Ever thought about going to Antarctica for the day?
It's possible through sightseeing tours by Antarctica Flights. The company operates flights that depart from Australia and fly one of 19 routes over the ice-covered continent.
Flights depart and land at the same airport, making this one trip that actually is more about the journey than the destination.
Tours in Antarctica's summer
Tours by Antarctica Flights depart from Melbourne, Sydney, Perth, Brisbane, Adelaide and Hobart. Each flight is 12 to 14 hours long, and flights take off and land on the same day (excluding a New Year's Eve tour that travels overnight). Icebergs emerge about three hours into the flight, and at least four hours are spent over Antarctica.
The aircraft, pilots and crew are chartered from Qantas, an arrangement that has existed since Antarctica Flights began polar tours in 1994. The company has operated more than 150 sightseeing flights to Antarctica to date.
Around six to 10 tours are scheduled each season, which lasts from November to February. That corresponds to Antarctica's summer, when the sun can shine 24 hours a day.
Look but don't touch
The flights don't land on Antarctica itself, but they fly approximately 10,000 feet above it. No sightseeing flight has ever landed on the continent, said Antarctica Flights CEO Bas Bosschieter.
"The air is so clear that it's almost an optical illusion of how close you are to it," Bosschieter told CNBC's Global Traveler. "You see everything, and the detail is extraordinary. When flying over a research station, you can clearly see the vehicles parked next to the buildings."
Australian Saki Galaxidis, who took the tour in February 2019, called the experience "absolutely breathtaking."
"It was a more affordable option [than a cruise], and you get views that you never could from land," he said.
Australian Michael Shen agreed. He bought a tour ticket because it required less money, time and preparation than a cruise.
"It's an exhilarating thrill from the moment when the first vestiges of white start becoming visible," he said. "I literally sweated from the excitement."
No passports required
Though flights leave Australian airspace, tours are technically categorized as domestic flights. Travelers can see a new continent without needing a passport or experiencing jet lag.
Plus, the mood on the flight is more convivial than most.
"The passengers on these flights are fantastic," said Janet Wood, a Qantas flight attendant who has worked on two Antarctica Flight charters. "They're all excited to be on the jet."
"Many of the passengers have had experiences working and exploring in Antarctica," said Wood. "And then there are those passengers who have longed to see Antarctica."
"It is a dream come true for many," she said.
An option while travel is prohibited
Bosschieter said 95% of passengers are Australians, a figure which could go up this year because of Covid-19 travel restrictions that limit Australians from leaving for other countries – and also restrict others' ability to get in.
The 2020-2021 schedule has seven flights, and "demand has been stronger than ever," he said. The flight from Perth on Jan. 26, 2021, which is Australia Day, has already sold out.
Due to the pandemic, Bosschieter said flights this year won't be sold to capacity. Passengers must complete health declarations and temperature checks prior to boarding.
The next tour, which departs from Melbourne on Nov. 15, also marks the introduction of a new aircraft.
"Up until this season, we have used the famous Qantas 747-400 jumbos which allowed us to take 350 guests," said Bosschieter. "This season we move to the Qantas 787-900 Dreamliner, with bigger windows and less seats, making for a far more comfortable experience."
Window or aisle seat?
Six classes of seats are available, and prices start around $1,199 Australian dollars ($877) for Explorer Economy class. Those seats do not have direct access to windows — passengers can stand in common areas and aisles.
All other passengers receive two boarding passes. Halfway through the flight, passengers rotate to a nearby seat to ensure everyone has an opportunity to see outside.
Passengers in the highest seat category receive international business class service and unobstructed views. Those tickets cost AU$7,999 each (US$5,815).
"People don't take this flight because it's 'value for money' — people do it because it's a one-of-a-kind opportunity," said Shen. "Besides, [it's] still cheaper than an expedition to Antarctica."
To cruise or fly over Antarctica?
Bosschieter warned against comparing sightseeing by airplane with Antarctica cruises, since the two experiences are "totally different." On a cruise, travelers set foot on the continent and see about 40 kilometers (25 miles) of coastline. The flights cover around 500 square kilometers (193 square miles) of coastlines, glaciers, mountain ranges and several research stations, he said.
Former passengers Galaxidis and Shen felt the flight was worth the ticket price, though both expressed wanting to take a cruise to Antarctica in the future.
"This was more or less a 'teaser' experience," Galaxidis said. "It was still incredible, and you could see Antarctica from a comfortable place without the need for any expedition gear or clothing."
Shen said he views the flight as a complementary, rather than substitute, experience.
"You can and should do both as they provide, quite literally, different perspectives on the continent," he said.
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