Choosing a ship for an Arctic cruise
Most cruise holidays see you sailing in what could essentially be termed a floating resort, where there are so many entertainment options aboard ship that many people are quite happy to never take a shore excursion. Arctic expedition cruises are pretty much the exact opposite of this. On an Arctic cruise it’s all about getting off the ship as much as possible, and your evening entertainment will be studying your day’s photos or sharing stories of sightings over cards with fellow passengers.
That said, in the world of Arctic expedition cruising there are still differences between vessels and itineraries that it’s useful to know about. Our friendly travel team is always happy to help with advice on picking the right trip for you, but read on to get a better idea of the different types of ship and itinerary available.
Our Arctic cruising Holidays
Sizing things upAt Responsible Travel it’s fair to say we’re not massive fans of the cruise industry and the giant, polluting vessels that cruise the world’s oceans. Any cruise holiday you find on our site uses small vessels, with a maximum of 250 passengers, minimising the impact on the environment and local communities, although your ship may have as few as 100, or even just 50 passengers aboard. The restriction on Antarctica cruises, with only 100 passengers allowed ashore at a time, does not apply in the Arctic, but shore excursions and other activities are still staggered as it can take a while to get everyone to the beach via Zodiac boat. The process is very well organised though, so no one misses out.
Type of shipNot all Arctic cruise ships are alike. Some, especially more modern vessels, will be sleek and refined, while others will take the form of the classic icebreaker model with strengthened hulls, ideal for cruising outside summer when some routes may need a little persuasion to open up fully. You can even sail the Arctic aboard a majestic schooner for a spot of ooh-la-la. Whatever ship you’re on, you can expect it to be at the very least comfortable and spacious enough to spend a couple of weeks. Facilities are quite basic, though some have fitness centres and saunas. Entertainment comes in the form of talks from onboard experts, rather than disco dancing and card tricks, but then, the real magic show is what you’ll see every day from the observation deck.
Many of our Arctic cruises can also be suitable for passengers with accessibility issues. Some ships have lifts between decks, while trained expedition staff can assist you on shore excursions. If you use a wheelchair, it’s no barrier to exploring the Arctic.
When it comes to picking a vessel, the best advice will come from your tour operator. While some have their own vessels, most work with a small selection of ships and they should know them all from bow to stern. This is the best way to match you with a ship that suits your interests and needs, and if you take a liking to it, remember that many ships spend half the year in the Arctic and then the other half cruising the Antarctic.
Cabin pressureOn an Arctic cruise, everyone shares the same experiences and the same meals (buffet usually, with several meat / vegetarian options – it’s quite impressive how diverse the options are, and some ships will even bake their own cakes). One of the only ways in which you can up or downgrade is in your choice of cabin. You can share with others in order to make your trip a little less expensive, but there will be twin and single options available too, and some cruise ships also have a limited number of suites. Shared cabins are always single gender, and operators will also aim to put you in with people of the same age wherever possible.
Cabins will usually have either a porthole or even a private balcony, but there may be some with neither, again if you want to save a little. These are worth considering because about the only time you’ll spend in your cabin is to sleep and shower anyway. Only a few ships have WiFi, and that is likely to be limited to lounge and library areas. You may be able to buy a data package to use one of a few shared computers to check email, but it’s very expensive, so best to inform people you’ll be out of range for a while.
When to goMost Arctic cruises operate in the summer, when the weather is warmest and the ice is breaking up. Cruising earlier in the year, in May and early June, has a real pioneering feel as you’re breaking through the pack ice, with hungry bears on the prowl after winter. The Arctic is most accessible in late summer, and this is also when you’ll see lots of wildlife, and flowering plants (it’s not snow and ice everywhere). By late September the Arctic is starting to freeze over again and it’s growing a lot darker, but there are still some cruises available as it is now the tip of the Northern Lights season. Expect temperatures between 1°C and -3°C.
