How to choose the perfect cruise

SALLY MACMILLAN
Last updated 05:05 31/10/2013
Queen Elizabeth
The Queen Elizabeth.
Cruise Ship 3
AMY JACKMAN / The Wellingtonian Zoom
The library on the Silver Shadow.

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Some are best for families, others are built for foodies. There's one for thrill seekers, one for theatre lovers and another for passengers who love learning. To mark the official start of 2013-2014 cruise season, Sally Macmillan sorts it all out ship by ship.

During the next six months we'll see a record number of ships visiting our ports, offering an impressive choice of cruising styles and itineraries from and around Australia, New Zealand, Asia and the Pacific islands.

To help you choose what cruise line will suit your lifestyle and budget, check our at-a-glance guide to the major ships.

There are spots left but the sooner you book, the more choice you'll have - for the best cabins, shore tours and special offers.

FAMILIAR FACES

CARNIVAL CRUISE LINES

Carnival Spirit, 3 star-plus, maximum 2124 passengers.

Best for: Young families, groups of friends, singles. The "fun ship" is bright and breezy and the action for all age groups is non-stop.

Past passenger: "The activities on board are amazing - from cooking demonstrations, nutrition seminars, a gym and countless pools to kids clubs, an adults-only bar, restaurants, shows, bingo and so much more. It's hard to believe it's all offered on one ship ...

"The service was friendly but not overstated or cheesy. It really felt like good old-fashioned Aussie service! I'd highly recommend Carnival Spirit to anyone who wants a real break and is also keen for some fun and culture ..." Sarah Ashton, Newland, Sydney.

More info: carnival.com.

CELEBRITY CRUISES

Celebrity Solstice, 4 star-plus, maximum 2850 passengers.

Best for: Sophisticated families and singles. Solstice is renowned for its food, atmosphere, bars, spa.

Past passenger: "I went on my first cruise last summer and it was on Celebrity Solstice ... It was an adventure of fine dining, luxurious accommodation and fabulous company. It was a memorable experience and I'm planning to book another one next year." Melanie Mitchell, Bilgola, Sydney.

More info: celebritycruises.com.

HOLLAND AMERICA LINE

Volendam, 4 star, maximum

1432 passengers.

Oosterdam, 4 star, maximum

1916 passengers.

Best for: Family groups, mature singles. There are very good family-friendly facilities but HAL ships tend to attract an older crowd.

Past passenger: "How Holland America Line conducted the cruise of Glacier Bay in Alaska was sensational; it was moving, serene and almost surreal. The service on board ... Zaandam was exemplary but the coffee was crap!" Geoff Bentley, Newport, Sydney.

More info: hollandamerica.com.

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P&O CRUISES

Pacific Jewel, 3 star, maximum 1950 passengers.

Pacific Dawn, 3 star, maximum 2020 passengers.

Pacific Pearl, 3 star, maximum 1800 passengers.

Best for: Families, multi-generational groups, couples, groups of friends - anyone looking for a fun, affordable cruise.

Past passenger: "I celebrated my 50-something birthday over several days on Pacific Jewel, on a Pacific island cruise, and had a ball. I tried everything from bingo to line dancing ... The crew were terrific and I'd definitely recommend having dinner at Salt Grill (we went twice) and La Luna." Mary Brigden, Newport, Sydney.

More info: pocruises.com.

PRINCESS CRUISES

Sun Princess, 4 star, maximum 1990 passengers.

Dawn Princess, 4 star, maximum 1990 passengers.

Sea Princess, 4 star, maximum 1990 passengers.

Best for: Couples aged 50-plus. Princess Cruises' traditional style of cruising has legions of fans around the world.

Past passenger: "It was absolutely brilliant. My daughter Denise and I had wonderful fun, from the time we walked up the gangway on to Dawn Princess until we got off in Brisbane. We couldn't get over the service and there was so much to do! We saw all the shows, and I'll never forget sailing through Sydney Heads, with the Harbour Bridge and Opera House behind us." Glad Engall, Sydney.

More info: princess.com.

ROYAL CARIBBEAN INTERNATIONAL

Rhapsody of the Seas, 4 star, maximum 1998 passengers.

Radiance of the Seas, 4 star, maximum 2112 passengers.

Voyager of the Seas, 4 star, maximum 3114 passengers.

Best for: Young families, singles. Royal Caribbean's ships offer resort-style facilities - think ice rinks, rock-climbing and lots of entertainment.

Past passenger: "My favourite ship is Radiance of the Seas simply because it has everything you need while you are on board. The ship's spaciousness and having lots of windows around allows you to experience the real feeling of being at sea. The service stands for the company's name because you are treated like royalty in every respect. The food is just divine in the main dining room and the buffet but you also have a great variety of specialty restaurants. Clubs and pubs are for all age groups with great activities and fantastic atmosphere!"  Magdolna Ori, Sydney.

