Cruise ships docked in Cozumel

Planning your first cruise can feel overwhelming. There are so many choices, from "party boats" on a "cruise to nowhere" and luxury yachts in the Mediterranean to river cruises in Asia and expedition ships in Antarctica. You need to put some careful thought into just what kind of traveller you are and which type of cruise you really want, while also factoring in budget, departure port and length of the trip.

So how do you figure out if a cruise line's personality is compatible with your needs? You could ask a travel agent -- or simply read through our handy shortlist of the very best cruise lines for first-timers. 

12 Best Cruises for First Timers


The P&O Cruises Australia Fleet

1. P&O Cruises

Best for: Value

Why: P&O does charge extra for some things, such as poolside icecream and burgers, but in other ways it has vastly improved in recent years thanks to smart refurbishments, new menus, celebrity chef restaurants and an ever-expanding array of itineraries. The five-ship fleet has departures from Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Cairns, Fremantle and Adelaide so most Australians don't need to pay for flights to board a cruise. The need to constantly fill so many cabins means there are often very good deals, particularly in the off-season (from May to September). Special offers for low season cruises can see prices fall to as little as $100 a day twin share.

None of the ships in the fleet are new; even the latest vessel, Pacific Explorer, was previously with Princess Cruises. Nonetheless, extensive refurbishments have created some lovely spaces on Explorer, Aria, Eden and Dawn, including new Asian and Italian restaurants where dining is all part of the cruise fare. The Pantry food hall concept has replaced the age-old buffet, while Luke Mangan's Salt Grill is a popular place to dine (at an affordable $59 for a three-course banquet) for a special occasion. A Taste of Salt on Pacific Explorer costs $99, which is the cheapest seven-course degustation at sea. The $20 high tea is also fabulous value. Expect a 3.5-star experience, not a 5-star experience, and you won't be disappointed.


Runner-up: Carnival also has some great fares, especially in the shoulder seasons from September to November and around March and April, with the exception of Easter and school holidays. Prices can get as low as $90 to $125 a day with certain deals. On the Sydney-based Carnival Spirit and Carnival Legend, the food and service are exceptional. Most restaurants are complimentary, including pool deck venues offering Mexican, burgers and self-serve icecream. The hair-raising waterslides are another big hit. All entertainment is free.

Both ships are around 15 years old and have over-the-top decor that takes a bit of getting used to -- think Las Vegas meets the ancient world where Grecian urns, Egyptian mummies and ceilings painted with nymphs and gods are the theme. You won't find much elegance on Spirit or Legend but you will find lots of family-friendly fun.


FlowRider surf simulator

2. Royal Caribbean International

Best for: Families with Tweens and Teens

Why: This is the wow-factor cruise line with more innovative, high-tech features than any other company at sea, so it naturally suits thrill-seekers and teens. Royal Caribbean introduced the world to rock-climbing walls several years ago and followed up with ice-skating rinks, surf simulator machines, slides that send their riders down 10-deck drops, bumper cars, sky-diving tunnels and glass domes that transport passengers via a crane-like arm high above the waves. Tweens can also be able to take these thrill rides if they meet height requirements. Australia-based Ovation of the Seas comes with bumper cars, sky-diving and the North Star observation capsule, while Voyager of the Seas and Explorer of the Seas have ice rinks and surfing machines. There are diner-style burger joints and special teen hangouts, too.


Runner-up: Carnival Cruise Line's Spirit and Legend are home to the popular Green Thunder slide, billed as the fastest and steepest ride at sea when launched in 2012. It's still a thrill and teens love it. Tweens have the yellow Twister waterslide to call their own, plus there are burgers, tacos and BBQ snacks to feast on and a big screen showing movies by the pool. 


Aft view of Carnival WaterWorks water slides on Carnival Cruise Line

3. Carnival Cruise Line

Best for: Families with Small Children

Why: Mini waterslides, character breakfasts, fun food and activities galore in the kids' clubs -- Carnival certainly looks after the little ones. While younger children can't ride Green Thunder or even the sedate yellow Twister, they can race each other down the tiny twin purple waterslides and squeal with delight under the big dunking bucket in the SplashZone. Through its Seuss at Sea partnership, Carnival offers youngsters the chance to meet Dr Seuss characters (Cat in the Hat and assorted strange friends) at parades, a special Green Eggs and Ham breakfast and at live shows. The fun continues with towel-animal making classes and the cute Towel Animal Theatre where the fluffy creatures come to life. Kids and parents can also share the fun of Hasbro, The Game Show, where board games are played out on the theatre stage. Carnival also has five age-specific kids' clubs for children from three to 15. Late night baby-sitting is available for children aged three to 11 (from 11pm to 1am, for a fee), while toddlers and babies under three can play in the kids' club while supervised by their parents.


