For the past few weeks my head has been in Antarctica.
Earlier this year (spoiler alert) I made it to Longyearbyen, which is the Northernmost city in the world. Frigid, off the beaten path, and otherworldly, I fell in love with the place.
When I saw Starwood auctioning off a National Geographic/Lindblad cruise to Antarctica I knew I had to try for it. How awesome would it be to cross both polar circles in the same year?
I’m a big fan of using miles for once-in-a-lifetime experiences. Earlier this year I played on a DDF softball team in Wrigley Field with Starpoints. A few years ago I burned 25K United miles for 4 box seats to an Indians game. In middle of the game I got to run onto the field and literally steal 2nd base. As a die-hard Indians fan it was probably the coolest use of my miles ever. People around the stadium were shocked to see someone walking around with 2nd base. I got the base signed by several players, including the winning pitcher that night, and it hangs in my office today. It still has the Jacobs Field dirt on it. That story inspired other DansDeals readers to use their miles for some amazing experiences as well.
The idea of a cruise in general has never really appealed to me. I don’t like to travel in a group, I’d much rather march to the beat of my own drum. But when it comes to Antarctica I can’t just use my miles to buy a flight and wind up on the great white continent, so a cruise is a necessary evil.
Antarctica has long been on my bucket list and that was only strengthened when I helped a DDFer book an award ticket to the Falkland Islands in order to catch an Antarctica cruise. He later came back to DDF to say thanks and share this awesome trip report with amazing photos.
I started to get more serious with my own bucket list when my friend, Nadiv Kehaty, passed away last year at the age of 30. I booked and flew on the Island Hopper to Palau with AJK shortly after that happened. Mimi had zero interest in taking over a dozen flights across the Pacific, but thanks to DDF I was able to find someone to travel with so that I wouldn’t fly solo while checking something off my bucket list.
I didn’t have a problem finding a DDFer to come along to Antarctica with me, but of course as an Orthodox Jew there were lots of questions to ask and I started working my way down that list. The cruise would leave Ushuaia, Argentina on a Tuesday and return early the following Friday morning. On Saturday I would be stuck on the boat if it stopped anywhere unless it would stay put until after Shabbos was over. Shabbos near the Antarctic Circle is also problematic, but the cruise doesn’t go too far south, so there would be a sunset, but it never gets totally dark. If the cruise was in Port Lockroy on Saturday I would keep Shabbos from sunset Friday at 10:05PM until 1AM Sunday.
The other traveling obstacle for Orthodox Jews is kosher food. Many Orthodox Jews opt to vacation exclusively where there are kosher restaurants. Some do the exact same Miami Beach vacation every winter. I can definitely appreciate that, but that’s incredibly boring. I wouldn’t have been able to fly to Svalbard, Palau, or Tasmania by limiting myself to kosher food availability. But at the same time I’m not one to rough it. I bring gourmet food with me and have the best of both worlds.
Things are very different on a cruise though.
I called National Geographic/Lindblad about obtaining kosher meals on their cruises and was told that after paying for a cruise they would get in touch with me about kosher arrangements. I wasn’t about to risk my Starpoints without having the details hammered out. So I HUCA’d a few times until I was promised that someone would reach out to me.
They sent me a letter saying they normally can accommodate a “modern kosher diet” but not a “conservative Orthodox diet.” Apparently a modern kosher diet is when they bring kosher supplies from the US but there’s no supervision for what happens to those supplies onboard, which according to Jewish law makes it non-kosher.
I asked if I could bring my own sealed and frozen airline style meals from the US and they said no.
I asked if I could arrange for kosher airline meals from Buenos Aires based Open Kosher, the kosher meal supplier in Argentina, to be delivered to the cruise. I was given a tentative OK and began arranging it based on that. And then out of the blue I got the following phone call where they make it clear that they would not allow perishable kosher meals onto their ship even if I arranged and paid for everything as they state they do not accommodate Orthodox Jewish diets. Full stop.
I got the phone call while getting a haircut before Rosh Hashana, so I was distracted for the first 30 seconds of the call…
Audio of our conversation:
Despite follow-up requests via phone and email the “boss” that either may or may not exist never followed up with me.
I was pretty dejected after that. It was the first time as a traveler that I had ever received pushback in religious accommodation. Clearly that’s their right as a private business, but it was very disappointing that they weren’t willing to help at all, especially after indicating that it could be arranged.
My DDF partner emailed about bringing non-perishable snacks onboard and was told that generally it should be OK, though they asked to know what kind of snacks. Taking a small leap of faith, we figured we could bring aboard a combination of Tuna, Peanut Butter, and La Briute/Meal Mart shelf stable self-warming meals and survive the cruise. Cabins also have a mini-fridge, so maybe we would bring some vacuum sealed deli or shnitzel as well.
It wasn’t ideal, but we’d survive just fine.
The other issue National Geographic/Lindblad provides a charter flight from Santiago, Chile to Ushuaia on Tuesday returning Friday afternoon after a tour of Ushuaia. The flight is weight restricted which would make things very tricky if not impossible between camera equipment and 2 weeks of kosher food. For the return flight we wouldn’t have weight issues, but we would likely have Shabbos timing issues on the charter flight.
Instead I found award tickets to Buenos Aires. From Buenos Aires I’d be able to tack on a flight to Ushuaia as long as we stayed in Buenos Aires for less than 24 hours. On the return LAN had a flight that would work on Friday with miles, though bizarrely the flight itself kept getting cancelled and then reinstated every 2 days. There were flights from Aerolineas Argentinas that were dirt cheap, though they are intended for Argentine citizens only. Or we could stay in Ushaia for a few days to explore some of Patagonia and then take a LAN flight back to Buenos Aires on Monday or Tuesday. Of course that would mean more days of eating Tuna or finding a hotel to store sealed meals for us while we cruised to Antarctica.
The retail cost of the trip was about $28,000 for 2 people. The Starpoints bidding was at 478K points for 2 people on the morning of the auction’s close.
We figured that maybe we had a shot at 600K and agreed to go as high as 650K.
I have more than 2 million Starpoints, but they were nearly all locked in up in reservations at the S. Regis Maldives due to the price mistake that was found by an eagle-eyed DDF’er. I booked lots of reservations there hoping that one would work out for us as far as dates and flights. I still haven’t figured that out yet and the hotel is unwilling to edit the dates on those reservations, so I was reluctant to start cancelling them without knowing if we had a chance of winning the Antarctica cruise.
Normally Starpoint reservations can be cancelled instantly, but as this was a special rate it had to be cancelled with an agent.
The auction was set to end at 11AM on Tuesday, though SPG auctions get extended by 5 minutes every time another bid is placed.
By 10:39AM the bidding was at 590K. It was time to start cancelling some reservations. Cancelling several reservations took far longer than I thought it would, though other people kept the bidding going. There were times when I was having reservations cancelled that I was worried that the auction would end before I had a chance to bid and then I’d lose the reservations and the auction.
At 11:02AM I made a bid for 641K Starpoints which was outbid. I asked the other DDF member if we should go up higher and we agreed that we would cap it at 770K so I raced to cancel one more Maldives reservation and just in the nick of time I got the points back to bid 770K, which was outbid. I went to the full 771K in my account which also got outbid.
At that point we were done. I could have cancelled another of the dozen reservations in my account, but the value proposition just wasn’t there once we had to spend more than 770K Starpoints, book award tickets to Ushuaia, and bring along our own food for 2 weeks.
OK, so which of you guys outbid us. You had better post an awesome trip report! 😀
What places are on your travel bucket list?