More info: royalcaribbean.com.

SUMMER VISITORS

CELEBRITY CRUISES

Celebrity Millennium, 4 star-plus, maximum 1950 passengers.

Best for: Sophisticated families and singles. Millennium has been "Solsticised" and has many facilities similar to those on Celebrity's bigger ships.

More info: celebritycruises.com.

COSTA CRUISES

Costa neoRomantica, 3 star, maximum 1578 passengers.

Costa Deliziosa, 4 star, maximum 2260 passengers.

Best for: Families, groups of friends, singles. Italian-style

Costa Deliziosa is one of the line's newest ships; neoRomantica one of the oldest.

More info: costacruise.com.

CRYSTAL CRUISES

Crystal Symphony, 5 star, maximum 922 passengers.

Best for: Mature couples and singles. Discerning travellers love Crystal Cruises' two expensively refurbished, spacious, ships.

Past passenger: "Crystal Symphony is the best ship I've cruised on so far. I loved the sense of space on board, the contemporary decor, and the restaurants are outstanding. We had dinner at Silk Road and the Sushi Bar, the Italian place (Prego) as well as in the main dining room. The dishes were all well presented and very high quality. Big plus: our butler looked after us beautifully!" Gillian Davidson, Surry Hills, Sydney.

More info: crystalcruises.com.

CUNARD

Queen Mary 2, 5 star, maximum 2620 passengers.

Queen Victoria, 4 star-plus, maximum 2014 passengers.

Queen Elizabeth, 4 star-plus, maximum 2092 passengers.

Best for: Mature travellers, families, singles. Cunard's traditional British style of cruising combines elegant formality with contemporary facilities.

Past passenger: "We were so fortunate that our first taste of cruising was on QM2 with three other couples. It was the most luxurious, relaxing and above all fun experience for all of us. There were so many pleasant distractions that there was never a dull moment. Movies and lectures, trivia, walks or jogging around the deck. Fun days in the casino and the best food afloat." Judy and Michael O'Brien, Sorrento, WA.

More info: cunardline.com.

FRED OLSEN CRUISE LINES

Balmoral, 4 star, maximum 1300 passengers.

Black Watch, 3 star-plus, maximum 804 passengers.

Best for: Mature couples and singles. These value-for-money British ships largely attract British passengers and have a traditional but not stuffy ambience.

More info: fredolsencruises.com.

HAPAG-LLOYD CRUISES

Europa, 5 star-plus, maximum 408 passengers.

Best for: Well-heeled couples and singles. The German-operated ship consistently scores highest in the luxury sector. Very formal, despite the nude sunbathing deck.

Past passenger: "The ship was beautiful - and so was the captain, according to my wife. You can't compete with a man in uniform! The food was outstanding - not sure how it could be bettered. Dinner in the Dieter Muller was some of the best food I have ever had anywhere in the world. It's easy to see why Europa has so many repeat customers ..." Graham W, Victoria.

More info: hl-cruises.com; landmarktravel.com.

HOLLAND AMERICA LINE

Amsterdam, 4 star, maximum 1380 passengers.

Best for: Family groups, mature singles. Amsterdam is a mid-size ship and its friendly Indonesian and Filipino crew is one of its major strengths.

More info: hollandamerica.com.

OCEANIA CRUISES

Marina, 5 star, maximum 1258 passengers.

Best for: Couples and singles. Oceania Cruises specialises in fine wining and dining and Marina, launched in 2011, has a sophisticated ambience.

More info: oceaniacruises.com.

P&O CRUISES WORLD CRUISING

Aurora, 4 star, maximum passengers 1874.

Best for: Couples 50-plus, multi-generational families. Aurora has facilities to suit all age groups, a wide range of cabin types and good pools and bars.

Past passenger: "Planning my 50th birthday cruise was a real challenge. I knew I wanted to do a cruise with cities that had history, and exotic places I never thought I would see. So my dear friend and I decided to do a half-world voyage from Southampton to Sydney, 61 days. It was the best 50th birthday present and so convenient that P&O offered Australians short cruise segments on their World Voyage itineraries. This allowed us to choose the ship that we were going to spend two months away on." Bernie Hay, Sydney.

More info: www.pocruises.com.

PRINCESS CRUISES

Diamond Princess, 4 star, maximum passengers 2670.

Ocean Princess, 4 star, maximum passengers 672.

Best for: Couples aged 50-plus. Diamond Princess is a large resort ship while Ocean Princess is one of the popular fleet's babies and has an intimate atmosphere.

