The term "expedition" brings to mind bands of hardy explorers slogging through rugged and hostile environments, munching on hard tack and praying they make it back alive. If your idea of roughing it is a cruise cabin without a balcony, an expedition cruise might be a grueling experience in survival...albeit in a gorgeous, natural setting. But if you like a little adventure in your vacation and don't mind trading a few cruise ship comforts for the chance to experience an often out-of-the-way destination in depth, an expedition cruise could be the perfect way to see Alaska, Antarctica, Baja Mexico, the Columbia River, the Galapagos, the Amazon or the South Pacific. In fact, many folks who book expedition sailings have never cruised on a mainstream ship.
Having recently cruised the Columbia River on Lindblad Expeditions's National Geographic Sea Bird, we know that there are pluses and minuses to this type of travel. To put it in perspective, here are the pros and cons of expedition cruising.
Destination focus: We often talk about the ship being the destination with mainstream cruising, but with expedition trips the destination is actually the main focus. These are cruises for people who want to really experience a place. That might mean taking a Zodiac cruise alongside a pod of whales or kayaking around some curious seals, pulling into out-of-the-way coves to get up close to places of natural beauty, or hiking through forests and along beaches, looking for regional plants or birds. Off-the-ship adventures on land and water are all included in the fare, as is snorkel equipment in warmer climes like Baja. Depending on the destination, you might also get a chance to meet some of the locals, often in small villages and towns -- with nary a chain souvenir store in sight.
Camaraderie: When you've got fewer than 100 passengers onboard, it's pretty hard to be antisocial. We found on our Lindblad Expeditions trip that expedition cruisers are an unpretentious and social lot. Meals are open seating and a chance to get to know your shipmates, while early-evening hors d'oeuvres and presentations were always convivial. Solo travelers will be hard-pressed to feel lonely as someone is always willing to chat or welcome you to their table. And because everyone is living in the same bare-bones cabins and have similar world-travel lifestyles, we found no one-upsmanship or elitism among the guests.
Education: Some of us like to come away from our vacations with more than a few souvenir T-shirts, a sunburn and a hangover (though we like those trips, too!). Expedition cruises are great for learning something on your vacation, usually related to the destination. Many ships are staffed with an expedition team of experts in fields such as geology, history and marine biology, who are excited to share their knowledge. Not only were our lectures on Columbia River geology, Lewis and Clark history and local wildlife interesting and informative, but they were humorous, too, with a naturalist-penned "Ode to the Coot" and a lot of in-jokes about basalt, our geologist's favorite rock found along the river. The education was not limited to scheduled lectures either. The expedition team will often eat dinner with guests and be available for questions; one morning, I found myself on deck with our geologist, who gave me an impromptu private tutorial about the planets we could see in the dawn sky and the phases of the just-setting moon.
Schedule: People complain about the scheduled nature of cruises, but I never felt so pressed for time on a mainstream cruise as I did on my expedition trip. Up at 7 a.m., breakfast at 7:30, first activity at 8:15, busy until lunch at noon, afternoon activities begin at 12:45 p.m. sharp -- you get the idea. I was nearly the youngest person onboard, and I was exhausted by the end. We did have lots of choices of which activities to do but were constantly rushing from a museum to a Zodiac tour to a historical site and then a hike to a waterfall. If you skip activities to relax and take it easy, you won't get your money's worth. Be forewarned -- and consider a post-cruise stay in your debark destination to recover before heading home.
Cabins: Expedition ships are built to be functional. While some -- Silversea's Silver Explorer, the small ship fleet of Un-Cruise Adventures -- tout their luxurious touches, most have only a few creature comforts. Cabins, especially, tend to be small and utilitarian. On National Geographic Sea Bird, cabins range from 90 to 120 square feet and most have narrow twin beds in fixed positions (no snuggling here). The shower and toilet are squeezed into the same narrow stall, and only a flimsy curtain keeps you from soaking the toilet paper as you bathe. But don't fret too much, as you'll be too busy to spend much time in your cabin anyway.
Price: These types of experiences do not come cheap. The fares are on par with luxury cruise lines that pamper travelers with attentive service, gourmet food and inclusions such as tips and alcohol. In that light, prices might seem overly high at first glance when you consider you're getting tiny, basic cabins and a lack of ship amenities and fare inclusions. But remember, what you're paying for is the knowledgeable expedition ship, high-tech equipment such as Zodiacs and underwater microphones, off-ship activities that are almost always included, and a very intimate cruise experience. If you look at the total value, you actually get quite a lot for your thousands of dollars.