I’ve just returned from my second trip to Antarctica, this time with my 12-year-old daughter. In my blog post I talk about that trip and compare both trips. So enjoy this post about my original trip, but also click through for the new post. And take your kids to Antarctica!
Antarctica for Kids
When my oldest daughter Evelyn was three and in Pre-K, her class studied penguins. She came home excited and said that she wanted to go on a trip to Antarctica to see penguins in real life. So I did some research and decided that eight was a good age for Antarctica. Why eight? At that point kids can entertain themselves on the ship, they can appreciate where they are in the world, and they’ll be interested in some of the trip’s educational elements. So I promised her that when she was eight we would go. She turned eight on December 16th and we departed on our trip to Antarctica December 26th.
Buenos Aires, Argentina
We started in Buenos Aires for three days, walking a lot, visiting El Ateneo bookstore (my daughter loved the large children’s section and picked out some Spanish versions of books she had back home), the Recoleta cemetery to see Eva Peron’s tomb (she liked the cats that wandered around more than the tombs), the area around the cemetery, and La Boca neighborhood, home of the tango. The highlight for her was the empanadas. We ate at El Sanjuanino twice in two nights, close to our hotel (the Sofitel Buenos Aires Recoleta).
This turned out to be a good lesson in Argentine inflation. The first night the empanadas at El Sanjuanino were 14 pesos each. Literally, the next night when we went back the entire menu had been updated to reflect a new price of 15 pesos each. It was worth every inflating peso though – the empanadas were great. Very kid-friendly as well. My daughter’s not an overly picky eater, but still, food in a new country is always a little bit of a gamble. The ham/cheese and the basil/tomato/cheese empanadas, followed by ice cream nightly at Freddo, meant that at least she wasn’t starving under my watch.
We then flew down to Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world, to do a quick trip through Tierra del Fuego National Park before boarding the ship for our trip to Antarctica. There’s really not much to say about Ushuaia – there’s an airport, it’s near the national park, and it’s relatively close to Antarctica. I’ll return someday to see more of Tierra del Fuego – a few hours there definitely whetted my appetite.
The Drake Passage
We arrived at the ship (the National Geographic Explorer) and set sail for Antarctica. It’s only a day and a half or so across the Drake Passage to the outer islands and the continent, but that day and a half was rough. Very rough. In both directions. Heading down, the waves were 22 feet or so. Evelyn stayed in bed. I stayed in bed most of the time, other than heading out to get meals and bring them back to the cabin. If you think it sounds difficult to walk while carrying plates of food while the ship is heading into 22-foot waves, you would be correct. But that was just a precursor to the 30-foot waves that we would encounter on the trip back. iPods loaded with movies are a very good thing. There’s not much else you want to do in big seas other than lay in bed and watch movies. The Drake Passage definitely isn’t a reason to avoid a trip to Antarctica, but it’s not a fun few days.
This was our first view of Antarctica – the South Shetland Islands. It meant that rough seas were behind us. And it meant that an amazing week was about to begin.
Before we could go onshore, we were taught the rules. You can’t approach within five meters of penguins or other wildlife. If they came up to you, though, it’s fine. You can’t leave anything onshore or take anything from there. If you step onto the snow and sink in, fill up the hole so that penguins don’t fall in and get stuck. Basically, leave everything like you found it.
Because no more than 100 people can be onshore at any one time and there were 145 people on the ship, everyone was divided into one of six groups. Your group would be called 15 minutes before departure time, which meant finishing getting dressed, putting on life jackets, putting on snow boots, grabbing camera gear and hiking poles, and heading down to the Zodiac departure area. Then we would hop into the Zodiacs, eight people or so at a time, and go to shore. Once arriving on shore we would take off our life jackets and head off to explore.
It became a pattern twice a day or so going through that process – it sounds like more of a hassle than it was, but it wasn’t much different than getting dressed to go skiing and then going to the slopes (other than the Zodiacs of course, and the decontamination fluid that they would apply to our boots both leaving the ship and coming back on-board).
