We have been on several Princess cruises (as well as NCL, Celebrity, Royal Carribbean, Carnival and others) and are Platinum level with Princess.
Over the years, we have noticed a degradation of service and I believe there is a chance we will ever reach the top Elite level of Princess' customer loyalty program but only because it is inexpensive. Service levels have receded over the years and while in the past, Princess provided engaging onboard programs, the emphasis is now on selling photos and jewelry.
On ship culture seems to have become one of just going through the motions. No staff appeared to even want to provide a good experience to the passengers. In past cruises, staff often tried to interact with us, but on this cruise, they were very standoffish - just doing their jobs. Our first cruise, on the retired Royal Princess, was exemplary, but things have gone downhill ever since.
We chose this cruise solely because it was round trip from San Francisco, which is apparently the only reason to go on it. It appears that Princess knows it currently has a monopoly in cruises based out of San Francisco (This was our second from San Francisco on Princess) and the lack of competition shows. Things may change in the future when San Francisco is expected to host more cruises, but until then, residents of Northern California basically can choose only from one cruise - take it or leave it. If you are from anywhere else, consider cruises out of Seattle or Vancouver which will offer more and better choices.
In general categories:
The ship. The Sea Princess appears to be an older design with fewer spaces found on medium sized ships including a large screen on the upper deck (servicable, but programming was lacking). There is an outdoor pool. An outside decks in the back is reserved for paying guests ($10 for a morning or afternoon) which appeared to be totally unused during our cruise, but the weather was not favorable). There were NO alternative restaurants except the Pizza serving (Cafe Corniche) which operated during certain areas in what otherwise would be a lounge area. The upscale steakhouse wart a blocked off section of the buffet area. Although we planned to visit, we opted not to since a blocked off side of the buffet did not fit our idea of a nice restaurant. There is a relatively small one level theater at the front. The ship appears to be getting old with noticable wear. Public area seating cushions well worn. Minor rust everywhere, some areas worn and dirty. In our stateroom, dripping water in the shower was wearing through the plastic bottom and the shower sides were starting to crack. Window was filthy and the outside sprayer did not work (a few drops came out). Heating/AC variable - appeared to turn off during the evenings (got cold). Linens well work - the blanket should have been retired a decade before.
Itinerary. This is relatively standard - Alaska has few ports. On this cruise, we visited Juneau, Glacier Bay, Ketchikan, Haines and Victoria. It did NOT go to Skagway. If you want to see glaciers from the ship GO YESTERDAY! The glaciers are receding and in a few years, the glaciers may be inaccessible to any cruiseship. The ports are generally the same (our first cruise to Alaska was over 10 years ago and many of the original stores and attractions have not changed). We heard people complaining about not having enough time in port, particularly Victoria which appeared to be merely a refueling stop. In not too early, but out by 1:30 pm.
Food. The food was the worst we have experienced on a large cruiseline. In the dining room, service was slow, and this was the first time I did not look forward to dessert. Even the standard fare was disappointing (cold creme brulee?). For breakfast, the omelets were cold and dry, with few options. Even water service was lacking.
Afternoon tea was surprising with very good scones and a variety of pastries, but service was variable without any attention to detail - scones were at times served without condiments, and even after request, the condiments where slow in coming. Tea is anything you want so long as it is Lipton brand (To me, not that fancy).
Food was generally not as flavorful as we are used to experiencing.
The Horizon Buffet was extremely disappointing as it served the same basic stuff throughout the whole cruise. Breakfast was the same (forget about eggs benedict) on this cruise every morning. The difference between Minestone and Vegetable and Pepper soups were the inclusion of pasta or potatoes. They presented fine and the vegetables were tender, but had no salt or pepper and all tasted the same. An Indian chicken appeared to be baked chicken with no spices dipped in food coloring. There were various porks including various Chinese varieties, but all appeared to be the same without the addition of ANY seasoning. The food was much worse than what people in the Bay Area are used to in the local ubiquitous Asian Buffets and not even comparable to Hometown Buffet. Many of the dishes were mislabeled (you would not be able to tell what they were supposed to be if you tasted them anyway), and it tells you something when the meat carvers are unable to correctly identify what they are carving!
Lunch often included plastic wrapped half sandwiches of various varieties.
Lunchmeats were lacking in variety, as were the smoked fish (watch out for bones) and it seemed more cafeteria than a nice buffet.
The persons in charge of wiping the counters were a hindrance and were intent on wiping clean counters and blocking the service line no matter how many people were in queue. Beverage service was useless although Bar service was plentiful and prompt. Cleaning tables or providing flatware and napkins did not appear to be a priority.
In short, very disappointing. It appears that the cooking staff are attempting to make things which sort of look good, but have not tasted anything they present. The "homestyle" fare was unidentifiable.
Pizza was variable. Sometimes it was very good, but at others, it was bad (and we don't understand how bad pizza could be made from standard ingredients). Un fortunately, there was absolutely no variation in the types of pizza presented and the selection of toppings was minimal. Also, the tomato sauce was unseasoned. The Pizza was aided by generous portions of oregano, parmesan and chili pepper (referred to by the staff as "condiments" which was not regularly presented. Bar service was slow - expect a drink within 20 minutes, but service was excruciating. Seating was as fast as space allowed, but order taking took up to 20 minutes (the servers to not take orders) and at each sitting, we were warned that the Pizza would take at least 40 minutes (actually anywhere between 40 minutes to an hour, with 45 being average). At one point, the table next to us became irate when we got our pizza before them (they had already finished their drinks by the time we were seated). This was very disappointing compared with our cruise on the Regal Princess (5 yrs ago, Panama) which had a dedicated pizza restaurant also serving calzones in a relaxed atmosphere in a dedicated dining area or our prior Princess cruise to Alaska (from San Francisco) which had a part time pizzeria in a lounge area, but better variety and better service.
