We are a family of 4 (2 parents around 50, 2 kids 17 and 21) and this was our 4th cruise (previous cruises were in Alaska and twice in the Eastern Caribbean). All three prior cruises had been with Royal Caribbean International (RCI) so we were very interested in what Princess would be like compared to RCI. One goal of this review is to compare and contrast the two carriers based on our experiences.
We spent three days in Rome prior to the 12-night cruise that includes 9 ports with only 2 sea-days. Locations included Naples and Venice in Italy, Olympia, Mykonos, Santorini, Athens, and Corfu in Greece, Kusadasi Turkey, and Dubrovnik, Croatia. We knew going in that the cruise ship was really more about being a restaurant/hotel than providing hours of entertainment. That said, we still expected to be entertained in the evenings after we had returned from our port visit and had dinner. More on that later. As far as itineraries go, both Princess and RCI offer similar port options. Princess vs RCI Winner: Draw
Started checking in at Civitavecchia port (near Rome) at 11:30 and was eating lunch in the Horizon buffet by noon. Princess has this process down to a science and we were really impressed - especially since we had no loyalty status with Princess going in. Luggage arrived in our cabins by 4 pm - plenty of time to get ready for dinner. This was the first time we had our luggage in the cabin before the muster drill! Winner: Princess
Parents were in balcony room C753 (deck 10) which is starboard/aft. Kids were down the hall in interior room C733. Both rooms were laid out nicely and had plenty of space for suitcases. We liked the layout of the balcony room and kept the luggage in the closet area so the entire room was wide open. The shower on the Ruby was slightly larger than what we had with RCI and we liked the separate soap and shampoo/conditioner options. The cabins were quiet and we never heard our neighbors. The TV offerings in the room were surprisingly good compared to RCI (I know, TV is not a big deal on a cruise, but sometimes we like to just rest between port returns and dinner). Every day, Joe May (tour desk guru) provided a looping presentation on channel 21 that described the next day's port including where the buses would be (both Princess and independent offerings) as well as the sights to see and other logistics. I found his short segments to be tremendously useful. One channel also showed looping episodes of the Love Boat which was both shameless and amusing! There were also a number of channels showing recent movies as well as a daily show by the Cruise Director Sam (more on her later). Winner: Princess
The ruby Princess is a relatively new ship (2008) and showed little wear. The public areas were well equipped and there were plenty of swimming pools and areas for quiet reading. The fitness center was decently sized and we never had to wait for a treadmill. The only area of the ship that looked anything less than spotless and new was the sports deck where the putt-putt golf and basketball court areas were. The basketball court had a shattered backboard and the putt-putt course was tattered. Other than that, the ship is easy to navigate and is well laid out. I would put the ship somewhere between the Freedom of the Seas and the Radiance of the Seas in terms of how nice it is.
Simply outstanding. Our cabin steward Georgi was very friendly and attentive. We never had to ask for anything and the rooms were always spotless. It was our anniversary during the trip and our kids talked to Georgi about it and he provided balloons and a greeting outside our door on our anniversary. Everyone on the ship greeted us with a smile and quickly answered any questions we had. One negative issue that we had was the hard sell early on in the cruise for specialty services. We went to the fitness center when we got on board and were forced to listen to pitches for hair care, spa care, etc before they would let us into the fitness center (you have to walk through Lotus Spa to get to the fitness center). Once my wife stated we just wanted to see the fitness center for the fifth time, they got the hint. Winner: RCI (both RCI and Princess provide excellent service but Princess needs to dial back the sell a bit).
