Pack your down jacket and leave your bikini behind if you’re game to experience one of the most adventurous segments of cruising: the cold-weather itinerary.
But you don’t have to travel long and far — say, to the Arctic Circle or Antarctica — to feel the brisk temperatures turn your cheeks rosy; if it’s winter charm you’re after, the answer could be as nearby as a Rhine or Danube river cruise in November or December. Here are eight cold-weather cruises and how to book them for less.
1. European Christmas Market River Cruise
From the fabled towns along the Rhine River in Germany and France to the majestic capitals of the Danube in Austria and Hungary, the invigorating chill of the air in late November signals that it’s time for the main square to morph into a festive Christmas Market.
Part gathering spot (to sip hot mulled wine and listen to carolers) and part shopping op (for locally made crafts and gifts), these centuries-old holiday plazas captivate locals and visitors alike through Christmas Eve.
Two to consider: U by Uniworld’s seven-night “Dashing Through the Danube” from Budapest to Regensburg (from $1,799 per person) and AmaWaterways’ seven-night Magical Christmas Markets from Nuremberg to Vienna (from $2,599 per person).
Booking tip: Christmas Market cruises are considered off-season and are generally well-priced to begin with, so booking eight months to a year in advance is advisable. If you can be spontaneous, deals are sometimes available on a last-minute basis in September and October.
2. Antarctic Peninsula Cruise
Everything’s cold and nothing’s cheap about cruising to Antarctica. If you want to set foot on the seventh continent and see thousands of waddling penguins and surreal blue icebergs, an expedition cruise will cost you. These sailings visit the Antarctic Peninsula from Ushuaia, Argentina during the months of November to March — summer in the Southern Hemisphere — but the temperatures you’ll experience will still be as bone-chilling as a winter night.
Two to consider: Ponant’s 10-night “Emblematic Antarctica,” roundtrip from Ushuaia (from $10,200 per person), and Silversea’s 12-night “Antarctica Expedition Cruise,” roundtrip from Ushuaia (from $12,150 per person).
Booking tip: To save, consider a South America itinerary on a non-expedition ship (Azamara, Princess, Celebrity, Crystal, and Holland America offer them) that cruises the Antarctic peninsula for a day or two (you won’t go ashore), combined with calls on the South Shetland Islands (where you will see penguins) and Falkland Islands. These cruises are often priced under $2,000 per person.
3. Arctic Circle/Northern Lights Cruise
Winter offers the best opportunity to experience the aurora borealis, also known as the Northern Lights, and the Arctic Circle is the prime viewing locale. Dawn and twilight virtually merge across the long Arctic winter nights as this luminous celestial phenomenon colors the skies with a dancing glow — most often in green, but also pink, yellow, blue, or violet.
Two to consider: Viking Ocean’s 13-night “In Search of the Northern Lights” cruise from London to Bergen, Norway or vice versa (from $4,999 per person) and Hurtigruten’s 12-night “Northern Lights,” roundtrip from Bergen (from $1,575 per person).
Booking tip: The best time to see the Northern Lights is around the vernal and autumnal equinox, so book early or mid-March for a winter cruise and you’ll avoid some of the coldest winter weather as well.
4. Alaska Inside Passage Cruise
The Alaska cruise season coincides with the 49th state’s summer thaw from May to September and if you can handle the cooler weather, book early in the season and you’ll also save. With a May sailing, during which companies still charge off-season prices, you’ll get to experience Alaska’s natural beauty as it emerges from the snow with a low chance of rain, daytime temperatures in the high 40s to mid-50s, and brisk nights.
Two to consider: The seven-night “Alaska Cruise” sailing roundtrip from Seattle on the new Norwegian Bliss (from $899 per person) and the seven-night “Alaska Cruise” from Vancouver, British Columbia to Whittier in Anchorage, Alaska aboard Royal Princess (from $679 per person).
Booking tip: The month of December along with Wave Season — the major promotional period for cruises that occurs each year from January to March — are great times to book a cold-weather Alaska cruise when cruise lines are trying to fill ships on their first forays north in May.
