Expedition cruising travel guide


If travel broadens the mind, an expedition cruise can expand it until it’s nearly blown! This is a real expedition, not a sightseeing trip, taking you to parts of the globe rarely visited by humans – from the Arctic and Antarctic, to the Far East of Russia – using a ship to reach landscapes so remote they are only accessible by sea. Expert guides and fascinating onboard lectures bring context to each far-flung region and once on land, you can visit Inuit communities on the islands of Greenland or Hudson Bay, meet the tribal people of Papua New Guinea, see king penguins nurturing their fluffy chicks in Antarctica or watch Arctic foxes hunting guillemots on Spitsbergen. Weather and wildlife permitting, you’ll head ashore as often as possible, returning to your vessel to swap stories, compare photos and fill up on hearty food, ready for the next day of adventure and discovery.

Our expedition cruising travel guide has all the details.

Is an expedition cruise right for you?

Responsible Travel recommends

Go on an expedition cruise if...

… you want an active break. The aim is to disembark at least twice a day, so you can explore the landscape by RIB and on foot. Breakfast is usually served around 7.30am before a day of wildlife spotting and exploring, and the crew will wake you up, even if it’s 2am, if they spy something exciting off the prow.
… you want wild landscapes and wildlife. Expedition cruises take you way off the beaten track on tough vessels that are comfy but not glitzy. The food’s good, the cabins are warm, but really, you’re here for what lies beyond the ship, not the ship itself.
… you’re eager to learn. Onboard lectures by geologists, naturalists, photographers, marine biologists and historians will bring fascinating context to the natural wonders beyond the boat.
… you have time. Week-long cruises around Spitsbergen are the most time efficient, but go further afield and cruise lengths tend to be two weeks, with some Antarctica expeditions lasting three or four. Plus, you have to factor in flying to the disembarkation point, too.

Don’t go on an expedition cruise if…

… you want to be alone. These are small ships with a tight-knit crew, a clutch of enthusiastic experts and a group of travelers. You can escape to your cabin or bury yourself in the library, but expedition cruising is essentially a sociable, sharing experience that works best if you’re eager to meet new people as well as new wildlife.
… you’re on a budget. Sorry, there’s no way to sweeten this pill – expedition cruises are expensive. You’re paying for use of a unique vessel crewed by highly qualified staff, as well as having to fly out to the boat, which could involve multiple flights on routes no budget airline has ever heard of. However, this really is once-in-a-lifetime travel.
… you get puffed running for the bus. A decent level of fitness is helpful, to cope with the cold (in Polar Regions), and sustain you while hiking. Expedition boats don’t tend to have lifts, either, and use rigid hulled inflatable boats (RIBs) to transport passengers to land, accessed by a steep gangway – not ideal for those with limited mobility.

Expedition cruising

What do these trips entail?

Erase all thoughts of floating mega-hotels, black tie and after dinner cabarets. This is a cruise boiled down to its purest form – a vacation where you travel to different places by boat. Those places, though, will be at the outer reaches of the map, rarely visited, sparsely inhabited (or uninhabited!) and wonderfully wild. Which is where the expedition element comes in, with small, tough vessels, capable of scaling high seas and breaking through ice, the only ones qualified to attempt this kind of voyage. While at sea, onboard entertainment includes talks, lectures and photography workshops, and once land hoves into view, all strict itineraries are washed away on the tide, as the crew expertly navigates the weather and wildlife in search of the best sights and experiences possible.

Who will be onboard with me?

Expedition ships tend to be small, carrying anything from 50 to 200 passengers. Fellow expeditioners may be from around the world, and a mix of ages, although young backpackers on a year out tend to be priced out of this kind of trip! The common bond will be a love of travel, adventure and the natural world. Conditions on board might be more cramped than in giant cruise ships, but expedition seafarers know how to respect each others’ space, and it’ s easy to escape if you want to, whether taking time out on deck to watch an albatross gliding alongside or snoozing in your cabin.

Can I travel solo?

A good many people travel on their own on expedition cruises. This isn’t a week in the Med, after all. The ships aren’t huge, so it’s easy to meet fellow passengers, and as you’re brought together by a common interest, friendships quickly blossom. And once you’ve taken your first Zodiac ride to see turquoise icebergs floating near vast glaciers or a polar bear atop a snowy cliff, you have an immediate and unique bond.

