This is our fourth consecutive cruise with Princess after sampling five other lines, and we decided to stay with Princess because they just seemed to get more things "right" that the others.
We travel with another couple and we (the husbands) are both ex-military career officers so we know that in a complex organization, no matter how well planned and organized everything is, there are things that are going to go wrong. Thus, we travel with the full expectation that there will be problems, and this trip met expectations. The measure of the ship and crew's competency is not that they make minor mistakes, but how flexibly and quickly they are able to deal with them.
We had originally booked partially obscured Oceanview staterooms (the best bargain on the ship) on Emerald deck, but three days before sailing, we were up-graded to a balcony stateroom on Aloha deck (our companions were not), so
this change probably contributed to some of the problems.
We had made our own air arrangements, but took the Princess package of a transfer from LAX to a hotel, a night at the LAX Marriott, and a transfer to the pier. The arrival went like clockwork: we were met at LAX by a Princess rep, shepherded onto a shuttle bus and delivered to the hotel. Princess reps were also in the lobby and we picked up our transfer tickets for the following day.
The bus to the pier departed late, a bonus we figured since this would bring us closer to the suggested check-in time. On our three previous Princess cruises (including this one two years ago), we were in our cabin within 30 minutes of arriving at the pier. This time, it was closer to two hours. For reasons never explained, after arriving at the pier we were held on the bus for 20 minutes while we watched numerous cars, taxis and hotel shuttles dropping passengers off. By the time we disembarked from the bus, there was a fair back-log built up in the security lines. When we got upstairs, there were only three wickets for check-in of blue and gold passengers, and two of these were blocked with passengers who had arrived without the correct documentation. Fortunately, there was a Princess "traffic cop" monitoring passenger flow and shifting them to other lines so that there was very little waiting. Excellent flexibility and use of common sense!
In the past, once checked in, we were allowed to board. This time, everyone except Elite and Suite passengers was shunted into a holding area and given a number for a "first come-first served" boarding sequence. Unfortunately, the holding area did not have enough chairs to hold all the passengers sent there, and the standees were basically elbow to elbow. Two large thermoses of water had been provided, but these had been exhausted before we arrived and nothing additional was provided. After about 15 minutes standing (by which time they had reached boarding number eight) we were able to obtain seats. It took another 30-35 minutes before our number (18) was called and we were able to board. From that point, it was only another five minutes or so until we reached out cabin. Two of our three pieces of luggage were there, and we were able to unpack before the evacuation drill. The third piece arrived after the drill.
The second problem we encountered (possibly due to the upgrade) was that our dining reservation (traditional, early seating) had been confirmed as a table for four; however, when we received our boarding cards, the four of us had been placed at different tables. A quick visit to the maitre d'hotel and we were able to receive a temporary dining arrangement. A permanent one was established for the second night. Again, good flexibility and problem solving.
Our final problem was related to disembarkation. Although we had advised Princess well before the cruise of our return air arrangements, when we received our disembarkation packages, we found that the two couples had been given different disembarkation times--times which did not get us to LAX until several hours after our flights would have departed! The arrangements were not delivered to the cabins until the second last evening. Fortunately, we discovered the problem almost immediately and were able to correct the problem at the passenger services desk immediately. Had we waited until the following day, it would have taken hours, given the lineups at the passenger services desk and a special desk set up just for disembarkation problems. Again, the problem was quickly solved with no difficulty.
Princess has made a number of changes with their on-board procedures, all for the good. Traditionally, they have had two 45 minutes entertainment shows each night. However, with 2600-3000 passengers, and only 740 seats in the Princess Theatre, that means that only about half the passengers can see the show (although sometimes that seems about all that want to do so). Now they are producing three shorter (30-35 minute) shows, which means that 50% more passengers can see the entertainment than before.
They have also made some physical changes to Horizon Court by removing some of the ornamental walls, which means increased seating, even with the addition of a desert bar in what used to be a seating area. Overall, the traffic seems to flow smoother, with fewer passengers searching for seating while the food on their trays grows cold.
They have also added a dining room wine package which can be purchased for 7, 11 or 14 bottles, that offer substantial discounts compared to single bottle prices. It comes in two levels: silver, which allows you to choose any bottle up to $32.00, and gold, which is more expensive (the ceiling amount slips my mind). Each of us purchased the seven bottle silver package which gave us a discount of up to $7.00 (on a $32.00 bottle).
Some other changes are not so welcome. On past Princess cruises, every three or four days, they have had a special, themed luncheon buffet on the pool deck and these were quite popular. There were none on this ship, possibly a cost-cutting measure by Princess. Except for hula, ukelele and lei making lessons, and the naturalist lectures, this ship could have been heading anywhere. On our previous trip to Hawaii, everything from some of the entertainment to food in the dining rooms and the deck buffet was Hawaiian themed.
The crew, including passenger services, Cruise Director's staff, our dining room waiters, cabin stewards, Horizon Court staff, etc. were, as usual, excellent. The dining room food was great, Horizon Court fare less so. We did not try the specialty restaurants, have found in the past that they were not good value for money compared to the dining room fare. The new Alfredo's pizzeria, and the availability of light lunches and snacks in the International Cafe are both excellent additions and alternatives to the Horizon Court fare.
The entertainment (and we saw it all) was generally very good and in particular Princess has been improving production values for the singer/dancer troupe's shows. Its not Broadway or "A" list Las Vegas, but what do you expect for what you paid for the cruise?
We did not take any ship's tours this time. We rented a car in Honolulu and drove around the north shore--an interesting trip (it rained most of the day), but not great value since car rentals are very expensive in Hawaii. On Maui, we arranged our own whale watching tour (very good), and on both Hilo and Kauii we did some on-foot sight seeing and shopping. The Ensenada stop was worthless since it only lasted three hours and spanned our dinner hour, so only the two girls bothered to get off the ship and visit the craft market on the pier. The US Passenger Services Act is one of those obsolete pieces of legislation that needs to be scrapped.