How to Travel to Antarctica Part 1

The Ultimate Guide

Article by Sherry Ott

Photography by Sherry Ott

How to Travel to Antarctica: The Ultimate Guide was originally published in Otts World

Traveling to Antarctica is a bucket list item for a lot of people. And I’m lucky enough to have been to Antarctica – not once – but twice. On two occasions, I got to travel to Antarctica and cross a couple of items off my bucket list. 

Right there at the top – there it is – “Camp on Antarctica and see the Penguins”. When I was planning my first trip in 2012, I could almost see the pencil poised above the word “Camp” right now ready to firmly press on the paper and pull it across with a fervor and jolt of joy.

However, there is another item on my Bucket List that was even more exciting to me than seeing penguins. Down a bit further you’ll find it – “Experience 24 hours of daylight.” 

On that first trip with my father, we were sailing near the Antarctic Circle around December 21st – the longest day of the year in the southern hemisphere.

If Antarctica (or something to do with traveling to Antarctica) is on your bucket list, this guide to Antarctica Travel will help you achieve that!

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How to Get to Antarctica

The main way to get to Antarctica is via cruise. Specifically, expedition cruise.

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Heritage Expedition’s Spirit of Enderby

I have said repeatedly that I have no interest in being on a cruise. The confinement and mode of travel just don’t fit my personality and desires. 

However, there have always been a few exceptions to this statement – Antarctica is one of them. Plus, expedition cruising is quite a bit different than your standard big cruise. 

There are two different routes to choose from that give you two very different experiences. Thankfully, I’m one of the few people in the world that has taken them both and can explain the differences!

The Drake Passage

The first time I traveled to Antarctica was with my father in 2012.

We took the route that most Antarctic cruises begin from Ushuaia, the southernmost tip of Argentina, traveled south through the Drake Passage for 2 days to the Antarctica Peninsula and looped back up to Argentina again. 

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This is the most direct route to get to Antarctica, and my cruise lasted 13 days total. My father and I cruised with Expedition Trips and G Adventures, who sponsored the trip.

The Ross Sea

The second time I went to Antarctica was via the Ross Sea in 2014. 

This time I journeyed through the Southern Ocean from New Zealand, arriving at historic Cape Adare on East Antarctica.  This is the route of the famous explorers and has the most history involved in it. 

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Cook, Ross, Borchgrevink, Mawson, Scott, and Shackleton all made this same journey through the Southern Ocean multiple times to go deeper into Terra Australis incognita – the unknown southern land.

Approximately 500 tourists take the route from New Zealand,  through the Southern Ocean to Eastern Antarctica each austral summer, while 50,000 take the route from South America.

Why do so few people take this route to Eastern Antarctica and the Ross Sea?

Because it’s hard, unpredictable, rough, riddled with ice, and the journey simply takes a much longer time. 

But the journey can also be exhilarating, and I’m the type of person who looks at those words and think “Yeeessss. A real adventure!” I wanted to go to Eastern Antarctica because it was unique and I like going the hard way, where few people tread. More than anything, I like to really explore.

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The storm as we approached Cape Adare the 2nd Time for an attempted landing.

I took this cruise with Heritage Expeditions, who sponsored the trip. They’re one of the few companies that offer expedition cruises into the Ross Sea. 

This small family-owned company has been doing it the longest and knows the area better than anyone. I cruised for 28 days on the Wake of Scott and Shackleton Itinerary.

No matter which way you spin it, you’ll be spending a lot of time on a ship, and it will be a bit unpredictable. 

As the expedition leader on the G Expedition from my first trip always said, “Mother Nature is in charge.” When cruising the Antarctic you really don’t know what each day will hold and weather can dictate the route and schedule.

But for the trip of a lifetime that fewer people take than climb Everest, I’d say a bit of unpredictability is well worth it! (And even holds some of the adventure!)

Planning + Preparing for a Trip to Antarctica

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A little ‘light’ reading for Antarctica!

Any adventure as colossal and exciting as a trip to Antarctica requires plenty of preparation and planning.

Thankfully, for my first trip, I had a team of people at Expedition Trips helping me to get me through all of the paperwork, plans, itineraries, and checklists.

