Expedition cruises are all about once-in-a-lifetime experiences, thrilling their passengers with exhilarating adventures and eye-opening cultural and wildlife-spotting outings on land and at sea. That might include spying howler monkeys in a rain forest, watching rare pink dolphins from a Zodiac, assisting marine scientists with real-life research, or meeting indigenous people in a remote village in a faraway place.
If that sounds appealing, you now have many more of these sailings to choose from: Nearly a dozen new expedition ships, all carrying fewer than 400 passengers, recently debuted or will make a splashy entrance in the coming months. Given their small size, these vessels can sail where so many big cruise ships can’t, and thus can deliver unique experiences.
But don’t think you’ll be roughing it. Along with goosebump-producing adventures, expedition ships — many of them operated by higher-end cruise lines — typically pamper guests with multiple dining options, fitness centers, wellness spas, heated indoor pools and, in many cases, all-suite accommodations.
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Purpose-built for extreme weather and heightened environmental awareness (including reduced emissions), these ships cost big bucks to construct, which means you’ll pay more to sail on them. But there are plenty of adventure seekers who think it’s worth the splurge, says Rob Clabbers, president of Chicago-based Q Cruise + Travel, a Virtuoso-affiliated agency. “After being stuck home for a year or two, cruisers are showing a willingness to spend more to get the experience they want. … Plus, the comfort of today’s [expedition] ships puts faraway places in passenger reach, even if, due to age or physical ability, a regular trek or safari may not work.”
While the fares can be eye-popping, they typically include nearly everything other than the most extreme outings. Plus, with interest in expedition sailing booming, value-conscious lines such as American Queen and Viking are entering the market, offering more manageable sailing prices for the budget-minded in closer-to-home areas like Alaska and the Great Lakes. (See our sidebar below for cost-cutting tips.)
Here are four examples of standout expedition cruises on new ships, at different price points.
Ship: 186-passenger Ocean Victory, launching May 2022 from American Queen Voyages, a new umbrella company combining the American Queen Steamboat Company and oceangoing Victory Cruise Lines
Standout cruise: Authentic Alaska, a 12-day journey between Vancouver and Sitka (offered May through September)
What you’ll do: Cruise through misty fjords, passing cliffs up to 70 million years old; feast on Dungeness crabs; join bear watches and botanical walks; and meet native Alaskans in their tribal homes.
Wow factors onboard: The ship features an X-BOW design, with the farthest-forward point lying underwater rather than above it, which reduces vessel noise and vibration and potentially delivers a smoother ride in rougher seas. Swivel chairs in the windowed observation lounge offer perfect viewing from every angle. Board Zodiacs easily from sea-level platforms.
Cost: From $4,699 per person, double occupancy
Info: 833-926-1817; aqvoyages.com
Ship: 264-passenger Seabourn Venture, launching July 2022
Standout cruise: The Heart of the Amazon, a 10-day trip between Manaus, Brazil, and Iquitos, Peru (offered in March and April 2023)
What you’ll do: Go jungle trekking or kayaking over seasonally flooded forests alive with sloths, howler monkeys and boldly colored birds. Aboard Zodiacs in Brazil, watch for rare, majestic pink dolphins at Boca dos Botos. Meet indigenous locals.
Wow factors onboard: In the Bow Lounge, touch screens display scientific and navigational data, with expedition experts interpreting information for guests. Large screens also project live footage from outdoor cameras, so you can spot wildlife in indoor comfort, then dash to a viewing area just outside the lounge (near water level) for close-up sightings. For warm weather ocean sails, the vessel features two custom-built submarines for exploring underwater shipwrecks and vivid reef walls, and crew members offer scuba diving lessons.
Cost: From $10,999 per person, double occupancy
Info: 800-442-4448; seabourn.com
Ship: Quark Expeditions’ 199-passenger Ultramarine, launched November 2021
Standout cruise: Antarctic Explorer: Discovering the 7th Continent, an 11-day cruise leaving from Buenos Aires, Argentina (offered from December through March)
What you’ll do: Explore on Zodiacs, gliding past towering glaciers and breaching minke whales, and trek snowy onshore trails past hundreds of penguins, from chinstraps to gentoos. Longer sails may include South Georgia, home to hundreds of thousands of king penguins, and the Falkland Islands, the charming British territory where you’ll likely spot albatross and some of the five penguin species that live there.
