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I tried my first Australia cruise: here are 7 things that surprised me

26 Dec 2023
Jenna DeLaurentis

Last month I flew across the world to take a cruise from Australia for the first time. My 10-night cruise embarked in Sydney and called upon five ports in the South Pacific. During my time onboard, there were a few aspects of the Australian cruise experience that surprised me.

Jenna took her first cruise to Australia

Each cruise market is unique. Whether you’re planning a cruise from Shanghai or Miami, you can expect subtle differences in menus, restaurant choices, entertainment, and the onboard culture.

After taking my first cruise from the United Kingdom last year, I noticed several differences between cruising from the United States versus England, such as menu differences in the dining room to the passenger demographic.

Related: I tried my first cruise from the UK: here’s what you should know

For that reason, when I booked my first cruise from Australia—a country I had never visited before—I knew I might encounter differences in the Royal Caribbean experience compared to cruises in the North American market.

As I embarked my cruise on Brilliance of the Seas, though, I did not encounter as many differences as I predicted. For the most part, my experience onboard felt identical to cruising from the United States (albeit with a few more Australian accents).

However, there were a few surprises I encountered on my first cruise from Australia. From the exchange rate to the quiet ports, here are 7 things that surprised me during my time down under.

Flying to Australia was not as hard as I thought it would be

It’s no secret that Australia is isolated from much of the world. Therefore, when I was planning a cruise from Australia, the flight was the aspect of the vacation I was looking forward to the least.

Although you can fly from the eastern United States to some European cruise ports, such as Rome and Barcelona, within seven or eight hours, the same cannot be said about Australia. The shortest direct flight to Sydney from the continental United States is from Los Angeles, and even then it takes fifteen hours!

Fortunately I am based on the west coast, so I was able to book this “short” flight to Australia. Surprisingly, while spending fifteen hours in an airplane is not necessarily enjoyable, it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be.

Considering it usually takes eleven or twelve hours to fly directly from California to Europe, the extra few hours were not a big deal. And even though I connected in Los Angeles from a smaller airport, my overall travel day was not as miserable as I initially predicted.

For those American cruisers based on the west coast, getting to Australia is not much more difficult than traveling to Europe.

Doing back-to-back cruises is worth it when traveling all the way to Australia

If you’re traveling all the way to Australia for a cruise, why not book two cruises? One thing that surprised me when planning a cruise from Australia was the variety of itinerary options.

Whereas a ship could visit the fjords of New Zealand one week, it might sail to picture-perfect Pacific islands the next. If you plan your travels correctly, you can book back-to-back cruises visiting vastly different landscapes and cultures.

Flights to Australia aren’t cheap, and booking back-to-back cruises helps spread out the cost of your flight over a longer period of time. If you have the vacation time, it’s worth booking two itineraries instead of one.

Related: Back-to-back cruises tips and advice

If you opt not to do a back-to-back cruise, be sure to include at least a few days before or after the cruise to sightsee within Australia. Although I did not book back-to-back cruises for my trip, I arrived in the country over a week before my cruise was set to begin.

This gave me time to explore some of the country’s highlights, such as the Great Barrier Reef and Uluṟu-Kata Tjuṯa National Park, before returning to Sydney to board my cruise.

Domestic itineraries are offered in Australia, which isn’t allowed in the United States

One major difference between cruises departing from Australia versus the United States is that Australia offers domestic itineraries.

Due to the Passenger Vessel Services Act in the United States, all foreign-flagged cruise ships departing from an American port are required to stop in at least one foreign port prior to returning to the United States.

This is why you will never see cruise itineraries visiting only ports in the United States. While a cruise from New York, as an example, may include port stops in Florida, they will always visit a foreign port, too, whether in The Bahamas or elsewhere in the Caribbean.

In Australia, though, this type of law does not apply. You can cruise from Sydney to ports along the coast of Queensland without the requirement to stop in another country.

