Can You Afford to Travel to Antarctica?

In October of 2016, we bought a one-way ticket to Costa Rica to begin our life of full-time travel. Many have asked us since that time what does it cost to live on the road.

On our first year of travel, we explored Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama, Colombia, and Ecuador. Our entire living expenses that year was under $5K each (total was $9,550K for both of us). We knew the costs would go up from there because we planned to go to the Galapagos Islands and, if we could find a good deal, even to see the ice of Antarctica, both expensive destinations.

What is most important to you?

We have never purchased anything just because we could afford it. Our decision to spend is not determined based solely on the fact that we have the money for it. Instead, we determine if we want to actually pay the price that is being asked for something.

Where we sleep, what we wear, or even what we drive is of little importance to Trin or me. Therefore we spend the least amount we can in those categories. What we get to see and do is a much higher priority for us, sometimes those destinations can be expensive, but they are what we enjoy the most and what we are willing to spend more on.

Angels landing scary trail
Climbing down from Angel’s Landing in Zion National Park, Utah

“I Wish”

Recently while visiting an acquaintance we sat in his beautiful backyard and talked over drinks. He asked what we do for a living.

“We are retired and travel full-time,” I told him.

“I wish I could afford that,” he said looking down at his drink with a very depressed look.

We were sitting outside his huge luxury home, next to a beautiful pool. His brand new BMW Zagato Coupe gleamed in the garage.

I have nothing against luxury homes or expensive items. That is the lifestyle that many want and enjoy. I think it is great that they enjoy it. It is what is important to them.

He could afford it, but he chose something else instead. Love your life wherever you are. Be honest with yourself on what you can afford – what you CHOOSE to spend your money on. Sometimes you can’t have everything.

Accommodations in Uvita
Accommodations in the Jungle in Costa Rica

There are some people who truly can’t afford to travel now. There was a time in my life when I could not afford to even have heat in the house. I’m not talking to those individuals who are truly struggling. I get that, we are all at different places in our journey. I only encourage others to be honest with themselves about what they can afford. Don’t use excuses to remain a slave to debt.

His car payment and HOA fees combined were more than our entire living expenses each month. It’s not about what you can afford, it is about the choice of where you spend the money. It is one thing I love about freedom. We all have the freedom to spend on what is most valuable to us.

Do you truly know where your money is going? Are you saving it for the things that are most important to you?

Or just saving for a rainy day so that trouble doesn’t have to be a disaster? When things go wrong can you easily move past them?

How to Afford the Big Things

We left the USA in October of 2016 and returned for our first visit in January of 2019. Our total living costs for the 28 months that we were outside of the USA was $42,338. That is $17,907 per year average for both of us, most of it spent after the first year. This includes everything except for charitable giving and health insurance / health deductibles which I will talk about later in this article.

Cost per country in South America

Of that $42K that we spend in 862 days, about a third of it was spent within a collective span of 35 days. If we did not go to the Galapagos Islands or Antarctica, our total cost would have been $12,000 a year for both of us.

We spent 13 days in the Galapagos Islands. We took an 8-day cruise and then did a few day trips from San Cristobal island. The total cost – food, flights, and entertainment – was $5,500.

My Antarctica expedition was all inclusive at $8.5K. That included all food, excursions, and tips. It was a 22-day expedition that normally costs $17K to $25K. For me, it was worth every penny. Note: This is the price of the expedition only. We were already in Ushuaia where I boarded the ship. Be sure to include your flights to Ushuaia if you are saving for your Antarctica expedition.

For Trin Antarctica was not his dream so he didn’t want to spend that much on it. He stayed in Argentina and stayed with a guy who wanted to learn English from him. However, he encouraged me to go and have fun – I love that about him. He understands that sometimes we have different dreams and he fully supports my dreams even if they are not his.

Our original goal when leaving the USA was to see if we could spend less than $50 a day. Our final average with Galapagos and Antarctica was $49 a day for both of us. How did we fit it into our goal? We spent little on the things that were least important to us.

