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The Biggest Antarctic Challenge: Finding the Expedition Cruise Style That’s Right for You

Fran Golden

Oct 31, 2019

Read time
16 min read

Sponsored by Cruise Critic’s Cruise Content Studio

For any adventurous traveler, the mostly ice-covered Antarctica -- dubbed the "White Continent" -- is on just about everyone's bucket list. For one, it's a remote place that you can pretty much only explore by cruise ship. No place feels as far removed from 21st-century life as Antarctica. There aren't any hotels and very few humans (beyond those living and working at the handful of scientific research stations) in the great expanse.

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Encounters with human-sized penguins and elephant seals are part of the scene and you'll likely spot orca and sperm whales -- with glaciers, white and blue-tinged icebergs and snow-capped mountains as the magnificent backdrop. And off expedition cruise ships, you can bundle up in a parka, board a soft-sided Zodiac inflatable boat and get closer to nature than you ever might have thought possible.

For intrepid travellers, the appeal of Antarctica is legendary and that hasn't changed. What has changed is that never before have travellers had so many choices when it comes to the cruise experience, both onboard and off. More and more operators are upgrading their ships – new-builds, once considered quite rare in expedition fleets, are the fastest-growing sector in the cruise industry. These more contemporary vessels offer spacious accommodations and more options for dining and entertainment.

And yet, importantly, the lines are also investing heavily into creating distinctive off-the-ship adventures. You can certainly choose a sedentary experience (just being on a vessel, surrounded by Antarctica's natural wonderland, is amazing). But there are many active ways to experience the White Continent. In most cases, an expedition cruise here involves much more derring-do. You can visit nature reserves, hike a glacier, kayak into pristine coves and volcanic calderas, and even explore the camp ruins of a Swedish Antarctic exploration team, whose ship had run aground and who lived there for a year.

Antarctic Expedition Cruises: Four Types

The biggest challenge for travellers today is to understand which expedition cruise line experience best suits their travel styles. All of the lines we list here do a tremendous job on the destination side of the experience. Where they vary, and they vary wildly sometimes, is in their onboard ambiences and, sometimes, price points.

Want to maintain all the comforts of home, and then some? Opt for a luxury line as your home-that-floats while visiting Antarctica. Interested in earning a virtual scientific masters' degree on all-things Antarctic where onboard ambience is comfortable enough? Some lines emphasize education first. There's also a category of expedition cruise operators that understand that budget matters greatly and emphasizes a discounted price point in exchange for a less swanky onboard ambience. Know, though, that even a discounted rate to Antarctica is going to be a lot more expensive than an ordinary trip or cruise.

1. Luxury Antarctic Cruises

Your travel style is first class all the way. Sure, you don't mind roughing it on a Zodiac during the day, but at night you want to get dressed up a little and enjoy a great martini and your filet cooked to order.

Silversea Cruises

For discerning passengers, Silversea Cruises' expedition arm, which offers a distinctive European flair onboard, operates two ships in Antarctica. The 144-passenger Silver Explorer was joined in late 2017 by the 240-passenger Silver Cloud Expedition, and it's the latter ship that's commanding almost as many headlines as the White Continent.

A massive transformation, Silversea invested $40 million into making it an ice class-rated vessel. Among the changes, as we reported on Cruise Critic, include "extensive steel reinforcement, new sonars for underwater detection and polar temperature-resistant windows." And still, there was plenty left in the budget to focus on softer enhancements, including decor and creating new restaurants and lounges.

This expedition cruise is for you if… You want to balance absolutely luxurious pampering, with private butlers, superb European cuisine, and a lavish spa, with hearty days onshore that immerse you in the wildlife, ecology and the history of Antarctic expeditions. With five restaurants onboard, Silver Cloud Expedition has the most dining options of any expedition ship.

Antarctic expedition standout: Expeditions are led by a team of leaders who are specialists in areas such as marine biology, geology, and ornithology, among others. Silversea's program is in partnership with the Royal Geographical Society, under the patronage of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth. Both ships are equipped with Zodiacs and kayaks, with excursions on and around the frozen landscape run by a large and highly experienced polar expedition team; the ratio of expedition specialists to passengers on its polar cruises is 11:1. Silver Cloud Expedition also has the niche's first-ever photo studio at sea. Here, passengers can get group instruction (private lessons are available for a fee), use editing software and print photos.

Read reviews from travellers in our Silversea cruise reviews.