Typical hamburgers, hot dogs and fries are served on the top deck and proved to be popular enough, perhaps because the buffet was so bad, that the line always seemed endless.
Soft serve was provided, but it seemed that the regular soft-serve was exhausted by the end of the trip.
This is our second cruise without a midnight buffet (seems to be a Princess thing). There was one lobster night, but no King Crab. The only ice carving was saw was the demonstration on deck and the only fruit carvings we saw were during a tour of the kitchen. In the old days, on other lines, seeing a different ice carving each night and a menagerie of fruit carvings everywhere was a delight, and their lack on this cruise was disappointing.
There was a Champagne tower, but it was poorly administered and appeared to be more for selling photos than anything else.
I did not have to worry about gaining weight on this trip (and one in our party was successful at becoming Vegan (although she rapidly abandoned that after the trip ended).
Bars. Very plentiful with reasonably good service. Coffee service was good, and the coffee card apparently allowed unlimited premium Tea drinks - a pleasant surprise.
We purchased a soft drink card, but the marketing was a joke. On embarkation, there was a woman standing next to the containers used to sell the cards at the entrance to the buffet. We had lunch without realizing she was selling anything. After, lunch, wanting to buy a card, I asked her where we buy cards.
"Right here - it is only $4.00 per day."
"$4.00 a day - Okay, I'll get one. How much is it total"
"It is $43 dollars - only $4.00 a day"
"Isn't that $4.30 a day?"
"Its a little more than $4.00 a day. Here is the sign."
The woman pulls out a sign which indicates it is more than $43.00.
She repeats that it is just a little more than $4.00 per day.
I wanted to get it anyway, so I end up getting it. Final cost - over $5.00 per day (over $50.00).
Not to be argumentative, but wouldn't it have been more appropriate to display the sign which she was hiding?
On board shopping. "Sales" were very frequent, but not much new merchandise. Beer carts were plentiful.
Entertainment. This was the second cruise which did NOT have live entertainment on deck on embarkation (Both on Princess - a cost cutting measure?). Live entertainment on deck was absent (NO rain excuse either). The atrium had extremely sparse music entertainment (less than any other cruise we have been on). The bars had the typical groups each evening. Shows varied. Guest performers were good but infrequent. The ship's cast was very disappointing with the singers well below typical for cruiselines (think Saturday Night Live spoof, but its not a spoof) with the dancers high schoolish. The band was very good, however, and the trumpet player, apparently a high school teacher out of Arizona, was surprising good.
Activities. One of worst of all of our cruises. No variety - just the standard fare. There were NO on deck activities.
Photos. There were 2 formal days with multiple opportunities for photo sessions (This is a profit center). Photographers were poor - who is going to buy a photo with a hand in front of the face or distracting people in the background - framing is important).
TV and outdoor screen - Programming was lacking with a smaller variety of channels provided (even compared to other Princess cruises) and nothing between programming except the Princess blue logo screen. No CNN, and the movie/TV loops seemed more repetitive than normal. The outdoor screen could have been used more effectively and more often. If nothing is on - put on a game!
Teen program - My daughter says FAIL!. The staff does not know Americans who have a sense of independence and a dislike of rote planned activities and strict supervised supervision. My daughter - a 16 year old, was not interested in the activities offered and a group apparently formed away from the teen supervised activities (On her last Coral Princess cruise, there was still a camaraderie with the teen coordinator and they interacted with throughout that trip).
Basically, this appeared to be a cruise for first time cruisers who do not know what to expect. The entire crew and all the staff appeared to be just going though the motions and following procedures manuals without any concept of providing satisfying services or even caring about customer satisfaction. It is an international crew but they really need a local consultant to interact with their clientele. It is hard to satisfy Americans (or Europeans, or Asians, etc) without having a concept of that the target clientele is used to or the clientele's preferences and customs.
Embarkation - Fast and efficient - despite the lines, it was relatively quick - necessary since we could not find any restrooms until after getting onboard.
Disembarkation - Fast and efficient - customs was handled by the night before (they were collecting the forms even while we were still in Canada) and no inspection was necessary getting off the ship - just a scan of the ship card.
Would we go on this cruise again. Probably. It was our second 10 day cruise out of San Francisco to Alaska. It was a cheap last minute cruise for us booked for the holidays. It was available and served its purpose. If we found a viable alternative (like a different cruiseline even if NCL or Carnival), we would take it, but right now it is a monopoly and the choice is take it or leave it.
Not a dream vacation, just a convenient vacation. Kind of like eating at McDonalds. It is not good food, but it will satisfy if you are hungry. Princess is not our first choice, but it is cheap (like me). You get what you pay for.
Hence, the Motel 6 of cruises.
Disclaimer (or disclosure). On a previous Princess cruise (Panama - over 5 years ago on the Regal Princess), our luggage went overboard on embarkation. Princess did not know what to do, other than to tell us they were not responsible, blaming it on longshoremen (We placed our luggage into Princess' hands at the airport while we transferred by Princess shuttle to the Cruiseport).
Princess currently makes it a point to disclaim responsibility for luggage at any time even if they are the ones handling it. After our cruise, Princess finally reimbursed us for our out of pocket (replacing our damaged possessions which were inventoried on the ship), but they refused to replace our trip, which continues to cause us consternation. Compare this with Carnival, who recently had a mishap on one of their cruises - they refunded their passengers as well as provided their passengers with a free future cruise.
With a refusal to reimburse us for our lost vacation, Princess has become second tier for us in our future cruise vacations, but we will still consider them as an alternative.