Trin with a marine iguana on a beach in Galapagos
Trin with a marine iguana on a beach in Galapagos

Why did I spend almost 50% of my yearly expenses in 22 days??

Well, I wanted to… Experience is the expense I’ve chosen. My biggest love is isolated and unknown places. That 22-day excursion took me to the Falklands where we got up close and personal to huge colonies of penguins and albatross. The expedition also stopped in South Georgia, a truly wild and remote place of rugged terrain and massive penguin colonies. Lastly, it took me to the continent of ice, Antarctica, that was overwhelmingly beautiful. I can live on that experience for years to come.

The Budget Option for Antarctica

Sometimes the smaller boats will take on crew members, but you still have to pay for the passage and work as you go. I’ve read that it’s a genuine experience and you certainly get more time on land, but it can be quite rough if the Drake passage decides to show her strength on your way down or back up.

We looked for last-minute deals. Operators want to make sure every bunk is sold to optimize their ROI. It does not cost them any more to have those last few bunks filled so it is better if they sell them at a lower price to make sure they get filled.

We found my last-minute deal through Neill Drake, just a regular guy with a Passport and a Camera, while hanging out on the Backpacking South America Facebook group.

They seemed to have the best deal that we had seen or heard of after months of research. The ship I was on had been chartered by a Chinese group. This meant most everyone onboard would be speaking Mandarin. There were about 15 to 20 English-speaking passengers, but all the crew and expedition team spoke English. It made it feel like we had a small crew and it turned out to be a wonderful trip.

Icebergs and a snowy mountain in Antarctica
Antarctica Ice

What to look for when booking a trip

The research can be overwhelming. Here are a few of my suggestions and things to look for.

1). If you can, fit in the penguin colonies of the Falklands and the wild and beautiful South Georgia. They are equally amazing. Don’t find yourself sorry later that you missed them and have to pay for another trip to get there.

2). Smaller is better. Cruise ships that carry more than 850 passengers aren’t even allowed in South Georgia waters and most of them don’t do landings in Antarctica. Look for ships with 200 or fewer passengers. You will then be able to get on land. Antarctica has strict regulations on how many tourists can be on land at each site. It’s a great way to help preserve the environment. Having a baby penguin come up to you out of curiosity and peck at your jacket, or sliding down a hill in Antarctica snow, priceless. Make sure you get on land.

3). A good expedition team will make or break it. I’ve only been on one expedition so I truly can’t give you any kind of comparison. But I can with certainty say that the Albatros Expedition guides are truly top-notch and a huge part of what made our trip so amazing. Just check out the expedition experience of David Reid, one of the guides on my trip.

4). Look for an expedition that offers a coat. Extra clothes could add to your cost. If you are paying full price many expeditions give you a polar coat to keep. Last minute deals don’t include free coats.

Freestyle expedition, however, did provide a coat, gloves, and ski pants that I could borrow for the trip. They also gave me a knit hat and a buff to keep. I stayed toasty warm with the proper gear and didn’t have to buy something I’d rarely ever use again. Even the guy who showed up in Ushuaia from Cuba in his shorts and tank top stayed warm with the borrowed gear on our trip.

At the doctor our year in review
Visiting a hospital in Nicaragua after a moped accident on Ometepe

What about Health Insurance?

I always separate these expenses since health costs are drastically different based on your country of origin and your age.

While in Central and South America we purchased insurance through GeoBlue. It was excellent insurance and we never had any issues with coverage, even with my knee surgery in Panama and physical therapy afterward. They covered us for every country in the world except for the USA.

Now that we are in the USA for four months we needed to find alternate coverage. The problem with most health coverage in the USA is that it requires in-network doctors and hospitals. That doesn’t work for us as we would be in a different state almost every month. Therefore we went with a Health Share Option.

