The Classic Antarctica Cruise + How to Do it Vegan

How to Go to Antarctica and Have the Trip of Your Life

One of the most memorable things my husband Nick and I have ever done is to take a 10 night, 11 day trip from Ushuaia to Antarctica. This included spending the longest day of the year on the boat and spending Christmas Day on the Antarctic Peninsula.

If you love nature and wildlife, Antarctica is perhaps the most incredible destination in the world. I’ve received many questions about my trip to Antarctica over the years. So many people don’t realize that it’s possible to visit Antarctica!

So, in this article I’m answering some of the most common questions about how to go to Antarctica. I’ll also share a day-by-day description of what we saw and experienced on the White Continent.

How to Get to Antarctica

Penguins on Cuverville Island, Antarctica

Penguins on Cuverville Island, Antarctica

The easiest way to get to Antarctica as a tourist is by joining an Antarctica cruise from Ushuaia, Argentina. Ushuaia is the capital of Tierra del Fuego and is the southernmost city in the world.

From there, it takes two or three days to cross the Drake Passage and to arrive first at the South Shetland Islands and then at Antarctica itself.

Generally, it is not possible for tourists to stay overnight on Antarctica. One exception is the luxury hotel, the White Desert, but this is well beyond the budget of most people.

Instead, you go out for excursions in inflatable boats called “zodiacs” and then return to sleep on your cruise ship each night.

The MV Ushuaia: Description of an Antarctica Cruise Ship

A playful seal in Antarctica

A playful seal in Antarctica

The MV Ushuaia is not your typical cruise ship. It was originally built for Arctic research in the 1960s by the United States. While the accommodations are comfortable, don’t expect the luxury you might find on a Caribbean cruise.

And of course, there is no swimming pool on deck. It’s way too cold for that in Antarctica! There is, however, a bar and a well-stocked library. I got lots of reading done in between excursions on our Antarctica cruise.

In addition to the Expedition Leader, the ship staff also includes a team of lecturers and naturalists who are experts in a variety of fields. Our daily program included plenty of stimulating and informative lectures as well as films.

This was especially true during the first couple of days, while we were crossing the Drake Passage. By the time we arrived in Antarctica, we were well-informed about the continent’s ecosystem and wildlife. I really enjoyed these extra educational opportunities, as it helped me to appreciate what I was seeing all the more.

Even though we booked the lowest class of accommodation on board, it was still quite nice and comfortable. We had our own two-person cabin with two bunk beds as well as a desk, wardrobe and sink, with a semi-private bathroom shared with a Dutch couple in the next cabin.

We were on the lower deck, which meant that we did not have a window. If you want a room with a view, you will need to pay more for one of the outside cabins.

Antarctica Cruise Cost

How much does it cost to go to Antarctica?

An iceberg tunnel in Iceberg Alley, Antarctica

An iceberg tunnel in Iceberg Alley, Antarctica

This depends on a number of factors, including when you book, the time of year you want to travel, and the type of cabin you choose.

Many people assume that an Antarctica cruise must cost tens of thousands of dollars and is something they could never afford.

While Antarctica is certainly not a budget destination, there are ways to do it without using up your entire life savings.

If you wait until the last minute, you can often get a good deal. When Nick and traveled to Antarctica a few years ago with Antarpply Expeditions, we booked about a month before our departure and paid $4,175 per person.

That was several years ago, however, and prices have gone up since then. The cheapest price currently listed on the Antarpply website for the same trip is $5,460.

Some budget travelers head to Ushuaia without booking anything in advance, hoping to find a last minute Antarctica cruise at a rock-bottom price.

Any berths that have not been filled will typically be sold to walk-ins at a steep discount. That was the case with our trip, and if we had waited until we arrived in Ushuaia we could have paid $1,200 less per person.

This is a gamble, though, as all the ships might already be full when you arrive. And with more people traveling these days, and Antarctica becoming such a popular destination, the likelihood of finding a last-minute deal is decreasing.

The boat we traveled with, The Ushuaia, is currently sold out months in advance, and it has had almost 100 percent occupancy in recent years.

How to Go to Antarctica as a Vegan

A special vegan menu prepared for the Vegan Antarctica group

A special vegan menu prepared for the Vegan Antarctica group

When Nick and I traveled to Antarctica, we were not yet vegan. So, while I can’t speak from personal experience this time, I can still offer you a couple of recommendations.

