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Don't book that luxury cruise just yet expedition cruises are a better deal and they're filled with bucket-list opportunities

Cassandra Brooklyn   

Don't book that luxury cruise just yet — expedition cruises are a better deal and they're filled with bucket-list opportunities
Expedition cruises have allowed me to enjoy so many amazing views and experiences.Cassandra Brooklyn
  • As a frequent traveler, I prefer expedition cruises over luxury ones for many reasons.
  • Expedition cruises are smaller than traditional cruise ships and have stellar excursions.

My first cruise-ship experience was on one of those enormous luxury "big box" ships with thousands of people and it was complete with bad buffet food and very limited excursions.

It wasn't my style, and I thought that cruising just might not be for me. Then, I discovered expedition cruises in 2019.

I took my first expedition cruise with Adventure Canada, a Canadian-based adventure travel company. It was a 14-day trip that made several stops in Greenland before sailing to Arctic Canada, and the experience completely changed how I think about cruises.

After getting hooked on expedition cruises, I don't think I can ever go back to classic luxury ones. Here's why.

I prefer the more intimate experience expedition cruises offer.

I prefer the more intimate experience expedition cruises offer.
The author holding a chunk of iceberg during a zodiac boat ride in the Arctic.      Cassandra Brooklyn

Unlike the larger cruises many of us are familiar with, which can sometimes pack over 9,000 people on board, expedition cruises are much smaller.

All of the expedition cruises I've been on have had fewer than 200 people, so it was both easier (and faster!) to get around the ship and to meet people and develop friendships on board.

The excursions are more exciting than what you typically find on luxury ships.

The excursions are more exciting than what you typically find on luxury ships.
A zodiac boat after dropping off passengers from a Summer Solstice sunset tour in Scotland.      Cassandra Brooklyn

Huge, luxury ships are much more limited in terms of where they can dock, so they are restricted to large ports and can't visit the more exotic, far-flung places that small ships can.

Even if they could, it's a lot harder to get 5,000 people off a ship than 200, so the sheer number of passengers complicates off-ship excursions.

On expedition ships, many adventures require zodiac boats, which are small boats that accommodate about eight to 10 people. In some cases, these boats shuttle passengers to land excursions, and in others, the ride itself is the excursion.

During my first trip with Adventure Canada, we took zodiac boats on wildlife-watching excursions around enormous icebergs, went on hiking trips in remote areas only accessible by small boat or helicopter, and embarked on explorations around historic sites across the Inuit homeland.

We sometimes visited places that hadn't received any other ships that year, which felt really special.

The programming is more interesting to me, too.

The programming is more interesting to me, too.
A few of the dozens of puffins I saw during an ornithologist-led hike in Scotland.      Cassandra Brooklyn

Onboard programming varies between cruise companies and across routes, but I've found expedition cruises tend to cater to very curious travelers who are eager to learn as much as possible about the destination.

On my Arctic trip with Adventure Canada, there were fascinating onboard lectures nearly every day that were typically led by geologists, historians, authors, and Arctic explorers. Many presentations were led by Inuit staff who shared their personal experiences and family history — and we got to try hands-on cooking and crafting classes, too.

This summer, I traveled with Adventure Canada again, this time to Scotland, where Scottish historians, storytellers, and ornithologists (bird scientists) educated and entertained us during both onboard programming and off-ship hikes and boat tours.

I like the opportunities to get up close and personal with nature on expedition cruises.

I like the opportunities to get up close and personal with nature on expedition cruises.
After snorkeling with sea lions and turtles, we were greeted by crabs above the water.      Cassandra Brooklyn

For me, zodiac adventures are one of the most exciting aspects of expedition cruises since the small boats get you up close and personal with nature.

During my Greenland and Arctic Canada trip, zodiac boats brought us face-to-face with enormous glaciers and ferried us to remote hiking trails. In Scotland, the boats brought us to tiny islands with only a few dozen residents, places with more puffins than people.

On a Galapagos expedition cruise with Metropolitan Touring a few years ago, I saw penguins from just a few feet away during zodiac rides. We also took the zodiac boats to hike over lava fields and the boats dropped us off for snorkeling trips with sea lions and crabs.

Expedition cruises have more active adventures, too.

Expedition cruises have more active adventures, too.
I spotted enormous antlers during a remote hike through the Canadian Arctic wilderness.      Cassandra Brooklyn

I love that expedition cruises tend to have more active adventures — and they also have activities for those who want something more low-key.

Activities can range from kayaking, biking, hiking, and scuba diving to walking tours and bus tours of historic cities.

Although I've thoroughly enjoyed steep and intense 6- to 8-mile mountain hikes on various expedition cruises, I've appreciated that there are always less intense options, too.

I've seen expedition cruises offer shorter guided hikes, silent meditation, and even relaxed nature walks focused on local flora, fauna, and history.

Plus, I've found some expedition sailings cost about the same as really fancy cruises.

Plus, I
Hiking across lava in the Galapagos felt like being on the moon.      Cassandra Brooklyn

The prices of expedition cruises vary, and adventures to hard-to-reach places that require more time and fuel to access, like Antarctica and the Arctic, tend to be more expensive than trips to the Caribbean or Mediterranean.

For example, a six-day expedition cruise to Alaska can cost around $3,960, about $100 more than it costs for one person to book a mini-suite on a seven-day Alaskan Princess cruise without excursions.

With expedition cruises, your money is being spent differently.

On luxury cruises, your money is likely going toward extravagant meals and larger, fancier rooms with balconies. The cabins and food have been fine on all the expedition trips I've been on, but they've not been nearly as good as what I've seen on luxury cruises.

Still, luxury cruises typically don't offer the robust onboard and off-ship programming that expedition cruises offer, and even if they do, the activities may not be included in the price, so you could spend hundreds or thousands of dollars extra to add them on.

Expedition cruises aren't inherently better than luxury cruises, it just comes down to personal preferences – would you rather have fancy food and accommodations or authentic, extensive programming? Personally, I'd choose the latter any day of the week.

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