Bottom line up front: Avoid Hurtigruten Cruises (and any of their ships including the Midnatsol) if your aim is to go on a "once in a lifetime" type journey. You will probably be disappointed.
We traveled on the Midnatsol in Oct-Nov 2019 for a Southern Hemisphere Adventure cruise that was supposed to take us from Montevideo (Uruguay) to Patagonia, Falklands and Antarctica before returning to Ushuaia (Argentina). Everything was booked through Hurtigruten travel based in Seattle, WA, a year in advance (Aug 2018). Hurtigruten still managed to mess up majorly in several ways! In this post I'll detail several things they did that spoiled what was supposed to be a memorable vacation.
Context: This was booked as a once in a lifetime experience for my 70-year old mother and me. My mother suffers from a rare and terminal illness which is currently managed and expressed a desire to see the frozen continent before it was too late.
First the acceptable aspects of the cruise:
1. The hotel in Montevideo was acceptable and the arrangements and tour overseen by Thesan Travel during our one night and half-day stay in Montevideo prior to boarding the ship were excellent.
2. Specific members of the dining staff on Midnatsol (head waiter; three members of the wait staff) went above and beyond, even helping to carry laden plates and soup bowls in the dining room when the ship was bouncing in the Drake Passage.
3. The first half of the cruise from Montevideo to Puerto Madryn (Argentina) to 3 Falkland Island locations was acceptable. Not great, not good, but defintely acceptable. We couldn't complain about value for money spent because we got, in effect what we'd paid for (or were expecting to see based on Hurtigruten's marketing hype and representations).
4. Some members of the Expedition Team (which is what Hurtigruten calls the tour guides/ shore excursion leaders on board who lead daily lectures on Antarctic and local history, flora, fauna, environment, geography etc. and oversee shore landings) were good. A historian named was exceptional- well informed, amusing, engaging. Two biologists were good. The Norwegian photographer was great. (And then there were some truly terrible expedition members- and they were in the majority!)Note that Hurtigruten's ships have no casinos or nightly entertainment. Their "pools" are limited to two hot tubs on the top deck. They claim instead to have a Science lab (not worth the name) and the aim of the "expeditions" to the Arctic and the Antarctic is to give the guests a chance to commune with nature while preserving the environment to the greatest extent possible, so the lectures on board while at sea and while anchored in remote harbors are an important part of the experience as advertised. We knew all this prior to booking the cruise and chose the cruise for exactly these reasons.
Now the long list of negatives.
1. Airline bookings: As mentioned previously, we booked this trip in August 2018, more than a year before the planned cruise. Part of the reason for that was that Hurtigruten ran a special in the Washington Post, advertising a free airfare deal to and from the cruise. Here is where I first say BUYER BEWARE! This was an expensive cruise- $20K + not including insurance. We checked the prices for the cruise about 60 days before sailing and surprise, surprise, the prices were down, just about the cost of round trip airfare! So the "free airfare" turned out of be an illusion, but as everyone knows, cruise prices can change (and usually fall) close to the departure date so we weren't complaining. What did get us steamed though was that Hurtigruten had booked us via the cheapest option available to them, on LATAM for all 5 segments of our air travel. Too many things went wrong on LATAM. See my post: Avoid LA(trine) TAM at all costs! on TripAdvisor for more details.
2. Hotels and Travel Arrangements: Hurtigruten had booked us into Hotel Emperador Buenos Aires (supposedly 5-star) for 1 night post-cruise as part of the cruise payment. Also included were travel arrangements (airport transfers via cab/bus etc). Hotel Emperador in Buenos Aires was terrible (See my post: Horrible service! Avoid if you can. re. Emperador) and all representatives of Thesan Travel in Argentina were useless. Too many terrible experiences to list.
