I waited many years to step foot on the Antarctica continent. It had been a dream of mine for more than 20 years. I researched online, spoke to travel agents, read about global warming. I researched Quark, National Geographic, Expedition Trips, Lindblad, Silverseas. I looked at small ships, large ships, expedition ships, icebreakers, luxury trips and adventure trips. I saw penguins in South Africa and the Galapagos and thought that would abate my penguin fascination. I watched the Frozen Planet on Netflix. I got closer and closer—reserving trips, but never managed to finalize.
One Saturday night in November, I was doing my usual searching and saw that Quark had a trip over the holidays that had one single cabin with no single supplement and one kayaking space left. I booked it as soon as the office opened the next morning. It is highly unusual to have a kayaking space available that late in the process. Since I was booking last minute (most people book a year in advance), I received 25% off on the price. My fare also included the charter flight from Buenos Aires to Ushuaia (you need to check on this as many companies charge additional for the charter) and the mandatory medical evacuation insurance which can cost upwards of $1,000 (again, most companies don’t include this).
The Trip: Voyage to the 7th Continent-11 Days, Starting in Buenos Aires
My trip started in Buenos Aires. I elected to arrive a day early as I did not want to cut it close in case of weather delays. My flight from the US arrived around noon on Wednesday. Bag weigh-in was on Thursday between noon and 8 pm (the charter flight is very strict about the weight limit for bags—44 pounds (20 kg) for checked bags and 11 pounds (5 kg) for cabin baggage). You also receive your boarding pass at this time.
We left early Friday morning for the charter flight to Ushuaia. After landing, we had 2 hours in town before we boarded the ship. They also had told me to request a window seat on the charter when I arrived (said they could not do that from the home office), but that was wrong as all seats were already assigned. It turns out that I had a window seat on the flight down but not on the way back.
The Ship & Company
Quark specializes in Arctic and Antarctic travel. They have been going to Antarctica for 40+ years and were one of the first cruise operators. Quark’s Ocean Endeavor carries up to 199 passengers. This was larger than I wanted. Similar to the Galapagos, only 100 people can be on land at one time. On the larger ships, passengers rotate one-hour zodiac cruising and one hour on land to observe this rule. The zodiac cruises are very good, so this may not be a concern of yours. The kayaking group is the first off the ship, so it did not make a difference on this trip.
Quark is an excellent company. Food was good and they were very careful about specific dietary needs. I asked for dairy-free meals and they were very accommodating. They have a spa, gym, library, sauna, smoothie bar and a small heated pool. There are three lounges: Nautilus (used for most of the lectures), Aurora and Meridian (on the top deck). The expedition staff was excellent. They eat with the passengers and that makes them very accessible and personable. Adventure options included kayaking, camping and stand up paddle boarding.
My single cabin was comfortable and large enough. Some of the double cabins were smaller than my single and did not have enough storage space for 2 people. All of the single cabins are inside cabins. There is no single supplement for these cabins (most cruises charge 1.5 to 1.7 additional as a single supplement). This can be advantage on several fronts: it was darker (sunset in the summer is very late), there was less rocking during the Drake Passage and it was quieter. There are also twin cabins that many solo travelers can elect to share. There are larger cabins as well with windows and portholes. All cabins have TVs and private showers.
The Drake Passage (2 days down and 2 days back) is notoriously turbulent. We were fortunate to have the “Drake Lake” in both directions. I thought that I would be relaxing and slower during the passage, but there were nonstop lectures and briefing during these days. There was also time for massages, spa treatments, yoga (yes, I did do yoga during the crossing) and hanging out with new found friends.
Kayaking made this trip even more spectacular. Kayakers were always the first off and the last ones back to the boat. We had a very intimate experience with the penguins and whales as they swam near us frequently. And, the expedition staff were fantastic. Sharon, Bella and Kaitlyn were knowledgeable, supportive and very safety conscious. Most trips have at least 3-4 kayaking excursions. We had 7 due to the excellent weather. I have already done posts about kayaking (In the Water with Penguins, Whales and Seals—Kayaking in the Antarctic and Kayaking in Antarctica-Tips & Recommendations). They provide dry suits, dry bags, life jackets and booties. We had to wear 3-4 layers underneath to stay warm.