Runner-up: Royal Caribbean's Voyager of the Seas has DreamWorks film characters such as Shrek and Princess Fiona wandering around onboard for photo ops and breakfast with the little ones. Babies from six to 36 months are looked after in the nursery by child-care professionals (at an hourly rate), while free playgroup sessions (with parents) are also available for this age group. Kids' clubs cater for youngsters aged 3 to 5, 6 to 8, 9 and 11 and teens. Baby foods and nappies can be pre-ordered by parents before boarding. 


The Sanctuary on Regal Princess

4. Princess Cruises

Best for: Relaxation

Why: This big ship cruise line, with almost 20 vessels in the fleet, has a huge following. Established in the mid-1960s, it's the original Love Boat line (the ship featured in the TV show was called Pacific Princess). Five Princess ships are based in Australia, offering plenty of itinerary choices. It is known as the leader in New Zealand cruising and recently expanded its range of shore excursions. An annual world cruise departing from Sydney and Auckland is also operated by Princess, providing great convenience for locals. The bigger ships in the fleet have great facilities including multiple pools, several main dining rooms, exceptional specialty restaurants, outdoor movie screens and good entertainment. Hot deals and bonuses such as upgrades to balcony cabins are regularly offered. You can enjoy long, decadent dinners at the excellent Crown Grill steakhouse or Curtis Stone's Share, sit back and enjoy the open-air cinema with popcorn and blankets, take advantage of the happy hour at the Wheelhouse Bar, find a quiet spot in The Sanctuary or the adults-only pool nearby, or relax in your cabin with free room service (which you don't get on other Australian ships).


Runner-up: Celebrity Cruises is known as a premium cruise line, a cut above other ships that carry 2500-plus passengers. It was an instant hit with Australians when the 2008-built Solstice was deployed in 2012 to Sydney to operate summer cruises. Interiors and furnishings are elegant and passengers tend to match the sophisticated surroundings.

Celebrity is ideal for all age groups, mainly because the vibe is upbeat without the atmosphere of a holiday camp at sea. It also stands out for its varied dining choices (French, Italian, Asian and more) in beautifully decorated restaurants. For those who don't want to spend the extra money, the complimentary buffet and the main dining rooms are lovely too. The ultimate place to relax is on the grass at the top deck Lawn Club, perhaps with a picnic. Outdoor pools and the covered solarium pool are also inviting. Things liven up at night, especially during shows in the theatre and at the Martini Bar where waiters perform mixology feats to the thrall of the crowd, but there are no crazy waterslides or other noisy features.


Persian Garden on Celebrity Eclipse

5. Celebrity Cruises

Best for: Indulgence and Luxury Seekers

Why: Celebrity Cruises is known as a premium cruise line, a cut above other ships. It was an instant hit with Australians when the 2008-built Solstice was deployed in 2012 to Sydney to operate summer cruises. Interiors and furnishings are elegant and the ambience is sophisticated, not like a holiday camp at sea. Celebrity also stands out for its varied dining choices (French, Italian, Asian and more) in beautifully decorated restaurants with great service. Things liven up at night, especially during shows in the theatre, deck parties and at the Martini Bar where waiters perform mixology feats to the thrall of the crowd. Celebrity likes to bring the entertainment to the people so they'll bring the singers to the busiest bars without you having to seek it out.


Runner-up: Paul Gauguin Cruises calls the beautiful islands of French Polynesia home, operating year-round seven-night cruises to the Society Islands, interspersed with occasional forays to the exotic Marquesas Islands, Fiji and the Cook Islands. The all-white 332-passenger ship is a great way to see these expensive isles in the lap of luxury without breaking the bank. Fine dining in three restaurants and all beverages, including alcohol and speciality coffees, are included in the fare along with access to private islands and beaches in Taha'a and Bora Bora.


6. Holland America Line

Best for: Mature Travellers

Why: There's a lot to like about veteran cruise line Holland America (it's been around since 1873) from the teak wrap-around promenade decks, the dedicated cinemas, stylish afternoon teas and cooking classes held in the Culinary Arts School.  The 15-strong fleet used to be known as mid-size (carrying under 2000 people) but the latest ship, Koningsdam, takes 2,560 passengers. Decor is subdued and stylish: the Explorations Cafe is one of the nicest public spaces on any ship with good coffee and a library. Passengers tend to be older on the line's longer itineraries (which include annual visits to Australia for the summer season) and on cruises in the off-season. Expect, however, to find families on Alaskan and Caribbean cruises in the school holidays.

Holland America has a loyal following, and while appealing to an older crowd in general, it's far from stodgy. There are lively nights in the piano bar, excellent live music and B.B. King's Blues Club on five of the ships. The fun is always ramped up when Aussies get on board.


