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, the choices abundant – and confusing.
From lines that have made the polar regions their home to ships that have all the latest tools for exploration, our guide to cruising to Antarctica and the Arctic helps 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.
Pick Hurtigruten, a company that's been around since 1893 and is almost synonymous with Arctic exploration.
The cruise line continues to grow its fleet of modern expedition ships; it added hybrid-powered Roald Amundsen to the fleet in 2019 and sister-ship Fridtjof Nansen in 2020. 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 90 to 570 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, with itineraries operating between Iceland or Greenland and Alaska or Vancouver.
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, founder Lars-Eric Lindblad led 57 travelers to Antarctica, the first commercial expedition to the destination.
Lindblad has grown over the years, and the company now has four ships committed to sailing in Antarctica (carrying from 106 to 148 passengers). All four ships feature Zodiacs and kayaks, and you can cross-country ski or snowshoe on the Seventh Continent. 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 that you can have sewn (onboard!) onto your Lindblad-gifted parka.
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.
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 200 to 274 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, Iceland and northern Canada. The cruise line also offers Northwest and Northeast Passage cruises.
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.
Seabourn is synonymous luxury, and the brand always has offered adventure from its small ships. But with the launch of Seabourn Venture in 2022 and sister ship Seabourn Pursuit in 2023, the cruise line officially entered the expedition market in a big way.
The two 264-passenger ships include a fleet of double sea kayaks, 24 Zodiacs and two custom-built submarines. Each submersible holds six passengers and can dive down 300 meters. (Be aware, some destinations do not allow the use of subs.) Submarine rides come with an additional fee, that varies by itinerary.
Seabourn visits the Arctic on Venture, with a variety of itineraries that range from a quick pop-in along the western coast of Norway to an immersive visit to Svalbard and journeys that explore Greenland, including the breathtaking east coast. Seabourn also offers cruises through the Northwest Passage.
Scenic Eclipse and sister Scenic Eclipse II have revolutionized the Australia-based Scenic Cruises brand. Once a company better known for its river cruises, the line now has emerged as a leader in luxury expedition. 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. Eclipse II, which debuted in 2023, has virtually the same blueprint as its fleetmate.
The 228-passenger ships also have Zodiacs, kayaks and standup paddleboards 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 and Eclipse II, you can take a deep dive into Antarctic exploration, or try itineraries that add on South Georgia and the Falkland Islands, or Patagonia and the Chilean Fjords.
Oceanwide Expeditions offers super-active options in the Arctic, with trips designed for fit cruisers who want to go all-out on their exploration journey. Itineraries offer ski mountaineering, long hikes, polar diving, kayaking and snowshoeing. It also offers excursions where guests pickup waste found on the shores. (Things like fishing nets, old buoys and plastics.)
The cruise line has four ships dedicated to the region: Rembrandt van Rijn, Plancius, Ortelius and Hondius. Capacity ranges from 33 (for Rembrandt van Rijn, the only ship with sails among the four) to 174, for Hondius, the newest ship of an otherwise fairly old fleet. (Hondius was built in 2019, while the other three are serval decades old, and guests reviewing the ships on Cruise Critic say they are well-maintained.)
Itineraries are exciting and focus on the activity, with options ranging from skiing in Spitsbergen to visiting Greenland's Scoresby Sund, the largest fjord system in the world, and seeing the Aurora Borealis.
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.
A familiar name with new owners and ships, Swan Hellenic has quickly made a splash with its expedition offerings. The three-ship company offers a luxury experience that is surprisingly inclusive, considering the price.
You'll typically spend at least $1,000 per person per night for cruises to the Arctic, but Swan Hellenic has some itineraries offering rates at $700 per person per night, or less. Sailings include all food and drink, all expeditions except kayaking, gratuities, WiFi, regional flights and more. Swan Hellenic is the best-reviewed expedition line on Cruise Critic, as of July 2023.
Itineraries start at seven nights for an in-depth Svalbard sailing, with longer options that visit Iceland, Greenland and the Canadian Arctic.
A relative newcomer to the cruise industry, Atlas Ocean Voyages is quickly expanding its fleet and making a name for itself. With three ships, this mostly inclusive cruise line has plenty to offer in Antarctica, and it's doing it at a slightly lower rate than you might pay with other lines.
It's not unusual to spend $1,200 per person per night starting for a cruise to Antarctica from other lines, but Atlas has some sailings for less than $1,000. The line also routinely offers bonus deals like a second guest sails free, credit for airfare and even onboard credit.
Passengers can kayak and camp overnight, and ships offer excellent pools and hot tubs that can be enjoyed even in cold weather.
Itineraries range from seven to 14 nights. Atlas is one of the few cruise lines to offer a fly option that allows you to skip the Drake Passage – at least one way – thanks to a private charter jet flight.
Viking, a company whose Scandinavian roots have shaped every aspects of its cruise offerings, sails with two expedition ships, Viking Polaris and Viking Octantis, both of which debuted in 2022. While the cruise line began as a river cruise company, its expansion to oceans and expedition has been extraordinarily successful: Cruise Critic named the pair the best new expedition ships of 2022 in its annual Editors' Picks Awards.
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. The capacity puts Viking among the largest of the ships sailing the Arctic, but the company manages getting passengers ashore and into Zodiacs effectively.
Viking also offers cruising from "Special Operations Boats" (affectionately called SOBs by crew and guests) that put passengers in super powerful speedboats designed to allow passengers to tour more comfortably.
Itineraries include Canada, Greenland and the Northwest Passage.
Albatros Expeditions offers two ships, both of which debuted in 2022 or later: Ocean Victory and Ocean Albatros. The ships are similar – Ocean Victory holds 189 guests, Ocean Albatros 190, and both visit Antarctica. Two big differences stand out, as Albatros offers 12 dedicated solo cabins (so no need to pay a single supplement) and it has an extended spa area.
The line offers activities like kayaking, snowshoeing and overnight camping, among other more typical activities, and it tends to skew somewhat younger. (Antarctica cruises often appeal to older guests in part because of the length of the journey; retirees tend to have more time.)
Journeys start at nine days for a taster cruise aimed at whale-watching to 19-day sailings that visit the peninsula as well as South Georgia and the Falkland Islands.
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 U.K. 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 expedition voyages. No fewer than seven of the company's ships visit the Arctic, with passenger capacities ranging from 184 to 264. The line's newest ship, Le Commandant Charcot, is the highest-rated icebreaking cruise ship in the region and can get guests into spaces most passengers can only dream of seeing, including the epic fjords along the east side of Greenland.
Take Zodiac rides, go kayaking or try dogsledding or cross-country skiing on the ice sheet
Itineraries take you to Svalbard, all along Greenland and even up to the North Pole.
German cruise line Hapag-Lloyd offers cruises to Antarctica 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. (When sailing in Antarctica, it will hold only 199 guests.) 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 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 Antarctica, and you can even check out the microscope stations to see samples the expedition team picks up along its route. Itineraries include visits to Antarctica and South Georgia, as well as a cool semi-circumnavigation of Antarctica that starts in Ushuaia and finishes in New Zealand.