Updated: Jan 20
The dream to travel to the South Pole to visit Antarctica came to be more than 10 years ago.
I started doing more research on Antarctic cruises in November when I came across some last-minute offers and group tours that were being promoted on Instagram. However, I still found it out of my budget (Starting at $6,995 USD). The research continued on until I narrowed down my choices to 3 cruise lines: Swan Hellenic, Hurtigruten, and Atlas Ocean Voyages. Hurtigruten is the most experienced in sailing in Polar waters, and though Swan Hellenic and Atlas are newer companies, I was looking into booking with them because of the dates that worked with my schedule.
Alas, I ended up going with Atlas because Swan Hellenic had sold out of the cheapest category (I still tried to remain on a budget) and Hurtigruten closed for bookings (mind you, this trip was booked very last minute, only about 10 days before departure!) So, Atlas it was.
Booking with Atlas was more a question of convenience and price (Atlas had a "Buy One Get One" offer at the time). Another place I looked for last-minute offers was Freestyle Adventure, a company based in Ushuaia.
Our sailing dates were December 9-19th, a 10-night trip to the White Continent. Typically, I never opt in for cruises longer than 7 days, but this was an exception. Most Antarctic cruises start at a minimum of 9 nights since it takes about 1.5 - 2 days to cross the Drake Passage and every ship must do so to get to Antarctica.
I did not like that Atlas only offered 1 GB of complimentary Wi-Fi when I could get unlimited elsewhere. If you wanted to buy more, options included $45 USD for 500 MB, $80 USD for 1 GB, or $350 USD for 5 GB. A huge bonus was that our flights from Buenos Aires to Ushuaia were included.
Our flights took off from the main international airport (Ezeiza) which was great, as some flights (whether you book separately or from other companies) may go out of the domestic airport, which is an hour away. Buying flights separately would have also cost an additional $600 or more per person (roundtrip), so if you can get something that includes the charter, it would be less of a headache. You may also find some companies offering a pre-cruise hotel stay.
As I do not drink, the all-inclusive beverage included with the fare did not matter to me. Gratuities, a parka, expeditions (zodiac cruising and hiking), butler service (only in suites), and emergency evacuation insurance are some of the other perks included in the fare. Some add-on activities included Stand Up Paddleboarding, Kayaking, and Camping (all weather permitting.)
We arrived for our 10:15 am flight early morning, around 6:30 am. There was nobody from the cruise line to assist and after some guidance from the airline (Aerolineas Argentinas), we found the right spot to check-in. Since we had a private charter (only cruise guests on board), the airline staff did not have much information but advised us to check closer to departure time for a gate number. It was only when we landed in Ushuaia that we found someone from Atlas to assist. We were forced to check in our carry-on (though the allowance is 7 kg max for a carry-on, a personal item and 1 checked bag at max. 23 kg).
The coach buses were waiting for us upon arrival. Staff came and took our luggage and told us it would be delivered to our stateroom.
On the way to the ship, we were given a brief history of Ushuaia and had some time to explore the port (but I felt that the time was too restricted since we only had about two hours or less). We were greeted with hors d'oeuvres and cocktails (non-alcoholic as well). We waited in the main lounge on Deck 4 for our rooms to be ready and also had the option to go for a light lunch. The lunch buffet on Day 1 was not so great, as it looked more like finger foods and light meals, such as sandwiches.
My honest thoughts about spending 10 days with Atlas Ocean Voyages are categorized below:
I will be very honest and straight up say that the food onboard was HORRIBLE. Before I get into the details, I will say that I was extremely annoyed that Atlas did not take my dietary restrictions into consideration. We had filled out an information form with all details more than a week prior, and the fact that they just overlooked it completely was very frustrating. I can only imagine how bad it would be if someone had an allergy.
I found the food to be rather extremely bland and lacking taste, but it may also be due to fit their target audience's preferences. I always had to add extra salt or pepper or sauces for taste. It was nice to see a wide range of cuisines offered, from French, Indian, Brazilian, and Arabic-inspired menus, but there was no dish that I would say was so tasty that it was one to remember.
