The Arctic encompasses destinations within Canada, Greenland, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Russia, and the United States and is home to some of the harshest—and most astonishing—wildernesses on the planet.
Experiencing the raw, untouched beauty of the Arctic is often easiest (and comfiest) by expedition ship. And while cruise companies make it so guests don’t have to worry much about the itinerary, there are still several things you should consider ahead of time to best prepare for your voyage.
Here is some of what I learned on a 10-day expedition cruise to Svalbard with Lindblad Expeditions, as well as insight from various expedition leaders about what you should know before going on an Arctic cruise.
Choose the right operator for you
The Arctic (all regions above 66.5622 degrees latitude) can mean numerous places; the most popular for cruises include:
- Svalbard (a clutch of islands halfway between northern Norway and the North Pole)
- Canada’s High Arctic and Northwest Passage (often sailing from Reykjavík, Iceland, to Nome, Alaska)
- Franz Josef Land (an archipelago in Russia, though many of these sailings have been canceled due to the war in Ukraine)
While each operator does its sailings differently, there are some truisms across the board. The majority of Arctic sailings are on smaller expedition-style ships, with room for 100 to 300 guests (though larger companies, like Holland America and MSC Cruises occasionally sail to the region as well). These expedition ships may not pull into any ports, except for embarkation and disembarkation, instead sailing where they can as dictated by ice and weather conditions, looking for wildlife, as well as places to have off-ship excursions, like hikes and Zodiac rides.
The number of days for an Arctic sailing ranges from a week on board and go up to about a month. Prices start as low as $5,000 and can top out at about $100,000.
The companies that now offer Arctic sailings include Hurtigruten, Lindblad, Oceania Cruises, Ponant, Quark Expeditions, Seabourn, Silversea, and Viking Cruises, among others.
After considering dates and price, we have a couple suggestions about how to decide which company to sail with:
- Determine what you want to get out of your Arctic cruise. Are you most hoping to see polar bears, log new birding entries, or interact with some of Canada’s Indigenous communities? Decide what most speaks to you and opt for an itinerary that aims to meet it.
- Consider ship size. What your ship offers will affect your trip. Smaller ships can wiggle into harder-to-reach areas and offer shorter wait times for Zodiac trips and shore landings. However, larger ships have more amenities, like gyms, spas, multiple dining rooms, and other on-board facilities. Determining what is essential for you (as opposed to what would be nice to have) should help narrow your options.
Come with an open mind and prepare to be flexible
“Expectations can be high—they will almost certainly be exceeded, but not necessarily in the way you might consider,” said Shaun Powell, director of field staff for Lindblad Expeditions, adding that while high hopes are warranted, you shouldn’t allow expectations or preconceived notions of what the trip will be like define the experience.
The most important thing, he said, is flexibility. The ships are entering a vast wilderness where the weather, ice, and animals dictate the experience. Nothing is rigid (daily itineraries will adapt and change constantly), and nothing will go exactly according to plan. But it’s also the unexpected that often leads to the best experiences and memories, like being able to stay longer in a destination to watch a polar bear stalk a seal or being able to see firsthand the power of the ice as it moves, melts, and shifts and what that means for the planet and the climate.
“These are extraordinary, unconventional, and astonishing destinations. Their wild temperaments cannot be tamed or wholly quantified by a brochure’s description, a TikTok story, or an Instagram reel,” Powell said. “The environment is ever-changing and its creatures ever on the move, but if you go into your journey with an open mind, you’ll find each day brings you something beyond what you had envisioned. All you have to do is be willing to embrace these dynamic environs.”
Be prepared for changing weather
The temperature in the Arctic can change (and drop) rapidly due to windchill or sudden cloud cover.
While most Arctic cruises travel between May and September (when the temperatures largely hover in the 10s and 20s degrees Fahrenheit range), there are some that go a bit earlier or later (in which case, expect single-digit temperatures).
The key to comfort, Powell says, is outer layers (coats and pants) that are waterproof and offer wind protection. The windbreaker element is crucial because the wind can be bracing even on a sunny day. The waterproofing is to protect from precipitation and the spray kicked up by the winds as you travel in a Zodiac—nothing will make you feel the cold faster than being wet.
Under the protective outer shell, layers are essential. Typically, expedition teams recommend that guests wear a merino wool base layer, a warm mid-layer like a fleece, and perhaps a puffy jacket if they run particularly cold (similar to what you’d wear on a ski trip). Another factor to consider, Powell said, is making sure the layers aren’t too snug.
“Far too often people pick layers that end up being too tight without realizing the extra room—the air—in between those layers is really where the important warmth and comfort lies when you’re exploring these frozen landscapes,” Powell said. “Slightly loose is better. One pair of thick, quality socks is better than squeezing into multiple pairs that force all the blood from your toes. Mitts are better than gloves. A puffy vest under your shell will likely be better than multiple layers of fleece.”
A backpack (preferably waterproof, to protect camera gear) for carrying extra layers, gloves, and hats, or being able to stow a stripped layer, is also essential. Sunscreen and sunglasses are also important, as the sun reflects off the ice.
Invest in good, tall boots
Locations you will visit in the Arctic will often have “wet landings.” For these excursions, a Zodiac transports passengers from the ship to the shore for activities, and you’ll have to disembark into shallow water. A good pair of waterproof, high-topped (at least mid-calf), insulated boots are invaluable.
