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11 Things I Wish I’d Known Before Traveling to Antarctica

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Each cruise to Antarctica is different, but there are some essentials you can bring to make your experience more comfortable and rewarding.

Photo by Aislyn Greene, Design by Emily Blevins

Each cruise to Antarctica is different, but there are some essentials you can bring to make your experience more comfortable and rewarding.

From the best seasickness meds to how to interpret your packing list—here’s what you need to know before taking an expedition cruise to the White Continent.

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A journey to Antarctica is the journey of a lifetime (cheesy but true!). And the things you’ll see and experience—the sight of penguins marching along their snowy highways, the sound of a humpback whale surfacing to breathe—will far outweigh any minor hiccups around things like long travel days or figuring out how to pack your suitcase. That said, there are measures you can take that will make your trip more comfortable, the experience more rewarding, and your memories richer. Every ship and every adventure is different, of course, and you should pay close attention to what your outfitter recommends. But here’s what I learned on my 10-day expedition cruise to the Antarctic peninsula with the French cruise line Ponant.

A universal adapter will come in handy during your layover in Buenos Aires.
Don’t forget to prep for Buenos Aires
If your trip involves a couple of days, predeparture, in Buenos Aires, as ours did, make sure to bring lighter layers. The city is hot at the time of year when most Antarctic cruises take place, with temperatures ranging from 70 to 80 degrees. Remember to bring a universal adapter. It’s good to have a few pesos on hand, but many places accept U.S. dollars—and credit cards are widely accepted in hotels and restaurants. Your cruise line will typically offer a packaged experience, but even 24 hours is enough time to explore on your own in a more local way (check out our essential Buenos Aires guide for AFAR’s insider tips).

Think beyond the usual suspects when it comes to pre-trip reading.
When it comes to pretrip reading, consider alternative perspectives
Don’t assume Endurance is the only story out there. Most of Antarctic history and literature revolves around or comes from men—and it’s absolutely worth exploring. But there are also phenomenal books and stories from women, such as Felicity Aston’s Alone in Antarctica: The First Woman to Ski Solo Across the Southern Ice, which I downloaded before our trip. Other recommendations:

The Antarctic Book of Cooking and Cleaning: A Polar Journey, a collaboration between expedition leader Carol Devine, who spearheaded the 1994 cleanup mission, Project Antarctica, and artist/chef Wendy Trusler.

Antarctica: An Intimate Portrait of a Mysterious Continent, a comprehensive investigation into the human obsession with the continent from science writer Gabrielle Walker.

Secrets of the Ice: Antarctica’s Clues to the Climate, the Universe, and the Limits of Life, a photo-driven view of the research taking place in Antarctica, from journalist Veronika Meduna.

With the right gear in hand, you'll be as comfortable on the ice as an Adelie penguin.
Pack critical gear in your carry-on
Ships leave when they leave. There’s no waiting for luggage lost by airlines—and as of yet, no Amazon delivery to Drake’s Passage. Yann Rashid, Ponant’s expedition leader, recommends packing your winter-gear essentials (including your long underwear, waterproof pants, and sunscreen), as well as any seasickness meds, in your carry-on. Sure, you can buy some of that stuff on the ship and you might have time before the ship departs to grab stuff in Ushuaia, but there’s no guarantee. Don’t take the chance!

Speaking of gear . . . some thoughts on interpreting that packing list 
Yes, you absolutely want to be warm, dry, and comfortable. But there’s no need to drop a paycheck at REI to ensure that comfort. Keep in mind that most expeditions take place in the Antarctic summer. “People think it’s going to be like winter,” Rashid says. “But it can get quite warm.” Pack for cold weather but don’t be surprised if you wind up peeling off layers at times.

Every cruise line will send a packing list tailored for your journey. Most will emphasize “technical” or “polar” gear, which can seem intimidating. If you’re a skier or snowboarder, much of the gear you already have should be sufficient. If not, you can often rent high-quality snow gear—including gloves and waterproof pants—from a good outdoor store (or borrow from your snow-loving friends). If you invest in anything, make it a set of high-quality thermal underwear and sturdy waterproof pants—on an expedition cruise, you’ll definitely get wet in the Zodiacs, the inflatable dinghies that carry travelers from ship to shore.
Lightweight strap-on crampons can give you extra traction while hiking on snow.

I found that one set of everything (save for socks) got me through the 10-day trip. I just hung items to dry in our cabin between outings. If your expedition will involve a lot of hiking, you might bring an extra base layer. If you’ll be hiking on snow, definitely bring hiking poles, which were listed as recommended, but not mandatory, on our list. If you want extra traction, bring a set of lightweight strap-on crampons that will fit over your boots.

Most lists recommend a waterproof backpack, such as the kind you’d use on a rafting trip. But unless you’ll be ferrying expensive camera equipment or other big-ticket items, I’d argue that a simple, water-resistant daypack is fine.

Three things that weren’t on my list but you might want

A sunglasses loop: It’s a pain to take sunglasses on and off with bulky gloves—easier to just hang them around your neck when they’re not in use.

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Tech-compatible glove liners: If you’re planning to take a lot of photos with a smartphone, bring a pair of glove liners with touch-screen capability. Often, I found that I didn’t need my bulky waterproof gloves, but it was too cold to go without anything on my hands, which made photography more challenging.

