How to choose a cruise ship for Antarctica


The biggest difference between a standard cruise and an Antarctic one is that the ships in Antarctica are essentially just your accommodation and transport; the entertainment and adventures happen when you disembark. So forget about the tribute bands, casinos and dance classes, and focus instead on the zodiac trips, whale watching and snowshoeing – with the ship as a means to get you there.
Of course, you will still have to choose an expedition vessel – and while they won’t have nightclubs and flumes, they do vary greatly. So here are our tips on how to choose a cruise ship for Antarctica.

Size matters

One of the biggest considerations is the size of your ship. At Responsible Travel, we only promote cruise ships – in any destination – that carry 250 passengers or fewer, due to the environmental impact of these vessels. However, in Antarctica you’ll need to bear in mind that only 100 passengers are permitted to disembark at any one time according to regulations set by the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators (IAATO), so for ships carrying over 200 passengers that will mean you will not be able to disembark every day. The regulations also state that ships carrying 500+ passengers may not land at all, so if you have a cabin one of these, you’ll have to content yourself by watching the frozen continent pass by through your porthole.
For ships with 100 passengers or fewer, you can disembark every time the ship stops, heading out of zodiac trips to watch wildlife or set foot on land. Smaller vessels also offer a more intimate onboard atmosphere, with much more opportunities to get to know your fellow passengers, to share stories, swap photos and make friends – this is particularly ideal for solo travelers. Smaller ships also have a greater choice of landing sites – both in practical terms, as they can enter smaller harbours – and according to IAATO regulations.
There are some advantages to larger ships, however. They are generally more stable – reducing the chance of seasickness, especially on the lower decks. And they will have a wider range of facilities on board.


One thing most Antarctic expedition ships will have is a lecture theatre, where marine biologists, zoologists, historians and geologists give fascinating talks and presentations to help you make sense of the surreal scenes around you. There may also be guest photographers on board who can offer tips on how to take better pictures in the unusual polar conditions. These lectures take place throughout the expedition, often a couple of times a day, and are a good way to pass the time as you cross the Drake Passage – if you’re feeling well enough to attend!
Some ships, particularly former research vessels, have large outdoor decks – while others have enclosed observation decks, surrounded by panoramic windows – which may be preferable while crossing the Drake Passage, or watching wild polar storms. The research vessels have plenty of character and offer a more pioneering feel – though they have generally been reconditioned to offer cabins and facilities that are just as comfortable as their more modern counterparts.
Other facilities may include a sauna – a welcome treat after an icy trek! – a gym and a library. This will be well stocked with books on the polar regions, wildlife and history for you to swot up between shore excursions.

Ice breaking or ice strengthened?

Icebreaker ships tend to be confined to Arctic waters, but surprisingly, not all Antarctic ships are even ice strengthened. Those that are will be able to set sail earlier in the season and cruise further along the peninsula, which you may also want to take into consideration. It’s worth noting that few Antarctic expeditions actually cross the Antarctic Circle – so setting sail in an ice strengthened ship later in the season may be the best way to do this.

How lux do you want to go?

You’re not going to be roughing it on any Antarctic expedition vessel, but there are certainly varying levels of comfort and facilities. Lifts, hot tubs, gyms, libraries and three-course dinners, rather than buffets, are some of the options on offer – some of these will result in a more expensive cruise, although the biggest factor will be your choice of cabin. Smaller vessels may ensure all their cabins have portholes or windows; larger vessels will have cheaper cabins without. And think about whether you really need an en suite bathroom as this will be one of the easiest ways to cut costs – along with being prepared to share your cabin.
This is definitely something to consider as unlike regular cruises, the idea is to spend as much time as possible out and about – on deck, in the lecture room and off the ship, exploring Antarctica. So there will be little free time to be holed up in your cabin.

Who else is on board?

You will always be joined by zoologists, researchers, photographers or geologists, but if there is one particular aspect of polar exploration that appeals to you, then read up on each departure to find out if there is a specialist in this area. Some expeditions are joined by BBC wildlife camera operators or renowned photographers, for example; others will include trips led by experts in the human history of Antarctica or perhaps whale specialists. These experts will often act as your guides off the ship as well – as you ride in the zodiacs, visit research stations or trek across the ice.


Some of the daily activities will also be dependent on your choice of ship. Some departures offer kayaking, for example; some ships are equipped with these but numbers may be limited so do your research to find out what is available. Other activities such as camping on Antarctica, snowshoeing and polar diving will also be dependent on the available equipment and itinerary, so have a good chat with your tour operator before booking.

Speak to your tour operator

This is the most valuable piece of advice we can give. A handful of operators have their own ships; the rest will have a selection of vessels they work with, any operator worth traveling with (and spending this much money with!) should know the ship well – and be able to match you to the vessel that will suit your needs, interests and budget best. Some passengers grow so fond of their expedition ships that they go on to book them again – on the other side of the world. As the Antarctic and Arctic cruise seasons are at opposite times of year, the same ships are used, sailing around the globe to reach the opposite pole in time for the next summer season.
Photo credits: [Top box: Roderick Eime] [Size matters: Roderick Eime] [Facilities: Ben Stephenson] [How lux do you want to go: Ben Stephenson] [Activities: Christopher Michel] [Speak to your tour op: Rob Oo]
Written by Vicki Brown
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