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5 Differences Between an Expedition Cruise and a Traditional Cruise

Over the last several decades, cruising has become very popular which has resulted in companies expanding their fleets and creating mega-ships. Some of them can carry over 6,000 passengers. These gigantic cruise liners act as floating hotels and offer luxury experiences at sea.

On the other side of the spectrum, there’s a subset of cruising that is lesser-known and somewhat unsung. Since it started in the mid-60s, expedition-style voyages have increased in popularity, particularly among those looking to get off the beaten track and explore the more remote regions of the world.

These two cruise styles are like oil and water to each other, and they tend to attract a very different set of travelers. Read on to better understand the five big differences between expedition cruising and traditional cruising so you can decide which is best suited for you.

Big Ships vs Smaller Ships

The most obvious difference between traditional and expedition cruises is ship size. Cruise liners these days are giant in size and able to carry thousands of passengers at a time. In contrast, expedition ships are much smaller and rarely carry over 300 people. This smaller ship size allows for navigation through narrow channels and small, shallow bays. For example, locations like the Antarctic Peninsula are dotted with hundreds of islands that only a small ship would be able to navigate through. With a ship that was too large, it would be hard or impossible to intimately explore these areas or make a landfall.

Hurtigruten's Fridtjof Nansen in Antarctica - Photo Credit: Ronda Wright

The larger cruise vessels cover distance more quickly and you typically don’t feel much movement from large swells in the ocean. The motion of the sea is certainly felt more on the smaller vessels used for expedition cruising. Most modern expedition ships are equipped with stabilizers to reduce movement. These are effective but wide open and turbulent seas like Drake Passage will still toss the smaller ships quite a lot even with best-in-class stabilizers in place. (Read about my Drake Passage experience in “To The White Continent and Back: Highlights of Antarctica”.)

Fixed Schedule vs Flexible Itinerary

Unlike the major cruise lines, expedition cruise itineraries are not able to be set in stone. Large cruise vessels will have set times at each port that are set more than a year in advance. Expedition cruises have a general itinerary that is refined every day based on factors like weather, wildlife sightings, or other areas of interest or concern.

The ever-shifting weather of the Polar regions has a heavy hand in steering the schedule one way or another, and no one will argue with the elements if it means risking the safety of the travelers. It’s also not uncommon in the Polar regions to have a ship change course due to sea ice which can retreat or freeze dramatically overnight. One selling point of expedition cruising is the immersive experience for those onboard. Because of this, expeditions are also responsive to wildlife sightings. This means, expedition cruising often demands a certain amount of spontaneity and trust from the passengers, but it almost always pays off in a great way 😊

Too windy? Well the alternate location was still wonderful - Photo Credit: Ronda Wright

On Ship Experience vs Off Ship Experience

Major cruise liners today are like cities on the water. On the ship you’ll find numerous restaurants, swimming pools, shops, casinos, climbing walls, and even basketball courts. For travelers wanting every comfort at their fingertips, traditional cruising offers this while travelling from port to port, experiencing different cities and cultures along the way. Due to the plethora of options for onboard entertainment, the sea days in traditional cruise itineraries are typically the times where guests make the most of all the various activities offered.

Expedition cruise itineraries focus on the off-ship experiences as opposed to time onboard. These come in the form of shore landings and zodiac cruises to search for wildlife and immerse yourself in the unique landscapes. Some of the more modern expedition ships now come equipped with a hot tub, a sauna, a library, and a gym. However, if you are looking for a full Pilates class or a pool the length of half of a deck, a traditional cruise is probably going to fulfill that need more closely.

Orne Harbor landing on continental Antarctica - Photo Credit: Ronda Wright

Entertaining vs Educational

As previously mentioned, traditional cruise liners have a focus on entertainment when sailing. Travelers are treated to theater performances, movies by the pool, live music, and art shows. On the other hand, expedition cruises have a rich educational lean to them, and voyages include daily informative lectures from the onboard experts. These talks can range from geology and history to local wildlife and sustainability efforts. Each lecture is specifically focused on the region you are sailing through, which allows guests to fully appreciate the location in more depth. The lectures may sound a little like going back to school, but I found them to be a great way of bringing the region to life while I sailed through Antarctica.

Performers vs Expedition Leaders

To support the heavy emphasis on entertainment, traditional cruise lines are known for the high caliber of talent that they have onboard. From the dancers performing classic dances each evening to comedians doing a stand-up piece, the entertainers onboard are there to keep guests feeling relaxed and in the ultimate vacation mode.

On expedition ships where the emphasis is on exploration and adventure, the expedition team are the stars. The entertainment comes in the form of subject matter experts on various topics to create that fully immersive journey for their guests. It is not uncommon to have geologists, marine biologists, historians, or scientists onboard. And unlike the atmosphere on the large, traditional ships, the expedition team is easily accessible to have further conversation on their areas of interest outside of their lectures.

As seen here, there are stark differences between traditional cruises and expedition cruises. Large cruise lines offer travelers a more traditional style of vacation where you can soak up the sun, feel relaxed and get entertained. Expedition cruising offers a unique glimpse into untouched wildernesses where the focus is on wildlife and off-ship exploration. Everyone’s dream getaway looks a little different. If you have a spirit for adventure, like me, then an expedition cruise could be the adventure you’ve been searching for.


Hey, I'm Ronda Wright 👋🏽

I'm the founder of The Wright Getaway. I love all things travel and helping other people experience the world.

Let's chat about your upcoming travel plans!



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