For many people, a visit to either the Arctic or Antarctica is a great adventure, best done on an expedition cruise ship. These vessels come equipped with naturalists and guides, Zodiac rides and the ability to visit areas most people never dream of seeing. And now, as small-ship expedition cruising is booming, choice is abundant -- and confusing.
Let our guide to cruising to Antarctica and the Arctic help you decide which expedition cruise to choose.
Editor's note: Capacities provided reflect a full ship at double-occupancy. Many cruise lines sail polar itineraries at less than capacity, so use the figures as a guide, and check with your cruise line when booking.
You Want to Cruise With a Company That Has Lots of Experience
The Arctic: Pick Hurtigruten, a company that's been around since 1893 and is almost synonymous with Arctic exploration. (One of Hurtigruten's ships, MS Lofoten, was put into service in 1964 and still operates today.)
The cruise line continues to grow; it added electric-powered Roald Amundsen to the fleet in 2019 and has two more equally green ships on the way. Hurtigruten's ships are so much a part of Norway, they often serve as a means of coastal transport for residents. Ships range in capacity from 151 to 970 passengers and visit a variety of Norwegian coastal locations as well as Greenland. Hurtigruten also offers full and partial transits of the famed Northwest Passage.
Antarctica: One of the first names many think of when it comes to expedition, Lindblad has a reputation for seamlessly combining education and adventure. In 1966, Lars-Eric Lindblad led 57 travelers to Antarctica, the first commercial expedition to the destination.
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Lindblad has grown over the years, and the company now has three ships committed to sailing in Antarctica (carrying from 102 to 148 passengers). All three ships feature Zodiacs and kayaks, and you can cross-country ski or snowshoe on the Seventh Continent. And for the really brave, there's the Polar Plunge -- a quick dip in the South Sea that earns you hot chocolate (or something stronger), plus a cool badge.
Go deep into Antarctica -- Lindblad even offers a cruise that transits the bottom of the world, from Ushuaia to New Zealand (or vice versa), hitting multiple stops in Antarctica. Or combine Antarctica with South Georgia and the Falklands.
You Want Luxury With Your Expedition
The Arctic: Loyal Silversea passengers know it's a cruise line that doesn't skimp on, well, anything. All three ships sailing Arctic itineraries, ranging in capacity from 132 to 298 passengers, are inclusive of virtually anything you'd require, including shore excursions, beverages -- including an excellent selection of wine -- and gourmet dining. Service onboard is exceptional, with butlers assigned to each cabin. Decor is simple yet elegant, making the ships peaceful places to unwind after a day of exploration in port.
Silversea's expedition cruises visit Greenland, Norway and northern Canada. The cruise line also offers Northwest and Northeast Passage cruises.
Antarctica: Abercrombie & Kent, a company long known for its custom boutique land tours, offers a handful of Antarctica cruises each year onboard ships it charters from partner Ponant. Like its land offerings, A&K's Antarctica cruises are loaded with luxury, from high-end dining to inclusive cruise fares (drinks, laundry and tips are covered) and top-notch guides and naturalists. A&K makes its passengers feel special, thanks to custom itineraries, friendly, intuitive service and attention to detail at every turn.
The company offers itineraries that visit Antarctica exclusively or Antarctica, South Georgia and the Falkland Islands.
You Want the Latest Toys
The Arctic: With the 2020 launch of Endeavor, Crystal Cruises is upping the game when it comes to big-time features for exploring the Arctic. The 200-passenger ship carries two helicopters and a seven-person submarine, plus kayaks, standup paddleboards and Zodiacs.
Onboard mudrooms store wet or dirty gear, and a foldout marina platform helps with wilderness viewing. The all-suite ship also includes some of the largest cabins in expedition, and each comes with butler service included.
Crystal's Arctic cruises explore Svalbard, Greenland and Norway.
Antarctica: Scenic Eclipse is the initial oceangoing vessel for Australia-based Scenic, a company better known for its river cruises. When Eclipse debuted in 2019, it made a splash, with a yacht-inspired style and boutique feel -- and of course, two helicopters and one submarine.
The 228-passenger ship also has Zodiacs and kayaks for touring, and a large mudroom for tossing gear after a long day of visiting with penguins and seals. And while it's an expedition ship at heart, it's loaded with gourmet restaurant options, including an incredible chef's table experience.
On Eclipse, you can take a deep dive into Antarctic exploration, or try itineraries that add on South Georgia and the Falkland Islands.
