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Which Should I Visit: Antarctica vs. The Arctic Expedition Cruises

Icy frontiers at the ends of the Earth—the Arctic and Antarctica both offer travelers the adventure of a lifetime. Although you’ll find some similarities in these two polar regions, there are actually more differences.  


When considering a trip between the Arctic versus Antarctica, this expert advice from Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic, the leaders in polar expedition travel, will help you decide which epic experience is right for you.  

What Is the Difference Between Antarctica and the Arctic?


National geographic endurance sails amongst icebergs
The National Geographic Resolution nimbly sails amongst craggy icebergs in Ilulissat, Greenland. Photo: Michael S. Nolan


Starting with geography, Antarctica is the farthest south you can go, while the Arctic lies across the top of the world above the 66°33′ invisible line north of the equator. 


A key difference between these two polar opposites is that Antarctica is a continent surrounded by oceans and the Arctic is an ocean surrounded by continents.  


In fact, the Arctic is made up of mostly islands which belong to eight different countries and stretches over millions of square miles. Antarctica covers about 5.5 million square miles and isn’t claimed by any one country. However, there is an Antarctic Treaty, signed by 12 countries who help ensure Antarctica is only ever used for peaceful purposes. 


In addition to these geographical distinctions, the types of wildlife vary depending on the two regions; one offers cultural experiences, and depending on where you live, one might be a bit easier and less expensive to reach. 


This helpful at-a-glance graphic highlights the differences between the Arctic and Antarctica


Arctic vs. Antarctic Animals That You’ll See


When it comes to polar wildlife, one big difference is that there are no terrestrial animals in Antarctica, but a large variety of mammals inhabit the Arctic, including the region’s apex predator: polar bears.    


On an Arctic expedition, in addition to polar bears, you may also spot arctic foxes and hares, reindeer, and musk oxen, as well as a rich array of birdlife. Avian species to look out for include puffins, terns, snow geese, and snowy owls. 


Guests in Zodiacs photograph a minke whale
A minke whale breaches while guests in a Zodiac look on in Paradise Bay, Antarctica. Photo: Michael S. Nolan


Arctic waters are home to fascinating marine mammals like walruses, ringed seals, beluga whales, bowhead whales, and the elusive narwhal so be sure to keep your eyes peeled from the ship’s Bridge or bow. 


In Antarctica, penguins are the main draw for travelers. In fact, eight of the world’s 17 penguin species live in Antarctica and the subantarctic islands of the Falklands and South Georgia.   


This helpful guide breaks down all the different Penguins of the Southern Ocean. 


Whales are also often spotted on expeditions to Antarctica, especially blue whales, humpbacks, and orcas. Whale biologist and Lindblad Expeditions naturalist Conor Ryan notes that “the densities of whales down in Antarctica is off the scale compared to anywhere else on the planet. If people are into whales…then Antarctica is hands down the best place to go.”  


To learn more about the range of whale species, explore this guide to the whales found in the polar regions.


Guests in Zodiac photograph a Leopard Seal
In Antarctica, you can spot up to six different kinds of seal species, including the region’s apex predator, the leopard seal. Photo: Ralph Lee Hopkins


Leopard seals are among the six seal species you can spot around the continent, and birdlife includes albatrosses, Antarctic prion, shearwaters, snow petrels, and other seabirds that often accompany our ships through the Drake Passage 


Here are some additional fascinating Antarctica wildlife facts and stats


Is the Ice Different When Visiting the Arctic vs. Antarctica


Not all of the Arctic’s landscapes are consistently covered with ice whereas Antarctica is called the White Continent because of its amazing icescapes.  


In Antarctica, island-sized tabular icebergs reaching 100 feet above and 900 feet below the water are the largest moving objects on Earth. Wind and waves carve these massive ice forms into some of nature’s most awe-inspiring sculptures. 


“The most memorable days in my life have been in Antarctica because of the tabular icebergs–the really big flat top ones that are the size of skyscrapers,” explains Ryan. These are particular to Antarctica; so you wouldn’t see them in the Arctic.” 


Ryan points out that, “we see tidewater glaciers in both Antarctica and the Arctic” so that there are “dramatic calving events” in both polar regions where glaciers meet the sea.  


Hikers in Ilulissat, Greenland, walk in front of a glacier
A guest captures a pristine vista over massive glaciers on a hike to Ilulissat Icefjord in Western Greenland.


Encounters with ice vary across the Arctic, with some areas ice free and carpeted with wildflowers while polar bears hunt on the icy shores of other locations like the Svalbard archipelago. 


In the Arctic, ice breaks from the polar cap and travels with the currents, like the towering, iridescent icebergs and calving glaciers of Greenland’s Ilulissat Icefjord, a UNESCO World Heritage site.


Will I See the Northern Lights in Antarctica, the Arctic Circle or the North Pole? 


Nature’s light show, the aurora borealis, is a dazzling phenomenon found on many travelers’ bucket lists. The northern lights have a twin in the southern hemisphere called the aurora australis, which is also caused by solar winds.  