3. Food and Housekeeping on board ship: We had notified Hurtigruten of specific dietary requirements and allergies (Vegetarian, allergic to all fish etc) a year in advance and reiterated this in our profile information forms requested by Hurtigruten 60 days before sailing. To our surprise we found on embarkation that the Hurtigruten dining staff had no knowledge of these dietary restrictions. The left hand truly doesn't know what the right hand is doing on Hurtigruten ships! The saving grace was that a quick chat with the head waiter resolved most issues and we were able to generally get our dietary requirements accommodated. But if you have dietary restrictions, BEWARE! Hurtigruten is all about seafood. If you have seafood allergies, don't expect any special treatment. Breakfast was fine for the first few days; after that the monotony of the EXACTLY same menu each morning (greasy sausages, a rubbery fried egg with a single strip of toy like bacon!) begins to wear on guests on a 20+ day cruise. If you don't eat seafood (which they trot out at every meal, including breakfast) your choices become more limited. Lunch is usually buffet style and had a fair variety though not always for vegetarians. Dinners were a mix of buffets and sit down semi-formals, (although Hurtigruten never requires dressing up for dinners given their expedition style cruises- jeans and boots are welcome in the dining areas). The lack of decent vegetarian options and the focus on seafood is somewhat troubling. We had a chicken option at maybe 3 meals during the entire 20+ day cruise. It was mostly beef and some pork along with tons of seafood during the cruise.
Regarding housekeeping on board, I'll simply say: WHAT HOUSEKEEPING? The beds were frequently unmade, the trash frequently not emptied, the cabin frequently not vacuumed, the sugar for coffee usually not refilled and the bed linen was never laundered for the duration of the cruise! One other point re. Hurtigruten's misleading statements. These is a laundry on board and guests are given to understand that it is a self-service laundry that can be used by them. That is certainly true, but only on Norwegian coastal cruises! On expedition cruises to Antarctica, the laundry is closed off to guests and Hurtigruten has you over a barrel and charges exorbitant rates ($33 for 10 pieces of laundry). Luggage is restricted by weight owing to charter flight weight restrictions booked by Hurtigruten, so laundry is usually a necessity at least once in the trip.
4. Incompetent Crew and Expedition Staff on board ship: The crew are an indifferent lot. The front desk lies... a lot. Post cards sent from Montevideo pre-departure which were to be mailed by the ship's agent (for which they charged us 34 Norwegian Kroner) are still to arrive, more than 60 days later. The crew messed up our names on the "certificates" awarded to passengers post-cruise and argued that they got the names from our passports- when a simple read of the passports would show that they'd got the names wrong. The passports are kept in the crews custody when embarking and returned to passengers at disembarkation, with the crew responsible for getting all necessary immigration stamps from the places visited. I'm not the only person to run into trouble here: a fellow passenger, a Frenchman, posted his own horrible experience with this Hurtigruten cruise on the Hurtigruten Insiders Forum on Facebook where he talks about how the crew did not get the necessary immigration stamps on his passport and lied and said they had, so that at Buenos Aires airport he was detailed at immigration and made to pay a fine before being allowed to depart to Paris! For those who choose Hurtigruten because of their so called Antarctic friendly policies- BEWARE! That was partly my motivation too. But I've seen oil sheens from the ship's bow thruster area spread across the pristine waters of Deception Bay in the South Shetlands, seen the crew of the RHIB/Zodiacs used to ferry passengers to and from shore landings do silly things and be unable to safely bring their boats aboard and seen Zodiacs outboards that overheated and created problems in the Falklands. DON"T believe Hurtigruten's marketing about their environment friendly policies. On other posts I've read about Hurtigruten dumping raw sewage into Antarctic waters. I cannot say that happened on our cruise but I can say, similar to other experiences posted on cruise critics for instance, that there was a stink in our Arctic Superior Outside cabins that suddenly disappeared as we left Antarctic waters, which might support a theory of sewage dumping. Regarding Expedition Staff, they're a mix of nationalities and don't always speak English well. Some as I've noted above, are good or even great. They are in the minority. Most are indifferent, with some truly terrible folks. One lady would lose her head if it wasn't firmly on- she's so hare brained. She's supposed to be a marine biologist but can't give a coherent presentation or handle basic presentation technology. She also failed to return to us for more than 24 hours a phone that had been dropped on a shore excursion and retrieved by another passenger and given to her for return to the Lost and Found. Indeed when we went straight to her and asked her about it, her first reaction was that she'd been given no such phone. Only when her memory was refreshed did she acknowledge the event and retrieve the phone. I don't think this was malicious, but she is HUGELY SCATTERBRAINED! Another team member, a Czech was rude, opinionated, dismissive and disruptive. He doesn't speak English too well but imagines that he does. He frequently went into long monologues about his life living with dog-teams in Svalbard and how everyone else's life was worthless unless they did the same!