The first recommendation is Antarpply Expeditions, the company we traveled with. Their website states that they will happily accommodate a variety of special dietary requests if notified at least three weeks before the start of the Antarctica cruise. And other vegans who have traveled with Antarpply have left glowing reviews.

The second recommendation is the Vegan Antarctica trip organized by Mike Weinberg. The inaugural trip in 2018 was a huge success. A group of 17 vegans and veg-curious travelers explored Antarctica with Chimu Adventures, who created a special vegan menu for the group and provided 100% animal-free gear.

There’s already a substantial waiting list for the second run of the trip in 2019, but you can find out more info on the Vegan Antarctica Facebook page.

We chose the Classic Antarctica route, which took us to the South Shetland Islands and then to the west side of the Antarctic Peninsula.

This is conveniently the closest part of Antarctica to South America, but it’s also one of the best places to visit in the white continent. That’s because of the many offshore islands and the channels between those islands and the Antarctic mainland.

The Google Earth shot below shows the Peninsula and the Tierra del Fuego.

Antarctica Holidays - View of Antarctica on Google Earth

View of Antarctica on Google Earth

As for wildlife, there are no polar bears in Antarctica; they only live in the Arctic. And we did not see Emperor Penguins (of ‘Happy Feet’ and ‘March of the Penguins’ fame), because they live in a different area of the continent.

We did, however, see three different species of penguins, four different species of seals, and several whales.

Here is a day-by-day account of what we experienced on our Antarctica vacation.

Ushuaia to Antarctica Cruise Day-by-Day Account

Day 1: The Beagle Channel

Our Antarctica holidays on board the MV Ushuaia

Our Antarctica holidays on board the MV Ushuaia

At about 4:30pm, we boarded the MV Ushuaia, originally built in the 1960s by the United States for Arctic research. Within an hour-and-a-half we had left the port, champagne in hand from the welcome party, and were navigating the calm waters of the Beagle Channel.

The Ushuaia has space for 84 passengers, and its previous trip 10 days earlier was sold out, but for our trip there were only 70 passengers on board. The previous day in Ushuaia we saw a last-minute price for US$1200 per person lower than what we paid – damn! – but even that special deal wasn’t enough to fill the ship.

To everyone’s surprise, including their own, the 28 Dutch passengers made up by far the biggest national majority, while at the other end of the spectrum there were solitary travelers flying the flags of Brazil, Colombia, Italy, Northern Ireland and, surprisingly, Australia.

Even though we booked the lowest class of accommodation on board, it was still quite nice and comfortable. We had our own two-person cabin with two bunk beds as well as a desk, wardrobe and sink, with a semi-private bathroom shared with a Dutch couple in the next cabin.

We were on the lower deck, which meant that we did not have a window. If you want a room with a view, you will need to pay more for one of the outside cabins.

After a late dinner, we were quite tired and went to sleep at about 10pm.

Day 2: The Drake Passage

The seas are normally quite rough when crossing the Drake Passage on an Antarctica cruise

The seas are normally quite rough when crossing the Drake Passage on an Antarctica cruise

We awoke in the middle of the night to discover that the Beagle Channel was well and truly behind us, and that we were now navigating the treacherous open waters of the Drake Passage between Tierra del Fuego and Antarctica.

This passage has been described as the roughest stretch of water on the planet. For those prone to motion sickness, it can be unpleasant to say the least.

While it didn’t bother me that much, the rocking of the boat made it virtually impossible for Nick to sleep. And, when morning came, moving about the boat and doing basically anything except lying down was tough for him.

But the crew kept saying how fantastically calm the weather was for the crossing and how lucky we were. So, I guess it’s sometimes much worse!

Outside it was indeed a gloriously sunny day (9.5 degrees Celsius / 49 degrees Fahrenheit), but it was wasted in the Drake Passage, where there’s nothing to see but water.

In the afternoon, we went out on deck and watched several different types of birds fly around the boat. Some of them had wingspans twice as long as a grown human!

Having attended a lecture on the birds of the Drake Passage earlier in the day, we all used our newly-minted expert status to differentiate between the different types of albatrosses and petrels.

After dinner, we watched a documentary on the doomed early 20th century Antarctic voyage of Sir Ernest Shackleton and his men. They had survived over a year and a half in the Antarctic after their ship was wrecked, without the loss of a single life.

Then Nick and I put the missing pieces together of the story we’d been trying to tell some other hikers the previous week in Torres del Paine.

Shackleton’s Australian photographer Frank Hurley, mentioned and quoted several times in the documentary, was the great-grandfather of our friend Flip, who is herself a kind of modern adventurer and made news a few years ago in Australia for her (sadly aborted) walk across Greenland.