Both the northern and southern lights are best observed in dark skies around the poles where there is little light pollution. Any strong light—even from a full moon—can obscure auroras. 


A ship is an ideal location to view the brilliant polar night sky in darkness, away from any land-based lights. Although sightings are never guaranteed, don’t worry about sleeping through a stunning aurora, as our ships have protocols to alert guests.


Northern lights from the National Geographic Endurance
A guest observes the otherworldly beauty of the aurora borealis from the stern of the National Geographic Endurance in Kaiser Franz Joseph Fjord, Greenland. Photo: Ralph Lee Hopkins


In addition, two of our polar ships—National Geographic Endurance and National Geographic Resolution—have geodesic glass igloos on the top deck that can be reserved for an unforgettable unique overnight under the stars. 


To capture these elusive streaks of light, a camera with a long exposure set on a tripod is ideal. When you travel with Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic, you’ll be joined by an onboard certified photo expert who can provide additional photo tips in the moment. 


Read more about the experience in What to Expect: Observing the Aurora Borealis. 


Local Cultures and History in Antarctica and the Arctic


An Inuit dancer performs in Sisimiut, Greenland
An Inuit performer demonstrates a traditional dance for guests in Sisimiut, Western Greenland. Photo: Michael S. Nolan


The wide-ranging regions of the Arctic have many wonderful cultural aspects to discover–from Icelandic music to Inuit art to a rich Viking history. 


There are also more than 40 Indigenous ethnic groups at the top of the world, and some expeditions offer the rare opportunity to meet them. For example, our Northwest Passage expedition ventures to Pond Inlet, Nunavut, a small Inuit community known for expertly crafted soapstone carvings, where friendly residents share their ancient traditions and ways of life. 


Antarctica on the other hand has no native human populations due to its inhospitable climate, but it is interesting to learn about the continent’s scientific communities. Early Antarctic expeditions are legendary, and it is exciting to follow in the wake of inspiring explorers like Ernest Shackleton and Robert Falcon Scott. 

How are Expedition Cruises Different between Antarctica and the Arctic? 


Hikers ascend a hill in iceland
Guests hike pristine trails on the island of Vaeroya, Norway. Photo: Michael S. Nolan


Because there are many land masses and countries in the Arctic there are countless opportunities to disembark the ship and explore different towns, islands, and cultures.   


According to Ryan, it’s also easier to land in the Arctic due to more dry land and fewer regulations. This means that guests spend more time on land on an Arctic expedition.   


On Antarctic voyages, although you can take a thrilling around towering icebergs and walk near penguin colonies, there’s more time spent observing wildlife and icescapes from the ship, either on the bow or from the Bridge. However, Ryan notes that “we have more Zodiac operations in Antarctica to get into bays and close to glaciers and icebergs.”   


Learn about luxury arctic cruises


Find out about Arctic cruise costs


What are the Different Cruise Excursions While I’m in Antarctica vs. the Arctic Circle? 


Each day brings new opportunities for discovery on a Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic polar expedition. There is a mix of scheduled activities and presentations as well as flexibility to stop and linger when we spot wildlife or have favorable weather conditions in a protected bay. 


Depending on your itinerary, in the Arctic, you can hike to a thundering waterfall, stroll sea cliffs alive with gannets and puffins, search for polar bears on sea ice, or experience local culture by visiting museums, watching a musical performance, or meeting residents. 


A guest kayaks in Antarctica with National Geographic Endurance in the background
Kayaking at Peter I Island in Antarctica presents amazing opportunities for wildlife encounters. Photo: Ralph Lee Hopkins


Kayaking in Antarctica is a thrilling way to observe penguins, seals, and possibly whales at water level. Take a Zodiac cruise through brash ice and around massive icebergs, and land near penguin rookeries to get great photos of these endearing birds. 


There is never an extra charge for any excursion aboard a Lindblad-National Geographic expedition. When conditions allow, you’ll also have the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to take the polar plunge and earn unbeatable bragging rights. 


To learn more about the diverse regions of the Arctic Circle and what you will do and see on our different itineraries, watch the replay of our Discovering the Arctic webinar


For more ideas for Arctic activities, see our list of Top Things to Do in the Arctic.


Antarctica vs. the Arctic: Which Should I Visit? 


Icebergs in Lindblad Cove, Antarctica
Iridescent icebergs cut through the pristine vistas of Lindblad Cove in Antarctica. Photo: Sven Lindblad

There are definite similarities and differences between an Antarctic vacation and Arctic travel. One place to start when thinking about choosing a cruise to Antarctica vs. the Arctic is to decide whether you’re more interested in seeing penguins (Antarctica) or polar bears (the Arctic.)


If you are focused on icescapes and adventure, encountering no other humans than your shipmates, then Antarctic travel would be an excellent choice. An Arctic cruise vacation is the ideal option if you would like to see a variety of landscapes and are curious about life in the frozen north, learning about cultures both ancient and modern. 


