As part of our ongoing ‘Everything you need to know about cruising’ series, here is your guide to the different cruise line companies.
The Australian appetite for cruising is insatiable. The market has reportedly grown by 15–20 per cent every year for the last six years and then a slimmer five per cent last year.
Australian Traveller has the beginner’s guide to cruise ship companies.
Each one is different and appeals to a different holiday need – hence we are fond of telling anyone who will listen that there is a cruise for everyone.
We have used a hotel star-like rating system for convenience; there are no official ratings, so these are our ratings only.
Further, each ship has several cabin classes which explains the range in star ratings.
We have ordered the cruise lines from least stars to most.
More from our ‘Everything you need to know about cruising’:
P&O – 2.5 to 3.5 stars
The entry-level cruise ship liner has had its ups and down in the Australian market.
It is an incredibly cheap holiday and suitable for families.
It has five liners in the Australian market full-time, with a range of entertainment on board including a flying fox, rock climbing wall and a walk the plank experience.
The included food is not going to win any gourmet awards however celeb chef Luke Mangan has teamed up with P&O to create the specialty restaurant (so an extra fee to eat there) Salt Grill on board, as well as a five-course ‘Taste of Salt’ degustation meal paired with matching Australian wines at the Chef’s Table on Pacific Explorer.
Do not confuse P&O Australia with its sister company P&O Cruises UK whose ships are Oriana and Arcadia; the UK operation is more upmarket.
P&O Cruises ships you might see in Australia:
Pacific Dawn, Pacific Aria, Pacific Explorer
Carnival Cruise Line Australia – 3 to 4 stars
Carnival Cruise Line is the largest cruise line in the world, with over five million guests travelling every year and 26 ships operating worldwide.
Carnival has two ships deployed in Australia: Carnival Spirit is currently home ported year-round in Sydney, but will move to Brisbane, from October 2020; Carnival Splendor will take Spirit‘s place in Sydney from December 2019.
Carnival is firmly geared towards the family market, with kid-friendly additions like water slides and Seuss at Sea – which involves character parades and breakfasts, story time, arts and crafts and more themed around the whimsical world of Dr. Seuss. However Carnival doesn’t offer the same extent of family activities as its competitors like Royal Caribbean do.
Carnival Cruise ships you might see in Australia:
Carnival Legend, Carnival Spirit and Carnival Splendor (from December 2019)
Princess Cruises – 3.5 to 4 stars
Princess is a firm favourite with the couples’ market and has made a name for itself in the traditional cruise market.
There are theatre shows, crooners, music and dancing; no wonder the The Love Boat was filmed on a Princess Cruise.
And of course dining. Princess has also jumped on the celeb chef bandwagon with Curtis Stone’s SHARE on board.
Princess Cruise ships you might see in Australia:
Majestic Princess, Ruby Princess, Sun Princess, Sea Princess, Golden Princess and Diamond Princess
Royal Caribbean International – 3 to 4.5 stars
This is the cruise line that brought you rock climbing walls, wave pools, ice skating rinks, dodgem cars, a circus school, roller skating rink and cocktails served by robots.
Royal Caribbean has the widest appeal in the market as there really is something for people of all ages on the menu aboard these mega-ships.
The great all-rounder, Royal Caribbean is a firm favourite for families and couples. Known for its high-energy holidays and activities, first-time cruisers are often surprised at how easy it is to also find some peace and quiet in lounges scattered across the ship.
Royal Caribbean is the largest cruise brand in Australia, with four ships including the biggest ship to sail in Australian waters – Ovation of the Seas.
Explorer of the Seas, Voyager of the Seas and Radiance of the Seas all home port in Sydney and offer an astounding array of activities that you don’t normally associate with cruising.
And then there are the dining options: 18 restaurants, including Jamie Oliver’s Jamie’s Italian are on board one of Australian Traveller‘s favourite ships, Ovation of the Seas.
Royal Caribbean ships you might see in Australia:
Ovation of the Seas, Radiance of the Seas, Voyager of the Seas, Explorer of the Seas
Norwegian Cruise Line – 3.5-4.5 stars
Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL) made a splash in 2018 when the refurbished Norwegian Jewel marked the return of NCL to Australian waters.
NCL positions itself as a more upmarket family experience with products like the Haven – a resort-style sanctuary at the top of the ship whose suites and villas give guests exclusive spa access, a 24-hour butler service, private dining, private pools and relaxation areas.
But to keep the kids entertained the options are limited compared to the likes of Royal Caribbean and Carnival (until it brings one of its ships equipped with go-kart tracks into Australian waters, perhaps).
NCL can be a great option for both multi-generational groups (stay in the three-bedroom Garden Villa that sleeps eight) and singles (with its tough-to-book-because-they-are-in-high-demand studio staterooms for one).
As you would expect, food and drink is in abundance with 16 dining options, 15 bars and nightclubs.
Where NCL traditionally excels, the entertainment does mean that it can be a firm couples’ favourite.
