Have you ever been asked by a client whether they should visit the Arctic or the Antarctic?
It can be a tough conversation, especially if you haven't had the opportunity to visit first-hand. Advisors often know the broad strokes -- that polar bears live in the Arctic and penguins live in Antarctica. Yet, there are important differences between the two destinations, particularly when it comes to the expedition ships that carry visitors there. Here are some tips to guide your conversations with clients about which polar frontier to choose.
The Arctic and Antarctica are adventurous
Knowing how adventurous and flexible your clients are is a good starting point. Expeditions in the polar regions rarely follow the planned itinerary and are always subject to weather, winds, and water. Clients must be prepared for change and be willing to embrace everything with a spirit of adventure.
Traditional cruise lines (vs. expedition lines) may be a better option for those wishing to have more certainty with their itinerary but should be aware there will be fewer options for off-ship adventurous activities.
Both Arctic and Antarctic expeditions offer a variety of activities including Zodiac cruising and landings, hiking, and beachcombing. Kayaking is sometimes offered at an additional cost. Guests can also brave a polar plunge, jumping off the ship into the frigid waters in both the Arctic and Antarctic.
With some expedition lines in the Antarctic, guests can also choose to sleep under the stars on the Antarctic Peninsula for one night (additional cost). These are high-demand experiences, and need to be booked well in advance of sailing. You might even want to check if there's still a spot left before booking if this is important to your client.
When to travel to the Arctic vs. Antarctica
When a client can travel and what they want to see and do in the polar regions are important considerations when choosing between the two destinations.
The best season to visit the Arctic, including the Canadian Arctic, Greenland, Iceland, and Norway, is the summer from May through September.
It's the opposite for Antarctica. The best time is the Southern Hemisphere's summer, from November to March.
While both destinations experience cold weather, the Antarctic tends to be colder, even with many sunny days.
In both cases, prepare clients for extreme weather
With temperatures between 30 and 50 degrees Fahrenheit (-1 and +10 degrees Celsius) in the summer months, the Arctic is warmer, requiring fewer layers than is the case in the Antarctic where temperatures range from 17.5 to 39 degrees Fahrenheit (8 to +4 degrees Celsius).
However, in both destinations, it is the wind chill that makes you feel cold, and a fully waterproof outer layer is critical to keep dry and comfortable. When the wind is blowing on Zodiacs, or on the deck when the ship is moving it feels much colder than the actual temperature. Layers are critical to being comfortable.
You should also advice clients to wear sunscreen and good sunglasses since the sun is very strong and, in many areas, there is daylight 24 hours a day.
The wildlife is different
If your clients want to see wildlife, try and find out if they've got something specific in mind. If they're hoping to see polar bears and you send them to the Artic they're going to be disappointed.
Wildlife in the Arctic includes polar bears, reindeer, muskox, arctic fox, arctic hare, snowy owls, and a variety of birds, like the fulmar. There are also many large marine animals such as narwhals, whales, walruses, and varieties of seal.
You might want to warn cruisers they might be accompanies by armed bear guards during Arctic expeditions north of the Arctic Circle -- an area expedition leaders refer to as bear county. Clients will need to keep a safe distance, and might want to have binoculars and a long-distance lens for cameras handy.
There is no similar predator to the polar bear in the Antarctic, so visitors have more freedom to walk and hike on landings, on paddling excursions, and Zodiac cruises. Wildlife viewings will include many seabirds, seals, walruses, whales, and several species of penguins. At the start of summer, penguins can be seen tending to their eggs on rocky beaches waiting for them to hatch. Later in the season, the rookeries (penguin colonies) become lively with furry brown penguin chicks.
It's up to you whether you want to give clients a head's up about just how noisy – and odorous – the penguin rookeries are.
Both destinations are a photographer's paradise capturing wildlife on ice flows, in the water or on the land, with perfect lighting for the icebergs, glaciers, and varying terrain.
How important is polar expedition history or Inuit culture to your clients?
The Arctic is better for clients interested in culture and Inuit history. The presence of villages, towns, and cities, dating back several thousands of years in the Arctic is in stark contrast to the Antarctic where, other than seasonal employees in research stations, at the Penguin Post Office, and in the Falkland Islands, there are no permanent communities or residents.
On many Arctic expedition cruises, you may visit some of these small communities. For example, Sisimiut and Ilulisatt in Greenland (we visited with Adventure Canada), or the hamlet of Resolute in Nunavut (we went with Quark Expeditions).
