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8 things you need to know about Arctic cruises

Aug. 18, 2022
13 min read
3Photo Jul 14, 3 16 21 PM
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Editor's Note

TPG's Ashley Kosciolek was hosted by Scenic Luxury Cruises & Tours for an Arctic expedition sailing on Scenic Eclipse. The opinions expressed below are entirely hers and weren't subject to review by the line.

I just finished an 11-day voyage around the island of Svalbard, in Norway, on Scenic Luxury Cruises & Tours' expedition ship Scenic Eclipse. If, like me, you're heading into your Arctic adventure as a total newbie, there are a few things you should know ahead of time.

I thought I was prepared. I carefully scrutinized the cruise line-provided packing lists, I shopped for expensive Gore-tex clothing, and I pulled my winter Under Armour layers out of storage. I bought way too many hand warmers but managed to talk myself out of the $250 polarized sunglasses I wasn't sure I'd need. I read up on the area and I studied the ship's deck plans, determined to familiarize myself with everything in advance.

But, really, I had no idea what I was in for. All the preparation in the world couldn't have readied me for the sheer wonder of the Arctic or the nuances that come along with cruising there — the boot washing, the last-minute changes in the daily plans and the proximity (or lack thereof) to local critters.

It's essential to set the right expectations for an expedition cruise, so you're neither unprepared nor disappointed. Based on my experience, here are the eight things every Arctic cruiser should know before they head north.

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It's a process to get there

Scenic chartered a private flight for passengers embarking in Svalbard. (Photo by Ashley Kosciolek/The Points Guy)

Many Arctic cruises depart from Svalbard, the world's northernmost inhabited island, which is part of Norway. No matter which country you call home, you're almost certain to be in for a minimum of two flights to reach your departure port.

In my case, traveling from the United States, I flew from Newark to Reykjavik. From there, I had a 90-minute layover before boarding a flight to Oslo, Norway, where I spent the night at a nearby hotel. The next day, I boarded a cruise line-arranged bus back to the Oslo airport for a private charter flight to Svalbard, booked just for passengers of Scenic Eclipse.

On the way back home after the sailing, I had flights to the same list of cities, but in reverse.

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In each direction, it took three flights, including a private charter, for me to travel door-to-gangway and vice versa. Tacking on the bus and cab rides between airports and hotels, along with the 90-minute drive between my house and Newark Liberty International Airport (EWR), I spent roughly 23 hours in transit, each way.

My advice: You'll need to plan an extra day or two on either end of your sailing to account for travel time.

There are no penguins in the Arctic

Penguins in Antarctica. (Photo by Martin Ruegner/Getty Images)

Penguins live in Antarctica, not the Arctic. That means you won't see any on a Svalbard voyage. Thankfully, I knew that, but I was surprised how many others on my sailing didn't.

No matter how much you're looking forward to witnessing their adorable waddle, don't ask your guides when you're likely to spot these tuxedoed avian friends, lest you elicit giggles or pitying glances from your fellow travelers who are in the know.

My advice: If you're set on seeing penguins on your next cruise, book an Antarctic sailing. For an Arctic cruise, set your sights on other cute animals — like reindeer, walruses, Arctic foxes and polar bears — that you are likely to see.

You can't pet polar bears

One of seven polar bears we saw during our Arctic sailing on Scenic Eclipse. (Photo courtesy of Melissa McGibbon)

Polar bears are just so stinkin' cute, but they're also vicious and, often, deadly.

For that reason, passengers aren't allowed to go near them. The ultimate goal is to avoid disturbing the local wildlife as much as possible, so ships keep a wide berth unless the captain deems it's safe to allow you and your guides into the Zodiacs (small, inflatable, motorized boats) with the goal of inching just a bit closer.

Before any Zodiac landings are allowed to embark, a team of scouts from your ship's expedition staff will head ashore to look for potential bear threats. If bears are spotted, scheduled activities could be scrapped in favor of sailing on to a new location.

