We sailed March 14th embarking in Singapore and disembarking in Beijing. I included our experience and some hopefully helpful suggestions/tips.
FYI----- BRING toilet paper with you! Everywhere! Ladies, be prepared to use 'squat' toilets! Some bathrooms might have a regular stool, but many do not. BRING hand sanitizer! Everywhere! Most toilet facilities only have running water without soap! Also, ask for a 'toilet' and not a 'bathroom'; in Asia it's referred to as a toilet.
FYI --- currency exchange on ship is a joke. Each port has a currency exchange near the dock. Small group tours have enough time that your guide can make a stop at an exchange/atm for you :)
Check the cruise rates daily for price reduction... don't trust a travel agent (Princess or private) to keep you apprised of lower fares. When you see a lower fare, contact Princess or TA to adjust your fare :)
-Sterling Steakhouse. Awesome -- we ate there two nights. We ate early and wanted to catch the occasional 7pm 'early' show after dinner. They gave me a 'take away' bag for the steak I couldn't eat (to put in my refrigerator) and suggested we come back after the show for dessert! (That night they weren't busy though).
-Dinner in each of the anytime restaurants served us hot and fresh meals.
-Breakfast in the International Dining room serves HOT and FRESHLY cooked food that is served quickly. (Probably the best kept secret). We found that we never had to wait to be seated and that by the time we waited in line for breakfast buffet, served ourselves and had to wait for the cook to prepare some fresh toast/eggs/pancakes etc then seat ourselves and eat, that the time spent was comparable to eating in the dining room *see below*.
Cons: (and yes, we added this to the 'end of cruise' evaluation we dropped off at the Purser's Office)
-The ULTIMATE DECK PARTY planned for 9:30pm on the first night of two back-to-back port days (Vietnam ports)! Not good! Most of the ship passengers planned to be to bed early because they had to be awake and ready to take a tender to shore around 7:30 am! Why couldn't Diamond plan this opportunity for the night before a sea day when we could stay up late and sleep in the next day? (Comedian that night asked the audience who was going to attend party... no one clapped or hoo-haw'ed. When he asked who was going to be in bed, there was quite a bit of clapping).
-Two large floodlights that aim back toward the pool area (where the deck chairs are set up) on either side of the MUTS that are directed back towards the audience. The lights are bright and distractive.
-Buffet Meals... 'hot food' that sits long enough tastes cool and rubbery. Good thing ie: eggs/toast/pancakes will be made fresh for you if you are willing to wait.
-If you like using a 'mouse' while on your own personal laptop doing internet; for downloading your pictures; game playing; writing reviews like this.... other than using the desk in your cabin the only real place is up in the buffet (some ships we have been on have tables conducive to using a mouse in library or other public places).
Best Advice: If you're reading this, you've already figured out that private tours are half the cost of the Princess tours (which are typically a big bus of 40+ people)!
-Go for the smaller group 'private tour' of about 9-20 persons max (you can also join a 'large bus tour for half of what you pay Princess for same tour if you don't mind a large bus). The small groups are a couple of dollars more than those big busses, but your mini bus/van can drive you into areas where the 'private tour' 'big' bus groups can't. Also, you lose valuable minutes at each stop waiting for the additional passengers over 20 to board/un-board; having to walk where the bigger busses can't get to; and are less likely to spontaneously adjust your trip along the way.
-When reading your 'roll call' to find other members who have already booked a tour, spend a few minutes on your own checking reviews on that particular tour (Trip Advisor is a good option for private tour reviews as well as here on CC). If it is a 'small group' tour, you may want to contact the organizer and get a spot for yourself/group asap as that tour could fill up quickly. In that case, email the same company to start another small group for your roll-call.