You Want More Adventure
The Arctic: Poseidon Expeditions offers a little more adventure than other lines. Its 124-passenger ship, 50 Years Of Victory, is actually a working icebreaker that takes passengers to the North Pole from Russia, while its 114-passenger Sea Spirit visits the high Arctic, giving travelers a "Wildlife Safari" experience from Svalbard.
Shore excursions include hikes and visits to research stations, and passengers can sign up for the line's Sea Kayak Club, which includes kayak rental and detailed coastal exploration. On 50 Years Of Victory, some sailings include helicopter flightseeing, as well as a barbecue near the North Pole.
Antarctica: Quark Expeditions claims the first tourism transit of the Northeast Passage in 1991 and has been cruising the world's Polar Regions ever since. On its five ships committed to Antarctica, Quark offers Zodiac and sea kayak touring, hiking, standup paddleboarding, cross-country skiing, mountaineering and even overnight camping on the White Continent. Plus, the line offers a polar plunge.
Quark's ships are small, ranging from 128 to 199 passengers, and its newest, Ultramarine, includes two "Ready Rooms" -- essentially, locker rooms for storing gear -- and two onboard helicopters.
Itineraries focus on Antarctica alone or add in the Falkland Islands and South Georgia. Quark offers passengers who want to skip sailing the Drake Passage the opportunity to fly from Punta Arenas, Chile to King George Island in Antarctica, where they'll start their cruise.
You Want Something Brand New
The Arctic: Viking, a company whose Scandinavian roots have shaped every aspects of its cruise offerings, announced in January 2020 that it would create an expedition arm, with two ships set to launch in 2022. The 378-passenger ships will seem familiar to fans of the cruise line, thanks to features like a glorious (and included) thermal suite, contemporary Nordic design, 18-and-older passenger requirement and popular restaurants.
They'll also offer exciting new features. Our favorite: The Hangar, an enclosed marina designed to get passengers comfortably aboard the ship's skiffs and Zodiacs. Viking Polaris will sail Arctic cruises from Tromso beginning in August 2022.
Antarctica: While Seabourn isn't new to sailing the Polar Regions of the world -- Seabourn Quest has been visiting Antarctica for several years -- it's officially entering the expedition market with two purpose-built ships starting in July 2021.
Seabourn Venture, the first of two 264-passenger ships, will include double sea kayaks, 24 Zodiacs and two custom-built submarines. Each ship also will include the Discovery Center, a space for lectures that includes a huge high-definition screen. Seabourn promises an expedition team of 27 dedicated specialists to take on everything from lectures to casual talks and port guidance.
Antarctica itineraries include Antarctica exclusively as well as Antarctica, South Georgia and the Falkland Islands.
You Want to Sail With International Passengers
The Arctic: German cruise line Hapag-Lloyd offers cruises to the Arctic aboard several of its ships, but the best fit for English-speakers is Hanseatic Inspiration, a 230-passenger ship created with the North American cruise market in mind. You'll sail with North Americans, Germans and Austrians, as well as cruisers from other English-speaking spots around the world. Announcements and paperwork are delivered in both English and German, and at least one shore excursion in every port is offered in English.
Hanseatic Inspiration, which debuted in fall 2019, offers Zodiac rides and kayaking. The ship has two extendable glass balconies on the Pool Deck that allow you to step out and peek into the water below. The high-tech Ocean Academy gives travelers a chance to learn all about the Arctic, and you can even check out the microscope stations to see samples of polar bear hair or flies in amber, for example. Arctic itineraries include visits to Greenland and northern Canada.
Antarctica: Ponant, one of the fastest-growing cruise lines in the industry, is a French company that has expanded its reach into English-speaking markets. You'll cruise in comfort with passengers from the U.S., France, Australia, the UK and just about anywhere else you can imagine. (Announcements and literature onboard come in French and English.)
Ponant also has one of the newest fleets on the waves -- but has more than 20 years' experience sailing in Antarctica. No fewer than six of the company's ships visit Antarctica, with passenger capacities ranging from 184 to 270. Take Zodiac rides, go kayaking or hang out in the Blue Eye Lounge, an underwater observation lounge designed to give passengers a glimpse of sea life frolicking outside the ship. Bonus: Sounds are pumped in, too, so you can hear whales in the distance.
Explore Antarctica alone on Ponant itineraries, or add on South Georgia and the Falkland Islands.