Svalbard: Big or Small, Choosing The Right Ship

Tom Brown

24 Feb 2016

Svalbard: Big or Small - choosing the right ship

I have been asked on numerous occasions by many different people recently about what sort of ship to travel Svalbard on. As a company we are focused on getting people into the right place at the right time for extraordinary wildlife encounters and on the whole we feel that the smaller the better, but there are many factors that contribute to making sure that you get the right ship for you. I want to explore these factors a little to make it a little easier for you to make an informed decision.

In Svalbard, you can choose to travel on a ship of 12 all the way up to over 300 passengers but is it is better to go on a small ship or a big ship?

Size matters!

The bigger the ship, the bigger the dimensions of the ship, but what does that mean in terms of your polar expedition? The geography of Svalbard means that that there are many fjords and channels and the bigger the ship the less likely they will be able to navigate along these channels. A perfect example is the channel of Forlandsundet between Prins Karls Forland and the main island of Spitsbergen. Small ships such as the M/S Freya or the M/S Malmo can happily navigate through these sorts of channels whereas bigger ships such as the M/S Fram have to travel round and miss out on potential wildlife sightings. The smaller ships can often anchor closer to shore than the big ships meaning less time taxiing to and from the shore and more time with the wildlife! Another key highlight of travelling aboard a small ship is absolute charm of them. As opposed to some of the bigger ships, many of which have spent previous lives as passenger ferries, the smaller ships have lots more character and give you the feeling of being on a true seafaring voyage. 

Little touches like wooden floors and brass fittings make it all feel a little more traditional. 


The manoeuvrability of small ships compared to the big ships can make a huge difference too. Your expedition team on board are expert spotters with years of experience. A yellow dot in the off the starboard bow can often turn out to be a polar bear, but getting up close and personal can often be tricky on a big ship! Smaller vessels have a much smaller turning circle and thus navigating through ice floes (the hunting grounds of polar bears) becomes much easier. On some of the bigger ships you may have to board zodiacs to get closer and this does not guarantee you getting any closer! 

Some of the closest polar bear sightings from past passengers have been on smaller vessels, but we have had clients that have has incredible sightings on larger vessels too.

No. of Passengers

Socialising is something that some people love to do and others not so much. You may not like sitting down to dinner with the same 12 people every night and if that’s the case then a small ship is probably not the right option for you. At the same time you can get lost in the crowd when there are 300 on board, which is why the biggest ship we tend to work with is the M/S Expedition which has a max capacity of 134. 

However, having more passengers on board can be a huge advantage. 

The larger the boat, the larger the expedition team and in turn this generally means more specialisation on guides.

For example, on the M/S Expedition you are almost certain to have an expert ornithologist on board, an expert on marine mammals, a geologist and a whole host of other naturalists. You generally have fewer guides on the smaller vessels but you are with them for longer periods of time, making it easier to extract all of that essential information! A disadvantage of the bigger ships is that you have many more people to get to land. This means there are often shift patterns to ensure that everyone gets a good amount of time on land. This is not the case on smaller vessels.


If you are looking for luxury cruise, then Svalbard may not be the best option for you. Most expedition ships are pretty basic compared to Caribbean cruises but if you are looking for a little more comfort then a larger ship is the way to go. There are generally more cabin categories available; and suites often give you a living room as well as a bedroom as part of you cabin. The smaller vessels are even more basic and twin cabins bunk bed style beds. It is common to have facilities such as a sauna or even a gym on board the larger vessels. There is also a lot more ‘private’ space if you want to get away from your fellow passengers like pop to the library for some quiet time. It’s not quite as easy on a 12 man ship!

Truth be told, you are likely to have a fabulous time on any of the ships that go to Svalbard. But as a wildlife company we feel that the best way to get close to the wildlife is to go on the smallest ship possible. Therefore, the Freya, the Malmo and the Stockholm would be the ones that we would recommend over all others. They are a bit more expensive but our clients have seen far more polar bears from the Malmo and Stockholm, and we are pretty sure that the M/S Freya will quickly follow suit.

Please get in touch if you would like to discuss which ship is best for you with one of our destination specialists.


Laura Montrone

19/1/2018 1:58 AM

We are planning a trip to Svalbard around September 23rd, 2018. We will be flying in from Oslo. Any suggestions or recommendations would be appreciated, including pricing for the smaller ships, along with number of days needed in Svalbard. Thank you for your help! Laura

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