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What is Expedition Cruising? – Ultimate Guide With Planning Tips

What is Expedition Cruising? – Ultimate Guide With Planning Tips

Jess Tyroler image

Here at Secret Atlas we love expedition cruising. In this guide you will learn about expedition cruising and also our secret (our expedition cruises take just 12 guests).

yacht expeditions and private charters with secret atlas svalbard photography tour

What is Expedition Cruising?

Expedition cruising offers an alternative way to exploring than you would experience on a large cruise ship. Often expedition cruise ships are smaller and are kitted out with Zodiac landing craft. A large part of the experience is to spend time out exploring the wilderness accompanied by the safety of an expedition team. Often we explore places that are not accessible to our guests in any other way.

​​As the name implies, expedition cruising is a way to rid yourself of your fernweh, or “far sickness” (the opposite of homesickness) with a small vessel cruise to remote destinations in the Arctic and the North Pole, Svalbard, Greenland, and the shores of Antarctica.

Expedition cruises are different from traditional cruises in the following ways:

  • They often explore remote and hard to get to places. At Secret Atlas we specialise in the polar regions.
  • The ship sizes are smaller than traditional cruise ships. The average cruise ship is over 2000 guests whereas expedition cruise ships take anywhere from 500 to 12 guests. At Secret Atlas we specialise in 12 guest experiences and offer the smallest group sizes in the destinations we visit.
  • Expedition cruising is about exploring and ships are kitted with landing craft to go and explore remote places.
  • Expeditions are led by highly trained guides.
  • Guests are more interested in experiencing a place rather than going on a ‘cruise’.
shore landing by zodiac in svalbard

How to Choose Your Expedition Cruise

Our top tip for planning your expedition cruise is to go with the smallest group size possible. We would always recommend a ship with 50 guests or under.

Vessels larger than 50 guests have many disadvantages such as longer waiting times to join the zodiacs, going ashore with a large group of people, guests are split into groups so only half the guests can land at one time. In short the smaller the vessel the more you will get to experience.

Here at Secret Atlas, we offer the smallest group sizes on our expedition cruises from as low as 12 guests per voyage, so all guests enjoy maximum expedition cruise benefits including no downtime, the longest and freest exploration shore times, control over destinations, and more.

Our expedition cruises visit hard to reach places in the polar regions that would otherwise be inaccessible with expeditions visiting Svalbard, Greenland, Antarctica and South Georgia.

svalbard photography tour

Cruising Style

An expedition cruise is not just about the amazing experiences you will have ashore. Between shore landings, you can enjoy cruising and wildlife spotting out on deck and inside enjoy lectures and memorable discussions with experts and aficionados from around the world, including your expedition leaders and fellow adventure seekers

In sum total, expedition cruises pluck you out of the mundane, guide you to the ends of the Earth, and place you in the middle of wildlife and nature adventures. Imagine yourself inside your own Wes Anderson movie filled with colorful, bright international communities while surrounded by an array of spectacular sceneries. Now, mish-mash that image with a wildlife safari through the best nature documentaries, and you can start to imagine what your expedition cruise experience will be like.

The ability to be flexible with itineraries is one of the most important differences between a typical cruise and an expedition cruise. Imagine that you have a polar bear expert expedition leader who can guide your captain to sites where you can watch them off in the distance, or that your vessel is filled with wild bird enthusiasts who would prefer to spend longer amounts of time around the dazzling cliffs with the Snow Bunting and the Kittiwakes. On a small expedition cruise, the vessel is able to switch the itinerary to fit the guests’ preferences, or the weather conditions, to make for the best voyage possible. 

An expedition cruise places the need for further education and exploration at the center of the experience, so guests are sure to become well-educated about what they are going to witness and leave the experience feeling they have become experts, themselves. On a Secret Atlas cruise, you are guaranteed to have one expedition leader/expert for every 6 travellers. Whether in a workshop on your vessel or trekking through the wilderness, no question is likely to go unanswered, nor any guest to feel ignored.

Zodiac in front of a glacier wall

How much does an expedition cruise cost?

The budget per person for an expedition cruise is usually around 1000 euros per day. The costs are higher than a traditional cruise due tot he small group number. You can travel on an expedition micro cruise for a similar cost to a larger cabin on a vessel carrying 500. Of course on a small ship you have the huge benefit of travelling with just 12 guests.

