Spring Break cruise to Cozumel, Roatan, and Belize. Family of 4 -- mom, dad, 6 and 1 year olds. We have been Royal Caribbean customers but chose Princess this time because the schedule worked well with Spring Break. I will include some comparisons for others that may not have tried both companies.
*Port of Houston -- easy to drop luggage, park the car, and walk in. We arrived 3.5 hours prior to departure and waited about 40 minutes total from arrival to embarkation.
*Stateroom -- Oceanview level 5. Open floorplan stateroom felt a lot more spacious than Royal Caribbean. On RC they try to implement separate living room and bedroom areas, but the single room on Princess worked much better for us. Shower does not have a detachable showerhead and flimsy shower curtain hardly does its job -- keep everything off the floor! Our shower had hot water only which made for interesting showers.
*Stateroom service -- pleasant and efficient but not super accomodating like on previous cruises. Our requests for extra pillows, towels, and diaper disposal were not quickly serviced.
*Ship layout -- very well done interior and nice variety of venus, from piano lounge to wine bar to line dancing. Outdoor areas are nice with giant movie screen at one of the pools. Few good ocean viewing spots, like up high or at the very bow or stern of the ship. I always like to stand at the very front of the ship like Kate Winslet in Titanic.
*Pool area -- nice and basically what we expected. I wish cruise lines would enforce the "no reserving lounge chairs" rules. At one point I counted the number of vacant, reserved chairs was more than double the total number of people wandering around the pool area. What are people doing, reserving loungers and then going back to their rooms? Also, the clean towel bin was almost always empty.
*Dining Rooms -- food definitely a cut above Royal Caribbean. Service seemed to be in a more European style, very efficient and polite but not friendly and talkative. Dining room staff does not provide entertainment like on Royal Caribbean. "Anytime Dining" gave us some flexibility with the 1 year old and let our family sit alone, which made us more comfortable when he was difficult. But it is only "Anytime" if you arrive right when it opens at 5:30. Every night when we finished dinner at 7:00 there were more than 100 people in line waiting to be seated.
*Bars -- good drinks, and nice variety between the different venues. On Royal Caribbean it seems like every bar location has exactly the same offerings. Princess had a martini bar, wine bar, draft beer at the pool, etc. I liked that 15% gratuity was added automatically to drink orders because I didn't feel like I had to leave $1 or $2 regardless of whether my order was only $4. Very attentive service at all locations.
*Buffet -- We had breakfast and dinner a few times. Nice variety among nights. We particularly enjoyed Bavarian night and "Crab Shack" (which costs $20 extra). As other reviewers have mentioned, yes, of course the crab has been previously frozen. But the big quantity and pretty good quality make for a good value. We usually had to wait for about 5 minutes to get into the buffet line which was never an issue on R.C.
*Entertainment -- excellent first run movies, at "Movies Under the Stars" at the pool at night, at the theatre, and in the cabin. I have never watched movies on previous cruises but watched several this week.
*Children's clubs -- children under 3 not accepted for children's activities or babysitting, unlike on Royal Caribbean. There were definitely a few times we lamented this. But my 6 year old absolutely loved the kids club and wanted to go back as often as we would let her.
*General -- I didn't feel like Princess was constantly trying to upsell me like on Royal Caribbean. In particular, the photographers were not as ubiquitous and intrusive. We observed crew members bickering with each other on a few occasions which struck me as very unprofessional.
*Cozumel, Playa Mia -- online it looks like a wonderful beach park with water slides and playgrounds for children. But the sea is rough and deepens quickly. Everyone has to wear a life jacket to swim out to the water trampoline. You probably need to be at least 12 years old and a strong swimmer to enjoy the in-water amenities. Food and drink service was excellent, though the buffet was a bit "American-friendly" for my taste. Fruit, mashed potatoes, fries, etc. with just a few Mexican offerings.
*Maya Key, Roatan, Honduras -- a gem. Shallow and extremely calm beach, though you arem't allowed to go out very far. Perfect for small children; we were totally comfortable letting our 6 year old go out to the water while we watched from our beach chairs. The best snorkeling from shore I have seen outside of Hawaii, and several interesting birds and big cats.
*Belize City -- the only excursion available for little kids is the zoo and Howler Monkey Sanctuary. This tour involves about 3 hours on a bus but the tour guides were excellent. At the monkey sanctuary you only have about 15 minutes with the monkeys but it is amazing how close you are. The zoo is small by American standards but they have unique local specimins. Really my favorite part of this tour was driving through the "real Belize", outside of the port area. Belize does not have a welfare state, so even though it is a developing nation, small business owners and entrepeneurs are everywhere. The cashew wine sold at the monkey sanctuary is a unique local experience.
We slightly preferred this cruise to our previous Royal Caribbean cruises due to better food, stateroom layout, entertainment, and on-board venues. However, I believe that the fact that Princess charges all gratuities automatically to your account has decreased the motivation for individual crew members to excel at their jobs. We will definitely sail Princess again after our 1 year old is old enough to participate in the kids' activities. The ship is a bit more worn than you would expect for its age, but I probably would be too if I went to Cozumel every week.