Expedition cruising in remote yet ecologically diverse areas like Antarctica and the Galapagos Islands has been growing in popularity, with one line racking up $5.6 million in sales on a single day.
Like most industries, the travel sector has experienced its fair share of trends. In the midst of the 2020 COVID pandemic, staycations that prioritized safety and private respite were all the rage. By 2021, more people were looking for vacation spots in the great outdoors, which were isolated enough and provided a break from long months spent cooped up indoors. Then by 2022, people began searching for domestic trips in accordance with the gradual lifting of certain travel restrictions. This year, a special kind of marine voyage has been gaining traction among the adventurous and curious: expedition cruising.
With life more or less stabilizing from the pandemic, travelers are now seeking thrilling and immersive experiences that can address their pent up wanderlust. Of course, one might wonder: why not take a regular vacation cruise?
Well, the simple answer is that expedition cruising is an entirely different breed of travel. Its ships are usually smaller and more intimate. Entertainment is sparse, and passengers won’t be getting the usual ports of call and frills. Instead, they may meet rough weather conditions and choppy waters to see some of the most remote yet biodiverse places in the world.
The Ends of the Earth
The unique nature of expedition cruises is precisely why many rich individuals are seeking it out. Jeff Galak, an assistant professor of marketing at Carnegie Mellon University, described it as “the last bastion of novelty for wealthy travelers” in a feature for Forbes.
This makes a lot of sense; after one has explored all the great major cities and main tourist attractions the world has to offer, what’s next? The answer, apparently, is wherever most people don’t venture. The novelty and thrill of exploring far-flung and normally “unreachable” places like the Arctic, Antarctica, Galapagos Islands, and Costa Rica is precisely why expedition cruises are so saleable.
In fact, these trips saw the most growth in the cruising sector over the past 10 years, according to James Cole—founder of cruise agency Panache Cruises—in a CNBC Travel feature. It went from 67,000 passengers in 2012 to a whopping 367,557 passengers in 2022. Linblad Expeditions, a luxury adventure cruise line, reported to have earned $5.6 million in sales on January 3, 2023 alone.
So how much does it cost to experience this sort of expedition? According to CNBC, an average trip can start at a minimum of $1000 per day. It’s important to note that most expeditions last for 15 days, while others can continue for a month. Multiply that and you have quite the hefty bill—but again, those who can afford it believe that it’s well worth every dollar. Beyond surface-level bragging rights, the main draw of an expedition cruise is the immersive and educational experience it offers to people of all ages.
Eyes Open to the World
Expedition cruises market themselves as inimitable learning experiences, first and foremost. Where else can one get up-close pictures of majestic glaciers, penguins, rare birds, lush flora, and roaring icy waters? Some cruises even include trekking the natural terrain itself, so passengers can get an even more immersive experience of the remote yet vibrant parts of the natural world.
In her article for CNBC Travel, contributor Helen Iatrou described how her cruise gave passengers the opportunity to snorkel with hawksbill turtles in Panama’s UNESCO-protected Coiba National Park, and meet the indigenous people who call Panama’s deep jungles their home.
“An expedition cruise satisfies your cultural and intellectual curiosity,” explained Edward Granville, COO of Red Savannah tours, with Forbes. “There is usually a focus on nature, wildlife and off-the-beaten-track experiences […]”
Expedition cruises almost always have experts and guides onboard who are tasked to create educational experiences for passengers. Onboard lectures and tours from scientific experts are all part and parcel of the expedition.
What to Expect on an Expedition Cruise
Unlike large-scale vacation cruises, an expedition cruise is a lot more intimate in many ways. For one thing, ships are usually built small to easily navigate rough terrain and narrow routes. These vessels are, of course, also designed to withstand harsh environmental conditions. Hurtigruten’s “Fridtjof Nansen,” for example, is equipped with several stabilizers to battle the roughest waters on earth in Drake Passage, just off of Antarctica.
As mentioned, things are usually rather sparse on an expedition cruise ship. There aren’t any big buffets or lively entertainment, but there are usually free medications to ease motion sickness. Most passengers agree that, despite the conditions that render them unable to walk around the ship at times, the experience of seeing rare natural wonders is worth the moments of discomfort. These cruises, after all, are meant to be experiential.
Of course, there are a good deal of luxury expedition cruise ships emerging by demand. Passengers can enjoy five-star meals and accomodations in these vessels, something especially important when traveling to places that don’t have such infrastructures. But as Andrew Marsh, co-founder of micro-cruising company Secret Atlas, explained to CNBC Travel, more luxury amenities require bigger ships. As such, passengers seeking these accommodations must expect to sacrifice more adventurous elements of an expedition.
Strict safety protocols and equipment will also be provided in most trips, especially those in rougher terrain. After all, while the cruise is a vacation, one mistake in the wilderness can be fatal.
Preparing for an Expedition Cruise
There are a few things one needs to do before booking a trip on any expedition cruise, as per Forbes. Firstly, interested travelers should check their insurance and ensure they have one that can adequately cover far-flung trips. Many travel insurances exclude places in Arctic regions, so it’s best to review terms and conditions.
One should also choose their cruise carefully. Not all expedition cruises are built the same—some are more lavish than others, but lack the interactive and exploratory aspects of such a voyage. Be sure to compare and review itineraries, ship types, and of course, the actual experiences that an expedition will offer. It’s important that these factors align with your expectations as a traveler, so know your limits.
As with any big outdoor trek, be sure to pack accordingly. Most expedition cruises involve some level of physical activity and will likely experience varying weather conditions. So having the right clothes, necessities, and equipment is a must.
Lastly, it’s always best to plan ahead. This not only gives you more time to prepare, but also allows you to book a trip on your desired dates. The demand for expedition cruises continues to skyrocket, so start early if possible. Some lines actually offer sailings as far as 2025—which should give interested travelers enough time to craft their next exciting adventure.
Banner photo from the Silversea website.