A classic bucket-list destination, Antarctica is one of the most breathtaking places on the planet -- and also one of the vastest, covering nearly 10 percent of the earth's surface. With its barren, windswept snow dunes and dramatic ice cliffs, it's often said to leave visitors breathless -- though that could be the freezing-cold temperatures.
Getting to Antarctica is not easy; there are only two ways in or out -- by plane or by ship. Flights are expensive, have to be booked through a speciality operator and unless you've managed to arrange a stay in one of the few available rooms at a research station, you have to fly in and out the same day.
Cruises are offered regularly during the summer months, by many different operators and are more affordable than flying. A cruise offers the chance to visit multiple spots on the Antarctic Peninsula, as well as the South Shetland Islands and possibly even go as far east as South Georgia or (much rarer) all the way south to the Ross Sea.
No matter the route, every day of an Antarctic cruise is full of spectacular scenery and wildlife-viewing opportunities that can't be beat anywhere else on the planet.
Zodiac cruising and shore landings are by far the most popular activities on an Antarctica cruise. Whether you're whizzing by a glacier, hoping to catch an iceberg calve off or are checking out a colony of seals napping on a large ice floe, getting onto an inflatable rubber boat to check out the sights is the highlight of every day.
Equally, shore landings, which might take cruisers to a remote scientific station or to within a few feet of curious baby seals, offer once-in-a-lifetime memories.
Some Antarctic cruises also offer cruisers the chance to hike, snowshoe, mountaineer or even swim during shore landings.
Cruising in Antarctica is only possible during the continent's summer, which runs from November through March. December and January are traditionally the most popular times to visit the region, when daylight lasts the longest and temperatures are the most manageable.
Those months are also when the wildlife is most abundant, with penguin chicks hatching by mid-December. Whale populations are at their highest beginning in January and remain high through March.
No matter which month you go in season, expect to deal with a wide variety of weather conditions -- rain, snow, sleet and sun. Likewise, temperatures can change wildly throughout the day, ranging from a balmy-for-Antarctica 35 degrees Fahrenheit to well below freezing -- and always be prepared for cold winds.
Classic Antarctica sailings visit Deception Island, Port Lockroy, Elephant Island and Half Moon Island (one of the Shetland Islands). The Lemaire Channel is also a popular attraction; though not a port, Zodiacs are often lowered here for scenic cruising.
Longer Antarctic itineraries might also include stops in South Georgia and the Falkland Islands.
Antarctic cruises depart from Ushuaia, Argentina. A handful of cruise lines offer fly-and-cruise packages, allowing cruisers to bypass the Drake Passage, which is notorious for rough seas, and fly from Ushuaia to the South Shetland Islands and pick up their cruise there.
Here are our best tips for finding a cheap cruise or cruise deal to Antarctica. If you book a “guaranteed cabin” (they select for you), a cabin on a lower deck or sail on an older ship from a brand you like, then you can get the best price for a specific cruise to Antarctica. Last minute cruises deals to Antarctica appear as you get closer to the sail date, usually 1-2 weeks in advance. Taking a cruise to Antarctica in the shoulder season (before or after the peak season) can also be a great way to find a cruise deal.