With the trend towards more personalised travel and off-the-beaten-track adventures, expedition cruises are becoming more popular among people who want to explore wild places and connect with nature.
Some operators specialise in this type of cruise, while others are more traditional cruise lines that have expedition ships as part of their fleet.
Here’s what to expect from an expedition cruise…
Smaller, purpose-built ships
Expedition cruise ships are smaller and designed to explore places that aren’t accessible to larger, mass-market cruise ships. Often, they go to places that can’t be reached by any other means.
Some of the smallest expedition ships carry just a handful of guests. Celebrity Cruises’ Celebrity Xploration, for example, has just 16 passengers, while Celebrity Xpedition has capacity for 48. Others have capacity for around 100 or more guests.
Overall, passengers can expect a small-ship intimate experience, with a higher staff-to-passenger ratio and guests will find they get to know fellow travellers and staff quite quickly.
It’s all about the destination
The mega cruise ships have evolved to become destinations in their own right, with on-board attractions so enticing that some passengers don’t even bother to get off when they arrive in port.
By contrast, expedition cruises are almost all about the off-board experiences, with guests more interested in immersing themselves in a landscape, nature or a local culture and with walks, hikes or journeys led by highly trained and/or very knowledgeable guides.
We say ‘almost all’ because some of the expedition cruises cater very well to discerning travellers who don’t want to compromise on luxury while onboard.
Life on board
Guests can expect fewer on-board options: there might be just one restaurant and a bar that doubles up as a library. Other ships may have more amenities, such as a pool or spa.
Rather than glitzy after-dinner shows, guests can hear lectures or talks from experts, or spend the evening stargazing.
Wi-fi may be limited or, in some remote places, not available at all.
Operators and destinations
Expedition ships take passengers on adventures to rainforests, polar extremes and anywhere in between and excursions tend to be included in the fare price.
Popular destinations include Norwegian Fjords, Alaska, Antarctica, the Galapagos Islands, the Amazon, the North Pole, Greenland, Svalbard, South Georgia or even the UK and the Kimberley in Australia.
Specialist cruise lines include AE Expeditions (main picture), part of Aurora Expeditions, which has 32 years’ experience in pioneering exploration and adventure, sailing to Antarctica, the Arctic and beyond.
Other specialists agents might come across include Australis Cruises and Quark Expeditions.
Celebrity’s three expedition ships operate in the Galapagos Islands, while American Queen Voyages operates one expedition ship, Ocean Victory, which has guest capacity of 186 and 100 crew.
The ship sails the Canadian Inside Passenger to Alaska, where highlights are the Alaskan village of Petersburg and a tour of the Misty Fjords National Monument.
Silversea Expeditions, Hurtigruten, Crystal Expedition Cruises, Scenic Luxury Cruises and Seabourn Expedition Cruises also have wide-ranging programmes.
Depending on the ship and the destination, operators will provide activity-based equipment, such as for scuba diving, kayaking and snorkelling.
Some operators provide passengers with gear or allow guests to rent wetsuits, waterproofs or binoculars. There may be a small shop onboard where people can buy essential items.
Expedition cruise ships tend to attract like-minded people, including a higher-than-average proportion of solo travellers.
Some cruise lines waive single supplements on certain itineraries, or it’s possible for solo travellers to share a cabin to keep costs down.
Many expeditions aren’t suitable for under-18s and passengers need to be physically fit and able to get on and off the small zodiac inflatables that are regularly used to take people ashore.
Selling expedition cruises
AE Expeditions Business Development Manager Katie Harber offers the following advice to agents: “Knowing the USPs of each operator and destination are critical to matching the client with the right expedition; so education and using the operator sales tools to help improve product knowledge are key factors in understanding and selling expedition cruising.
“Cross-selling to existing clients and thinking outside of the box is a perfect way to suggest an expedition; if your clients like wildlife and photography and have been on safari for example, they are likely to enjoy expedition cruising.”
She adds that sustainability is important and that clients will see through ‘green washing’ statements. Agents should check operators are members of the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators or Association of Arctic Expedition Cruise Operators.
Agents can also join the Expedition Cruise Network, which launched earlier this year.
If customers are looking for an adventure of a lifetime, an expedition cruise could be the answer.
Guests should expect the unexpected. There’s no guarantee they’ll see the wildlife they are hoping to spot, and itineraries can change quickly because of weather conditions or for a better chance of seeing something guests want to see.
Smaller ships and fewer itineraries mean expedition cruises tend to book further in advance.
The cost of expedition cruises is generally higher than on a more traditional cruise.
All cruise lines insist passengers take out insurance and this is an absolute necessity on expedition cruises – but policies can be expensive.
Tell clients to be prepared for all weathers. Think layers, thermals, rainproof gear and binoculars.