Discover the differences between the Arctic and Antarctic for your next polar adventure. Our comprehensive article, written by Kayla Gollacher, compares these two unique regions, covering everything from wildlife to weather, and will help you decide which polar adventure is right for you.
What could be more exciting than a polar adventure? It’s an experience you’ll remember forever. But which should you choose – the Arctic or the Antarctic? It’s not an easy choice, as both have their own unique advantages.
We’re ready to help with some cool facts about these cold places. Choose your next polar adventure by following our guidance below.
Visitors from North America and Northern Europe will find Arctic tours more accessible. It’s more affordable for European travellers, in particular, to get to the Svalbard Archipelago from Norway. It’s also one of the best destinations for icy adventures.
Due to its isolation, Antarctica proves more challenging to get to. That affects the cost as well.
The time of year will largely dictate which polar region to visit.
The best time to visit the Arctic is during the European summer seasons (March to October). From October to March, large patches of the Arctic Ocean are too frozen for navigation.
If you decide to visit Antarctica instead, plan your trip according to what you hope to see.
For hordes of migrating animals, time your trip for the November to December period. The days become longer and warmer in the full summer period from mid-December to January. But for better exploration conditions with a spot of whale watching, choose late summer (February to March).
Climate and geography of your polar adventure
The Arctic is a region of the ocean covered by a thin layer of ice. In the Arctic zone, the ocean is surrounded by continents. It covers the Northernmost parts of eight countries, and Arctic tours include some of these areas on its itinerary.
Antarctica, on the other hand, is a continent, surrounded by oceans.
They are, quite literally, polar opposites.
These distinct differences contribute to different climatic conditions. The Arctic is a tundra, and while cold, the temperatures vary from -37 to 10°C (-34 to 50ºF). Antarctica is an ice cap and Earth’s coldest continent, with temperatures ranging from -10°C (14ºF) on the coast to an icy -60°C (-76ºF) inland.
Wildlife watching and vegetation on your polar adventure
Because of the different climates and geography, the Arctic and Antarctica have very different wildlife. It’s a common misconception that Polar bears live in both, but this is not so. Polar bears can be found throughout the Arctic, but not in Antarctica.
You’ll have more wildlife-watching opportunities on an Arctic exploration, as the trip will include the northern parts of various countries. Besides Polar bears, you’ll also see Arctic foxes and wolves. However, you’ll still be able to spot whales, seals, and many types of seabirds on an Antarctic expedition.
The differences in climate also affect vegetation. The Arctic has more diverse vegetation than the barren Antarctic landscape. There are about 1,700 plant species in the Arctic. These include shrubs, grasses, herbs, mosses, and even flowering plants. They’re a testament to the adaptability of plants to cold.
Due to the extreme cold, low light, and poor soil conditions, there aren’t many species of vegetation in Antarctica besides specially adapted vascular plants and slow-growing lichens.
Adventure activities in the Arctic or Antarctic
Icebreaker ships are used to get you to your polar destination, and it’s certainly a unique way to travel. But the real adventure starts when you disembark.
Your Arctic tour will include many thrilling activities, from hiking through the snow to ice climbing, and even kayaking. You’ll also be given the chance to see Arctic wildlife up close.
Antarctica, too, promises to be a great adventure. Hiking and kayaking are available here too. What better way to spot the wildlife who are mostly found at or near the water? You’ll sail past icebergs and be in awe of the beautiful icy coves and snowy landscapes.
Activities for beginners through to experienced extreme sports people are on offer in both regions. Polar tour companies generally provide all the gear you’ll need, and collaborate with qualified guides. That said, you may find slightly more variety in the scenery and the sporting activities available in the Arctic regions.
Both the Arctic and Antarctica tour organizers have strict rules you’ll have to follow. These regulations are in place for your safety, as well as to protect the environment. This is especially evident in Antarctica, where climate change has already taken its toll.
Tourism and the resulting pollution it brings can cause irreparable harm to these natural areas. Respect these all-important polar regions and limit your carbon footprint as far as possible. Adhere to any rules that your tour company sets out for you.
Because of its key influence on climate change around the world, many areas in Antarctica will be off-limits to you. It is necessary for the continued protection of this continent. If you prefer more freedom and a wider area of exploration, the Arctic zone may be better for you.
Do you want to see Polar bears in the Arctic or penguins in Antarctica? Your preferred wildlife experiences may be a deciding factor when choosing between the Arctic or Antarctic for your polar adventure.
There are also distinctly different cultural experiences to be had in these regions. The Arctic comprises several countries, most northern areas. Therefore, you’ll be exposed to multiple traditional Arctic cultural groups. Approximately four million people inhabit the Arctic zones.
This is in stark contrast with Antarctica, which doesn’t have an indigenous human population. There have been numerous expeditions to Antarctica, yet this continent is not owned by any nation.
It’s open to limited exploration and scientific research. But the Antarctic Treaty forbids ownership and development of land in Antarctica, which naturally impacts the scope of tourism.
Final thoughts on your polar adventure
An Antarctic tour is not ideal for everyone. The cold can be much more extreme, there’s less to see and do, and Antarctica is not nearly as easy to get to as the Arctic regions. For these reasons, an Arctic tour may be best for seniors, families travelling with younger children, and more demanding tourists.
Yet despite these challenges, both the Arctic regions and Antarctica offer breathtaking icy landscapes, magnificent wildlife, and the opportunity for some extreme sports. And a visit to either one will give you the thrill of a lifetime.
Save on your trip with these resources
These are our go-to companies when we travel. We believe this list to be the best in each category. You can’t go wrong using them on your trip too.
- Flights: we use Expedia for the best and cheapest flight options.
- Accommodations: we use Booking.com (hotels) or VRBO (self-contained).
- Cars (gas or electric): we use RentalCars to search for deals and dealer ratings.
- Campervans or Motorhomes: we use Campstar where Albom Adventures readers get a 3% discount
- Private guides: we love the private guides at Tours by Locals
- Travel Insurance: our go-to is World Nomads*.
Check out our travel resources page for more companies that we use when you travel.
*World Nomads provides travel insurance for travellers in over 100 countries. As an affiliate, we receive a fee when you get a quote from World Nomads using this link. We do not represent World Nomads. This is information only and not a recommendation to buy travel insurance.
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Have you decided? Will it be the Arctic or Antarctic? for your polar adventure?
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About the author
Kayla is a Content Marketing and SEO Manager with a passion for helping clients achieve their marketing goals. She manages a team of marketers who are pros at both on-screen and off-screen SEO. As they’re a fully-remote team, they can work from anywhere in the world. Kayla recently visited the UK, where she got to explore the stunning architecture and landmarks.
All photos on this page are either shot by our team and watermarked as such or stock images from Depositphotos.
I would say Arctic because I also really want to see Alaska. And as you said, for many it’s more affordable.
I’ve seen the price for Antarctic cruises and such. For that much money, Morgan Freeman better be along narrating my penguin encounters.