Runner up: Princess Cruises offers a variety of longer itineraries including world cruises, Australian circumnavigations and exotic journeys to destinations such as South America, the passenger profile tends to be older. The ships have a wealth of lovely features, including promenade decks, dedicated cinemas and excellent daily afternoon tea service. The private adult relaxation area, known as the Sanctuary, is ideal place to escape from the youngsters during cruises in the school holiday season.


Azamara Quest exterior

7. Azamara Club Cruises

Best for: Singles and Solo Travellers

Why: Not all solo travellers are single; many leave their landlubber partners at home and hit the high seas on their own. Azamara's friendly staff make sure they are taken care of, especially at meal times.  The two identical Azamara vessels, Quest and Journey, are small ships by today's standards, carrying just 700 passengers each, which makes mingling easier. Single fares are 125 percent of the double-cabin fare (meaning one passenger only pays one quarter of the second person's fare when occupying a double or twin cabin), and sometimes the line has "no single supplement" promotions on selected itineraries. Azamara includes a wealth of extras such as bottled water, soft drinks, speciality coffees and teas, wines with lunch and dinner, all-day cocktails and pre-paid gratuities. There is also free transportation from ports to city centres. One of the big drawcards is Azamara's focus on the destination itself; the ships stay overnight in many ports, while each itinerary has one free "AzAmazing" excursion, which can be special cultural performances such as a night at the ballet in St Petersburg, Russia. All these extras provide plenty of conversation starters for singles -- and take the sting out of the usually high single fares on other vessels.   


Runner up: Norwegian Cruise Line's newer ships have studio cabins designed for one person as well as communal living rooms to meet likeminded travellers. The older ships, such as Norwegian Jewel, which will be based in Australia this summer, are not as solo-friendly. The main issue is the Freestyle Cruising concept, where people can dine at any time, which makes is harder to organise tables that a single passenger can join. At 6pm each evening, however, the Sailing Solo Social (18+) is held at Malting's Bar, which is a good way to find new friends or fellow diners. The American style of sitting at the bar is also a less obvious way to eat alone as you can chat to the bartender or the person at the next bar stool. O'Sheehan's and the Sushi Bar are the best casual venues on Norwegian Jewel for singles, or you can join the noisy fun at shared tables in Teppanyaki.


8. Norwegian Cruise Line

Best for: Entertainment Enthusiasts

Why: Norwegian ships offer musical revues, comedy and improv shows, live music and guest performers, but the line really shines with its newest ships: Norwegian Escape, Norwegian Epic, Norwegian Breakaway and Norwegian Getaway. The line takes its inspiration from land-based hits, and cruisers can experience Broadway musicals like "Rock of Ages," "After Midnight" or "Million Dollar Quartet"; and music by duelling pianists and blues bands. The line even turns meals into theatre with dinner show Cirque Dreams. Throw in plenty of bars, discos, bowling and Wii, and you will never be bored onboard. Australians will enjoy Norwegian Jewel based in Sydney from November 2017, complete with sizzling dance shows like "Burn the Floor".


Runner-up: Royal Caribbean's Ovation of the Seas was a close second for its next-level shows in the spectacular, double-deck Two70 venue. Look forward to robotics, acrobatics, 3D movies, slick choreography, comedians, an amazing sound system and fantastic special effects. Live music and dancing can be found in several bars, not to mention the robot bartenders. Kids entertainment is also top-notch. In other regions, Royal Caribbean's Oasis Class ships have edge-of-your-seat high-diving shows in the Aquatheatre pool and Broadway-style theatre productions such as Grease. On Voyager and Explorer of the Seas expect to be wowed by ice-skating shows, musicals, aerial high-jinx in the atrium and dance bands galore.


9. Oceania Cruises

Best for: Foodies

Why: Oceania Cruises takes the cake for having one of the largest collections of speciality restaurants -- on its newer ships Marina, Riviera and Sirena, all of which are included in the cruise fare. They include Toscana serving Italian cuisine, the Polo Grill steakhouse, Red Ginger serving Thai, Vietnamese and Japanese's fare and the signature French restaurant 'Jacques', whose menus have been designed by internationally renowned French chef and TV personality, Jacques Pepin.


