UPDATED JUNE 2023.
You’ve decided its time to go to Antarctica! A lifelong dream turned reality, or maybe you have been before and can’t get enough of this pristine and transformative destination. But now, you are faced with choosing your vessel. With so many vessels to choose from and so many things to consider, navigating your way through the fleet can seem a little daunting. Considering the time and cost required to undertake such an epic voyage, getting it ‘just right’ is pivotally important. This means finding the best Antarctica cruise ship for your needs, taking into consideration your desires, budget, and even things you should consider you never knew you had to like extra activities, time onshore, ship stability and overall cruising comforts.
So, we’re here to help.
We’ve combined our knowledge and personal experiences to bring you a comprehensive guide to the ship loads of options cruising to Antarctica. Here you will find the pros and cons to help you find the perfect Antarctica cruise ship to accommodate your unforgettable adventure to the end of the world.
When it comes to finding the best Antarctica cruise ship, size matters!
When it comes to Antarctic expedition ships, don’t let anyone tell you differently, because size does matter… A lot. Believe it or not, size is the greatest factor you should consider when choosing a ship. Why? because size determines price, itinerary, time onshore, comforts, extra amenities and everything else that goes along with cruising to one of the most remote destinations on the planet.
Now, this doesn’t mean that one size fits all. Everyone has different needs and desires, meaning it is a simple question of what size fits you.
So, what does the size of the ship mean for your Antarctic Expedition?
In our opinion, 200 guests and under is best! While, there is no restriction on size for ships cruising to Antarctica, only vessels with fewer than 500 passengers can get their passengers ashore as per regulations from IAATO.
Mega liners with 1,000 passengers, for example, cruise Antarctica without ever letting guests off the ship, and this can greatly limit your experience. On most landing sites, only 100 passengers can be onshore at any given time. This means that if you are on a larger vessel, you take turns with your fellow passengers for on-shore explorations. Many vessels have a structured procedure to ensure you get the most out of your time on the ice and something you should take into consideration because we believe that time onshore is one of the BEST parts of Antarctica cruises. Sometimes sacrificing a bit of luxury for maximum time on land can be a good option!
Ship Size Comparison
Cruising around Antarctica is unlike any other kind of cruise, so it pays to leave all preconceptions at sea and concentrate on the important attributes when making your selection. Cruising around the most inhospitable, albeit breathtaking landscapes, you want your ship to perform well under harsh conditions and offer you a safe and warm haven after days spent exploring.
Smaller Ships Comparison
Akademik Shokalskiy & Spirit of Enderby
These three ships were built at the same time in Russia, although they have been modified to a certain degree, their characteristics and rustic expedition-style remains. If you’re looking for an intimate, small-group experience, these ships are a great option. They take only 48-50 passengers, which facilitates a community ambience, something previous guests have praised highly.
For many, small-sized vessels are the best Antarctica cruise ships. Expedition experiences abroad these stealth and intimate vessels can be immensely rewarding, thanks to the feeling of camaraderie that usually develops among guests. There are, however, some drawbacks to consider. Firstly, the ships have less of a degree of stability at sea. There is also the factor of operation costs. Cruises aboard smaller ships are also usually more expensive as the cost of operation is spread among fewer passengers.
The Ocean Nova
Hosting just 78 guests, the Ocean Nova is another small-sized ship you should consider. This is particularly appealing if you’re leaning towards the fly/cruise options when travelling to Antarctica. This ship has been renovated to a fantastic standard and deals exclusively with cruises from the South Shetland Islands, just off the Antarctic Peninsula. Choosing this ship can be a no-brainer when wanting to avoid the Drake Passage (which can be rough at times) or if you were short on time. The maximum capacity when facilitating an air/cruise is generally a lot smaller.
