How to get to Antarctica

Traveling to the bottom of the world

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.
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 Tierra del Fuego. This makes it by far the most accessible part of Antarctica, and the most popular destination for expedition cruises, which depart throughout the austral summer, from November to early April.

Antarctica departure ports

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 island of Tierra del Fuego. Ushuaia is a 3.5 hour flight from Buenos Aires, with several daily departures. There are also options to cruise from the southern tip of New Zealand towards the Ross Sea; these are much longer expeditions.

The voyage begins

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 in itself. If you aren’t prone to seasickness, or happen to enjoy a particularly smooth crossing, you’ll have two days of building up the anticipation of reaching Antarctica, attending on board lectures about the region’s wildlife and geography, and 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.
Many expedition cruises take detours to the Falkland Islands to observe huge gatherings of penguins, and then onward to South Georgia – the burial place of Sir Ernest Shackleton (yep, another Antarctic knight). But they all eventually swing south, heading towards the South Shetland Islands – the last flecks of land before the Antarctic Peninsula, and then cruising between the many iceberg-packed channels and inlets around the mighty continent.

Avoiding the Drake Passage by Flying

In recent years, a small airport has opened on King George Island in the South Shetlands, meaning it is now possible to cross the Drake Passage in two hours, rather than two days. This is appealing for anyone who is worried about seasickness, as well as anyone who wants to cut two or four days’ traveling time off their vacation, depending on whether you fly one or both ways.
There are several things to consider though before you book your ticket. Antarctica vacations don’t come cheap – and flying will add extra expense. And many travelers still 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 30ft waves, and peering out the portholes for the first glimpses of whales, seals and land after days at sea. Additionally, if you want to explore islands such as the Falklands or South Georgia – you’ll need to go by boat.
We also recommend speaking to your vacation company about what will happen if the flight is cancelled. This has happened on on rare occasions due to poor weather. Replacement flights are usually offered once conditions improve - but ships can't miss their scheduled departure time.


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 zodiacs 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.
Photo credits: [Top box: Mark Sykes] [Where to fly to - Ushuaia: David Stanley] [The voyage begins - South Georgia: David Stanley] [Drakes Passage - Tall ship:]
Written by Vicki Brown
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