Star Princess, Rio to Valparaiso, December 2009
Pros, Cons and Other Comments About our Princess Experience
This was our second Princess Cruise. The first one was a year ago on the Ruby and it was a totally different experience. Because I want to start out on a positive note, I will talk about the "pros" first. Unfortunately, this will be the shortest part of many of my comments! I know this is long, and if you don't read anything else, skip to the end and read the section on Princess Management
Ship: Adequate overall. This was our first time on a large ship and we found that part of the experience to be better than we anticipated. We are not "pool" people, so I can't comment on those facilities. Pros -- Our Mini-Suite was large, comfortable and had plenty of storage, although the dEcor was a bit "tired". Our steward and other cabin crew were always helpful and courteous. Cons -- There is not enough seating in some of the most heavily used common areas, especially the 5th deck (or Plaza) where much of the entertainment takes place. Laundry facilities are totally inadequate. There is not enough equipment and some coin machines were out of order for the whole trip, so take your own quarters with you! Because of the size of the ship, it was difficult to strike up new friendships. People we met at dinner or on an excursion were never seen again! There is a charge for absolutely everything on this cruise line. I thought selling bottled water at the gangways was really tacky! One can buy a "coke" card or a "coffee" card and save some money, but you have to carry it around with you all the time. There was even a charge for bottled water in your cabin. Wine and bar drinks are at big city prices, and there is an automatic 15% gratuity added to these—this is over and above the per person gratuity that is added to your account at the end of the cruise.
Entertainment: The theaters and lounges generally had sufficient and, except for the Princess Theater, comfortable seating. If we couldn't get a seat for one performance, there was almost always a second chance as most everything was repeated another night. Pros - The comedian was good. Brazil Brazil was also good as were most of the musicians who entertained on Deck 5 during the day. The dance demonstrations and lessons were good entertainment. The New Year's Eve party was fun. Cons - Quality of the evening shows was average. Most musical shows were absolutely so loud, we could not even stay through to the end.
Eating and Drinking: There are numerous venues for dining and drinking and all were attractive, comfortable, and well staffed. We used the Traditional dining, the Anytime Dining and the Buffet and were pleased with all three. Pros -The menus were varied and offered many selections. Service in the dining rooms was very professional and except for one waiter, one night, everyone was polite, friendly, accommodating and attentive. The International Cafe on Deck 5 was really good, especially for lunch. Cons - While the food was ABUNDANT, the quality was mostly average. I had expected to have really good South American beef and was consistently disappointed. Wine with dinner was very expensive and there was an extra charge for all coffees other than the stuff in the pots. Special coffee and wine incurred an automatic 15% gratuity. The coffee in the Buffet was terrible but seemed to be better in the dining rooms. The coffee at the Deck 5 coffee bar was good, but not outstanding. The food available on the room service menu is very limited, but the service is prompt. When I called to get a cheese plate late one afternoon, I was told I needed to order it 6 hours in advance—for cheese!....and I was willing to pay extra for it!
Scholarship-at-Sea: The instructor was competent, but what can one really learn in a one hour session? At $25 each, the cost was too high, and the instructor ended most of the sessions (we took 5) before the hour was up.
Internet: Worked well and was easily accessed from our stateroom and pretty speedy. The staff was friendly and knowledgeable. When it became clear that the ship would be late getting into Valparaiso, free internet time (and also phone time) were made available.
Casino: Large with many types of machines as well as table games. The captive audience made for very low probability of winning. The room was very smoky which could have been due to ventilation problems. There were some smoke-free evenings which were much appreciated by us non-smokers.
Lecturer: The primary speaker was really good, and quite knowledgeable on a wide range of topics related to South America. He was apparently booked at the last minute and his presentations suffered from a lack of visual aids. Further, all of his talks were scheduled in the mornings and often conflicted with other events. The seats in the Princess theater are not very comfortable.
Port Talks: The talks were substantive and comprehensive but they were all in the morning and often conflicted with other events. They were broadcast over the TV, but sometimes in Portuguese, sometimes in Spanish, and sometimes in one language all day! It was impossible to know when the language you wanted would be broadcast so we missed a lot of them.
The Spa and Fitness Center: They have some really good staff in the spa but their services are very expensive. The equipment in the fitness center is in almost constant use and requires waiting. Machines were often marked, "out of service" which added to the backlog.
Passenger Services: Pro - they had a big sign and a big counter so it was easy to find. Cons - they were overwhelmed and under staffed and not very bright. Other reviewers have commented on the long lines (even at wee hours of the morning) that they encountered and, although they should have predicted that people wanted to settle bills at the end of the cruise, they did not have enough people on duty to handle it. And...this is an event they know will occur at the end of EVERY cruise! Added to it was the fiasco resulting from our late arrival (see below). For example, we were asked to fill out a disembarkation form and return it to them by 11 pm one night. I took ours down to the desk at about 10:30 and there was no place to deposit it so I got in line. About 20 minutes later, I got to the desk and asked why they didn't have a box on the counter (as they had previously for other forms) to put these in so people didn't have to wait in line just to hand it in. The young man pointed over to his right and said, "You can put it in there." I asked, "Where?" He said, "In that container by the post." I said, "The one marked South American Mail?" He replied, "Yes." I said, "Why would I put an important form in a box marked South American Mail? If you want them there, why isn't there a sign?" He said, "I'm too busy to make a sign and someone broke my box." I am not kidding—this is actually what was said. By the way...the "box" was cardboard.
