Joel Katz is the managing director of Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) Australasia. He has cruised to destinations around the world and experienced ships across the full spectrum of the cruise industry. See cruising.org.au
Don't worry about the ship yet – there will be one out there with your name on it. Ask yourself: what experience are you looking for, and why are you getting away? Is it a celebration, relaxation, discovery, pampering, or just plain flop-and-drop? Ocean cruise ships usually offer many more on-board experiences than river cruises, which tend to focus more on shore time.
With more than 3000 ports and about 500 ocean or river vessels, choosing a cruise can be daunting. First, source a credible cruise specialist travel agent. CLIA's website lists accredited travel agents who have completed additional cruise training and understand the latest developments and offerings. Most importantly, they're good at suggesting the right style of cruise line to suit your tastes – different cruise lines have different personalities aimed at different travellers, and some cater to special interests such as food and wine, culture or family fun. Most cruises operate with English-speaking staff, many are also multi-lingual and some cater to particular nationalities.
Do not be afraid to disclose your budget. Ships come in all price ranges, and further categories of pricing depend on the location and type of accommodation. Work out what you normally spend on items such as drinks or tours and your specialist can work towards your needs. Is the bed you sleep in more important that the tours on offer? Do you want a drinks package or bundled shore excursions?
Book it! Cruise lines release itineraries up to two years ahead, often with early booking incentives. The more specialised the cruise, the more likely it is to have limited availability – small-ship options and expedition cruises to destinations such as Antarctica are more likely to sell out quickly.
Now the fun begins. All the major cruise lines have online portals for booked guests and you can use them to plan and personalise your trip, from specialty restaurant bookings to spa appointments or tours. Pre-booking shore tours means you won't miss out: small group tours or those with limited capacity helicopters and four-wheel-drives can book out in advance. And check the cruise companies' loyalty programs and benefits, usually available to guests on a second or subsequent cruise.