These days, cruises are often synonymous with vessels the size of small countries, endless amounts of incredible food and entertainment rosters as long as your arm. But there’s a whole bracket of the cruise industry that’s all about adventure, all the time – we’re talking about expedition cruises, of course. They combine the simplicity of cruise travel with the thrill of setting foot on rugged landscapes. In short, they’re an explorer’s dream.

If you’ve heard of expedition cruises and aren’t sure what the hype is all about, wonder no more. Here, we dish out all you need to know about the best cruise expeditions and what makes them so special.

What is an expedition cruise?

Expedition voyages are the best cruises for adventurers, as they’re all about getting out and exploring your surroundings, rather than luxuriating by the pool. Expedition cruises generally operate on smaller vessels than standard cruise ships, which allows them to get into ports that are otherwise inaccessible to bigger ships. Think of these ships more like yachts, rather than cruise ships. Once on land, you’ll have the opportunity to embark on hikes, day-long kayaking trips or observe wild animals up close – here, nobody stays onboard during port days. These cruises are ALL about the docked days.

Expedition cruises vs. standard cruises

Outside of the fact that they’re both technically cruises, for the most part expedition and standard voyages couldn’t be more different. In addition to variety in ship size, expedition cruises are less about the luxury and more about getting in touch with your port’s exciting landscapes. Some ships will still have a pool – albeit significantly smaller than standard ships – and wellness centres too, but overall, expedition cruises are more focused on the land-based adventures than the ship itself.

On an expedition cruise, your ship will be lead by an ‘expedition team’ rather than a fleet of cruise staff. These teams are generally made up of naturalists and science lecturers that are experts about your ship’s port destination. This is who will lead your excursions, once you hit the shore.

Speaking of the shore, how you reach it on an expedition cruise is notably difference to standard cruises as well. Many of the places you’ll be going to don’t have docks at all, leaving you to take inflatable rafts and make a ‘wet landing’ onshore, AKA hopping into the water once you’ve gotten close enough.

There is a notable exception to the expedition vs. standard cruise comparison and that’s with Silversea. The Silversea line offers cruises that are still heavy on the adventure and exploration, but the ships also offer luxury onboard. It’s here that you’ll find small pools and light entertainment. If you’ve never tried an expedition cruise before, voyaging with Silversea offers a great midway option, to ease you in gently.

The best time to go on an expedition cruise

In terms of scheduling an expedition cruise, where you’re heading will largely dictate what time of year you voyage. Many expedition cruise destinations are heavily weather dependent, so your itinerary is at the mercy of Mother Nature. Alaskan cruises, for instance, only run between late April to September, while Antarctic cruises are reserved strictly for November to March. You’ll want to do a little research on each of your potential destinations beforehand, including when these voyages set sail, and then decide which one floats your boat.

Best expedition cruise destinations

Galapagos Islands – The Galapagos Islands live on in our memories thanks to Charles Darwin and luckily, they’re as amazing as he said. They’re an isolated archipelago, 97% of which are designated national park space, which means tourism here is limited. Because they’re so off-the-beaten-path, the Galapagos Islands are home to scores of unique animal species, many of which you can see up close with snorkelling trips and animal-spotting hikes.

Antarctica – Antarctica might be one of the most formidable places on earth, but it’s also one of the most breathtaking and fascinating. Venturing to this snowy landscape doesn’t get more exclusive, seeing as there’s no native population outside of the seals and penguins. Trips here are all about animal-watching, with whales in the water and cold-prone birds soaring overhead. Visits to nearby research stations, where Antarctic experts are on hand, are offered as well.

Alaska – Alaska has quickly become one of the most popular cruising destinations ever, but seeing it on an expedition cruise will give you a real explorer’s perspective. The small ships mean you can swerve into coves and more narrow passageways and they tend to dock overnight, so you’ll even have a shot at seeing nocturnal creatures. Top cruise expeditions here tend to include cruising past glaciers on rubber rafts, hiking through fishing towns and photography trips to learn how best to capture nature on film.

The Arctic – Arctic expedition cruises head to northern territories like Norway’s Svalbard archipelago and sometimes Iceland and Greenland. Up here, you’re even farther north than Alaska and Siberia, so it’s colder than cold. Animal-watching hikes are popular, as arctic foxes, caribou and polar bears roam free. Iceberg cruises and trips to the most northerly fishing village in the world are on many must-experience lists as well.

Pacific Islands – You’ll find a mixture of culture and nature on Pacific Island expedition cruises. The islands in the Pacific are pretty isolated, which means the native culture out here has remained largely preserved. Cruises can see day-to-day island life, plus wreckages from from World War Two. Nature-wise, you’ve got an abundance of underwater sea life, which means snorkelling and coral reef diving are always on the agenda.

Tips and tricks

Ready for an adventure? Start planning your expedition cruise today.

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