Our top Arctic cruising Holiday
A unique expedition to rarely visited Franz Josef Land
From £7995 14 days ex flights
Small group travel:
2022: 23 Jul, 3 Aug, 15 Aug
2022: 23 Jul, 3 Aug, 15 Aug
If you'd like to chat about Arctic cruising or need help finding a holiday to suit you we're very happy to help.
For a lot of people the size and type of ship, its facilities and the number of people they’ll be sharing it with, are not all that important, because when it comes to an expedition cruise the most essential aspect is always the itinerary. Some trips are more active and adventurous than others, and if you’re that type of traveller then you may feel unsatisfied if you book yourself onto a cruise with a relaxed itinerary where you spend most of your time onboard.
The Arctic spans a vast area, but cruises tend to focus on a handful of key destinations such as the Svalbard archipelago or the Lofoten islands. For the more intrepid traveller, somewhere remote such as the Russian Franz Josef archipelago with its many polar bears might be ideal, while ‘softer’ adventure and convenience are found around Spitsbergen, the only permanently populated island in the Svalbard archipelago.
You will need to consider your own fitness levels – itineraries in the Land of the Midnight Sun regularly feature hiking, sea kayaking and sometimes bumpy rides in Zodiac boats. Of course, all shore excursions are entirely optional, and if you prefer to explore the beach while others trek higher that’s fine, too. If you want to get the most from your trip, though, it’s good to choose an itinerary that closely meets your interests but also your abilities.
Another aspect to give some thought to is who else will be onboard. Many Arctic cruise holidays are accompanied by experts on topics such as marine biology, polar bears or glaciers. They are happy to have people bending their ear throughout the trip, so if there’s a subject that particularly interests you it’s worth doing a little research before booking.
More about Arctic cruising
The best time to go on an Arctic cruise is during the summer months, when the sea ice melts enough to let ships pass, and the midnight sun bathes these northern lands - find out more with our month by month guide.
Our Arctic cruises travel guide reveals why the best way to explore is a small ship expedition cruise, and compares the different Arctic areas - with Northern Lights, Inuit art, dog sledding,and - of course - polar bears.
There are several Arctic cruise itineraries available, focusing on different regions and activities - wildlife features on any Arctic cruise, but use our interactive map to find out which species you are likely to see and where.
An Arctic cruise is not all about onboard entertainment - the most exciting things to do on an Arctic cruise all involve disembarking and getting up close to the action on zodiacs, on foot, by kayak or even on snowshoes.
On a typical Arctic cruise the amenities are quite basic as the aim is to spend a lot of time on land - optional activities in the Arctic range from nature hikes to kayaking and even the chilling ‘Polar Plunge’!
Arctic wildlife cruises, with superb biologists and wildlife guides accompanying them, will help you spot polar bears, enormous walrus, fluffy Arctic foxes and several species of whales, plus birds, seals and orca.
The big ticket attraction on Arctic cruises is the chance to see polar bears and while sightings can never be guaranteed certain locations are more likely than others - read on to find out where to see polar bears on an Arctic cruise.
With at least 17 species seen in Arctic waters at different times of year, responsible whale watching in the Arctic has immense potential, and onboard experts are always at hand to explain what species and behaviours you’re witnessing.
With comfortable but compact cabins, and various practicalities that you’ll need to prepare for, knowing what to pack for an Arctic cruise is essential to make the most of the space in your suitcase and ensure you bring all you need.
What will the sleeping and eating arrangements be, how many fellow passengers can you expect, but most importantly, what will you be doing each day - read on to find out what life onboard ship on a typical Arctic cruise holiday involves.
Deciding whether you ought to save or splurge on an Arctic cruise holiday is likely to be one of the biggest issues you face during the planning process - here are some of the ways you can either cut costs or supersize your trip.
Read on for the best Arctic cruises travel advice offered up by our holiday experts who have spent years working in the far north, with tips on which regions to visit, recommendations for twitchers and health and safety advice.
Responsible tourism in the Arctic is a thorny issue but taking a responsible Arctic cruise can help strengthen this region, its communities and wildlife against exploitation, climate change and land grabs - find out more below.