Traveling to the seventh continent on points

Trips to Antarctica aren't cheap but that doesn't mean they're not possible – start working on your rewards points now for an unforgettable trip in 2020


Don’t let the hefty price tag deter you from checking the seventh continent off your bucket list. With the right combination of rewards, points and cash back, Antarctica is within reach.

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For nearly 10 years, Antarctica was on the very top of my dream trip list. Like many travelers, this vast continent of snow and ice would be the last of the seven continents I would visit.

A holiday in Antarctica takes some serious planning. There are no commercial airports, the number of visitors is regulated, the season when you can visit is short, and unless you’re an intrepid explorer like Colin O’Brady (the first person to trek 932 miles solo across the frozen continent) you have to travel as part of an organized expedition.

However, the primary reason travelers don’t make it to Antarctica is simple: Trips to Antarctica don’t come cheap.

See related: How to plan a fly-and-drive road trip using rewards, points

Travel to Antarctica: How to start planning

Depending on the number of days you want to explore and the level of luxury you’re after, it costs from $5,000 to $50,000 for a voyage to visit the icebergs and the penguins.

Add to that another $1,000 for airfare to Ushuaia, Argentina (USH), the primary jumping off point to the seventh continent.

For a budget-conscious points traveler like myself, paying even the lower-end cash price of $6,000 for the cheapest trip feels crazy expensive.

However, writing this column as someone who has finally set foot on the seventh continent, I can confirm that Antarctica is a trip that is worth every single penny.

If whales, penguins, glaciers, and kayaking around icebergs the size of buildings have even been on your radar (and trust me, they should be), now is the perfect time to start working your rewards to get to Antarctica in 2020 or even 2021 (the 2019 season has already passed).

Antarctica is within reach using points

I’m also happy to share that it’s not impossible to cover at least a portion of your trip with rewards– perhaps even the whole thing if you’re very well organized to stash away a whole lot of points.

You’ll need a two-part credit card rewards earning strategy to cover your main Antarctica costs.

  1. Pay your airfare with points or miles earning cards.
  2. Cover expedition costs with cash back.

Pay your airfare to Antarctica with points or miles earning cards

The easiest way to save your first $1,000 on an Antarctica expedition is to pay for your airfare with points.

Most ships bound for the Antarctic Peninsula and beyond depart from Ushuaia, Argentina (USH) the southern-most point in the Americas. Ushuaia is easily reached from any U.S. gateway city via the capital of Buenos Aires.

The two airlines that fly into USH are LATAM, a partner in the oneworld alliance, and Aerolineas Argentinas a member of SkyTeam.

Flights on LATAM are bookable with American AAdvantage miles, British Airways Avios or Alaska Mileage Plan points. Earn these with:

Flights on Aerolineas Argentinas are bookable with Delta Sky Miles or Flying Blue points (KLM/Air France). Earn these with:

If you want to score an awards ticket to Ushuaia, keep in mind that trips to Antarctica only operate during a very small high-season window and most people plan well in advance. You’ll want to book as early as possible to find availability.

When I finally got my chance to visit Antarctica, I didn’t follow my own advice and needed to get tickets for two at the last minute.

I couldn’t find any award availability from the U.S. connecting through Buenos Aires (EZE) to USH directly, so I mixed and matched my awards to fly into EZE on one award ticket, and onto Ushuaia on another.

My first award got us business-class saver tickets to EZE on Air Canada for 60,000 points each way (booked through United with points from my Chase United Explorer card).

After taking a stopover in Buenos Aires for a few days of tango lessons, we hopped on a second domestic award flight from AEP (the Buenos Aires domestic airport) direct to USH on Aerolineas Argentinas for 17,500 Flying Blue points per person, each way for an economy class ticket.

If you prefer a credit card like the Chase Sapphire Reserve that collects flexible points, note that both of the tickets above could have been purchased through transfer partners of Chase.

Cover a portion of your expedition costs with cash back

There is not yet a credit card that offers a “travel to your seventh continent for free benefit.” Cash back points are your best bet to offset the cost of your Antarctic expedition.

Earn points on a cash back card with a fixed-rate redemption or “travel eraser” like the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card or the Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite Mastercard®.

When you charge your expedition to your credit card you’ll be able to redeem your cash back as a statement credit against the purchase.

Most cash back cards earn at a rate of up to 2 percent – meaning that you earn $2 in travel credit for every $100 of spending, or 2 points for every dollar spent.

If you want to cover the full cost with cash back, you’ll need to be very committed to points earning for a time (or spend a lot of money).

Consider, if you want to travel to Antarctica on a lower-cost trip such as Intrepid Travel’s 2020 Antarctica expedition selling for $4,990.

If you’re saving on a cash back card with a travel eraser like the Capital One Venture card, you’d need approximately 499,900 points to pay the full cost for your trip.

Even if you earn the Capital One sign up bonus of 50,000 points, you’ll still need 449,000 points or $224,500 of spending at a 2x rate to pay the full cost of your trip.

You can speed up your earning by taking advantage of special spending bonuses on cash back cards like the Venture card’s 10x earning on hotels through Jan 2020, or by maxing out the quarterly cash back bonuses on the Chase Freedom.

The beauty of these cash back programs is that even if you can’t reach the full amount to pay with points, you can use whatever amount that you have accrued to offset the cash price.

On my trip to Antarctica, I booked through Polar Expeditions, a great outfitter whose lowest end rooms on their higher-end trips begin at $8,999. Unfortunately for me, I took this trip before I fully understood the power of cash back cards, and I had to save up to pay for my trip with cash.

While it would have been great to have paid less using the power of points, paying the cost for my experience in Antarctica was money very well spent.

Is 2020 the year you’ll finally check the seventh continent off your list?

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