Health Share is not traditional insurance. Health-share plans are cooperatives with members agreeing to cover a certain portion of each other’s medical costs. They do not have the regulatory oversight of an insurance company. I’m a bit uncomfortable with the health share, but it will cover us in case of a catastrophe which is the main point of insurance.

I am willing to take a lot of risks, but at this point in our lives going without health coverage is not a risk I am willing to take. One accident could wipe out all savings.

Road to the fourteen colored mountains, colors of freedom
Road to the fourteen colored mountains

What’s Next for us?

We are currently in the USA for four months visiting friends and family. In May, we will fly to the Philippines. After a few months in the Philippines, we plan to purchase a camper van and explore Australia for a year with side trips to New Zealand and other surrounding islands.

What will it cost us? We don’t know. I’ll let you know in the next year or so. 🙂

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18 thoughts on “Can You Afford to Travel to Antarctica?”

  1. Another fantastic post! What you write about people making choices about where they spend their money echoes what’s often rattlibg about my brain. When you realize it’s cheaper to have the most beautiful, exciting, educational, and delicious adventures for less than it costs to sit home on the couch, why wouldn’t you hit the road?? Excited to follow Your Asian/Australian adventures. A question…How are you able to spend a year in Australia?

    Reply
    • Exactly, hit the road! Although I know that’s not for everyone, but that’s what makes community work :).

      We are going to apply for a year visa in Australia. We will have to pay for it, but I can’t wait 🙂

      Reply
  2. Wonderful post. So true about the priorities we choose. We are not retired yet but same principle applies. While friends are buying BMWs and Porsches, we are choosing to save our bonuses for travel which is our priority. And I’m so thankful for the ability to choose. Have a great time in the Philippines.

    Reply
  3. Excellent blog. And excellent description about money. Each individual needs to examine themselves and decide what is most important to them and what they can live without in order to reach whatever goal that they have for themselves. I agree that there are some people who truly are financially unable to do this; I have even been there myself. But for the rest of us, no excuse for not having a goal and being able to achieve it somehow. Keep the blogs coming.!

    Reply
  4. I love how independent you and Trin are, giving each other the space and trust to explore on your own! I tend to defer trips to colder destinations because brrrr! But your post makes a case. Did you have to purchase a new cold weather wardrobe?

    Reply
    • Freestyle who I booked the trip with provided a coat, ski pants and gloves to borrow. I had someone else ask about this as well – important to know if you are planning a trip. I’ll probably add a short paragraph to the post about it and maybe include a snippet about the man from Cuba who showed up in shorts and a T-shirt.

      Reply
  5. I think attitudes about money and spending are hard wired. A lot of marriages founder when both people have very different approaches to money, spending, and saving. My husband and I will celebrate our 38th anniversary this year. Our compatible financial personalities have made that aspect of our relationship smooth sailing. He still has a day job with travel opportunities. We mostly tack our “pleasure/exploration” travel onto those trips. We have 2 adult sons who are both self supporting and debt free, but they have very different approaches to money and spending even though they were raised by the same parents.

    Reply
    • Yes, I definitely think we are all wired differently towards money. Thankfully we can learn to handle money differently, but even with that, the hard-wiring does make saving easier for some than others.

      Adding on some fun to all your work-related travel is a great way to get out and see the world, it’s smart.

      Congratulations on 38 years of marriage, that is awesome!

      Reply
  6. I was excited to read about your experience with Antarctica. I plan to head there in 2022 with the 7in7 Digital Nomad Conference, which is visiting 7 continents in 7 years. Yes, it’ll be a terribly expensive trip but experiences are where I like to spend my money. Some trade offs I’ll happily make for my travel experiences include not owning a car (never have), not living in fancy accommodation (often housesitting for free instead), and keeping my living costs low. I have no regrets about having used intentional frugality to build up the savings to travel to 40 countries so far. Looking forward to following along with your future adventures.

    Reply
    • That’s awesome. It’s great that you are saving for what you value most. Antarctica was expensive but I felt it was worth every penny. I’m excited for you!

      Reply

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