So You Want To Go To Antarctica. Here's What To Do (And How To Get There)

Given Antarctica's frozen alien landscape, it almost aspires to be as unattainable and alluring as space travel. This makes it a big bucket-list item for many adventurous world travelers. In reality, though, traveling to Antarctica is not nearly as difficult as going to space, and it's becoming even more accessible as interest in the destination grows.

Previously, you couldn't hope to get to the elusive seventh continent for less than the cost of a brand-new car. Nowadays, there are companies offering trips starting at around $5,000 dollars that provide an adventure as opposed to a luxury experience. No, this still isn't necessarily "budget-friendly," but it's allowed more than 23,000 people to visit Antarctica in the 2021-2022 season. The prices go up quite steeply if you want to visit the most popular spots like the Peninsula, but consider that if you're making a once-in-a-lifetime trip, it's going to be a once-in-a-lifetime cost, too.

Though it's getting easier (and cheaper) to get to Antarctica, there's still a lot you need to know before you go. Thankfully, we have the inside scoop from Courtney Cardini, a fellow world traveler, photographer, artist, and writer who has worked onboard a cruise ship that carries travelers from Tierra del Fuego around Antarctica. She tells us everything you need to know to get to Antarctica and have an incredible journey.

What you need to travel to Antarctica

The continent of Antarctica is part of a treaty creatively called, the Antarctic Treaty. This treaty prevents any country from staking a claim on any part of Antarctica and preserves the area purely for scientific use. But do you still need a visa or passport to visit? Ms. Cardini gives us the inside scoop.

"No, you do not need a visa to visit Antarctica," Cardini says (more clarification on this below), "but you must follow guidelines from the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO). These guidelines limit where you can land and how many people you can have on shore at a time for the safety of the continent, wildlife, and guests."

That said, you may need a visa and you will almost definitely need a passport depending on where you're from and where you'll join the ship. Most of the time this will be in Argentina so do your research and plan ahead before booking your cruise and tours as some travelers may need a visa to enter the country while others can just present their passport.

Unique ways to travel to Antarctica

While no one owns Antarctica, many countries maintain a presence on the continent through scientific programs like the U.S. National Science Foundation's United States Antarctic Program. This program deploys around 700 scientists and 2,500 personnel yearly to the continent to perform scientific research, maintain the research stations, and provide logistics support for projects and expeditions.

However, most people visit by cruise ship, which is arguably the best way to experience Antarctica. Cardini tells us more about the experience. "Most guests will fly to Ushuaia, Argentina, to join the ship. The sail from Ushuaia to the Antarctic Peninsula is roughly two and a half days, depending on where you choose for your first landing. But sailing through the Drake Passage is not always easy; most refer to it as the Drake Shake or Drake Lake and is considered one of the most dangerous places in the world to sail. This is because the Pacific, Atlantic, and Southern oceans all converge on this one spot, which could leave you with a peaceful sail or facing waves top 40 feet."

One of the other ways people can visit Antarctica other than a private cruise line is by airplane. We're sure this will come as a relief for people who get severely seasick since a plane takes only two hours as opposed to two days. There are no commercial airlines or airstrips, so you'll have to book a flight with a private tour company.

Budgeting for your big trip down south

The big question when considering a trip to Antarctica is probably less, "Will we like it?" as much as, "Can we recover from this financially?" Okay, maybe that's being a bit dramatic but how much does your average trip really cost?

"Well, depending on the cruise line and the duration of your voyage, the cost can begin anywhere from $5,000 to $15,000 minimum. Food and most drinks will be included though flights, internet, and excursion activities may not be," Cardini tells us.

But there might be some additional unforeseen costs and items you'll need for your trip, such as sunscreen. "Sunscreen is one of the surprising things people wouldn't think they need in Antarctica. But since you can only sail to the Antarctic during the summer season from November to March — and with the hole in the ozone layer being over the south pole and the light reflecting off the snow — the sun can be very harsh on some days."

To keep your phone safe on excursions, Cardini also recommends travelers bring a waterproof phone case with a lanyard you can wear around your neck. "Between riding in the zodiac and wearing gloves and extra layers on colder days, you won't have to worry about keeping your phone in your pocket, which can be quite a hassle. Luckily, most ships have a shop that carries these items along with clothing if you need extra layers."

An Antarctica pro tells us the best places to go

Before you leave for Antarctica, you'll probably need to pick which route you will follow around the continent, South Georgia, and the Falklands. Cardini tells us a bit more about some of her favorite locations in these three areas

"It's almost impossible to pick a favorite place in Antarctica, South Georgia, and the Falklands. Each landing is so different that you never experience the same thing twice, and everyone enjoys something different with every visit."

But, if she had to choose, she says some top locations in Antarctica are Brown Bluff, Snow Hill Island, and Lemaire Channel. "You can't grasp just how remote, secluded, and uninhabitable Antarctica is until you are floating in a zodiac with nothing in sight but the overwhelming beauty of an ice-covered landmass."

For South Georgia, she loved Point Wild, Monroe Island, and Drygalski Fjord. "South Georgia is a luscious terrain of tussock grass and greenery where Macaroni and Rockhopper penguins' nests and fur seals hide, and there isn't a tree in sight. It is one of the best places I have ever been able to hike."

And finally, the Falkland Island standouts were Stanley Harbour, Carcass Island, and Steeple Jason. "The Falkland Islands have beautiful white sandy beaches making the island the easiest of the three to land on. Here you will also have the opportunity to see King, Gentoo, and Magellanic Penguins, and it is home to my favorite bird, the Brown Browed Albatross."

Antarctica summers are surprisingly mild but come prepared

Even though you would expect Antarctica to be hell-frozen-over levels of cold all year round, you will arrive in the summertime, when temperatures can hover around just 33 to 36 degrees Fahrenheit and even up to 50 degrees at the height of summer.

Though the weather is mild compared to Northern winters, Cardini advises that travelers should still come prepared. "Your cruise line will send you a packing guide including what kinds of toiletries to bring and that you should pack casual everyday clothing. However, you'll want to bring your own parka or purchase one through your cruise line if they offer it."

But suppose you live in a warmer climate and don't already own winter gear? "You can rent clothing and equipment like fleece layers, waterproof pants, neck gaiters, gloves, hats, and walking sticks through a third-party company that the cruise lines work with so that you don't have to purchase clothes you may never use again. The only thing you cannot rent is wool socks." Good to know!

Fun things to expect when you go

Your imagination can begin to run away with all the possibilities of what you might experience on your trip. In the case of Antarctica, your dreams may well become reality. Cardini says, "There is no other place in the world you can compare to Antarctica. It's a breathtaking beauty of white and blues you can't find anywhere else. The glaciers are the most fascinating thing I have ever seen ... it takes thousands of years for them to form."

And what about the excursions? "Depending on the weather and cruise line you are sailing with, you should have the opportunity for at least two landing or zodiac cruises daily. I highly recommend kayaking or taking the polar plunge!" And what's a polar plunge, you ask? A head-first dive straight into the icy waters around Antarctica!

If you're curious about the penguins, Cardini shares that, "Watching Gentoo, Adélie, and Chinstrap penguins up close and personal in their colonies is like watching reality tv. Their personalities just shine through while you watch them treat rocks like a commodity, stealing them from one another."

Any other animals you should look out for? Cardini jokingly warns us about the fur seals, "They get a kick out of popping out of the grass to scare you while you hike." But she also shares that South Georgia has some fantastic beaches where you can hang out with King Penguins and Elephant Seals as they sunbathe.