What to Expect on an Expedition Cruise
Mega-cruise liners that carry 5,000 or more passengers may not be your style. But there are still parts of the world that are better experienced from a ship—and others you can only get to by ship. For travelers with a sense of adventure, expedition cruises are an effective way of getting to the planet's more remote corners. Antarctica and the Arctic are favorite destinations for this type of cruise, and Galapagos, Patagonia, Greenland, and Iceland are also perennially popular.
But the differences between a typical cruise and an expedition cruise go far beyond ship size and itinerary. I recently sailed on One Ocean Expeditions’ RCGS Resolute on its Central America Explorer vacation. (Note: Since this feature was researched, One Ocean began a financial restructuring and its future is uncertain, but this vacation experience is typical of all expedition cruises.) What’s so special about an expedition cruise, and would you like one? Here's what to know.
When all cabins are full, the Resolute can hold a maximum of 140 guests—fewer people than can fill the average movie theater. This is typical for expedition vessels: Quark Expeditions’ Ultramarine holds up to 199, while Antarctica21’s Magellan Explorer has a capacity for just 73. With numbers like that, you’ll get to know your shipmates, so it helps to be at least somewhat outgoing. On my cruise, I found interesting people who possessed a real sense of wanderlust and adventure, regardless of age—one of my fellow travelers was an 89-year-old woman who tried stand-up paddle boarding in Honduras. Every evening at dinner, we sat at new tables and mingled with different passengers, though we would have had the option to sit alone had we wanted to. Everyone got to know everyone, and a familial atmosphere developed.
But smaller ship sizes present limits. If your idea of the perfect cruise means choosing from a range of restaurants, trying your luck in the ship’s casino, or swishing down a waterslide into one of the pools on the Lido deck, then an expedition cruise will not be for you. Though amenities vary ship to ship, an expedition vessel typically has one or two dining rooms, a bar or two, a small exercise room, and maybe a small outdoor pool or enclosed hot tub without slides. Luxury lines like Silversea, Ponant, and Scenic may include spas, multiple restaurants, and other plush perks seen on larger liners, but there are only so many amenities that can fit onto a modestly sized vessel.
If you’ve come aboard to eat and drink well, your appetite will be sated on an expedition cruise—you just won’t pig out around the clock. On my cruise, breakfast, lunch, and dinner were offered via a mix of buffet and a la carte items. Food was varied and well-prepared, and we could hit the buffet as often as we wished and even order double portions from the menu. We weren’t confronted with a dizzying quantity of food but we also never felt as if there wasn’t enough. And I still went home a few pounds heavier. Outside of set meal times, the only snacks were afternoon cookies and tea, so midnight cravings had to be satisfied via the in-cabin minibar.
At about 236 square feet (22 sq m), my cabin was larger than standard cabins on most big ships and it had plenty of closets and cubbies plus a sitting area in front of a large window. The en suite bathroom with shower only (no tub, an omission that's also common on standard cruise ships), didn’t feel too small. The stateroom was perfectly comfortable, though not packed with amenities. (I wouldn’t have used them anyway—I was there to explore the world’s corners, not to spend time in my cabin.) Much roomier suites are available on the Resolute and other ships, but other than with the upper-end cruise lines, the emphasis is on comfort rather than luxury. That said, plenty of premium options exist for those who can afford it. 2020’s Crystal Endeavor is so blinged out its owners call it a “megayacht” and charge an average of $1,000 per passenger per night.
Crew members, who are for the most part a young, fit, and super-active lot, lead passengers in watersports, hikes, and animal viewing opportunities. And unlike giant cruise ships' staff, who are instructed to keep a polite distance from guests, our crew sat with us at mealtimes, goofed off with us on the beach, and joined in for a drink or two at the bar. They share an obvious passion and energy for their work, which goes well beyond a paycheck.
With a handful of exceptions, the ports of call for expedition cruises are usually not ports at all—as you can imagine, there isn’t much duty-free shopping in Antarctica. The keel’s low draft and smaller dimensions allow expedition vessels to reach areas the big ships can’t go, such as speck-sized islands in the Caribbean or amid the icebergs of the Svalbard archipelago. When you need to transfer to land, that’s typically done by Zodiac raft, so to get in and out of those, passengers must be reasonably steady on their feet and have a good sense of balance. A good sense of humor comes in handy as well.
Many expedition ships are retrofitted scientific research vessels made for pushing through ice fields and riding out rough seas. Others, like the Resolute, are purpose-built for expeditions. Their smaller dimensions and shallow draft which allow them to navigate shallow waters and narrow channels, means that while they can safely rock and roll with waves, passengers feel a choppy sea much more readily than they would on a big ship. On one day with particularly rough seas, half the passengers skipped lunch and rode out the waves in their staterooms. We all made good use of the railings as we lurched through the ship’s corridors—and chalked it up as part of the adventure.
Expedition cruises are all about getting chances to get close to nature. For many, that means checking birds off their Audubon “life-lists” or snapping photos of a breaching whale. Cruises typically have on board a combination of a naturalist, an ornithologist, a historian, and/or an anthropologist, as well as a ship’s photographer to capture passengers’ best moments. Daytime activities almost always involve something outdoors, whether it’s spotting sloths on rainforest hikes, kayaking close to cliff-side puffin rookeries, or watching seals cavort around your Zodiac. Evening lectures might cover photography tips, cultural history, or environmental issues.
Travelers who choose expedition cruises are choosing a less impactful method of cruising. A nature-themed vacation usually means you’ll also notice an absence of single-use plastics, reusable water bottles, and a commitment to ethical tourism practices. For example, one of our shore excursions with One Ocean was canceled after the expedition leader learned of questionable animal welfare practices at a nature park in Colombia. Newer ships, in particular, have a smaller carbon footprint than their older, ice-breaking brethren, and many companies have charitable arms that contribute to environmental, educational, and social welfare programs.
There’s no such thing as a bargain basement expedition cruise. This isn’t Carnival, so you’ll never see a 4-day/3-night voyage with an inside cabin for $349. Because of high operating costs combined with fewer passengers, expedition cruises simply have to charge more than massive ships do. There’s a reason expedition cruises are considered trips of a lifetime, to be sure, with almost no bargains to be found, especially to the Antarctic: One Ocean’s 9-night Central America Adventure cruise is priced from $4,195 per person including meals, while a 14-day Antarctica cruise with Lindblad starts at $14,680. (If polar bears and puffins are just as good as penguins and elephant seals, you can still get a polar experience and spend about half as much money by going to the Canadian Arctic, Greenland, and other destinations at the top of the world.) There are small consolations: Virtually all small ships have all outside-facing cabins (so you probably won't get an indoor stateroom), almost all the shore excursions are included in the price, and of course, they deliver you to places you simply can’t access using any other method.
Like One Ocean, most expedition cruise lines build their brands around polar voyages. And those trips to the Arctic or Antarctica—especially when the price tag hits $15,000 or more—aren’t voyages you can undertake often. People save up for years to make these trips. Amazingly, even at these prices, there’s more demand than there is supply. According to Kevin Griffin, owner of vacation broker The Cruise People Ltd., at least 45 new polar-class expedition ships are on order or set to be delivered by 2023, meaning that even those far-away polar places could soon get a lot more crowded. So it might be better head to Antarctica now, before it turns into the next Venice.
The author and her family traveled as guests of One Ocean Expeditions but all opinions on Frommers.com are fully independent.