In this series, we’re sharing how expedition cruising can help you reach more remote, Bucket List destinations in comfortable, often luxurious accommodations. Expedition cruises bring you up-close encounters with wildlife, untouched landscapes and unparalleled adventures, all from the comfort of your expedition ship. Unlike traditional ocean cruises that focus on the ship, expedition cruises focus on far-flung destinations and the nature, history and culture of the places they visit. The ships are much smaller and itineraries tend to be much more adventurous.
Hi, my name is Heather and I have Polar Fever. Until I was given the opportunity to travel to Antarctica with Adventures by Disney, I didn’t realize that it was on my Bucket List, and I had no idea I had a very strong desire to see 500,000 penguins. I was also a bit naive about just how challenging it is to reach Antarctica – did you know it was all the way at the bottom of the planet?! It’s a difficult destination to reach, but once you do, you’ll look back at the journey and realize it was worth it – and you’ll be willing to do it all over again, because Antarctica is one of the most stunningly beautiful places on Earth. And you get to see 500,000 penguins, up close and personal. (I also never realized what 500,000 penguins would smell like, but that’s a topic for another day!)
Most journeys to Antarctica start in Buenos Aires, Argentina. From there, you’ll need to take an internal flight from Buenos Aires, which is at the very top of the country, all the way down to a tiny town called Ushuaia (pronounced oos-why-ah) at the very bottom of the country. Ushuaia is the southernmost city in the world, and is the embarkation point of most Antarctic expeditions (some leave from southern Chile, but Argentina is most common). Once you reach Ushuaia, you board your expedition ship and head out on a two day journey by sea to reach the Antarctic Peninsula. It’s a lot of flying, but not really a big deal, right?
The trip to Buenos Aires should have been the easiest, most mundane part of my journey – a quick 90-minute flight from my home in West Michigan to Atlanta, where I’d catch the 10-hour flight to Argentina – but, alas, that was not in the cards for me. I was going to have to earn the right to check Antarctica off my bucket list.
After weeks of planning, shopping, and packing, the day of my departure arrived, and things started to go south almost immediately (pun intended, sorry!). As I was loading the car to head to the airport, a text arrived from Delta Airlines. My flight to Atlanta was delayed 3 hours because of an “internal issue.” A three-hour delay meant I was almost certainly going to miss my connection in Atlanta, and there are very few flights to Buenos Aires from the US on any given day, from any airport. On Delta, there are typically only two: one from New York’s JFK airport, and one from Atlanta. When Delta’s Diamond Medallion customer service was unable to offer any help, I decided to head to the airport and see what could be done there. Everyone I spoke to had the same advice: get to Atlanta, a Delta hub much bigger than my little hometown airport in Grand Rapids, Michigan. It seemed like great advice at the time, so I went for it. My stomach was in knots the entire flight.
As we prepared to land in Atlanta, I was obsessively checking my watch. The minutes were ticking by, and we were getting closer and closer to when my flight to Buenos Aires was scheduled to take off, but I hadn’t gotten a boarding notice yet, so there was still hope. As I heard the landing gear click into place, I felt my Apple Watch ping with a notification. From Delta: Your flight to EZE is now boarding. But we were landing! Delta knew I would be on the ground soon! I would run, I would make it.
We landed, 15 minutes from the scheduled departure time of my flight. As soon as we stopped at the gate, a flight attendant came to my seat and let me know that 9 other people, also headed to my flight, were on a different delayed flight that had also just landed, and as a result Delta would hold the plane for me. Hurray! I was one of the first people off the plane, now five minutes to the scheduled departure of the next flight, and I RAN. It would be close, but I would make it to the gate two minutes before the flight was scheduled to leave, and they were holding it. Right?
I arrived, out of breath, to the sound of shouting. Instead of holding the flight, as we’d all been told, the gate agent gave away all of our seats to the standby list. Including my Delta One seat. The folks who got there before me were having a moment of zen. It’s at this point that I have to make a pitch for booking your travel – all of your travel – through a travel advisor. I’ve been a travel advisor for 13 years, so I knew exactly what to do next to salvage this trip. The Delta agents in Atlanta had zero interest in helping me or any of the other 9 people stranded by the gate agent’s choice to give away our seats to the standby list so she could close out the flight and go home. If you’re faced with that situation, and you don’t have a travel advisor to work on your behalf to get you to your destination, you’re on your own.
Delta had booked us all on the next day’s flight to Buenos Aires, 24-hours away, and considered the case closed. The problem? That would get me to Argentina hours after the Adventures by Disney charter flight to Ushauia had already left, and if I wasn’t on that flight, I wasn’t allowed on the ship. I had to find another solution.
