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3 things you need to know about expedition cruises to Antarctica

3 things you need to know about expedition cruises to Antarctica

When James Rameson set foot in Antarctica during an expedition cruise last month, it was possibly the first time anyone had set foot on that part of the ice-covered continent.

When the Zodiac boat arrived at the rocky shore, the expedition leader told the 13-year-old boy from Santa Barbara, California, and his fellow travelers – one of whom was me – that our group aboard the Aurora Expeditions ship Sylvia Earle might be the first to visit this particular site.

Rameson, who took the cruise as a birthday present with his father, Tyler, 49, made the most of his sudden pioneer status. “I walked into a random place and thought, ‘Look Dad, no one has ever been here before,'” he told USA TODAY. “It was like I was the first person to set foot here, which I thought was really cool.”

Tyler and James Rameson during their expedition to Antarctica.Tyler and James Rameson during their expedition to Antarctica.

Tyler and James Rameson during their expedition to Antarctica.

Not every trip can offer that. “One of the most incredible things about visiting Antarctica is the sense of exploration and being somewhere few people have been before,” said Kristin Winkaffe, a luxury travel designer and founder of Winkaffe Global Travel.

But the continent has become an increasingly popular destination. More than 71,200 people visited the ice during the 2022-2023 season, up from about 24,000 in 2021-2022 in the wake of COVID-19 and just under 56,000 in 2019-2020, according to the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators . There has also been an increase in inventory, with new ships and routes from various expedition lines.

Here are three things you need to know about taking an Antarctica cruise:

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1. You have to cross the Drake Passage – maybe

Most expedition cruises to Antarctica depart from Ushuaia, Argentina, and cross the infamous Drake Passage. The waterway is notoriously dangerous, and travelers can experience rough “Drake Shake” or calm “Drake Lake” during the journey, which takes about two days to complete (you may have seen videos of it on TikTok).

My trip fell somewhere halfway on the way down with waves as high as about 4 meters. “Many people, even if they haven’t had seasickness before, tend to experience seasickness on the Drake Passage,” Winkaffe said.

Expedition ships are generally small, but larger cruise ships also visit Antarctica and guests may feel less impact from the waves due to their size. However, travelers should be aware that ships carrying more than 500 passengers are not allowed to take them ashore, according to the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators.

Some cruise operators offer flights over the Drake Passage. But Winkaffe warned that those trips are not only “exponentially more expensive” — Antarctica cruises can range from about $5,000 per person to more than $20,000 and those flights can cost between $5,000 and $10,000 — but also less reliable because the weather in the area can be unpredictable.

“There is a possibility that (ships) will be cancelled or delayed due to weather, but they can make the crossing in worse weather than the flights,” she said.

Lindblad Expeditions is the latest operator to add the option, which allows guests to bypass potentially rough waters and shave time off their trip. CEO and founder Sven-Olof Lindblad said last month at luxury travel trade show ILTM Cannes that the brand had waited a long time due to concerns that passengers wouldn’t take off and land as scheduled, but that technology has made flights more predictable, Travel + Leisure reported.

2. You have to be flexible

Due to the extreme climate, cruises to Antarctica may not always go as planned.

During my trip with Aurora, the expedition team shared a planned itinerary for the next day with guests each evening, with the caveat that it was only a Plan A. After assessing conditions upon arrival, we would sometimes explore with Zodiac instead of attempting to go ashore or move altogether.

That may be an adjustment for travelers who have taken other types of cruises with detailed itineraries from start to finish. “Antarctica is a completely different animal because you basically just have to accept that you’re going on a tour to Antarctica and not get attached to a specific place,” Winkaffe said.

The ship Sylvia Earle of Aurora Expeditions.The ship Sylvia Earle of Aurora Expeditions.

The Sylvia Earle ship of Aurora Expeditions.

She recommended going into the trip with a “sense of adventure” and that travelers avoid Googling specific locations in advance to minimize disappointment if they don’t get there. Destinations may also look different from photos, especially as the environment changes throughout the year (Antarctica cruise season runs from October to March, (contains summer).

“Everyone has FOMO (fear of missing out) and all kinds of things, but everyone’s experience is different,” said Jeff Nagel, the assistant expedition leader on my trip.

3. Consider the environment

As dire as the Antarctic environment may seem, it is also fragile. Scientists have already warned of the serious consequences of climate change.

This makes a careful visit extra important. On board the expedition with Aurora, we received information about International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators guidelines and followed biosafety protocols, such as cleaning and having our equipment inspected to avoid carrying non-native species and scrubbing our boots after landing (the ship even played songs like Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off” as we twisted our feet against rubber mats to remove dirt).

“We are aware that despite all the work we do to make it as sustainable as possible, we do have an impact,” said Mario Placidi Spring, the expedition leader on my trip.

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Winkaffe recommends doing your research before booking and choosing a cruise line that puts effort and money into sustainable business practices.

“I’d like to believe that through our educational programs and (other programming) on ​​board, we’re creating ambassadors, and people are going to go home and maybe think about the small changes they can make in their lives to help these areas and the world as a whole protect,” Nagel added.

Editor’s note: The reporter for this story was granted access to this expedition by Aurora Expeditions. USA TODAY retains editorial control over reviews.

Nathan Diller is a consumer travel reporter for USA TODAY based in Nashville. You can reach him at [email protected].

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 3 Things to Know About Antarctica Expedition Cruises