We just got back from sailing the Caribbean Princess on an 8-day Southern Caribbean cruise to the “ABC” islands from Ft. Lauderdale and overall had a great time.
Background and Overview: My wife (35) and I (41) took this cruise as a 10-year anniversary trip. It also marks our second cruise with Princess, the former being our honeymoon cruise in 2007, also on Caribbean Princess, which also happened to be our first cruise. In between those ten years, we’ve sailed exclusively with Celebrity (X) 6 times, though this was our first cruise in 4 years. I wrote CC reviews for each cruise we’ve been on shortly after returning, and thus reflecting the experience at the time. We had an excellent time on this cruise, far better than our first for reason explained below. Also, I feel have more of a comparison with X now, and – with the break in cruises while traveling the world a bit – a better perspective on it all. As a result, I have some thoughts at the end of this very long review on my perspective on Celebrity vs. Princess.
During our honeymoon cruise, we remember the fun, but there were literally over 1000 children onboard and it was a tough spring break cruise in that sense. My wife is a school teacher, so we have limited time to go during the school year, but with a few days off during MLK/inauguration week, we were able to make it happen, just we did 4 and 8 years ago. Obviously, very few children on this one—almost assuredly under 100 and probably under 50 of them. Moreover, their presence in terms of issues we had previously was a complete non-factor. Mostly very young and well behaved. The majority of the cruisers were 60-70 year-old baby boomers, with plenty 75+. Not so many sub-55 year-olds (fewer than Celebrity), but we never felt out of place. Over 400 Canadians, and almost 100 Brits, but no significant numbers of other nationalities.
Pre-Cruise: we flew night before, and had no issues, from DCA on AA. Was in first class due to relatively small price differences with coach, so that was a nice start. Hotel was the modest Clarion Inn on N. Federal Hwy. in Ft Lauderdale. Nothing to write home about but when the Hampton Inns were pushing $250-$300 a night (a Friday night), a clean (if small and not particularly helpful reception) hotel for $117 AAA member rate, definitely worth it, and made feel better about splurging on first class flights. Went to a non-too impressive Publix about ¾ mile walk (not a bad walk, other than the rain) to get Cherry Coke Zero. Didn’t have tonic water in cans, so picked that up at a nearby liquor store. Took a taxi to Port Everglades pier for about $20.
Embarkation: Cab drop off was slightly away from stevedores, but no biggie. Arrived around 11:45am, which was a bit early, but we had to check out of the hotel anyway at 11. Line to get in for non-Select/Elite was very long (took about 30 minutes to enter the building). Fine for us, but it was a bit exhausting for lots of the aforementioned 65+ year-old crowd hauling their carryon luggage. Once through security, there were no issues. Check-in (friendly) took maybe 10 minutes. Then, we walked on the ship (no additional luggage/body screening by Princess, which was nice). Brought in 3 bottles of wine—believe you are only allowed two without corkage fee, but no one was checking anything (other than port security). We drank 2 of the 3 in the dining room, so didn’t matter either way.
Cabin: We had a balcony (BD) on the Caribe deck, C702. For those looking to get a sense of the cabin, CruiseTipsTV’s “Cruise Cabin Organization and Stateroom Tour” has an excellent tour of a nearly identical cabin. We greatly prefer this deck as the balconies, though partially exposed, are bigger than on the decks farther up. Also, we prefer being lower, as it limits the motion a bit more, which was significant on the way down. The ship is going into dry dock in March and could use an update to the carpeting, etc., but we found it reasonably well taken care of and clean, considering she’s now over 12 years old. Our cabin steward was a little serious and seemed at times stressed out, but handled all requests very well, and even had a light bulb replaced prior to us asking. I got the sense he was probably spread a bit too thin. One of the rare times I didn’t feel the need to tip beyond the standard amount.
Main Dining Room: Had anytime dining, which went well (usually have fixed late seating on X), since we wanted a table for two (we enjoyed sharing tables for breakfast, lunch or tea, but view dinners as special). The first night we showed up around 815 in the Island DR. Had Seksan (Thailand) and his assistant Luis (Peru). Seskan struggled a bit with his English, but clearly warmed up, so we decided to make an informal standing reservation, which the assistant maître d’ (Davide) and his hostess (Lucy) seemed to keep track of superbly. Davide was and only sommelier in Island DR, appreciated a Margaux I had been saving to bring onboard as a 10 year anniversary wine. He brought out a decanter and provided better (bigger) wine glasses, which they set on the table for the remainder of the cruise. Perhaps because we ordered a bottle of wine each night, they weren’t even concerned about the already modest corkage fee for the two formal nights when we brought our own. Seksan made good recommendations and often encouraged us to try something new. He made us a table-side adjusted version of the menu’s pad thai, which we appreciated. By the end of the cruise, we felt like members of a club. Really nice experience, and of course, we tipped them additionally. As for the food, we were rather happy. There were one or two meats that were dry, but presentation and ingredients were impressive. As with X, the portions are reasonable, allowing us to order anywhere from a three to five course meal with a leisurely pace. As always, the meals on formal nights were the most solid. Hit entrees included beef wellington, pheasant, beef tournedos, veal on Italian night, and lamb. “Princess Selection” desserts were definitely a cut above. The only thing I ordered off of the “always available” menu was their cheesecake, which confirmed my previous impression those offerings often are the weakest. All in all, as great an experience as any previous MDR experiences we’ve had.
