If you get seasick, you may not want to travel for days through rough seas, to get to Antarctica. Yet, you may dream of traveling to the 7th continent. Thankfully, there is another option. Polar expedition leader Quark Expeditions offers a Fly-Cruise itinerary, where they fly you to Antarctica both ways, and spend 5 full days on the continent. However, flying to Antarctica is an adventure in itself. Here’s a recap of my recent experience…
Arriving in Punta Arenas, Chile
I flew Atlanta – Santiago – Punta Arenas to start my polar expedition. A local representative from Quark Expeditions was there to receive me and a dozen other people at the small airport. We were transported to Dreams Hotel, Casino and Spa, centrally located in the Spanish port town, with spectacular views of the Magellan Strait.
Welcome to Orientation
We right away went to a mandatory briefing, where we learned about what to expect in the coming days. The presentation explained how to get on and off the zodiacs, maintain a safe distance from wildlife, and leave no trash behind. There are strict regulations on operators in Antarctica, so the tour leaders have to be thorough about this.
Then we collected our yellow parkas (which you get to keep) and rubber boots (surprisingly comfortable in walking on all kinds of terrains), weighed our luggage (there’s a 35 lb. weight limit on check in’s on the flight), and bio screened our belongings (to not carry any mud or foreign bodies to Antarctica).
After that, we headed for a welcome buffet dinner at the hotel. There were all kinds of salads, Chilean and Western delicacies, served with wine. I was a bit too tired to enjoy the food, but had a nice time meeting the other guests, who came from all over the world.
We were also told that breakfast would be served at 3:30am, and that we would depart for the airport at 4:30am.
The next morning, we were all groggy, but excited to claim our last continent (for majority of us). We dressed in layers; had our parkas, hats and gloves on (it was still cold in Punta Arenas); loaded the bus, and headed to the airport. Though we had a charter flight, we went through the normal airport procedures – check in, boarding pass, security, gate. Then we waited…
There’s a tiny airport lounge accessible to Priority Pass customers with excellent WiFi, coffee and a few snacks. I posted some videos and said my final goodbyes to family and fans, since I wasn’t expecting to have any connection for the next few days.
We were told the flight is delayed, so we waited some more.
Finally, at 6am, the flight was cancelled. We left the airport and went back to the hotel, checked in to our rooms, and took a nap. At this point, we were on “stand by” meaning we could fly out at a moments notice. So we couldn’t leave the hotel without notifying someone and had to stay nearby. Sure enough, at noon, every room got a phone call and was asked to come down immediately. We grabbed our things, put the layers back on, and rushed back to the airport.
Then we repeated the process – check in, boarding pass, security, gate, and waiting…
Charter Flight to Antarctica
The time had come! We boarded a 70 passenger charter plane with penguin graphics on it. The seats were comfortable, and we were served lunch and drinks (including alcoholic) on board. The crew was polite and everyone was in a good mood. In 2 hours, we would land on King George Island, a military base in Antarctica, and board our ship – Ocean Adventurer!
But 1.5 hours into the flight, when we were expecting the pilot to announce, Prepare for landing, instead he said, “I don’t know if you noticed, we have turned around and are headed back to Punta Arenas.”
Taking a Chance: Flying vs Cruising
Most Antarctic expeditions involve at least 4 days at sea, crossing the Drake Passage, said to be the roughest waters in the world. The ships sail anywhere from 11-22 days, the longer voyages offering more destinations within Antartica.
Now flying has it’s drawbacks as well. There are frequent weather related delays as there is really no airport in Antartica, and flights cannot land if there is fog. About 4% of fly cruises end up being canceled, but thats a gamble you take.
What Happens During Delays
We went back to the hotel, checked in again, and had a buffet dinner. Quark Expeditions covered all the costs for food, accommodations, and airport transfers. The next day, we had another briefing and were told there was too much fog on KGI so it didn’t look like we could fly out. We had gotten pretty use to reading weather forecasts by now.
Quark Expeditions offered free city tours of Punta Arenas for those who were interested. Most of us either did the tour or ventured out on our own.
Exploring Punta Arenas
Punta Arenas is a relatively quiet town at the very edge of Chile. It has a bustling shipping industry that you can see coming in from the airport. In the center, there are cute Spanish squares, cafes, grocery stores, pharmacies, and clothing and shoe stores catering to adventure travelers. There are also some nice restaurants serving pisco sour, steaks, and King Crab. I found 1 Asian and a couple of pizza places.
It’s safe to walk around on your own. There are some interesting wall murals and tree lined streets, a beautiful cemetery and an open air naval museum. In the evening, locals hang out along the boulevard, jogging, walking with their dogs, playing with kids.
The city is very quiet during the day, but from 12-2am, you can hear cars racing, honking and party goers at the hotel’s casino.
If you have more time, do a half day trip to Magdalena Island to see penguins, or spend a couple of days in Tierra del Fuego (Chilean Patagonia).
One Last Attempt
At dinner, we received some good news. The weather was going to clear and we would depart at 6:30 am to board our flight to Antarctica. The ground staff seemed optimistic and was high-fiving the passengers.
Early in the morning, we repeated the process of checking out and going to the airport once again. However, this time, we were at our gate for 2 hours, when we were told that the flight was canceled. And since this was the 4th day of attempting to fly, the entire trip was canceled.
Once again, we headed back to the Dreams Hotel with shattered dreams. By this time, the passengers had formed deep friendships. We had spent too much time together sharing our hopes and dreams to reach the last continent. There was a joke going around about the Dreams Hotel – You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave!
Truly, we checked in and out of the Dreams Hotel multiple times each day, ignoring the standard check in and check out times. Despite the chaos, the staff did their best handing out room keys to 130 or so passengers. We kept the same rooms the entire time.
What Happens When a Trip is Cancelled?
The biggest question in the travelers minds was, what next? There were people who had come from New Zealand, China, The Philippines, India, Germany, Ireland, Panama, Canada and the US. They had spent thousands of dollars, taken vacation time, and had planned this all year. I met a 12-year old girl from New York, who was traveling with her 20-year old brother. Her dream was to visit all the continents and she would have achieved it this year. A family of 4 from southern India pulled their teenage kids out of school for 10 days for this trip of a lifetime. For some older folks (oldest I met was 85), this was their last chance.
Immediately, everyone got on the phone and web, called their travel agents, changed flights and rescheduled bookings. The Quark Expeditions team set up a table to assist. Most returned home on the next available flight, some continued on to the next part of their journey – Patagonia, Ushuaia, Atacama and other places in South America.
In terms of costs, Quark Expeditions offered to refund or rebook the trip. Also, everyone had travel insurance, that covered travel delays and trip cancellations, so they would get refunds for flight rebooking fees, hotel stay, meals, etc.