Antarctica is the ultimate destination for many travelers. The end of the world is a mysterious frozen land with wonders that range from emperor penguins to the geographic South Pole. Unfortunately, the price of a typical tour can be prohibitive — costing a minimum of about $3,500 per person for a wildly discounted last minute deal on a cruise ship. The average tour booked well ahead of time will run you about $8,000-$12,000 per person, with alternative options running upwards of $85,000 per person. Of course, paying for a tour is but one method for arriving on the frozen continent. For budget adventurers undeterred by the challenge, here are some tips for getting south for less.
Work for a tour company
My personal journey to Antarctica began in Punta Arenas, Chile — a major Antarctic gateway port located a mere 1,400 km from the Antarctic Peninsula. I landed a job with Antarctic Logistics & Expeditions, a company that specializes in getting people to interior Antarctica, flying them from Punta Arenas, Chile to a remote camp on a glacier. Finding a job with a tour company that specializes in travel to the end of the world can be one of the most effective methods for finding your way to the White Continent.
Almost all Antarctic tourism is via cruise ship, with some companies (such as ALE) specializing in flight-based travel. In either case, it takes a village to make these logistically challenging trips a reality. If you can thrive in a remote, wild environment, there are jobs in everything, from guiding to engineering to meteorology to cleaning to cooking. Depending on the desired position, excellent customer service skills are definitely a plus, since you’ll likely be dealing with the high-end clientele these tour companies attract.
Knowing how to time your application is also critical. Antarctic tourism takes places exclusively in the austral summer — late October/early November through late March/early April. Hiring usually takes place during the rest of the year. Your application is likely to receive the most attention somewhere in the April-July range. Leaving things until the very last minute is not advisable for obvious reasons, but applying too early can mean having your application end up at the bottom of a pile to be looked at a later date when the incredibly hectic summer season has been wrapped up. Most companies have an employment section on their website but don’t be afraid to cold call or email if job postings are not overtly displayed.
Finally — network, network, network. Direct personal connections to companies can turn the tide in any job search, but this is especially true when it comes to Antarctica. Working in a remote location breeds a very special professional culture that can often feel more like family than work. Dangerous conditions mean that your very life can often depend on the capabilities of those around you. Companies are very careful about letting in dependable people who will fit in with their company culture, and who will be able to hold their own down on the ice, which is where having someone vouch for you can make all the difference. I had emailed ALE several months before I landed a job, but it took a chance encounter with one of their staff in New York City to land an interview.
Work for a government base
If tourism isn’t your thing, you can also look for a job in one of the many government research bases on Antarctica. Positions generally fall under “science” or “support” categories. Science is the main objective of most of these research stations, so if you are a glaciologist studying sub-glacial lakes, or a geologist studying polar volcanoes, and can pass various psychological and physical screenings, perhaps a research project will bring you south. For everyone else, there are the support or trade positions that keep these bases running and enable the scientists to do their work. These involve everything from housekeeping to shuttle driving to carpentry to firefighting. Unlike tourism positions, these postings are not exclusively summer-based, and their main application season is December to April.
Hiring practices differ from country to country, and it is important to be clear on your country’s system for any hope of navigating the process. For the United States Antarctic Program, all support personnel are hired through support contractors to which you must apply directly (links to job openings at these agencies can be found here). For example, the Gana-A’Yoo Service Corporation hires the dining attendants, while the GHG Corporation deals with finding the computer technicians.
Other countries’ bases are run by the military, and a military background may drastically increase your chances of being selected. Some national Antarctic programs even have initiatives with opportunities for artists, writers, and other humanities scholars to come down and work in their fields, such as the United States’ National Science Foundation’s Artists & Writers Program. Scoring a job on a research base is incredibly competitive, and often requires repeat attempts. Cool Antarctica offers helpful tips and information, and there are numerous blogs that chronicle peoples’ journeys to securing a coveted Antarctic assignment.
Ride on a cargo ship
Cargo ships regularly make the journey to the end of the world. While many bases do employ air transport for staff and cargo, ocean vessels remain an integral part of polar operations. “Freighter Cruises” have become popular for tourists looking for a more off-the-beaten path travel experience with less of the gaudiness associated with typical cruises. So popular, in fact, that there are agencies that specialize in freighter tourism, acting as a travel agent and securing you a spot on a ship with passenger rooms (very few vessels carry both passengers and cargo).
Going through such established avenues is, not surprisingly, still rather expensive — about $150/day. For those willing to put in the extra legwork, arrangements can also be made directly through a ship’s agent/manager, which may leave some additional room for negotiation. This is especially true if you are willing to look beyond the small percentage of ships that offer explicit passenger options. Not for the easily deterred, this involves heavily researching ships and ports, figuring out how to contact owners or operators of ships, and persistently and convincingly showing these people why they should allow you on board.
Proving your ability to be independent and stay well out of the way of normal operations is crucial, and a willingness to do whatever necessary to secure a spot, whether it’s sleeping on a dirty floor or offering to promote the shipping company.
In the same vein as cargo ship travel, it may be possible to hitch a ride on private vessels owned by intrepid individuals hoping to sail to the end of the world. However, hitchhiking on boats is not a novel idea, and it is much harder to accomplish than one might think. Don’t expect to show up at a port, ask for a free ride, and get it. First of all, you are one of many hopefuls, asking to share a very limited space for an extended period of time. If you don’t have any experience on boats, you’re also asking for free sailing lessons. You’ll be expected to pitch in as any other crewmember.
You have to ask yourself — “Why should a captain take a chance on me?” The best way to go about it, as per the advice of real yacht workers, is to make friends. Become a part of the family; prove your worth as an asset and not a liability. Stand out from the dozens of other travel bums that are loitering around and pestering crews at port, coming off as entitled freeloaders, and instead aim for a personal connection. The goal is to receive an invitation, instead of demanding things from someone with no real incentive to give them to you — don’t expect to get something for nothing.
It’s even possible to employ this barter-like method in other Antarctic settings. If you have a successful travel blog or are an influencer of some sort, see if a tour company will give you a complimentary or majorly discounted trip in exchange for a write-up and other good PR, like this couple managed to do. Of course, with any “hitchhiking” method, flexibility and charm are key.