Discover Antarctica

When you leave, you're always wondering if this is the last time you'll see Antarctica. Anyone who visits will feel it ... a sort of emptiness. You get very emotional when you leave ... to think you may never return, is a strange thing. There's something missing when you remember the days and the light, the late evening when the ice glows pink and blue - boy, you'll never experience this again unless you make the effort. Brett Jarrett, author, The Complete Guide to Antarctic Wildlife

For most people, a trip to Antarctica is absolutely a once in a lifetime thing. So it’s a decision you want to get right as there is no turning back once you’ve committed.

To help you, we’ve reviewed the prices of almost all the small ships‘ operating in Antarctica over the next couple of years. This will help you understand the choices you can make to get the best value trip you’re looking for.  

Why take a small ship cruise in the first place? 

This is the most important question of all. 

Ships can’t land more than 100 people at a time on the continent. So if you want to step onto Antarctica, you presumably also want to maximise the time you spend there.  None of the small ships have a capacity over 200 passengers.  This means you share 50% of shore time with the other half of the guests.  On even smaller ships, with 100 capacity or fewer, you get 100% of the time on shore. 

Guests on a Ponant Luxury Cruise

If you’re considering larger ships, you need to consider whether they would land at all. Obviously taking a small ship costs a bit more ... but for the vast majority of once-in-a-lifetime visitors, it’s worth the extra expense. It’s the same concept for all other variables. When you’re looking at prices you need to compare ‘apples with apples’. 

What does it cost to go to Antarctica?

Your idea of the perfect trip is different to someone else but you’re also looking for the best value for money.  So there is no easy answer. The first thing to ask is, what do you want to get from your trip? Then you can start searching for the best price. Cost depends on things like:

- what tier cabin you book;

- the time of year you go;

- the type of vessel you choose;

- The length of trip you do; and

- How early you pay a deposit.

Last minute deals

If you’re thinking it’s a good idea to wait for a last-minute deal then READ ON! 

You might get lucky. There are a few. However, last minute deals are mostly the cabins other people didn’t want and by then, your flights will have shot up in price too. 

If you book early, you can get deals as good and often better but in the style of your choice. Also, extension tours like Patagonia won’t be fully booked.  

To help you understand this, we’ve assessed the average pricing on 34 small ships. 

Cabin Tier

The ‘from price’ on most websites (Tier 1 cabins) are often quad or triple share. This is fine for families or groups of friends. 

Some of the luxury vessels don’t have quad or triple share. The difference in cabin price from Tier 1 to 3 is about 23% and from Tier 1 to Tier 6 is 52%.

Cabin Tier vessels operate numerous cabin tiers, sometimes up to 20. The price per day usually increases with the increasing cabin size. Prices in $US

Time of year 

This is another key variable that impacts on price and what you want to see and do. On average, trips are priced highest in January and December. 

By February and March average prices have dropped by 13% and 33% respectively. These tend to be the more specialist or extended trips. 

November is a great month for wildlife, especially for breeding Elephant Seals in rookeries on South Georgia and Falkland Islands. 

In November, trips also cost, on average, about 20% less. 

Time of year: peak season price per day are significantly higher than shoulder season. Prices in $US

Type of vessel

The next variable is the type of vessel you choose. There are primarily two levels: luxury and expedition (broken up further into ice-breakers, research, luxury-expedition etc). 

The average price for a luxury vessel (US$1,125 per day) is about 35% more than an expedition vessel (US$740 per day). 

Expedition ships are just as seaworthy and comfortable but some are more advanced than others. Luxury vessels tend to be more like floating hotels. However, at the luxury end, some ships are more about the ship and less about the outdoors, others are a balance of both. 

You can’t really be expected to know the difference by reading about this online. 

The best way to tell, is to talk to one of our cruise specialists - staff who have experience to match your needs and expectations to a vessel. 

Trip duration

Price does vary with trip duration but only up to a point. 

The shortest trips are six days. These include some of the fly-cruise options. It’s worth noting that it takes a couple of days to cross the Drake Passage, so if you’re even doing a 10-day trip, you can spend almost half of this in open ocean. 

The price then increases quite rapidly up to about 16 days duration but then begins to plateau. This is partly due to some of the longer, more specialist trips, being later in the year.  

Trip duration: Trip price increases with number of days up to about 17 days, then it plateaus. Prices in $US

If you’re thinking of doing South Georgia and Falklands, then your trip is generally going to be about 20 days. In terms of price per day, it’s better value for money than the shorter trips (which also tend to be more popular). 

South Georgia and Falklands is in most people’s minds eye when thinking about Antarctica and not visiting, is among the number one regrets that people have, that can force them to return a second time. 

Ship size

You would think price would increase with smaller size ships but that’s not the case. It’s quite variable. It does tend to be harder to get early bird specials though, as smaller ships fill up much faster with less need to market their spots than other ships.

Ship size: Price per day is quite variable. Smallest ships can be good value but they fill fast and rarely offer earlybird species. Prices in $US

Traveling alone

As a side note, plenty of ships operate single supplement policies. Some, especially the expedition ships, are quite happy to allocate you a cabin to share with someone else. It’s a little bit harder with the luxury ships but there are sometimes special offers. 

Again, it’s best to ask your small ship consultant. They will know about these offers often a long time before you do.

Know your special offers!

If you’re prepared to book early and know what you want, there are some remarkable deals to be had.

Possible Savings: if you book early, the savings are enough to pay for another holiday, or an extension e.g. a Patagonia tour.

There are two components to savings, earlybird discounts and flights.
LUXURY:  AVERAGE SAVING per couple = US$5,150 

These are based on 20% price reduction on an average-cost twin share cabin and a 14-day trip booked 18 months or more in advance + flights booked 11 months in advance, $1,800 rtn instead of $2,800. 

A very limited market

The 34 ships we have assessed are most of the ships working in Antarctica.

Consider this. 

They have a total passenger capacity of about 2,000 people and an average 14 day trip duration which means 20,000 people world-wide get the luxury of traveling to Antartica every year. Roughly 25% of the annual market are Australians.

So it’s very competitive from a customer perspective. This is a sellers market ... and the deals and offers disappear fast.  

There are roughly three types of special:

- Early bird (fixed price or date)

- Dynamic pricing

- Last minute 

Dynamic pricing is used by companies like Ponant ... rather like airlines do, they release early offers, sometimes up to 35% off and as these are used up, the next tier of reductions comes in, until the last cabins are all full price - no exceptions.

Most operators issue either a fixed number of discounts or a strict expiry date. The amount can be a percentage, added value (e.g. flight) or some other concession.   

Small ship cruise regulars know how this works and get exceptional deals. 

Few companies offer last minute offers. These are rarely much of a substitute in terms of price and are often confined to certain cabin types that are still available. By then, airline prices will also have increased.    

Cover image Volodymyr Goinyk. iStock photo ID:959977144