Expedition cruises are voyages to far-flung areas with a focus on the nature, history, and culture of the destinations they visit.

If you’ve been on a cruise before, you know that the floating city that is a cruise ship can be a destination in itself. But expedition cruises feature smaller, more intimate ships with fewer bells and whistles. You won’t find waterslides or magic shows, flashy nightclubs or noisy casinos. Instead, you’ll enjoy fascinating seminars and lively discussions with subject experts, your expedition team, and your fellow adventurers.

Maybe you think that cruises just aren’t your style? I hear you! Even though I now write exclusively about cruises and cruise destinations, for decades I was adamant that I’d never set foot on a cruise ship. Whatever you think about cruising, there are just some places on our planet that are best seen by ship, because they’re almost impossible to reach in any other way.

Or, perhaps you’re looking for a real adventure, but you still want to retreat to the comfort and amenities of a cozy ship each evening? An expedition cruise might be just the vacation you’ve been looking for! Here’s what you need to know about expedition cruises and how to find out if you should try one.

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Where do expedition cruises sail?

Expedition cruises, sometimes called adventure cruises, generally sail in remote areas known for wildlife and natural beauty. Although many adventure cruises visit out-of-the-way destinations where large cruise ships can’t go, others take a more in-depth look at areas near more traditional cruise destinations.

Some of the most popular expedition cruises sail in Alaska, Antarctica, the Galápagos Islands, the Amazon, and Canada’s Northwest Passage. Other adventure cruise destinations include Papua New Guinea, the Sea of Cortez, the Arctic and the North Pole, Iceland, and the Norwegian fjords.

Adventure cruises in Africa, especially along the western coast of the continent and in Egypt, have been gaining in popularity in recent years.

Do you have to bring your own gear or equipment on an expedition cruise?

Although expedition cruisers should pack appropriate clothing for the weather conditions and expected activities, many cruise lines do allow guests to borrow or rent some gear, such as waterproof boots or wetsuits. Other cruise lines actually provide each guest their own set of cold-weather gear (like parkas and snow pants) as part of the cruise fare.

Cruise lines will have activity-based gear for passengers to use, like kayaks, paddleboards, and snorkel or SCUBA gear, depending on the climate and activities at the destination.

Some ships include watercraft like wave runners, underwater scooters, even small submarines! Any specialized gear you’ll need to enjoy these water sports will be on the ship.

Kayaking is a popular activity on many expedition cruises

Be sure to check with your cruise line before you pack to see what’s available on board and what you need to purchase before you travel. Most expedition cruise companies will provide you with a detailed packing list a few months before you sail. Take their recommendations seriously, because you might not have any opportunity to buy items you didn’t pack once you’re aboard the ship.

How are expedition cruise ships different from traditional ships?

Expedition cruise ships are often much smaller than the average cruise ship, and some are purpose-built to sail in the particular conditions of the destination. Many have reinforced hulls to protect the ships from ice on Arctic and Antarctic cruises. These ships also have shallower drafts than regular cruise ships, so they can access smaller inlets and shallow harbors.

Most adventure cruise ships have a passenger capacity of under 500, and many are much smaller than that. Because of these ships’ smaller size, they can travel to many locations that most ocean-going cruise ships can’t reach.

Depending on the destination, expedition cruise ships often can drop anchor when and where the conditions are right—there’s no need for the ship to wait until it reaches a port. Passengers take semi-rigid skiffs, or Zodiacs, from the ship to explore the area, get up close to marine life, or head to shore.

Most expedition cruises use semi-rigid skiffs or Zodiacs to transport passengers from ship to shore

What can passengers expect to do each day on an expedition cruise?

Expedition cruises operate all over the world, so activities on a cruise in Alaska’s Northern Passages are going to look a lot different than a cruise in the Galápagos or one around the west coast of Africa.

