Is an Expedition Cruise Right for You?

expedition cruise

Expedition cruising in Baja California aboard the National Geographic Sea Bird. Copyright: Sven-Olof Lindblad

Cruising is a massively popular form of vacationing. Although, when you look beneath the umbrella of the greater genre, you find several categories of cruise ships that each have their own following: traditional ocean cruises, luxury cruises, river cruises, and expedition cruises. The last of these, the expedition cruise, is coming into its own as cruise lines expand their destinations and their fleets to accommodate continuing demand. But travel advisors are often asked, “What constitutes an expedition cruise and is it right for me?”

What an Expedition Cruise Is and Is Not

Expedition cruising shares some of the same elements of traditional, luxury, and river cruising, plus has some distinctive characteristics that dial up the adventure meter.

expedition cruising

The Lindblad Expeditions ship National Geographic Sea Lion at sunset. Copyright: Michael S Nolan

The Ships – Many expedition ships are purpose-built for their intended destination. They may have reinforced hulls for sailing into the icy waters of Polar Regions, shallow drafts for low water access, and special technology to lessen their environmental impact. Like river ships, they almost always carry fewer than 200 passengers, most less than 100 and some as few as 20.

The luxury level varies from comfortable functionality to chic design. You can expect exceptional service standards and very high crew-to-passenger ratios. With so few passengers, dining is usually one open seating.


Guests exploring Antarctica and penguins. Copyright: Ralph Lee Hopkins

Expedition Locations – Because the ships are smaller than traditional ocean liners, expedition cruises can go to areas that ships the size of a small village cannot go. Destinations tend to be remote locations that you can only reach by water, so there’s an exclusivity factor created by limited accessibility. These off-the-beaten-path spots often focus on scenic vistas, nature, and wildlife.

Adding to the adventure, expedition cruises might opportunistically change course to follow a pod of humpback whales or if weather conditions warrant. Other cruises stick to a defined itinerary.

expedition cruise

The Lounge on National Geographic Explorer is the gathering place for talks. Copyright: Sisse Brimberg & Cotton Coulson

Life Onboard – Don’t look for a casino, stage shows, or formal dress on an expedition cruise. Instead, you’ll find a casual environment with plenty of enrichment opportunities. Onboard experts, naturalists, and historians share their knowledge through talks and individual conversations with guests.

There is an emphasis on learning, so a photography expert may offer tips, or an anthropologist might interpret the cultural aspects of the destination. Passengers mingle during cocktail hour, but after dinner, evenings are pretty quiet as passengers prepare for the next day’s adventures.

gray whale

This gray whale calf came close enough to touch. Copyright: Ralph Lee Hopkins

Authentic Adventure – Since the whole objective of an expedition cruise is to get closer to nature, the adventure really ramps up when you get off the ship. Normally you’ll use zodiacs, not tenders, or maybe even helicopters. You might overnight in a tiny Alaskan cove for a front-row seat when bears come to the water at feeding time. In the Galapagos, you can free swim with sea lions in their home waters or in Antarctica, kayak among the ice “growlers” and “bergy bits.”

Activities are usually done in small groups, so you’ll get to know your travel companions during the cruise. The onboard experts often accompany groups to share more of their expertise in the field.


Adventure seekers will find kindred spirits on expedition cruises. Copyright: Alexandra C. Daley-Clark

Interesting Companions – Expedition cruises tend to draw well-traveled adventurers. You’ll find inquisitive people who have already been to many mainstream destinations and are looking for a unique experience. They love to learn about what makes that place special – the ecosystem, biology, culture, and history of the area. Since nature is a central part of many expedition cruise experiences, they have a strong desire to connect with and preserve wildlife and environments. In short, expedition cruisers are often interested and interesting people.

Where Do Expedition Cruises Go?

Tongass National Forest, Southeast Alaska. Copyright: David Vargas

Alaska is a popular destination for a first-time expedition cruise. The scenery is magnificent, and wildlife diverse. Opportunities for adventure range from zodiac whale watching to helicopter glacier hiking.

expedition cruising

Guests exploring Antarctica via Zodiac. Copyright: Stewart Cohen

Antarctica is possibly the most remote expedition destination you could choose, yet rich with wildlife. You’ll see whales, seals, penguins, many bird species, all thriving in an inhospitable sea of ice. You might even visit a scientific research post and chat with human residents about their work there.

Galapagos sea lions

Galapagos sea lions on Gardner beach on Santiago Island in the Galapagos Island Archipelago, Ecuador. Copyright: Michael S. Nolan

The Galapagos Islands, the famed biosphere studied by Charles Darwin, is home to unique species found nowhere else on earth. While tourism is strictly controlled, you can get close to a host of different animals such as giant tortoises, seals, sea lions, and the infamous blue-footed boobies.

Amazon River Peru

Exploring by Skiff in Pacaya-Samiria National Reserve, Amazon River, Peru. Copyright: Ralph Lee Hopkins

The Amazon River is a birder’s paradise because 20% of the world’s birds live in the ecosystem. Expedition cruises from Iquitos, Peru take you deep into the jungle where you might stop in small villages to buy from the locals or take rainforest walks to look for monkeys, tapirs, and bear sloths.


Kayaking near Puerto Balandra, Isla Carmen, Baja California Peninsula. Copyright: Stewart Cohen Pictures

The Sea of Cortez, squeezed between Baja California and mainland Mexico, is known as “the world’s largest fish trap” because of its rich waters. Whale watching is prime or you can swim with whale sharks or interact with sea lions. See dolphins, sharks, and giant Pacific manta rays in the water, or birds, reptiles and desert flora on land.

polar bear Norway

A Polar Bear makes a close approach in Svalbard Archipelago, Norway. Copyright: Ralph Lee Hopkins

Arctic expeditions to the Svalbard archipelago, Norway showcase arctic wildlife like foxes and caribou on the tundra, and walruses and whales in the icy water. There’s a chance of seeing a polar bear, and 100% chance of seeing thousands of sea birds roosting on steep rocky cliffs.

South Pacific expedition cruises focus on marine biology as well as history and culture. In Polynesia and Micronesia, you may snorkel and dive on WWII military wreckage and visit isolated villages to learn about indigenous traditions. Along the Great Barrier Reef of Australia, marine life gets the spotlight.

Is an Expedition Cruise Right for You?

While expedition cruises share some characteristics with traditional cruises, they have a very different emphasis. If you have an inquisitive and adventurous spirit and love experiencing nature, you just might be ready to make the leap to an expedition cruise. Talk to your Covington vacation advisor about the different options available.

Photo credit: All photos are the property of Lindblad Expeditions. Covington is pleased to acknowledge Lindblad as a valued partner.

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