Food quality was great. The MDR offerings were diverse and plentiful and included everything from vegan to carnivorous. The menu was comprised of "always available" options as well as several dishes for the particular theme of the night. Dress was smart casual most nights with two formal nights. The smart casual code was enforced on my 17 year old son as he was sent back to his room to change from shorts to long pants on day 2. Oddly, we saw others in shorts the remainder of the cruise. I had no problem with him being sent back, I just wish the rule had been enforced throughout the cruise for everyone. The MDR staff was very attentive to my daughter's milk allergies and provided her with a menu each night for the following night so that she could choose what she wanted to be custom prepared without milk. The Horizon buffet was also very good and was open most of the day and night. We never struggled to find a table for four in the buffet. There were also hamburger, pizza, and ice cream options but those were located in other areas of the ship. The hamburgers were good but the pizza was not. Desserts (both MDR and buffet) were a mixed bag overall with some being outstanding and others being "flavor-free." One of the issues we had was how drinks (non-alcoholic) were provided in the buffet area. RCI does a great job of constantly preparing waters, teas, coffees, and flavored drinks which are available all the time during dinner in the buffet and other food areas. Princess provided water, coffee, and tea but from single user dispensers that were very slow in dispensing causing backups at the drink areas. I think Princess could learn something from RCI's approach in this area. Service in the buffet area was outstanding with many people constantly clearing tables and providing silverware to keep the flow going. Regular coffee was only available in the buffet areas and not in the other venues of the ship. The bar staff was willing to go and get it for us, but there should be more areas on the ship to get regular coffee. Winner: Princess (due to food quality, but there are more and better offerings outside the primary dining venues on RCI).
Every night there is a "Showcase" performance option and numerous other live music options as well. We thought the three production shows (Stardust, Once Upon a Dream, and Broadway) were great and just as good as anything we saw previously on the RCI ships. There was also a live pop/rock band called Evolution that was simply outstanding. However, the rest of the entertainment options were far weaker than what we expected and have seen on other ships. There was a piano/vocal duo as well as two different piano entertainers. All lacked energy and gave the impression that they were "serving time" until they were done with their sets. This was a port-intensive itinerary so maybe entertainment took a back seat. In addition, we perceived the average age of the cruisers to be much older on this cruise than on our previous cruises which may also drive the entertainment choices (although there were several low-attendance events throughout the cruise for the entertainment provided). The cruise director Sam (who was from Wales as she told us 10 times the first two nights) was the weakest we have seen in 4 cruises and struggled to get a laugh, even during Princess' version of the Newlywed/Marriage game. Other distraction offerings (enrichment talks, trivia, comedy performers, etc ) were weak compared to what we have seen on RCI. Winner: RCI by a landslide
We used a mix of private tours and Princess offerings and were totally satisfied by most of them. Princess is a well-oiled machine in terms of organization and efficiency for their own excursions. We really liked the way they staged the different groups, organized the transportation, and their selection of tour guides who all seemed to really know their stuff. For two of our tours with Princess, a lunch was provided (Athens and Ephesus) and both were outstanding providing local cuisine in an elegant atmosphere - a real treat!
In addition to the Princess excursions, we also used some private organizations such as Rome in Limo (Rome), Dark Rome Tours (Vatican City), and Corfu Taxi tours (Corfu. Every provider mentioned above was knowledgeable, on time or early, and provided more than we had hoped for. Regardless of provider (including Princess), we felt like we got our money's worth.
There was one negative exception that occurred in Olympia which was for port-side transportation to the ancient Olympic stadium. Our bus did not show, and representatives from the provider (Katakolon-Express) gave us the run-around about when a bus would show up. Instead, we went with another bus in the area and we actually saved an additional 10 Euro per person. However, the return from Olympia to the port was not without problems as the driver gave everyone on the bus the wrong bus number for the return trip so we ended up with a group of 40 people with no ride back to port until we made enough noise as a group to get someone from the bus company to call in a backup. If we could do it all again, we would probably have used the Olympia day as a sea day to rest - the destination is the weakest of all stops. Winner: Princess for their organization.
We ended the cruise in Venice and used Princess' transfer service to the airport. Things went smoothly, however, Princess does not offer a full end-to-end luggage valet service like RCI. We had to retrieve and check in our bags in the airport which took more than an hour with Lufthansa. It would have been great if Princess offered a luggage valet service for an extra cost (like RCI does) where we leave the bags outside our room and the next time we see them is at our home destination airport. Winner: RCI
All in all this was an outstanding vacation and we loved it. Princess provided elegance, food quality, and excursion efficiency/quality that we have not experienced on RCI. We would not hesitate to go on a Princess cruise again. However, from an entertainment and ship energy standpoint, RCI is far more enjoyable on-ship and the cost is measurably lower than Princess. In the end, we will probably flip a coin as to who we go with for our next cruise. I don't see how we could go wrong either way.