When I tell people I’m going to the North Pole, they ask how I’ll get there. It’s not like Carnegie Hall – “Practice” – but the work involved is comparable, in a way.

There are two parts to the answer: the nuts and bolts of applying and preparing, and the actual journey itself.

* * *

The preparations

OK, to begin with, a trip to the North Pole is not cheap. In 2012, the cost of the trips will range from $22,550 per person for a standard twin cabin to $33,250 for a berth in a deluxe suite. The price does not include the travelers’ airfare from wherever they live to Helsinki, Finland, where the trip begins, nor does it include the $1,150 round-trip airfare from Helsinki to Murmansk, Russia, where they board the nuclear icebreaker 50 Years of Victory. But passengers who confirm their bookings before Dec. 20, 2011, get an early-bird discount in the amount of $1,150, which basically means free airfare from Helsinki to Murmansk and back.

We’re only talking about 2012 because Expedition Cruises’ three sailings in summer 2011, each carrying 128 passengers, are completely sold out, with charters and individuals and waiting lists. Obviously, you need a lot of money to go, and obviously a lot of people still have it, even in these perilous economic times. There are mostly Asians and Europeans on the ships, but a few Americans too. When some last-minute cancellations came in, the empty berths were filled from waiting lists, sometimes practically the same day. The company got all kinds of requests, ranging from product launches (Promote your product at the Pole!) to the epic canoe-and-skiing journey of Cecilie Skog and Rune Gjeldnes from Canada to 90 degrees North.

Summer is the only time of year that travelers can go, since it is the warmest time of year at the North Pole. Still, temperatures may range anywhere from 20°F (-6°C) to 40°F (5°C), and average around freezing. During the winter, the ship is operated as a research vessel, studying climate, animals, geology and other subjects. So you must plan your summer vacation as a winter vacation, far in advance, and work out your finances accordingly.

Once you make the decision to travel to the Pole, you encounter a blizzard, not of snow and ice, but of paperwork. You must provide a copy of your passport in order for Expedition Cruises to issue an invitation letter, which you need to apply for a visa. The United States and Russia for years have had a complex arrangement that makes obtaining one cumbersome and expensive. Vice President Joe Biden and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin have had talks in the last few months aimed at easing the restrictions, and possibly doing away with visas altogether. This would facilitate travel between the two countries and lessen the very high cost of visiting. Regular visas for American citizens currently cost $140; multiple-entry or business visas can cost as much as $500. You need a dual-entry visa for a North Pole cruise: one entry from Helsinki to Murmansk, and exit from Russia to the Pole, another entry back into Murmansk from the Pole. Two entries cost the same as one, more than that requires a multiple-entry visa.

The invitation letter is mandatory. You may not enter Russia without a formal invitation. Independent travelers must find a hotel, agency or other host to issue one, they need a legitimate reason for visiting and it is subject to Russian government approval. Traveling with or contracting through an approved agency makes obtaining the visa much simpler. There is virtually no problem in obtaining one with an invitation from a company like Expedition Cruises.

Even then, the visa application is overly complicated, some might say intrusive. You must provide answers to all kinds of questions about employment history, schooling, previous travels, family members, criminal history, even questions like “Have you ever been sick with a communicable disease of risk for the public or suffered a dangerous physical or mental disorder? Have you ever abused drugs or been a drug-addict?”

They’re considerate enough to point out that “an affirmative answer does not automatically mean ineligibility for a visa,” but if you answer “Yes” you will have to appear in person before a consular officer. But hey, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services’ rigorous application and process for a green card or citizenship asks much more, including whether you’ve ever been a communist, a Nazi or a prostitute. No mention of liberals, thankfully.

At the end of your visa application, you must attach a standard passport-size photo. The dimensions are clearly stated and must be adhered to exactly, and the questions answered properly, or the application will be rejected or returned for more information. You’d be surprised at how many people can’t or won’t fill out these things exactly as stated, which requires the company to fix the applications or risk a do-over, or outright rejection.

The application is submitted to the Russian Embassy in Washington or your local consulate. It takes several weeks to process, unless you pay even more for expedited processing. It’s wise to allow plenty of time for this.

The next step is to fill out the following forms for Expedition Cruises:

Reservation Form: Pretty simple, though it does ask you to list cameras, laptops and electronic equipment you’ll be bringing.

Passenger Contract: Also simple to fill out, though it’s six single-spaced pages telling what’s included, what’s not, rules and regulations, all the standard stuff in a journey like this.

Medical Information Form: The company wants to know all kinds of things about you, for its protection and yours. These include general health, blood type, medical conditions and insurance information.

Helicopter Liability Waiver: The trip includes helicopter rides in the Arctic and at the Pole, subject to weather and other conditions. This form has you acknowledge the risks. Insurance, currently 50,000 euros’ worth, is part of the fare, and provides for rescue and repatriation, in the unlikely event that they become necessary.

Parka & Boot Size Form: Last and perhaps most important. You get a pair of boots for use in the Arctic, and an official Expedition Cruises parka, which is yours to keep at the end of the journey. Size isn’t everything unless you’re stuck with the wrong one.

You’ll also have to provide your flight information to and from Helsinki, and contact information, so the company can keep you apprised of any changes or new information. Traveling to the North Pole is not like going to other places. You can have a pretty straightforward, scheduled itinerary to go to most places, but the Pole is subject to factors, such as weather, that other tours take for granted. To be upfront about it, the sights and stops along the way are subject to change, and on rare occasions some of them, including the Pole itself, will not be reachable. The ship’s crew, scientists and other experts who ply the route say the weather has actually been milder in recent years, probably due to climate change, but stuff happens, and sometimes the weather or acts of God intervene to shorten or change the trip. Being flexible is part of the deal.

I haven’t taken the journey yet, so there’s not much I can tell you about it from firsthand experience. Most of what I know is the general scheme of things, how they are expected to go. As I said, stuff happens, and as John Huston of Forward Expeditions said of the Pole itself, “It’s dynamic and constantly changing,” so what you expect is not necessarily what you’re going to get. I’ll tell you a little more about what to expect before I leave, on July 22. There’s no cell phone reception or Internet at the Pole, so I’ll fill you in with the rest when I get back.

Advertisements