The fact is, unless you've got an expensive telephoto camera lens, you're unlikely to ever be close enough to a polar bear to even get a decent picture, let alone a chance to pet one of the snow-white floofs.

My advice: Make friends with someone who has invested in camera equipment and who is also willing to share their photos. If the tactile experience is what you're yearning for, you'll have to settle for a souvenir stuffed toy from one of the gift shops in Svalbard.

It's not always freezing, but you'll need lots of layers

Me in my many layers of clothing and life jacket, just before my first excursion. (Photo by Ashley Kosciolek/The Points Guy)

When I think "Arctic," I find myself immediately covered in goosebumps. The word alone conjures images of wind, ice and thick, white snow squalls.

Imagine my surprise when the temperature was 52 degrees the day I arrived in Svalbard. To be fair, it was the middle of summer, but I was shocked that I had to remove my coat after working up a sweat walking into town. Even on the coldest day, it was still 32 degrees.

Layers are key: base, mid and outer, with that last one made of a waterproof material like Gore-tex. You'll also need sunglasses, a hat and waterproof gloves, wool socks and a neck gaiter. The ship will most likely provide you with a heavy coat and waterproof Muck-style boots.

On most of our hikes, I ended up peeling off clothing until all that was left were my base layers. But there were other times when I sure was glad I had an extra thermal shirt or pair of sweats to add to the mix when the wind was particularly strong.

My advice: Pack one set of waterproof outer layers, one set of mid layers and several sets of base layers, which are the most likely to get sweaty. Also pack a travel clothesline that you can hang in your cabin to allow items to dry, whether they're wet from sweat or seawater. Even if your ship has them in the cabins (Scenic Eclipse doesn't), they won't be nearly large enough for all your potentially wet clothes.

You can't just use any old gear

A boot-washing machine awaits passengers as they return to Scenic Eclipse. (Photo by Ashley Kosciolek/The Points Guy)

One thing I didn't know before I arrived was that, in an effort to avoid introducing foreign soil, rocks and other objects to the Arctic ecosystem, the expedition staff has to inspect all gear before it's allowed to be used ashore.

Thankfully, most of my outerwear was brand new, but my nylon backpack and hiking boots — which I had used for a trip to Utah months prior — needed to be carefully vacuumed and wiped down to remove any dust and dirt.

Even boots provided by the cruise line had to be cleaned with an industrial boot cleaning machine (it reminded me of a miniature car wash) and separate liquid wash before they could be brought back onto the ship after excursions.

My advice: Throw any previously worn gear in the wash before you pack it, or invest in some completely new items.

A polar plunge will render you speechless

A jumper's view of Scenic Eclipse's marina deck just before the polar plunge. (Photo by Ashley Kosciolek/The Points Guy)

I had two main questions running through my mind as I decided whether I wanted to go through with the polar plunge. Sure, it was a rare opportunity to do something few others had a chance to try, but I wondered first, whether it would hurt and, second, whether it could shock someone's system enough to stop their heart.

As a reasonably fit 30-something, I shouldn't have been so concerned, but I couldn't shake the nerves. I ended up being one of the first passengers in line, but it wasn't because I was excited. I had a massage appointment scheduled at the spa shortly after and didn't want to be late.

A fun fact about me is that I'm terrified of large bodies of water. (Did I pick the right career or what?) As I walked to the edge of the ship's water sports platform and had a rescue belt strapped to my waist, I willed myself to be calm. I had a plan in mind: I'd turn, smile for the cameras, including mine, that were poised and ready, and attempt to look photogenic as I jumped.

What came next was sheer survival. "KICK!" my brain screamed at my body, as I popped back up above the water's surface. In my shock, I tried to swim to the platform instead of the ladder, which was around the side of the vessel. Just then, a small swell happened by, pushing me ever so slightly further away from the ship, and I started to panic.

