How to choose an Arctic cruise ship

Most cruise vacations see you sailing in what could essentially be termed a floating resort, where there are so many entertainment options aboard ship that many people are quite happy to never take a shore excursion. Arctic expedition cruises are pretty much the exact opposite of this. On an Arctic cruise it’s all about getting off the ship as much as possible, and your evening entertainment will be studying your day’s photos or sharing stories of sightings over cards with fellow passengers.
That said, in the world of Arctic expedition cruising there are still differences between vessels and itineraries that it’s useful to know about. Our friendly travel team is always happy to help with advice on picking the right trip for you, but read on to get a better idea of the different types of ship and itinerary available.

Sizing things up

At Responsible Travel it’s fair to say we’re not massive fans of the cruise industry and the giant, polluting vessels that cruise the world’s oceans. Any cruise vacation you find on our site uses small vessels, with a maximum of 250 passengers, minimising the impact on the environment and local communities, although your ship may have as few as 100, or even just 50 passengers aboard. The restriction on Antarctica cruises, with only 100 passengers allowed ashore at a time, does not apply in the Arctic, but shore excursions and other activities are still staggered as it can take a while to get everyone to the beach via Zodiac boat. The process is very well organised though, so no one misses out.

Type of ship

Not all Arctic cruise ships are alike. Some, especially more modern vessels, will be sleek and refined, while others will take the form of the classic icebreaker model with strengthened hulls, ideal for cruising outside summer when some routes may need a little persuasion to open up fully. You can even sail the Arctic aboard a majestic schooner for a spot of ooh-la-la. Whatever ship you’re on, you can expect it to be at the very least comfortable and spacious enough to spend a couple of weeks. Facilities are quite basic, though some have fitness centers and saunas. Entertainment comes in the form of talks from onboard experts, rather than disco dancing and card tricks, but then, the real magic show is what you’ll see every day from the observation deck.
Many of our Arctic cruises can also be suitable for passengers with accessibility issues. Some ships have lifts between decks, while trained expedition staff can assist you on shore excursions. If you use a wheelchair, it’s no barrier to exploring the Arctic.
When it comes to picking a vessel, the best advice will come from your tour operator. While some have their own vessels, most work with a small selection of ships and they should know them all from bow to stern. This is the best way to match you with a ship that suits your interests and needs, and if you take a liking to it, remember that many ships spend half the year in the Arctic and then the other half cruising the Antarctic.

Cabin pressure

On an Arctic cruise, everyone shares the same experiences and the same meals (buffet usually, with several meat / vegetarian options – it’s quite impressive how diverse the options are, and some ships will even bake their own cakes). One of the only ways in which you can up or downgrade is in your choice of cabin. You can share with others in order to make your trip a little less expensive, but there will be twin and single options available too, and some cruise ships also have a limited number of suites. Shared cabins are always single gender, and operators will also aim to put you in with people of the same age wherever possible.

Cabins will usually have either a porthole or even a private balcony, but there may be some with neither, again if you want to save a little. These are worth considering because about the only time you’ll spend in your cabin is to sleep and shower anyway. Only a few ships have WiFi, and that is likely to be limited to lounge and library areas. You may be able to buy a data package to use one of a few shared computers to check email, but it’s very expensive, so best to inform people you’ll be out of range for a while.

When to go

Most Arctic cruises operate in the summer, when the weather is warmest and the ice is breaking up. Cruising earlier in the year, in May and early June, has a real pioneering feel as you’re breaking through the pack ice, with hungry bears on the prowl after winter. The Arctic is most accessible in late summer, and this is also when you’ll see lots of wildlife, and flowering plants (it’s not snow and ice everywhere). By late September the Arctic is starting to freeze over again and it’s growing a lot darker, but there are still some cruises available as it is now the tip of the Northern Lights season. Expect temperatures between 1°C and -3°C.
Travel Team
If you'd like to chat about Arctic cruising or need help finding a vacation to suit you we're very happy to help.


For a lot of people the size and type of ship, its facilities and the number of people they’ll be sharing it with, are not all that important, because when it comes to an expedition cruise the most essential aspect is always the itinerary. Some trips are more active and adventurous than others, and if you’re that type of traveler then you may feel unsatisfied if you book yourself onto a cruise with a relaxed itinerary where you spend most of your time onboard.
The Arctic spans a vast area, but cruises tend to focus on a handful of key destinations such as the Svalbard archipelago or the Lofoten islands. For the more intrepid traveler, somewhere remote such as the Russian Franz Josef archipelago with its many polar bears might be ideal, while ‘softer’ adventure and convenience are found around Spitsbergen, the only permanently populated island in the Svalbard archipelago.
You will need to consider your own fitness levels – itineraries in the Land of the Midnight Sun regularly feature hiking, sea kayaking and sometimes bumpy rides in Zodiac boats. Of course, all shore excursions are entirely optional, and if you prefer to explore the beach while others trek higher that’s fine, too. If you want to get the most from your trip, though, it’s good to choose an itinerary that closely meets your interests but also your abilities.
Another aspect to give some thought to is who else will be onboard. Many Arctic cruise vacations are accompanied by experts on topics such as marine biology, polar bears or glaciers. They are happy to have people bending their ear throughout the trip, so if there’s a subject that particularly interests you it’s worth doing a little research before booking.
Written by Rob Perkins
Photo credits: [Page banner: steve estvanik] [Top box: Christopher Michel] [Type of ship: Rob Oo] [Itinerary: chrisopher Michel]