At meal times, seats are not usually assigned, so you can move about and get to know everyone. The onboard guides and experts usually sit with different people at dinner, so you’ll have a chance to enjoy a meal with them, too.

Will I get seasick?

The Southern Ocean is one of the roughest oceans in the world, with the tumultuous, two-day crossing of the Drake Passage between South America and Antarctica legendary. Once in Antarctica, however, waters are usually calm. On the other side of the globe, Arctic waters are also relatively calm, but bad weather can cause rough water anywhere, and even a bouncy ride on a Zodiac across calm seas can unsettle delicate stomachs.

Find out if your vessel has stabilisers, which can help reduce the pitch and roll and try to book a cabin towards the center of the ship and low down, too, where movement is more limited. It’s normal to experience some seasickness at the start of the journey, but most people find their sea legs pretty fast, and then recover for the remainder of the voyage. Different medicines and preventions suit different people, and prevention is better than cure, so if you’re concerned about sickness, act before the cruise starts. Antarctic expedition vessels have medical facilities and staff onboard as standard, but if you’re taking an expedition elsewhere find out if there is a medical advisor or small clinic onboard to help in the rare cases of extreme seasickness.

What's cooking?

Expedition boats typically provide three meals a day, including a buffet breakfast with cooked options, too; a buffet, barbecue or three-course meal for lunch; and a dinner that might run to four courses, with a choice of mains. Tea, coffee and fresh fruit are always on offer. There are usually vegetarians options available, and anyone with specific dietary requirements can be catered for, although it’s important to flag this up before departure.

What is there to do onboard?

Some itineraries involve full days at sea, but there’s always plenty to do. Films, talks and lectures will fill you in on the region you’re sailing to, with plenty of books in the library to flesh out the picture. Chatting with fellow passengers passes the time easily and the cruise’s expert leaders will be hanging out with you, happy to share their knowledge of the wildlife and geography. Most ships have a bar, a lounge or two and a lecture theatre; some even have a small gym. You may be able to pay for Internet access, and should be given an onboard email address, but leaving the modern world behind is also one of the beauties of this kind of trip – don’t expect to be uploading your pics to Instagram every evening! The vessels themselves are comfortable and practical, and the focus and emphasis of any expedition cruise is to get you ashore as often as possible for as long as possible, to experience the landscapes and wildlife waiting there.

How is this kind of vacation responsible?

Expedition cruises take you far off the beaten track to pristine environments, unaffected by large scale human activity. Visiting is a privilege and expedition cruises generally take the responsibilities associated with traveling here extremely seriously.
The small ship size and limited passenger numbers on responsible expedition cruises protect the regions they visit. Less people means less waste, and small groups going ashore minimise the impact on the landscape and wildlife.

All Antarctic expedition cruises must be planned and conducted under full membership of the IAATO – International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators – abiding by its strict codes of conduct. Many polar expedition cruise operators abide by these rules in the Arctic, too. Around the Subantarctic Islands, meanwhile, tourism is allowed, but only under special license, and expedition vessels here often carry no more than 50 passengers.

Responsible operators are also committed to conserving the places they visit, contributing to charities that maintain these wild regions, offsetting emissions and carefully controlling encounters with polar bears, walruses and whales.

Rodney Russ is a biologist and expedition leader, and the founder of our supplier Heritage Expeditions: “As biologists and ornithologists, we are intimately aware of the many issues that confront wildlife and their habitats, the world’s oceans and isolated ethnic groups. We aim to actively contribute to the conservation of the places we visit.”

Best time to go on an expedition cruise


The best time to go on an Arctic cruise is Apr-Sep, when the sea ice melts enough to let ships pass. April promises bigger icebergs and possibly the Northern Lights, but Jun-Aug is when most trips run. The best time to visit the Subantarctic Islands is during their summer, Dec-Feb, with temperatures between 6°C-10°C. Antarctica can only be reached in Nov-Mar, when the sun is above the horizon, sea ice melts to give access and temperatures climb above freezing. In the Russian Far East, the landscape is vibrant and most animals visible in Wrangel Island and Chukotka Jul-Aug, while Kamchatka is stunning in Sep.
Photo credit: [Topbox: Gary Bembridge] [Entail intro: Roderick Eime] [Entail solo: Gary Bembridge] [Entail cooking: Jorge Láscar] [Entail rt: Gary Bembridge] [Temp pic: Roderick Eime] [Helpdesk: Roderick Eime]
Written by Joanna Simmons
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