May I first say, this is MY review of MY cruise, I'm sure my views and experiences will differ to others on board, nothing I comment on suggests that my experiences are "the Norm". I have reviewed in the past and have been shocked at some of the comments left by people with different viewpoints, so it is with some trepidation that I write this now, but I wanted to share my opinions to benefit other cruisers.
To start with a quick mention of parking at Southampton. This is our first cruise where we have driven to the port, and I did a lot of online research beforehand about parking options. Even on this site there is not a huge amount of advice available, beyond extolling the benefits of the recommended by cruise companies options. In the end I chose a firm called Stress Free Parking at just over Â£92 for 12 days (Look carefully on the home page of their site and use the seasonal discount code for an extra 5% off)
They do advertise a valet service which isn't exactly accurate but never the less their service was excellent. About 30 minutes out they ask you to call to advise you are on your way, rather than speaking to a real person you hear a recording which directs you to unload your luggage and drive to the short stay parking, which is only a 1 minute walk away.
We arrived, unloaded luggage, dropped my better half off at the terminal and drove straight across the road, where the Stress free parking guy met me and took the keys, With a quick look around the car and agreed on any damage scratches, I was back in the terminal within 5 minutes. Jumping ahead, collecting the car back after our cruise was even easier and after loading up our bags we were headed home in less than 5 minutes after disembarking. So a well-deserved recommendation to use this firm again.
Check in and boarding was by far the quickest we have ever experienced, the different time slots allocated to different cabins clearly works. No line at all to collect keys and boarded immediately. Our slot was 13:30. Over the course of the cruise we didn't hear any negatives at all from anyone about the boarding process.
We booked late and got a fantastic deal on an inside cabin, run of ship. A couple of weeks before departure we checked our booking online and saw we had been allocated L221 on deck 15, forward.
The online experience is easy to navigate and by filling in all your details online in advance, makes the whole process very smooth. We didn't book and trips in advance but used the facility to research all the options. We also recorded that this trip was to celebrate a special occasion (Better half's Birthday) and reviewed the salon offers. After a couple of visits back to the site, there wasn't much about the ship we didn't know!
We boarded and went straight to our cabin to leave the one piece of carryon luggage we had. The room was made up as a twin, but our cabin steward came in to say hi, and said not to worry. By the time we returned an hour or so later, it was a double and all our luggage had already arrived!
We have cruised 12 times before on RCCL so my room comparison is based on those ships:
Overall the dimensions of the room are the same as any RCCL, but the configuration is slightly different.
The twin beds zip into a decent Queen sized bed, with roomy bedside tables on each side. Where RCCL have a small sofa, Princess don't but you do get a much bigger dressing table and a little more room all round because of it.
There is a huge open wardrobe space and the usual "compact" loo/sink/shower room. You get soap/shower gel/shampoo. Conditioner & moisturiser.
Lots of plugs, all US style though so don't forget the adapters. The better half (BH) made a point of taking dual voltage hair equipment, straighteners, curlers etc. and these all worked well. The 240v hair dryer couldn't be coaxed to work though! However the rooms comes with a hair dryer, just plan to increase any hair time by an hour as it's very slow.
The room also has a good sized flat screen TV. Essential for the view from the bridge each morning as in an inside cabin it's the only way to check the weather before going outside!
Cabin service throughout was of the highest standard, no towel creations just plenty of them, changed several times a day. There is a mini bar too. A fruit bowl can be ordered and its replenished each day.
We chose fixed dinning at 20:00 as the earlier 18:00 is far too early and the anytime option robs you of the fun of regular table companions each evening. On the anytime front we heard that minimal waiting times were the norm for a table of 2 and no waiting at all for joining a larger table.
I believe that your table companions make the trip and once again we were very lucky and got some fabulous companions, half US and half UK. Every night we were the last to leave and had some great conversations.
On one night we had dinner in the Grill, one of the speciality restaurants (25$ cover charge extra). Well worth the fee, a great steak with unusual flavoured salts to go with them.
For the whole cruise we bought a wine package of 10 bottles for $210. We could choose any wine from the list up to $29 per bottle. Much better than the separate list used on RCCL. Even if you wanted a wine that was more expensive, you were just charged the difference above $29.
Our table had Port most evenings and although priced ok at $7.95 it was a poor Sandemans offering. The only place on board to get a decent vintage port was Churchill's Bar (Smoking allowed).
We had breakfast most mornings in the Horizon Court or Cafe Caribe. (The equivalent of the Windjammer Cafe for other RCCL cruisers) Usual buffet offering, good selection, all hot and plentiful. Both areas were busy at breakfast and lunch, getting a table could take a few minutes, but we never seemed to wait too long. Unlike RCCL drinks, tea/coffee, juices, water were served to you (as well as available at server stations) Lemonade was also available but from servers only. The only negative for us (and it's a small one) was that they wrapped the sandwiches available at lunchtimes in cling film and it made them very un-appealing.
