Ned’s 9 expedition cruise tips

Gentoo Penguins in the foreground at Neko Harbor, an inlet on the Antarctic Peninsula on Andvord Bay, situated on the west coast of Graham Land. Photo by NSL Photography

Last week, I discussed what “expedition cruising” is all about, and whether it’s the right kind of travel for you. This week, I’ll offer nine tips I’ve formulated from my own expedition cruise experiences.

These are general expedition cruise tips. Each expedition cruise type, according to its destination(s) and climate, will have some specific requirements and tips for them, which won’t be in this list. The following nine tips are applicable to almost any expedition cruise.

1. There are expedition cruise lines/ships, and there are expedition cruise lines/ships. — Just as there are major differences among mainstream cruise lines, there are significant differences between expedition cruise lines. My recent Antarctica expedition cruise was on luxury cruise line Silversea Cruises Ltd. For example, our cabin, a lesser class one on the 132-passenger Silver Explorer, still had a bathtub/shower combination, butler service, and a stateroom size larger than most expedition ships, and many mainstream large cruise ships. Expedition ships generally offer a wonderful atmosphere, good food, and great expedition personnel, but much less luxury and fewer creature comforts.

You need to create a comfortable budget for your expedition cruise, review the choices for your destination, the ship, its stateroom features and sizes, plus the ship’s amenities, and the total cost, including all projected extras such at gratuities and liquor. On the Silver Explorer, everything was included, unless you wanted to order items such as special wines or spa treatment. The all-inclusive cruise fee caused it to cost very little more than less luxurious cruises, when you add their extras.

2. If you have young children, leave them at home. — I sincerely doubt an expedition cruise is for them. There is too much down time and no children’s program or personnel geared to take care of children’s needs. On the other hand, if you have inquisitive, adventurous teens who are interested in seeing special places, and are ready to put their cell phones down and be away from Facebook for awhile, they might really love going with you on an expedition cruise.

3. Seriously consider bringing a seasick preventative. — Expedition ships are small, dwarfed by typical 2,100 passenger cruise ships. As a result, they don’t ride the waves as smoothly as their larger cousins. Sometimes they ply very rough waters and at cruise destinations such as the polar regions, they can’t use their stabilizers for fear of icebergs destroying them.

Therefore, even if you don’t suffer from motion sickness on large cruise ships, the same might not be true on expedition ships. Be prepared. My wife and I used both acupressure bracelets on our Antarctica cruise and Scopolamine Patches, as did many others on our cruise, yet on the way back through very rough waters in the Drake Passage, quite a few passengers suffered from sea sickness.

4. Travel between your expedition ship and your destination visits is typically via a Zodiac rigid inflatable boat with outboard motor. — You must be realistic about your physical ability to get in and out of these boats. It requires more than limited mobility and agility to be able to safely use these boats as a passenger. If you are unable to use a Zodiac, and won’t be able to get off the ship for your destination adventures, expedition cruising isn’t for you.

5. While many expedition cruises have multiple days at sea, don’t expect it to be a relaxing cruise. — While at your destination, you may depart from your ship as often as three times per day. Your expedition cruise will generally start with a very early morning breakfast and Zodiac cruise or hike at your destination stop.

6. Don’t expect your expedition cruise to precisely stick to its printed itinerary, so be prepared. — Expedition cruises are notorious for changing their “scheduled itinerary” on the fly, due to weather, tides, icebergs and wildlife sightings. Our ship to Antarctica diverted twice from its course to follow whales. One morning we were awakened at about 7 a.m., and told to rush outside to see a pod of Fin Whales, the second largest animal in the world. It was worth it, but altered our schedule for the remainder of the day.

7. You must carefully pack for your expedition adventure. — Each expedition cruise requires some specialized clothing. For polar cruises you will need layers of warm clothing, plus water repellent outerwear and waterproof boots, which are usually available as rentals. For Galapagos cruises, I recommend hiking quality water sandals for getting in and out of your Zodiac along the shore, and hiking, once ashore, with the addition of socks. I also recommend a scuba diving hood for those with balding scalps, for sunburn protection when snorkeling.

8. Many expedition cruise ships provide passengers a single outlet in the room. — Find out from the cruise line what outlet adapter you’ll need, and what voltage the outlet supplies. Bring any necessary adapter and transformer, and don’t forget an extension cord with a multiple outlet strip to power multiple devices simultaneously.

9. Don’t have unrealistic expectations. — Your expedition team will do their best to find the wildlife you want to see, but wildlife can be elusive on some expedition cruises. In the Galapagos, however, the wildlife should be plentiful.