A Guide To Arctic Cruises
A travel guide to help you plan your ideal Arctic cruise.
Where is the Arctic located?
The Arctic is situated in the northern hemisphere and starts at approximately 66.6 degrees north which marks the Arctic circle. The North Pole is the furthest point north on Earth and is located roughly 6,215 miles from the equator. The Arctic Ocean covers 5.4 million square miles of sea, so there are lots of places to explore on an Arctic cruise.
Which countries are in the Arctic?
8 countries sit within the Arctic which are Canada, Greenland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Russia, and the United States.
Why do a Small Ship Arctic Cruise?
The Arctic is a vast wilderness and there are very few roads in Svalbard and Greenland making ship based exploration the best way to encounter the Arctic. Exploring on an Arctic cruise allows you to visit places far away from civilization and encounter the tremendous wildlife that calls the Arctic its home.
The highlights of visiting the Arctic on a small ship cruise are encountering an abundance of wildlife, witnessing glaciers, exploring remote landscapes and encountering sea ice.
Where is the best place to visit on an Arctic Expedition Cruise?
The Arctic offers many possibilities and unique locations. Travelers that first visit the Arctic often catch the polar bug and then return to see more of it.
Where to visit in the Arctic depends on what you would like to see and during which season you would like to experience it.
Svalbard is located between the North Pole and mainland Norway high above the Arctic circle. It’s a great place to start if you have yet to go on an Arctic cruise and easily accessible from Europe.
It offers fantastic wildlife opportunities including polar bears, walruses, Arctic foxes and Svalbard Reindeer just to mention a few. Cruises in Svalbard explore the north and far east which is home to stunning landscapes, pack ice and over 2,000 glaciers. Svalbard has many fjords and during the summer months the conditions are usually quite calm making it a perfect place to explore if you are a first timer.
To find out more about visiting Svalbard on an expedition micro cruise with 12 guests see or Svalbard cruises.
Greenland is the largest island on the planet and is located between North America and Europe. For the traveler it offers impressive landscapes, colossal icebergs, countless glaciers and local traditions.
Due to its larger size wildlife sightings in Greenland are fewer and far between than in Svalbard, but it makes up for it with some of the most stunning scenery on the planet. Expedition cruises in Greenland explore the wilderness in the west, south and east of Greenland with each local area offering something unique.
To find out more please see our Greenland cruises.
The north of Norway sits above the Arctic circle and is home to countless fjords, remote islands, windswept beaches and small fishing villages.
From Tromso it is possible to take an Arctic cruise to explore the Lofoten islands during the summer months with 24 hours of sunshine. Places of interest include the Trollfjord, the stunning scenery Renie with it’s picture postcard landscapes and the colorful fishing village of Nusfjord.
During the winter months it is possible to do an Arctic whale watching and northern lights cruise. The area around Skjervoy is famous for its pods of Orcas that come into the fjords to feed on herring. During the day takes snowy hikes ashore and during the long evenings the northern lights make regular appearances.
The North Pole is the most northerly point on the planet and do you know you can visit it on an icebreaker cruise from Svalbard?
For intrepid explorers visiting the North Pole has always been a once in a lifetime dream. After sailing north from Svalbard an icebreaker will spend several days breaking through the pack ice to reach the North Pole.
The Canadian Arctic spans a vast area north of the Arctic circle. Explore Baffin Island, the largest island in Canada which is famed for it’s remote settlements and stunning jagged cliffs. It is home to an abundance of Arctic wildlife including caribou, Arctic foxes, Arctic hares, wolves, lemmings and Polar Bears.
The Russian Arctic is a number of islands located north of the Russian mainland and is one of the least visited places. Choose Franz Josef Land to experience a truly remote wilderness with interesting geological formations, huge concentrations of wildlife including large walrus colonies and polar bears that freely roam.
When is the best time to visit the Arctic on a cruise?
Most Arctic cruises take place during the summer months between May and September during the northern summer when temperatures are at their mildest and there is less sea ice. The exact month of travel depends on what you would like to see.
Early season Svalbard expeditions are ideal for photography as the land is still covered in snow and there is plenty of ice in the sea. The summer months of June, July and August are the best for wildlife and September offers the best month for light as the sun rises and sun sets return after several months. Between late October and mid March sea ice and lack of light prevents cruising from operating.
For more information please in our article When is the best time to visit Svalbard on an expedition cruise?
In Greenland the summer months between May and September offer the best weather for Arctic cruising. Scoresby Sund in East Greenland is only accessible at the end of July until the end of September due to the sea ice which blocks the entrance for most of the year.
In Arctic Norway it is possible to cruise all your round. Choose the summer to experience the midnight sun and the Lofoten islands. Choose Arctic small ship cruises in the winter months between November and February to experience the northern lights and whale watching.
Arctic Cruises Top Tips
- Choose the smallest ship size possible. This will ensure you have maximum time exploring and the minimum time waiting to go ashore and exploring by Zodiac. At Secret Atlas we specialize in small ship Arctic cruises with just 12 guests.
- To see more, choose a longer cruise. Longer itineraries allow you to see more of a place that you came to visit and increases the amount of wildlife sightings you are likely to see.
- Come with an open mind. Every Arctic expedition cruise offers a unique experience and the landing sites, wildlife encounters and shore landings will be different on every voyage.
How much does an Arctic cruise cost?
Expedition cruises in the Arctic usually average around 1,000 Euros per person per day. The reason expedition cruises in the Arctic cost more is because the ships are smaller than typical cruise ships and have a large guide team where guests are taken out to explore on Zodiacs. At Secret Atlas our Arctic expedition cruises take just 12 guests!.