(Suggestions if you decide to organize a tour for your 'Roll Call' can be found at the bottom of this review)
-In Singapore, you board at a container port so you do the initial check-in at a terminal about a 15-20 minute drive away (could be 30-40 minutes with traffic). Because of this, upon check-in you are given a "boarding card" (may be different colors; have a letter or a number; and indicates if you are to wait in the 'preferred lounge' or the general waiting area).
We are Platinum members (sailed more than five cruises or 50 days with Princess) with a 'preferred embarkation' status and although other roll call members indicated that there was a 'staggered' embarkation Princess told us we could still arrive anytime and still have the preferred boarding. Otherwise our cabin assignment would have meant that we were assigned a 3:00 embarkation, but we arrived at 11:45 am and were honored the Preferred status; we were the first bus shuttled to the ship. So to reiterate... if you are Platinum/Elite/Suite, you get to board when you arrive and get to ignore the 'staggered boarding' designation : )
--as we ate lunch on the lido deck, we saw up to 12 shuttle busses lined up at the cabana to unload passengers... one bus unloading at a time some of those last busses sat in line for well over 30-60 minutes (prepare to be patient and make sure you use the restroom before boarding the shuttle!).
SINGAPORE laws/rules.... Do not spit on the ground! Do not throw your gum on the ground! Do not throw your trash on the ground. All will result in a large 'fine'. Check with airline if flying in as they may not allow you to bring cigarette's or lighters even in checked baggage (actually in China at least, you can't 'carry on' lighters.
PORTS OF CALL (Laem Chabang, both ports in Vietnam, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Nagasaki, and Busan offered free shuttles "into town" for those not on an organized tour; check with the purser's office to learn more for your cruise).
THAILAND (Laem Chabang) These are options NOT including Bangkock which is a two hour drive one way from the port to Bangkok.
-free Princess shuttle to Pattaya for those not on an organized tour (about at 35-40 minute ride one way).
-for us..... private tour PATTAYA ELEPHANT VILLAGE (2000 Baht - $65) is a great alternative to the 4 hour round trip drive to Bangkok for a city/temple tour. The Elephant Village provided a 14 passenger van/driver with a/c to take us to the Village (We booked with "Usnee" and our driver was Lor). Let them know where else you want to go and make your own itinerary for the day-- here's what our roll call members did! (cost for driver/van for the day fluctuates depending on how many you can get to fill the van and current exchange rate -- we paid $15 per person for eight passengers; ... price would drop to about $7 if we filled the van with 14 people )
*Feed the momma and baby elephant -- VERY kewl!
*40 minute elephant ride through river and jungle (easy for anyone! Board from a ramp much like if you were boarding a tram so can accommodate those with less mobility).
*20 minute informative guide led jungle walk (stroll)
*20 minute ox cart ride (3-4 per cart)
*20 minute raft ride includes fish food to throw out to the fish (where the raft crosses the lake by the guy who pulls a rope)
*traditional Thai meal (you have to purchase your own drinks)
They were also able to accommodate us as well with time at:
** as previously arranged, our driver then took us to the FLOATING MARKET (200 Baht/$6 for the 15 min traditional boat ride) -you might want to allow one hour to take the traditional boat as well as walking through the floating market itself. Especially kewl is to see all the vendors along the market cooking and/or selling things from their little traditional boats along the wooden walkways over the water!
** the last stop was in the city of Pattaya.. the driver will let you know the options. Our group decided to do the 'souvenir' store (a pretty large building with all kinds of Thai merchandise at very reasonable prices).
FYI... Total price full day private person tour per person for our group of nine was about $85 for 8-9 passengers... if you can book 14 passenger, your price will drop to around $78).
----note (for comparison)... Princess offers a 3 hour tour to the Pattaya Elephant Village for $60 includes only a one hour elephant show that allows for a picture opportunity---- Private tour is the way to go!
VIETNAM Phu My (Saigon) Use US$
-Free Princess Shuttle into (town?) although I don't have info on it... sorry.