A pair of cozy slip-on boots are ideal for lounging on the ship.
Cozy slip-on boots: Your ship will likely provide you with expedition boots, so no need to bring your own. But you’ll also want something less burly—a pair of shoes that are comfortable enough for the ship, but warm enough that you can hop outside at a moment’s notice (like when the captain comes on the loudspeaker to announce that whales are on the port side). I had boot envy for this squishy, insulated pair.

The key to dealing with Drake's Passage? Be proactive.
Be proactive about seasickness
If there’s one thing nearly all Antarctica-bound travelers fear, it’s Drake’s Passage. You can’t control whether you’ll get the Drake Shake or the Drake Lake, but you can take steps to minimize effects. Your captain will clue you into the expected conditions before you depart Ushuaia for the notorious passage that stretches between Argentina and the Antarctic peninsula. If you’re lucky enough to get a mild crossing (as we were), Dramamine is likely enough. Keep in mind that “mild” for Drake’s Passage still means you’re dealing with nine- to 12-foot swells, high enough to make most people a little queasy.

If you’re especially prone to seasickness, or just anxious about it, ask your doctor about patches. I used the Transderm Scop, a small patch you apply beneath the ear, which is also the medicine Ponant’s doctor recommends. (I skipped it on the way over because the side effects—dry mouth, drowsiness, and blurred vision—are common and not fun. But all of those side effects were worth it to feel OK on the rockier trip back.) If you really want to pull out the big guns, you might ask your doctor about Promethazine, which is reportedly what the Coast Guard uses to battle seasickness.
Ginger candies or a topical oil can help ease symptoms of seasickness.

Whatever you take, take it the moment you set foot on ship—or ideally a few hours before. Once seasickness hits, it’s tough to overcome. Consider bringing ginger candies and a topical oil, which can help ease symptoms. Two tips I gleaned from our crossing: If you feel ill, park yourself in the lowest, most central part of the ship (ideally in a place with windows). For us that was one of the dining rooms. It may seem unappealing but eat a green apple (it’s believed that the combination of acid and sugar helps settle the stomach).

And be sure to pack enough of whatever meds you choose to last the entire trip—don’t expect the ship to carry what you need.

Wear sunscreen and shower early
Wear sunscreen, no matter the weather. Reapply as often as you can. And put it everywhere—yes, even in your nose. As I discovered, it is possible to get a nostril sunburn (from the sun reflecting off the snow) and it is as unpleasant as it sounds.

Take a shower as soon as you can onboard (and shave, if that’s something you do). It might be the last chance you have for 36 to 48 hours—you never know what Drake’s Passage will bring. And even during in our “mild” crossing, it was extremely difficult to shower in the roll. And forget about shaving.
Everlane's cotton or cashmere sweaters can be dressed up for dinner or simply worn while lounging around.

But don’t overpack for formal nights
If you’re traveling with a ship such as Ponant, the galas may sound fancy—and they certainly can be—but there’s no need to pack a tux or a ball gown. For women, a black cocktail dress or dressier black pants are perfect for most events; for men, a nice jacket and tie will suit most occasions. If your cruise line swings more glam, as Ponant does (i.e., no activeware allowed in the dining rooms), be sure to have a good mix-and-match wardrobe that will get you through at least a week of lunches and dinners. I found that elegant sweaters, such as the cotton or cashmere ones from Everlane, were perfect: easy to dress up for dinner but casual enough to wear lounging around.

Keep your camera needs in check . . .
This may be a controversial one, but if you don’t already have a fancy digital camera, you don’t need to buy one for your trip. I traveled with nothing but my iPhone, and while I wish I’d brought a zoom lens for a few occasions, I was overall very happy with the images I captured. Plus, there are likely to be so many avid photographers on board, that you’re sure to make friends with one of them (as we did—and a week after we returned, he shared his link of fantastic images with us).
Antarctica cruise itineraries change frequently depending on the weather, so remember to go with the flow.

. . . And don’t forget to step out from behind the lens
It was a constant dance for me: Do I try to capture this moment with my camera? Or do I watch and try to sear the experience into my memory? A month out, the moments move me more than the photos. There was the morning I stood on the bow of the ship and listened as we headed through an eerie sea of melting brash ice, which sounded like the world’s largest bowl of Rice Krispies as it crackled and popped. The day a group of us sat down in the snow and watched as hundreds of Adelie penguins waddled from one end of the snowy beach to another. And the day we stood on the deck of the bridge as we cruised past A57A, a massive tabular iceberg so etched by the wind it looked as though hundreds of artists had carved murals into the sides of the ice. I’m so glad I took the time to drink in those moments instead of snapping a thousand photos. And if you need more inspiration to put the camera down, consider this maxim from longtime Ponant naturalist Chris Coxson: “The sightings are best when the camera’s at rest.”

Let your experience unfold
One tip I heard, again and again, from the naturalists: Don’t come in expecting anything. Don’t expect to see a glacier calve, whales feeding, or for your trip to match the brochure. Expedition ships are meant to pivot with the weather, and what’s listed on an itinerary will likely be very different from what you actually do. But that’s the beauty of Antarctica: the moments you experience will be wildly different from those of people who travel before or after you. Your trip will be yours alone. “Don’t have any expectations because the plans can change,” Rashid told me. “Just let yourself be carried along.”

All travel courtesy of Ponant

>>Next: A Journey to Antarctica Will Take You Beyond Belief

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