But generally, your daily activities will be led by your Expedition Team Leader and his or her guides. Where traditional cruises have a Cruise Director who oversees the entertainment staff, expedition cruises have an expedition team in charge of your activities, safety, and of course your enjoyment of the cruise.

Most expedition cruises will give you a choice of daily activities, and they usually have options based on your fitness level or preferences. You might choose a kayak tour to discover secluded coves, an off-trail hike with stops to learn about the native flora, or a snorkel or SCUBA trip to peer at colorful fish and corals.

Or, maybe you’ll pick a trek across the top of a glacier, a Zodiac ride to get closer than you ever thought you could to whales and dolphins in their natural habitats, or a day visiting penguins in a glacier garden.

The opportunity to get up close with wildlife is a favorite part of expedition cruises for many passengers

On some expedition cruises, the focus might be more on culture and history. Some adventure cruises can get you to archeological sites that traditional cruise ships just can’t visit. Or maybe they drop anchor just offshore of a remote island with a culinary tradition you’d never be able to experience otherwise.

Whatever expedition cruise you pick, after a hearty breakfast (and maybe early-morning yoga, which I swear by to loosen up your muscles for the day ahead of you), you’ll meet up with your guide and the other guests in your group. Unlike the huge tour groups you usually encounter on cruises, groups on an expedition cruise are smaller and more intimate.

You’ll spend your day exploring and learning with an experienced guide. You’ll find like-minded, curious shipmates from around the world who also chose this kind of cruise for the same reason you did—to have a learning experience you can only have by getting up-close-and-personal with a destination.

What activities and entertainment are available onboard expedition cruise ships?

Activities and entertainment aboard expedition cruise ships are a bit different than on regular cruise ships! Instead of production shows, karaoke, nightclubs, and casinos, you’ll find that the focus is on enrichment. You’ll get to know the wildlife, terrain, and even the culture and history of your destination through expert lectures and educational films.

Mindfulness and relaxation is often a focus, with optional yoga or Pilates classes. Some luxury expedition ships also offer spa services, like facials and massage, for an additional fee.

Since adventure cruise ships have a smaller passenger count, you’ll probably get to know more of your fellow cruisers than you would on a larger ship. Evening cocktail hours and leisurely dinners are the preferred way to unwind after a day of adventure with your new friends.

Expedition ships have a restaurant or two, a lounge or bar, and some feature hot tubs or even a small pool. Although I love the nightlife on regular cruises, I’ve found that I don’t miss it on an expedition cruise. After a full day of adventure in the fresh air, I tend to hit the sack early and sleep like a log!

How much do expedition cruises cost?

Expedition cruises are often more expensive than traditional cruises. Prices vary by cruise line, destination, and whether or not you’re cruising at the peak of the season. Of course, stateroom category is also a major factor in the price you’ll pay for any cruise.

For a basic expedition cruise, expect to pay from about $3000 per person at the very low end, up to $10,000 or more. On cruise lines that offer a luxury or ultra-luxury experience, prices range from about $7000 to $30,000 and up.

Daily activities and excursions generally are included in your cruise fare, but some cruise lines also offer upgraded activities, such as helicopter tours, at an additional charge.

Airfare and hotel for before and after your cruise are generally not included, although some of the luxury cruise lines do include these costs in your fare.

Are expedition cruises for everyone?

Unlike traditional cruises, expedition cruising is focused on active adventures in port. Although some activities are less strenuous, such as a nature walk, beachcombing, or cultural education, a moderate level of physical fitness and mobility is needed to participate in many, if not all, of the daily activities.

Many smaller expedition ships don’t have elevators, so they may not be accessible for those with mobility challenges. Climbing into zodiacs or skiffs, and sitting on their inflatable sides to get to shore can also be difficult for the less-mobile or anyone with balance issues.

People who want to cruise with children might want to try more traditional cruise experiences until the kids are old enough for an expedition cruise. Some adventure cruise operators allow older children, but many are adults-only. Or, if your extended family or friends want to join, consider a charter! Some small-ship expedition cruise companies (like UnCruise Adventures) offer family-friendly charters.

