How to save money on an Arctic cruise
With no roads and terrain that one might best describe as hostile to independent travellers, there’s only one way to conveniently explore the Arctic, and that’s on an organised cruise. But while this will no doubt prove one of, if not the most memorable holiday of your life, it does come with a catch – the cost.
Even if you’re looking at the cheapest Arctic cruise holiday around, you can still expect to fork out several thousand pounds (or dollars) for a trip between 10 and 14 days, and that’s before you factor in your flights. Holidays don’t come much more ambitious, or costly, than this. Happily, there are ways you can save a little to make your cruise more affordable, and for those looking to make it a touch more special, there are also plenty of options to splurge.
The majority of Arctic cruise holidays focus on the Svalbard archipelago, and specifically the island of Spitsbergen, where whales and polar bears are prevalent. Many ships therefore follow a round-trip route from Longyearbyen, the largest settlement on Spitsbergen. There is a good amount of competition here, so you can often find lower prices. That does mean of course that, particularly in the summer months, there will be several other cruise parties in your ship’s vicinity throughout and some popular locations may get quite crowded.
If you really want to get away from it all, as well as seeing nature at its most raw, then look at a more far-flung destination such as Russia’s virtually uninhabited Franz Josef Land archipelago, or Canada’s Baffin Island. Harder to get to, and with far less in the way of tourism infrastructure, the prices are higher and consequently there is less demand for these destinations, making them ideal for the more intrepid explorer. For something really special, you could also combine Spitsbergen with Franz Josef Land.
The easiest way to save money on an Arctic cruise is to share a cabin with two or three other people. It’s hardly an inconvenience as you won’t spend much time in it anyway, but do bring a pair of earplugs just in case of snorers. Some ships also offer a few cheaper cabins without a view. Again, this isn’t something you’re really going to miss given you’ve got a 360-degree observation deck available to you at all times. Deals can sometimes be had booking early or late, but don’t make the mistake of holding out for the last cabin in case you miss it. Lastly, it’s always worth asking for a cabin upgrade after you’ve booked, as operators like to have a few cheaper cabins available as long as possible. You never know...
For the most part, Arctic cruises make use of expedition-class vessels, which are more rugged and less luxurious than a small cruise ship gliding around the Croatian coast, say, as well as a lot smaller. But there are plenty of ships, especially modern ones, that will offer a few extra little comforts to help make your trip that bit more relaxing. Picture yourself admiring the views from an outdoor hot tub, or relaxing after a hike in an onboard sauna, for instance. Or if you’d like a more unique and romantic type of cruise, look at sailing aboard a handsome schooner that takes just 20 passengers.
After lessons learned the hard way, you see very few restaurants opening on icebergs nowadays. That means that Arctic cruises need to be all inclusive, and since everyone has the same roster of activities and meals, there isn’t a great deal of scope for saving on the itinerary. You can look for a cruise that is more focused on sightseeing from the deck than with daily shore excursions, but as exploring on land is the most exciting part of a trip, it’s a false economy. The best way to save here is by looking at a shorter cruise of perhaps a week – you can still cover a lot in that time, just with not as much depth.
As there is a limited range of on-shore activities available on any cruise, splurging in the Arctic is about heading as far from other people as you can get. Russia’s Franz Josef Land archipelago is one such place. It’s only becomes accessible for cruises in recent years, thanks to global warming making the ice thinner – not good news for the planet of course, but it does mean a new frontier to discover. The advantage of sailing such a distance is that the wildlife in places like this is prolific. In Franz Josef Land during summer it would be a surprise not to see at least a few polar bears, and you’re likely to also see tusked narwhals and even the occasional killer whale.
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When to go
Going earlier or later in the season can save you a little but the peak months are peak for a reason – July to August is simply the best time of year to visit the Arctic, especially if you’re cruising the Svalbard archipelago. The wildlife is more active, the weather is going to be better, and because the ice is mostly broken up, you’ll be able to access more areas. But there is still excellent potential for wildlife viewing between April and June on large ice floes, and some spectacular icebergs sailing past too, so photographers may want to consider earlier in the year.
Peak dates, and the most expensive times for Arctic cruising holidays are the summer months of July and August. The weather is warmer, polar bears are more frequently seen close to the shoreline, and the water surface is largely ice free, so you will often see whales breaching the waves. If you want to avoid the crowds, think about a trip at the end of the cruise season in late September. It’s still an expensive trip, but it feels much more exlcusive with far fewer other ships around. By now it’s getting chillier, the ice is reforming, and the Arctic skies are dark enough to witness the Northern Lights. Admiring this extravagant natural lightshow in such a setting as this is truly special.
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