Cruise vacations are typically associated with kicking back and relaxing, but expedition cruising offers an entirely new and thrilling way to explore the world’s waterways. Rather than voyage to major tourist regions, like the Caribbean Islands and the Mediterranean Sea, an expedition cruise takes passengers to explore some of the most remote and untouched regions. 

Removed from the typical glitz and luxury of a traditional cruise, expedition cruises focus on providing authentic travel experiences and memorable encounters with nature. If you are an adventurous traveler looking for a way to turn a cruise vacation into a character-building journey that can broaden the mind, an expedition cruise might be perfect for you. 

With this complete guide to expedition cruising, we will explain the basics of what an expedition cruise is, what passengers can expect, and how to make the most out of this extraordinary form of travel.

As the name suggests, an expedition cruise is a unique type of cruise vacation that involves taking passengers to less accessible and remote destinations.

Unlike a traditional cruise, where the focus is onboard entertainment, gourmet dining, and visits to popular tourist destinations, expedition cruises prioritize nature and wildlife and offer passengers an experience where the destination is more immersive than what can be offered on board the ship.

Unlike the mind-blowing proportions and amenities you get with the world’s largest cruise ships, like Royal Caribbean’s Icon Class cruise ships, expedition cruise ships are relatively small vessels, accommodating anywhere from 10 to 200 passengers. 

Not only does this allow the ship to traverse waterways that would be impossible for a full-sized cruise ship, but it also means the onboard experience can be far more personalized and intimate for guests.

The main differences between the two types of cruises fall into three categories – what type of ship is used, where the ship visits, and what the overall passenger experience is like:

Expedition ships are significantly smaller vessels than typical cruise ships. While reduced demand is partially responsible for this, the main reason these smaller and more intimate ships are used is that they can travel to more remote locations.

Small Expedition Vessel in Antarctica (Photo Credit: Angela N Perryman)

A smaller ship is also significantly more flexible than an enormous cruise ship, which is important when the voyage is based on wildlife sightings and visiting areas with less stable weather conditions. When larger cruise ships follow rigid schedules with exact itineraries, an expedition ship can react to situations in the moment. 

Plus, many expedition vessels have features that allow them to navigate harsh waters, like an ice-strengthened hull for the icy waters of the poles or powerful engines to traverse rugged seas and strong currents. 

As mentioned, traditional cruises are based around visiting popular tourist destinations that offer pleasant weather, whereas expedition cruises visit remote, less traveled regions, like the Arctic, Antarctic, Svalbard, and Greenland. 

An expedition cruise emphasizes exploration and educational experiences led by expert guides, whereas a traditional cruise focuses on relaxation and indulgence.

Cruise Passengers on Expedition Cruise (Photo Credit: tuzla)

Rather than spending afternoons lounging in the sun, visiting an onboard spa, or enjoying the ship’s waterslides, expedition cruise passengers spend their days spotting wildlife and viewing rugged, unexplored coastlines. 

Since expedition cruises are more of a niche experience than a traditional cruise, they tend to be significantly more expensive. This isn’t helped by the fact that the ships are drastically smaller, so operating costs need to be shared by fewer passengers. 

Where it’s possible to get deals on traditional cruise ships that cost less than $1,000 for multiple days, an expedition cruise can cost about that per day. Average costs run about $1,000 to $1,500 per person per day, depending on the destination.

Hurtigruten Ship Roald Amundsen (Photo Credit: dvlcom)

This is part of why expedition cruise passengers tend to view the voyage as more of a one-in-a-lifetime or bucket list experience than a relaxing vacation.

Worth Reading: How Much Does a Cruise Cost?

With that said, the cost of an expedition cruise is not exactly unreasonable when you consider that suite upgrades and onboard spending can easily bring the cost of a traditional cruise up to similar levels. 

The types of activities passengers experience on an expedition cruise can vary significantly based on the destination, but the following are all fairly typical: 

Since expedition cruises are based on activity and exploration, most incorporate some type of hiking or trekking into the experience.

Hiking Cruise Passengers (Photo Credit: Nancy Pauwels)

Through guided hikes, passengers can venture through remote landscapes and wildlife habitats that would be incredibly difficult to reach by other means.

These lightweight, inflatable boats are able to access shallow waters and take greater risks with rocks than metal and fiberglass boats. This makes them perfect for excursions along rocky shorelines, so they’re regularly used on expedition cruises for exploring coastal areas, narrow fjords, and rivers. 

