How to save money on an Antarctic cruise

Public buses, cramped dorms and shoestring street food are the usual way to do a destination on the cheap – but it’s unlikely any of these will be on offer in Antarctica any time soon. While this is something to celebrate, it also means that travelers on a budget will have a hard time getting to the frozen continent, with even the cheapest of trips costing thousands.

However, there are ways to reduce costs without compromising on your Antarctic experience. After all, you don’t travel this far and spend two days crossing the Drake Passage just to enjoy Michelin starred meals, a hot tub and a flat-screen TV. The real five-star experiences in Antarctica are the location and wildlife, and those will be the same whether you’re splashing out on a suite or saving money in a shared cabin.

We reveal the cheapest way to travel to Antarctica – and, if you decide that cutting costs isn’t for you, how to really splash out.

How much does it cost to go to Antarctica?

The cheapest Antarctic cruises start at around $5,700 USD/$7,600 AUD/£4,100 GBP. They usually include 10-14 days’ travel aboard a cosy but comfortable polar expedition ship, plus food, guides and most activities like sea kayaking, photography workshops and wildlife watching expeditions. The cruise will follow the shortest and simplest route: a return circuit from Ushuaia on the southern tip of Argentina to the Antarctic peninsula.

Our most expensive Antarctic cruises top out at around $27,700 USD/$36,500 AUS/£20,000 GBP. You can expect a 22-day-long itinerary, natural history guides and lecturers, activities, great dining options and upgrades to suite cabins for your money.

The average vacation to Antarctica, however, is priced somewhere between the two.

The cheapest ways to visit Antarctica

Choose a cruise

Cruising is the cheapest way to travel to Antarctica. It’s possible to swap the two-day crossing of the Drake Passage for a two-hour flight, but it’s an expensive luxury. Flights also miss out on the sense of adventure you get from following in the footsteps of the privileged few explorers who have sailed this route before.

For the best cruise prices, travel with our specialist expedition partners, who spend all their days navigating prices that shift more often than ice floes in the Antarctic spring. They’ll know exactly how to get the best bang for your buck, sniffing out the most affordable itineraries and any flash sales.

Aim for the Antarctic Peninsula

The Antarctic Peninsula and Shetland Islands is the continent’s most northerly point; it stretches to within 1,000km of South America. Consequently, the Antarctic Peninsula is the easiest – and cheapest – bit of Antarctica to reach, and the most economical cruises will simply sail straight there and back with a typical duration of 10-14 days.

Adding in the Falkland Islands and South Georgia to your Antarctica expedition will mean you need to allow a bit more time and therefore money, but these remote, penguin-filled specks of land are often one of the highlights of the cruise. As well as four species of penguin, you can encounter giant albatross and visit Stanley on the Falklands and Grytviken (population: 30) on South Georgia to learn about life in the Southern Ocean.

Check out the cheapest cabins

Sharing a room with two or three others, forgoing the en suite bathroom and opting for a room without a porthole or window are easy ways to save money on a cruise to Antarctica. The lower cabins without portholes or windows are usually cheaper, too – and as these sway less, they’re also considered the best option for avoiding seasickness.

All your excursions, meals and on-board lectures will be the same as those paying for luxury cabins, as will your access to other facilities such as a library, sauna and observation deck. Every cruise will have on-board experts too.

Sail on a small ship

Smaller ships like research vessels tend to be more basic – and therefore less expensive – than other ships, but they still offer plenty of history and character, as well as superb food, comfortable cabins, a lecture theatre and observation deck.

One way we wouldn’t recommend saving money is by booking on a large ship with hundreds of passengers. According to International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO) regulations, only 100 passengers may disembark at any one time, so on larger ships of 200-plus passengers you won’t be able to stretch your legs every day. Ships carrying over 500 passengers are not allowed to dock at all, so having travelled all that way, you’ll have to settle for watching the frozen continent pass by through a porthole.

Travel at either end of the season

The Antarctic cruise season runs from November to March, which is when the sea ice clears enough to allow the safe passage of ships, and storms are less common. November is the cheapest time to travel to Antarctica, as it’s colder and some remaining sea ice makes a few cruising areas inaccessible.

You’ll see enormous icebergs – fantastic for budding photographers. You’ll also find huge elephant seal colonies in their breeding grounds in South Georgia; watching the males battle over a mate is worthy of a wildlife documentary.

Prices are sometimes lower at the end of March. Temperatures dip below freezing again but the sea ice has melted away, and you’ll experience polar sunrises and sunsets – something which doesn’t occur closer to the summer solstice in December. March is also a great month for observing whales.

Ditch the expensive expedition gear

You don’t need an expensive expedition coat to go to Antarctica – most vacations will include a parka and boots in the price. If not, just bring lots warm, waterproof and windproof layers. Read our Antarctica packing list for more information.

You don’t need top-shelf sea sickness medication, either. Many people find that the Drake Passage crossing is not as stomach-churning as anticipated, however your doctor or chemist can recommend cheap seasickness remedies and many sailors swear by candied or stem ginger. There will also be a doctor on board who can administer more hardcore medication should you encounter particularly stormy seas.