Wherever we anchored on our trip to Antarctica, the ship’s staff would go onshore first and mark out (with cones) rough pathways to interesting areas – mainly penguin colonies, beaches and overlooks. The nice thing about the paths is that eventually they would get packed down a little and you would stop sinking two feet into the snow. The really nice thing about being a kid weighing 45 pounds in Antarctica is that you never sink in.
Half Moon Island
The first trip onshore was at Half Moon Island on New Years Eve. Chinstrap penguins awaited. After taking off our life jackets, we simply wandered around for a couple of hours. It’s easy to spot the penguin paths between the rookeries and fishing spots since they’re packed down and not quite as white as the pristine snow elsewhere. We spent a lot of time just sitting next to the paths and watching the local traffic – lots of waddling and belly sliding penguins. No babies were on the paths – they were all just hatching and being protected by the parents at the rookeries. But there were a lot of adult penguins going to and fro and it was just a really fun experience. Anyone going to Antarctica will mention the sounds and the smells. The sound of all of the penguins, mixed in with some other seabirds, was extraordinary. The smell wasn’t nearly as strong as I had thought it would be – penguin poop isn’t that pungent, at least not where we were.
Evelyn’s last comment before heading back to the ship: “I wish I could belly slide like a penguin.”
Celebrating the New Year in Antarctica
Antarctica geographically has 24 time zones, so we probably could have celebrated the new year any time the ship staff wanted. We stayed on Argentinean time though, meaning at least we got to celebrate a couple of hours before the east coast of the US. That made it a little easier to stay up, since we hadn’t even completely adjusted to Argentinean time yet, and Evelyn got to experience her first countdown and clinking of glasses as the clock struck midnight.
On the ship, they have the oldest and youngest passengers literally ring in the near year, with a large ship’s bell. Evelyn was the second-youngest, just missing out to a German five-month-old. For the record, there were around 10 kids on the ship under 18. There should have been more – it was an incredibly child-friendly trip, with not only the sites and adventures that everyone was experiencing but also dedicated kid dinners, movie nights and activities on the ship. But that’s the point of this blog – to encourage you to take your kids somewhere new.
New Years Day started with kayaking. The water was smooth with no wind and just a light snowfall – absolutely ideal for our trip to Antarctica. We went near shore, not getting too close in case glaciers calved, and circled icebergs, not getting too close in case they tipped over. A really fun experience for both of us.
Then the day got even better. We sailed over to Cuverville Island and spent the afternoon with Gentoo penguins. It was very similar to the first day with the Chinstraps on Half Moon Island, but the scenery was even more stunning (icebergs), and the Gentoos were fun to watch, going about their business and tending to their eggs and chicks. Evelyn never complained about all the walking – she was just taking it in, sitting and waiting for Gentoos to approach her, photographing some, and starting snowball fights with an 11-year-old from the ship. Totally in her element.
January 2nd brought the highlight of our trip to Antarctica for Evelyn. We anchored at Neko Harbor on the continental mainland and hiked for a while. Hundreds more Gentoos. Weddell seals. Amazing vistas of glaciers and icebergs in various hues of blue and white. But then we neared an upper ridge and one of the ship’s naturalists asked if anyone wanted to slide down the hill. Sliding like a penguin? In Antarctica? Bring it on. Not only did Evelyn jump right over the edge and slide down to the bottom of the mountain, but she ran back up and did it two more times. Again, one of the advantages of going places like this when you’re young (and have good knees)! She was exhausted but ecstatic at the end of the day.
Petermann Island and Icebergs
By January 3rd we were well below the Antarctic Circle. A stop at Petermann Island brought more hiking, more Gentoos, more icebergs, more stunning vistas, and more snowball fights. It never came close to getting old or repetitive. When we weren’t on land and were sailing south, every time we looked out the window we would see new towering mountains and new towering icebergs. The ship went around the larger icebergs but went straight through the smaller bergs and the sea ice. The dull scraping sound of the ice against the hull became background noise, reminding us exactly where we were in the world.
Then came January 4th – my highlight. The ship’s captain located a large, frozen fjord and plowed several hundred feet right into it. Then we got off the ship and played. There were footballs, frisbees, and beach balls. There were snowmen and snow angels. The ship’s crew set up a hot chocolate stand (with Bailey’s or schnapps for adults) on the ice.