You’ll also need to consider your “cruise personality” before you book an expedition cruise. Is lounging by the pool all day with a cold drink your favorite part of cruising? Or maybe it’s dancing the night away and then sleeping in until lunch? When you’re in port, do you really only like shopping or relaxing on the beach? If so, you might want to stick with traditional cruises.

On expedition cruises, each day is very active, and you’ll generally have to get up pretty early to join the day’s adventures. Although there’s some downtime each day, it’s a very different experience than on the average cruise ship.

Depending on your destination, there may not be many shopping opportunities at all on your cruise. Many places you stop will only be inhabited by critters!

Do you prefer doing your own thing when you cruise, planning your own activities in port? Or do you enjoy choosing from a wide range of shore excursions to suit your particular preferences?

Expedition cruises often only have 1-3 activity choices per port, especially if it’s an uninhabited area. Of course, you can always stay on the ship if you really don’t like the options. But, as most expedition cruises offer excursions as part of the cruise fare, you’ll be missing out on adventures that you paid for.

What cruise lines offer expedition cruises?

There’s a wide variety of companies offering expedition cruises around the world, with accommodations ranging from basic cabins to all-suite ships with butler service. Some traditional cruise lines have one or more expedition ships as part of their fleet, and some specialize in only adventure cruises. A few expedition-focused tour companies also charter ships to offer specialty expedition cruises.

Cruise lines offering basic and premium expedition cruises:

  • Celebrity Cruises (Galápagos Islands)
  • Hurtigruten (Antarctica, Alaska, Greenland, Iceland, Spitsbergen, North America, Central America, South America)
  • Lindblad Expeditions/National Geographic (North America, South America, Europe, Asia & Pacific, Antarctica, Arctic, Russian Far East, Egypt, Ocean Crossing)
  • Quark Expeditions (Greenland, Canadian High Arctic, Arctic Islands, North Pole, Russian High Arctic, Antarctica, Falklands & South Georgia)
  • UnCruise Adventures (Alaska, Columbia & Snake Rivers, Pacific Northwest, Costa Rica & Panama, Galápagos Islands, Hawaiian Islands and the Sea of Cortez)
  • Zegrahm Expeditions (Africa’s West Coast, Mediterranean, Maldives, Australia, Ireland & Scotland, Black Sea, Suez Canal, Antarctica)

Cruise lines offering luxury and ultra-luxury expedition cruises:

  • Abercrombie & Kent (Antarctica, Japan, Greek Islands, Baltic, Arctic, Iceland & Norway, Northeast Passage, Australia)
  • Atlas Ocean Voyages (Aegean Sea, Black Sea, Holy Land & Eastern Mediterranean, Transatlantic & Caribbean, South America, Antarctica)
  • Crystal Expedition Cruises (Alaska, Africa’s West Coast, UK, Panama, South America)
  • Ponant Expeditions (Arctic, Alaska, Antarctica, Central America, South America, Africa & Indian Ocean, Oceania & Pacific Islands)
  • Scenic Luxury Cruises & Tours (Arctic, Iceland, Norwegian Fjords, Scotland & Scandinavia)
  • Seabourn Expedition Cruises (Launching in Summer 2021: Arctic, Amazon, Antarctica)
  • Silversea Expeditions (Africa & Indian Ocean, US West Coast, Antarctica, Arctic & Greenland, Australia & New Zealand, Galápagos Islands, South Pacific Islands, South America)
  • Viking Expeditions (Launching in 2022: Antarctica, the Arctic, Great Lakes & Canada, Galápagos Islands, Grand Journeys)

You might also like: Which Cruise Lines Are All-Inclusive?

Have you ever taken an expedition cruise? I’d love to hear what you thought of your experience. Let me know in the comments below!

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