Norwegian Cruise Line ships you might see in Australia:
Coral Expeditions – 4 to 5 stars
For something a little different, Coral Expeditions is an expert in small-ship cruising in Australia.
The Coral Adventurer will be added to its fleet in April 2019 and will expand the line’s itineraries into the South Pacific, Indonesia and Asia, with a circumnavigation of Australia planned for 2020.
The new ship carries 120 passengers and has been specially designed for extended expedition cruising, with Xplorer expedition tenders ensuring ease of access for shore excursions.
Coral Expeditions has built its reputation with expedition cruising to the Great Barrier Reef, the Kimberley, Tasmania, Cape York and Arnhem Land, Papua New Guinea, Spice Islands, Raja Ampat and the South Pacific.
Coral Expedition ships you might see in Australia
Coral Expeditions 1, Coral Expeditions 2, Coral Discoverer and Coral Adventurer
Holland America – 4 to 5 stars
Holland America Line is the traditionalist’s favourite cruise line. Think chesterfields, promenades, chamber music and Broadway musicals with a plethora of restaurants.
Holland America has two very different styles of ships in our waters, each offering a wealth of interesting shore excursions and on-board activities.
Noordam features wonderful art and cooking classes while Maasdam offers EXC In-Depth Voyages including Zodiac tours to stunning and intriguing destinations. So it’s a choice between the traditional and the more adventurous.
Oh and if you’re wondering about the name, Holland America Line dates back to 1873 when the Rotterdam sailed from Holland to New York (then known as New Amsterdam). The cruise line is now based in the US but retains its Dutch connections through its ship names.
Holland America ships you might see in Australia:
Azamara Club Cruises – 4.5 to 5 stars
Azamara Club Cruises is an up-market boutique cruise line operating two 690 guest ships. Perhaps the most affordable of the five-star class of ships, Azamara is luxury without ostentation.
The mid-size ships feel like boutique hotels, with a friendly, relaxed service that makes guests feel at home.
This is pitched firmly at couples, who want to take things slow and relaxed with a high level of service and refinement. The on-board entertainment is cabaret with a little bit of Broadway and opera thrown in.
But the real focus for Azamara Club Cruises is destination immersion as opposed to fly-by, 10-hours-only-in-port visits. The ships will usually stay longer in destinations, so guests can go out late or even stay overnight in port.
In early 2020, Azamara Journey will return Down Under for the season, making her way from Tahiti, around New Zealand and then on to Australia.
Azamara ships you might see in Australia
Oceania Cruises – 4.5 to 5 stars
Another offering in the luxury small-scale ships stakes, Oceania Cruises sails Regatta between Sydney and Auckland and you can grab a great value re-positioning cruise to Tahiti.
Regatta is being overhauled and will be back in operation in time for the next Australian cruise season. The new look will be sharp and classic elegance, with soft colours and splashes of bling.
The entertainment is a mix of Rat Pack and 1920s exuberance with spa services from Canyon Ranch. There are no additional dining charges as all specialty restaurants are included, but alcoholic beverages are not.
Oceania ships you might see in Australia
Regent Seven Seas Cruises – 4.5 to 5+ stars
Regent Seven Seas is another step up in the luxury stakes.
At this level cruising becomes ‘all inclusive’; think open bars, free wines and premium spirits, free mini bars, no charges for specialty dining, free shore excursions and, surprising for a cruise ship, free wi-fi.
The itineraries include a circumnavigation of Australia and a slightly more niche-interest Winelands Down Under tour of Australia and New Zealand early in 2020.
Regent Seven Seas ships you might see in Australia
Seven Seas Mariner, Seven Seas Voyager, Seven Seas Navigator
Cunard – 4.5 to 5+ stars
Whilst the Queens have captured the imagination of Australians for what feels like centuries, the Cunard experience is not necessarily as ‘port out, starboard home’ (legend has it this is the origin of the word posh – on transatlantic sailings you wanted to be on the side least affected by Arctic breezes) as one would expect.
This is not a bad thing – it’s just sometimes surprising for the uninitiated. Certainly in the Grill Class cabins one is treated to the quintessentially British aristocratic service one would expect in the rarefied air of the upper decks.
However once we descend the decks we find a pleasant and approachable cruise experience.
Yes this is traditional cruising, think Titanic sans iceberg, with ballroom dancing and gentleman hosts to accompany any poor dame who happens to have a husband with a bad hip and dicky knee.
The scale affords Cunard the luxury of being able to provide a multitude of activities, from inspiring guest speakers, library and card room activities and film screenings to – for the more energetic who still have all their own joints – fencing, dance classes and Queen Elizabeth‘s Games Deck for some jolly good fun outdoors like lawn bowls or croquet.
There are also the ubiquitous theatrical productions and pub entertainment.
Cunard ships you might see in Australia:
Queen Mary 2, Queen Elizabeth and Queen Victoria
Celebrity Cruises – 5 stars
Celebrity Solstice has had seven seasons in the Aussie sun and is a favourite with many cruisers for its upmarket elegance yet laid-back vibes. Many first-time cruisers fall in love with cruising when they sail with Celebrity.