I was nervous about traveling solo. I had asked Quark if they would help me meet some of my fellow travelers before boarding but they don’t do this. It would have been nice to have company for the two nights I was in Buenos Aires. Onboard the ship, there were many people traveling solo and I found most people very friendly and willing to talk and meet new people. There were people of every age from teenagers to in their 70/80s. The kayakers also bonded.
January is summertime in South America. Buenos Aires was 90 degrees Fahrenheit (32 degrees Celsius), Ushuaia was 50 degrees (10 Celsius) and Antarctica was mainly around 30 degrees (0 Celsius). Antarctica weather is very changeable. We had snow and wind at various times. The itinerary changes based on the weather—don’t get too attached to any one island or location. For instance, it was snowing when we approached the entrance to the Lemaire Channel and it was not passable due to being blocked by icebergs. We ended up having a marvelous adventure at Jougla Point.
The expedition staff were friendly, dedicated and knowledgeable. They had a lot of experience in Antarctica and were always available for questions. They ate every meal with us which made for many wonderful conversations. The lectures were very good with the right balance of information. If you want extensive lectures, National Geographic might be more your style. Nat Geo travelers, however, tend to spend less time on excursions. For me, the balance on Quark’s Ocean Endeavor was perfect.
If I had one critique about this trip, it was the trip home. Once we disembarked, we have a two-hour tour of Tierra del Fuego and then were dropped off at the airport. At the airport, we received no direction or support from the Quark staff. The line for the departure gates was very long and it was almost 2 hours before we made it to the departure gates. The plane was more than 1 hour late even though it was a charter. When we arrived in Buenos Aires, we waited an hour to get our bags. Those of us taking 9 pm flights home (we were told that we would be back in BA between 5 and 6 pm) had to pick up our bags and run to the gate in order to make our flights. Once again, there was very little direction or support from the Quark team, particularly during the wait for our bags.
Tips & Recommendations
- Don’t be afraid to go solo. You’ll make new friends and have lots of interesting conversations
- Booking very early or very late can help you to cut costs. If adventure options are the priority, then make sure to book early.
- The trip is expensive, but don’t make every decision based on price. This is probably the only time that you will go to Antarctica so make sure it meets your expectations. If lectures are most important, make sure to find a ship that prioritizes that. If excursions are a priority, then ask about that.
- All ships require medical evacuation insurance. This coverage is very expensive. Quark trips include this in the fee.
Types of Ships
- Decide on the size and type of the ship you prefer. Ship capacity ranges from 50 people to 500. Only 100 people are allowed on land at a time. On the larger ships (more than 200 people), passengers rotate (1 hour spent zodiac cruising and 1 hour on land). The zodiac cruises are excellent so this might not be too much of a tradeoff.
- Types of ships include: Luxury Expedition, Expedition, Research, Scenic Exploration and Icebreakers. The largest 500 passenger ships are Scenic Exploration ships and have limited excursions. Research Ships are usually 50-120 passengers and have simpler accommodations. There is a type of ship for every type of traveler.
Baggage Allowance and Packing
- The charter operators are very strict about the baggage allowance on the way down. They will not allow any bags that are over the weight limit (20 kg/44 lbs. for checked bags and 5kg/11 lbs. for carry on). They don’t seem to weigh the bags on the return trip, so don’t worry about being overweight at the end.
- It can be less stressful to have a night in Buenos Aires on the back end of the trip. That way, you can have the hotel store an extra bag for you while you are on the cruise. It will also make the trip home less stressful.
- As far as packing, layers, layers, layers. Many operators provide rubber boots and parkas but ask before you book. The Quark parka is very warm. Waterproof pants are required. You will not be allowed on the zodiac without them. Hats, gloves, face-covering—all are essential. You won’t enjoy the trip if you are not properly dress. Quark gives everyone a warm parka and loans every passenger a pair of rubber boots. Other ships do similar things, but don’t assume. And, don’t forget your bathing suit for the polar plunge!
- If you are flying home on the same day as you disembark, book your return flight at 10 pm or later. I booked my return flight from Buenos Aires to the US at 9 pm and had to run to catch my flight.