When we were there, there was a Russian/Australian ship stuck in Antarctic sea ice that was getting international coverage. Not many of us would have complained if we had gotten stuck in the sea ice and been there for an extra week. Alas, the ship was able to back right out with no problems.
We then turned around and headed back north through the Inside Passage. Icebergs the size of small towns? Check. Minke whales? Check. Rare Ross seals? Check. Amazing reflections? Check. More stops with hiking, penguins, and snowballs? Check. Again, it never got old. The ship’s staff were constantly updating everyone on our position, on our plans and on our backup plans in case ice scuttled the initial plans.
I was impressed by the adventurousness of the crew. They wanted to deliver the absolute best, most unique trip for all of us, and they were constantly adjusting course based on weather and what they thought would be the most fun for our trip to Antarctica. We rarely saw signs at any landings of previous/recent visitors, and only saw one ship far in the distance the entire trip. It was truly our own private (summer) wonderland for a week.
The photos below are from a landing at Dorian Bay. Everywhere we went we would see the Scua birds trying to steal penguin eggs and babies. When we first got to Antarctica we thought of the Scuas as the bad guys. But throughout the trip, there were educational sessions on board, including some on the natural balance and how the Scuas were necessary to keep the penguin populations in check. It was funny to see people go from rooting for the penguins to rooting for the Scuas. Except for Evelyn – she was pretty addicted to the penguins and their chicks.
So at this point, the only thing missing on our trip to Antarctica was whales. We had seen some Minke whales, but nothing up close. Bring on the Gerlache Strait. We were sailing slowly while the naturalists looked for whales. And then they found them. So amazing to watch a pod of killer whales for half an hour.
The next day brought a Zodiac cruise around Danco Island. This was one of the only things during our trip to Antarctica that wasn’t very kid-friendly. When we were onshore every day, we could go back to the ship at any time. When you’re on a Zodiac, though, and going around an island, you’re kind of stuck until you get back to the ship an hour later, no matter how cold you get. I loved it – the photography opportunities with the tabular icebergs, penguins, sea ice and towering peaks were extraordinary. Evelyn wasn’t miserable by any stretch, but she stopped having fun about 20 minutes into the tour.
Heading back up the Gerlache Straight, we didn’t encounter any more killer whales. Instead, we saw well over a hundred humpback whales. As with the killer whales, the captain positioned us optimally based on the location of all of the whales and then we just waited for pods to approach the ship. Pretty amazing. It was cold up on deck, so Evelyn hung out in the room while I was taking photos like this. But she was still able to see whales right outside the window. A room with a view indeed.
The Post Office
The last day on our trip Antarctica took us to Port Lockroy. This is an old British base that now has a gift store and a post office. We bought t-shirts, magnets, stuffed penguins and more. We were warned that the postcards we mailed may not arrive for a couple of months, but they actually took only three weeks to get from Antarctica to California via the Falkland Islands and the UK. Impressive. Plus there were a lot of penguins around Port Lockroy, which we never got tired of.
Overall our trip to Antarctica was absolutely amazing and one I would recommend to anyone. Eight was a good age.
The ship was great and very safe – as close as one can get to an icebreaker without actually being an icebreaker. The food was excellent. I’m partial to Scandinavian cuisine anyway, so I fully appreciated the Nordic touches that the Swedish chef brought to some of the dishes. Evelyn ate the food from the standard menu about half the time. The other half, when she just couldn’t get excited about the fish or reindeer or polenta or other options, she was always able to request pasta or a steak and baked potato from the kitchen. And when Evelyn wasn’t feeling well in the cabin on the trip back across the Drake Passage, Leizl, our cabin attendant, went to the bar and mixed her a special ginger-infused drink to help her.
The staff and service were outstanding throughout our trip to Antarctica. The internet was slow, but at least there was internet – even if it was $0.40/minute. The key was to get on early in the morning or when most people were ashore. If everyone else was accessing it in the evening, it was so slow it wasn’t worth even trying to log on.