- for us...Private tour HIGHLIGHTS of SAIGON - We used Smile tours to visit Saigon (contact is Thi Hoang). We had two groups available; large bus of 40 persons for $55 or small group of about 18 for $65. Even the private large bus is a bargain at half of what Princess charges. If you want a quicker on/off the bus allowing for more time visiting the sites, the small bus/group is the way to go! No matter how you get to Saigon, plan on two hours' drive one way. Sit in the front of the van/bus for the best video op's while driver negotiates through the hordes of scooters/motorcyles LOL
*visit Jade Emperor Pagoda
*War Museum -- make sure your guide directs you to the 'prison' as well as the museum. We had no idea that the prison existed, spending all our time in the three story museum and only heard later on about the 'prison' later. That would have been the highlight of my tour and am not happy that I missed it. Make sure your guide points the 'prison' out to you!
* "Water Puppet Show" Simple animation of 'Asian' puppets in a water environment (performed in the local language -- much like an English speaker going to an Italian opera). We read mixed reviews on this with most saying it wasn't worth the time. Try "you tube" and see if you can find a video showing it. Maybe you might be interested or maybe not (Smile Tours will delete that from your tour if you let them know ahead of time).
Water Puppet Show COMPLAINT... both small groups arrived at the scheduled time, however, we were made to wait for the large group who showed up 15 minutes late (angered those who paid $10 extra to have a small group who could tour at a quicker pace). Make sure you express to tour company that you want your small bus independent of any other group!
*City Center and Rex Hotel drive-by and photo op
*lunch (you pay)
*Ben Thanh Market ...
-- be aware.... VERY aggressive vendors. Do haggle with prices, but know that once you ask a price, they will RELENTLESSLY pursue you after you decline... (one actually grabbed my arm and wouldn't let me go until I screamed for my husband LOL which worked! The guy let me go, but I had a very obvious scratch on my arm). Stay with a friend and don't walk the market by yourself!
--bathrooms/toilets at Ben Thanh Market...although you don't have to do currency exchange as US$ are widely accepted, be prepared to pay 2000 Dang to use the toilet (attendants didn't take $$US the day we were there)! And! Ladies be prepared to use a 'squat' toilet... Ladies, do not be shocked if a women is squatted by the public water trowel in the Market bathroom and scooping water from the spigot toward her exposed rear end cleaning it (clearly by the appearance of the tissue she just wiped with). Just walk by and try not to look. YouTube users... don't video tape this ;)
----if doing this tour as a "small group" under 20, make sure that you communicate to the tour company that your small group does not want to wait for the large group to catch up! Also, after you watch the 'water puppet show' on YouTube, if you decide that you would rather spend more time at other sites on the tour, then you can let the company know this ahead of time.
FYI ..legitimate guide will pay the fee to pick you up at the dock (due to Visa requirements, be prepared to provide your passport info when booking your tour which is safe with this company)
VIETNAM Nha Trang Tender Port (use US$). Pick up a tender ticket (for us Explorer Lounge). The process takes about an hour. If you want to meet your private tour on time, pick up your tender ticket more than an hour before.
-Princess Shuttle available into town (sorry, I don't have info on this).
-for us.... Private tour Smile Tours.. contact Dung. Once again there was a small group tour for $60 and large bus tour for $50. Our small bus was 13 people and the other 'small group' was 28 (my group, the first group indicated they wanted no bigger than 16 and were honored that for the same price). The large group was upwards of 40-ish (the large group arranged with Princess to board one of the first tenders due their size). Even though the small group caught a later tender, we were still within the scheduled time to start our tour. The sweet thing about the smallest group of 13-16 was that our little van/bus was able to get into all the villages and we didn't have to walk in the humid heat like the other two groups. Another benefit of the 13-16 person small group is that we could ask to spend longer or shorter amount of time at each stop. What we liked best is that our guide extended our tour from 3:00 to 3:45 arrival time back to the ship. I would recommend THUY for anyone interested in this tour! She knew where everyone was at any given time and kept us on the schedule we all agreed to that day AND adjusted our stops based on how many tour groups were already at the site. Consider negotiating smaller groups of under 16 and ask for THUY!