People you´ll encounter aboard

Expedition cruises also attract different guests and employees than typical cruises. Take the following into account when you are deciding whether you would like the option of socializing, making friends or even lifelong connections on your cruise holiday.

While the requirements for the staff aboard a typical cruise ship can vary and be specialized in the entertainment category, the requirements to work on an expedition cruise tend to be quite demanding. Apart from having specialty skills needed for certain expeditions (think rifle handling and experience with polar bear protection), expedition leaders are typically required to have university degrees in fields relevant to your adventure, and are often PhDs in their fields, so their workshops and lectures around the culture, anthropology, history, geology, geography, biology, ecology and politics of the destinations are profound. Some expeditions are curated for specialty groups, so they send other specialists in addition to the expedition leaders. For example, on a Secret Atlas Photography Expedition, your vessel comes with both an expedition leader and a pro photographer to give additional workshops.

expedition cruising Zodiac cruising in sea ice Svalbard

Travellers on an expedition cruise also tend to be a little different than the typical cruising type. At Secret Atlas, we find that expedition travellers are more interested in active excursions that focus on nature, wildlife, and environmentally friendly practices. Because accessing remote destinations has requirements around mobility and agility, the expedition traveller must also be physically fit enough to participate in the activities. They must be able to transfer to and from the vessel to small Zodiac inflatable crafts to head ashore, and once ashore, have to be able to dismount from the Zodiac onto the beach or rocky shoreline (no piers or walkways here).

Once everyone has dismounted from the Zodiacs, travellers have the option of choosing to explore with a group based on their interests and fitness level. Robust travellers head out on hikes, while those that choose to stay behind stroll along the shoreline to observe the wildlife close to shore. Suppose you can imagine yourself on a Zodiac, hair whipping in the wind, followed by an hour hike into the unknown and back again in the warm and cozy vessel at the bar later that day, chatting with everyone about the sights. In that case, you might be well suited to be an expedition traveller.

What you´ll encounter aboard your vessel

It is common that traditional cruisers want bells and whistles aboard for entertainment. If you are looking for pools, multiple restaurant options and a nightclub, a traditional cruise would be your best bet. Expedition cruises, on the other hand, offer warm, safe, and comfortable places to rest and relax between experiences ashore– with less environmental impact.

These days, depending on the size of your ship, the destination, and the company you choose to tour with, you can expect your expedition vessel to have one dining room (or more), a bar, shared or independent cabins, and a couple of special amenities that will fit aboard a smaller ship. On the smallest vessels, the special amenities could be a viewing deck, an enclosed hot tub, and a library (Secret Atlas).

The cabins of an expedition ship are also more designed for comfort than the luxury staterooms available on a mega cruise ship. While the cabin sizes on an expedition cruise vary, they are likely to feature single or double berths, a desk or sitting area with a viewing window, closets and storage areas, an en suite or private bathroom (shower only). For expedition adventure travellers, this is more than enough, since they are more interested in spending time exploring the ends of the earth over spending time in the cabin.

That said, for those interested in the most personalized experience possible, it is an option to charter your own yacht expedition (crew and chef included), which can be tailored for a higher level of luxury. While a few companies offer this option, with a Secret Atlas private yacht expedition, your only limits are your own creativity. You can decide whether to splurge for extras like white-gloved butlers on hand, meals served to you in multiple courses, cookery workshops with renowned chefs, and more.

explorer expedition yacht svalbard photography tour

Expedition vessel Explorer offers a high level of comfort with the luxury of just 12 guests.

Eat well, skip the excess

If your most desired cruising wish is to overload your plate from a delicate shrimp tower and serve yourself with heaping loads of jiggling cuisines from a never-ending buffet, a traditional cruise will have what you’re looking for. Instead, on an expedition cruise, you can expect to eat and drink well, without getting out of control. At Secret Atlas, we offer tasty, freshly cooked food onboard for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Outside of set meal times, your expedition may offer snacks like afternoon cookies and tea. However, the offerings are far from sparse– many people still head home a kilo or so heavier from the delectable local cuisine available on their expeditions!

Time to disconnect

It’s hard for many to imagine limited Wi-Fi (or no Wi-Fi!) for an extended period of time, as the Internet is such an ingrained part of our existence these days. As technology continues to improve, onboard satellite Internet is more available now than before on cruise ships. While a typical cruise ship may offer package deals so you can check your email, surf the web, and upload a photo or two, once you are in remote areas of the world, a Wi-Fi connection may be impossible. That’s why expedition travellers embark on their expedition ready to disconnect from their online presence and tune in to the natural marvels around them.