No complaints about the weather – it was far warmer in Antarctica than most of the US that same week. Temperatures were rarely below 28F, unless you were on deck while the ship was moving. Our packing list included most of what we would take on a ski trip – lots of layers, gloves, hats, boots, etc… It was 95F in Buenos Aires for those few days so it necessitated a little over-packing, but everyone was in the same boat (literally) with a couple large suitcases per cabin. I have a separate post with my optimal Antarctica packing list.
Evelyn’s Favorite Things
1. Sledding on my belly like a penguin.
2. How I could order anything for dinner on the ship.
3. The kid-oriented activities, especially the scavenger hunt.
4. Seeing the penguins.
5. Throwing snowballs at my dad and Matt.
6. The gift store on the ship.
7. Riding on the Zodiacs every day, but not the long Zodiac tour.
8. Ice cream, hot cocoa and mints anytime.
9. That I did not fall into the snow like everyone else.
10. Seeing the movie Frozen in Spanish when the airline canceled our flight and we were in Buenos Aires for an extra day at the end of the trip.
Evelyn’s Least-Favorite Things
1. The Drake Passage.
2. The observation deck and library. It made me feel sick to be there, and there were no kid books.
3. The catamaran trip through the national park in Argentina.
4. Getting snow in my boots when I was sledding.
5. When my dad hit me with a snowball and it went down my jacket and made me cold.
Antarctica with Kids Specifics
Kid Friendly: Extremely
Level of Difficulty: Easy
Trip: National Geographic Expeditions Journey to Antarctica
Airline/Routing: United via Houston to Buenos Aires
Hotel in Buenos Aires: Sofitel Buenos Aires Recoleta (formerly known as the Caesar Park)
Total Trip Length: 16 Days
Days of School Missed: Three days (it was supposed to be two days, but United canceled our flight and we had one extra day in Buenos Aires at the end)
Ways I Brought the Cost Down: We flew United in Business. It’s the first time I’ve actually purchased Business Class (that Conde Nast wasn’t subsidizing). The conventional wisdom is to purchase international plane tickets four months or so in advance, but I start looking at fares as soon as I know I’m taking a trip. In this case a full nine months before we were departing, I noticed that business class was barely more expensive than economy.
The routing was terrible, but I grabbed it. I was hoping that United would change the flight times, thus giving me an opportunity to reroute for free. But they did me one better – they canceled the route. So we had paid a lot less to fly via Newark, but then they did away with their Newark-Buenos Aires flights so I switched us to the optimal flights via Houston. That happens more often that not when I buy far in advance. I’m sure the flight changes annoy people who already have the perfect routing and flight times, but I always look at it as an opportunity to make the flights better and/or it gives me the chance to cancel with no penalties.
The other thing that saved us money is that National Geographic Expeditions gives you a nice discount on their ship trips if you’ve traveled with them at least three times before, which I had. As with the airlines, loyalty pays. And I highly recommend not getting one of the more expensive rooms with balconies. A balcony is great if you’re in the Mediterranean in the summer. On a trip to Antarctica, not so much. Whenever I spotted something amazing outside, I would run up a deck, head outside and snap some photos. A balcony would have been slightly more convenient for that, but we wouldn’t have spent any time out there given how cold it was outside when the ship was moving.
Jonny Blair says
Great site and fabulous article. How amazing for a kid to have been to Antarctica – really a special travel memory. I was in Antarctica in 2010 and it is still one of my standout travel memories. Safe travels. Jonny
Your blog is one my favourite familytravel sites – thank you for this interesting article. I love travelling with my kids, but often think some destinations are too stressful or dangerous with kids. Then I read your articles and am totally inspired. Great pictures! Greetings from Germany, Stefanie
Eric Stoen says
Wow, thank you very much Stefanie! I’m happy that I’m inspiring others. It’s not all easy – I’m working on a blog post now on some of the rough spots – but in general we haven’t had any problems, and the adventure has been worth any minor hassles.
Wow. not too often that an article really gets my heart thumping! This has made the top of my bucket list of things to do before our daughters leave the nest. Absolutely loved your images and description.
Eric Stoen says
Thank you so much for the comment and email Jane! I’m getting on a plane now, actually three planes heading from Chiang Mai to Palawan, but I’ll write back later.
Inspiring article. I would like to do more traveling with my kids. Do you have any tips for how to handle kids and school when they are out traveling frequently during the year?