5. Outright LIES by Hurtigruten: As I've noted, the cruise from Montevideo to Puerto Madryn to 3 Falkland Island location, if not great, was acceptable. After the Falklands, the ship was scheduled to visit Antarctica, which was naturally the highlight of the trip. After the first Antarctic vist to Half Moon Island in the South Shetlands, the cruise was a disaster from our perspective- and that of several other passengers who have expressed their "disappointment," "disgust," and "outrage" directly to Hurtigruten and on other forums.
After the visit to Half Moon Island we were informed that on the next morning our ship, the Midnatsol would meet another Hurtigruten ship, the Roald Amundsen to supposedly witness the "christening" of the latter ship in Antarctic waters. This event was not listed on our itinerary; in fact the passengers were given less than 18 hours advance notice of this event. It was sold as " a historic event" and an opportunity to witness "the christening of Hurtigruten's newest ship." After this "christening" Midnatsol was supposed to proceed independently to Orne Harbor on the Antarctic peninsula and make a landing there at 2:00 pm that afternoon, followed by an overnight camping trip on the peninsula (which I had won via a lottery). Midnatsol was also scheduled to do small boat cruising in Orne Harbor the rest of the day, after which we were to depart northwestwards to journey across the Drake Passage to Ushuaia.
As it actually turned out the Amundsen "christening" was a great PR affair for Hurtigruten. Some passengers on Midnatsol were quite taken with the ceremony, the free drinks, and the speeches! But Roald Amundsen had been sailing the ocean for some 9-odd months under that very name as of that date. Such ships don't get "christened." At best they get re-christened- which as any sailor will tell you is considered bad luck for that ship :-)! Neither I nor any of the several other passengers with any familiarity with nautical traditions were taken in by the ceremony.
We lost more than half a day of the Antarctic part of our voyage to this stunt. When we finally left the christening we were informed by the expedition operations manager/leader, over the PA system- not in person- that heavy ice at Orne Harbor meant a change in plan. Midnatsol would move over to Chiriguano Bay, adjacent to the bay we'd been in all morning, and commence small boat cruising in the afternoon. Also, our landing at Orne Harbor on the Antarctic continent was cancelled as was overnight camping. Naturally a large number of passengers were disappointed at the loss of a landing on the continent. It was doubly disappointing to those of us who hoped to camp on the continent. At the evening lecture some passengers tried to discuss their disappointment with the day's events, the time lost to the "christening" and the inadequate "45-minute" Zodiac boat cruise weighed against the loss of a day's Antarctic itinerary but the expedition leader was completely dismissive. In accordance with your "Terms and Conditions" for resolving disputes, I personally suggested several alternatives. I asked if we could not make a continental landing at an ice-free location further northeast on the peninsula. I was told only certain sites were open for landings with no further information on what those sites might be. I suggested that we try to share or split a location known to be ice free with another ship, possibly from another company, with the understanding that these things happen and that Hurtigruten might return the favor in the future. Again I was told that IAATO rules forbid such arrangements and that reservations for site landings had to be made 72 hours in advance. At no time did Hurtigruten provide any details.
At this point the majority of us were disappointed and frustrated but we understood that bad luck happens. We knew when we signed up for the trip that weather or other conditions might preclude our landings and that the Captain was the final authority given his responsibility for the safety of the ship, passengers and crew.