Here’s everything you need to prepare in order to travel to Antarctica:


Whether you are going from the popular route of Ushuaia or the more obscure route from New Zealand – first, you have to get there. That’s one heck of a long plane ride with multiple transfers. For my trip with my dad in 2012, I organized our flights in two segments – from South Dakota to Buenos Aires, and then from Buenos Aires to Ushuaia through a combination of my own online booking and from utilizing the Expedition Trip staff to help me book the Ushuaia leg. 

To get into Argentina you do not need a visa if you are an American citizen and your stay is limited to 90 days.

However, an American going to New Zealand are required to have an NZeTA . This is true for cruise ship passengers as well. It can take up to 72 hours to process an NZeTA so you should apply well in advance of your trip to New Zealand. The NZeTA is valid for multiple visits for up to two years. The cost of the NZeTA depends on the system used to request it: if you apply utilizing the mobile app, it will cost NZD $9; if you apply on the website, it will cost NZD $12.If you are coming from other countries, be sure to check the visa requirements for either country.

A clean bill of health

Since you are out on a ship far away from modern facilities, there’s a bit of paperwork that needs to be done.  They need to have your medical history. This is basically to alert the ship staff of the passengers’ medical history so that they can be well prepared to care for anyone in case of an emergency.

This was pretty simple paperwork but you do have to provide more information that normal about your medical history than you would on a normal vacation. 

Emergency Medical/Evacuation Insurance

Of course, since you are in the remote corners of the earth, the ship has to know that if there is an emergency, their passengers are covered from an insurance perspective. 

They require proof of a minimum of $200,000 of Emergency Medical/Evacuation Insurance. This is pretty much the norm on these types of remote expedition trips.

Getting proof of that coverage was easy for me to do – I just called my insurance provider and made sure I was covered and then had them send me the paperwork that provided my proof of coverage.  However, trying to do this for my father, who was 76 at the time, proved to be much more cumbersome.

Have you ever tried to call Medicare and get answers…ugh…not fun. 

And let’s face it – they don’t have a lot of 76-year-olds taking trips to the ends of the earth – so apparently they don’t get many questions about emergency medical evacuation from foreign countries. At least that’s what I deduced based on the 2 different customer service reps I dealt with and their utter confusion about the questions and their inability to provide me any straight answers.

But we got it all sorted in the end, thank goodness.

Extreme Cold Weather Gear

Layers, layers, layers! 

On my first trip, Expedition Trips supplied us with a pretty thorough packing list that included clothing and other travel gear. 

Luckily our boat provided the necessary boots for the cruise and our daily excursions onto land – so that’s one less thing we needed. 

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I was surprised to find out that Antarctica isn’t as cold in December as I thought it would be –  average temps around 20 to 40 F – which quite frankly is warmer than where my father lives in South Dakota in December! 

However – you’ll still need some winter coats and warm layers as well as waterproof pants and gear. 

Oh yes, and swimsuits! In case you feel like taking a polar plunge. 

See my Ultimate Antarctica Packing List

Antarctica packing is much more than just ensuring you have warm clothes! Before you go, make sure you have all of these Antarctica items!

Photo Equipment

Since one of my main focuses was to do photography in Antarctica, I needed to think ahead on what equipment I would need. 

You should plan on taking as long of a lens as you can.  Even though you can often get close to the penguins and seals on landings, you will be shooting whales and sea birds from further distances; and you’ll need a long lens for that.   I had a 300mm, but honestly, I wish I had a longer lens. I say 400mm or greater is required. And if you don’t have one of your own, you can always rent one. 

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In addition, you’ll want a wide-angle lens to get the spectacular landscape shots and boat shots.  

I also took a GoPro video camera to take with me on the daily excursions and kayaking.

You’ll want to make sure your gear is protected from the elements in Antarctica, especially the sea spray that you often encounter on bad weather days or on the zodiac.  I use Lenscoat products to cover my lenses. They protect your lens from the elements and make them easier to handle in the cold. I also use their Raincovers for even more protection to my gear including my camera body.

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LensCoat LensCovers

LensCoat lens covers offer your valuable equipment some protection from scrapes and bumps, preserving its resale value. It also helps break up the shape of your lens, making it less noticeable to wildlife.

LensCoat Raincovers

LensCoat RainCoats provide protection for your camera and lens from the elements like rain, snow, salt spray, dirt, sand and dust while allowing you easy access to the camera and lens controls.

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Continue reading this ultimate guide with Part 2

Follow Sherry Ott @ottsworld

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