Day 3: Half-Moon Island

Because of the excellent weather conditions in the Drake Passage, we arrived at the South Shetland Islands, close to the Antarctic Peninsula, about three to four hours ahead of schedule. This meant we had time for a bonus landing!

Chinstrap penguin on an Antarctica cruise

Sighting of a chinstrap penguin on our Antarctica holidays

In the cove created by the half-moon shape of the appropriately-named Half-Moon Island, we dropped anchor for the first time since leaving the port at Ushuaia and prepared to make our first landing.

Unfortunately, the sun of the previous day had disappeared. It was pretty gloomy outside, and the temperature was a chilly 3.5 degrees Celsius/38.3 degrees Fahrenheit.

Dark grey clouds blanketed the sky, lifting a few meters above the water level to reveal glimpses of glacial and snowy islands in an unusual light. But it wasn’t windy or raining, so, while photographers weren’t too happy with the weather, both the ship staff and the penguins thought it was pretty good.

We rode zodiacs to shore and disembarked. Zodiacs are rubber motor boats that usually accommodate 8 to 10 passengers. These are what we used on all our excursions throughout the 11-day trip.

As soon as we set food on the island, we immediately saw the first of two types of penguins we would meet that day: the chinstrap penguin. He gets his name from the black line that extends from ear to ear underneath his chin, like the strap of a helmet.

Later, we also saw the red-billed gentoo penguin and three different species of seal, including a baby who one of the staff said was the smallest he had seen in six years of doing these voyages.

He added that, on the Ushuaia’s previous voyage, which we had tried to book but had missed out on, they had not seen any seals on Half-Moon Island. So we were quite lucky!

Though we’d seen sea lions (very similar to seals) on a previous trip in Peru and again just a few weeks earlier on the Valdes Peninsula in Argentina, it was the first time we had seen penguins in the wild, so that was quite thrilling.

There were hundreds of them on the island, waddling about awkwardly as they do, and probably many more swimming offshore.

Satisfied then with our first landing, we sat down to dinner and then prepared for the night crossing of the Bransfield Straits, known as the mini-Drake passage.

Day 4: The Gerlache Straits

Humpback whale sightings were common on our Antarctica holidays

Humpback whale sightings were common on our Antarctica holidays

“As you can see, conditions are quite Antarctic today…” came the morning announcement over the intercom.

Owing to heavy snowfall and poor visibility, we abandoned our first planned landing of the day at Hydruga Rocks and instead did a ‘cruise’ in the zodiacs (in 1.5 degrees Celsius/34.7 degrees Fahrenheit weather!) through Gouvernøren Harbor.

We saw a 1916 shipwreck, but otherwise it wasn’t a great outing thanks to the cold and the virtually horizontal snow fall, and we were glad to be back on the ship once it was over.

In the afternoon, we reached the Antarctic continent for the first time and began navigating alongside it. This was a pattern that we would follow for the next several days.

We also saw humpback whales for the first time, but certainly not the last, as sightings soon became routine. Our afternoon landing at Danco Island yielded more penguins and what would have been a spectacular 360-degree viewpoint, but clouds obscured the view in all directions.

The conditions had made it a pretty disappointing day, but, as we entered Andvord Bay, where we would anchor for the evening, our moods began to improve.

The mist that had hung over Antarctica for most of the day disappeared and was replaced by a blanket of deep grey clouds that, while still obscuring the views beyond the shoreline, created a surreal atmosphere.

Navigating through this land of ice and snow and eerie light, I felt as though we were on a completely different planet.

And, as dusk fell on Antarctica, ever so slowly the sky began to clear...

Day 5: Antarctica (Christmas Eve)

I don’t even know how to begin describing how amazing this day was, but l will try it this way.

If every other day of the voyage had offered nothing but howling winds, non-stop snow, no wildlife sightings and no views whatsoever, then the entire trip and the US$8350 it cost the two of us would have been completely worthwhile just for this one day.

It was, by far, the best single day of travel we have ever experienced together, and we saw easily the most spectacular scenery of our lives.

Beautiful Neko Harbor was the highlight of our trip to Antarctica

Beautiful Neko Harbor was the highlight of our trip to Antarctica

Our morning landing at Neko Harbour, at the end of Andvord Bay, was our first on the Antarctic continent. With the sun out and blue skies around us, we trudged past gentoo penguins through the snow to a lookout point offering spectacular views of the peninsula’s peaks, glaciers and green, iceberg-strewn waters.

