cruise. As the name implies, these itineraries don't actually make port in Antarctica but just do scenic cruising around the islands of the Palmer Archipelago. You will see icebergs and penguins (with binoculars), whales, and plenty of the local seabirds (such as gulls, skuas, petrels, shags and possibly albatross), but you won't go ashore.
That's because the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators prohibits ships that carry more than 500 passengers from making landings on the continent and its islands in order to protect the environment. These sail-by cruises are operated by major cruise lines like Celebrity, Princess, Norwegian Cruise Line and Holland America; rates start as low as $1,500 per person, based on double occupancy.
If you actually want to get off the ship, rates will jump up to at least $5,000 per person. At that price, you'll be sailing on a pretty basic ship, likely in a triple cabin, for a relatively short trip, around a week long. And you'll likely be bypassing the Drake Passage, which might be a good thing for some travelers, by flying to King George Island in the South Shetland Islands and meeting your ship there. (Or, in some cases, you'll sail one way and fly the other.) Swoop Antarctica and Antarctica 21 are two tour companies that operate these "express" itineraries.
If you'd prefer a full Antarctica experience on one of the more luxurious ships, it is possible to score cruise deals, but you'll need to be flexible with your schedule.
Once upon a time, you could hang around the port of Ushuaia, Argentina, and "hitchhike" to the Peninsula in an unsold cabin, especially early or late season (November or March). While it is technically still possible to nab a bargain this way, your choices are seriously limited and this kind of finger-crossing doesn't suit most people; you could end up waiting around in Ushuaia indefinitely, never scoring a trip to Antarctica. If this method appeals to you, register with one of the local agencies such as Freestyle Adventure Travel, which specializes in last-minute Antarctic cruises.
But finding discounts doesn't always require waiting around in Ushuaia. Cruise lines sometimes offer discounts of a few thousand dollars to fill empty cabins several weeks in advance of departure, and they'll advertise such sales online. We've also seen discounts given by tour companies when private charters cancel their sailings at the last minute. In both cases, there's no easy way to find these deals other than by checking the cruise lines' or tour operators' websites regularly, signing up for their email newsletters and/or following them on social media for updates.
It's always sound advice to keep an eye out for early-bird offers that will also help with your planning, like finding someone to look after your dog. Enticements such as two-for-one offers', airfare subsidies and shipboard credits can go a long way toward offsetting the cost of an expensive Antarctic cruise.
Another good idea is to consider departures outside of the popular peak period from December to January. You'll be more likely to find favorable offers at these times of lower demand, particularly in November and March. Bear in mind there is a slightly higher risk of less favorable weather at these times, and some of your onshore experiences will be different. For example, in the early season, the penguins will still be building their nests or sitting on eggs, while the chicks will be all grown up and mostly gone later in the season. Early season also brings about the pristine white landscapes you're probably picturing when you think of Antarctica, while a lot of snow will have melted by late season, leaving Antarctica looking rockier and somewhat guano-covered and therefore slightly less picturesque in some opinions.
Compromise on comfort.
Although there is not always an appreciative price difference between 3-star and 5-star ships (yes, really!), there are still savings to be made here. The less salubrious ships will offer twin, triple, and even quad cabins with shared facilities, but even these are snapped up quickly by budget-conscious expeditioners. You can also choose shorter itineraries of less than two weeks, but bear in mind you are then spending a greater proportion of your valuable cruise time crossing the capricious Drake Passage instead of communing with the penguins.
To put it in historical context, Antarctic tourism began in 1966 when Swedish-American adventurer and entrepreneur Lars-Eric Lindblad chartered an Argentinean Navy supply ship and took a few dozen intrepid travelers to the Antarctic Peninsula. The industry progressed slowly, with a minor spike in the early '90s when ex-Soviet ice-class vessels such as Akademik Vavilov and Shokalskiy entered the market. These sturdy, utilitarian ships are now being overtaken by a whole new genre of luxury expedition yachts, purpose-built for polar exploration.
While demand was high with fewer ships, prices were up, regardless of luxury. Nowadays, with more people traveling to Antarctica and more ships available, that balance has shifted somewhat. So it could be said that Antarctic cruising is now cheaper than it ever was, with vast improvements in cruise line choice, itinerary options, onboard amenities like spa facilities and boutiques, fine dining and sumptuous accommodations.
Updated September 29, 2022