The Line in a Nutshell
With a fleet of mostly large and extralarge megaships, L.A.-based Princess offers a quality mainstream cruise experience with a nice balance of tradition and innovation, relaxation and excitement, casualness and glamour. Sails to: Caribbean, Alaska, Mexican Riviera, Hawaii, Canada/New England, Panama Canal (plus Europe, Asia, Australia/New Zealand, South America, South Pacific, transatlantic).
If you were to put Celebrity, Holland America, and Royal Caribbean in a blender and mix them together, then add a pinch of both British maritime tradition and California style, you'd come up with Princess. Dining, entertainment, and activities are geared to a wide cross section of cruisers. The more traditional minded can spend some time in the library, join a bridge tournament, enjoy a formal dinner in a grand dining room, and then take in a show. Those seeking something different can paint their own pottery, dine in an intimate Italian or steakhouse restaurant, then take in a set of small-group jazz or an outdoor big-screen movie afterward. The majority of the line's largest vessels are very large, yet still manage to have intimate spaces for quiet times. And they're good lookin', too.
Still the Love Boat
Ever the romantic, Princess has things covered from proposal through "I do." On most Princess ships, prospective fiancés can propose to their future mates via video on the ship's giant movie screens. Called Engagement Under the Stars, the $695 package includes the creation of a personalized proposal video with the ship's videographer as well as champagne and chocolates, an engagement portrait session, candid photos of the proposal, an in-cabin breakfast, dinner for two at one of the ship's specialty restaurants, a couple's massage in the Lotus Spa, and other extras. Meanwhile, the Grand-, Diamond-, and Coral-class ships are all outfitted with wedding chapels. Grand Princess was the first cruise ship to have one, and now a string of other ships have followed suit. Princess was also the first modern line to offer weddings at sea performed by the captain, though now Celebrity and Azamara provide that option as well.
Romantics sailing aboard any Princess ship can have a four-course champagne balcony breakfast for two ($32) or dinner served by a dedicated waiter on their private balcony, at a table set with a tablecloth, hurricane candle lamp, and champagne. While the waiter is setting everything up, you and your significant other can have a complimentary cocktail in one of the ship's bars. The dinner costs $50 per person.
The majority of Princess's guests are in their 40s, 50s, 60s, and older, though more and more 30-somethings (and their families) are sailing these days, particularly during summer school holidays. Overall, Princess passengers are less boisterous than those aboard Carnival and not quite as staid as those aboard Holland America. Its ships all have extensive kids' facilities and activities, making them suitable for families, while their balance of formal and informal makes them a good bet for a romantic vacation, too, with opportunities for doing your own thing mixed in among more traditional cruise experiences.
The Princess story goes back to 1962, when company founder Stanley McDonald chartered a vessel called the Yarmouth to use as a floating hotel at the Seattle World's Fair. In 1965, he officially started Princess Cruises, naming the company after another chartered vessel, the Princess Patricia, which took cruises between Los Angeles, Alaska, and Mexico's Pacific coast. In 1974, Princess was snapped up by British shipping giant P&O, and later that decade got a big boost by having its ships featured on the TV series The Love Boat. To this day, Gavin "Captain Stubing" MacLeod acts as occasional pitchman for the line. (Pacific Princess and Island Princess, the twin 640-passenger vessels used in the series, left the fleet a decade ago, but their names have since been recycled on new vessels.) In 2003, P&O Princess was purchased by Carnival Corporation, the 500-pound gorilla of the cruise world.
Although its ships sail to nearly every destination covered in this book, Princess is particularly strong in Alaska, where it offers more than 20 different cruisetour itineraries in conjunction with its Gulf of Alaska and Inside Passage voyages, visiting Denali National Park, Fairbanks, the Kenai Peninsula, Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, Canada's Yukon Territory, and distant Prudhoe Bay on Alaska's north coast. Guests on these land tours stay in five Princess-owned wilderness lodges and travel via motorcoach and the line's domed train cars. A new a la carte cruisetour option introduced in 2010 bundles transportation and accommodations into relatively low-priced packages, then leaves you free to explore the destinations on your own rather than taking part in the line's organized tours.
