Six hundred miles from the North Pole sits Svalbard, one of the most remote and unspoilt places on the planet. Despite its position within the potentially hard-to-reach Arctic Circle, it is easily accessible from mainland Europe – with regular arctic cruises exploring the Spitsbergen and its surrounds.
During the summer months the sun doesn’t set and there are more glaciers here than permanent residents. Having spent two brilliant weeks in Svalbard, it fast became one of my favourite remote places. I learnt a lot about how to get the most out of a visit to Svalbard and I’d like to share that knowledge with you.
One of the best ways to explore Svalbard is on a cruise. It allows you to see a variety of scenery and gives you a better chance of seeing rare wildlife – from polar bears to whales. In this article, you’ll find out more about the range of operators, tips and tricks and other useful information all in one place to help you plan your next Svalbard cruise.
Top Tip: Top Tip: Svalbard is a cheaper polar destination to visit than Antarctica. It is here that you could see polar bears, whales and walruses but don’t expect to see any penguins – they are residents in Antarctica rather than the Arctic.
Choosing the right Svalbard cruise
Firstly you have the choice either to:
- Fly to Svalbard and board a cruise there. This is the main choice for most passengers. There are daily flights from Europe to Longyearbyen where the expedition style cruises depart. This option will give you the most time to take in Svalbard. Explore the beautiful north-west coast of Spitsbergen or do a circumnavigation of the entire archipelago. You will get to see closeup the wonders of this polar region including glaciers, untouched fjords, and abundant wildlife. By exploring the area in detail you will also increase your chances of polar bear sightings.
- Visit Svalbard as part of a longer cruise stopping at other destinations. This option will allow you to see other countries as a part of your cruise itinerary but will give you less time in Svalbard. This is a great choice if you would prefer not to fly and would like to undertake the entire journey by sea. It’s worth noting that to reach Svalbard by sea will take at least a day either from Greenland or Norway. Not such a good choice if you get seasick but great for whale watching.
If you’re feeling adventurous Secret Atlas offers cruises in Svalbard on small expedition vessels.
The next thing to consider is the type of cruise you would like to undertake.
These tend to be smaller boats than a typical cruise ship. The emphasis is on exploring an area in detail rather than just cruising. Landings ashore are made on a daily basis by small inflatable dinghies called Zodiacs. These give you access to places that larger boats can’t go such as remote beaches and glacier faces. Shore excursions include hiking, wildlife watching and guided tours. On the shore landings you will be accompanied by an expedition leader who will help you make the most of your visit. The voyages and are aimed at active people. An exploration cruise will get you closest to the wildlife.
- Smaller numbers of guests onboard.
- Get closer to wildlife.
- Land at places larger cruise ships don’t tend to visit.
- Expedition leader onboard.
- More expensive per day than other options.
The following are established tour operators offering exploration cruises in Svalbard:
Hurtigruten offer the cheapest entry point for an arctic cruise exploration from €1375 for a 6 day cruise which is good value if you’re on a budget. They also offer a comprehensive 12 day circumnavigation of Svalbard starting at €6078.
G adventures offers exploration cruises in Svalbard starting from under £2700 for an 8 day cruise called realm of the polar bear .
Intrepid Travel offer arctic cruises starting at £4300.
If you’re interested in photography also consider doing a specialist photography cruise that will give you more time behind your camera and get you closer to the action. Secret Atlas offer this awesome photography trip on a small expedition vessel starting at €6200.
Often these are larger cruise ships that visit Svalbard as a stop on a longer itinerary. The larger ships only land at Longyearbyen (and possibly Pyramiden) meaning that you won’t get to see some of the remote nooks and crannies that the exploration ships visit. They are ideal if you are just seeking a flavour of Svalbard before moving on to the next port. It is also a better option for less active people that don’t want to hike ashore.
- Less expensive per day than Expedition style cruises.
- Usually part of a multi country voyage.
- Can avoid flying.
- Larger group numbers.
- Less opportunity to explore ashore.
Princess Cruises offer a 16 day cruise starting in Dover that makes its way up the Norweigan coast before visit Longyearbyen in Svalbard and then heading back to Dover. Prices from under £3000.
Fred Olsen also offer a 15 day cruise to Svalbard from the UK starting at £2,399
Tall Ship Cruise
If you fancy something a little more adventurous it is also possible to sail around Svalbard aboard a tall ship. Maybe Sailing and The Tall Ship Company both offer cruises under sail. I did a trip with the latter onboard tall ship Antigua and I highly recommend it for those with an interest in sailing and exploring.
Things to consider when choosing your cruise
Ship size and the number of other guests. The larger the ship the more people it will have onboard and the longer it will take to get ashore for excursions. My recommendation would be to go for a smaller ship with fewer passengers.
Trips ashore and optional extras – On an expedition cruise all the shore landings are usually included in the price of the cruise. I always recommend checking with your cruise operator to make sure you know what is included and if there are charges for any added extras such as kayaking. On a traditional cruise shore excursions are not usually included.
What to expect
Polar bear sightings are never guaranteed. You are more likely to get close to one on an exploration style cruise or tall ship adventure rather than a traditional cruise. A longer cruise also increases the likelihood of multiple sightings.
These are never guaranteed. Bad weather can hamper landings. If polar bears are sighted at a landing spot the landing will be aborted due to the risk they pose. When you do land ashore you will not be able to walk off on your own due to the bear threat. You will always have to remain with your expedition leader who will carry a firearm for protection.
Come prepared for the conditions. Check the clothing list your tour operator will supply you with. Hats, gloves, warm socks, warm layers and a down jacket are all highly recommended. Wellington boots are essential footwear for shore landings on the exploration cruises where you will be stepping out of the boat and into the water. Consider thermally lined ones for added warmth if you’re planning to hike in them (the water is cold!). Sunglasses are a must. Sun reflecting off snow is incredibly bright. Once you’re out in the wilderness there are no shops so check and check again before your departure.
There is no mobile phone reception outside of Longyearbyen. Check with your cruise operator about the means of communication with the outside world onboard.
If you’re interested in photographing polar bears and birds make sure you have a very long zoom on your camera. 300mm is the absolute minimum with my recommendation being at least 500mm.
Plan your Svalbard cruise with the following list of cruise operators mentioned in the article. It is by no means exhaustive, but will hopefully offer you a starting point as you plan your adventure.
Secret Atlas: Specialise in micro cruises to polar destinations on small expedition vessels with a maximum group size of 12.
Hurtigruten: A leading polar cruise operator with a fleet of 11 ships based in Norway and established way back in 1893.
G adventures: A global tour operator with their own expedition cruise ship for the polar regions – the G Expedition.
Intrepid Travel – Established tour operator with two expedition cruise ships for the polar regions.
Fred Olsen – Norweigan cruise line offering departures from the UK.
Princess Cruises – American cruise line offering departures to Svalbard from the USA and the UK.
Maybe Sailing – Owns two tall ships and offers trips around Europe the Caribbean and the Arctic.
The Tallship Company – A Dutch company offering tall ship experiences all over the world.
For information on how to fly to Svalbard please see my guide.
To book hotels and flights to Longyearbyen please visit my trip planner.
Hi, I’m Andy, co-founder of Secret Atlas, currently on a personal journey to travel to the most remote places on earth.
If you are interested in visiting Svalbard or Greenland on a small ship expedition please check out our tours here.
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