Instead of shouting curses at the gate agent (out loud anyway; the words I was thinking would make a sailor blush), I sat down and got out my laptop. Because travel is my job, I knew a few things. Since it wasn’t a weather delay, Delta was obligated to put me on a different airline if I asked them to; they also were obligated to offer me flights from other airports, not just the one in which I was currently stranded. I searched every flight out of the US to Buenos Aires and found just one that would get me there in time: a Delta codeshare flight on Aerolineas out of JFK. Just one problem: at that particular moment, there was a blizzard moving through New York. Since it was my only chance, I had to risk it.
I went to the Delta desk and was met with a second problem; they had no seats on their flights to JFK and weren’t willing to bump anyone for me. No worries, JetBlue had plenty of flights to JFK from Atlanta, I’d just retrieve my checked bag from Delta and book myself the first flight out in the morning to New York. I’d get there in plenty of time to catch the Aerolineas flight that would get me to Buenos Aires two and a half hours before the Adventures by Disney charter flight. No problem. The Delta agent agreed this was my best option, and secured my seat on the Aerolineas flight. Delta couldn’t find my bag at the moment, but assured me they were searching and it would be waiting for me at Baggage Services when I got back to the airport at 5 a.m. the next day. They patted me on the head and sent me off to find a hotel for the night.
Spoiler alert: my bag was not there when I got back to the airport at 5 a.m.
It was eventually found, and before I checked it to JFK with JetBlue, I spoke with two separate Delta agents to make sure that my flight from JFK to Buenos Aires was confirmed, and that my getting to New York on a different airline was not a problem. They both assured me it was not a problem, told me it was my best option, and said I should do it. They patted me on the head and sent me off to New York on JetBlue.
Spoiler alert: it was a problem.
My JetBlue flight was a bit delayed because of the blizzard. My bag took almost an hour to reach me because the ground crews were still digging out from the blizzard. But I made it to the Aerolineas desk to check in an hour before the flight was scheduled to leave, only to be told that DELTA HAD CANCELED MY TICKET. Why? Because I flew JetBlue to New York. Which they had told me to do. This time, instead of relying solely on my knowledge and skills as a travel advisor, I also resorted to a centuries old technique for problem solving: I broke down and I cried. Wept in front of the Aerolineas ticketing agents. Told them my entire saga. And then I begged for their help.
My new hero, Aaron from Aerolineas, immediately got on the phone with Delta and got to work. The clock is ticking, getting closer and closer to the scheduled departure of the flight. Ten minutes pass. Twenty. Thirty. At this point, Aaron sends my checked bag down to the plane, just in case he can get me on the flight. Finally, at ten minutes before the flight is supposed to leave, SUCCESS! Aaron prints my ticket, calls the gate to have them hold the plane, then walks me to the front of the security line, to the gate, and onto the place. I MADE IT! Ten uneventful hours later, I made it to the charter flight check in 10 minutes before the rest of the Adventures by Disney group. It was now a Monday morning; I was wearing the same clothes I’d put on before I left on Saturday afternoon, I needed and shower and a hairbrush, but I made it! I also vowed to name the first penguin I met in honor of Aaron from Aerolineas.
Safely united with the Adventures by Disney group (who had been tracking my progress and looking out for me for the last 36 hours), all that was left to get to Antarctica was a 3 hour charter flight to Ushuaia, a Covid test, and then just two days on our ship through a little something called the Drake Passage.
The Drake Passage is a body of water between the tip of Argentina and Antarctica, and it’s where the Atlantic Ocean, Pacific Ocean and Southern Ocean meet. It can be calm and peaceful (the Drake Lake), or it can be rough (the Drake Shake). It can be intimidating, especially if you’re prone to motion sickness. If you are, I highly recommend seeing your doctor before your trip and getting scopolomine patches. Put the patch on at least 8 hours before your ship departs. If you’ve cruised before and didn’t get sick, bring along some meclizine (Bonine). Your ship will also have a medical center that can help if you do experience severe motion sickness.
Spoiler alert: we got the Drake Shake, with 4-6 meter (13-20 feet) swells.
I’ve fortunately never suffered from motion sickness, and managed very easily with no medication. My traveling companion, Key to the World Travel advisor Brittney Hughes, took Bonine and didn’t get sick. The ship was pretty deserted for our two days in the Drake, as other passengers didn’t fare as well and spent a lot of time in their staterooms. The crew was armed with ginger candy, ginger ale, and ginger tea for those who had mild symptoms.
Around 6 p.m. on our second day on the ship, we finally spotted land – and it was breathtaking! Everyone came out from their rooms, the seas calmed, and we all ran out on deck to watch the first glaciers and icebergs come into view. Every person – even those who got very sick – agreed that navigating the Drake was worth it.
Next up – we’ll talk about our ship, Ponant’s Le Lyrial!
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