We mailed many post cards on board (at a cost of about $3 each), and one month later, not a single one had been received. They have since begun trickling in, but we do not think this is attributable to a problem with the South American postal systems. According to Princess, cards given to Passenger Services 30 minutes before sailing would be mailed at that port, but we think they were never mailed by Passenger Services from the ship as they were supposed to be. Interestingly, all of our foreign postage has been pasted over with US postage on the cards that have so far been received.
Princess Management: Where was it when we needed it? [Maybe this should be captioned Princess Mis-Management or Princess Lack of Management] Pros -- Sorry, except for the day-to-day jobs of feeding us and keeping the cabins clean, I can't think of any. . Cons -- The higher up the chain of command one went, the worse it got! I can only describe the uniformed crew as aloof, arrogant, and unapproachable. I was really taken aback when one passenger told me that when he asked to take a picture of the captain who was standing next to his wife, the captain refused and told him only the ship's photographers could take the pictures. Could it be that one picture was free and the other would cost $20??? Whatever the reason, it was bad public relations and really annoyed two passengers. Whenever I happened to pass a uniformed crew member, there was no eye contact. The friendly smiles or nods that have been the norm on all other cruises I've been on were absent. They even appeared to avoid mingling with the passengers at the Captain's cocktail events. It seemed to us that they were either angry about something or maybe needed a course in attitude management. The handling of the embarkation and disembarkation process ranged from bad to horrible! The ship was late on both ends, and while we understand that this causes big problems for the entire crew, the absence of management is inexcusable. We, along with over two thousand other people, waited for three hours to embark in a very hot, airless room with less seating than people. A section that was roped off for "elite" (or platinum or whatever that is called) had plenty of empty seats but the proles were not allowed in there. When we finally made our way out, we saw that there were large containers of ice water at one end of the room, but at no time was there any announcement of its availability or any attempt to give us information about anything during this waiting period.
Disembarkation was even worse. It became clear a couple of days out, that we were going to be late arriving in Valparaiso due to the storm we encountered just past Cape Horn (36 foot seas with 50-70 knot winds). People were told they would not make flights and needed to rebook, hotels and guides had to be notified, and everyone was scrambling to make the needed contacts and adjustments. To its credit, Princess made free internet and phone time available. As we got closer to port, the captain announced that we would, in fact, arrive earlier than predicted, so a lot of rebooking had been done unnecessarily. While that added to the passengers' frustrations, most could understand that this could not be foreseen and it was not blamed on the captain. There was an attempt to organize the disembarkation by giving priority to the earliest departing flights and to those who had post-cruise reservations and/or transport booked with Princess. They also indicated that they would get people paired up who needed to be together. BUT... when the time came to get us off, it appeared that management just threw up its hands and quit on many of us. I can only hope the following description does justice to what ensued.
People started showing up at their designated mustering points for disembarkation at their designated times. At first, some of the groups were called (ironically, these were primarily the groups booked with Princess) and then it all stopped! We waited and waited and waited. Now, groups that were supposed to have already been off-loaded were packed in with groups that were scheduled to be off-loaded. It got more and more crowded. People got more and more worried. Finally, they started for the gangway enmasse. There was not a crew member in sight! Eight stairways and two elevators converged on the Deck 4 elevator lobby. There were literally hundreds of people crowded into this one small space and the stairways were backed up by the hundreds. Every once in a while, an elevator would open and 10 or 12 more people (some with luggage) would push their way into the crowd which was already standing cheek to jowl. There were old people who could hardly stand, really small children and babies! And....not a person was being let off. I estimate that we were in this situation for over an hour and a half! It was really dangerous and in fact, at least one fight broke out when one person was whacked by another's backpack. The situation was dangerous and potentially lethal.
What we did not know at the time we were waiting for the hour and a half was that only one gangway was being used for disembarkation, and we were going to be let off one at a time! Truly....one at a time!!! 2700 passengers!!!! And why there was no one getting off at all for so long was never clear. There was a single line with a single machine for punching the boarding card and a single rude little smart Aleck running it. When I finally got up to him, I said this was a really terrible situation and unsafe. I said Princess should be ashamed of their handling of this. He told me I should be ashamed of MY attitude. He said he didn't do it and it wasn't HIS problem. Unfortunately, I did not get his name, because I would have his job if I could! I am also sorry I did not get any pictures.
Knowing that this is not the first, nor the last, time Princess will have to handle a late disembarkation, I am appalled at their ineptitude. There was a complete absence of a physical presence of management at this disembarkation debacle. They caused this situation but made sure they were not around when it devolved. I do not believe there was any realization of the dangers involved if people had panicked and surged to get off through a deliberately very narrow opening. It is ironic they took time to teach us what to do in case of needing lifeboats, but they, themselves, caused a safety problem which could easily have been disastrous. I shutter to think how they would manage a real catastrophe at sea if they could not get 2700 people off loaded on land! It will make me think twice before I book another Princess cruise.
General Comments: And a last few words of advice: You can't trust Princess "central" to give you correct information. Note the many comments on our thread about visa requirements and vaccinations that others have posted. Also note that we were told by Princess before the cruise that ATMs and local currencies would be available on board. Not true. We relied on this information and it was incorrect.