When all is said and done, the smaller passenger size, the shared jaw-dropping experiences, and lack of digital devices create an intimate atmosphere on the expedition ship. So if you decide to go on an expedition, you are likely to come home with a network of adventurer friends.

Expedition Cruise Ships: Small Ships vs. Large Ships

When it comes to expedition cruises, they can be broken down into three categories. Large ships are considered to carry more than 50 guests, small ships carry less than 50, and then the micro cruise vessel carries a total of twelve passengers. 

For expedition cruising, the smaller you go, the better. Most in the expedition industry agree that having less than 200 passengers is important, since ships with over 200 passengers are restricted from landing at certain sites. They have to be very careful about the land traversed once ashore, and in some remote areas like Antarctica, no more than 100 guests are allowed to land ashore at a time. When this happens, larger expeditions dispatch small groups ashore and bring them back to make space for the next group with wait times of up to an hour

While this is a widespread practice, it means that the boats, and the number of passengers, have a big impact on the locations you can actually reach, the time it takes to disembark ashore, and the way activities on land are carried out. Concretely, the fewer passengers, the less time and manpower it takes to get on land, hike further through the wilderness, and get everyone back safe and sound on the boat so you can go directly from one adventure to the next. 

Here at Secret Atlas, we take the smallest boats possible, with a passenger count between 12 guests (Secret Atlas Micro Expeditions) and 48 guests (Secret Atlas Expedition Cruises). That’s the smallest size possible for the destinations we are proud to explore.

zodiac cruising near bird cliff in Svalbard

Expedition Cruise Destinations

Many travellers like to book their expedition cruises far in advance, so if you are interested in planning a trip like this several months to a few years beforehand, you’re not alone. For the 2023 and 2024 season, there are currently expedition cruises available around the world for warm exotic destinations like:

  • Africa & The Indian Ocean
  • West Africa & Cape Verde
  • Galapagos Islands
  • Panama Canal
  • Coastal Tanzania
  • And French Polynesia & Easter Island

But if you are ready for an adventure that will really open your eyes to a whole new world, we suggest going to mesmerising colder weather destinations like: 

Svalbard, Norway. If you haven’t been to the Arctic before, Svalbard is the perfect place to start. It offers everything from diverse wildlife, fascinating human history and some of the most beautiful glaciers and Arctic landscapes on the planet.

Greenland. One of the most unknown and isolated places in the world, replete with wildlife and some of the most beautiful landscapes and wildernesses on the planet.

South Georgia. Encounter 100,000’s of King Penguins and some of the largest concentrations of wildlife on the planet.

Antarctica. ​​With no permanent population and SEVEN species of penguin, it is the perfect place to explore, full of natural beauty, incredible scenery, ice, a diverse array of wildlife and interesting historical sites.

Planning Your Expedition Cruise

Wondering where to begin to plan for such an out-of-the-ordinary experience? Look no further. 

Check out our article on what to pack for your expedition cruise based on the season HERE. 

Get in touch with an expert member of the Secret Atlas team to guide you on any and all questions expedition cruise related HERE. Seriously, message them! They are knowledgeable, so they love to help out, particularly when it comes to questions around fitness levels, flights, extended pre and post-travel, medications, whether visas are necessary for your expedition, and more.

Expedition Cruise Travel Tips

Expedition cruises are a privileged experience that few take, so if you do go on one, make it count. Take the time to investigate the cruise provider, and make sure it’s the type of expedition you want to take. Size makes a difference in many ways, so don’t be afraid to ask questions critically. Don’t just read other people’s accounts of the experience; if you can, find video footage of the locations and cruises to decide if it’s the right place for you.

Little things, like earplugs and an eye mask, can make a big difference in places with 24 hours of daylight, so take time to not only investigate the locations, but also what those locations will be like at the time of your visit (with a Secret Atlas cruise, you will receive a detailed packing list and expert information so this isn’t necessary). Some tour providers even supply you with some of the gear so that you don’t have to lug it out yourself– for example, Secret Atlas provides you with the boots you will need to hike ashore.

The main takeaway for those interested in expedition cruising is that with a little planning, expedition cruises are just as accessible as traditional cruises, yet offer a far more rewarding experience.

See our voyages to learn more about Secret Atlas cruises.

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