How to get to Antarctica

Getting to Antarctica once involved treacherous crossings, battling across storm-whipped seas on wooden ships, transporting all your supplies on husky-hauled sleds across sea ice, driving a roofless tractor (Sir Edmund Hillary’s preferred method) – or, for extra explorer points, dragging the sleds across the snowy landscape yourself (à la Sir Ranulph Fiennes).

While the modern journey to Antarctica is somewhat shorter, safer, and rather less likely to result in a knighthood, reaching it is still quite an undertaking by modern travel standards. The two leaping off points are the southern tip of South America or New Zealand – which both involve some serious flying hours before you’ve even glimpsed an iceberg.

How far away is Antarctica?

Pretty far, whichever your departure port. The Antarctic Peninsula reaches its icy finger some 300km above the Antarctic Circle, making it the most northerly point of the continent, ending just 1,000km from the Tierra del Fuego archipelago off the tip of South America. This makes the Antarctic Peninsula by far the most accessible part of Antarctica and therefore the most popular destination for expedition cruises, which depart throughout the austral summer between November and April.

How long does it take to get to Antarctica?

Ushuaia to Antarctica by boat – 2 days

Some tour itineraries begin in Buenos Aires, where you can spend a day or two exploring and recovering from your jetlag before heading south. But the majority set sail straight from the world’s southernmost city: Ushuaia on the archipelago of Tierra del Fuego. Ushuaia is a 3.5-hour flight from Buenos Aires, with several daily departures.

The expedition starts off with a scenic cruise along the Beagle Channel which separates Argentina from Chile, past glaciers, cormorant-filled islands and fur seal colonies. From here, you’ll reach the treacherous waters of the Drake Passage, the notorious stretch of water between South America and Antarctica.

Crossing the Drake Passage takes two days and is something of a rite of passage. If you aren’t prone to seasickness, or are lucky enough to enjoy a particularly smooth crossing, you’ll have two days of building up the anticipation of reaching Antarctica. There are on board lectures about the region’s wildlife and geography, and you can enjoy standing on deck as albatross fly over the ship and the first ice floes emerge from the sea.

If you have a rough crossing, you could well spend the entirety of it in bed – or in the bathroom. Every cruise ship has doctors on-board who are experts at managing seasickness, so you won’t be left all at sea.

Once the South Shetland Islands are on the horizon, it’s plain sailing – they’re the last flecks of land before the Antarctic Peninsula, where you’ll begin your cruise between the iceberg-packed channels and inlets around the mighty continent.

Ushuaia to Antarctica via the Falklands & South Georgia by boat – 7-14 days

Many expedition cruises top Antarctica take detours to the Falkland Islands to observe huge gatherings of penguins, and then sail onward to South Georgia – the burial place of Sir Ernest Shackleton. After a week or two, the ship will eventually swing south to the South Shetland Islands and Antarctic Peninsula.

Some cruises are a mirror image, getting the two-day sailing over the Drake Passage under your belt first, before exploring the Antarctic Peninsula and circling back to Ushuaia via South Georgia and the Falkland Islands.

New Zealand to Antarctica by boat – 12 days

There are also options to cruise to Antarctica from the southern tip of New Zealand via the subantarctic islands. These are much longer expeditions, stopping off to see rarely visited islands like the Snares, Auckland Islands and Macquarie Island before reaching the Ross Sea, which lies over 3,500km south of New Zealand. The whole expedition takes about a month and usually only sails in January and February, when the Ross Sea finally clears of ice.
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How to fly to Antarctica

It’s easy to assume that flying is the easiest way to get to Antarctica – after all, you skip the two-day sailing across the notoriously choppy Drake Passage. However, there are many things to consider, such as flight schedules (there aren’t any; it’s charter only) and costs (you certainly pay for the comfort). Read on to discover whether flying to Antarctica is right for you.

How long is the flight to Antarctica?

The flight from Punta Arenas in Chile to Antarctica takes two hours – as opposed to two days’ sailing. A small airport on King George Island in the South Shetland Islands makes it possible to skim above the Drake Passage.

The pros & cons of flying to Antarctica

Flying to Antarctica is appealing to anyone worried about seasickness while sailing the Drake Passage, who wants extra comfort, or who would like to cut 2-4 days’ travelling time off their holiday, depending on whether you fly one or both ways.

However, there are several things to consider though before you book your plane to Antarctica:

    You’ll need to go by boat if you want to explore islands such as the Falklands or South Georgia. Antarctica holidays don’t come cheap and flying will add extra expense. A short flight on a small plane vastly increases the carbon footprint of your Antarctica holiday. Carbon emissions are one of the biggest causes of the climate crisis. Many travellers feel that although Antarctica is now such a safe and easy destination to reach, crossing the Drake Passage by ship is the final connection to the explorers of old – your chance to experience how they might have felt on their way to Antarctica, battered by 10m-high waves, and peering out the portholes for the first glimpses of whales, seals and land after days at sea.

Can I get to Antarctica by myself?

No. Although Antarctica is open to tourists, you can only travel there by specialist ships and planes – and they need a polar expedition permit to operate there to prove that they’re fully prepared and have the expertise on-board needed for the extreme conditions. That makes it almost impossibly difficult for tourists to visit Antarctica on their own. It’s also less enjoyable – organised tours to Antarctica work with some of the best guides and scientists in the business. You wouldn’t get nearly as much out of it if you went to Antarctica by yourself.

Getting around Antarctica

Once in Antarctica, you won’t be ship bound – the whole idea is to spend as much time off the vessel as possible, taking daily excursions in small Zodiac boats to get you up closer to the wildlife, walking across the islands, kayaking alongside killer whales and even diving with leopard seals, should you be brave (and experienced) enough.

Read more about life on board an Antarctic expedition ship and activities in Antarctica.
Written by Vicki Brown
Photo credits: [Page banner: Jeremy T. Hetzel] [Intro: Gary Bembridge] [How long does it take: Christopher Michel] [How to fly to Antarctica: LBM1948] [Getting around Antarctica: 66 north]