The M/V Ushuaia
Built in 1970, the M/V Ushuaia is still a nice-looking ship and fits within the ‘size chart’ all on its own. It can host up to 90 passengers, which is bigger than the above-mentioned ships, yet still smaller than a mid-sized vessel. Even so, the M/V Ushuaia still retains that small-ship feel, but the slightly higher passenger number means that the fuel costs are spread further, thus, the prices can be a little lower then some of the smaller options.
Overall the M/V Ushuaia boasts a very capable and experienced expedition team. This combined with its competitive prices makes the ship a favourite with those who crave an intimate Antarctica experience at a great price, without too many bells and whistles.
The Magellan Explorer is an expedition vessel, custom-built for Antarctic air-cruises. A maximum of 73 guests, this ship is intimate without sparing all the comforts. With 7 categories of accommodation, all cabins but one feature private balconies. Of course, the price tag exceeds many of the other smaller ship mentioned.
Mid-Sized Ships Comparison
The Ocean Endeavour
The Ocean Endeavour is a comfortable tourist class ship with excellent facilities. Boasting one of the best passengers to guide ratios in Antarctica, it offers small group experiences at a tick under 200 passengers. With its unique forward-facing zodiacs, the Ocean Endeavour offers a fantastic photography program also. It’s ample deck space, large common areas and unique expedition capabilities make it one of our favourite ships in Antarctica.
Take a look at our walk-through video of The Ocean Endeavour, and you’ll get a better understanding of Antarctica expedition ships and their layout.
The Ocean Adventurer hosts just over 100 passengers. You will find an excellent expedition team onboard and a reasonably well-furnished interior. This ship can handle the ice well and will get you into Antarctica’s nooks and crannies, spaces where large ships simply cannot go. The only downside is that the pricing is often a little higher than some other comparable ships.
Built in 1972, the M/S Expedition was a former Arctic ferry, which was converted to an Antarctic expedition cruise ship in 2008. Although this ship may not be as technically advanced as others, it is still a very capable ship. The recent installation of new engines has increased its cruising speed, which helps decrease the time it takes to cross the Drake Passage.
The new engines also mean better fuel economy, which keeps the prices reasonable for the size of the ship. The renovation of the ship was substantial and, as such, the interior is quite modern. The MS Expedition still offers an old-world expedition feeling while offering a high level of comfort. Some guests claim this to be a winning combination.
The Sea Spirit, Hebridean & Island Sky
Here we present some of the better-appointed ships, all offering suite cabins as well as extras such as lecture rooms, bars, gyms and restaurants. These ships host 108-120 passengers, placing them in the mid-sized category. Step aboard one of these three ships and you’ll find the level of comfort and luxury is higher than those listed above. However, as with all things in life, you will have some shortcomings.
None of these ships boasts a particularly high ice rating, which means they can’t barge through frozen seas like some of the tougher expedition ships mentioned previously. This means the ships anchor further afield, which can contribute to a lengthier on-land excursion process. Moreover, while all three ships have much fancier interior spaces, they do seem to lack extensive outdoor deck viewing areas. No deck offers a full 360-degree view.
The Greg Mortimer
Launched in 2019. This purpose-built expedition vessel has been designed to withstand the most ferocious winds and waves. At 104 meters long and carrying only 120 passengers, it represents a new era of expedition cruising. With features such as a 360-degree open deck, a large observation deck and deluxe accommodation, this ship offers a great vantage point for you cruising heart’s desire.
The M/V Hondius
Launched in 2019, the M/V Hondius does not only boast numerous amenities and onboard entertainments, but this ship will also give you peace of mind that comes with choosing one of the most environmentally friendly vessels on the polar seas. Equipped with stabilisers, this ship carries 170 passengers. With greater space and multiple routes selected for the capacity to yield the utmost shore time, this can be a great option.
The World Explorer
The World Explorer is a fast and highly comfortable vessel for up to 176 passengers with six tiers of accommodation, all with direct ocean views via a balcony or private walk-out. Communal areas offer the ideal surroundings to relax after a day in the elements; a glass-domed observation lounge with its full sky view and the social Explorer Lounge where you can enjoy a drink and good conversation.