The worst part was the wait time. There were many times we simply left the restaurant and requested for the dessert to be sent to the room because of how long they would take (only for a-la-carte dining). The wait times to get a meal were very long at lunch and dinner time, and I couldn't tell if it was because they were understaffed or if they were just slow at getting the food ready.
There were also times we considered just walking out and grabbing a snack instead. There were also times when we simply did not feel hungry anymore by the time the food came since we had already stuffed ourselves with the bread they gave us to munch on while we wait.
However, I did like that there were a lot of healthy options offered at breakfast and throughout the day at Paula's Pantry. My go-to every day included starting off the day with a wellness shot followed by a chia seed pudding and fresh juice. They had a honeycomb set up, lots of nuts, and an oatmeal power bar. Those were the main items I would go for at breakfast, other than that, nothing from the buffet interested me much, so I would always order a la carte. The buffet is relatively small compared to other options I have been offered on smaller-ship cruises, with many items either repeating or being very similar to each other.
There is also an additional restaurant on the pool deck, Al Fresco, which is only open on sailings to warmer destinations. Tea time should have a variation of items offered instead of the same/similar items every day. Scones would be nice too. It'd be nicer to be served at the table similar to how they serve afternoon tea instead of choosing from the buffet-style bar.
To say we got bored is an understatement. How much can you really sleep? That is how I felt for the first leg of the journey.
After a day of expeditions, I always found myself walking back to my room after dinner. There was music offered for the evening, but nothing great. On some days (only 1-2 days I believe), a movie was also added to the schedule.
Every day, we had a recap of our day where we got to learn more about the places we visited and got a tentative idea of the program for the following day.
It is not to say that there was no entertainment at all, but rather, it was poorly planned. There were a lot of lectures on several topics, from wildlife to photography, but they were not exactly planned at the right time. The lectures were interesting and nice to attend. You could also watch them from the comfort of your stateroom, but if you missed it, there was no way of going back. Having them recorded and getting the option to watch them at a later time would have been much better (and I heard the same comment from many others).
At night, there was not much planned. There was a show with the cruise director and daily music in the lounges. On one of the days, there was a crew talent show which was very fun to watch and interesting to see a personal side to the staff. However, in terms of music choices (ie: if there was any singing), the songs were from way back and not something we were interested in. Again, this may be due to the audience they are trying to cater to (which seemed to be an older crowd).
Towards the end of the voyage, it seemed that they had a better understanding of guests' interests and offered more activities, such as origami and trivia (despite winning, I never got the prize. They said it would be sent to the statement).
Since the cruise was also happening during the time of the World Cup, it was nice that they had set up a channel where you can watch the games live. They also had it on in the lounge so guests could watch it together.
Having more options and variety in entertainment would be much better. Giving guests the option to choose from different things will also allow for a better experience onboard.
It is the expedition team that has made my trip the most memorable. The team tried their best to maximize our time outdoors, which I really enjoyed. We had 2 expeditions every day (of course, with the exception of the days that we were on the Drake Passage or on days where the weather did not permit it). The team tried their best to get us out as much as they could to ensure we maximize our time in Antarctica.
The expeditions did get tiring, mostly because having to dress up and undress multiple times throughout the day took a lot of energy. Putting on the boots, snow pants and the layers necessary to stay warm got easy the more I did it.
Expeditions did not feel rushed, since we were given ample time ashore. Anytime we went zodiac cruising, we had a minimum of 45 minutes - 1 hour before heading back to the boat. The team communicated effectively with each other to ensure that guests had similar experiences. For example, if there was a whale sighting while out on the zodiac, they would notify the rest of the team members so that they can bring the guests over to the right location.
Additionally, the cruise director would also make announcements whenever there was a whale sighting nearby.
During every expedition, safety seemed to be a top priority for the team, which was great. They would always scout the area before we get the green light to go out. They also had cones placed on the land to indicate the places we were allowed to go.
On land, we were also given enough time to explore the area and get pictures of the wildlife. We were also well briefed, such as on how we need to get out of a zodiac safely, what we must do in case there is a glacier breaking nearby, and the importance of not disturbing the wildlife (by ensuring we keep a safe distance and staying on track).