One glacier that we had been looking at from the ship since the previous evening now revealed itself to be a glacial iceberg detached from the mainland that we estimated to be 10 times the size of our ship, The Ushuaia.

After the extreme cold of the day before, we were actually hot and had to take off our jackets, and more than a few people got sunburned. When we returned to the ship, we found that small icebergs had surrounded it to create yet more picture postcard views.

Stunning scenery at Paradise Bay - Antarctica travel

Stunning scenery at Paradise Bay - Antarctica travel

Our afternoon landing, our second and last on the continent itself, was not as glorious. But, remarkably, the highlight of the day was yet to come. This was a zodiac cruise in Paradise Bay that was so indescribably magnificent that even ‘jaded’ travelers like ourselves were completely blown away.

Icebergs, shimmering glaciers and snow-capped mountains combined to form a white wonderland that almost completely surrounded us and was brilliantly reflected in the Antarctic waters. This scene was also immeasurably enhanced by the sunshine and blue sky.

We approached an enormous glacier in our zodiac and sat there for about half an hour, mostly just staring open-mouthed at how incredible it all was.

Cruising through the Lemaire Channel on our Antarctica holidays

Cruising through the Lemaire Channel on our Antarctica holidays

After dinner, we navigated through the stunning Lemaire Channel. This narrow body of water is no more than 150 to 200 meters wide at its narrowest point, and we could see glaciers and peaks rising up from both sides.

While I won’t ever say that Perito Moreno glacier in Argentina wasn’t awesome, it’s kind of funny to think that today in Antarctica we saw literally dozens (scores? hundreds?) of glaciers, many of them just as tall and beautiful, and all of them pristinely white with that magical shade of blue hiding in the cracks.

Add in the odd humpback whale, the ‘afternoon sunshine’ (at 9pm), and the channel was indeed as fantastic as I’d hoped it would be.

After watching the sunset from the bow at 11:35pm, 18.5 hours and 750 photos later after I’d woken up at 5am to go on deck and see if it would be a nice day or not, we stumbled into bed, utterly exhausted simply from looking at so much astonishing scenery.

Day 6: Iceberg Alley (Christmas Day)

Waking up at 5:30am on Christmas Day is nothing new. But instead of running into the living room to open presents, we made a very cold 6am landing on an ugly Antarctic Day on Petermann Island, the southernmost point of the voyage at 65 degrees 10 minutes.

On Petermann, we saw our first colony of Adélie penguins and three very small chicks, only 7 to 10 days old and still being sheltered around the clock by their mothers. The Adélie were the third type of penguin we saw during our Antarctica holidays, and the only one of the three types that is exclusive to Antarctica.

Some light snow, and the blizzard that hit us in the afternoon, gave us a white Christmas.

A zodiac cruise through Iceberg Alley on our Antarctica vacation

A zodiac cruise through Iceberg Alley on our Antarctica vacation

After breakfast, the day’s second excursion was another great highlight of our trip to Antarctica. This was a zodiac cruise through Iceberg Alley -- a spectacular section of water dotted with hundreds of icebergs of all shapes and sizes.

We saw small and big icebergs, sharp and curved icebergs, icebergs with tunnels bore through them, and others with brilliant shades of blue. We also saw an ice sheet with 14 crab-eater seals lying on it, which we were told was a significant number of seals to see in one place.

If we’d had the same weather as the day before, this trip could have been almost as magnificent as Paradise Bay, which is no easy feat. In any case, the dark grey clouds overhead added another color to the Antarctic spectrum, and it was still a fabulous cruise.

Our afternoon landing at Dorian Bay was postponed because of the weather, but we were able to do it after dinner as a night landing at 9pm.

‘Night’ is a relative term in Antarctica in December, when it is never actually dark. But since it was pretty cold and there wasn’t any wildlife, this one wasn’t an especially memorable landing.

Day 7: Neumayer Channel and Around

Sighting of a leopard seal on Cuverville Island during our Antarctica Cruise

Sighting of a leopard seal on Cuverville Island during our Antarctica Cruise

Our morning landing at Cuverville Island was probably my second favorite landing of the trip after Neko Harbour. There are 5,000 pairs of gentoo penguins on the island, which is the most we saw in one place on the entire trip.

And even after many, many penguin sightings in the past few days, it was still impressive to see so many of them. The setting was beautiful too, with icebergs and glaciers very close to the landing spot.

