It used to be that traveling to Antarctica meant playing Russian roulette with your life. Tourism to the coldest, driest, and windiest place on Earth started in earnest in the 1950s, but even 15 years ago, getting there was a challenge. These days, trips to the continent can be tackled with (relative) ease. Just look at the numbers—last year, 37,405 visitors made the trip south, compared with 10,000 in 1999 and zero in 1914.
Still, it’s the most remote and forbidding stretch of wilderness in the world, exponentially more difficult to reach than nearly every other landmass. You’ll need a permit and you'll have to follow the Antarctic Conservation Act, which prohibits tampering with the ecosystem in any way. I’ve been to Antarctica four times, and if you want to step foot on the bottom of the world, I can safely say that you have only five options to get there.
#1: Become a Villager
The least expensive (and longest-term) way to reach Antarctica is to work for one of the Antarctic research stations. The United States National Science Foundation (NSF) operates three bases on the continent: Palmer, Amundsen-Scott South Pole, and McMurdo. But you don’t have to have to be a scientist to land a gig. They need operational support such as cooks, plumbers, snow shovelers, pilots, and forklift drivers. Lockheed Martin is the private contractor that operates the U.S. Antarctic research facilities. Check its website for available positions.
#2: Be an Artist or a Writer
According to the NSF website, working on an artistic project that will “increase understanding of the Antarctic and help document America’s Antarctic heritage” could land you free round-trip airfare and accommodation in Antarctica. They want people focused on long-term projects (sorry, journalists) and have hosted writers, filmmakers, and even instillation artists.
#3: Scientists Wanted
The government will also pay for scientists able to prove that their research will benefit from traveling to Antarctica. Check the NSF website to see a complete list of funding opportunities.
#4: Sail In
Most people get to Antarctica via tour operators who assist with logistics. They tend to use boats, which are the most economical way to make the journey, though trips still cost from several thousand to tens of thousands of dollars. Ushuaia in Southern Argentina is the preferred port of disembarkation (and a worthwhile destination in and of itself). You’ll travel past penguins, icebergs, and through the notoriously choppy Drake Passage before you get to Antarctica. Any operator worth his salt is a member of the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators, which promotes environmentally responsible travel to the continent.
#5: Fly the Icy Skies
If you want to ski the South Pole, climb Vinson Massif (the highest peak in Antarctica), or visit the continent’s vast interior, you have to fly. Because no commercial flights exist, you'll have to go through a private logistic operator. Antarctic Logistics Centre International is based in Cape Town, South Africa, and flies to a Russian base called Novolazareskaya (Novo for short). Adventure Network International flies from Punta Arenas, Chile, to Union Glacier, a small base where they kick-off guided expeditions. But you won’t find a ticket for less than $20,000 for a spot on their freakishly powerful Russian jet, the Ilyushin II-76, that lands on a three-mile-long, blue-ice runway.