How you'll explore the Antarctic: Both Silver Cloud Expedition and Silver Explorer have passenger capacities that fall within established Antarctic maximums, which means everyone can be on shore at the same time. The line aims for two landings each day while on the continent. All tours are included in cruise fares.

Where you'll sleep: Everyone stays in a spacious suite (from 240 square feet and up on Silver Cloud Expedition) with views and such amenities as Bulgari bath products in the marble bathrooms and on-demand movie selections on the flat-screen TV. Extraordinary spaces exist on Silver Cloud Expedition, including a huge and opulent Grand Suite with separate living room and sleeping areas and a large balcony. You can combine this suite with an adjacent suite for a two-bedroom, 1,100-sqaure-foot home away from home.

Perks and extras: All passengers are equipped with custom-made-for-Silversea parkas. Other gifts include a waterproof backpack and a fun black cowboy hat. All cabins are entitled to butler service with in-suite course-by-course meal service. After its renovation, the fitness center onboard Silver Cloud Expeditions is near triple its original size. You'll care about that because Silversea's main restaurant is affiliated with Europe's prestigious Relais & Chateaux. Meals are sumptuous, including at the French-influenced 12-seat La Dame (the only eatery that levies a surcharge). Don't miss a chance to dine alfresco in the Antarctic; at The Grill you can roast your own meats on lava rocks (there are heat lamps but you may want to wear your new parka). And a dip in onboard whirlpools give a new meaning to polar bathing.

Prices: From $1,250, per person, per day, based on a 10-day sailing on Silver Cloud Expedition; from $1,410 based on a 12-day itinerary on Silver Explorer.

Seabourn Cruises

Seabourn is best known for is American-influenced luxury cruises. In an effort to add Antarctica to its itineraries, the line actually sent its Seabourn Quest back to the shipyard to acquire an ice-strengthened hull.

This expedition cruise is for you if… You want to balance intrepid on-land experiences with all the aspects of a luxury cruise, such as a casino, spa, multiple restaurants and lounges, shops and a theater. Fond of name-dropping, Seabourn has a show created in collaboration with award-winning lyricist Sir Tim Rice, a spa tied in with wellness guru Dr. Andrew Weil and a steakhouse operated in conjunction with famed American chef Thomas Keller.

Antarctic expedition standouts: The Seabourn Conversations series brings historians, authors and other experts onboard, and the Antarctica cruises also include a knowledgeable expedition team of naturalists, glaciologists, whale and penguin experts, ornithologists and others. Digital photography workshops feature tips from a professional photographer.

How you'll explore the Antarctic: There's a complimentary Zodiac landing each day, with insight from the expedition team -- who, like passengers -- are outfitted with high precision, long-range Swarovski Optik binoculars (yes, more name-dropping). You can also book a kayak tour (for a fee).

Where you'll sleep: All staterooms are called suites, and most have private verandas. Standard suites, measuring 365 square ft., are the largest in their category in the expedition niche. Even larger accommodations include the 1,100 square ft. Wintergarden, which uniquely features a solarium with egg-shaped bathtub in addition to its huge living and dining room, separate bedroom, bathroom with stand-alone tub and shower, and massive balcony.

Perks and extras: All passengers get a complimentary Seabourn parka and backpack, and can borrow, while onboard, high precision, long-range Swarovski Optik binoculars. Signature events include Caviar on Ice, a treat served on deck by crew as you view the frozen sights

Caveats: Normally, Seabourn Quest has a passenger capacity of 450 travellers and it doesn't sail full to Antarctica to keep the experience more intimate. Still, because expedition operators are limited to 200 passengers on shore at any given time on an Antarctic landing, you can be limited to one visit on shore per day.

Prices: From $714, per person per day, based on a 21-day itinerary.

2. Education Is the Focus on These Antarctica Cruises

While creature comforts do matter, and fitness areas, spa treatments and utterly comfy cabins are on your trip bucket list too, the primary focus of these lines is on learning about and experiencing Antarctica. But you can still expect a little pampering.

Lindblad Expeditions–National Geographic

Lars-Eric Lindblad was the first to bring "citizen explorers" to Antarctica in 1966 and the tradition continues on the 102-passenger National Geographic Orion and 148-passenger National Geographic Explorer, both with ice-strengthened hulls for remote exploration.

This expedition is for you if… You're a well-healed and physically fit but down-to-earth traveler who reads National Geographic magazine. Lindblad has an exceptional team of photographic experts, many of whom are regular contributors to National Geographic. The onboard atmosphere is intimate and casual. While most travellers are age 55-plus, there may also be multigenerational families onboard.

