I am frequently asked by both media outlets and potential expedition travelers, “What is an expedition cruise really like?“ and “Who should ‘consider’ an expedition cruise?“ Alas, the answer to both of these questions is not straightforward…And that is where Goldring Travel comes in!
Why should you consider my opinions? I have more hands-on experience than the vast majority of those selling expedition cruises. I have had personal expedition experiences with:
On those expeditions, I have personally explored such places as:
Why an Expedition Cruise?
Before getting into “What” and “Who”, let’s briefly discuss why expedition cruises are becoming so popular?
One reason is that as the premium/luxury cruise and land touring market is maturing, more well-traveled individuals want to travel to more exotic destinations (No more “Been there, done that” locales). Some folks want to complete their Bucket List. (I, personally, don’t like that term because it sounds so definite, and my list constantly grows!) Some have a deep desire to see a particular place that wasn’t easily reached until the growth of expedition cruising. And the list goes on.
But there is a second reason: Expedition cruises are high-profit offerings by the various suppliers; far more than your average Caribbean or Mediterranean cruises. While much of an expedition’s higher prices are as a result of higher costs – including the expedition team, more expensive provisioning (you can’t have fresh food delivered by truck at each port), fuel costs, insurance, ship maintenance, etc. – at the end of the day, the profits are there if the prices stay high.
The good news for potential expedition travelers is that the expedition market is becoming crowded with options, with more companies entering into or expanding their presence in the market. And because of that, there are some pretty rich promotions and offers that may not be widely publicized that are available. (Hint! Hint!)
You Don’t Know What You Don’t Know!
There is, however, a word of caution: Just because an expedition is offered doesn’t mean the expedition team is qualified. There is a seriously wide – and concerning – difference in the quality of the expedition teams provided by the various companies. They vary from literally legendary to unsafe. While the majority of expedition team members are highly qualified (there is always a mix of true experts and more general naturalists fairly new to the industry), I have experienced a totally unqualified Expedition Leader who the following season was demoted to zodiac driver, a kayaking guide that might have been an expert kayaker, but failed to monitor the guests in polar bear/walrus waters, and a guide so incompetent I had to take over guiding a hike.
The troubling thing for me is that some guests don’t know what they are missing or what danger they have been exposed to. Some have left the expedition thinking it was an amazing once-in-a-lifetime experience, while I have quietly been frustrated that they were cheated or even endangered.
Who Should Consider an Expedition?
So with that, the first question to ask is not about what an expedition is, but rather, “Who should consider an expedition?“ The answer is that unless you have a medical condition that is acute and may require urgent medical attention, pretty much everyone – from older children to more age-blessed adults – should consider an expedition. The number of 70+ year-old guests on even the most rigorous of expeditions would surprise you!
Why? Because (A) There are many styles of expedition, (B) Different locations have different climates and physical challenges (or not), and (C) many of the expedition teams are well-qualified to assist people with most mobility issues.
For example, if you have difficulty functioning in the cold weather, expeditions to The Galapagos, Papua New Guinea, Australia’s Kimberly region, Africa, and, without limitation, Central and South America are great options. If you have issues with walking distances or stability, assistance from walking sticks to more contemplative landings to even just enjoying being in these remote areas on a zodiac cruise or simply from the ship (whale and bird watching, vistas, etc.) are options. And, of course, you always have the option, if you are not comfortable, to skip a landing or zodiac cruise.
In my significant experience, I have encountered many with limited mobility (bad knees, lack of stability or flexibility, obesity, etc.), those over 85 years old (some of the most enthusiastic and dedicated expedition guests), with limited vision, and those that are just plain admittedly out of shape. Each and every one of them had amazing expedition experiences.
Let’s also address those beautiful photographs you see with 30-year-olds bounding up snow-covered mountains or peering over rocky peaks. They are, to be sure, just that: Photographs. It is not reality. The reality is that in your thirties, you may have the time, but you don’t have the money. (Ushuaia – the port from which most Antarctica expeditions sail – is filled with 25-35-year-old backpackers, and a few might be able to hitch a ride on an old ship, but mostly they can’t afford even that fare.) In your forties and fifties, you may have the money, but most have other obligations such as work, college loans, children, etc. And that leaves the prime age group for expedition cruising: 50-70-year-olds as they are generally free enough from obligations to have the time and they have amassed enough discretionary money.
And there is one other important concept: Expedition Does Not Equal Exercise! Heck, while I’m home, I regularly hike six miles or so just for fun for a few hours in the afternoon; I am rarely the guy who signs up for the hardest hike. Why? Because I didn’t come on expedition to exercise. I came to engage with nature and local cultures, to pull up a rock and take it all in. I’ve been on an expedition where one “active” hike group was so fast getting to the top of a ridge that they missed amazing wildlife I saw while sauntering and on another where two young men were extremely angry that a polar bear sighting canceled an expected hike. (NO, you can’t hike with polar bears! lol)
Now that you haven’t excluded yourself from considering an expedition cruise, let’s talk about what it is like and the different styles of expeditions: Expedition, Expedition Lite, and Mass Market Kinda Sorta Expedition.
What is an Expedition Cruise Like?