Keep an eye out for Antarctica cruise deals

Our vacation partners periodically have flash sales of Antarctic cruises, when they offer big discounts. The best way to make sure you find out about these is to sign up to our emails, where we often announce late availability departures. This too requires a certain amount of flexibility – the dates, itinerary or vessel may be fixed – but the huge savings will be worth it, especially if you get a better cabin or extra activities thrown in for less than the price of a more basic trip.

Try your luck in Ushuaia

The savviest travelers of all with know that there are savings to be made not just by booking shorter trips and smaller cabins, but by being in the right place at the right time. This place is Ushuaia – and the time is any time in the Antarctic cruise season. Cruise ships depart daily for Antarctica, and if they have berths to fill, you may well be able to secure one.

This can save you several thousands off the cost of a trip, although you’ll need to plan for around a week in Ushuaia, knocking on various agency doors and comparing deals in order to book your expedition and get a good deal. You’ll also need to plan for the chance of not getting on a cruise at all. This is clearly a better option for travelers who are already in South America for an extended period – and not advisable for someone on their two-week annual vacation.

Save… or spend?

Decided you’d rather splurge than save? We have some suggestions for you if you want to add even more luxury to your once-in-a-lifetime trip to the Antarctic.

Fly to Antarctica

Flying across the Drake Passage from Punta Arenas in southern Chile not only means you get to avoid the queasiness of the southern seas, but you cut out two days of travel – or four, if you fly both ways. This is ideal for those who would rather spend those extra days in Antarctica. It’s definitely a splurge option though, so get saving.

Go extra on your extras

The South Pole’s the limit when it comes to indulging on your Antarctica cruise. Penthouse suites, large windows, gyms, massage rooms, private balconies, five-course dinners, big-name lecturers and photography guides… Travel companies are aware that this really is the trip of a lifetime for most people on board, and have come up with many options to make it that extra bit special.

But don’t get too distracted by the gift shops and plunge pools. Be sure to check which excursions are available and how often you’ll be able to disembark, or you might just be using that complementary Wi-Fi to watch YouTube videos of everything going on outside if you’re not allowed to disembark and experience it in person.

Explore the subantarctic islands too

Splurging on an Antarctic itinerary means getting even further away from the rest of humanity. If you’re yearning for a truly pioneering expedition, you could do worse than spending a month exploring Antarctica, South America and New Zealand. From the deck of your ice-strengthened ship, you can keep an eye out for penguins, whales and icebergs as you cruise west along the southernmost reaches of the Pacific Ocean. Zodiacs and on-board helicopters take you out to some of the planet’s remotest islands, visited by explorers such as Scott and Shackleton.

For a super-splurge head east to the New Zealand and Australia subantarctic islands, then onwards to the little-visited Ross Sea. Voyages take four or five weeks – due in part to the immense distances travelled – departing from the southern tip of New Zealand. This region is far from lifeless and barren; you’ll encounter surreal, large-leaved megaherbs, “penguin cities”, several whale species and elephant seals.

Celebrate Christmas or New Year in Antarctica

December, January and February are the peak months for Antarctic cruises – you’ll need to book well ahead, especially if you’ve got your eye on a particular ship, cabin or route. Prices tend to be at the higher end of the scale, and peak in December. But these months present the best of all worlds, with warmer temperatures, penguin chicks and seal pups, and 24-hour sunlight. February is also the best month for crossing the Antarctic Circle, as the sea ice has melted, clearing the passage.
Travel Team
If you'd like to chat about Antarctica or need help finding a vacation to suit you we're very happy to help.

Why are Antarctic cruises so expensive?

Antarctic cruises are once-in-a-lifetime trips that are in high demand and relatively short supply. But there’s more to it than that. They’re also specialist-run expeditions that take a huge amount of time and expertise to run.

Our vacation partners are all proud to be members of the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO) – and IAATO has high (and more costly) demands of its members, all aimed to protect this fragile southern point of the world.

You’ll be accompanied by lots of highly trained staff – at least one for every 20 passengers. Captains, crew and guides will be well-versed in wildlife watching protocols such as exactly how far to stay away from whales and how to (or how not to) walk through penguin colonies.

IAATO members are also encouraged to educate visitors on the importance of Antarctica and its flora and fauna, so your company will also hire lecturers who are specialists in seabird and sea mammals, geology, glaciology, the Antarctic Treaty and the storied history of Antarctic exploration. You’re paying good money to sail with some of the world’s top Antarctica experts.

Then there’s the ships themselves: they range from specialist expedition vessels to luxury small ships with ice-strengthened hulls and on-deck Zodiacs that need constant and specialist maintenance. Strict waste disposal and use of less damaging (but more expensive) lighter grade fuels like marine gas oil also rack up costs for the companies that run Antarctic cruise ships.
Written by Vicki Brown
Photo credits: [Page banner: Ondrej Prosicky] [Intro: 66 north] [How much does it cost?: Christopher Michel] [Choosing a cruise: Christopher Michel] [Travel at either end of the season: Christopher Michel] [Save… or spend?: Christopher Michel]