Pick any month of the year, and we can guide you to a small ship cruise. AdventureSmith Explorations’ style of immersive expedition cruising spans the globe, with small ships positioning to take advantage of the best sailing seasons for weather and wildlife-spotting opportunities. For example, several yachts follow the whales to spend their summers in Alaska and winters in Baja, and other ships hop between the poles as their strengthened hulls make them best suited for the ice.

Here’s a look at what’s in season, where, for expedition cruising according to northern hemisphere seasons:

Cruise calendar chart showing which destination to sail by month.

Summer Season Small Ship Cruises

Thinking of traveling by small ship for a summer vacation? Look to these popular locales, or scroll down to see more options listed in our year-round small ship cruises section.

Alaska – March through September

Alaska is often hailed as the birthplace of small ship expedition cruising. Its remote Inside Passage coastline is prime for ship exploration as many locales and port towns are only accessible from the water. The Alaska small ship cruise season kicks off with a select few vessels sailing as early as March to take advantage of the Pacific herring migration and better chances to see the Northern Lights. There are prime times within the season for spotting bears, seeing whales in feeding pods and exploring Denali National Park. For more details about these seasons-within-the-season, see our comprehensive How to Choose Your Alaska Cruise guide.

Arctic – May through September

Expeditions in the vast Arctic region begin with warmer weather in May and continue through September when daylight hours are longer. When to sail during this time depends upon your interests for spotting polar bears, seeing large ice floes, hiking on land, covering more ground and/or seeing the Northern Lights. See our comprehensive How to Choose Your Arctic Cruise guide for more detailed information.

When to sail during this time depends upon your interests for spotting polar bears, large ice floes or the Northern Lights.

Mediterranean – March through November

Look for itineraries along the shores of Greece, Montenegro, Croatia and west toward Spain and Portugal to sail in the summer months’ subtropical highs. Seasonal winds called “meltemi” blow through and pleasantly cool the atmosphere during this time. In the height of summer, ports can be crowded, so look to the shoulder-season sailings for a bit slower pace. While most small ships stay put in tropical climes, we see the occasional Mediterranean vessel head north in the off season to Arctic locales like Iceland and west to the likes of Costa Rica.

Zodiac excursion in Antarctica.

Winter Season Small Ship Cruises

Vessels often don’t stay in locations like Alaska and the Arctic during the dark days of winter, and thus position south to warmer waters. Here’s a look at where many vessels overwinter to seek the sun.

HawaiiBaja & Costa Rica – November through April/May

Hawaii, Baja California and Costa Rica are common sister destinations to Alaska since small ships seeking to bypass the Alaskan cold can easily follow the coastline south. In Baja California, in particular, a number of vessels follow the whales down to their mating and birthing grounds in the gentle, warm bays off Baja’s Pacific coast and the interior haven of the Sea of Cortez. In Hawaii, yachts choose to island-hop where the day boats can’t go. And in Costa Rica and Panama, small ships enjoy this time as the average rainfall is lower and migrant bird populations are highest. While it’s technically “winter” for these northern hemisphere locales, the daytime air temperature is usually in the 80s so wintertime is a great time to head to the beaches and coastlines here! For more information, consult AdventureSmith’s How to Choose Your Baja Cruise and How to Choose Your Costa Rica Cruise guides.

Antarctica – October through March

The sister cruise season to the Arctic is Antarctica, which has the opposite summer/winter timing yet many of the same requirements for vessels to be ice strengthened. Sea ice, daylight and weather are the main factors for Antarctica’s expedition cruise season, so you’ll find polar expedition vessels spending their time here in the austral summer. Ships sailing early season often have more opportunities for skiing, mid-season is prime for seeing penguin chicks and later itinerary options highlight whale watching. See our comprehensive How to Choose Your Antarctica Cruise guide for more detailed information on Antarctica’s seasonal highlights.

The sister cruise season to the Arctic is Antarctica, which has the opposite summer/winter timing yet many of the same vessel requirements.

Chile – September through April

Patagonia expedition cruises in Chile also sail in the austral summer months, when the weather is prime for combining voyages to explore places like Torres del Paine National Park and Antarctica. The port of Punta Arenas is the main hub, and while it’s summer here, pack a parka as this region is known for its winds. Average air temperature during the cruise season hovers in the upper 50s.

Guest stand up paddleboarding in front of small ship in Baja California.

Spring & Fall Season Small Ship Cruises

While many of the summer and winter season cruises detailed above operate in these shoulder seasons—and our year-round options detailed below all operate in the spring and fall seasons—we see a few itineraries that only sail during this time.

Pacific Northwest – April & May, August through November

The Pacific Northwest’s Columbia River, San Juan Islands and Olympic Wilderness regions are the gateway for ships sailing to and from Alaska. Find various ships sailing here in the spring and fall to take advantage of whale and bird migrations, as well as harvest seasons for grapes, oysters, hops and other regional fare. 

Autumn landscape and fall colors on a Pacific Northwest river cruise.

Year-Round Small Ship Cruises

These popular small ship cruise destinations don’t have downtimes, save for slight seasonal/regional variations and dry dock periods when ships leave the water for repairs and refreshes.

Galapagos Islands

Due to the equatorial climate and combination of Panama, Peru and Humboldt ocean currents from the north and south, ships are able to stay year-round in this famed archipelago. For all the nuances of the Galapagos seasons, and when to go if you have a specific wildlife encounter on your bucket list, view our comprehensive How to Choose Your Galapagos Cruise guide and Galapagos By Month: When to Go & Why.

The Amazon River

The Amazon River and its tributaries span into the countries of Brazil, Ecuador and Peru when looking at active small ship cruise options. You can sail year-round in all these countries, but note that Peru’s Amazon is distinct in that there is a more dramatic high-water (typically November-May) and low-water season (typically June-October), the latter allowing for more trail walks on terra firma vs. skiff cruising. See our comprehensive How to Choose Your Amazon Cruise guide for more detailed information on the different regions of the Amazon and timing your trip.

Australia

While you can sail any month on our partner small ship vessels in Australia, especially in the tropical waters of the Great Barrier Reef, there are seasonal variations that have ships positioning as far south as Tasmania (roughly January through April) and up to Cape York and the Kimberley region (typically March through October).

Seasonal variations have ships positioning as far south as Tasmania and up to Cape York and the Kimberley region.

Asia

Many small ship cruises in the greater Asia region also sail year-round thanks to favorable seas and climate. Look for sailings any month on the Mekong River, as well as in Indonesia, which has seasonal variations like expeditions up into the lesser-visited Raja Ampat archipelago during West Papua’s dry months of November and December.

Small ship seen from the beach in Indonesia.

A Note About When to Book Your Small Ship Cruise

Now that you’re primed on when to sail, how about when to book? For the best selection of small ship cruises and available cabins, advance reservations are encouraged and often required. While we’ve had success finding travelers last-minute space, your best bet is to always book early for your best match at dates, travel style and cabin choice. The most popular small ship cruises are often sold out 6 to 9 months in advance. We often see the next year’s rates released a year in advance, and nearly two years in advance for polar destinations like Antarctica and the Arctic.

This is only a sampling of where AdventureSmith Explorations sails, and the seasons. See all of AdventureSmith’s trips.