That night Midnatsol made her way 123 NM northwards back to Deception Island (a most prescient name, as later events proved!) in the South Shetlands, right next to Half Moon Island which we'd previously visited. Indeed we'd sailed inside the caldera of Deception Island as we headed south to meet Roald Amundsen. We spent all of November 8 at Deception Island and departed at about 5 pm to head back for the Drake Passage crossing. I noticed that the ship was cruising especially slowly and as late as 8 pm that night we were still within viewing distance of Deception Island. The Captain's update on the PA system at about 9 am on November 9 confirmed this. We had covered a whopping 68 nautical miles in about 16 hours since departing Deception Island, crawling along at a little more than 4 knots.
Midnatsol made an uneventful crossing of the Drake Passage on November 9 and November 10 averaging between 13 and 14 knots per Hurtigruten's own bridge logs. We were scheduled to disembark at Ushuaia at approximately 7 am on the morning of November 11. Instead we were tied up alongside at 7 pm on the evening of November 10, about 12 hours in advance of our intended arrival.
Back on land, and with unfettered access to the internet, we started getting some interesting information about the Roald Amundsen.
We noted that the Amundsen (a PC6 ice class ship, not appreciably different from the 1X class assigned to Midnatsol, which Hurtigruten plays up in their marketing as "ice-capable" ships for Arctic and Antarctic cruising!) had supposedly "broken through the ice at Orne Harbor on November 8" made landings on the Antarctic continent and according to some reports, camped overnight there too! We saw several pictures of Orne Harbor on social media on those days, remarkably ice free!
Several of us started asking- weren't WE supposed to be at Orne Harbor the morning of November 8- to pick up the overnight campers and to do small boat cruising the rest of the day? If IAATO required advance notice, how had Amundsen got Midnatsol's spot? If that was our spot and it was ice free why weren't we told so we could make a continental landing?
In light of all this, in our opinion, in were lied to by the expedition leader and the Captain of the Midnatsol. This opinion was bolstered further by emails from Hurtigruten UK to some similarly outraged British passengers, in which Hurtigruten says that the MV Sea Spirit (a ship from another cruise company) had tried to land at Orne Harbor earlier that morning, but because of ice elected to do a small boat cruise instead... two miles off Orne Harbor!
On our return from the cruise we contacted Hurtigruten US with our concerns and complaints regarding this phase of the cruise. (Note Hurtigruten US seems to be more responsive that Hurtigruten UK- we got a reply within 48 hours from a person named Walters, who at least listened to some of our concerns and offered to refund one day of the voyage due to the day wasted on the unplanned christening. Hurtigruten UK customers got no response for weeks and then there was no talk of any refund although some of those passengers may plan to go to British newspapers to publicize their concerns).
Some of the questions we posed directly to Hurtigruten US were: If IAATO regulations do in fact require advance reservations, was MS Midnatsol ever going to make a landing on the Antarctic continent? Or was all this always reserved for Roald Amundsen? Did 340+ of their paying customers get bumped in favor of Hurtigruten's CEO and the press corps on the Amundsen so Hurtigruten could try for a PR coup? Why were our suggestions on alternatives ignored when we in fact had plenty of time to explore alternative sites as shown by the time wasted on November 8-9, our slow cruise back across the Drake Passage and our early arrival at Ushuaia?
We heard later from an expedition team member that we actually trust that Midnatsol NEVER goes below the Antarctic Circle, lands on the Antarctic continent only rarely and then late in the season (Feb, Mar) and usually does these landings on the South Shetland Islands and passes them off as the Antarctic experience.
From our perspective, we wasted 2 of our 3 scheduled days in Antarctica and lost a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to land on the Antarctic continent because of what looks like terrible communication by Hurtigruten (at best) or outright fraud committed by Hurtigruten's agents (at worst). In our opinion the truth is situated somewhere on that spectrum. It is a great pity that a company that we believed to be reputable has turned out not to be so, in our experience.
We received unsatisfactory responses to most of these questions but took the one day refund in an attempt to salvage something from this, although Hurtigruten agreed that we could write candidly about our experiences to anyone and post on any forum we chose.
BEWARE HURTIGRUTEN! NOT WORTH IT.