A number of the tips and advice I could offer for planning, booking and enjoying an Arctic cruise are very similar to those for an Antarctic cruise, which I have already written about in detail here:
Antarctica: Do's and Don'ts!
For most people, these sorts of expedition trips are once-in-a-lifetime adventures, but the experience will always be coloured by the ship and the company you travel with. Research really is key. There are a couple of amendments to the advice offered in the above post - firstly, the limitations regarding numbers able to land in Antarctica do not apply for the Arctic, so ship size isn't quite as vital, although a smaller number of passengers will still ensure a more personalised experience and enable everyone on board to go out simultaneously during zodiac cruise days. We travelled on a ship of 132, which seemed a good number. Secondly, I would emphasise the usefulness of doing a little research on the wildlife before setting off, or bringing along a small reference book. The larger animals were easily identifiable, but I found it handy to have a guide nearby when the many flocks of birds passed overhead.
There are a couple of Arctic-specific tips that I would also like to add. The first is related to budget. Like the rest of Norway, Longyearbyen is a very expensive place to stay. Unlike the rest of Norway, accommodation options are extremely limited, so finding any sort of bargain is pretty much out of the question. We booked our nights months in advance and still paid a small fortune for a twin room with a shared bathroom.
Also, although it is difficult, try not to arrive with wildlife expectations. Whilst ship crews work extremely hard and tirelessly to deliver a polar bear, travelling off-route and searching twenty-four hours a day, there's no guarantees. It's a similar story for whales, seals and the elusive Arctic fox. However, this isn't a reason to shy away from the trip. Even if the 'big ones' do not put in an appearance (and chances are they will), the birds were spectacular, the icebergs mesmerising and the landscape eerily beautiful.
Finally, there's the overall cost of a trip. Arctic cruises are not cheap - averaging out at around $5000 - $6000 per person. The price will very much be dependent on boat size, company and length of expedition, with less opportunity for grabbing a last minute deal (although they may still be possible with certain companies). My advice would be to book early and try to wrangle an early-bird discount - even 5% off can make a huge difference. Decide on your priorities and put in some research - would you like a large team of experts/lecturers? If you speak a second language, are you happy to be flexible with the language spoken on board? What amenities do you expect to find on the ship? Take a look at photos on a company's website - particularly at cabins and communal areas where you will be spending the majority of your time. Length of trip is an important consideration - time restrictions may decide this for you, but if there is flexibility, it may be worth sacrificing that extra bit of comfort for a longer journey where the ship has the time to go off-course in search of wildlife yet still achieve all its aims. But remember, whatever option you choose, a cruise like this will always be incredible and eternally memorable. In my mind, every penny spent was more than worth it...
Want to discover more about my experiences on an Arctic cruise? Find the relevant posts here:
Arriving in Longyearbyen and the start of an Arctic cruise
Wildlife of the Arctic: whales, seals and walruses
A polar bear frenzy in the Arctic
Zodiac cruises, Russian settlements and a second polar plunge
The Arctic landscape: A photo-blog