I tried to yell "HELP!" but I was so cold my voice wouldn't cooperate, and the plea emerged as a garbled squeak. Finally, I reached the ladder, climbed out and made a beeline for my towel. By that time, I was so chilled I was numb, and the bathrobe I brought with me to put on afterward felt as toasty as a heated down parka.

I was never in any real danger. What felt like minutes was only seconds, but it's amazing how everything seems longer when you're uncomfortable or in a hurry.

After grabbing a hot chocolate laced with Baileys, I chattered my way back upstairs with my travel companions, and we took up residence in one of the outdoor hot tubs until we could feel our extremities again.

My advice: Don't overthink it. Walk up to the edge with the ferocity of a polar bear and jump. Make sure to have a towel and/or robe ready. Even better, try to be one of the first to go so you're not waiting in line on the platform and so you can snag prime hot tub real estate afterward. Finally, remember to smile as you leap or your photos will end up like mine (read: not cute).

There are land excursions

The former hunting cabin of Wanny Wolstad, the first female trapper in the Arctic. (Photo by Ashley Kosciolek/The Points Guy)

Oh, you thought the Arctic was all icebergs and scenic sailing? Not even close.

Sure, you'll have some days where you might not disembark the ship at all (particularly because the itinerary can change at a moment's notice due to weather and sea conditions or animal sightings). Or perhaps you'll go kayaking or board a Zodiac for a short sail near calving glaciers or bird colonies.

But, on several days during my voyage, Zodiacs took us to the shores of Svalbard, where we went on hikes, checked out 100-year-old shacks that are still used by travelers and scientists, peeped into gorgeous tide pools, stared in awe at artifacts left over from World War II and investigated piles of whale bones left by hunters who slaughtered the giant animals a century ago.

You'll have time to scope out local birds and flowers, and if you're lucky, you might even see evidence of nature running its course — like the pile of fur I found next to a mess of feathers and eggshells, suggesting a fox recently had a successful hunt.

My advice: Don't skip the landings, even if they start to feel repetitive. Each one is unique, and you won't regret going.

The midnight sun is rough

With the midnight sun shining 24 hours during summer in the Arctic, daylight never really goes away, making it difficult to sleep. (Photo by Ashley Kosciolek/The Points Guy)

Forget jet lag. Your biggest enemy on a summertime Arctic sailing is the midnight sun. Even when you're dog-tired from two-a-day excursions, you'll likely find it difficult to sleep, at least for the first few days.

Blackout curtains or shades, which your ship will have, are your best friends. One of our excursion guides recommended that we put our shades down before we left for dinner each night. That way, when we returned to our cabins afterward, our bodies would be tricked into thinking it was dark outside. It worked like a charm.

But I'm not going to pretend it's not an amazing experience to see the world still bright at 2 a.m. It's surreal, making you question whether it's actually only 2 p.m. and you're just drunk or stuck in a weird fever dream.

My advice: Avoid caffeine after the early evening, and remember to close the curtains or shades in your cabin at a reasonable hour.

Bottom line

If there's one key takeaway I can share with you for an Arctic expedition cruise, it's that flexibility is necessary. There's no concrete schedule set in advance, and even when there are tentative plans in place, they can fly out the window at a moment's notice.

At times, you might feel downright unpleasant if you're cold or wet, so pay close attention to any packing lists from your cruise line.

You'll also want to set your expectations in terms of wildlife. Neither the cruise line nor the captain has any control over where, when or if animals show up, and when they do, you won't be able to get as close to them as you'd like. Remember: It's for your safety and theirs.

Travel to the Arctic — in both directions — can be long and cumbersome. Keep in mind that you and your travel companions might arrive cranky, and give yourself and others some grace.

Above all, enjoy yourself, and gear up for what's sure to be one of the most memorable cruises of your life.

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Featured image by A view of Scenic Eclipse in the Arctic. (Photo by Ashley Kosciolek/The Points Guy)
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.