Runner up: Crystal Cruises' all-inclusive ships, Symphony and Serenity, are hard to beat. Both five-star rated vessels have had extensive refurbishments in recent years and are among the most elegant afloat with sleek lines, wide teak decks and modern interiors. All meals, drinks and gratuities are included and dining is superb in all restaurants from the signature eateries to the casual Trident Grill. Crystal was one of the first lines to introduce the concept of alternative or speciality restaurants when it launched in the early 1990s. While its fine-dining chef partnerships have changed over the years, the line has had a long association with Japanese celebrity chef Nobu Matsuhisa and US Italian restaurant owner Piero Selvaggio.  Nobu (who has restaurants in Melbourne and Perth) creates dishes for the ships' Silk Road and Sushi Bar, including his signature Black Cod with Miso. Prego, the fine Italian restaurant, is run on the same lines as Selvaggio's acclaimed Valentino restaurants, in Los Angeles and Las Vegas; his signature dish is mushroom soup served in an edible bread bowl. The newest celebrity chef offering is Tastes, an outdoor restaurant on Serenity. Here the cruise line has teamed with Iranian-born chef Azmin Ghanreman, of the Sapphire Restaurant in Laguna Beach California, to produce a range of casual dishes that are a modern take on old favourites. Expect a deconstructed Caesar salad, no less, and a dish called tacoshima -- a cross between tacos and sushi. Crystal's two ocean ships travel the world, with regular visits to Australia, while a new fleet of river cruises has been launched in Europe.


Windstar Cruises couple dining

10. Windstar Cruises

Best for: Romantics

Why: Sleek white yachts with billowing sails, sluicing through calm blue seas -- that's what cruising is all about on Windstar Cruises' three original yachts. Whether it's the four-masted twins Windstar and Wind Spirit (each carrying just 148 passengers), or the five-masted 302-passenger Wind Surf, a voyage around the Caribbean, the Amalfi Coast and the Tahiti islands ticks all the boxes for romantics. The motorised yachts, which can slip into quiet bays and coves, away from the bustling ports and big ships, have none of the bells and whistles of big ships and all the features of classy yachts: teak decks, cabins with portholes (no balconies) and plenty of space to relax in a deck chair. Two restaurants serving excellent food and attentive service, see passengers return again and again to this polished cruise line. While the yachts are not new, being launched in the 1980s, recent renovation programs have restored their gleam. The line also has three 212-passenger ships, much like large private launches -- Star Pride, Star Breeze and Star Legend -- which were acquired from Seabourn and suit those who love spacious cabins and private balconies. Each Windstar itinerary includes a complimentary special event, such as exclusive entry to a famous museum or attraction.  


Runner-up: Paul Gauguin Cruises calls the beautiful islands of French Polynesia home, operating year-round seven-night cruises to the Society Islands, interspersed with occasional forays to the exotic Marquesas Islands, Fiji and the Cook Islands. The all-white 332-passenger ship is a great way to see these expensive isles in the lap of luxury without breaking the bank. Fine dining in three restaurants and all beverages, including alcohol and speciality coffees, are included in the fare along with access to private islands and beaches in Taha'a and Bora Bora.


Arctic excursion

11. Lindblad Expeditions

Best for: Adventurers

Why: Most Aussies will know Lindblad as the company that purchased popular small expedition ship Orion and rechristened it National Geographic Orion. A well-established expedition line, founded 50 years ago by Eric-Lars Lindblad, the company works in partnership with National Geographic. Its ships (and chartered vessels) explore the world from the Arctic to the Antarctic and everywhere in-between including Europe, Asia, Alaska, Galapagos, South America and Cuba. The company operates Zodiacs for shore landings and carries a highly experienced expedition team of scientists and historians.

Runner-up: Silversea's three expedition vessels operate at the luxury end of the market offering gourmet meals, all drinks and gratuities. Lecturers are excellent and the atmosphere, despite the rather high price tag, is relaxed and casual. Silver Discoverer operates around 10 cruises each year in the Kimberley (from Darwin to Broome and reverse) from April each year.


Ballroom dancing

12. Cunard Line

Best for: Enrichment seekers

Why: Cunard and its trio of Queens ooze culture. The cruise line's enrichment program invites onboard such luminaries as NASA astronauts, polar explorers and experts on journalism, climate change, politics and national security. Passengers can also indulge in cultural pursuits with book clubs, ballroom dancing, West End-style theatre (in a box seat, no less), a planetarium (on Queen Mary 2 only) and learning the art of acting with Royal Academy of Dramatic Art members. Starting in 2018, passengers will have the opportunity to trace their family tree, too, under the tutelage of experts from Ancestry.com.


Runner-up: European river cruises are worth considering, and not just because you won't get seasick. Complimentary shore excursions focus on the history, religion, art and architecture of ports visited in medieval towns, bustling cities and villages riddled with castles and vineyards. In Asia, learning about the culture and lifestyles of people in Myanmar, India, China, Cambodia and Vietnam is fascinating. Vessels rarely hold more than 200 passengers, giving guests a chance to easily mix and mingle. River cruises also offer all-inclusive fares that feature wines with dinner, complimentary Wi-Fi and excursions in each port, which make single budgets go further. Many river cruise lines waive the single supplement, which attracts a lot of solo travellers.