What people don’t tell you before booking an Antarctic cruise

Antarctica cruise ship
Antarctica is an unforgettable destination, but time on the continent is precious and expensive - Andrea Klaussner/Hurtigruten

Antarctica, once off limits to all but research-station scientists, is becoming an increasingly popular cruise destination. According to the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO), commercial tourism began in the late 1950s when 500 or so fare-paying passengers travelled aboard Chilean and Argentine naval vessels to the South Shetland Islands, on resupply missions to research stations.

“The first vessel specifically built to take fare-paying passengers to Antarctica was the ice-strengthened m/v Lindblad Explorer built in 1969. She paved the way for tourists to visit and enjoy the world’s last pristine continent.”

When IAATO was founded in 1991, approximately 6,400 tourists visited Antarctica on 10 expedition ships. In the 2022/23 season, 71,346 passengers visited on 60 vessels. In addition, 32,730 were “cruise only” visitors – those on ships carrying 500 passengers or more, and who are not permitted to go ashore.

Antarctica is an unforgettable destination, but time on the continent is precious and expensive. Forewarned is forearmed. Here are some of the things cruise lines don’t tell you.

emperor penguin colony with frozen in icebergs as a backdrop
Unpredictability is to be expected and itineraries and landing points can change depending on the weather - Moment RF/Getty

The itinerary may change

When drilling down for itinerary detail, you’ll find that day-by-day detail is vague. This is largely due to the weather. Storms and katabatic winds can blow up in an instant; a sudden early-season temperature plunge can cause ice to reform and channels can become icebound overnight.

Anchorages are influenced by weather and ship size but a typical itinerary will visit Fournier Bay, Paradise Bay, the Lemaire Channel, Port Lockroy (though off limits for now), Neko Harbour, Deception Island and Elephant Point in the South Shetland Islands.

In February 2024, @ruinedvacation posted on TikTok that a cruise line had made a last-minute name change to its itinerary via its app. Instead of visiting Paradise Bay on the Antarctic Peninsula, the Norwegian Cruise Line ship visited Admiralty Bay in the South Shetland Islands (an island group 75 miles north of the Antarctic Peninsula), before heading to the Falklands.

“Part of the wonder of Antarctica is its unpredictability,” says a source at IAATO: “Don’t forget, while it may be the most untouched, it’s also the most hostile place on earth. It’s always best to approach your trip with an open mind.”

You’ll need to pass a medical

A “fit to travel” medical form requires a signature from a GP, and most charge for this service. Some surgeries won’t do it, which will mean booking an online appointment with the ship’s own physician, possibly in a different time zone, and at your own cost.

Antarctic Peninsula
Travellers shouldn't forget that Antarctica is the most hostile place on earth - Stone RF/Getty

If someone dies, your cruise might be cancelled

Death on a cruise – it happens more often than you might expect and it’s a grizzly fact that most cruise ships have morgues.

King George Island, which is the largest of the South Shetland islands and located 75 nautical miles off the coast of Antarctica, has a runway that can facilitate medevac emergencies, but flights are weather-dependent. Lines do what they can to limit the impact on passengers, but there is always the chance that your ship may have to return to the port of Ushuaia in Argentina, curtailing your trip. Always read the small print.

The small print?

You’re unlikely to be offered a free replacement cruise. A spokesman from HX said: “In cases where a cruise is significantly curtailed due to a medical emergency, we ensure that guests are accommodated with alternative arrangements at no extra charge. Additionally, when appropriate, we offer reasonable compensation. This could take the form of onboard credit, future cruise credit, or a refund, depending on the specific circumstances of the disruption.”

You should always book insurance

For this once-in-a-lifetime trip, triple check your insurance policy. Tim Riley, managing director at The True Traveller, says: “If, due to someone becoming ill, the ship has to divert, that’s always built into the terms and conditions of a cruise. Most cruise passengers just accept that this can happen.”

Aviva says: “If a cruise is cut short due to a fellow passenger needing medical attention, this wouldn’t be covered under an Aviva policy. However, if an Aviva customer became unwell and required medical attention or had to return home early, this would be covered under the terms of the policy.”

Cuverville Landing Site
Passengers at Cuverville Island landing site, Antarctica - Ted Gatlin

Don’t assume you’ll go ashore

This is not always spelt out on cruise websites. On its Antarctica Cruises home page, Celebrity Cruises states: “Cruises visit a number of locations on and around the Antarctic Peninsula.

“Gaze at Antarctica’s dramatic landscapes in the company of expert naturalists as you glide slowly through iceberg-strewn waters in search of penguins, seals and whales.”

Gaze is the operative word. In line with IAATO protocol, ships carrying more than 500 passengers cannot disembark their guests. Sightseeing is done from the ship, and passengers still cross the Drake Passage, which means four days travelling there and back.

In 2026, Celebrity Equinox, which carries 2,852 passengers, “visits” Elephant Island in the South Shetland Islands and the Gerlache Strait, Schollart Channel and Paradise Bay on the Antarctic Peninsula. If you’re happy to admire the scenery and wildlife from a distance, the price difference is around £8,000. (The Celebrity cruise costs from £1,957pp.)

Avian flu has reached Antarctica

In December, the Antarctic Wildlife Health Network reported the first suspected case of avian influenza in Antarctica. In February, a case was reported at the Argentine research station Esperanza Base.

On a visit to the peninsula in January, we were forbidden from sitting, crouching or putting bags on the ground. Additional biosecurity measures may impact excursion locations. A popular stop for visitors is Port Lockroy (Goudier Island), where visitors can walk around a historic research hut, observe the island’s penguin colony and send a postcard from the post office. On December 5 2023, the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust closed the island to visitors. It’s not yet known if the island will re-open for the 2024-2025 season.

Antarctica research station
You may spot some research stations throughout Antarctica but most are closed to visitors. Pictured: King George Island, Antarctica - Moment RF/Getty

The sun may not shine

We’ve all seen the pictures of icebergs and peaks reflected in glassy bays and sunset-pink skies. But don’t expect wall-to-wall sunshine. You may not see the sun for an entire week, which could impact activities, views and wildlife sightings. However, it’s unlikely to ruin a trip.

There are no polar bears

Polar bears inhabit the Arctic, which is in the northern hemisphere. Except for the Galapagos, penguins are the hot-ticket sighting in the Antarctic. In its most recent State of Antarctic Penguins report, the not-for-profit penguin monitoring body Oceanites counted more than six million breeding pairs, across the five species, at 740 sites in Antarctica. The South Shetland Islands has three types of penguin as well as Antarctic terns, giant petrels, leopard seals and whales.

Read more: Discover the secret to the perfect Antarctic adventure