This is truly a trip of a lifetime. And while it isn’t as rigorous as a mountaineering expedition or a sailing vacation in which you’re part of the crew, it isn’t your typical cruise with endless buffets and umbrella drinks by the deck pool.
A cruise to Antarctica is an expedition, an exploration of a remote, untamed continent miles away from civilization. And miles away from a hospital. There are many adages about planning ahead. I first learned the six “P’s” in the Army: “Prior planning prevents p-ss poor performance.” It was a favorite in the operating room, too, where it served to remind the physicians, nurses, and technicians entrusted with caring for patients to check and double-check that everything was in order, and we were ready for the day.
For your upcoming cruise to Antarctica, here are six tips — six “P’s” to help prepare you for your trip of a lifetime.
1. Pay A Visit To Your Healthcare Provider
Before you book a cruise to Antarctica, make an honest assessment of your health. Whether you find you have some medical problems that need to be addressed or you’re perfectly healthy, be sure to visit your healthcare provider before your trip.
If you have chronic illnesses such as heart disease, high blood pressure, a history of strokes, blood clots, diabetes, asthma, sleep apnea, or have had recent surgery, a visit with your primary care provider as soon as you book your trip will give you time to medically get yourself in the best shape possible.
Even if you’re healthy, pay a visit to your provider for medication refills and to discuss your need for medication to prevent or lessen seasickness.
There is a healthcare provider on board the ship to evaluate and treat minor illnesses (gastrointestinal upset, colds, mild infections, etc.) and emergencies like a fur seal bite. But you’ll need to be flown to a hospital in Argentina, Chile, or home if your illness or injury is serious or can’t be treated onboard.
Pro Tip: Depending on the tour operator, your healthcare provider may need to verify and sign a medical history form for the ship’s doctor to review several months before departure.
2. Plan For Seasickness
Most expeditions traverse the Drake Passage between Antarctica and South America. This is the roughest stretch of water in the world. I had never had motion sickness before, so I was confident I’d be okay on the 2-day transit across the Drake Passage.
I was very wrong.
It’s much better to prevent seasickness than to try to treat it after the fact. There are both medications and acupressure devices to help prevent or minimize the symptoms. The wise passengers on the cruise wore scopolamine patches before we entered the Drake Passage. This is a prescription-only medication you need to bring with you.
Alternatively, talk to your doctor about over-the-counter Dramamine or Marezine. Your healthcare provider will make sure there are no interactions with medications you already take.
The acupressure wrist bands that apply pressure to the “nausea” point receive mixed reviews in studies. They have no side effects so they seem to be a good adjunct to medication.
If you opt not to take preventative medication (personally, I think this is a huge mistake), ginger lozenges or ginger ale can soothe an upset stomach — provided they stay in your stomach long enough to do anything.
3. Practice Balance-Improving Exercises
Most days include excursions on Zodiac boats whether you are viewing icebergs, whales, and seals from the boat or making a landing on South Georgia or Antarctica Peninsula. The crew assists you on and off the Zodiacs, but you’ll make their jobs easier if you have the lower body strength and balance to climb in and out of a moving ship to a bouncing inflatable and vice versa. The greater test of strength and balance occurs on shore landings as you battle the surf when climbing in and getting out of the Zodiac boat.
Trails on South Georgia are unpaved. If you’re interested in seeing more remote penguin colonies or retracing part of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s trek, you may walk several miles on a moderately strenuous hike over hilly terrain. Bring walking poles if needed for balance.
Walking around the ship’s deck or passageways in rough seas requires good balance as well. The ship is equipped with handrails throughout.
Start exercises to improve leg strength and balance as soon as you book your trip. The Mayo Clinic provides an at-home exercise regimen to improve your balance. Joining a tai chi group is particularly helpful as this discipline’s main goal is improving balance in a non-strenuous way.
Pro Tip: If you’re carrying heavy camera gear, hand it to the crew on the Zodiac so you have both hands free. Accept their help getting on and off the ship and Zodiac no matter how good your balance is.
4. Pack Appropriately
Having waterproof clothing for cold weather is so important, many tour operators provide both muck boots and jackets. You’ll need to bring waterproof pants to wear over your clothes. Layering is key — choose waterproof outerwear for your Zodiac excursion that you can remove or unzip if it gets warm while you’re hiking in South Georgia.
Depending on how acclimatized you are to cold weather, bring thinner or heavier thermal underwear, shirts, sweaters, or a fleece jacket, pants, sweatpants, or leggings. The tour operator I went with provided boots for us to use, but if you wear an unusual size jacket or shoe or wear orthotics, check to make sure they can accommodate you. If you bring your own, boots need to be slip-on and tall since you’ll be getting out of the Zodiac into shallow water and walking up to the beach.
Check with your tour operator about dinner wear. Cruises to Antarctica tend to be casual without the need for formal dinner wear.
Bring your prescription and over-the-counter medication in your carry-on bag, with plenty to last the entire trip. If you use a CPAP machine, bring it and the supplies you’ll need with you. You should be able to buy distilled water and any personal items you’ve forgotten in Ushuaia before you embark, time permitting.
The ship I traveled on did not have a gift shop, sundry shop, or laundry services on board. If you need to hand wash your clothes, bring eco-friendly detergent.
Pro Tip: If your cruise departs from Argentina, the weight limit per piece of luggage on the domestic flight you take from Buenos Aires to Ushuaia is about 50 pounds.
5. Purchase Medical Evacuation Insurance
Most tour operators require medical evacuation insurance. It may be included in general trip insurance, but you’ll need to read the contract carefully to determine what exclusions the coverage has. Alternatively, you can purchase stand-alone medical evacuation insurance.
Evacuation from an Antarctic cruise back to Argentina, Chile, or home will make a serious dent in your savings. Cruise experts, Expedition Trips, recommend $200,000 due to Antarctica’s remote location.
Trip cancellation and interruption insurance are separate insurances (although you can add a medical evacuation rider to it) that reimburse the cost of the trip due to covered causes. Read the contract carefully as many causes are excluded.
Pro Tip: Trip cancellation plans require you purchase the insurance within 10 to 21 days of booking the trip for pre-existing medical conditions to be covered.
6. Plan Early For Your Unique Circumstances
Planning early to accommodate your unique circumstances is key. I’ve read about a wheelchair-bound woman who cruised to Antarctica and made it onto the continent. All of that took prior planning. That said, reach out to the tour operator you’d like to use before you book your trip if you have limited mobility. Most ships have elevators and several ADA-compliant rooms.
A trip to Antarctica is a feast for the senses, so visual or hearing impairments shouldn’t stop you from traveling here. For the visually impaired who are assisted by a guide dog, dogs were banned in Antarctica in 1992 after being used as sled dogs since the early days of exploration. I don’t believe you can make an exception for a guide dog, although I can’t guarantee that’s the case.
For those with severe food allergies, you should be able to avoid a particular food but there will be a risk of contamination because small ships have one kitchen and can’t accommodate preparing food in a gluten, dairy, or nut-free kitchen for example. A passenger with a severe gluten allergy brought all of her own food for the Antarctica cruise I took.
Pro Tip: Proof of a completed series of COVID-19 vaccines and a recent negative test are required by most tour operators. If you are unvaccinated for personal or medical reasons (allergy to a component of the vaccine, for example), contact the tour company about your eligibility to take the cruise before you book your trip.
Check out this information on Antarctica voyages: