It’s the most prized destination on most cruisers’ bucket lists. The White Continent is becoming the number one aspirational place for many – even though sailing Antarctica can cost $10,000 plus per person, and trips can be physically demanding.

The dream destination has always been the domain of small-ship cruise lines with expedition gear – or luxury adventure lines that cost many thousands of dollars.

But what many don’t realise is that big ship cruise lines also visit the ice. And prices can start as low as $2,500.

Celebrity Cruises, Princes Cruises, Holland America, and Norwegian Cruise Line all sail to Antarctica with prices that are affordable to far more cruisers.

But there is one big trade-off – they don’t let passengers onto the ice to see the abundant penguins and seals.  Instead, you’ll see them from the deck or your suite’s verandah, perhaps with a glass of wine in your hand.

As the fragile environment struggles with its popularity, some environmentalists believe this is the future of polar cruising – seeing the wildlife and frozen landscape from the safety of the ship.  This year, some 90 vessels will visit Antarctica – a record for the region.

Others argue the larger lines make the region accessible to everyone.

These big cruises to Antarctica are known as ‘sail by’s, and while they don’t involve shore excursions in the region itself, itineraries generally include exciting opportunities to get up close and personal with wildlife and polar scenery in nearby destinations like Chile and the Falkland Islands.

Sail by deals

Across lines like Aurora Expeditions, Ponant and Quark Expeditions, a 10-12 day cruise generally sets you back about $11,000 – $14,000, whereas a Celebrity Cruises 15-day Antarctica sailing that takes you to Cape Horn, Antarctica, Falkland Islands, Puerto Madryn and more, starts from just $2448. This means you can live out your Antarctica bucket-list dreams for an extremely modest price. 

Similarly, a Princess Cruises 16-day Antarctica & Cape Horn sailing starts from only $4,761, offering four days of scenic Antarctic cruising as well as Punta Arenas, Falkland Islands, Uruguay, and more. 

A Holland America cruise comes in at a similar price-point but also offers a larger exploration of South America, in this 22-day South America & Antarctica Holiday starting from $5089.

Norwegian Cruise Line is even cheaper, with a 14-day Antarctica & South America sailing starting from just $2575. 

One of Glynis’s captures.

Is a sail-by cruise worth it?

It’s true that expedition cruises take you closer to the action, but according to Glynis Brown, who sailed to Antarctica on Celebrity Eclipse in 2020, the cruise was every bit as bucket-list worthy.

Ms Brown said that visiting Antarctica was everything she dreamed of: “I have always wanted to go to Antarctica but, like Uluru, had no desire to leave my footprint on this pristine land. And my hubby gets seasick on small ships, so an expedition ship was out. So, Celebrity Eclipse fitted the bill perfectly and was so much less expensive.

“You get to cruise in and around Antarctica, covering Drake Passage, Schollart Channel, Paradise Bay, Elephant Island, etc, all the biggies, without stopping, landing, or footprint contributing. And it was awesome.”

Ms Brown says from the ship, cruisers were treated to an array of scenery and wildlife.

“We saw so much of Antarctica. Captain Leo 360’d the ship a few times in each spot so we could sit on our balcony and see everything. We saw penguins, whales, and dolphins. The icebergs we saw were ginormous. One was as big as the ship, incredible!

“We visited elephant Island where Ernest Shacklelton and his crew were stranded, was amazing – we saw about 6 or 7 huge glaciers.  It was all amazing.”

Ms Brown also said that the visit to the Falkland Islands, where shore excursions are allowed, was another highlight.

“The Falkland Island Volunteer Point penguin tour was the absolute highlight.  I saw thousands of King penguins and hundreds of both Magellanic and Gentoo penguins. All in one spot. They were so close, they walked right up to you. It was priceless.”

antarctica icebergSail By versus Expedition Cruising

While there is essentially a price trade-off of sail by’s being much cheaper but not offering as immersive of a journey into Antarctica as expedition cruises, there are also some other factors that could lead to either method of cruising being better suited to you. Outlined below are some of the advantages of both ways of exploring the pristine continent. 

Advantages of a sail-by 

  • You can pack lighter when you visit Antarctica on a big cruise. Ms Brown notes that she didn’t need a beanie, gloves, or thermals on her cruise, whereas an expedition cruise will require a big checklist of gear. 
  • Much cheaper prices, especially given that many sails by leave from Buenos Aires, rather than Ushuaia. 
  • You can sail the rough seas of the Drake Passage on a larger, more stable ship. 
  • If you aren’t physically capable of taking on the expedition activities, you don’t need to pay for the expedition team and the cruise is more relaxed, rather than adventure focused. 
  • More activities onboard, a large cruise line that visits Antarctica like Celebrity or NCL has lots more classic cruise activities than an expedition ship. 

Advantages of an expedition cruise 

  • Expedition ships can take you much closer to the action. Not only can you get off the ship and participate in expedition activities, but the ships can also sail much deeper into the Antarctica peninsula. 
  • The research teams onboard can give you deeper insight into the environment, wildlife, and conservation efforts of the area. 
  • You’ll generally have more actual time spent in Antarctica on an expedition cruise.
  • There are less people onboard your ship which can mean less scrambling for the best viewing spots and photo opportunities as you cruise through.