Other adventure-filled activities were also offered for an additional cost. I also found that there should be some sort of warning before booking so people know what to expect as some expeditions may require more ability than others. For example, when we went hiking in the snow, it was a little hard to walk, despite the walking sticks provided.
While the staff was friendly and helpful, I saw a huge difference from the staff I encountered on other cruise ships.
On other ships, the staff was not only very professional but also a lot friendlier and easier to talk to. At Atlas, I felt that they were a little too serious, with the exception of a few. The staff that I found easy to get along with were the ones that had experience working with other big companies, like Celebrity Cruises, Regent Seven Seas, Royal Caribbean or Silversea.
After speaking to some of the staff onboard, I felt that they might have been the way they are because the work ethics are different in Europe as compared to America. On American cruise ships, you see staff engage a lot with customers because performance is extremely important. There were many times on past cruises that the staff had told us to complete the survey at the end of our trip and to mention their names if we had any positive feedback as it really helps them.
It is worth noting that the Captain and the rest of his crew did an amazing job of escaping the storm on the way back. With proper planning from the team, we were also able to get to Antarctica earlier than expected and as a result, have an extra expedition added to our itinerary.
On arrival back to Ushuaia, the coach buses waited for us just outside the ship and it was very nice that they had all our boarding passes ready for distribution in the bus, on the way to the airport. Therefore, we were able to skip the check-in process at the airport.
We were lucky as World Traveller had just recently been inaugurated and is a newer ship. We were on the second trip to Antarctica on World Traveller. Therefore, the ship had a very appealing design and a "fresh" feel. It is a Portuguese ship with nice designs and a color palette.
There were lots of viewing areas. The spa and gym were small, but still ok to get by. The spa had a nice sauna (loved the design) and a peaceful relaxation area that was free to access during opening hours.
As for the gift shop, items were limited, but you can still find some essentials. The gift shop did not have enough "giftable" items but they had reasonable pricing (with the exception of some items). However, it was very weird how they had upped the prices of some of the items halfway through the sailing. I have never seen this happen on any sailings before.
They introduced new items halfway through, which as a result made other items more expensive. For example, there was a penguin listed at around $12 USD (the size was pretty big for the price as well), but as soon as they added more penguins to the collection, they changed that price to $29.99 USD and had the smallest size (about a third of the original) listed at $16.99 USD. Though they still had the original penguin in stock, they did not want to sell it at the original price because of the new collection.
We were also misinformed about room service, as the staff told us that we would be charged if we ordered anything for the room. However, about halfway through, we found out that the charge only applies to specific items (such as caviar, which was $50). The menus on the TV were not very reader-friendly, and not always up-to-date. You can't zoom in or out to see the menu, it was just a picture and the font was not so big.
I am used to having an app for easier navigation throughout my cruise, but this was not available on Atlas Ocean Voyages.
6. OVERALL EXPERIENCE
Personally, it seems that Atlas Ocean Voyages has quite a lot of areas to improve on, with customer experience being a main focus. Despite the shortcomings, we found that our voyage to the Antarctic had value for money, mostly due to the excursions we had. I also found that Atlas Ocean Voyages was organized which added to the experience.
Our room was also pretty comfortable and we had L'Occitane products. Getting a balcony was our best choice for this journey.
The parka color is also very bright and ugly, as it is very flashy (think neon green). However, the parka was memorabilia and it was of very good quality. It kept me warm (without needing multiple layers). It had a vest inside that you can unzip and wear separately.
If we did not have as many excursions as we did and if we were not as lucky as we got with the weather, then perhaps this once-in-a-lifetime trip could have turned into a nightmare.
If there is one thing for sure, regardless of who you choose to book your Antarctic journey with, no matter how many things may go wrong along the way, and no matter how many things you may not like, the landscapes make up for everything. Being in Antarctica, and seeing the glaciers and wildlife in front of you makes you forget about all the other little details.
Though there are many aspects of the company (Atlas Ocean Voyages) that I did not like, I still appreciated their efforts to try to give the customers a positive experience.
I would not say that I regret choosing Atlas, but rather that it is understandable given they are relatively new compared to other companies that are more experienced. We all start from somewhere and I just hope that it gets better with time.