Ray Richardson has traveled on Princess Cruises 12 times, and his wife, Kara, joined him on five of the trips; they definitely consider themselves frequent cruisers. Before their most recent voyage, their first Princess MedallionClass Vacation aboard the Caribbean Princess this spring, they noticed this sailing was going to be a little bit different. Instead of a boarding pass that passengers download online, they were treated to an elegant package that arrived at their Boston home a few weeks before departure.
Inside the box were shiny quarter-sized wearable devices, each engraved with their names, their ship and their sail date. These OceanMedallions, would serve as a key to amenities, fun and games, navigational assistance (not that these Princess Cruises’ veterans really needed the help finding their way around the ship), superefficient check-in and embarkation, and customizable options that would transform an already wonderful cruise into something even more extraordinary.
The experiences are exclusive to Princess Cruises' MedallionClass Vacations. The OceanMedallion is not technology-focused but instead technology-centric. What does that mean? Instead of requiring passengers to engage in the technology, they can be engaged in the MedallionClass experiences while the technology runs seamlessly behind the scenes.
The OceanMedallions were a preview of good things to come," Kara told us. It just created more excitement and more anticipation when they arrived.
Passengers could wear their OceanMedallion on a free lanyard that's part of the arrival kit, or by purchasing accessories when getting OceanReady prior to sailing or onboard – such as a beautifully designed silver- or gold-toned bracelet or pendant, sports band or a fun and colorful clip that easily attaches to whatever you are wearing. No matter how they wore it, it opened the door, literally, to a vacation customized around the Richardson’s preferences.
Throughout the Richardson's vacation, the OceanMedallion worked by communicating with thousands of sensors around the ship. And here's the big surprise: The new technology proved not a disrupter, but a vacation enhancer, empowering a number of engaging experiences on board.
Like the Richardsons, my husband David and I are devoted Princess Cruises travelers (we even got married onboard!) and we were excited to check out how the MedallionClass experience changed what we already were comfortable with. Our bottom line? As we learned on our Caribbean voyage aboard Caribbean Princess, it made a good thing even better. Here we share our experiences -- and also weave in insights of fellow passengers, also veteran Princess Cruises travelers, who we met onboard.
How it works: One thing hasn't changed: Before your cruise you'll still want to enter your information in the Princess Cruise Personalizer, via its website. Then, download the MedallionClass app to your smart device to access all of the MedallionClass experiences including OceanReady - key to one of the fastest and easiest embarkations we've ever experienced.
Favorite discoveries: As veteran cruisers, you may assume that embarkation day will be super-busy as you prepare to board and then familiarize yourself with your ship. What we learned on our trip on Caribbean Princess is that our first day could be as busy – or relaxing – as we chose. And, in this case, our vacation truly started the moment we set foot into the cruise terminal at Port Everglades.
Boarding was fast and efficient and included friendly smiles from embarkation staffers addressing you by your name – thanks to your OceanMedallion, they could see your photo and read about you on their handheld devices. Once you're successfully confirmed, you pass through a welcome area, where live music is playing and colorful animated sea creatures are swimming on high-tech portals. Look more closely and you may see your own name attached to the OceanTagalong avatar you chose before you left home.
We walked right on the ship and to our cabin, and here's the good news: Thanks to the MedallionClass technology, which offers efficiencies to cabin stewards, our stateroom was available much more quickly than expected. That's because cabin stewards can actually manage their workload on turnaround day via handheld devices, knowing exactly when staterooms are vacant rather than guessing.
Other feedback: Fellow passengers on Caribbean Princess were hailing this as the smoothest and quickest embarkation they had ever experienced. It was similarly easy to disembark at the ports of call. "Without a doubt, it changes the cruise experience. It simplifies everything, especially getting on and off the ship," said Julie Vonbergen from Wisconsin.
You should know: Caribbean Princess passengers who did not opt to receive their OceanMedallions at home could alternatively receive them at the pier. Also, at this point, only passengers with U.S. addresses can receive their OceanMedallions at home; those in Canada, the U.K. and elsewhere will need to pick them up at the terminal.
Another tip: Arrive at the pier with your OceanMedallion on your person, not in your checked luggage.
Navigation and Finding ShipMates
How it works: Whether you're carrying you own smart device, tablet or smart phone, or making use of the more than 100 high-tech portals placed throughout the ship – in elevator lobbies, public areas and even on the sun deck! – OceanCompass will help you navigate around the ship and locate friends and family on board.
Favorite discoveries: There's no need to pick up a deck plan because OceanCompass makes wayfinding way better. The GPS-like navigation works right off your smart device or on the big touch-screen portals throughout the ship by recognizing your exact location and directing you where you want to go. I loved that passengers with accessibility needs received appropriate routing.
Here's another favorite OceanCompass innovation: ShipMates. Accessed using your smart device or a portal, you can keep tabs on your specially-designated list of travel companions, wherever they are on board. As you are looking for them using your mobile device, you can also chat with them about your next meet-up spot and wayfinding will show you how to get there.