Be sure to check with your cruise operator to see if it has options you can rent or borrow—it’ll help cut down on the weight of your checked bag. Some cruise companies, like Lindblad, work with outside operators, like Ship to Shore, to source boots for their guests. Others, like Hurtigruten, offer complimentary boots for Arctic sailings.
I wore my neoprene Xtratuf boots, which worked well, though Hunter, Bogs, and Muck Boots were popular with my shipmates. Pro tip: Pack a pair of insoles to help increase the comfort—you’ll be doing a fair amount of walking in said boots.
Don’t forget to prep for the origin port city
Typically your trip will start with a couple of days in a major city, like Oslo for a Svalbard cruise or Reykjavík, Iceland, for a Northwest Passage sailing, so that guests can meet the expedition team and any lost luggage can catch up. (It’s a good idea to pack anything critical, like medications and key cold weather gear, in your carry-on—one woman on my trip never got her suitcase and had to borrow clothes for the entire sailing.) For that portion, you’ll want to bring lighter layers—you don’t want to be the person visiting the Munch Museum and the Nobel Peace Center in head-to-toe Gore-Tex (especially in July). Depending on your operator, it may have organized outings scheduled or allow you to explore the area on your own. Be sure to check your itinerary ahead of time and plan accordingly.
Plan to stay up late to see spectacular sunsets (and maybe the northern lights)
“No matter in which month you travel to the Arctic, you will have a chance to experience the amazing colors and light,” said Tessa van Drie, an expedition leader for Norwegian line Hurtigruten, adding that in the summer months, the sun doesn’t set, but hangs low in the distance. “The best light I have experienced was when the sun was just above the horizon while sailing in Disko Bay in Greenland—the icebergs looked golden.”
When the days get shorter—typically October to March—you might have a chance to experience the northern lights. It’s a good idea to download an aurora forecast app, like My Aurora Forecast and Alerts, ahead of time to know when there is a high chance of spotting the lights in your area.
There are often morning wake-up calls for breakfast, although most modern ships have intercoms for each room. If you’ve stayed up late and want to sleep in, it’s possible to mute the speaker. Though, considering you’ll be in the Land of the Midnight Sun, it’s probably worth bringing a sleep mask, too, in case your cabin doesn’t have blackout shades.
Bring a camera, maybe extra lenses, and good binoculars
Whether you’re using a smartphone or a professional-grade DSLR camera, you’re sure to come away with some beautiful shots of the Arctic. Brent Stephenson, a Lindblad expedition leader and photographer, recommended bringing a variety of lenses, if possible.
“Longer lenses are great for capturing the wildlife, but you need the mid-range zooms and wide angles for capturing the landscapes and sense of place,” said Stephenson. “A portfolio of beautiful closely cropped wildlife images will have your friends quickly losing interest in your slideshow post-trip. But a mix of images showing where you visited, the landscapes, the light, the glaciers and mountains, your traveling companions, and the ship will all tell the story of your voyage and provide a much more interesting story-telling experience for friends and family.”
As for binoculars, your ship will likely have some available for borrowing, but if you have a pair you like and know how to use, it’s worth bringing them along. Being able to zoom in and study an animal—be it a bird, seal, walrus, whale, or polar bear—or some of the amazing landscapes will make a huge difference in your viewing experience.
Get a better understanding of the history behind Arctic expeditions
You’ll have a fair amount of downtime aboard the ship while the crew scans the landscape for animals or preps an off-boat excursion, so it’s worth bringing a couple of books along for the ride. A few books that expedition leaders recommended that can offer a deeper understanding of the people and places you are visiting include:
- The First Crossing of Greenland by Fridtjof Nansen
- In the Kingdom of Ice: The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeannette by Hampton Sides
- Hearts in the Ice: The Adventures of the First Two Women to Overwinter Solo in Svalbard by Sunniva Sorby and Hilde Fålun Strøm
Be prepared to confront the reality of a changing climate
Traveling to one of the most remote places on Earth means getting a front row seat and potentially jarring view of the effects of climate change. In fact, the consequences of the warming planet are more readily seen in the fragile High Arctic.
It’s only been in the past few decades that these trips have become possible. Part of the reason is because of new technology, like more powerful motors and hook-shaped bows better equipped at maneuvering through ice. Another part of the reason is because of longer summers and the melting of sea ice, caused by climate change.
Part of the climate change problem, yes, is tourism. An estimated 8 percent of greenhouse gas emissions come from tourism each year, according to Sustainable Travel International.
Thankfully, many of the companies venturing into the Arctic have rolled out more green initiatives, ranging from eliminating single-use plastics on board to optimizing daily speed to reduce fuel consumption, to help protect these wild places. Others are working to redesign ships to make them more sustainable, like Hurtigruten’s Roald Amundsen, the first polar-class electric hybrid ship.
Still, your visit will leave an impact. But seeing firsthand the effects of climate change on the landscapes and the animals, Sven Lindblad, CEO of Lindblad Expeditions, said on my Svalbard sailing, has the power to craft a new constituency for preserving the Arctic.
“I think it’s incredibly important that people have the opportunity to see these places, learn about them, and develop a sense of reverence and importance for their existence,” Lindblad said.