Eric Stoen says
Great question! My kids have been lucky to have teachers that understood that travel could be educational. When I took my son out of Kindergarten for a week to go to Easter Island, Panama and Iguazu Falls, his teacher gave us a packet of worksheets (reading and math) about the Panama Canal and Easter Island, so he was doing homework on the flights and we were learning about our destinations. It was so cool! Even then, we’re paranoid about the kids missing more than 10 days a year to travel, so we never take them out more than that. We fully take advantage of every school break (I’m in Palawan, Philippines today with my son, since he doesn’t go back to school in California until next Monday) and travel during the summers.
Unfortunately a lot of schools in the US especially don’t want kids to miss class to travel because there’s an economic incentive from the state to have full attendance. I can’t do anything about that, but would love to see it change. Travel is the best education, and we balance school and travel the best we can.
Looks wonderful and love all of your photos11
It’s so awesome that you are taking your kids on so many adventures! These are such great experiences for children to have. I was very lucky to have parents who understood the value of travel when I was a child- they took me all over the country and several international destinations as well. Your pictures from Antarctica are stunning- this remote continent has been on my bucket list for quite some time!
How much was the cruise part of the trip? We’re WorldSchoolers and have been looking forward to the Antarctica part of our journey.
Eric Stoen says
Hi Dan. I honestly don’t remember what we paid. We went at the end of 2013 and booked it at least a year prior to that as the holiday sailings fill up fast. Current pricing for the NatGeo trips is at http://www.expeditions.com. There are also less-expensive options.
This is my dream! We travel a lot with our two small kids and I have all intentions of doing this trip with them when they are older! Thank you for the beautiful recap!
Eric Stoen says
Awesome Ashley – have a great trip! Remember to book well in advance to get a family-friendly cabin. Most cabins are only for two people.
Ryan Biddulph says
Hot chocolate on the fjord? Not bad!! Really neat trip overall and I figure 8 was about the right age for your daughter too. She could appreciate the experience easily, keep herself busy and hey, when you’re a bit older than the youngin kid stage she could even handle the weather better too. Pretty chill climes down there no matter what time of the year 😉 Thanks for sharing!
Hi Eric! I came across your blog from Pinterest. I love that you are able to take your children to so many different places with you! (It is good encouragement for when we have kids). My husband and I are planning on travelling around South America and Antarctica before we settle down and have kids (hopefully) next year. We are looking at different companies to travel to Antarctica with. What made you decide to go with this company – was it simply because you have used them in the past so you got a discount? Did you look at any other companies?
Eric Stoen says
Hi Joanna. We went with NatGeo/Lindblad because I had travelled with NGE and received their catalogs. It’s higher-priced than other lines, so if I was going now I would look at Quark, Hurtigruten or Oceanwide, simply because I’ve interacted with them at travel conferences and via email and am a little more familiar with them than others. I’d love to go back with another line to compare/contrast – hopefully in the next two years.
If you think about it after the fact, I’d love to know who you end up traveling with and your thoughts about the experience.
Iris Trask says
My grandson wants to go to Antarctica and I’ve been checking about them. However I could not find a price on some, the NG Explorer for one and the cruises above. Looking for January 5, 2017, but are flexible Do you know what it would cost for 2 seniors and a 10 year old. Just looking for a ballpark figure. These prices I’ve found seem obscenly high, is that normal?Which ship is more kid friendly. I would appreciate any information you can give. Thank you for your time.
Eric Stoen says
Hi Iris. My only experience is with National Geographic / Lindblad. Their website is at: http://www.nationalgeographicexpeditions.com/expeditions/antarctica-cruise/detail, and there’s pricing towards the bottom of the page. That’s the trip we did, and yes it’s expensive, going up every year.
I can’t speak to any other companies or their kid-friendliness. Everything on my website is based on our personal experiences. I keep hoping one of my other kids will choose Antarctica for one of their annual trips and I’ll have an excuse to check out other outfitters.