One afternoon we had the formal afternoon tea in the Coral dining room (15:00 every day) It was the best cup of tea on board, with proper boiling water! Nice selection of mini sandwiches and pastries with scones too.
We also tried the pizza and hot dog/burger offers on the pool deck and although limited in choice it was a fun option (the hot dogs are very salty).
There is also a outlet called Scoops which offers ice cream throughout the day. Vanilla and chocolate soft serve is included, other flavours and options can be bought too. Just a comment but the huge green ice cream in the cone that appears to hold up the roof of scoops is the ugliest feature on the ship!
Bar service throughout the entire ship is very good. Even with over 3200 passengers on board we never had to wait to fins a waiter, there appeared to be plenty of staff available throughout all the ship.
Shopping on board is the usual selection and there are a couple of "sale" events during the week. Prices are good, so if you are planning a purchase it might be good to wait until you cruise. There is a Godiva chocolate shop which is a new addition near Vines on deck 5.
The library is located within the internet cafe and is tiny, just 5 seats available. A good selection of books and an on board reading club too. During our voyage it was "The Help" and extra copies of that book were available.
We didn't use the internet on this cruise as we didn't have the need, or indeed any free credits we usually enjoy on RCCL as an Emerald member. We did hear mixed comments about the internet pricing, but can't comment beyond that.
Entertainment is the usual selection of Bingo, enrichment, port lectures, movies (The Movies under the stars, the huge outdoor screen on deck 16 aft, is a great feature. Even in poor weather many passengers including me, bundled up well to enjoy an outdoor film). The talks from the salon/gym were a bit too heavy on the sales of products/services as was the usual art auctions.
The evening entertainment was a selection of venues each with entertainment. The pianist in Crooners was very good, the group in Explorers was good when singing, less so when talking to the audience.
The Production shows (3 during this cruise) were much promoted as the latest offering across the fleet, premiering only a month or so ago.
Personally I wasn't impressed, although staged well with costume and fun on stage effects, including raining and a pink Cadillac the music/song choices seemed odd and the voices of the 4 singers were good but not entirely up to the challenge.
One of the biggest difficulties of the other entertainment. EG the talent contest and the game shows was the difficulty in seeing them at 21:15 due to dinner. Many of the alternative options were impossible to enjoy without skipping dinner, so bear that in mind when choosing your dining times.
The visiting artists included a magician, comedian & singer. The female singer was by far the highlight.
Ports: As we have never been to Norway before we didn't really know what to expect, so didn't have many expectations. Each were different, some better than others, some worse. I'd recommend doing as mush homework yourself before you go. The printed port information provided by Princess is very poor.
Prices of excursions booked through Princess appeared very expensive, we didn't book any this way choosing to arrange ourselves. We have done this often before and are comfortable doing so. I know a lot of people like the confidence that the ship organise tours get you from A to B at set times and get you back on board OK. However, we found we could organise practically every tour ourselves and always plenty of time to spare.
One of the trips that was discussed the most was the Flam railway excursion. $139 per person. For this you got a pre booked ticket, and waffles at the resort at the top of the mountain. The fare for the train was $60 so for $79 more you got waffles and didn't have to stand in line for your ticket. The trains did fill up fast and I know some people didn't get a ticket, so that's the risk you take and you should place your own value on that if it's a trip you especially want to do!
Gym/Salon: A big gym with lots of equipment, very quiet most days too. There is a special feature "Heat therapy" for which you pay $109 for the whole cruise. Personally the free steam room and sauna did much the same for me! The BH used the salon for hair on formal nights and was pleased although she likes to have her hair "up" on these occasions and the stylist has only a limited repertoire!
A good time to mention here is that despite all our research beforehand we were expecting 2 formal nights, but there were in fact 3, this appears to have been missed by everyone and a third formal outfit had to be improvised!
A couple of special mentions: On the day of BH's birthday, we were delighted with balloons and a poster on the cabin door as well as a card from the captain. A small birthday cake and singing waiters at dinner too!
Disembarkation was easy, quick and very efficient. Again done in time slots as your luggage is available ashore.
We discussed the question how does this compare to RCCL and whilst the BH still prefers RCCL I'm now a Princess cruiser. Even on what is quite an old ship it still felt very fresh, lots of space and not crowded. I realise that if the cruise was in the Caribbean it might have been different, but I can't comment on that. For the price paid, overall this was by far the best value and most memorable cruise to date.
I'm sure I've missed loads out, but the above is what comes to mind most readily. I hope you find this useful?