Expedition cruises are often high on the adventuring traveler's bucket list -- with Alaska cruises, Antarctica cruises and Northern Lights cruises taking top spots.
Expedition cruise lines such as Lindblad Expeditions, UnCruise Adventures and Quark Expeditions specialize in operating adventure cruises to remote corners of the world, where passengers can experience oft-untouched natural surroundings and habitats. These types of Alaska, Antartica and Arctic expedition cruises focus more heavily on offshore excursions than onboard frills.
However, you'll also find tried-and-true luxury cruise lines such as Seabourn, Silversea, Scenic and Viking are now operating expedition ships and getting into the adventure cruise space.
Still, however meticulously planned the itinerary might be, as an expedition cruise passenger, you'll need to prepare for the unexpected -- whether that's the weather, elusive wildlife or local regulations that prevent you from taking a spin in the onboard helicopter or a dive in the ship's submarine.
Here are the top-10 tips from Cruise Critic editors on what you need to know before and during your next expedition cruise.
Sure, everyone books an expedition cruise with the idea that they'll see the things usually reserved for the pages of National Geographic. And, if things go perfectly, they will. However, the reality is that perfection rarely happens, and it's possible you might not see a polar bear in the Arctic, a leopard seal in Antarctica or those manta rays feeding at night in Hawaii.
Trust us: An expedition cruise is still worth taking, and you'll see plenty of wildlife. (One thing is guaranteed -- you'll see thousands of penguins in Antarctica.) It just might not be what you expect. Go in with an open mind -- and a good set of binoculars.
The good news, if you're chasing the Northern Lights, is if you travel with Hurtigruten on its Coastal Voyage and you don't see the Aurora during the 12-day cruise -- it'll give you a second chance on another cruise.
Pro tip*:* If you are traveling with Hurtigruten, leave on the Northern Lights button on your cabin phone in case the lights are spotted in the middle of the night.
The most important tip we can give is to pack for any weather. When you're in remote climes, the weather can turn on a dime. For example, expedition cruises to Alaska have been known to experience all four seasons in one day. Note, too, that when you are taking Hurtigruten's Coastal Express from Bergen up to well above the Arctic Circle, it's an almost 1,000-mile (1,500 kilometer) journey, and while it might be spring in Bergen, the snow is still deep on the ground in Kirkenes.
Know also, in most cases, your excursion will run whether it's hot or cold, sunny, pouring rain or during a blizzard (though the ship will always make a call if the weather is too awful -- see Tip 4). All lines will recommend bringing layers -- so thick socks, thermal pants and tops (long sleeve and short sleeves); hoodies and warm sweaters (wool, not cotton). For the outside, invest in some decent rainproof gear, including backpacks, dry bags for cameras, waterproof pants and a waterproof jacket (but note Tip 3, below).
In the Arctic or Antarctica, most expedition lines will issue passengers with a waterproof, cruise line-branded coat or parka on the first day of your sailing, so you likely won't need to pack your own, thankfully freeing up precious space in your suitcase for all the layers you need to bring. Check with your cruise line ahead of your trip to make sure you know what is provided.
Many ships also have boutiques where you can buy gear, but note it will not be cheap onboard.
Expect the unexpected and you won't be disappointed -- especially if you are cruising in the midwinter to somewhere like the High Arctic, where weather will play a major factor in everything you do.
Ports can be skipped last minute, excursions canceled and that wildlife you are so keen to spot might not make an appearance (see Tip 4).
Weather also plays a major role on what you're able to do from your ship, so if ice is too thick in Antarctica or the arctic winds are too strong in Norway, you won't be able to get onto the water in a kayak. (An exception to this rule is UnCruise Adventures, which runs expedition cruises to places like Alaska and the Sea of Cortez, destinations where activities are less affected by weather and seasonality.)
Those who can go with the flow will be happiest on an expedition cruise. The fun of expedition cruising is that the ship goes where the action is.
Factors like weather, wildlife sightings and even the captain's whim can affect your planned journey -- if the captain spots a whale from the bridge, they will likely slow the ship for you to get that all-important shot. The payoff of this kind of flexible itinerary is that you'll often end up having great moments, seeing wildlife in its natural habitat and coming away with stories of a lifetime.
Everyone wants to hike a glacier or kayak through fjords but knowing how taxing an excursion will be for your specific body is key. While most expedition cruises are geared for a variety of activity levels, some are definitely for the advanced hiker/kayaker. Talk to the expedition staff; they’ve likely been to these places before and can advise on what to do. This applies, too, for phobias: claustrophobic? Skip the flightseeing trips. Afraid of heights? Don't do the rock scramble. Know your limits when assessing your expedition ship's planned activities. (see Tip 6).
However, at the same time, some excursions might not be as taxing as they might seem.
For example, an expedition activity might be labled as a "hike" but be more like a short walk up a hill. (Note too, that what might seem like a gentle stroll up a hill can be vastly different in the dark or heavy rain.) If you are in any doubt, just swing by the Expedition Desk to clarify how hard the hike really is.
Keep in mind, many of the expedition destinations come with a hefty price tag, something that's easier for retirees who might have extra time and money to book. Still, we've seen plenty of retired folks take on bushwhacking in Alaska or snorkeling in the Sea of Cortez with plenty of ease.
Good to know: If you see your ship offering things like standup paddle boarding, kayaking or snowshoeing, just know that those are only potential options.
If you booked an expedition ship because it carries a submarine or helicopter (or both), understand both of those features come with country-specific licensing requirements, and, unfortunately, not every destination allows for their operation. If this is essential to your experience, make sure to check with your cruise line to see whether these can operate on your cruise.
Additionally, weather plays a major role in whether these can be operated. Cruise lines will always prioritize guest safety over the operation of their toys, and they'll cancel excursions if the weather doesn't cooperate.
It's easy to want to get that big, heavy, expensive camera to capture the perfect shot, but the truth is that D-SLR cameras with massive lenses can be cumbersome when you're paddling, hiking or traversing on an adventure, so pack a GoPro or equivalent and keep your hands free.
Excursions move fast, and anyone left dawdling behind for that perfect shot will miss a lot of great location background from your expedition leader. Expedition cruises usually go to the world's most amazing places; try to balance being present in the once-in-a-lifetime moment with just enough accompanying images. Besides, most ships have a professional photographer capturing it all along the way.
Pro tip: A number of lines including Lindblad, Abercrombie & Kent and Hurtigruten have resident photographers who can help cruisers learn how to use their camera, edit their snaps, try out different cameras and give top tips on camera apps that you can use with your phone. True shutterbugs might want to consider booking a photography-focused expedition cruise, too.
Wildlife has this annoying habit of not posing for the camera or coming close enough for that perfect shot, so an expedition cruise is definitely when you want to bring your D-SLR, tripod, gimble and zoom lens, if you know you'll have time to set up and wait for the shot. However, it is worth noting that a good quality phone camera can often be as good if you are trying to capture something like the Northern Lights.
Expedition ships are small by definition and emphasize what you can experience off the ship, rather than on it. Instead of live nightly shows, evenings will likely consist of of lectures and slideshows about the trip, and expect to replace onboard zip-lining and waterslides with more wildlife spotting or stargazing. Plus, you'll likely be too tired from your day of exciting excursions you won't even notice the lack of vibrant nightlife on board.
Updated February 16, 2022