If time is an issue, the length of an expedition can be a factor in deciding which polar region to visit. Arctic cruise lengths vary but there are short options such as the six-day Wild Greenland Escape and the 10-day Land of the Ice Bears: An In-Depth Exploration of Arctic Svalbard


Antarctic expeditions tend to be longer. It is rare to find a cruise to Antarctica that is less than two weeks as just crossing the Drake Passage takes two days in each direction. Lindblad-National Geographic’s shortest Antarctic expedition is the 14-day Journey to the White Continent


Accessing the Poles 


The time and expense involved to travel to a port of embarkation for a polar cruise might be a factor in choosing which polar region to visit.  


The Arctic is more readily accessible than Antarctica for people living in the U.S., Canada, and Europe. You'll start your adventures in places like Oslo, Bergen, Reykjavik, or Kangerlussuaq, which are between four and nine hours from New York.   


A major embarkation port for Antarctica is Ushuaia, Argentina, an airport that has no direct flights from the U.S.  


Adélie penguin walks on an iceberg
Adélie penguins are one of the four species you'll spot waddling around the Antarctic Peninsula. Photo: Michael S. Nolan


Guests arriving in Ushuaia from the northern hemisphere should allot two days of travel time. First you'll stay overnight in Argentina or Chile before boarding a charter flight to Ushuaia to meet the ship. Ryan points out a few things to note about travel for polar expeditions. “Cross the equator and you’re going to a different season. In terms of time zones, it’s a bit easier to travel to Antarctica.” 


He also notes the differences in the places you’ll travel through. “In the Arctic you’re going through bigger cities. In Antarctica, you’re seeing some quite remote places even before you get to where you’re going. To see Patagonia is a bonus as well.” 


Time of Year


The time of year when the polar regions are accessible might impact your decision of whether to choose Antarctica or the Arctic. For the best conditions, most travel is scheduled during their respective summer seasons, which means May through August for the Arctic and November through March for Antarctica.   


In summer, weather conditions are better and sea ice melts, allowing greater access to land for exploring. Also, snow cover recedes in many regions of the Arctic, providing drier land for hikes in the tundra. 


Find out What to Wear on a Polar Expedition


Learn more about the


Important Considerations


Exterior view of National Geographic Endurance
The National Geographic Endurance is purpose-built to navigate places like Trollfjord, one of the most beautiful fjords in Norway. Photo: Michael S. Nolan


Whichever polar region you choose, it is crucial to research travel companies to learn not just about their itineraries and costs but also important considerations like their experience in polar destinations, safety record, and ship size. 


Lindblad Expeditions has an outstanding safety record in the Earth’s most remote destinations. More than 50 years ago, Lars-Eric Lindblad pioneered Antarctic adventure travel, and Lindblad Expeditions has decades of experience in every region of the Arctic as well. 


Our ice class ships are purpose built for polar travel with strengthened hulls and designs engineered for smooth sailing. Powerful yet small, their size allows us to explore areas most larger ships cannot reach. 


Traveling aboard a small ship allows for a more intimate and immersive experience. You’ll be able to embark and disembark faster, giving you more time on shore. There’s also more opportunity for personal interactions with the naturalists, cultural experts, noted historians, and certified photo instructors on board. 


Explore our Arctic expeditions 


Explore our Antarctica expeditions 


Why Can’t You Visit Antarctica? 


You might think travel is off limits to Antarctica, but that’s not true. People can absolutely visit different parts of the Antarctic peninsula and beyond. Multiple travel companies take guests on an Antarctic expedition cruise when weather conditions allow travel. Antarctica is the seventh continent and belongs to no one country but everyone is allowed to visit. 


National Geographic Endurance breaking sheeting ice
The patented X-Bow design of the National Geographic Endurance allows it to cut through thick pack ice with ease. Photo: Nathan Kelley

Are You Allowed to Visit the Arctic Circle and the North Pole? 

The answer is yes! People are allowed to visit the Arctic Circle. There are multiple countries that lie in the Arctic Circle, the invisible line above 66ºN.33’. You can fly to an embarkation point and then take an Arctic cruise to explore.   


The actual North Pole, which lies at 90ºN, is more challenging to access, although “there’s nothing there,” according to Laura Macfarlane, who develops the Arctic itineraries for Lindblad Expeditions. 


She explains that although Lindblad does not offer North Pole excursions “we do go above 80 degrees north to locations like Ellesmere Island, Canada, and northern Greenland.” She adds that, “going somewhere is more than just getting to coordinates.” 


Explore How to Get to the Arctic


A Zodiac cruises past a glacier in Arctic Canada
Guests on a Zodiac explore the calm waters and jagged glaciers around Ellesmere Island, Nunavut, Canada. Photo: Michael. S Nolan

Earth’s polar regions remain some of the world’s least explored places. They each offer otherworldly, life-changing experiences impossible to have anywhere else. Stand among one million penguins on South Georgia, kayak in whale-rich waters surrounded by massive ice forms, observe a polar bear or a narwhal, or be awed by the aurora borealis.   Whichever polar region you choose—the Arctic vs. Antarctica—you won’t be disappointed.