The Ocean Atlantic
The Ocean Atlantic carries 195 passengers, here is where those landing restrictions really come into play. Although there will be reduced shore time, on the upside an extensive fleet of zodiacs, means that everyone gets a chance to go to shore when a landing site is made available. It’s important to remember not all landing sites in Antarctica have heavy restrictions, there are still plenty of sites that allow passengers to enjoy breathtaking landscapes of Antarctica. This ship had also been refurbished in 2015, with stylish interiors and spacious cabins. A fantastic value for experience and easily one of the most affordable cruises to Antarctica.
The Ocean Victory has been built with unique technologies and sturdy construction. This means for all those wanting the experience with less sea-sickness this could be one of your best options in the medium-sized category. High stability in rough weather conditions and some of the smoothest movement on high waves, is what you can expect. Launching in 2021, you can’t jump on this one straight away, but something to consider for the future.
Larger Ships Comparison
On the larger end of the Antarctica cruise ship spectrum is where you’ll find these vessels, both charmingly appointed and boasting excellent common areas and a lot of amenities. Larger ships also tend to have more expedition staff and zodiacs for you to cruise the waters. Although, the bigger the ship, the less on-shore time and there will be a bigger limitation of areas you can visit in Antarctica. This is why its important to pick your priorities!
The Ocean Diamond
The Ocean Diamond carry almost 200 guests. With a full load of guests, your time onshore will be halved, as landings will have to be divided. On the other hand, you will have more time to enjoy the comforts and amenities of the ship. Another major upside, comforts aside, is that the Ocean Diamond can certainly do far better in rough seas.
The Fram is one of the larger ships which weave their way around Antarctica, and is one of the most modern vessels, offering every facility imaginable. Interestingly enough, the Fram generally only sails to Antarctica around half full, which means a guest load of only 200. That’s a heck of a lot of space offered for each guest.
Due to its size, it obviously has some issues getting into some of the smaller landing sites within Antarctica. The sheer scale of this ship also means that it doesn’t have the community ambience of the small and medium ships, although, to some, this is less of a priority.
Fridtjof Nansen, Roald Amundsen
These sister ships feature a wide variety of custom-built expedition equipment, including blu-eye underwater drones. With an onboard science centre and stunning lecture rooms, there is so much to get up to onboard. With so many amenities, you will certainly be comfortable. Although again, with comfort, comes less manoeuvrability, more people and less onshore action.
L’Austral, Le Boreal, Le Soleal & Le Lyrial
At the beginning of this post, we mentioned that you should leave all ‘luxury cruising’ ideals behind when selecting your ideal Antarctica cruise ship, yet this argument completely fails when talking about these vessels. These 4 expedition sisterships hold 260-270 passengers each and are at the top end of the market. The vessels offer a plethora of luxuries and comforts. A cruise aboard these ‘floating hotels’ is as much about the cruising experience as it is about the actual destination. With private butlers in some cabin categories, fine dining and silver service, these are certainly not backpacker cruise ships! Pricing, naturally, is reflective of these luxuries but you can be sure to be extremely comfortable in one of the most inhospitable places on earth.
By their nature, high-end ships appeal to discerning travellers who expect a high standard of travel and accommodation. This does mean they tend to be less expeditious as those who opt for the cheaper and smaller cruise ships.
At Chimu Adventures, we simply love sharing our Antarctica travel experiences with you. We believe that there is the right cruise, at the right place and the right time for everyone…it’s just a matter of putting it together. If all the information above is still a little too overwhelming, why don’t you reach out to our Antarctica experts? We’d be happy to find the best Antarctica cruise ship option for you and to help you plan your own once-in-a-lifetime Antarctica adventure.
For further inspiration check out Chimu’s dedicated Antarctica Cruise page below.