Trip Options

When visiting the Arctic there are many options to pick from as there are many different regions and itineraries. Unlike Antarctica which is a self-contained continent with one main tourist region and several specialised ones, the Arctic is a region spread across several countries and territories. Officially this is anything north of the Arctic Circle but in the context of this website, I'm going to assume you mean the High Arctic – anywhere north of the tree line where the average temperature of the warmest month is below 10C.

When most people talk about going to the Arctic they have a couple of places in mind – the Norwegian Arctic – Svalbard/Spitsbergen, Greenland, the Canadian Arctic and The North Pole

Below is a brief guide to the most common choices.

Criteria   Comments
Region Greenland More similar to Antarctica in terms of size of icebergs and scenery than anywhere else on this side of the planet. Interesting towns to visit but because of polar bear hunting and the size of the country you're less likely to see a bear here than in the more protected areas of Svalbard. Go for the ice and the landscapes and the human history, not the wildlife. Regions – west vs east
Canadian Arctic  Churchill is a good place if you want a guarantee of seeing bears, and at relatively close quarters albeit in less than a wild setting. Every year while waiting for the sea to freeze, bears gather in Churchill and a big industry has sprung up around them. You can stay in lodges on the tundra and get buggies out to see the bears - essentially reinforced buses. Close encounters are highly likely but the setting may not seem as wild as it could be.
North Pole North Pole – there's really only one way for a tourist (as opposed to an expedition) to get to the geographic north pole, and that's on 50 Let Pobody – 50 years of Victory – a Russian nuclear powered icebreaker operating out of Murmansk. The ship is a working Naval vessel for most of the year but for a couple of weeks in the height of summer it turns itself over to Poseidon Expeditions and Quark who operate trips to the very top of the world. You have to really, really like ice and be pretty determined to do this trip, as for most of it you'll be sailing through nothing but ice with no mountains or big wildlife etc as a distraction. The cost is phenomenal but it comes with an amazing experience – if you've ever been on a smaller ship in ice you'll see how careful the captain has to be in navigation, with this you can power through almost anything thrown at you and with some speed. Landings will mostly be done as helicopter excursions from the ship although there will be fewer opportunities to get off the boat than with other trips – almost every ship will have enough zodiacs to get the entire passenger complement off at once, the helicopter will only seat 6 people at once and in the slightest hint of inclement weather you're grounded. The light that far north is unbelievable and saying you've reached the north pole is pretty much as good as it gets in terms of travel experiences.
Your other option is fairly new and that's Barneo airbase
Svalbard Archipelago Svalbard is made up of a group of islands, the largest being Spitsbergen and its name is used a bit interchangeably with Svalbard to describe the whole area. The other islands of note are Edgeoya, Barentsoya and Nordaustlandet. The main settlement is Longyearbyen which sits at the mouth of Isfjord and houses the airport, hotels, shops and the port where cruises depart from. It's possible to fly up to Longyearbyen and stay in the town doing day trips out to other settlements (Barentsburg – Russian mining town) or the landscape surrounding the town. Svalbard is at 78 degrees north and is a true polar climate. From October through to May is classed as winter – the vast majority of this period will be dark for almost the entire day (true polar night is from November to February) and bitterly cold with frequent blizzards and gale force winds. Longyearbyen has a population year round and while it's an interesting place to visit in winter, activity is limited by the darkness, the polar bear attack risk when you can't see them approaching. and the low temperatures. While it's very far north, it's actually outside the main zone for seeing aurora so isn't hugely recommended as a northern lights holiday destination. The main tourist season runs from April to September, with cruises running from June to August. Early in the season when it starts getting light is a popular time for adventure travel – heading out on excursions cross country skiing or snowmobiling, but there's still too much ice for boats to operate. By the end of May some of the day trip cruises are running – these take you out to glaciers, bird nesting cliffs and general sightseeing in the vicinity of Longyearbyen but are not ideal for spotting bears. If large charismatic megafauna is your aim then you need to be on a multi-day cruise and that's