Some will also provide passengers with sea kayaks, which enable a quieter and more hands-on exploration opportunity. 

While the type of wildlife you see on an expedition cruise will depend on where you go, most include opportunities to observe wildlife in its natural habitat.

Cruise Passengers Along Side King Penguins (Photo Credit: Angela N Perryman)

If you want to view penguins, seals, whales, polar bears, sea turtles, marine iguanas, tropical birds, and so much more, an expedition cruise might be perfect for you.

Many expedition cruise operators encourage passengers to photograph the stunning landscapes they explore. From photographing unique landscapes to capturing images of wildlife, an expedition cruise is the ideal type of vacation for aspiring photographers.

Photo Opportunity During Expedition Cruise Tour (Photo Credit: Sterling E)

In many cases, the crew will even offer advice on photographing the area in certain lighting conditions, so the photography tours can be an educational opportunity. 

Expert-led educational sessions conducted by expert naturalists, scientists, and historians are fairly common on expedition cruises.

Where many people take a traditional cruise to switch their brains off and relax, expedition cruise passengers want to learn and expand their understanding of the natural world. 

While the ‘best’ location will depend on your preferences, they almost always offer a unique opportunity to explore notoriously inaccessible locations. The following destinations are amongst the most popular: 

National Geographic Explorer in Antarctica (Photo Credit: Arne Beruldsen / Shutterstock)

This frozen landscape is considered one of the least hospitable on the planet, making completing Antarctica itineraries a true once-in-a-lifetime experience. Visiting and viewing the icebergs, glaciers, and penguins is on many people’s bucket list.

Like Antarctica, the icy Arctic and the coast of Greenland are popular expedition cruise destinations. With a focus on spotting polar bears, walruses, and other iconic species native to the North Pole, these regions enable genuinely memorable experiences.

Galapagos Islands (Photo Credit: Peter Sobolev / Shutterstock)

The untamed and distinct ecology of the Galapagos Islands makes them a perfect destination for expedition cruises. With their rugged volcanic geology and the opportunity to view many of the same species that were once observed by Charles Darwin, visiting the Ecuadorian archipelago is hugely popular with adventurists and expedition cruisers.

The rainforests of the Amazon are perfect for spotting rare species, like sloths, toucans, and pink river dolphins. Many of these cruises will include a voyage down the Panama Canal, which is a memorable experience in its own right.

Amazon River Cruise (Photo Credit: Nestor Morales Moreno)

With the opportunity to also learn about Amazonian traditions and cuisine, it’s unsurprising that these South American expedition cruises are very popular.

Read Also: Unique Cruise Destinations You Don’t Want to Miss Out On

Other popular destinations can include the remote coastlines of Iceland, the fjords of Norway, Alaska, and New Zealand. 

Most major cruise lines avoid focussing on expedition cruises, as there is a much smaller market for them than traditional cruises. This opens the door to specialized expedition cruise providers that focus on providing exceptional experiences that do not negatively impact the untouched environments they explore.

The following are just some of the leading expedition cruise lines today: 

Lindblad expedition cruises strongly focus on education, which is not surprising given their well-known partnership with National Geographic. The expert-led voyages usually travel to remote locations and provide up-close encounters by employing zodiac boats, kayaks, camera-equipped submarines, drones, and other exploration tools.

Photo Credit: Arild Lilleboe / Shutterstock

Most ships also travel with a National Geographic-certified photography instructor, so passengers with an eye for photography are particularly drawn to this cruise line. 

The cruise line focuses on eco-friendly and sustainable voyages, with many venturing to the world’s frozen waters to view icebergs, glaciers, and the resilient animal species that can survive in these harsh climates.

Hurtigruten Cruise Ship (Photo Credit: LouieLea)

Ponant offers more luxury-oriented expedition cruises, which explains why they tend to appeal to an older demographic that still wants to see wild parts of the world in a more comfortable setting. 

Each person has unique preferences, so the first step is deciding which region or specific locations you would like to see. Once you have decided where you would like to go, you can choose a ship that matches what you are looking for. Smaller ships offer a more personalized and intimate experience, while the larger expedition ships can be more comfortable.

