Life onboard an Arctic cruise ship

Arctic cruise vessels might be dwarfed by the type of cruise ships most people are familiar with, but when it comes to adventure, they go super-size. These are expedition cruises, so while the ship and cabins are perfectly comfortable with all the amenities you will need, don’t expect a selection of bars, nightclubs and rows of glittering gift shops that you really don’t. On an Arctic cruise, you are always focused outwards rather than inwards, either on the observation decks or exploring the area by smaller Zodiac boats and on foot, really aiming to make the very most of your limited time in an incredible location. Hours may pass with not much happening when you’re traveling, but just soaking up the quiet, the seascapes, the birdlife and the icebergs means boredom is never an issue.

There are different types of ship available including robust vessels that offer more basic amenities, but are suitable for venturing into very remote areas with the ability to break through stiff ice, and state-of-the-art ships that feel a lot more luxurious. Passenger numbers vary between 50 and 250, so it’s very sociable but not the sort of buzzing beehive you get on a mega-cruise. Another incentive to getting to know your fellow passengers is that you can expect to be out of mobile and internet range for long periods of time.

All of our Arctic cruise vacations are operated by suppliers that take a responsible approach to the environment, doing their best to minimise water and electricity use and waste production, but travelers can do their part by taking short showers, ensuring lights in cabins are turned off and not bringing along any excess packaging that then has to be disposed of.
You’ll be provided with a typical itinerary, but it needs keeping in mind that itineraries are purposefully kept fairly loose and vague, simply because daily activities will always depend on the weather, the amount of ice and whether any wildlife appears in the vicinity. Expert lectures on topics such as polar bears, conservation, glaciers or marine biology are given during slower periods, and you’re free to attend as many or as few of these as you like.
While moving around onboard, it’s recommended that you wear layered clothing, and carry around a ‘go bag’ holding everything you’ll need for the day such as sun protection, extra camera battery and binoculars. That way, if a polar bear or a narwhal suddenly turns up, you don’t need to waste valuable minutes racing back to your cabin.
The sea in the Arctic is generally calm, but can become rougher during bad weather, so if you have a tendency towards seasickness then it’s advisable to bring along a good supply of any medication you find works for you. Sunscreen is another essential.

Daytime activities

Dramatic, soul-stirring landscapes are par for the course in the Arctic. Expedition cruises sail along deep fjords, through ice floes and narrow channels, along island coasts lined with flowering tundra, basalt cliffs, mountain peaks and glaciers calving icebergs. The wildlife of course is entirely unpredictable, but every ship has expert spotters aboard, giving you the best possible chance of seeing anything from Arctic fox to polar bears and seals.

You will typically spend a substantial part of each day on the ship’s observation decks, which can be open or enclosed, but there will usually be daily activities on land as well. In both instances you will be accompanied at all times by expert expedition staff that have years of experience. Activities are very well organised, with transport by Zodiac rigid-hull boats, and armed guards occupying high ground throughout to keep an eye out for polar bears (if one does approach, guards make every effort to scare it away with flares or gunshots, and groups return to the ship if they can’t).
Off-ship activities include Zodiac cruises around icebergs and glaciers, guided nature hikes to see colonies of nesting birds or walruses, kayaking, the famous ‘Polar plunge’(!), and visits to sites of historic and cultural significance such as memorials to early Arctic expeditions or the remnants of whaling camps with their heat-blackened blubber ovens.
Zodiac boats ferry passengers back and forth from ship to land in groups of around 12, and it’s a very methodical process to ensure everyone boards safely. If the weather is just too rough to make land, then other onboard activities such as an impromptu talk will be organised while the ship sails into another position.

Evening activities

Evening meals are casual affairs, with no need to dress up, although if you have the space you might want one outfit for the final night. Following dinner, travelers will typically read or play cards and board games. Given the Arctic experiences 24-hour daylight during the summer months, you may find it useful to have an eye mask when you decide to turn in.

While the passengers sleep, the ship’s spotters remain watchful. If they sight something interesting such as a polar bear coming into view then unless you have requested otherwise you’ll be woken up and choose to head up on deck.
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.
Sandra Kormann from our specialist travel company Intrepid on the practicalities of life onboard an Arctic cruise:


“All cabins are en suite, and will usually but not always have either a porthole window or a balcony. If you’re sharing then the aim is to match you with people of the same gender and age group. The size of each cabin depends very much on the ship, whether it’s a standard Arctic expedition vessel or something more luxurious. For a twin on a standard vessel expect around 13 square metres, while superior cabins can be double that.”


“In most cases breakfasts and lunches are buffet meals, while dinners involve set menus. You may also have a couple of barbecues on the deck during your cruise. A big part of what makes these trips so unique and special is that expedition staff eat with the passengers, a fantastic opportunity to get to know them better and ask any questions you may have. Often the captain will dine with the passengers on the last night, and perhaps give a speech beforehand. You’ll be eating international cuisine for the most part.”
Written by Rob Perkins
Photo credits: [Page banner: steve estvanik] [Top box: Christopher Michel] [Walking: Christopher Michel] [Cabin: claumoho]