Planning & Tips

What’s the difference between a traditional cruise and a Polar expedition cruise?

Over the last several decades the cruise industry has become ever more popular, with companies expanding their fleets and creating mega-ships able to carry over 6,000 passengers. These vast liners act as floating hotels offering a luxury experience at sea.

Running parallel to this, under a different guise, is another cruise industry that is lesser-known and somewhat unsung. Since its inception in the mid-60s, expedition-style voyages have gradually increased in popularity, particularly among those looking to get off the beaten track and explore the more remote regions of our planet.

These two cruise styles are like chalk and cheese and each tends to attract a very different clientele. Read on to better understand those differences, so you can decide which is best suited to you.

1. Big ships versus small ships

The most obvious difference between traditional and expedition cruises is ship size. Cruise liners these days are a behemoth in size and able to carry thousands of passengers. By stark contrast, expedition vessels rarely carry over 250 people allowing them to traverse narrow channels and small, shallow bays. Areas like the Antarctic Peninsula, for example, are dotted with hundreds of islands that only a small ship would be able to navigate.

A ship sailing through the ice in Antarctica
The MS Expedition ship cruising around the Antarctic Peninsula

The larger cruise vessels cover distance more quickly and any movement from large swells is quelled considerably. The motion of the sea is always felt more on smaller vessels, however, most modern expedition vessels are equipped with stabilisers to reduce movement and, from my personal experience, these are effective.

2. Bustling ports versus the wilderness

The focus on the destination is an aspect that separates both industries significantly. Traditional cruises tend to visit a string of ports where guests can disembark and explore a new city every day or two. During the hours spent at the port, guests are free to wander the city at their own leisure or take the organised tours offered by the cruise operator.

Expedition cruises have a focus on visiting wilderness areas, far from any city, and often far from civilisation. For example, expedition cruises to the Arctic seek out remote regions such as the Svalbard archipelago where the landscape is open and wild. They focus on areas where guests can experience truly incredible wildlife encounters such as Antarctica, the Arctic, and the Galapagos.

A king penguin colony on South Georgia Island
A king penguin colony in St Andrews Bay, South Georgia Island

Unlike traditional cruises where you’ll have the whole day in a city to do as you please, shore landings on an expedition cruise are much more responsive to the environment depending on where wildlife is spotted and what the weather conditions are like. You’ll get one or two shore landings per day lasting around two or three hours each.

3. On ship versus off ship

Cruise liners nowadays are like cities on the water. Onboard you’ll find numerous restaurants, swimming pools, cinemas, shops, theatres, climbing walls, and even the occasional go-karting track. For guests wanting their creature comforts, this is a fantastic way of travelling from port to port, experiencing different cities and cultures as you go. Due to the extensive onboard entertainment, many traditional cruise itineraries have a greater number of sea days so that the guests can make the most of the activities.

Travellers photographing a humpback whale during a zodiac cruise around the Antarctic Peninsula
Travellers photographing a humpback whale during a zodiac cruise around the Antarctic Peninsula

Due to their small size, expedition cruise itineraries focus on off-ship experiences as opposed to time onboard. These come in the form of shore landings and zodiac trips to search for wildlife and immerse yourself in the unique landscapes. Saying this, a lot of modern expedition vessels now come equipped with a jacuzzi and sauna, a small library, a well-stocked bar, and a lecture theatre. If you’re envisaging cinemas and shopping, however, you’ll need to book a traditional cruise and forgo any significant wildlife encounters. 

4. Passive and relaxing versus active and adventurous

Having experienced both traditional and expedition cruises, there is a big difference in the style of activities. I think it is fair to suggest that guests aboard mega cruise liners are looking for a relaxing holiday in which they can sunbathe by the pool, take in a movie, enjoy the fantastic food on offer and explore a city at leisure when docked at a port.

Antarctic cruise passengers exploring on land in the snow
Antarctic cruise passengers up close with a gentoo penguin

The focus of expedition cruises is centered around adventure and exploration and in that sense, it is not what most people would deem a traditional relaxing holiday. You travel according to the weather and make several shore landings daily in which you’ll be hiking for an hour or two to get close to the wildlife. There is plenty of time to relax alongside these excursions, but it won’t be in a balmy breeze by a pool, it will be in sub-zero temperatures with a pair of binoculars in your hand out on deck or in the various observation lounges on board.

5. Entertaining versus educational

As mentioned above, traditional cruise liners have a focus on entertainment when sailing. Guests are treated to theatre performances, cinema showings, live music, and gala balls. Expedition cruises on the other hand have a rich educational vein to them and all voyages include daily informative talks from the onboard experts as standard.

An onboard lecture being given by an Antarctic expedition leader on an Antarctic cruise ship
An onboard lecture being given by an Antarctic expedition leader

These talks can range from geology and history to the local wildlife and climate change. Each talk discusses the region you are sailing through, which allows guests to appreciate the landscape in much more depth. The talks are not compulsory, but I’ve always found them to be a great way of bringing the region to life.

6. Fixed schedule versus flexible itinerary

A ship sailing across the Drake Passage in rough seas
A ship sailing across the Drake Passage in rough seas

Unlike the major cruise lines, expedition cruise itineraries are not able to be set in stone. Antarctic sailing expeditions must cross the infamous Drake Passage, one of the roughest stretches of water on the planet with a confluence of currents. It is not uncommon for a ship to delay departure to avoid a rough crossing.

The ever-shifting weather of the Polar regions has a heavy hand in steering the schedule one way or another, and no captain will argue with the elements if it means risking the safety of the travellers, which is always of paramount concern. The Polar regions are particularly changeable due to sea ice which can retreat or freeze dramatically overnight. It’s a regular occurrence for a ship to have to change course when an area has become choked in ice.

A Polar ice breaker ship carves its way through early December ice in Antarctica
A Polar ice breaker carves its way through early December ice in Antarctica

Expeditions are also responsive to wildlife sightings, an aspect of the cruise that only serves to improve the experience for all on board. In other words, Antarctic cruising demands a certain spontaneity and trust from passengers, but it almost always pays off in the most spectacular way.

Choosing a cruise comes down to personal preference

It’s clear that there are stark differences between traditional cruises and expedition cruising. Large cruise lines offer guests a more traditional style of holiday where you can soak up the sun, feel relaxed and entertained, and enjoy city-hopping and shopping. Expedition cruising offers a unique glimpse into untouched wildernesses where the focus is on wildlife and off-ship exploration.

Travellers admire an orange sunset over the open ocean
Gazing out over open waters of The Drake Passage as the sun sets

There is no right or wrong choice, everyone’s dream trip looks a little different, and both styles have their plus points. That said, if you have a spirit for adventure, like me, then an expedition cruise could be the adventure you’ve been searching for.

Alex Mudd

Head of Swoop Antarctica

Alex returned from his first Antarctica trip ten years ago firmly bitten by 'polar fever' and obsessed with icebergs. Since then, in between further forays to the polar regions, he's been evangelising about the joys of expeditionary cruising and doing all he can to return to The White Continent.

An inveterate traveller never happier than when beyond mobile reception. Some of his more memorable adventures have included dog sledding in Spitsbergen, hanging out with Huli Wigmen in PNG, piranha fishing in The Amazon and chasing the Northern Lights in Greenland.