Fly.com’s very own Warren Chang made the journey to Antarctica this year, traveling with Compagnie du Ponant, a French cruise line.  Below is the first of three posts on his experience.

Why Go?  I wanted to travel to Antarctica for several reasons.  First, Antarctica has been described as a place of great natural beauty and wildlife, and so I naturally wanted to see it for myself.  Second, I wanted to go while Antarctica still accessible to me—I don’t have young kids or kids in school, which makes traveling to the White Continent easier.  In addition, Antarctica is becoming increasingly known as a potential tourist destination (for example, it made The New York Times’ The 45 Places to Go in 2012 list), and while increased popularity can lead to great things such as more services and options for travelers and more travelers seeing and learning about Antarctica firsthand, it can also result in higher prices and less amount of time for travelers to spend on land. (IAATO, the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators, only allows 100 tourists on land at one time, and cruise ships with more than 500 passengers are not allowed to send any passengers onto land.)  To limit the downsides of higher demand, I wanted to visit Antarctica now.

Finally, it’ll be neat to one day be able to say that I’ve touched all seven continents.

When to go?  The tourist season for Antarctica is effectively November through end of February.  Tourists do not visit Antarctica during other times of the year, when weather conditions are harsh.

I traveled in January and February to maximize my chances of seeing areas of Antarctica that may not be accessible earlier in the tourist season, due to sea ice not yet penetrable by cruise ships.  In fact, despite traveling later in the tourist season, my cruise ship was the first of season to be able to sail the scenic Lemaire Channel.

For wildlife lovers, guidebooks and IAATO suggest traveling in November to see penguins and birds courting and mating, December and January to see penguins hatching and feeding chicks, and February for the best whale-watching. Guidebooks also caution that most wildlife head out to sea by end of February.

During my time in Antarctica in late January and early February, I saw wildlife including hundreds of thousands of penguins, crabeater, leopard, elephant and fur seals, humpback and minke whales, snow petrels, and more.

What’s the weather like in Antarctica?  This may come as a surprise, but temperatures ranged from around 30°F (-1° Celsius) to the low 40°s Fahrenheit (~5° Celsius) when I was in Antarctica in late January and early February. It was actually warmer in Antarctica than it was in New York City, where I reside, for several days of my trip!

When is the best time to book my trip?  I followed the pricing of cruises to Antarctica for nearly four years before I booked my trip, and based on my experience, it’s best to book early.

Discounts that were available early on waned as departure dates neared. In speaking with fellow passengers, those who booked early also appeared to save the most.  At least two couples who had booked around one year in advance paid nearly one-third less than the published rate, and paid less than those who booked later.

Companies with cabins to fill will offer last-minute specials, but to guarantee yourself a cabin for when you want to travel at a price you’re willing to pay, it’s best to book early.

What should I expect to pay, and who should I book with?  Cruises to Antarctica vary widely in price and experiences offered.  The least expensive cruises to Antarctica start around $2,500 per person, but these cruises typically do not include the option to set foot on land.  It would not be unreasonable to expect paying at least $5,000 per person for a cruise to Antarctica.
The International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators lists all of its members on its website; Vacations to Go has a convenient list of cruise lines and sailing dates.  I booked my trip directly with Compagnie du Ponant.

Be sure to ask what’s included and what isn’t (airfare, port charges, airport-to-cruise port transfers, parkas, boot rentals, if passengers are able to land in Antarctica or do they only stay on the ship, etc.) to make a fair comparison of one offering with another.  Most cruises depart from Buenos Aires or Ushuaia, the southernmost port city in Argentina.  And for packages that don’t include flights to Buenos Aires or Ushuaia, please use Fly.com to find the best airfare!

To see pictures from Warren’s trip, click here.

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Warren is vice president and general manager of Fly.com. An avid traveler, Warren has visited some rather off-the-beaten-track places, including North Korea and Antarctica.

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