Clients interested in polar history can choose either destination. With the great explorers of the 18th century like Ernest Shackleton in Antarctica and Sir John Franklin in the Arctic, both destinations offer the opportunity to learn about polar exploration history and visit significant sites associated with early exploration.
Getting to Antarctica vs. the Arctic
The Arctic is surrounded by land with thousands of small islands, whereas the continent of Antarctica is surrounded by water and only water.
It is generally easier to get to the Antarctic with many expedition cruises starting and ending in Ushuaia, Argentina. Getting to Ushuaia is a short flight from Buenos Aires. Some cruises offer a "fly-cruise" option for those short on time or fearing seasickness crossing the infamous Drake Passage. Flying in one direction to or from Chile on a charter flight organized as part of the cruise itinerary is also possible.
The embarkation point for arctic cruise expeditions is typically reached by charter flights that are part of the itinerary. On a recent Adventure Canada expedition in Greenland and Canada, the charter flight from Toronto to Kangerlussuaq Greenland was direct and the return flight from Resolute, Nunavut back to Toronto was also direct with just a fuel stop in Iqaluit.
Similarly we flew chartered air from Calgary to Iqaluit, then Nunavut to Calgary, for a Quark Expeditions cruise. Flying from Europe to Norway, Iceland, and Greenland is generally easy and convenient. Since the charters are handled by the cruise line, there is nothing for clients to worry about other than staying within the strict weight restrictions for checked and carryon bags.
Which cruise lines operate in the polar regions?
Several expedition cruise lines operate in both the Antarctic and the Artic. They include: Swan Hellenic Cruises, Quark Expeditions, Silversea, Seabourn, Oceanwide Expeditions, Viking, Lindblad Expeditions, Hapag Lloyd Cruises, Aurora Expeditions, Ponant, Atlas Ocean Voyages, H/X (Hurtigruten), Scenic, Poseidon Expeditions, and Secret Atlas.
Two additional cruise lines – Antarctica 21 and Polar Latitudes – operate primarily in Antarctica, while Adventure Canada operates primarily in the Arctic.
Pricing for polar expedition cruises
Polar expeditions command higher prices than many traditional cruise ships and can vary significantly depending on the level of adventure and luxury, and on the number of days. Some of the expedition companies include charter flights to remote destinations as part of the itinerary and pricing.
Prices also vary based on the time of travel. The months of December and March in the Antarctic, and June and September in the Arctic are considered low or shoulder season and prices can be a little lower.
Arctic and Antarctic expeditions can range from approximately $700 - $3,000 USD per person per day. Cruise lines do offer special offers and incentives during the shoulder season, but often don't release them until closer to sail date. Clients with lots of schedule flexibility are best positioned to take advantage of these offers.
More tips to guide your conversations and prepare your clients for Arctic and Antarctic expeditions
- Guests may or may not see the wildlife they came on board for. In Antarctica it's almost a given to see loads of penguins up close in the frigid waters, on the ice. or in rookeries. However in the Arctic, polar bear sightings are less common and in many cases the bears can be a fair distance from the ship.
- Although expedition ships may carry a lot of "toys," like helicopters and submersibles, clients should be prepared in case some or all the toys cannot be used due to weather or local regulations.
- Itineraries involving charter flights have strict weight restrictions for luggage, for instance Quark Expeditions has a carry-on weight maximum of 5kg and one checked bag under 20kg. Clients will not be able to purchase additional weight due to small aircraft sizes and stringent weight restrictions.
- Packing for every kind of weather, and for changing weather throughout a single day is important.
- Expedition lines may provide waterproof parkas with puffy inner linings, tall rubber boots, and hiking poles in some cases. If the cruise line has not explicitly said they are providing waterproof pants or a parka, client should pack those. A waterproof outer layer will make their zodiac excursions and hiking more pleasurable.
- Clients should depend on the experienced expedition team to guide them on choosing excursions and the intensity of hikes, but ultimately, they should know their own limitations and abilities. This includes participating in flightseeing with onboard helicopters and doing a dive in a submersible. Guests who are claustrophobic, or suffer from seasickness or panic attacks are wise to get as much information and attend the information and safety briefings before signing up.
For clients who are adventurous and accepting of changes during their journey, an Arctic or Antarctic expedition cruise can be a life-altering and enriching experience. Guests who have done one Polar cruise tend to want to explore more than just one polar region and it is not uncommon for guests to return time and again with the same expedition cruise line.