Princess has done a superb job in upgrading the quality of all its dining options in recent years, whether it be the main restaurants, the alternative restaurants, or the buffets. Only the pizza hasn't been upgraded, but that's because it's always been terrific.
Traditional -- Princess's Personal Choice Dining program allows guests two options: dining at a set time with set dining companions in one of the ship's two or three main restaurants -- that is, "traditional" cruise dining -- or just showing up anytime during a 4 1/2-hour window and being seated by the maitre d'. If you're not sure which option you'll prefer once you're on board, sign up for traditional since it's easier to switch to anytime dining than it is to go the other way 'round. Passengers choosing the flexible option, but wishing to be served by the same waiter nightly, can usually be seated in his or her section if they make a special request.
Whether you choose traditional or flexible dining, your menu in the main dining room will be the same, offering several appetizers, soup and salad, freshly made pastas, and a choice of five to eight dinner entrees that may include slow-roasted prime rib, surf and turf, rack of lamb with Dijon sauce, port wine-glazed pork, halibut in creamy dill sauce, filet mignon with Madeira-truffle demi-glace, and duck a l'orange. There are always healthy choices and vegetarian options, too, plus staples such as broiled Atlantic salmon, grilled chicken, and grilled New York sirloin steak.
Unlike the "no dress code" that's part of NCL's Freestyle dining plan, Princess maintains the tradition of holding 2 formal nights per week, with the other nights designated smart casual (defined as "an open-neck shirt and slacks for gentlemen and a dress, skirt and blouse, or trouser suit outfit for ladies"). Men, however, should take our advice and pack at least a jacket. Otherwise, you may find yourself down in the gift shop buying one after you realize everyone on the ship except you decided to dress for dinner. We speak from experience on this one.
All of the restaurants have a kids' menu, which includes goodies such as burgers, hot dogs, fish sticks, chicken fingers, and, of course, PB&J sandwiches; this menu is also offered in the Horizon Court during its sit-down bistro hours from 11pm to 4am nightly.
For foodies, the line offers a Chef's Table experience that starts with cocktails and hors d'oeuvres in the ship's galley, where the executive chef previews the menu he has created for that evening. From there, participants move to a dedicated table in the dining room for a special multicourse tasting dinner with wine pairings. During dessert, the chef rejoins the group for a discussion of the evening's meal. The experience costs $75 per person and is available on all the line's megaships.
Specialty -- All Princess ships that sail from the U.S. feature alternative restaurants: an Italian trattoria and steakhouse on the Grand- and Diamond-class ships, trattoria and New Orleans-style restaurants on Coral and Island Princess, and a steakhouse and free sit-down pizzeria on the Sun-class ships.
Sabatini's Trattoria ($20 per person) is a traditional Italian restaurant with an airy decor, an open kitchen, balloon-back chairs, and Italian scenes in faux tile work. Dinners here are eight-course extravaganzas emphasizing seafood, with most dishes brought automatically -- you just select your main course.
The Sterling Steakhouse ($15 per person) has a dark and woodsy ambience. Guests can choose their favorite cut of beef -- rib-eye, New York strip, porterhouse, and filet mignon -- and have it cooked to order, with starters such as chili, blooming onion, jalapeño poppers, and fresh Caesar salad, plus the usual sides of baked potato or fries, sautéed mushrooms, creamed spinach, and corn on the cob.
Crown, Caribbean, Golden, Emerald, and Ruby Princess also have the Crown Grill steak and seafood restaurant ($25 per person).
Reservations are recommended for all alternative restaurants as seating is limited.
Casual -- Fleetwide, passengers can choose casual dining at breakfast, lunch, and dinner in the 24-hour, buffet-style Horizon Court restaurant. At breakfast, you'll find the usual: fresh fruit, cold cuts, cereal, steam-table scrambled eggs, cooked-to-order fried eggs, a waffle station, meats, and fish. At lunch, you'll find several salads, fruits, hot and cold dishes, roasts, vegetarian choices, and sometimes sushi. Evenings (until 10pm), the space serves a casual buffet dinner that usually has many of the same dishes as in the main dining room. From 11pm to 4am every night, it serves a late-night menu of pastas, seafood, poultry, and red meats, along with a chef's special of the day. The atmosphere is strictly casual. Crown, Emerald, Caribbean, Star, Golden, and Ruby Princess have two casual dining venues in the piazza-style atrium: an International Café serving a rotating menu throughout the day, and a wine, cheese, and seafood bar (a la carte pricing at both).