It’s a slick island resort with an engine.
Celebrity Solstice has plenty of special surprises on board, including the Canyon Ranch SpaClub – one of the biggest spas afloat, and the Lawn Club, which boasts real grass with new luxury alcoves. It’s just perfect to sit on while watching the world slide by or indulging in a sunset drink and game of bocce. Nothing beats slipping the shoes off and feeling soft luscious turf under your toes.
The Lawn also now has an outdoor screen for open-air movies under the stars and perhaps one of the quirkiest attractions at sea – the Corning Museum of Glass conducts strangely mesmerising glass-blowing demonstrations and classes at sea.
Oenophiles (if you don’t understand that, don’t worry you aren’t one) will love the wine-blending masterclass on board with Blendtique and a super-indulgent-wine-snob extravaganza of Riedel crystal glass comparison experience. But if gin or whiskey or even a Bundy is more your thing, a mixology class may be for you. Booze is well and truly an experience on Celebrity.
While this all sounds very adult and Celebrity is a favourite for couples, there is a significant amount of energy put into family activities too. Camp at Sea, as Celebrity calls its youth program, is divided into four categories: Art, Recreation, Culinary and S.T.E.M (Science Technology Engineering and Math). Celebrity is the only cruise line we have heard of where a number of shore excursions are specifically designed for families.
Celebrity Cruises ships you might see in Australia
PONANT – 5+ stars
This French company has been kicking goals by going against the trend of building bigger ships and focusing instead on small-ship expeditions in the luxury sphere. It is a sensory overload of French hospitality and refinement with a sense of expedition adventure as you hop in and out of Zodiacs and retire to luxury in the evening.
The brand new Le Lapérouse swanned into Sydney Harbour in all her glory in February 2019. This ship is the second of what will be six Explorer Class vessels, carrying a maximum of 184 passengers in 92 pretty swanky staterooms and suites. The Owner’s Cabin even has its own Jacuzzi.
With such small numbers, the focus is on doing less, brilliantly – hence there being only two restaurants and three bars. Not a problem when there is a lot of adventure to be had off the ship on Zodiacs.
One of the highlights of the ship is the Blue Eye lounge, located under the waves with an eye-shaped window that allows guests to see the marine life passing by – a huge plus when on Kimberley cruises.
The lounge also has a hydrophone (a water-based microphone) so you can hear the goings-on of the whales, dolphins and other marine animals (they could pipe it into the spa for relaxation). It is so high tech that you can hear whales from five kilometres away. Other beautiful spaces are the spa and the sauna, along with the Panorama Lounge.
Le Lapérouse will be cruising in our region for two years, including Kimberley, New Zealand, the Pacific and Antarctica.
Ponant ships you might see in Australia
Silversea – 5+ stars
Silversea has long been at the forefront of ultra-luxury cruising. Silversea hangs its shingle on a butler for each suite and, as if on an Oprah show, everyone gets a suite.
The new addition to the fleet, Silver Muse, which was launched in November 2018 and sailed into Australia for the first time in December, carries 596 passengers in luxury.
There are eight specialty restaurants on board, some of which have a surcharge, including the only Relais and Chateaux-branded restaurants at sea, the French-inspired La Dame, traditional Italian restaurant La Terrazza, Asian fusion Indochine, Japanese restaurant Kabuki, and Hot Rocks, where guests can cook their own selection of meat, fish and vegetables at their table, on top of 400-°C lava stone.
The Zagara Spa offers exquisite pampering at sea, and the all-inclusive cruise options ensure the final bill won’t give you a heart attack.
And we haven’t forgotten the expedition offerings of Silver Discoverer, which has proven to be a favourite with her adventures between Darwin and Broome – especially in the Kimberley.
Silversea ships you might see in Australia
Silver Muse, Silver Discoverer
Seabourn – 5+ stars
Another member of the endless Carnival family, this is the super ultra-luxury premium brand similar to the Silversea experience.
Both will have the highest level of passenger-to-staff ratios, include wine with dinner and maybe even lunch and be the equivalent of a luxury lodge on the sea – small passenger numbers, intimate, private and exclusive.
Seabourn ships are spacious and pretty spiffily designed; they are probably the closest to the private club feel that most 4.5 star and above small ships are going for. To be fair they are all pretty darned good creating a feeling of intimacy and exclusivity. If Seabourn is operating at 99 per cent, the others range from 90–98 per cent.
Seabourn throws in the whole kitchen sink with complimentary (or inclusive) spirits, wine, beer and welcome Champagne. Its celeb chef of choice is probably the most globally celebrated chef sticking his name to a diner at sea: Thomas Keller of Per Se, Bouchon and French Laundry fame. You are encouraged to make a reservation before sailing to ‘avoid disappointment’ and even more intriguingly, only one reservation per stateroom per sailing is permitted.
Seabourn itineraries are typically marquee cities in Europe and more than 170 UNESCO World Heritage sites worldwide, combined with lesser-known ports and hideaways.
Seabourn ships you might see in Australia