*embroidery factory (must do just to see this amazing work... you can do this stop in a shorter 15-20 minutes if you are a small group so let your guide know. Bring your video camera!) No pressure to buy although so unique you may want to :)
*Riverboat ride; have cameras ready
*mat weaving in a small village (you are invited to weave if you like -- I did). No pressure to buy.
*Rice making in a small village (you are invited to help shred the noodles -- I did). No pressure to buy.
*Conical hat making in small village (you are invited to sew the hat if you like -- I did). No pressure to buy.
*rice drying on the village streets (you are invited to help rake the drying rice -- LOL, I did this too!)
*Pagoda Orphanage - very friendly and loving children and staff. No pressure to donate anything, but will accept monetary or cold weather clothing items.
*traditional lunch at riverside restaurant (sit on riverfront as soon as you finish eating for a relaxing few moments)
*Dam Market (very easy going and no high pressure sales like at Ben Thanh Market in Phu My!)
FYI.. legitimate guide will pay the fee to pick you up at the dock (due to visa requirements, be prepared to provide your passport info which is safe with this company)
Free Shuttle to Kowloon (all passengers take unless on a Princess organized tour). Currency exchange in the Ferry building for better rate.
For us... Big Red Bus... 350 HKD (but can find one of the first street sellers who will sell to you for 300 HKD about $42 near the currency exchange by the ferry).
*Includes three different routes but this is what we did: Star Ferry round trip to Hong Kong Island; the round trip Victory Peak Tram; sampan boat ride; and Stanly Market. Know that with the Red Bus pass you don't have to stand in the ticket lines. Know that you should barter with the merchants at the market. Pay attention to the 'last bus' from the different destinations.
*Symphony of Lights -- viewing area near the big clock tower at the harbor. You can stand just about anywhere on the platform to hear the music and see the lights... chances are you will be standing with other Princess passengers who paid $70 for Princess to take them there ;)
FYI... as soon as you think the light show is over, head to the shuttle boarding area to beat the lines.
SHANGHAI -- now using the new cruise terminal! Private Guide can meet you at the terminal but you need to take the little 10 person electric shuttle or walk 8-10 minutes across the bridge to pick up your tours (unless you arrange with the guide ahead of time to get a pass so he can pick up at the ship). Our ship was late arriving and although delayed a half hour, the captain was able to squeeze out extra time in port for us so we departed later.
-Princess Shuttle available into town and pick up right outside the ship (sorry, I don't have info on this).
-For us... Private tour SAT China Tour (Minmin)
*Guide Charles found us a currency exchange that didn't charge fees and at the current exchange rate! If you are spending time in China after the tour, this is a good stop to get all the RMB's that you need if embarking in Beijing! (actually, I just learned that most Chinese Banks don't charge a fee, but Chinese airports do charge a fee)
*due to late arrival, we missed the 'locals' morning exercise villa in the old neighborhood
*Zhujiajiao Water Village (think Venice Italy)
*the Bund (short walk and photo op)
*Lunch in a 'locals' restaurant was changed due to the wait time (it was Sunday and many people were dining there) so we wound up at one of the tourist restaurants that had live entertainment.
*Marketplace -- expensive souvenirs and no haggling.
FYI... do not buy rice wine in Shanghai. It takes like Saki that is moldy.
