Ship Choices

Everything in the table is based on AECO lists of approved vessels, the ship's own website, reviews by others and my personal experience and research.

If you have travelled with or know more about one of these vessels, then please chip in with thoughts and I'll update the table! If I've missed any ships too then please get in touch. As the Arctic is (relatively) easier to reach than the Antarctic, there will be more ships, including large 1,000 passenger plus cruise ships who visit the region, as well as many other ships that aren't AECO members. I've tried to cover the smaller expedition cruise ships rather than a truly comprehensive list of vessels.

Ship Name Max guests Ice Rating Luxury Level Normal Operator Comments
Akademik Ioffe 96 1a Low One Ocean Ex-Soviet research vessel. Most definitely not used for spying. Twin of the Vavilov. Working scientific vessel and outfitted accordingly. Seems very popular with bird watchers
Akademik Vavilov 92 1a Low One Ocean Ex-Soviet research vessel. Most definitely not used for spying. Twin of the Ioffe. Working scientific vessel and outfitted accordingly. Seems very popular with bird watchers and does a lot of off the beaten track and specialist trips. Has a large panoramic lounge.
Bremen 155 1a+ Super Hapag Lloyd Luxury all round and one of the few ships that can cater for wheelchair users, albeit not on zodiac landings. Seems more focussed on the shipboard side of things than the landing part
Hanseatic 175 1a+ Super Hapag Lloyd Luxury all round and one of the few ships that can cater for wheelchair users, albeit not on zodiac landings. Seems more focussed on the shipboard side of things than the landing part
Expedition 132 1b Medium G Adventures Former Danish car ferry but very well converted. Has a photographer and musician in residence programme. Many PhDs among expedition staff. Personal experience of staff going above and beyond to get the landings. Approx 3hrs on shore per landing and at least two landings/operations per day. Ship is comfortable, hotel staff excellent and food plentiful.
Fram 220 1b High Hurtigruten May be large, but operates as standard expedition ship. Run by Norwegians who are pretty good at ice. Given size, shore landing time is limited and may be waiting involved but plenty to see on board while you wait. Wheelchair accessible.
Nordstjernen 108 1a+ High Hurtigruten Oldest ship in the Hurtigruten fleet after being built in 1956 and classed as a Norwegian national heritage object. Run by Norwegians who are pretty good at ice. Lots of wood panelling and deck space.
L'Austral
Le Boreal
Le Lyrial
264 1c Super Ponant Described as mega-yachts, these three ships are triplets. Modern and sleek. Still offer full zodiac programme with naturalists on board. Reports of approx 1.5hrs on shore per landing
National Geographic Explorer 148 1a+ Super Lindblad World renowned expedition team, luxury ship with a very strong focus on the wildlife experience too. Reflected in the prices. American run and staffed. Often has a guest NatGeo photographer on board. Inflatable kayaks open to all guests rather than a full kayak programme. Has a remote operated sub.
Ocean Nova 78 1b Low Quark V well regarded expedition team and basic ship. Small size, and a determined team may achieve more than 3 landings a day
Sea Adventurer 122 1a Medium Quark V well regarded expedition team and comfortable ship. Size, ice rating and a determined team may achieve more than 3 landings a day
Ortelius 116 1a Low Oceanwide Ex-Soviet research vessel. Most definitely not used for spying. Ship is simply a mode of transport, aim is to spend as much time on shore as possible.
Plancius 116 1a Low Oceanwide Ex-Dutch research vessel. Ship is simply a mode of transport, aim is to spend as much time on shore as possible
Noorderlicht 20 n/a Low Oceanwide Sailing ship built in 1910 - gorgeous and an intimate experience with only 20 passengers. No cabins have portholes. All passengers expected to take part in nightly watches, and handling the sails and helm. Focus seems to be on the sailing and on-shore experience with less of an educational programme.
Rembrandt van Riijn 33 n/a Low Oceanwide Schooner built the 1900s - gorgeous and an intimate experience with only 33 passengers. All passengers expected to take part in nightly watches, and handling the sails and helm. Focus seems to be on the sailing and on-shore experience with less of an educational programme.
Stockholm 12 1a Medium Polar Quest Swedish owned, with 12 passengers in wood and brass outfitted cabins, it doesn't get smaller than this.
Quest 53 1d Low Polar Quest Small and comfortable ship with plenty of deck space. Size will get you more time on land and offers full educational programme. Ice class may be a limiting factor.
Polar Pioneer 54 1a Low Aurora Expeditions Finnish built for Soviet research purposes. Basic accommodations but it's all about the small size getting you more time on land, and with only 54 passengers, that's going to be among the highest in the bunch.
Sea Spirit 112 1d High Poseidon All Suite ship but not at the modern ultra level of luxury. Run by a Russian operator who has previously specialised in ice-breaker trips to the North Pole. Lower ice rating may not be perfectly suited to the North.
Silver Explorer 132 1a Super Silversea The ship looks fabulous but most of what I came away from researching this was that it offers butler service to your suite. Enough said.
Antigua 36 n/a Medium Tall Ship Co Tall ship that looks splendid, inside and out. Doesn't require passengers to help with the sailing.
Serenissima 107 n/a High Noble Caledonia Recently renovated in a 'bright Swedish 18th C country house style', (lots of blue and yellow and florals, unlike the interior of any other ship I've seen). Small size is a positive but lack of ice class may be limiting. One of the few ships to have single cabins.

