Antarctica & North Pole Travel Guide
Sitting over the South Pole at the bottom of the Earth, Antarctica is the world’s coldest and driest continent with just a few thousand permanent rostered scientists as residents. Antarctica is one of breathtaking scenery and wildlife but is tough to get to, being generally only accessible to tourists by large ice-breaker ships that must traverse rough seas.
No-one owns Antarctica and there are no cities to speak of, with the continent being populated by research stations only as opposed to any sort of tourist accommodation. Antarctica is at its most hospitable and accessible during the Southern Hemisphere summer, or austral summer, from November to March. Ice melts enough during this time to allow ships to come in and there is also daylight. Temperatures at the coast at this time of year can reach above 50ºF, but are far less inland.
The Antarctic Peninsula is the main destination on Antarctica as it is closest to Tierra del Fuego of South America, has great scenery, and many research stations. The Ross Sea is served by cruise ships from Australia and New Zealand and features the Transantarctic Mountain Chain and Ross Island.
The South Pole is served by a research station and features the pole and is a destination only for the hardiest of trekkers. West and East Antarctica are huge icy deserts that are all but devoid of places to stay. The west contains the Antarctic Peninsula, however, while the east features the Southern Pole of Inaccessibility and Mawson’s Huts.
The Antarctic Peninsula and Ross Sea areas are the primary destinations for visitors to Antarctica and although other areas are accessible at the right time, you will generally need lots of capital and even more motivation to see them. Of these, the South Pole is the one to see. Mount Erebus is another popular Antarctica destination; the world’s southernmost active volcano.
Most tourists visit Antarctica on a sea voyage from Tierra del Fuego, which will generally include transport, food and accommodation. Once there, some companies offer land expeditions and others sightseeing by air. Around 25,000 tourists visit Antarctica annually.
Taking in the amazing wildlife of the Arctic and Antarctic regions is a highlight of any trip to the Polar Regions, with everything from emperor penguin colonies to polar bears being sighted by visitors to the region. The Northern and Southern Lights are major draws for visitors.
For cultural intake, visitors can visit the historical huts of early explorers in Antarctica and see the remains of early whalers’ and sealers’ boats. Visiting the many islands in the Polar Regions is another highlight, with expeditions typically stopping at those with the best wildlife viewing opportunities.
As the exact location of the North Pole is difficult to track due to the ice cap that floats (and moves) above it, the site visitors celebrate as the North Pole is not the exact site of the geographical North Pole. Visitors’ arrival at this symbolic site, however, is typically celebrated with champagne.
Reaching the South Pole is a major highlight for many travelers to Antarctica, with the pole marked by the flags of a number of nations and the US-operated Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station.
(Antarctica and the Arctic)
Also known as Aurora Australis and Aurora Borealis respectively, these luminous light displays are caused by the collision of charged particles from the sun with oxygen and nitrogen atoms in the upper layers of the atmosphere.
View the chinstrap penguin colony at Baily Head, with the penguins squeezing through a narrow passage in an unbelievably orderly manner. At Whaler’s Bay you can see what is left of an old whaling station and the remains of a British research base that was destroyed in a series of eruptions from 1967 to 1970. Pendulum Cove boasts hot springs perfect for a dip.
The most visited site in Antarctica, Port Lockroy has good visitor facilities including a museum, a post office and souvenir shops as well as a large, friendly gentoo penguin colony. It is also the site of the carefully preserved first British scientific research station on the Antarctic Peninsula.
Offering wildlife, history and outdoor activity, Paulet Island is attracting more visitors each year. Don’t miss the adelie penguin colony, a trek to the top of the island for remarkable views or a visit to the remains of a hut once used by the Nordenskjold expedition.
This area has been designated as of scientific importance and therefore visitors are prohibited from landing here. You can however view the cove and its leopard seal inhabitants from a zodiac boat.
This interesting historical site is a collection of buildings in Commonwealth Bay, in the Australian Antarctic Territory. Erected by the Australian Antarctic Expedition (1911-1914), the remains are now a tourist attraction for inquisitive visitors.
Here visitors can take in the interesting geological features of this desert including valleys, the Onyx River and Lake Vida. Characterized by very low humidity, the area is devoid of snow and ice.