You can visit the wineries of South Australia, marvel at panoramic views of Tasmania from Mount Wellington, scuba dive on the Great Barrier Reef, and sail along the Whitsundays in Airlie Beach all without leaving Australia.

Plus, because most Australian cities are directly on the coast, cruising is a convenient way to experience these destinations.

Embarkation in Sydney is extremely convenient

Sydney’s cruise port is in Sydney Harbour, and it is perhaps the most conveniently located cruise port in the world. The port, otherwise known as the Overseas Passenger Terminal, is located in Circular Quay, which is directly in the city center.

Reaching the port on embarkation day is easy and stress-free. Passengers traveling from the airport can hop on a 20-minute train traveling from the airport to Sydney Harbour. Those staying in downtown hotels can walk to the port within a few minutes.

Related: 15 Royal Caribbean boarding process tips for a fast embarkation

Even if you’re not staying near Circular Quay, a short Uber ride can bring you to the port quickly.

Once at the terminal, I found the embarkation process to be straightforward. I was onboard Brilliance of the Seas within fifteen minutes of my arrival at the port.

As another plus, as your ship leaves Circular Quay, you will sail past famous landmarks such as the Sydney Opera House and Sydney Harbour Bridge, leading to absolutely spectacular views during sailaway.

The current exchange rate makes visiting Australia beneficial for American tourists

If you’re an American planning a cruise from Australia, you’ll find the current exchange rate between the US dollar and Australian dollar to work in your favor. Currently, $1 AUD is equal to $0.67 USD.

Although Australia can be an expensive country to visit, the exchange rate means Americans' dollars will go further in the country. That $100 AUD shore excursion is more like $70 USD, and a $20 AUD meal will only set you back around $14.

I found it easier to stick to my vacation budget with the exchange rate working in my favor, and it allowed me to “splurge” more on add-ons like shore excursions, drinks, and souvenirs.

Those visiting from the United Kingdom or elsewhere in Europe will also find the exchange rate beneficial. $1 AUD is equal to only $0.53 GBP and $0.61 Euro.

The South Pacific islands are not as commercialized as those in the Caribbean

Another aspect of cruising from Australia that surprised me was the lack of commercialization at island ports.

I love visiting the Caribbean, but I often find the commercialization of cruise ports to be overwhelming. It’s hard to escape the massive amounts of crowds and find authentic experiences in the busiest cruise ports.

Related: 10 Royal Caribbean cruise destinations not to be missed

During my South Pacific cruise itinerary, I visited five islands in the French territory of New Caledonia and the Pacific nation of Vanuatu. Although these islands do receive tourists, I found them to have a more tranquil vibe compared to busy ports like Nassau and Cozumel.

Beaches were less crowded and fewer restaurants, bars, and souvenir shops were available—there was a noticeable lack of Señor Frogs and jewelry stores. I preferred the calmer atmosphere of these beautiful destinations, and I never felt taken advantage of as a cruise tourist when visiting islands in the South Pacific.

The last thing that surprised me about cruising from Australia is how eager I would be to go back

When I first planned my cruise from Australia, I assumed it would be a “one and done” place for me. I tried to fit as much as I could into my three-week trip, both in Australia and around the South Pacific islands, just in case I never made it back to the region.

I knew I would enjoy visiting Australia and the South Pacific, but I didn’t expect to love the country so much. Whether exploring Sydney’s buzzing streets, walking the esplanade in Cairns, or lounging on the beach in Mystery Island, every aspect of my trip exceeded my expectations.

Leaving Australia, I already couldn’t wait to plan a trip back. Whether that means booking a domestic cruise to South Australia or a 12-night sailing to New Zealand, I am already hoping to return to Australia soon.

Jenna DeLaurentis enjoys exploring new ports of call around the world on a cruise ship, learning about new cultures, discovering beautiful landscapes, and trying diverse cuisine. She loves to get active while at port, whether cycling through mountains in the Caribbean or scuba diving under the sea.

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