5. Iceland Circumnavigation
Even in June, it never really gets hot in Iceland — the average daily temperature is just 44 to 52 degrees — and cruises that visit during this month have the added bonus of 17 hours of daily sunlight. A Reykjavik-to-Reykjavik circumnavigation (or an Iceland-focused itinerary that begins in another European port) lets you easily experience this island nation’s extraordinary glacier-and-volcano landscape and geothermal wonders.
Two to consider: Windstar’s seven-night “Around Iceland” cruise, roundtrip from Reykjavik aboard the Star Breeze (from $4,599 per person) and Azamara Club Cruises’ 13-night “Iceland Intensive Voyage” from Copenhagen to Dublin aboard the new Azamara Pursuit (from $5,199 per person).
Booking tip: These cruises are offered sporadically by just a few cruise lines, so plan to book ahead and watch for special promotions that may include free airfare or onboard credits.
6. Chilean Fjords and Southern Patagonia Cruise
Even when it’s summer in South America (December to March), the Chilean fjords have a dreamy winter feel to them, thanks to the striking Windex-blue glaciers, rushing waterfalls, and surreal mists that envelop these narrow water passageways. Some small-ship itineraries focus on navigating a variety of fjords, while the major cruise lines incorporate scenic fjord cruising with calls on Ushuaia, Punta Arenas, and Puerto Montt.
Two to consider: Celebrity Cruises’ 14-night “Argentina & Chile Cruise” from Buenos Aires to San Antonio in Santiago, Chile aboard Celebrity Eclipse (from $2,099 per person) and Holland America’s 13-night “South America Passage” from San Antonio (Santiago), Chile to Buenos Aires aboard the Zaandam (from $1,699 per person).
Booking tip: While expedition cruising on smaller ships will get you deeper into the fjords, these tend to be three or four times as expensive as itineraries on larger ships. The latter offer a day of scenic cruising in the fjords paired with calls on an array of ports in Patagonia and major South American cities.
7. Greenland and Baffin Bay Cruise
It might be mid-summer, but Baffin Bay — which separates Greenland from Canada’s Nunavut province — could still pass for winter with its majestic icebergs and increasingly rare polar bears. On a cruise through these intense Arctic landscapes, you’ll also learn about local Inuit culture and ancestral Arctic tundra traditions.
Two to consider: Ponant’s 13-night “Baffin Bay Secrets” sailing, roundtrip from Kangerlussuag, Greenland aboard Le Boreal (from $15,610 per person); and Lindblad Expeditions’ 18-night “Exploring Greenland & Canada,” from Reykjavik to Kangerlussuag aboard National Geographic Explorer (from $16,700 per person).
Booking tip: Spending this much time in the high Arctic spying on glaciers and observing polar bears and other local species doesn’t come cheap and there’s no real secret to nabbing a bargain — simply shop around (and well in advance) to score the best deal.
8. Belgium and Netherlands Tulip Time Cruise
It may technically be spring on March 21, but temperatures along the rivers and canals of Belgium and the Netherlands can still chill your bones like winter. That won’t stop the early blooming crocuses, hyacinths, daffodils, and tulips from beginning to paint the countries’ gardens with bold strokes of springtime color — and river cruise lines from embarking on itineraries that visit their top cities and landmarks.
Two to consider: Teeming River Cruises’ 10-day “Olde Netherlands,” roundtrip from Amsterdam aboard the MS Royal Emerald (from $1,299 per person); and Avalon Waterways “Tulip Time Cruise” aboard Vista or Artistry II, roundtrip from Amsterdam (from $2,198 per person).
Booking tip: The best deals on river cruises through the Netherlands and Belgium are often on the first one or two cruises of the season in mid- to late March when only the most eager crocuses, hyacinths, and daffodils have bloomed. The gardens won’t yet have their full springtime color, but your wallet will be flush with the green of a few hundred dollars in savings.