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.
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.