what the rest of this site focuses on. All trips leave and return to Longyearbyen except for some operators where the first and the last in the season are one way – the first will start in either Scotland or Norway and work their way up, and then the last will head from Longyearbyen to Greenland or Iceland. Boat trips vary in length from 5 days sailing through to 15. Much like Antarctica, ice and weather are key here, with islands and inlets and fjords for the ice to get trapped in, its movement determines your routing. Almost all trips aim to do a complete circumnavigation of the islands. This usually involves leaving from Longyearbyen, heading south around the tip of Spitsbergen, up the coastline of Edgeoya and through freemansundet – the gap between Edgeoya and Barentsoya, skirting around the southern coast of Nordaustlandet through Hinlopenstret and then going over the top of Spitsbergen and back down the west coast to Longyearbyen. Same can be done in reverse! Some trips will say that they focus on particular regions such as Nordaustlandet, but ice conditions means a huge amount of flexibility is still required.
Distances in the Arctic between landing sites are much, much, shorter than the Antarctic so you can achieve more in a day, and if one landing site is unsuitable it's easy to divert to somewhere else in close proximity and with short sailing distances. This also gives the opportunity to retrace steps to visit spots that were missed due to inclement conditions without adversely cutting into time.
What will I see? Bears There are 3,000 bears in Svalbard spread in an area of 24,000 sq miles. Bears are actually classed as an aquatic mammal as they spend as much time as they are able on the sea – specifically sea ice. The main food source of Svalbard’s bears are ringed seals and as they live on ice that’s where the bears go. As the ice retreats north the bears follow although occasionally they end up trapped on land to wait for winter. Almost every trip you get will have a huge proportion of time dedicated to finding sea ice and finding bears, there will be stops on the way for other points of interest but from the captain through to the expedition team, everyone is geared towards bears, including keeping watches throughout the night. The longer the trip, the more chances you have as you can afford to wait in likely spots for bears to appear, or for weather to clear. Shorter trips will have less leeway. It’s also good to keep expectations realistic – while seeing bears is almost guaranteed (and for many years several companies did offer a bear-antee – see bears or get another trip for free), the distance you see them at is not. Now this can be a curious bear that comes close to the ship across ice and stays with you for an hour, or it could be a view of a sleeping bear on rocks several hundred metres away that’s nothing but a dot to the naked eye. Both still count as a bear sighting and you have to be prepared for the latter while hoping for the former.
Reindeer Svalbard reindeer are dotted over the archipelago and aresmaller and stockier than their continental cousins. No real predation means they're happy to be approached by people.
Arctic Fox Spread across the region, and fairly easy to spot from even within the towns. Especially common hunting around bird cliffs and many known dens. Highly photogenic and mostly unafraid of people
Arctic Hare Greenland is your best bet for spotting these
Muskox Found in Greenland
Other activities Camping Very rare that this is offered, but if it is then do as much research as you can into safety procedures. What bear deterrents do they have? Is there a full watch posted?
Hiking Longer and more active walks than your average wander on shore
Photography Has a dedicated photographer to deliver lectures and help with equipment or possibly just to document the trip. May or may not offer on shore instruction and specialist walks/zodiac cruises. Can be entire focus of the trip or just one facet
Kayaking Get closer to the ice and potentially wildlife. May or may not cut into shore time, ie choice of kayak or landing. Usually in twin kayaks and a supplement is payable
Snowshoeing Does what it says on the tin
Departure Month May Season starts in mid May with ships starting to head north. Lots and lots of ice.
June Still icy but midnight sun and bird colonies busy nesting.
July Chicks hatching. Peak Season. Ice receding but still may not be access to all points. Midnight sun. High chances of completing a circumnavigation of Svalbard
August Chicks fledging and migrations starting. First sunset of the season on 23rd August. By end August almost all bird colonies empty. Excellent chances for circumnavigation of Svalbard. Any bears left on land are hunkered in waiting for the ice to return.
September Lowest ice extent. Nights are getting longer and fantastic sunsets/sunrises. All but resident birds have left. If in the more southern areas of Greenland then chance to see Aurora.