How I Planned My Dream Trip to Antarctica
Antarctica has been at the top of my list of places to go for a couple of years now, ever since I learned that it is possible to visit (previously I thought that only scientists or National Geographic filmmakers get the privilege of seeing the 7th continent). I stumbled across a high end travel blog where the writer had gone on an expedition cruise to Antarctica through a company called Antarctica XXI. I became obsessed with the idea of going to Antarctica… the penguins! the icebergs! those snow covered mountains! how epic it would be to go to this place that hardly anybody sees! Then my dreams were knocked down, stepped on, and run over by an imaginary semi when I went to Antarctica XXI’s website and learned that these weeklong trips start at $10,000. Yes, TEN THOUSAND US dollars.
Well that didn’t stop me from dreaming, I ordered a travel catalog from another Arctic/Antarctic tour company called Arctic Kingdom that offered trips to Antarctica as well as the Arctic, including small trips aimed exclusively at spotting narwhals, polar bears, baby harp seals, and one $40,000 trip on an icebreaker ship to the North Pole. I would sit on the toilet flipping through the pages and dream my daydreams of these incredible places that I saw no possible way I could afford to see.
Months later after digging around online I learned that the $10k+ price drops on these trips at the last minute when there are empty spots available on a ship, sometimes as much as 50%. You have to be rich to spend $10,000 on a trip, but if you're not frugal and possess a credit card, you just might—eventually—justify spending $5000. These deals are not advertised on the websites of the tour operators, and one blog recommended getting in touch with Antarctica Ushuaia Turismo, a travel agency in Ushuaia, Argentina for information or to book a trip. I emailed and started the conversation with Daniela who recommended that I follow their Facebook page to see posts about prices and departures to Antarctica.
To get to Antarctica as an ordinary tourist, you usually will need to take an “expedition cruise”, usually from the city of Ushuaia at the very southern tip of Argentina. The ship then travels for two days across the Southern Ocean to reach the Antarctic peninsula where you spend anywhere between 3-7 days, depending on the cruise you take (and price you pay). These cruises are not the Carnival variety complete with a casino, never-ending chicken strips and sunburnt midwestern families. These are generally ships that carry only 70-200 guests and are ice-reinforced vessels intended primarily for scientific work that are leased or repurposed for travel to the polar regions. I started to understand that not all cruises to Antarctica are equal, and that you can have quite a different experience depending on the company you go with and the size of the ship that you take. Because of environmental protection restrictions on tourism in Antarctica, only 100 people are allowed off a ship at a time to visit a particular site. This means that if you take a ship that carries 150 guests, you have to take turns leaving the ship and therefore may not to get as much time on land. Not only do you want to get a last minute deal at the lowest possible price, you also want to hold out for one of the smaller ships.
Just as the 2015-2016 Antarctic summer season began (travel to Antarctica is only possible during their summer which is from October until March) I started to watch the Ushuaia Turismo Facebook page and posts would go up every week or two with last minute departures stating the length of the trip and price. The prices were anywhere from $5000 and up, but usually the lowest prices were for a shared triple cabin (which means three people sharing a small room with bunk type beds). I was not especially interested in a triple cabin since I knew it was doubtful that I would find two friends to accompany me and I would be assigned 2 strangers to share the cabin with (although they match up the stray solo passengers by gender at least).
Later in 2015 I became even more anxious about the idea of going to Antarctica. I didn’t have $5000 just sitting in my bank account to spend on the trip, but I felt like if I made the decision to go I could shuffle around my finances, drain my savings, or just pay for the majority of it on credit. I also had started to get a fair amount of attention for my world travels as the “drone selfie girl”, and was being hit up pretty often for interviews with the very occasional small sponsorship/collaboration opportunity here and there, so I thought that it couldn’t hurt to go to my dream destination and share the photos on my website and Instagram account that now had a decent following (I absolutely do not think that you need these things in order to start seriously considering splurging on your dream trip… it’s just another of the ways I justify the cost to myself).
It was hard enough to convince myself to do this trip, there was no way of convincing my boyfriend Jason, so I was ready to pull the trigger and do the trip solo. I requested to book a last spot on a 10-day November 20th departure on the Ocean Nova ship, but that spot was swooped before I could grab it. Between work and other trips, that was my last option for going in 2015. Once I was back home after the holidays I remembered that the Antarctic summer was coming to an end, so I checked in with Daniela for departures in February or March and she emailed back with the following list:
NEW DEPARTURES FOR FEBRUARY !!!
FEB 9TH CLASSIC ANTARCTICA ORTELIUS SHIP FROM USD 5640 per person ( 01 last place for male passenger )
FEB 13TH ANTARCTICA PENINSULA EXPLORER-FALKLANDS VAVILOV SHIP FROM PUNTA ARENAS USD 5990 PER PERSON ( 01 last place for male passenger )
FEB 13TH ANTARCTICA, SOUTH GEORGIA, MALVINAS FROM USD 12720 per person
FEB 17TH ANTARCTICA, SOUTH GEORGIA, MALVINAS FROM USD 12895 per person
FEB 28TH ANTARCTIC PENINSULA ADVENTURER AKADEMIK IOFFE FROM USHUAIA FROM USD 5990 PER PERSON
So none of the first 4 options were going to work since I was neither a male passenger nor able to spend $12k (as much as I would LOVE to do a 20 day trip to Antarctica, South Georgia and the Falklands to see ALL TEH PENGUINS). The last on the list (although a little higher in price than I had hoped to pay) looked promising, so I inquired further. On the website for the trip's tour operator One Ocean Expeditions, the regular price for the cabin being offered was nearly $11k per person, so it seemed like a pretty good deal. I googled the boat, the Akademik Ioffe, and saw photos of this majestic white Russian ship amidst massive white icebergs. I was sold.
I told my travel obsessed friend and frequent travel buddy Alex of my plans to go, and she reluctantly decided to join me. Alex was in the middle of an international move back to California and not currently employed, but decided that it was now or never that she would have the option to go to Antarctica with a companion, so she decided to charge the entire trip to her credit card. People often ask how I afford to travel so much and sometimes the answer is just that- with a credit card… you can pay off the travel before and after your trip. I had a double room for Alex and me reserved, and Daniela sent us all the paperwork we needed to fill out the finalize our departure(!!!).
Flights to Argentina and Patagonia in their summertime are no small expense either. I booked my flights to Ushuaia, Argentina, which required international flights to Buenos Aires, an airport change, and a domestic flight from Buenos Aires to Ushuaia (Ushuaia is a 3.5 hour flight from BA or 48 hour combination of bus rides… so you just fly there). I planned to spend a few days in Ushuaia (the southernmost city in the world!) before our Feb 28 departure, and a week after our return in Argentina that I later decided to spend mostly in Patagonia. Our cruise dates were Feb 28-March 9th, and I booked my round trip flights from Los Angeles to Buenos Aires from Feb 24-Mar 16 and paid $1172 for a (moderately unpleasant) combination of flights that came up on Kayak.com. I separately booked the one-way flight from Buenos Aires to Ushuaia that I found on Priceline which was $215. I chose the dates based on the best prices offered and still my total for flights was up to $1400, not yet including the domestic flights within Argentina that would fly us within Patagonia and finally back to Buenos Aires.
With my Amex card’s balance at an all time high (those points tho), I was ready to start packing for the most exciting adventure of my life to Antarctica!!!