Wow factors onboard: With the ship’s 20 Zodiacs and four boarding zones (many ships have just one or two) at a water-level marina, passengers can speedily board boats should the crew spot whale pods or other jaw-dropping sightings. Two long-range, nine-passenger helicopters can venture farther than most other shipboard whirlybirds in polar regions. Adrenaline-pumping outings include ice-sheet heli-landings and alpine heli-trekking.
Cost: From $12,510 per person, double occupancy. (Budget tip: The company also offers 11-day cruises to Antarctica on the Ocean Diamond for $7,825 per person, sailing from Ushuaia, Argentina.)
Info: 877-977-7458; quarkexpeditions.com
The Great Lakes and Canada
Ship: 378-passenger Viking Octantis, Viking’s first polar-class expedition ship, launched January 2022
Standout cruise: Undiscovered Great Lakes, an 8-day voyage between Thunder Bay, Ontario, and Milwaukee (offered May through September)
What you’ll do: In Michigan, bike through Mackinac Island or kayak along its shores, and in Sault Ste. Marie, marvel at the Soo Locks, an 1850s-era engineering feat. In Canada, hike boreal forests in Ontario’s Sleeping Giant Provincial Park and go birding and wildlife watching on uninhabited islands. Assist scientists with experiments in the ship’s Science Lab and take part in citizen science programs, perhaps monitoring birds to help identify migratory patterns. For a memorable cultural experience, visit with members of the Anishinaabe First Nations tribe, learning their songs and traditional fishing techniques.
Cost: From $5,995 per person, double occupancy
Info: 800-381-4596; vikingcruises.com
Ways to Save on Expedition Cruises
While these cruises are high on excitement, they can be high on the price meter, too. Make them more budget-friendly with these seven cost-trimming tips.
1. Skip the balcony. You’ll spend very little time in your cabin on this type of cruise, so don’t pay for one with a balcony if you want to economize. “Someone might save 20 percent if they opt for an oceanview cabin instead,” says Linda Speer, master cruise counselor with Cruises by Linda in Harrison, Arkansas.
2. Book very early or book late. You’ll typically find the best pricing for these cruises by either booking far in advance or very close to the cruise date. “So once you identify the cruise lines of interest to you, sign up for their promotions, just in case there are last-minute deals,” Speer says.
3. Take advantage of loyalty programs. If you’re a loyalty member of one of the regular cruise lines now launching expedition ships, Rob Clabbers with Q Cruise + Travel recommends inquiring whether the line will extend your past-guest discounts to its expedition sailings. “Booking your expedition cruise while you’re on one of the line’s regular cruises may result in savings and/or benefits as well,” Clabbers says.
4. Choose your cruise line carefully. “Although Lindblad, Atlas and Viking may be the first lines that come to mind, expand your search to lesser-known companies if budget is a concern — Aurora, Hurtigruten and Quark [for example],” Speer says.
Case in point: Speer compared a Viking sailing to Antarctica in January to a similar one offered by Hurtigruten and found the latter was priced at 40 percent less. “But Hurtigruten sails with many more passengers, and regulations limit the number of passengers on the ice to 100, so there will not be as much time on land,” she notes.
5. Time your trip carefully. Fares vary during the year, so research pricing trends and book when they’re lowest. “Looking ahead to 2023, you can save thousands per person on an Antarctica cruise by booking a March sailing, the month with the lowest fares this year,” advises Colleen McDaniel, editor-in-chief of Cruise Critic, a cruise news and review site. “But do be aware that lower fares generally mean it’s a less popular time to cruise that region, and that could mean it’s not the ideal time to experience it.”
6. Book a non-expedition location. In addition to cruising to such exotic locales as the Arctic and Antarctica, many expedition cruise lines also offer less expensive voyages to destinations that are not as heavy on adventure, such as the Caribbean and New England. “If the ship is your destination, this can be especially appealing,” McDaniel says.
7. Pick an older ship. While the newest ships will have the latest design and shiniest interiors, you can sometimes save $1,000 or more by booking on a vessel that’s a few years older.
Los Angeles-based freelancer Janice Wald Henderson has sailed all seven seas, visiting more than 95 countries. She reports on cruising for Condé Nast Traveler, the Points Guy, Travel + Leisure and on radio worldwide.