The ShipMates feature is also useful for finding wayward husbands, as I personally discovered. My husband didn't mind being located, even if he was caught sneaking scoops at the gelato counter. The mobile version also includes the opportunity to chat with fellow passengers – assuming they accept your request to become "ShipMates."
Other feedback: Families, especially moms and dads, love it. "It's easy to find the kids," said Kara, who consulted the portals for their whereabouts. Her son, 13-year-old Corey, said he didn't mind being found, as he checked out spaces such as the teen center, the pool and the basketball court. "It's not like I'm hiding. I am where I am supposed to be," he said.
You should know: We loved that the MedallionClass technology integrated benefits for crew and officers as well as passengers. For instance, via new state-of-the-art technology, the captain and officers on the bridge presided over the most efficient safety drill on our first day. Because it's easy to locate travelers onboard, there was no need for roll calls and note taking.
Favorite discoveries: On our Caribbean Princess sailing, the door-unlocking feature was easily the thing everyone talked about. How many times have you returned to your cabin from port with your hands full and fumbled around for your keycard? Here, there's no need. On board MedallionClass ships, sensors near your cabin sense as you approach with your OceanMedallion to unlock your door as you approach. The door portal also features a personal greeting and celebrates milestones if you’re observing a special occasion on board.
Other feedback: Passengers likened it to saying "open sesame" to get into your cabin. The feature is very helpful if, for instance, you are holding a steaming hot latte from the International Cafe in one hand and a paperback novel in the other. "It's nice to walk up to the door and it just opens," said Carissa Bailey, 22, from Orlando, on the Caribbean Princess for her honeymoon with her husband, Brett.
You should know: If two people are heading to the door at the same time, the door will only recognize one of you; no showing of side-by-side photos. You may find yourself racing ahead of your spouse to be the first one to approach.
How it works: MedallionNet has got to be the speediest and most reliable Wi-Fi at sea, as seamless as your wireless network at home.
Favorite discoveries: It's affordable. For one device you pay only $9.99 per day for unlimited access – so you don't need to worry about logging on and off. You can also purchase plans that cover up to four devices.
Not only can you easily communicate with folks at home, sending selfies and otherwise bragging about your cruise vacation on social media, but you can also communicate directly on Skype, FaceTime and WhatsApp. And it's so reliable, you can watch entire Netflix and Hulu TV shows and movies anywhere on the ship without worrying about the system splatting (please plug in earbuds if you are watching in public areas).
MedallionNet also works off the ship at Princess Cays, Princess Cruises' beautiful private beach resort where you can watch the big game on your smart phone or smart pad from the comfort of your lounge chair – preferably with an icy rum punch in hand. And yes, for those who must (and we are among those who take our work with us on vacation), you can also use the Wi-Fi to keep up with the office.
Other feedback: With the superfast internet and other attributes, Vonbergen found herself bragging about MedallionClass cruising while in port in St. Thomas. "We were talking to a family from another ship and telling them about it and they were like, 'That's so cool. We wish we had that'," she said.
You should know: A paid internet package is not required to access the MedallionClass digital experiences using your smart device on board. Connecting your phone or tablet to the ship’s internal MedallionNet network lets you download and access the features for free.
Also, know this: The downside of great connectivity is you do need to have the inner strength to log off occasionally. After all, this is your vacation.
Communicating With Crew
How it works: When designing the MedallionClass technology, one critical objective was to help crew deliver enhanced personal service. Maître d's, bartenders, entertainers, cabin stewards, boutique clerks and waiters are privy to basic information about us – our photo, names, hometown and dietary restrictions, among them. This enables crew members to greet us by name, know what our favorite drink is without asking and immediately identify special diets without tedious conversation at every meal. A crooner may use the info to call out a great tune based around your hometown. Cabin stewards will be alerted when you've left your stateroom and can clean without bother.
The bottom line result? Not only is the service more personalized, feeling like a luxury cruise experience but it's also more customized to your preferences.
Favorite discoveries: On our trip, we found that waiters and bartenders on Caribbean Princess smiled more and addressed passengers by name, which felt special. They could read on their handhelds if it was your birthday or anniversary. Crew could even see your Princess Cruises' Captain's Circle loyalty club level – and, if you're an Elite member (16-plus cruises) and are entitled to perks, such as free laundry, they can more efficiently process your service.
There's more: Each transaction and your preferences were seamlessly stored, not only for this cruise but also for future Princess Cruises. Set sail again six months from now and your bartender will see in your profile that lager is your beer of choice and that you like your martini shaken, not stirred.
In the near future, guests on MedallionClass voyages will enjoy personal invitations to experiences that align with their unique likes and preferences. For instance, if the system has learned you are a wine-lover you might get an invite on your smart device or from a crew member to a special wine tasting. Whether you are buying a drink or splurging on a must-have souvenir at the gift shop, the OceanMedallion makes the purchase easier because you don't have to hand over a keycard. "I used to demagnetize my keycards all the time, so I do prefer the OceanMedallion," said Valerie Willsea, from California.