Snacks & Extras -- Poolside grills serve burgers, hot dogs, and pizza; a patisserie has coffee and pastries; and an ice-cream bar dispenses free soft-serve. There's 24-hour room service available in the staterooms. Guests will also find crewmembers passing out fresh-baked cookies and milk in the afternoons on deck and in the atrium.
Overall, service is efficient and passengers rarely have to wait in lines, even in the busy Horizon Court buffet restaurants. As is true generally of staff aboard all the mainstream lines, you can expect them to be friendly, efficient, and happy to help. Cabin steward service is the most consistent, with dining service only slightly behind. Suite guests get extra service goodies, including complimentary Internet access, dry cleaning, laundry, and shoe polishing; a complimentary corsage and boutonniere on formal nights; en suite afternoon tea; expedited embarkation and debarkation; and other perks.
Through the line's Captain's Circle loyalty program, cruisers who have sailed with Princess before are issued specially colored onboard keycards and door nameplates (gold after taking one to five cruises, platinum after five cruises or 50 cruise days, and elite after 15 cruises or 150 cruise days) so that staffers will know to be extra helpful. Platinum Captain's Circle members also get expedited embarkation and credit toward free Internet access, while Elite members receive free laundry and dry-cleaning services, a complimentary wine-tasting class, 10% off in the onboard gift shops, and more.
Gratuities for all service personnel are automatically added to all guest shipboard accounts at the rate of $10.50 per day, or $11 per person per day for guests occupying suites and minisuites. You can make adjustments (up or down) by visiting or calling the purser's desk at any time. Passengers who wish to tip more traditionally -- dispensing cash in person -- can also make arrangements for this through the desk.
All of the Princess vessels provide laundry services, and also have self-service laundromats.
Getting Off on Princess -- Fleetwide, Princess now offers a program it calls Silent Disembarkation. Rather than wait around for their color-code to be called, as on most other lines, Princess guests now receive a note the night before telling them the exact time they'll be debarking, and in which public room they should wait. When the time comes, a member of the ship's staff escorts them to the gangway. Simple, efficient, and guess what? It works. Princess gets major kudos for finding a way around one of cruise travel's more annoying processes.
Like the other big mainstream lines, Princess has onboard activities designed to appeal to a wide range of ages and tastes. For active types, all the ships have traditional shipboard sports such as Ping-Pong and shuffleboard; more athletic activities such as aerobics classes and water volleyball; and virtual-reality golf simulators. The Grand-, Coral-, and Diamond-class ships all have basketball/volleyball courts and 9-hole miniature-golf courses, and the latter are also available on the Sun-class ships.
For something more cerebral, the line's ScholarShip@Sea enrichment program (one of the very best activity programs at sea) offers classes in cooking, computer skills (such as basic Web design, Photoshop, and Excel), finance, photography, scrapbooking, and even ceramics. Large-group seminars are free, while small-group and individual classes carry a charge of around $20 to $25 per person. Charges for paint-your-own ceramics are calculated based on the piece you create.
Sit-down activities include bingo, cards, trivia games, dance lessons, and recent-release big-screen movies on the ships' giant outdoor Movies Under the Stars movie screens, available on all of the line's megaships. A related program, the Leonard Maltin Movie Club, presents films specially chosen by (and with a special video introduction by) the noted film critic and historian. Showings take place at the Movies Under the Stars venue or in the theater, and are followed by an hour-long group discussion hosted by the cruise staff. The "Leonard Maltin Movie Channel" is another option, showing specially chosen films on your stateroom TV.
Activities designed to part you from your cash include art auctions and beauty and spa demonstrations. Others designed to part you from your dignity include belly-flop contests, the perennial Newlywed/Not-So-Newlywed game, an American Idol-style Princess Pop Star competition, and a reality-TV style makeover show called If They Could Sea Me Now. In Alaska, rangers, naturalists, and guest lecturers present talks and slide shows on such topics as the Iditarod sled-dog race, the wildlife and ecology of Glacier Bay and the Tongass National Forest, oceanography and marine life, glaciers, Native Alaskan cultures, and Alaskan history. For folks interested in how ships work, the Ultimate Ship Tour takes a small group of guests behind the scenes, taking in the engine control room, the laundry room, the galley, the bridge, and more. Along the way, they get to meet various crewmembers and get a series of small gifts. The price is $150 per person, and the tour is available on all ships except Sea Princess and Tahitian Princess.
