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What You Need to Know Before Travelling to the Arctic

‘Arctic’ comes from the Greek word for bear; 'Arktos' and it is believed that the name refers to two constellations that can be seen in the northern sky - ‘Ursa Minor’ (Little Bear) and ‘Ursa Major’ (Great Bear). 

This beautiful ice-cold region is the northernmost part of our planet; a remote corner of the world inhabited by indigenous arctic people called 'Inuits' and admired by visitors for its incredible otherworldly landscapes and extraordinary wildlife. A place so special that it contains around ten percent of the world’s fresh water. Inside the Arctic there is at least one day a year of entire darkness, and one day a year of entire sunshine. Another particularity of the Arctic, is that the sea ice that keeps the polar regions cool, also helps moderating the global climate. The ice has a bright surface and 80 percent of the sunlight that enters is reflected back into space.

When going to the Arctic on an expedition cruise you can do so many different things. You could extend your holiday with a land adventure (spend some days in Oslo, Lofoten, the Arctic Tromsø, or some nights at the Snowhotel); you could do a voyage to the North Pole on a Nuclear Ice breaker vessel (a ship unlike any other, with the ability to go where other ships cannot); you could do trip along the coast of Greenland (see the world's biggest non-continental island and its beautiful Fjord-carved coastlines, ice-packed mountains, as well as picture perfect little villages of colourfully painted wooden cottages); or, finally, do a journey through the North West Passage (this could be in the Canadian Arctic along the Baffin Island and Greenland). - In short, an adventure through the Arctic is an everyday adventure that doesn't end when the itinerary is over. - This trip will stay with you forever!

So, all that said, what should pack? When should you go? What will you be seeing? We gathered our Arctic Travel Specialists to bring you these answers and more. Stay tuned!

Best Time to Visit

If you are thinking about visiting the Arctic by ship and exploring the ice-free coastal zones, then you should plan your trip for between spring and late summer. The best time is between May all the way to September. 

In May, you will find the most impressive icebergs which can even last in to June. As the icebergs melt, narwhals and sea birds start appearing and the caribou migration is back in full force. 

From June to mid-July, there is still lots of ice and snow as the midnight sun has not yet thawed the ice. Expect to see Polar bears and walruses hunting as you cruise along. Birds such as the arctic tern, snow bunting or the glaucous gull, are also in breeding season. 

From mid-July to mid-August the ice is less likely to block the channels making this the best period to circumnavigate Spitsbergen. This island is the largest in the Svalbard archipelago and offers great opportunities to view polar bears, walrus populations, whales, seabirds, and with a bit of luck you might get a glimpse of a reindeer or an arctic fox when taking Zodiac excursions to shore. Tundra flowers will also be blooming by this time adding an extra touch of colour and liveliness to everything. 

In mid-August and September, the days become shorter and the weather can become moodier, birds will also begin their migration south around this time. On the other hand, in the midst of the high Arctic summer, constant daylight will be present during your trip. - At the northernmost point of Continental Europe (Cape Nordkinn in Norway) the midnight sun can be witness from May till July, and in the Svalbard archipelago, it lasts from April to August.

If you are interested in seeing the Northern lights, these can be viewed best between the months of September to April under a cloudless sky between 5pm and 2am.

Weather/What To Wear

With a temperature range of 2C to + 12C (28F to 54F) average during May till September, the key to staying warm is by layering. That said, as you start packing you need to think of your outfit as a three part/layer process. 

You will need to start with a 'base layer' which is the most important one. This layer is right next to your skin, so you can't pick just any fabrics; you will need a thermal or compression vest with thermal or compression long legged pants (long-johns), and very important - you can't consider cotton as an option as it will absorb moisture and stay wet, meaning that you will end up freezing. Instead, try merino wool or polyester (a cheaper but also thinner option). To finish off your base layer, you will need a good pair of thick warm socks.

Moving on to your middle layer (the insulating one), you want to continue picking the right fabrics, so as always forget the cottons and favour the wools, polyester, or other manmade fibres, such as fleece. You can also go for a fleece sweater/top and combine it with some (also fleece) leggings. 

Finally, you have to pack an outer layer as well, which will be a big friend when in need of protection from the wind or snow; which let's face it, you will need at all times. The number one thing you have to keep in mind when choose your coat is that this one should breath, so avoid cheaper waterproofs as these often don’t breathe well, making it possible for sweat and moisture to build up inside, and ultimately reducing your overall warmth. A big quilted down jacket or parka is your best pick. Some cruise operators will include a free parka, so make sure to check with your Arctic specialist before buying anything new. If you already have a ski jacket these are often a dependable choice in the Arctic. 

The final touch is, accessories. Yes, and as many of them as you can bring! You will need to protect your hands, head and feet so make sure to bring - two pairs of gloves (you are likely to get your gloves wet during your daily day cruise activities so make sure to bring an extra pair, even if you already have a waterproof one); hand and foot warmers; sunglasses with straps (things can easily get lost when you are busy with your expedition cruise activities); you will be provided with tall rubber boots (this is very important as sometimes the water level is higher than your ankle, and you will get wet if you have the wrong pair of boots with you). 

Last but not least, remember to take energy bars and to always have charged camera batteries. You will need the extra energy and you will want to have all your great moments on trip registered forever!