Antarctic expedition standouts: A significant component to the Lindblad expedition experience is its intensive, hands-on enrichment program. Expedition leaders include naturalists, scientists (some do research onboard), explorers and others sharing their expertise, as well as professional photographers offering tips. There's an undersea specialist onboard who is qualified to dive in polar waters and uses an ROV (remotely operated vehicle) to bring back footage to show on HDTVs in the lounge.

How you'll explore the Antarctic: As Lindblad operates some of the expedition niche's smallest ships, there's lots of individual attention. You head off in small groups with a team of at least eight naturalists leading daily Zodiac tours, kayak excursions, hikes and walks. For the more adventurous there may be opportunity to cross-country ski or snowshoe on the frozen tundra.

Where you'll sleep: Everyone gets a comfortable cabin (from about 171 square feet), a feather duvet and views through windows or portholes. Some cabins have French balconies or actual step-out balconies. There are also some small suites (up to 388 square feet on Explorer), some of which sleep three, and cabins for solo passengers.

Perks and extras: One of the most fun and absorbing events onboard is the once-a-cruise presentation of photos submitted by passengers; it's a great way to see the destination in others' views. Expedition team members host tables nightly at dinner for more informal conversation about destinations visited. And ships do have massage and fitness areas.

Prices: From $992 (per person, per day), based on a 14-day itinerary.

Abercrombie & Kent via PONANT Yacht Cruises & Expeditions

French-owned Ponant has the newest fleet in Antarctica, and teams up with luxury land operator Abercrombie & Kent, which provides enrichment and expedition leadership. Through its partnership with A&K targeting North Americans, Ponant operates one of its contemporary, yacht-like ships that normally carry a maximum of 264 passengers. In Antarctica capacity is limited to 199. That means it's under the maximum number of people allowed to explore Antarctica at one time and gives passengers more on-land exposure than larger ships would. (Note: Ponant also operates two other identical ships in Antarctica; these cruises are marketed to a more global traveler).

This expedition is for you if… You're serious about an immersive on-land experience of the Antarctic but want to feel, onboard, at least as comfortable as at home. In your spare time the trio, all identical, feature a terrific spa, complete with hamman and Kinesis wall, and an infinity pool. All cabins have balconies, which is unusual for an expedition ship, though it's perhaps debatable how much time you'll spend out there.

Antarctic expedition standout: Experts onboard -- and on landings -- include historians, professional photographers and recipients of the Polar Medal. Specialties include the areas of marine mammals, ornithology, geology, climate ecology and culture. This is one of the few expedition companies that offers dedicated Young Explorers' Guides for specially designated family-friendly voyages.

How you'll explore the Antarctic: All the ships have Zodiacs and aft-facing marinas. The company's experienced team of expedition leaders show passengers the region via hikes and visits to research stations and former whaling stations.

Where you'll sleep: Accommodations range from 200-square-foot cabins with balconies on up to fancy, 598-square-foot, two-room suites -- some of which come with Jacuzzi tub -- all done up with such niceties as Pierre Frey fabrics and French bath products. There are connecting cabins for families and some accessible cabins.

Perks and extras: Every passenger is given a free parka. Boots are available onboard to borrow. Via the Ponant and Abercrombie & Kent partnership, cruise fares include a free pre-cruise hotel stay.

Pricing: From $1,176 per person, per day, based on an 11-day itinerary.

3. Value-Oriented, Floating Base Camps

Even the notoriously expensive Antarctic offers some cheaper options, though as we noted above, don't expect too cheap. Our picks of favorite value cruise lines operating there focus just as much on safety and the environment as other lines but may offer a bit more basic living experience onboard their ships.

Quark Expeditions

The long-established polar expedition line operates four small ships, all decades-old former research vessels updated to carry up to 200 passengers. Each ship is either ice-strengthened or an ice-breaker -- meaning they can go far into the wild.

This expedition is for you if… You loved science camp as a kid. Quark appeals to grownups who have a keen interest in science and exploration and want an affordable Antarctica experience.

Antarctic expedition standout: Marine biologists, glaciologists and ornithologists are onboard talking about what you're seeing out the windows. Select special interest cruises focus on photography and penguins.

How you'll explore the Antarctic: All the ships have Zodiacs and there may be the option of kayaking, helicopter tours, cross-country skiing, snowshoe excursions plus mountaineering and overnight camping, for more intrepid passengers. Land tours are led by experienced expedition leaders.