Things to See & Do
Most people come to the Polar Regions for the thrill of visiting one of the remotest regions of the world, where wildlife abounds and the landscape is unlike that seen elsewhere.
However, adventurous activities are quickly becoming popular on polar expeditions, with tailor made trips now available and able to incorporate kayaking, skiing, trekking, mountain climbing and diving.
When to Go
Visiting Antarctica and the North Pole in their respective winter seasons is not possible due to extreme temperatures, the movement and formation of ice and extended periods of darkness. In contrast, the summer season sees both regions open up to tourists. At this time newly born wildlife springs to life and the sunlight experienced during long daylight hours melts the ice.
June to August, Arctic This is the summer season in the North Pole and the time when expeditions are carried out. Temperatures at this time hover around 0 °C (32 °F), making trekking and other sporting activities possible.
September to May, Arctic During the North Pole’s winter season, the region remains largely inaccessible, with temperatures dropping to -40 °C (-75 °F). The North Pole is out of bounds to visitors during this period, with only a handful of scientists and researchers remaining here during this season. From October to February, the North Pole remains shrouded in darkness.
November to March, Antarctica This is Antarctica’s summer season, when expeditions to the continent are possible and 20 plus hours of daylight are experienced. November and early December see the winter ice begin to break up and melt and penguins start their courtship rituals. Late December and January are the continent’s warmest months, when daylight hours are at their annual peak. February and March offer the best whale, penguin chick and fur seal sightings.
April to October, Antarctica Aside from research staff, no one visits Antarctica during the winter season, when the movement and formation of sea ice as well as extreme temperatures make it dangerous to visit. This season also sees almost permanent darkness, making it an unsuitable time to visit and experience the scenery and wildlife.
North Pole The North Pole’s geographical position in the middle of the Arctic Ocean at sea level ensures it has a climate that is warmer than the South Pole, with the ocean acting as a reservoir of heat. Winter temperatures range from -43 °C (-75 °F) to -26 °C (-15 °F), while summer temperatures are more bearable at around 0 °C (32 °F). The summer period lasts for three months, from June to August.
South Pole The South Pole is situated at the continental land mass known as Antarctica and experiences a cooler climate than the North Pole due to its position on land, much of which is two miles above sea level. Here temperatures can reach world record lows of -89 °C (-129 °F). In fact, Antarctica is the Earth’s coldest place. Antarctica receives less than 10cms rainfall each year, and summertime (November to March) temperatures hover between 5 °C and 15 °C (41 °F and 59 °F) along the coast.
It is possible to fly to Antarctica from Punta Arenas, Chile and from Sydney and Melbourne, Australia. Visitors coming from other destinations will either need to fly to one of these cities or look into travelling to the continent by boat. Sturdy boats serve Antarctica from the following cities: Punta Arenas in Chile, Ushuaia in Argentina, Hobart in Australia and Bluff in New Zealand.
To access the North Pole by air, Longyearbyen in the Svalbard islands (Norway) is the departure point. Sightseeing flights also depart from the UK and Germany for the North Pole, but passengers are unable to disembark during the round trip. Alternatively it is possible to reach the ice cap by ice-breaker from Helsinki or Moscow.
To access regions in the Arctic Circle, you can fly into Moscow, Russia; Svalbard Islands, Norway; Kangerlussuaq, Greenland; Nunavut, Canada or Anchorage, US from where onward flights can be taken to remote northerly airports.
From the US: US travelers wishing to visit Antarctica will first need to fly to Santiago, Chile’s capital, from where flights are available to Punta Arenas, Chile, the departure point for boats to Antarctica. Flights leave for Santiago from Miami, Washington DC, New York, Los Angeles and Dallas. Alternatively visitors can fly to Buenos Aires, Argentina and take a connecting flight to Ushuaia, which has onward links to Antarctica. Flights depart regularly from Atlanta, Dallas, Chicago, Miami, New York, Houston and Washington DC for Buenos Aires. For expeditions to the North Pole, it is necessary for visitors to fly to Helsinki or Moscow, the departure points for trips.