A more in depth explanation of some of the options above:

Ship Options   Comments
Ship Size 300+ Fewer to no landings and more likely to be part of a traditional cruise so you get stops elsewhere in Norway and Europe. Can't access certain spots due to size as it would take too long to get 300 people ashore, but good if you're not planning on leaving the ship frequently and just want to admire scenery. Ships with over 500 passengers will sail up to Longyearbyen but this will be the only landing in the archipelago. Traditional itineraries have one day sailing from the North Cape of Norway up to Longyearbyen, one day in the town and then sailing straight back down to Norway. Occasionally you'll find an itinerary that also goes up the west coast to Ny Alesund too but have never heard of a ship of this size going near the eastern side of the archipelago
150-300 Landings will be in rotation as only 100 people should be on land at any one time so possibly less time on shore. Lectures as with a typical expedition and zodiac excursions to shore.
100-150 Medium expedition ship, everyone can be on shore at once due to kayakers or those who choose not to leave the ship - most common class and widest variation in luxury levels
less than 100 Most time on land as everyone on board can be ashore at once and quicker to disembark fewer numbers of people. 
Sailing Usually around 20 people on board and an attitude of everyone mucks in. Ice rating is lower but can access much shallower and smaller bays and inlets.
Level of luxury Super Double beds, suites, balconies, room steward, TV, drinks included, better quality food - more like a traditional cruise, newer ships - may skew to older passengers
High Nicely appointed, lots of rooms with double beds, usually slightly older ships and heavy on the wood fittings
Medium Combination of cabins with bunks and beds, cheerful and older ships, less included - three star hotel - excellent service but not luxury. Summer camp for adults.
Low Higher presence of bunks, shared facilities and inside cabins, older and more spartan ships, fewer dining options and less frills - university dorms/youth hostel - for those who are less concerned with the accommodation as it's all about the time off the ship. Commonly Russian ex-"research" vessels.
Cabin facilities en-suite No walking down the corridor or sharing with another cabin
window Rectangular. Glass. Hopefully you have seen a window before
porthole Round traditional ship's porthole, relatively small and mostly on lower decks. Good for making you feel like you're in a washing machine on a rough day or for watching approaching bears at eye level.
balcony does what it says on the tin
inside cabin No view of the outside. Will definitely reduce your chances of spotting wildlife but usually with a lower price to compensate.
Ice rating icebreaker Unless you hit rock you can power on through it
1a not an icebreaker but designed and built for polar waters and can handle ice that is 0.8m thick
1b Can handle polar waters well - usually a retrofitted ship with a previous life elsewhere. Can handle ice that is 0.6m thick
1c Ice strengthened and handles ice of 0.4m thick
1d Light ice conditions only, not an official ice class.