While some luxury lines provide a bit of a more classic cruise ship experience when it comes to dining and entertainment (shows), for the most part, life on an expedition ship is a bit different. When not on the ice or sand, your day will be filled with lectures on nature, history, and culture, time out on deck with the expedition team, possibly a massage or soak in a hot tub, or that every important nap.
Depending on the company, breakfast and lunch may well be buffet only, but all provide an ala carte menu and full-service dinner. Most luxury lines have alternative dining options, and others are getting creative, such as Quark Expedition’s Tundra to Table dining experience on Greenland expeditions. (Luxury expedition companies tend to be all-inclusive, while others beverages and gratuities are extra.)
While a few luxury ships will offer a limited after-dinner show, entertainment (other than the plethora of lectures) will be a small band and/or DJ, trivia, and similar. Remember, with every day being quite active, most do not engage in late-night parties.
In the past, connecting to the internet was a real issue. Now, virtually every newer ship has StarLink, so it is no longer a significant issue. Still, do not expect perfect coverage and lightning-fast speeds at all times, but it is pretty darn good!
The Expedition Experience
Expedition companies such as Quark Expeditions, Aurora Expeditions, Lindblad Expeditions, Intrepid Expeditions, and some others are designed to really get you out there. Their operational limits for snow, rain, wind, swell, etc., tend to be more flexible than others, and they will work to keep you out as long as possible during your morning or afternoon landing or zodiac cruise. This is not because it is an endurance test, but rather, the longer you are out in nature, the more of a chance to see not only the expected but the unexpected.
They also offer such things as full kayaking programs, SUP, snorkeling in Antarctica, overnight camping, snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, and more.
For example, recently, I was on an Aurora Expedition in Svalbard, and our landing was canceled due to a polar bear being spotted way up high on a ridge. So we were out bobbing in the zodiacs in cold winds and rainy mist for about two hours, eventually talking about hot chocolate, when someone said, “Hey! Why don’t we go back and check out where that polar bear was?” Suffice it to say, the bear was now near the shore, and we had an epic experience of watching this magnificent creature walking from the snow to the rocks to swimming right towards our zodiac. (Time to GO!)
Another example was on Intrepid/Chimu Expeditions in Antarctica, landing in a swell with five expedition members assisting everyone over the rocks right after about two feet of snow fell. Many luxury lines understandably would not attempt that landing. Being used to hiking in snow, I bounded up the hill next to a small colony of chinstrap penguins overlooking the water alone with the sounds of a humpback whale feeding while a light snow was falling. Magic.
To be fair, Scenic Eclipse did afford a wonderful snowy day at my favorite place in Antarctica, Neko Harbour – which is a more manageable landing. Two hours just standing on a rise in the snow, taking it all in, was emotional (but did it ruin my camera!)
Of course, those more expedition companies offer alternatives for those not as wanting either for the entire expedition or, possibly, just on certain days. Shorter hikes, no hikes, alternative or shorter zodiac cruises, etc.
While no expedition company wants to admit they are offering Expedition Lite, the reality is that a very significant portion of the expedition market are folks who want to visit exotic locations but not necessarily push themselves physically. This is anything but a criticism. It is actually a compliment that they know their guests and provide them with the type of experiences they desire and in the comfort they expect.
Luxury brands such as Silversea, Scenic Eclipse, and Seabourn fall into this category. And it may include adjusting the length of a zodiac cruise based on how cold or windy it is, finding an alternative landing site because it would be more challenging, changing from landing to zodiac, canceling the landing, offering more options that are less physically challenging, etc. Many small accommodations are made, which can include such things as a constant run of zodiacs from shore back to the ship, so if you want to spend less time on land than is allotted, it is not a problem.
The Drake Passage vs. Fly The Drake
For those considering Antarctica, one of the most vocal concerns is The Drake Passage. I gotta be honest, “The Bark is Worse Than the Bite.” I have made the crossing twelve times, and only once was it a bit dodgy (and that was on an old ship that had broken stabilizers).
I also think it is important to settle into the expedition experience, spending time with your expedition team, being out on deck looking for whales and birds, and just getting your head into the game. And, of course, nothing compares to an early morning arrival in Antarctica and the views just blowing you away.
That said, the luxury expedition market created a new option: Fly the Drake. You fly to Santiago, Chile, overnight, fly to Punta Arenas, Chile, overnight, and then fly to King George Island to board your expedition ship. Yes, that is a lot of flying, and there are issues with weather delaying your flight into or out of King George Island, but it avoids the Drake Passage. (I will be experiencing this next month and will report back.)
This concept has been adopted by more expedition companies and has even been modified by some to include fly one way and sail the other.
So Much More To Discuss!
While I hope this article has given you a solid introduction to expedition cruising, the reality is that there is so much more to know and discuss. Goldring Travel wants to be sure you are traveling with the right expedition company, on the right expedition ship, and, of course, on the right expedition itinerary.
Remember, You Don’t Know What You Don’t Know but Goldring Travel does know. I have been there, done that, and done it again and again.
While I enjoy writing and talking about the expedition cruise experience, what is more enjoyable is arranging Your Expedition!