When Choosing the Cruise

Now for the most important aspect of your Arctic cruise planning, which cruise to take? The first thing you need to think about, is the things you really want to see in the Arctic. Then, you just need to look for a cruise that allows you the opportunity to view those things. We have created a few itineraries, that comprise the best that the Arctic has to offer. If you are still not sure which one to take the best thing to do it to speak with one of our Arctic Travel Specialists, who will ensure you make the best decision according to your likes and dislikes. In the meantime, here are a few Arctic options for you to consider:

'Classic Arctic' Cruise – This eight-day cruise through the frozen waters of the Arctic will bring you face-to-face with some of the most beautiful wildlife on the Arctic/planet: polar bears, humpback whales, arctic foxes, seals and walruses. 

'Classic Arctic in Depth' Cruise - This eleven-day cruise will take on a tour of the Arctic wilderness. Glide past cracking glaciers and spot wildlife such as polar bears, whales, puffins, Arctic fox, as well as overall breath-taking views. 

'Arctic to Iceland' Cruise - This fifteen-day voyage takes you from Norway to Greenland and Iceland and promises outstanding scenery and endless Arctic wildlife including polar bears, puffins, muskoxen and several species of whale.

The Activities

When you choose your cruise, you are also choosing a set of specific activities that you will be doing on your journey. There are many options, the important thing, is to ensure that you include as many of your favourites as possible. Still, you do need to keep in mind that in expedition cruises there is a huge emphasis on spontaneity, as you never know when a narwhal will cross your path and make your trip a little bit different from what was originally planned. But while you wait for those surprise moments, you can distract yourself with some other activities. Ever tried kayaking through the Arctic ice fields or photographing the Arctic wildlife and scenery? You could also visit an ice hotel, stay in cabins, do dog sledding or go on a snowmobile safari. There are so many options! And, of course, there will be plenty of time to just sit back on the deck of the ship, admire the beauty around you, and chat about it with your guides.


The wildlife in the Arctic is even more surprising than in Antarctica, as there is a wider variety of animal life here compare to famous seventh continent. How is this possible? The North Pole is in the middle of the Arctic Ocean which is surrounded by parts of North America, Europe and Asia so there is always a land connection which facilitates the access to the Arctic for land animals. These animals can be seasonal visitors as well as permanent residents of the Arctic. So, what can you expect to see while on your trip? Anything from polar bears, Arctic foxes, walruses, seals, whales, narwhals, also known as 'unicorn of the sea' due to the male's straight tusk projecting from the front of their head, which can grow to over 3m in length. You might also be able to see reindeers, ox, moose, orcas, or snowy owls.

A Day in the Arctic

A day in the Arctic is all about keeping it organised, adventurous and spontaneous. There will be days when you are at sea and can fully indulge on all the ship's comforts, whilst on other days, you will be out and about discovering and enjoying Arctic's natural wonders. So what could a day in the Arctic be like? Well, first of, while on board you can always expect to wake up early. Nature doesn't sleep till late and if you want to keep up with it, you will have to do the same. 

The day starts with a delicious breakfast on the ship where you will be able to gather up all the necessary energy. Once the food and coffee start to make you feel more awake you can then move on the next step – getting ready for the beautiful outside world! You will need to layer up, so put on all the necessary thermals, fleeces, jackets, hats, gloves, or anything else that you can't live without when it's cold. 

When out, you could do be doing so many different things so make sure to speak with our Travel Specialists about your preferences. A few suggestions are – trekking the Arctic circle in Greenland, enjoying a Zodiac cruise below towering icebergs or spectacular bird cliffs, kayaking in the frigid waters, or even experiencing an aurora-viewing trip (though this has to be scheduled for the middle of summer and you will need clear skies and darkness to see the northern lights). Logistics may vary depending on location, but you will usually be in small groups with an English-speaking expedition guide. 

After the morning activities you be heading back to the vessel just in time for lunch. You will be hungry so make sure to indulge as much as needed on the delicious food. After lunch, and as you cruise to your next destination, you can take some 'me' time to read, sleep, or head to the deck and admire the beautiful landscapes, you can also even attend a lecture by one the expedition guides. 

Afterwards is time to start getting ready for your second excursion of the day. As your morning’s clothes are probably still drying off, you will need to put on some of your spare 'going out' clothes. Once outside anything surprising could happen. Would you like to see and arctic fox or snowy owl? Maybe you will! 

The day ends back on board where you can now relax with a shower, get comfortable and ready for a delicious dinner. The expedition leader will do a re-cap of the day after dinner, and also prepare everyone for the next day's activities. 

Before going to bed you can unwind at the bar, observation lounge or on deck.

Ready to start planning your incredible Arctic expedition cruise?

Simply complete our enquiry form to get in touch, or call our Polar Specialists on 0203 196 1000.

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Why book with Polar Routes?

  • We can compare a huge selection of expedition ships, cruises and operators.
  • From former Russian research vessels to larger and luxurious ships - there is an expedition cruise to suit you. 
  • Our Polar Specialists will help you choose the perfect expedition cruise for your requirements.
  • We are the expedition cruise specialists and know all the polar destinations inside out.
  • Our expert team of Polar Specialists have extensive knowledge of all the expedition ships & operators.
  • All of our Polar Specialists have first-hand experience of expedition cruising to the polar regions.
  • Our prices are amongst the best you'll find, plus look out for Polar Routes exclusive offers!
  • All our holidays are ATOL protected (11104), for your complete peace of mind.
  • As supporters of the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust, booking with us helps support the work of the trust within Antarctica.