Antarctica - Fly or Sail?
The world is so accessible nowadays, there are very few places left on earth that can truly be considered remote and off-the-beaten-path. Antarctica, however, is certainly one of them.
One of the first questions people have when planning their adventure to earth’s last great wilderness is how to get there and, for most, the answer will be from the southernmost tip of South America, thanks to its relatively close proximity to the White Continent.
Traditionally, to reach the Antarctic Peninsula, expedition vessels would sail the infamous Drake Passage (we’ll get on to why it’s infamous in a moment), embarking in the Argentine port city of Ushuaia and arriving two days later to Antarctica. This remains the route that the majority of adventurers course today. However, the ‘air-cruise’, which sees guests board a light aircraft in Chile’s southern-most city, Punta Arenas, before flying over the Drake Passage in just two hours and boarding the expedition vessel in the South Shetland Islands is becoming ever more popular.
So, which is the best way to get there and which one is right for you? Allow us to run you through the pros and cons of each and provide insights on each option speaking from personal experience…
Sailing Across The Drake
The Drake Passage is the body of water between Chile’s Cape Horn and the South Shetland Islands in Antarctica. At the point where the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans converge and as such can afford a somewhat “lively” crossing. Some return from Antarctica having experienced a ‘Drake Lake’ – perfect conditions, smooth sailing and plenty of time to get up on deck to look out for the numerous seabirds such as albatross that follow the ship. Most, however, will experience the infamous ‘Drake Shake’ at least one way. We asked our travel experts, who have made this journey across the Drake, what the pros and cons are from their point of view:
- First and foremost: there is simply a lot more choice for those who opt to sail the Drake Passage. With more boats sailing, a greater range of budgets and requirements are catered for. Frequent departures mean you’re more likely to find something that fits in your desired timeframe too.
- There are also the more romantic reasons: purists and history enthusiasts alike will take some pleasure in following in the footsteps of the Antarctic greats Sir Ernest Shackleton and Captain Robert Falcon Scott. In fact, many who return from crossing the Drake (including many in the Scott Dunn team!) wear the experience as a badge of honour, considering it ‘the proper’ way to do Antarctica.
- Antarctic sea birds such as albatross and petrel are known to follow the boats across the Drake, so this is a good time to get on deck and spot some wildlife. If you’re lucky, you may even spot whales.
- The 2-day crossing can be time well spent: attend lectures given by the incredibly knowledgeable expedition staff and attend photography workshops where you can brush up your skills before arriving in Antarctica; get to know the expedition team and your fellow travellers. Our travel experts also reported enjoying this time to relax, read a book and just stop.
- When the weather is bad the outside will be closed off. There are certain areas you can still go to get some fresh air, but you are stuck in doors when the weather is bad.
- Sea sickness is a biggie: everyone responds differently, and some find their sea legs quicker than others, however, the default is to go expecting some sickness.
- 2 days and 2 nights each way – this is a lot of time – the best part of a week.
Bottom line from our travel expert Scarlett: I would do the Drake time and again to reach Antarctica as it the ends well and truly justify the means!
If you opt for a fly-cruise you will board a flight in Chile’s most southern city, Punta Arenas, for a 2 hour flight over the infamous Drake Passage and boarding your expedition vessel in the South Shetland Islands. This option is becoming increasingly popular as more operators begin to offer this model. We asked our travel experts what the pros and cons of the fly-cruise option were, speaking from personal experience:
- Even those who have all the time in the world would be hard pushed to justify spending over half a week at sea, when you could be out exploring the Antarctic Peninsula. The undeniable benefit of taking a fly-cruise is that you cut the 2-day journey across the Drake down to a mere 2 hours.
- Spend longer amongst the icebergs: voyages that cross the Antarctic Circle take 2 days to do so (1 day sailing south and 1 back up north). Taking a fly-cruise allows you to do this itinerary in approximately 8 days, as opposed to the near 2 weeks needed when sailing from Ushuaia.
- Bypassing the rough Drake Passage is certainly a tempting option for those who suffer with seasickness even before setting foot on their Antarctica-bound vessel!
- The planes that fly to the South Shetland Islands only carry approximately 75 passengers on board, this means that the cruises can only operate with these small numbers and that you, in turn, can be guaranteed a more personalised and intimate experience of the great White Continent.
- Only a handful of companies operate the fly-cruise model and only one of these (the pioneers) consistently do so for every departure. This means that there is less choice and you will need to book even farther in advance to make sure you secure the cruise which best suits you.
- The fly-cruise model is generally more expensive, and you should expect to pay approximately 20% to 30% more than if you were to sail. This season, however, we’ve seen more operators introducing fly-cruise itineraries so as the number of options rises, we hope to see pricing become a little more competitive.
- Although most flights run on schedule, flying carries a higher risk of delays due to weather conditions and each fly-cruise operator will have a contingency plan on hand in case you’re unable to take off at the agreed time. However, delays are usually no more than a couple of hours so most decide to take this moderate risk, when weighing it against the days spent sailing across the Drake.
Bottom line from our travel expert Tessa: Perhaps I was lucky to experience no delays on the fly-cruise but when you think it’s 2 hours crossing the Drake vs 2 days and you soar above the roughest seas, it seems like a no brainer to me!