On our way back to the ship, we took a small zodiac cruise through the icebergs. It was then that we saw, relaxing on the icebergs, two pairs of mating leopard seals. These seals eat penguins and generally look a bit snake-like and scary.

Nick took what was probably his best wildlife photo of the trip when he snapped a shot of one of them yawning with his or her mouth wide open and icebergs and mountains serving as the backdrop.

Sighting of a penguin with her baby chick on our Antarctica holidays

Sighting of a penguin with her baby chick on our Antarctica holidays

In the afternoon we finally saw baby gentoo penguins at very close range at Port Lockroy and Jougla Point. This was an incredible experience and also reaffirmed that we had made the right decision when planning this trip. One of the reasons we had wanted to come to Antarctica later rather than sooner was the hope of seeing newly hatched baby penguins.

The babies were still brooding, but every now and then we got a glimpse of one feeding or poking out from under their parents’ bellies. Since gentoo penguins lay two eggs, we saw two babies under the same mother a couple of times and saw one baby with the other egg still unhatched another time (which means the first baby was no more than one day old).

As part of the same landing, we also visited a British outpost at Port Lockroy, which was once a survey station and is now a museum and shop.

These were our last landings around the Antarctic Peninsula. After dinner, we headed back through the Bransfield Straits to the South Shetland Islands, where we would spend our final activity day before returning to Ushuaia.

Day 8: Deception Island

Passing through Neptune's Bellows - Antarctica travel

Passing through Neptune's Bellows - Antarctica travel

At 7:30am, we reached Deception Island, a remarkable volcanic island among the otherwise Antarctic-looking South Shetland Islands. It’s a circular island with a narrow entry called Neptune’s Bellows, which we passed through to ‘enter’ the crater.

After days of seeing virtually nothing but white, to see black volcanic sand, dark red rocks and the other bizarre aspects of Deception Island was quite extraordinary. However, our proposed landing at Whalers’ Bay was postponed, and ultimately cancelled, due to 30 knot winds with gusts of 35-40 knots.

That left us with only one landing left, at the Aitcho Islands in the South Shetlands. The wind was not as fierce there, but it was still a cold landing in dull conditions.

It wasn’t the best of landings, but we did see an elephant seal for the first time, which was the fourth different seal species we saw during our Antarctica cruise. He was too young to have acquired the elephant-like features he’s named for, though.

And since we knew that this was our last landing, we soaked it up as much as we could, admired the gentoo and chinstrap penguins, and reminisced about everything we’d done and seen in the last four or five days.

After dinner, we headed into the dreaded Drake Passage for the long journey back to the Tierra del Fuego.

Days 9-11: ‘Lake Drake’, the Beagle Channel and Ushuaia

The famous lighthouse of Ushuaia, Argentina

The famous lighthouse of Ushuaia, Argentina

The journey back through the Drake Passage is always supposed to be rougher than on the way down, but somehow it was even calmer for us than it had been the first time.

The staff were calling it ‘Lake Drake’ and saying that it was one of the best voyages through the Drake they could remember in years. Without the anticipation of an impending arrival in Antarctica, the trip back was actually pretty boring, and we spent most of it reading and eating.

On Day 10, it became apparent that we were going to arrive in Ushuaia about 15 hours ahead of schedule, so we anchored in the Beagle Channel and had a celebratory BBQ and glass of champagne in the evening.

After breakfast on Day 11 this morning, our Antarctica cruise was suddenly all over, but we will remember it forever as the best trip we’ve ever taken.

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Have the Trip of Your Life on an Antarctica Cruise from Ushuaia Argentina

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About Wendy Werneth

Intrepid traveler, vegan foodie and animal lover. I uncover vegan treasures all around the world, so you can be vegan anywhere and spread compassion everywhere.

5 Comments

  1. WOW! This is one of our ultimate bucket list destinations! When my partner and I get married I don’t really care about the wedding but want the best honeymoon ever – I would like to hike in Patagonia and my partner wants to go to Antarctica so will definitely be using this guide when he pops the question 😛

    • Hi Anna,
      Hiking in Patagonia is also amazing! Maybe I’ll post an article about that too, one of these days. And Patagonia and Antarctica are very easily combined in the same trip. It would certainly make for an incredible honeymoon!

  2. I too consider my Antarctic trip my best ever in a lifetime of travels, because of the wildlife and nature observed (spectacular icebergs!). Your article could be a travelogue for my own tour – similar route, I was onboard MV Polar Pioneer, tour run by Aurora Expeditions. I was a vegan, told them so when booking and was well catered for during the tour. Thanks for your write-up.

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