When is the best time to see the midnight sun on an Arctic cruise?
In Svalbard the midnight sun is visible between April 19th and August 23rd, which is the season that most Arctic cruises take place. During the month of September visitors are greeted to long sunrises and sunsets as the sun dips beneath the horizon for the first time in 5 months.
In Greenland the midnight sun is visible at the Arctic circle between early June and Mid-July. This is ideal for expedition cruises exploring Disko Bay on the west coast and Scoresby Sund on the east coast, which are both located above the Arctic circle.
In Arctic Norway, the Tromso region experiences the midnight sun between 18th May and the 25th July. This is a great time for exploring the Lofoten Islands on an Arctic cruise.
Can I see the northern lights on an Arctic cruise?
Yes you can but only during the months when it gets dark. It is not possible to see the northern lights and the midnight sun at the same time.
For the best chance in seeing the northern lights on an Arctic cruise we recommend a winter cruise in Arctic Norway. Between the months of November and February northern lights are frequently sighted in Arctic Norway in the region surrounding Tromso.
It is also possible to see northern lights in Greenland and Svalbard during the autumn months from late September through to October.
Where do Arctic cruises depart from?
Whilst it is possible to cruise to the Arctic from Europe, the disadvantage of this is that there is a lot of sea time and less time for the expedition itself. We recommend joining an Arctic cruise at the place you wish to explore to maximize your time on the expedition.
Our Arctic cruises depart from Longyearbyen in Svalbard, Tromso in Arctic Norway and from various ports in Greenland including the capital Nukk, Ilulissat for Disko Bay and Constable Point in Scoresby Sund.
Arctic Cruises vs Antarctic Cruises
One of the main differences between Arctic and Antarctic cruises is that the wildlife sightings are unique in each polar region. In the Arctic it is possible to encounter polar bears, walruses, reindeer and Arctic foxes. In the Antarctic you will not see polar bears, but you will encounter different species of penguins which you will not see in the Arctic. Not to mention Southern fur seals, albatrosses and elephant seals.
The summer months in the Arctic are between May and September whilst the Antarctic summer is between November and February.
The weather in the high Arctic is often calm during the summer months due to the high pressure system. The weather in the Antarctic is often more variable due to the weather systems moving through the southern ocean.
The Arctic is easier to reach than Antarctica which is more remote. To reach Antarctica you either have to cruise across the Drake Passage from South America or the Ross Sea from New Zealand or take a charter flight to King George Island. The Arctic on the other hand is served by domestic airlines and it is possible to fly to Tromso, Svalbard and Greenland on scheduled flights.
Arctic Cruise Ships
Cruise ships in the Arctic vary between large commercial cruise ships that take up to 5,000 guests. The downside with these cruises is that they don’t offer an expedition element and are limited to calling at a handful of ports. Expedition cruise ships in the Arctic vary from 500 guests all the way down to 12 guests (which is what we specialize in at Secret Atlas).
The smaller the cruise ship the better the experience for you. We always recommend taking the smallest ship size possible for your Arctic cruise. This will ensure limited waiting time to join your shore excursions and a greater deal of flexibility.
You can see our Arctic cruise ships that take just 12 guests per voyage here.
To find out more about our small ship expedition cruises in the Arctic see our Guide to Expedition Micro Cruises.
What is the temperature on an Arctic cruise?
Often guests imagine the Arctic is much colder than it actually is. During the summer months in Svalbard and Greenland temperatures on our Arctic cruises are above freezing. In July and August the average temperature is around 7 degrees.
During the winter months in Arctic Norway the average temperature is around freezing. For guests used to Northern European winters this will be nothing unusual. Not to mention our vessels have super warm cabins and a Sauna to warm up in after a day of exploring.
What wildlife can I see on an Arctic cruise?
The Arctic is home to an abundance of wildlife that we regularly encounter on our Arctic cruises.
In Svalbard we regularly encounter polar bears, walruses, Arctic foxes, Svalbard Reindeer, beluga whales, and a large variety of bird species including puffins, Arctic terns and Skua’s. To find out more about the wildlife you can encounter on a small ship Arctic cruise in Svalbard please see our Svalbard wildlife guide.
In Greenland it is possible to see polar bears in the east although it is much rarer to see them here than in Svalbard. In Greenland it is possible to see Musk OX, humpback whales, walruses seals and Greenlandic reindeer. To see all the animals you can encounter on an Arctic cruise in Greenland please see Guide to Greenland wildlife.
What is the best Arctic cruise for seeing polar bears?
One of the best destinations to encounter polar bears on an Arctic cruise is in Svalbard. Svalbard itself is an archipelago of islands with over 2,000 polar bears known to live in the Barents sea region. During the summer months it is possible to polar bears on the shores and ice flows all over Svalbard. For the best chances in encountering polar bears we recommend a longer voyage.
To find out more about encountering polar bears on your voyage please see our guide on polar bear viewing.
What to pack on an Arctic cruise?
There are many essential items to take with you on an Arctic cruise.
- Warm clothing
- Hat and gloves
- A waterproof and windproof jacket and trousers
- Personal items such as toiletries (there is unlikely to be many shops where you are exploring)
- Medicine (with extras in case of delay)
- Hiking boots
- Binoculars (often wildlife is sighted from a distance)
- A camera with a long lens for wildlife photography. Remember to bring spare batteries and memory cards.
For a comprehensive packing list along with a clothing guide for the different seasons please see our article How to pack for an Arctic cruise.