More info: princess.com.

REGENT SEVEN SEAS CRUISES

Seven Seas Voyager, 4 star-plus, maximum passengers 700.

Best for: Sophisticated couples and singles. Truly all-inclusive, seven Seas Voyager offers a full luxury experience, all-balcony suites, and fabulous food and service.

More info: rssc.com.

SEABOURN

Seabourn Odyssey, 5 star, maximum passengers 450.

Seabourn Sojourn, 5 star, maximum passengers 450.

Best for: Experienced cruising couples and singles. These sleek, nearly identical luxury ships boast the most contemporary decor at sea and lots of space.

Past passenger: "My voyage with Seabourn will stay with me for a very long time. To be sailing in the Mediterranean with three girlfriends was a dream come true. This was not just a tick in the 'been there, done that' box, as I have every intention of repeating it. If I could bottle this entire cruise experience I would call it 'goodness in a glass'." Karen Phillips, Canberra, ACT.

More info: seabourn.com.

SILVERSEA

Silver Shadow, 5 star, maximum passengers 388.

Silver Whisper, 5 star, maximum passengers 388.

Best for: Experienced cruising couples and singles. These Italian ships are elegant, all cabins are suites and the cuisine is a big highlight. Fares are all-inclusive.

Past passenger: "Stepping on to Silver Shadow was like entering another world. The warmth we received from the staff on boarding, the instant impression of luxurious surroundings, immense space and gleaming interiors was a terrific start to the cruise. It didn't stop there - the food was delicious, and the barbecue on deck was an exploration in world cuisine without having to travel to eat it. I know why so many people book their holidays with Silversea year after year ..." Melanie A Lindsay Brown, London.

More info: silversea.com.

20 TOP TIPS FOR STRESS-FREE CRUISING

1. PRE-EMBARKATION PAPERWORK Complete the online check-in process on your cruise line's website and make sure you do it before the cut-off date. If you don't have a computer, ask your travel agent.

2. LUGGAGE TAGS Print your boarding pass and luggage tags and don't forget to take them.

3. ORDER OF EMBARKATION Find out if there's a process of embarking by deck number and if there's priority for suite guests or frequent cruisers. However, be prepared to queue.

4. INSURANCE Ensure your insurance covers cancellation and is appropriate for a cruise, particularly for adventurous shore tours.

5. RESERVE IN ADVANCE Check out what specialty restaurants, spa treatments and shore excursions you can book online before you go.

6. SHORE EXCURSIONS Ships' tours can be pricey; one website that specialises in booking independent tours that work with cruise line schedules is shoreexcursions.Viator.Com.

7. WILL I NEED TO TIP CREW MEMBERS? Find out your ship's tipping policy so you can factor the cost into your budget and don't have any nasty surprises at the end of the cruise.

8. CREDIT CARD BACK-UP Make a note of the phone number you should call if your card is lost or stolen and notify your credit card company that you're travelling.

9. PACKING: WOMEN Pack one formal outfit you can dress up with accessories for a different look, so you can wear it two or three times. Never take anything that needs ironing.

10. PACKING: GUYS Check if there is a formal night on your cruise and what the dress code is. Many ships hire dinner suits you can pre-book.

11. POWER Pack a multi-socket powerboard if you have a lot of devices that will need recharging.

12. HAND LUGGAGE Pack things you might need while you wait for your cabin to be ready, especially if you're travelling with children: swimsuits, medication and important documents.

13. STAY COOL Take a refillable bottle to save buying water on board and on shore tours - ship water is super-pure.

14. ONBOARD BUSINESS As soon as you board, book restaurant reservations, spa appointments and shore excursions that you could not organise online ... and then relax for the rest of the cruise.

15. SPA If you book a treatment and don't want to buy the products, advise the therapist before the treatment begins.

16. WI-FI  Internet access is expensive. Investigate the packages available and remember you can find free hot spots in ports. Try the free Wi-Fi Finder app.

17. DRINKS PACKAGES Look at the bar prices for soft and alcoholic drinks and work out if you'd be better off buying a pre-paid drinks package.

18. READ THE DAILY NEWSLETTER ... DAILY Newsletters give meal and show times, the evening dress code, port information, happy hour deals, disembarkation information and much more.

19. DISEMBARKATION Bags are taken the night before you leave the ship, so remember to leave out clothes to wear when you disembark.

20. FAREWELL BREAKFAST Beat the buffet queues on the last morning and enjoy breakfast with waiter service in the main dining room.

Cruise Director and keen sailor Sally Macmillan took her first ocean cruise six years ago and is now officially an addict.

- FFX Aus

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