From Canada: Toronto’s international airport services regular flights to Santiago, Chile and Buenos Aires, Argentina, from where onward flights to Punta Arenas and Ushuaia can be caught, respectively, with Punta Arenas and Ushuaia being departure points for boat trips to Antarctica. Alternatively, you can fly to Helsinki or Moscow from Toronto, from where boat trips depart for the North Pole.
From the UK: limited North Pole flights leave from the UK year each year. For access to Antarctica, visitors can fly from London Heathrow or Gatwick airports to Santiago, Chile or Buenos Aires, Argentina, from where onward flights to Punta Arenas and Ushuaia can be caught, respectively. Punta Arenas and Ushuaia both have boat services to Antarctica.
From Australia and New Zealand: boats depart from Hobart, Australia for Antarctica. Visitors from New Zealand will need to fly into Sydney or Melbourne airports for onward travel to Hobart, with Auckland’s airport offering the best selection of flights. For travel to the North Pole, Australian and New Zealand travelers need to fly to Helsinki or Moscow, from where boats depart for the ice cap. The main airports serving direct flights to Helsinki or Moscow are at Perth, Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane (Australia) and Auckland and Christchurch (New Zealand).
From South Africa: there are limited boat departures from South Africa to Antarctica, but more commonly used departure points are in Punta Arenas, Chile and Ushuaia, Argentina. Johannesburg serves direct flights to Santiago, Chile and Buenos Aires, Argentina, from where onward flights to Punta Arenas and Ushuaia can be caught, respectively. You can also fly directly from Johannesburg to Helsinki or Moscow for boat departures to the North Pole.
Getting to Antarctica can be difficult, with most people arriving in these regions on organized expeditions. Air travel is extremely restricted, making arriving by boat the preferred means of travel for many visitors.
Commercial flights to Antarctica are limited and costly, with flying to the region presenting substantial risk due to weather conditions. Adventure Network offers occasional, and expensive, flights to the South Pole from Chile’s Punta Arenas in December and January, while Croydon Travel provides similarly limited flights from Sydney and Melbourne, Australia.
The three main landing fields in Antarctica are: Williams Field, Pegasus Blue-Ice Runway and Annual Sea-Ice Runway. Each of these three landing areas serves both McMurdo Station and Scott Base.
Arriving by air via military aircraft in Antarctica is another possibility in the summer months (October to March), when gravel runways can be better maintained. Winter landings are restricted due to the extreme temperatures, which can cause aircraft landing gear to freeze to the ground within a few hours of landing.
North Pole: April is the best time to fly to the North Pole, with a combination of plane and helicopter used to reach the geographical pole from Longyearbyen in the Svalbard islands, Norway. Most groups are dropped off at Russian research station Barneo, from where they continue on foot to the North Pole.
Over half a dozen commercial operators now offer organized sightseeing expeditions to the North Pole, mostly departing from Germany and the UK and flying low over areas of interest, but not actually landing.
The summer season sees over a dozen cruise operators take passengers on excursions to the Antarctic peninsula and Antarctic islands via ice-strengthened vessels. These boat trips focus on the natural wonders of the region, making multiple stops en route. Departure points for these trips are: Ushuaia in Argentina, Punta Arenas in Chile, Bluff in New Zealand, and Hobart in Australia.
The North Pole ice cap is served by two commercial ice-breaking vessels that depart from Helsinki and Moscow for two-week long cruises in the summer months. Passengers can expect to pay handsomely for one of the limited cabins available aboard these ships.
Once you arrive in Antarctica or the North Pole, there are a number of novel ways to get around including by dog sled, snow cat and zodiac boat. If you arrive here on an organized tour, your provider will make all transport arrangements for you, with no more than 100 persons allowed on land at any single time.
Russia’s Arctic regions are best accessed by air from Moscow, while Norway’s Svalbard Islands can be reached by air from Oslo. Greenland has airports at both Narsarsuaq and Kangerlussuaq which service flights to Copenhagen, Denmark and Reykjavik, Iceland. To access Canada’s Arctic regions, you can fly into one of more than a dozen of Nunavut’s airports from Toronto or Montreal airports. Alaska, US has Anchorage as its main air hub, from where local flights cover the whole region.
Where to Stay
There are few places to stay in the Polar Regions due to the extreme weather experienced in the winter months, making permanent hotels not feasible in many parts. For the most part visitors sleep on the boats on which they arrived or fly out to a better facilitated destination.