And here's another thing: The OceanMedallion is also smarter than a keycard. When the Richardson family approached the Princess Photo Gallery, the staff was able to recognize them and quickly direct them to their photos. "That was a really good feature," said Kara.
You should know: The information about you and your preferences are carefully secured, not for public consumption. That's because your data is not stored on the Medallion itself. Information is anonymized and securely protected in the cloud. The Medallion merely acts like a license plate to deliver key insights to crew based on your location.
How it works: OceanNow allows you to order food and drink and even sundries, such as sunscreen, anywhere on the ship – including the International Cafe, all the bars, in your cabin and on the open deck.
Favorite discoveries: Want your coffee first thing – and without waiting? At the popular International Cafe coffee shop, one of my favorite places onboard, I bypassed any lines by grabbing a table and ordering my cappuccino via my smart device. A few minutes later, the waitress found me from my photo on her screen and called me by name.
Similarly, lounging at the pool you don't need to leave your book or flip-flops or other items to stake your claim on your sun lounger while you hunt down food or drink. You can use OceanNow in your MedallionClass app to order a slice of pizza and a cold beer; a smiling crew member will pick up the order and then come find you to deliver it to your chair.
You don't need to pull out a card to pay as the OceanMedallion has already "talked" to your shipboard account. There's no signing or paper receipt involved. You look up long enough to say thanks. And some OceanMedallion functions are practical and others simply fun. This one is both! It was certainly an icebreaker when the guy in the next chair wondered how exactly we had received drinks without moving.
You can also use OceanNow to order retail items and sundries or have more towels, hangers or pillows delivered to your cabin.
You should know: Say you're getting ready for a formal night and want order a glass of Champagne. You can use OceanNow to have one delivered to your stateroom.
How it works: For those who think of technology in terms of a new toy, one playful aspect of MedallionClass is PlayOcean. Passengers can choose an OceanTagalong, an animated character that serves as your personal avatar – it pops up on portals around the ship, like a personal companion.
Creating your own Ocean Tagalong exercises your inner artist! You can customize your digital seahorse or turtle or fish with colors, stripes and other shapes and even add charms.
PlayOcean also lets you play games on your smart phone or the portals around the ship. You can anonymously compete in a trivia tournament against your fellow cruisers. I became rather obsessed with this function, playing from my bed, lounge chair, even at the buffet and particularly loved the fact no one was there to witness me make some really stupid guesses. I still managed to be among the top three winners on the cruise.
Other games are available on the portals for play while waiting for an elevator or just passing by. These include word jumbles and a family-friendly scavenger hunt that takes you around the ship searching for clues. If you get diverted during the scavenger hunt, the portal remembers where you are, so next time you tap your OceanMedallion and resume where you left off. There are Medallion-fueled pub crawls, too.
Favorite discoveries: Among options for playing with your tagalong are races (check the daily schedule for Poolside Games and Games Under Stars times), where you can use your smart phone or smart pad as a game controller, racing against other passengers' Tagalongs across the Movie Under the Stars screen on the pool deck.
Other feedback: Big fans of the Tagalong concept on our cruise ranged from youngsters to the young at heart.
You should know: If you are the competitive type, playing against fellow passengers can be an addictive pastime. Some games are only available using smart devices and PlayOcean within the MedallionClass app – others you can play on portals located in elevator lobbies and other public areas.
How it works: With OceanCasino, risk-takers can wager real money while at sea (not in or near port), from the comfort of their lounge chair, on select portals, propped up in bed or even while participating in trivia competitions in the Explorers Lounge.
Options include slots with electronic bells and whistles, Pirate Queen-themed poker, roulette, Keno, a lottery and even bingo.
Favorite discoveries: If you're a poker fan, not only can you play with the Pirate Queen on your smart device but you can also play with her live in the casino, an engaging experience with the costumed Queen leading her own live version of Queen’s Sea Poker.
You should know: Wager-based gaming is only available while at sea and not in ports. Also, the money you may lose is real. On the other hand, so is the money you may win.
How it works: OceanView lets you explore from anywhere on the ship through a library of Carnival Corporation-branded TV shows and features on places you will visit on your itinerary. You can do this via OceanView on the MedallionClass app, anywhere on the ship, or on the stateroom TV in your cabin. You can see the stars of a show do a wild excursion in St. Maarten, for instance, and then book that same experience.
Similarly, in a bar in the atrium, you can watch "Good Spirits," while ordering the same drinks featured on a television series.
Favorite discoveries: The "Good Spirits" mixology experience is a fun way to do cocktails before dinner. The bartender creates cocktails from around the world and each comes with a story about a particular destination and its traditions, while incorporating unique flavors of those locations. It's like a world tour you can drink.
You Should Know: If you're watching the shows in public areas on personal devices, please wear headphones!
Fran Golden has visited many destinations around the world, warm and cold, writing about cruises for publications including Porthole, Virtuoso Life, Condé Nast Traveler and Cruise Business Review. She's also the co-author of Frommer's Easy Guide to Alaska Cruises and Ports of Call and Frommer's EasyGuide to River Cruising.
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