Two Seabourn Ships Meet in Antarctica

You should also read up on activities included in the itineraries of different voyages to ensure you enjoy what appeals to you the most. Finally, budget is important, as prices can vary depending on the cruise line, where it is traveling to, as well as the duration of the voyage. 

For the most part, expedition cruises tend to be adventure seekers who crave unique experiences. They also appeal to wildlife enthusiasts and those looking for a more eco-conscious alternative to a typical cruise. 

Packing for an expedition cruise requires more consideration than a typical cruise vacation. You must bring the right clothing and gear for the destination and the activities you will participate in there. The correct clothing, like wind and waterproof clothing, can be essential, and the same can be said for sturdy footwear.

Guests Embarking Silver Wind (Photo Credit: John Bingham photography)

Packing extra adventure gear, like binoculars and high-powered camera lenses, can help you get the most out of your trip. Since you will be visiting remote locations, you must also focus on any medications and essential toiletries, as you can’t simply go into town if you forget something.

Read Also: What to Pack for an Alaska Cruise – Full List

Your cruise line will send you an informative email with a customized packing list before departure, so make sure you go through it meticulously while you pack. 

In the buildup to your trip, focus on your fitness and physical health. The better shape you are in, the more enjoyable outdoor activities will be. Rather than huffing and puffing, you’ll be able to really embrace the moment.

We also recommend brushing up on the region you will be exploring so you will be aware of potential dangers, wildlife, and other interesting facts. While these trips are educational, having a basic understanding of the area before departure will help you build anticipation and get even more out of the experience.

Cruise Ship Passenger Taking in the View (Photo Credit: Kirk Fisher)

Make sure you also purchase comprehensive and appropriate travel insurance. While these trips are safe, you do not want to be on the line for medical expenses or last-minute cancellation costs. Remember, these are rugged and unpredictable locations so delays can happen.

Encountering wildlife is one of the highlights of an expedition cruise, but it is important to respect it. Maintain a safe distance and listen to what your guides have to say.

You want to minimize your impact, so the focus should be on observing and learning rather than directly interacting with animals. Rely on your camera rather than direct interactions; always respect the natural environment. 

Life onboard an expedition cruise can be surprisingly relaxing and comfortable, but you should not expect the same five-star experience you would get on a luxury cruise ship.

Silversea Cruises Expedition Sailing (Photo Credit: Silversea Cruises)

Cabins are usually private but have shared washroom facilities. Meals are enjoyed as a group and are often freshly prepared with local ingredients wherever possible.

Onboard entertainment tends to have an educational focus, with lectures, films, workshops, and discussions with expert guides being common. You’re also encouraged to interact with fellow passengers and discuss your shared passion for adventure and nature. 

Expedition cruises prioritize sustainability and responsible tourism, so every effort is taken to respect the environments the ships explore.

Environmentally-friendly practices, like waste reduction, recycling, and energy conservation, are pretty standard. Wildlife preservation is always strictly enforced so you will be instructed on proper wildlife viewing and interaction protocols.

HX Expedition Cruise (Photo Credit: Yuri Matisse Choufour)

Expedition cruises are usually led by highly trained and knowledgeable guides with expertise in relevant fields such as biology and geology. Beyond education, your guides are also safety experts trained to ensure your safety and well-being throughout the journey. 

Bring the right equipment! Invest in a high-quality camera and the right lenses and accessories to capture the amazing sights you will see. Before you leave, it’s worth taking a few basic photography lessons so you can learn techniques to capture the beauty of the destinations visited. 

Taking Photo in Antarctica (Photo Credit: Sterling E)

Once you return home, you can use photo editing software to enhance and optimize your photographs, eliminating blur caused by fog, motion, precipitation, and other common issues when photographing rugged terrain from a ship deck.

Expedition cruises cater to all types of people. Singles and families are welcome. If you want to maximize the social aspect of sharing an adventure with total strangers, you can choose expedition cruises that focus more on social activities and group lectures.

For those with kids, check ahead to ensure you choose a family-friendly expedition rather than one designed exclusively for adults.

An expedition cruise is a unique type of cruise that takes passengers to remote and difficult-to-reach destinations. The focus is usually on nature, wildlife, and adventure. 

Depending on the destination and itinerary, expedition cruises can range from a few days to several weeks. 

A pole-to-pole cruise can cost upwards of $30,000 per person. Given that these trips can take as long as 90 days to complete, the cost is unsurprising.

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