Some stations have huts which resemble shipping containers at which expeditions can stay overnight by pre-arrangement or in case of emergency. Visitors to the North Pole are typically flown out to a nearby inhabited island with accommodation after their daytrip.
Hostels: there are limited hostel options in the Arctic region, with no hostels in the most northern extremities. Visitors’ best chance of finding a hostel will be in the larger towns of Lapland, Greenland, and northern Canada.
Hotels: there are no hotels for tourists in the Polar Regions with the exception of a few options in the larger towns of the Arctic Circle, such as those in Greenland, Lapland, and Canada’s Nunavut province.
Camping: in the summer month, camping is possible in the Polar Regions, but campers are required to have cold and sun protective clothing and their own camping equipment (unless provided by the expedition organizer).
Boats: as most visitors arrive in the Polar Regions on boats equipped with accommodation, it follows that they sleep on these boats after sightseeing excursions. All of the ice breakers that serve the regions are facilitated with private cabins.
Health and safety
The main safety concerns for travelers to the Polar Regions lies in the extreme and unpredictable weather conditions experienced in these parts of the world. The weather, combined with the remote nature of Antarctica and the North Pole ice cap, make rescue missions in the event of an emergency very challenging - sometimes impossible.
Sunburn is actually health issue in the Polar Regions, with the snow surface reflecting ultraviolet light. Visitors to the regions must take careful precautions to ensure they don’t overexpose their skin to ultraviolet rays. Aside from the limited medical supplies at camps and research stations in the Polar Regions, there are no permanent medical facilities.
Crime: crime is not a concern for visitors to the largely uninhabited Polar Regions, with the only threat coming from other expedition members or expedition staff. Very few travelers have experienced any form of crime on their expeditions to the Polar Regions.
Regional conflicts and terrorism: although the sovereignty of parts of the Polar Regions is disputed, the regions remain safe and free from terrorism. To date, there have been no terrorist activities or significant armed conflicts in the Polar Regions.
Diseases: the threat from disease is low in the Polar Regions; however, visitors are advised to be up to date with standard vaccinations such as hepatitis A and B before travel. There is no malaria or other mosquito borne diseases in the Polar Regions.
Adverse weather: the weather presents the biggest risk to visitors to the Polar Regions, with extreme temperature lows, moving ice and heavy winds and snowfall all presenting significant dangers. Visitors to the Polar Regions must come well prepared for harsh weather conditions and take precautions to ensure they don’t get frostbite.
Women travelers: female travelers to the Polar Regions are at no greater risk than male travelers. As almost all expeditions see all activities carried out in groups for safety reasons, female travelers will likely find they are never alone on an expedition to the North Pole or Antarctica, greatly reducing the risk of any danger.
Work and Study
There are a limited number of jobs in Antarctica, most of which are filled by specialists in a particular field, largely in scientific fields such as geology and biology. Contracts often go to those prepared to stay for more than just a season, with the cost of transporting workers to Antarctica being significant.
Jobs in Antarctica are based at national research stations, with only around 1,000 people remaining on the continent during the winter months compared to up to 5,000 during the summer season. Typically jobs go to the best qualified and fittest candidates, many of whom have postdoctoral qualifications.
Aside from scientific research positions, there is a need for support staff to keep the bases running, such as cooks, electricians and doctors. Again, these jobs typically go to persons well experienced in their field and who can demonstrate a good level of health and fitness.
There are even fewer jobs in the North Pole than Antarctica, with very few scientists based here. If you would like to visit during your career, it is possible to get a post as an expedition leader or onboard one of the ships that travel here, but vacancies are typically very limited.
There are possibilities to participate in research expeditions to both Antarctica and the North Pole, with some universities, institutions and militaries having a presence in the Polar Regions and supporting these trips. In addition, several countries have national Antarctic programs that offer placements. There are no learning facilities in the Polar Region, just research stations.
Working in the Arctic parts of the United States, Greenland, Canada, Norway, Sweden, Finland or Russia requires the worker to have a valid work permit. These can be difficult to obtain, with many areas preferring to hire locals who are already accustomed to the harsh climate.