The infamous two-day Drake Passage is often described as a rite of passage to visit Antarctica.
But some cruise lines and travel advisors are seeing increased demand from travelers who want to fly on the Drake instead, saying it appeals to people who prefer shorter cruises or fear seasickness.
“I’ve had an equal number of letters from people saying, ‘How dare you offer Antarctica without their rite of passage that is Drake. It’s a badge of honor,” said Noah Brodsky, chief commercial officer for Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic. “And an equal number… [that say] “Thank God, because I’m seasick. I’ll never do Drake in my life, but it’s a dream of mine to go to Antarctica and you’ve made it possible’.”
Lindblad is the latest line to add the option to take a roughly two-hour charter flight from southern Chile to Antarctica on some sailings. Starting next season, Lindblad will offer eight-day cruises on the National Geographic Explorer with round-trip charter flights on the Drake or 10-day cruises making the crossing one way and flying the other.
Lindblad’s two other ships in the region will not offer crossings.
Several expedition cruise lines already offer an overflight option, including Quark, Albatros, Atlas, Silversea and Antarctica21.
Ashton Palmer, president of Seattle-based Expeditions, said Antarctic cruises with overpasses tend to sell out.
“There’s definitely a market for people who are shorter on time, especially Americans,” he said.
Brodsky said about 80% of guests booking flights are new to Lindblad, which tells him those travelers likely sat out an Antarctic cruise because of time, cost or fear of seasickness.
“Our average age in Antarctica is in the 50s now, so most people are working” and have limited vacation time, he said, adding that eight-day cruises are less expensive than the other, shorter option. , 14 days, so guests save money overall, even with the added cost of flights through Drake, $1,000 each way.
Lindblad said about two-thirds of those who book the flight option choose to fly round-trip.
However, the cost of a layover can be a big addition to an already expensive trip, which is one reason Lainey Melnick, owner of a branch of Dream Vacations in Austin, Texas, hasn’t booked one.
“When Antarctic expeditions are already one of the most expensive trips, most of my clients weigh the costs against the risks and they mostly choose to go ahead and pay less for a little more risk,” she said.
Disadvantages of Skipping the Drake Passage
Antarctic flights come with drawbacks, which is why Lindblad is only introducing them now.
Brodsky said the company wanted to wait for weather monitoring technology to improve and Antarctic flight cancellation rates to drop. He said the cancellation rate is now at 3%, down from 15% in 2019.
It’s among the reasons Claire Maguire, owner of Fort Lauderdale-based Cruise Planners franchise Island Girl Travel and Vacations, doesn’t postpone flights. With the weather in that region so unpredictable, she doesn’t want the flight cancellation to affect the customer’s trip.
Antarctica21, which offers flight cruises to two ships stationed full-time in Antarctica, said the unpredictability of these flights may actually be a selling point for its product: DAP Airlines, the region’s leading charter air carrier for cruise ships, is one of the shareholders of Antarctica21. As a result, the operator gets priority on Antarctic flights, an important advantage when the window of good weather narrows.
Francesco Contini, executive vice president of sales and marketing of Antarctica21, said that although about 20% of flights to Antarctica are affected by weather – which can mean delay, diversion or cancellation – flying over Drake once the storm clears is still more. nicer than being a sea for days if the going is rough. And flight delays are now more comfortable for Antarctica21 passengers: The company recently opened a flight waiting center, Explorers House, with a restaurant, bar and coffee station.
Contini said the brand’s focus is to offer Antarctica without the drama of dinner plates crashing to the floor when Drake gets rocky. It’s a pattern he said is borne out by the number of airlines now offering flight programs.
At least once the cruise line’s experience with Antarctic flights bucks the trend: Scenic launched itineraries with flyovers in 2021 for the 2023-24 season, but dropped the program due to a lack of demand, said Jason Flesher, director of operations for discovery of Scenic Group.
“It’s not sold. This is the end,” he said last month from the Scenic Eclipse II, as it crossed the Drake Passage.
Stage guests, Flesher said, have the time and desire to cruise the Drake and don’t ask about the option. “They wanted a longer vacation and to have the full experience.”
Maguire said the Drake Passage is a key part of the Antarctic experience.
“Obviously, people don’t want to get seasick, but it’s part of the grind of getting to Antarctica,” she said. “It’s part of the anticipation. You have two days to get there. It’s just part of the excitement of it.”