NAGASAKI, JAPAN -- You receive a landing card the night before. Due to immigration procedures, passengers are let off on a color/number system. Suggestion would be to pick up a ticket for everyone in your group (only one person has to stand in line, but have the rest of your party close by in case they want to verify). For us, this process took place in the Explorer Lounge. Stand in line, get your ticket, and wait to be called! Also, it may be to your benefit to go get your tickets ahead of time, and then go get a quick breakfast. By the time you return, your color number might/will be called (once your ticket is called they will let you off no matter when you show up). You proceed off the ship and stand in a line much like a very busy theme park ride! Eventually you make it through to the officer who checks your landing card, does a finger print, and takes your picture. FYI, once you successfully pass this obligatory process, you can come and go as you please, just do not hand in your landing card when you get back to the ship if you choose to come and go from the ship! Free internet available in the terminal but go early or last hour before ship sails or else you won't get online!
-After leaving the ship, you get to see a dragon dance and listen to music. Pics with the dragon are encouraged; don't forget your video camera!
-For us....DIY We bought the one day pass for the tram. Currency exchange available right at terminal for no fee (never exchange currency on the ship as they gouge you big time!), After exchanging currency, walk a couple of steps to buy the pass... then a few more steps to get the info/maps needed for you day in Nagasaki... that easy!
*Site of the bomb, museum, and Peace Park - take the number 5 tram (ask the info/map people how to get there to the transfer stop. I think it was two stops. Transfer to the number 1 route. Check the map, but I think the stop was number 20. The cost to get into the museum was 200 yen (neither of us can remember but it wasn't much). Walk to Peace Park, then return to stop 20 or 19 to catch the number 1 back towards the ship. If you would like to see Spectacle Bridge, transfer back to line 5 and head the direction opposite the ship. Glover Gardens, cable car, and shopping area are all assessable by tram. Check your tram map for more info. If you try to do all, get the immigration ticket early so you have more time. If you do it all, you won't have time for the free internet.
*There is a quaint little side street with interesting souvenirs and goodies to taste that runs up hill on a narrow side road near the pier. It's kind of neat if you like to mix with the locals. The Wooden Catholic Church is located at the top of this road.
Current exchange rate that day was $1 + 81.30 Japanese Yen
Busan, South Korea 7am- 2pm (originally scheduled for 1pm) DIY port
-free Princess shuttle from the pier, with first stop at the tower on the hill (free internet available up there), then the second stop drops off at the shopping area, with the final stop back at the ship (shuttle runs continuously).
Beijing! Bummer. Time to disembark! ;)
Disembarkation.... VERY quick, and easy.
-luggage out night before (sea day) with color tag indicating your time of disembarkation based on Princess transport/tours/airport shuttle/private arrangements.
-all passengers were scheduled to be off by 9:30-ish in morning
-line started to get long with people having to go through a security check (scanned their carry-on luggage for radiation??) before picking up checked luggage, so they opened up a new line which we were in that didn't make us go through a scanner.
-luggage was easy to locate once off the ship
-no immigration/passport check... just walked off the ship (passports returned to you the night before)
Taxi at Tianjin port...
-as soon as you are out the door, the very aggressive drivers will pounce on you! They will ask ridiculous prices for a ride to Tanggu (should be about $25 -- 30 minute drive) or Tianjin (should be about $40 -- one hour drive).
-turn left out the door and walk toward other taxi's lined up down the street. They are part of the same group of taxi drivers but are less 'in your face'. We wound up paying $50 for the three of us to go to Tianjin train station (to catch the 'bullet train'! woo-hoo!). We videotaped the negotiation and agreed price as a 'back up' in case he asked for more when we got to the station. We didn't need it though. He asked for a tip. Only give one if you were pleased with his attitude etc. There is one man who will oversee everything, but you may not be aware of him as he hangs back.
-Port lecturer will tell you that there aren't many taxi's at the port. There were plenty. I would recommend that unless you are taking a 'bullet train' to go to Beijing, don't use a taxi to go to Beijing. Use a pre-arranged driver/guide to pick you up, or dig in your pockets for the Princess Shuttle into town. Also, it's less expensive to use a private driver than booking a transfer with Princess. Check around on CruiseCritic to learn more about private transfers to Beijing. You can also get a private driver who will arrange Great Wall etc etc tours for you.