All Princess ships have well-stocked libraries, 24-hour Internet centers (moderate prices, slow service), in-stateroom Wi-Fi and cellphone service, and Wi-Fi hot spots in various parts of the ship.
Princess has some of the better entertainment at sea, with variety acts on the ships' main stages ranging from Vegas-style song-and-dance revues and cabaret singers to ventriloquists, acrobats, aerialists, stand-up comics, and musical soloists. The Sun-class ships have entertainment in two showrooms, while the Grand-, Diamond-, and Coral-class vessels offer three shows nightly in their main theater and two smaller venues, plus quieter music in a few lounges, including the popular piano bars. At several other venues, including the Wheelhouse Bar and the atrium, you'll find pianists, guitarists, or string quartets providing live background music, and out by the pool, a deck band plays at various times during the day. For those who would rather participate, there are regular karaoke nights and a passenger talent show. The ships' casinos are among the most comfortable at sea, very large and well laid out.
Princess has great facilities and amenities for kids and their parents, but it's not a line that's completely gung-ho about only catering to families -- and therein lies a big advantage: Princess ships aren't overrun with children, typically carrying 20% to 50% fewer than you'll often see on the biggest Carnival, NCL, and Royal Caribbean ships, and way less than Disney.
Princess's Princess Kids program has activities year-round for three age groups: Princess Pelicans (ages 3-7), Shockwaves (8-12), and Remix (13-17), supervised by a counseling staff whose size varies depending upon the number of children aboard. Each ship has a spacious indoor/outdoor children's playroom with a splash pool, an arts-and-crafts corner, game tables, and computers or game consoles, plus a teen center with computers, video games, a dance floor, and a music system. The two-story playrooms on Golden and Grand have a large, fenced-in outside deck dedicated to kids only and featuring a teen section with a hot tub and private sunbathing area. The rest of the Grand-class ships have a great fenced-in outdoor play space for toddlers, and the Coral, Island, Diamond, and Sapphire Princess have a small swimming pool for adults adjacent to the outdoor Kids' Deck, allowing parents to relax while their kids play.
Traditional kids' activities include arts and crafts, scavenger hunts, game tournaments, spelling bees, movies and videos, coloring contests, pizza and ice-cream parties, karaoke, dancing, tours of the galley or behind the scenes at the theater, hula parties (complete with grass skirts!), and teen versions of The Dating Game.
Learning activities may include environmental education programs developed by the California Science Center, which teach about oceans and marine life through printed materials and specially created films. The kids' equivalent of an onboard guest lecturer program is also offered occasionally, allowing children to go stargazing with an astronomer, learn drawing skills from an animator, and so on.
Children must be at least 6 months of age to sail. Kids must be at least age 3 to register for the youth programs, but kids under 3 can still use the youth centers if accompanied and supervised by a parent.
When kids are registered in the youth program, their parents are given pagers so that they can be contacted if their children need them. Parents may also rent walkie-talkies through the purser's desk if they want two-way communication with their kids. Two parent "date nights" let adults have a calm evening while kids dine with counselors in a separate restaurant. Teens have their own group night in one of the main dining rooms, complete with photographs and an after-dinner show. Younger kids can then be taken straight to group babysitting in the children's center (available nightly 10pm-1am for kids ages 3-12; $5 per hour, per child). Princess does not provide private in-cabin babysitting.
On days in port, Princess offers children's center activities straight through from 8am to 5pm (on sea days, the center closes for lunch), allowing parents to explore the port while their kids do their own thing. On Princess's private Bahamas beach, Princess Cays, kids can be checked in at a play area supervised by the shipboard youth staff. In Alaska, kids ages 6 to 12 and teens ages 13 to 17 can participate in the Junior Ranger and Teen Explorer program, a joint effort between Princess and the National Parks Service that uses interactive projects to teach kids about Glacier Bay's natural and cultural history.