Where you'll sleep: Read the deck plans carefully as no two Quark ships are alike. All cabins have views from either windows or portholes but choose wisely if you want space to move around and a double bed (some cabins come with only fixed-in-place twins). Suites have a little more legroom and some have balconies. Cabins that sleep one are also available.

Perks and extras: The line offers occasional photography-themed sailings for those who want more intensive coaching. Stand-up paddling is one activity offered, depending on ports.

Pricing: From $627, per person, per day, based on an 11-day itinerary.


The Norway-based Hurtigruten operates two ships in the Antarctic: The 318-passenger Fram, and the 970-passenger Midnatsol. Interestingly, these ships function as car and passenger ferries on itineraries in their native Norway though that does not apply on Antarctic sailings. Cruises on Hurtigruten appeal to a European crowd looking for fewer frills and more adventure. You'll find a comfortable, low-key, Scandinavian decor and pleasant hospitality on both ships.

This expedition is for you if… You want to be comfortable but you just don't want to pay for onboard frills.

Antarctic expedition standout: A 10- to 15-member expedition team includes biologists, photographers, naturalists, historians, glaciologists and ornithologists, who give talks.

How you'll explore the Antarctic: There are frequent Zodiac landings (sometimes more than one a day) as the expedition team introduces guests to Norwegian style friluftsliv (outdoor life). There's also opportunities for hiking, kayaking, snowshoeing and camping on the ice.

Where you'll sleep: Everything is functional in a country cottage kind of way, but it's not fancy. Basic cabins may have fixed twin beds, one of which doubles as a sofa, and can be downright tiny -- though all have views. Owner's Suites have a bedroom and separate living area and balcony but aren't huge.

Perks and extras: All passengers receive complimentary parkas and can use Muck Boot rubber boots at no charge. The Activity Center onboard allows for additional discovery in tandem with the expedition team. Underwater drones send footage back to the ship for passengers to view.

Caveat: Midnatsol only accepts a capacity of 500 passengers on Antarctic cruises but it's still above the maximum of 200 travellers that the continent allows on shore at one time. People need to go over in shifts.

Pricing: From $795, per person, per day, based on a 13-day itinerary.

4. Drive-by Antarctica

If paddleboarding in ice-landing coves or camping trekking across glaciers doesn't speak to your travel style -- and yet seeing the remote and raw beauty of the Antarctic does -- there's good news: There's a cruise option for you.

Holland America Line

For a big ship experience (but on a ship that is midsize by today's big ship standards), Holland America Line's 1,400-passenger Zaandam operates 22-day itineraries that combine South America and Antarctica -- two continents, one cruise. You see the Chilean fjords and penguins in the Falkland Islands.

This cruise is for you if... You want to spend a couple of days in the Antarctic and see sights like seals, whales and glaciers from the comfort of your ship. Holland America's Antarctica attracts mostly older passengers who enjoy a dose of formality.

Antarctic expedition standout: Through Holland America's partnership with BBC Earth, there are special Antarctic-themed screenings in the ship's main theater. While in the region, naturalists help point out the sights during days of scenic cruising.

How you'll explore the Antarctic: Passengers do not get off the ship in Antarctica. But you are likely to see sights including a lot of islands covered in ice, icebergs, glaciers, seals, whales and gentoo penguins.

Where you'll sleep: Standard cabins vary in size from 140 up to 379 square feet, while suites with verandas start at 297 square feet. The top-of-the-line, 1,300-square-foot Pinnacle Suite boasts floor-to-ceiling windows that open to a private balcony and has a full-sized whirlpool tub in the master bath.

Perks and extras: You'll have all the benefits of a cruise ship -- casinos, evening theatrical performances, dining at a variety of venues, and an expansive spa and gym. While onboard, you can also improve your computer skills at a digital workshop, or your cooking skills with cooking classes presented with America's Test Kitchen.

Caveat: It's obvious: This is not an experience for anyone who wants to actually experience Antarctic immersion but it's a pleasant way to experience the region.

Price: From $200, per person, double, based on a 22-day itinerary.

Fran Golden has visited many destinations around the world, warm and cold, writing about cruises for publications including Porthole, Virtuoso Life, Condé Nast Traveler and Cruise Business Review. She's also the co-author of Frommer's Easy Guide to Alaska Cruises and Ports of Call and Frommer's EasyGuide to River Cruising.

Updated October 31, 2019
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