Bullet train to Beijing -- Amazing experience. The train got up to 297 kph (183mph)!!!! It was VERY smooth and you really had no idea it was that fast unless you watched out the window while the train passed up the cars driving on the highway.
-take a taxi to "Tianjin station". There are trains running about every 15-20 minutes from there.
Don't use the closer "Tanggu station" unless you disembark very early as the last train in the morning leaves about 9:30am or so with the next one leaving at 1:30pm
-Buy your tickets from the ticket counter or the self-serve machine. Train schedule is also written in English, so it's a fairly easy process. Once you buy the ticket, you make your way out of the building and walk next door to the station itself. Your ticket will indicate a letter and number to show which track you go to. Very easy process! If not sure, show your ticket to anyone in a uniform and they will point you in the right direction.
-tickets for three people for first class train was 190rmb (about $30... or $10 per person). Buy a first class ticket. Less crowded and extra room for seat. It's only a couple dollars more than coach class.
-when arriving in Beijing, take a taxi to your hotel (very cheap!) Have the name and address translated into Chinese to make it easier for the non-English driver to get you to your hotel (ask hotel to email you the translation and print it before you leave home). Cost for us $6 or $2 per person for the three of us. You don't have to tip in China unless you want to (not expected) however, if you use a guide for a tour, they appreciate tips.
FYI again!... for all ports! Bring toilet paper and antibacterial sanitizer with you when you leave the ship or touring pre/post cruise. Many toilets for women are squat (holes in the floor); most do not have TP; and few have soap to wash your hands.
Save some more $$ before your cruise... We booked our cruise through Princess, transfered booking to Costco Travel for more SBC and percs. Check at Princess' website daily to see if your fare was reduced. Do not rely on your TA to contact you as they are working with many others! When you find the fare dropped, contact your TA or Princess :)
I really hope this review has been of help to others. We really enjoyed out 16 day cruise and 11 day land tour. Any questions? Email me... I will keep this throw-away account active for a couple of years unless I get spammed : )
Happy sailing and thanks for reading this :)
(Post cruise) Beijing/Xian/Yangzte River Cruise. I will write this up in a separate review...but... We after reading many reviews, we used China Odyssey Tours. We did an amazing private tour (three of us) and had a guide plus driver. All fee's, transfers, transportation, airport check-in, hotels, meals were included (we opted for 4 star hotels and breakfast/lunch.) The Yangzte river boat has three meals a day on the 'at sea days'. We also did a 'Peking Duck Dinner'. For the 11 day tour, we paid only $2,200 per person. Our itinerary included what Princess offered, with additional site-seeing not provided on the Princess Tour. The 8 day Princess tour with same cities charged $4,800 per person! And! Princess 8 day tour was in a large 40 person bus. I highly recommend China Odyssey Tours! Early April had perfect weather. Needed a coat the first couple of days only.
tour@chinaodyssey(dot)com attn: Vincent http://www.chinaodysseytours(dot)com/
---Suggestions if you decide to organize a tour for your 'Roll Call' can be found at the bottom of this review---
*Have an email link for others to contact you in the post, but, MAKE SURE YOU USE A THROW AWAY ACCOUNT so your regular email account doesn't begin to get spam. Another suggestion that makes it more difficult for spammers to start spamming you is to type "email me" in your post, highlight those words "email me", click the little email icon on the toolbar of your post, type your 'throw away' email addy in the field that pops up, then click submit. Do not use your primary email account.
*Make sure you get the cabin number from others joining your group (keep it private) and email the itinerary to each person after they confirm. Email once again a few days before embarkation. Call the person's cabin after embarkation to verify they know the meeting place and are still confirmed. Even with all of these precautions, I actually had one couple 'no show' (first one of all the tours I arranged). We could have filled their seats, but the guide was happy with the slightly smaller number of 13.