Some to look at would be Quark (https://www.quarkexpeditions.com/en/departures?f%5B0%5D=im_field_primary_destination:1), Oceanwide (https://oceanwide-expeditions.com/antarctica/cruises?gclid=CjwKEAjw1PPJBRDq9dGHivbXmhcSJAATZd_B3nka2Ncfv9ZobdI4Qyx6ZDKeHqQRhh3zkZz7H4Lo-RoCPm3w_wcB), and Hurtigruten (https://www.hurtigruten.us).
Peak times (with the highest rates) are typically Christmas and New Years. Most lines have discounts for their November and February sailings if you’re flexible at all. Basically, the farther you are away from the holidays, the better.
Iris Trask says
Thank you, that was helpful. Have to say I liked your description of the trip better than the commercial ones. You hit on things they didn’t that are important.
Eric Stoen says
Thank you Iris! That’s why I write, so I’m glad you found it useful. I’m really making an effort to find the places in the world that people wouldn’t think of as kid-friendly but are actually great for kids, and give people information to make it easier to plan a similar trip.
Amy Waeschle says
Great article, Eric. I have always wanted to go here and am more inspired than ever. Thanks for including other outfitters to check out. I will keep it in mind as we budget this in for a few years from now! The crossing sounds brutal, though, did you use any medication or a scopolamine patch for seasickness? I was in heavy seas once in the Mediterranean in a bow berth on a ferry to Naples and wanted to die. It’s hard for me to think about signing up for a repeat (and worse, in 22 foot seas oh lord).
Eric Stoen says
Yep, we both took Gravol – the kids version for my daughter, the adult version for me. Basically the same as Dramamine. We still got sick, but maybe we were better off than if we hadn’t taken anything? The ship’s staff continually brought my daughter ginger drinks, and I think that helped.
What a wonderful gift to give your daughter! This is beautiful.
Eric Stoen says
Naman Kumar says
Great blog post Eric! The pictures make it even better. Never imagined Antarctica to be a kid friendly place but well it is. I have plans to travel to Antarctica and this post has just made me more certain about it.
Eric Stoen says
I’ve run across your website several times over the years, and it is always full of great ideas and stories.
After seeing this post a few years ago, I started planning a similar trip for my family. We just recently returned from a trip to Antarctica (and Buenos Aires!). My daughter (who celebrated her 6th birthday on King George Island, Antarctica) loved the penguins and the glacier(but for some reason, not the elephant seals).
Eric Stoen says
That’s awesome Scott! Did Antarctica work well for a 6-year-old overall? That’s one of the youngest ages I’ve heard. Was she good with all the walking/hiking?
Amazing blog! I am researching on taking my twin girls to Antarctica in 2022 after they turn 7, we’ve been previously considering the Crystal endeavor or the Oceanwide Hondius. I have not found any ship that has Children’s program on board until I came across your post. I will definitely look into National Geographic, any other recommendations for children friendly expedition ships?
Eric Stoen says
Hi Melody. I’ve never had any Antarctica cruise lines reach out to me and emphasize kid-friendliness, so I don’t have any to recommend. When I’m at ITB in Berlin next month I’ll search some out and ask about kid programs. At this point I have no idea who I would sail with if one of my other kids wants to head to Antarctica.
This site is so inspiring. I love to travel and can’t wait to expose my children to all that the world has to offer.
Eric Stoen says
Thank you Jen!
Amy Ryn Smith says
Although this article is some years old now, I can appreciate that most things are probably very much the same (as far as Antarctica goes). I am an agent and have a family with 2 children close to your daughters age then, and have been doing a lot of research into Antarctica, as I’ve never been nor have I sent anyone as of yet. This has probably been more genuine and relevant than any of the reading or attending webinars I’ve done while researching. Thank you for your candor and send thanks to Evelyn as well for helping me to understand things from a younger persons perspective. Thanks again!
Eric Stoen says
Thank you so much Amy! I’m glad it was helpful. It’s literally the reason I started this blog – to show people that Antarctica can be kid-friendly, and that Antarctica isn’t wasted on kids.
Jude Boudreaux says
Thanks so much for the information! We are huge penguin lovers and just starting to do research for a trip that I hope we can do when the kids are 8 & 13 – appreciate the info!!
Eric Stoen says
That’s awesome! Have an amazing trip!