Ultimate Balcony Dining. As superb as or better than remembered. Very nice, a bit extravagant having two dedicated waiters prepare your balcony and serve you course by course. Food was very good, except my lobster was a bit dry (filet mignon was perfectly done) and my wife’s pork chop was sadly very dry (but that was ordered off that evening’s menu, she not being a surf and turf type). Includes cocktails and half bottle champagne, a free photo (we got to choose from 4—be sure to stop by the photo gallery to claim it, as we never got a notice or picture sent to our stateroom) and no corkage fee for wine we brought ourselves. Champagne used to be Moet and Chandon, replaced by something far inferior, but UBD is still a bargain at $100 a couple. James and Kevin from the Philippines, our waiters, were great—even gave us a special Princess “anniversary” dessert, a signed note from the captain. They also eagerly volunteered to take numerous pictures of us with our personal camera (many of which turned out quite good). Obviously, we tipped them considerably.
Crown Grill: Did this one night as well. It’s nice—the meats are definitely quality, and the rest of the food seems a little nicer, depending on the dish. Service is attentive and the atmosphere is quieter, like an upscale steakhouse on land, and definitely geared towards tables for 2 or 4. Not sure it’s an absolute must-do, considering it’s (roughly) $60 a couple vs. $100 for UBD and the later includes cocktails, champagne, photos and obviously very specialized service and a unique experience. But still a delightful experience.
Other dining: 10 years ago, Scoops used to sell for modest prices Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. Now, it’s just (free) and absolutely inedible soft serve. Not worth it under any circumstances. Bought the $31 (plus tip) 15-use punch card for International Café for lattes, espressos, cappuccinos, etc. They seem to use Illy coffee. Significant, but tolerable (5 minutes), lines in the morning. Lines for the pastries/sandwiches, which are fee-free, are usually nonexistent. My wife’s hot chocolate was free due to card, which was nice, because otherwise it’s $1.50. As a result, didn’t use the entire punch card by a long shot. But you can save it for the next cruise, so glad I got it.
Only ate at the Horizon Court a couple of times for lunch/breakfast. The waiters/service staff in there were good, but found the menu options a bit limited and seating at times can be hard to find (though staff does their best to clear tables).
Activities: I think this is one area in which Princess could improve a bit, especially on sea days. There are just not that many enrichment activities, like lectures on the history of a port or shipbuilding, etc. Sadly, it seems exclusively based on shopping, art auctions, etc. I understand the desire to have revenue generating events, but perhaps a port talk could sell some books on the subject. We did watch some cruise staff games, which are mildly interesting, but there are too few of them. We played Bingo twice ($30 for a full sheet, which my wife and split). Very popular with some serious players. Terrible odds, of course, so it’s only fun if it’s entertaining. We did the “maître d’” wine tasting. Nice wines, but pricey ($25) considering it amounted to – at most – 2 (smaller) glasses of wine. Let’s just say no one walked out of that tasting tipsy. Signed up for the cheaper one ($9.50), though those wines weren’t great. Celebrity definitely does better wine tastings, where you walk around the atrium (or dining room) sampling different wines at “stations.” More interactive, better value, and you get to sample a greater variety. We used the fitness center a few times and didn’t have trouble finding a treadmill for our long runs even on sea days. This is helped by the very well-used and attractive full promenade deck, where the walkers would go around in large numbers.
Played two or three times at the casino. The craps table was fine—fun one night and not so much fun another, mainly due to luck and how superstitious/serious the other players are. Some seemed to forget entirely they were on a cruise. Blackjack was OK and the dealers vary in friendliness. The rules aren't the greatest, of course. I would play poker only if there were a live table, so I didn’t do that. When cashing out one night, a cashier tried to hard sell me on buying scratch off lottery tickets to the point of being rather annoying.
Entertainment: the evening shows by and large were good, often excellent. The “Bravo” show in particular had wonderful singing and dancing, and they got deserved standing ovations. Comedian Troy Thirdgill was definitely amusing, both his smaller show and his main show. Musician Ric Steel was less to my taste, but many seemed to like his music, and I certainly was not part of the core demographic of this cruise. The only problem with all of these shows is that they literally run out of space in the venues. Not just for good seats, but any seat at all. I think having some more musicians (e.g., a string quartet, pianist) or lounge acts would help free up seating or at least offer more entertainment options to those who can’t get in.
We got a photo as part of our Ultimate Balcony Dining. One minor quibble is that we never got a notice to pick up our picture. Quality of the photos was high, but believe the prices to be too high to justify the purchase of them. Understand that there is a "sweet spot" in terms of pricing to optimize revenue when the costs are relatively fixed, so where that is I assume Princess knows better than I do, but $20 a picture is too much for us.
Curacao: Walked around colorful Willemstad, having been there once before. Toured the Mikve Israel - Emanuel synagogue (oldest continuous synagogue in New World) and adjacent museum. Small, but worth a visit ($10 entry fee). Had a couple of beers at outdoor café and took advantage of free internet (as were many of the younger, off-duty Princess staff). No deals on duty free liquors and prices generally high, which was actually true for all the ABC islands. So we actually bought 1-liter bottles of Tanqueray and Stolichnaya onboard Princess’s duty free for $18 and $13, respectively, a good bit better than back home, and way better than in port.
Aruba. Did Stand Up Paddleboarding tour with Aruba Surf and Paddle School. Perhaps the best shore excursion we’ve ever done. 5 of us, and one was a friend of the fabulous owner/instructor, Dennis. His acclaim on TripAdvisor is very well deserved. About 2-3 hours, including superb instruction from Dennis. A very fair price at $95/person, considering the personalized attention, equipment and patience. Our first time doing it, and we had a blast. Only (minor) downside to the experience was that while paddling under a bridge that was under construction, my wife got relentless (to almost comical levels) catcalls from the Colombian construction workers repelling 50-100 feet above us.
Bonaire: One of the few new Caribbean ports for us. Definitely a favorite. Not as poor as some, and not as built up as the richer ones (like Aruba). Booked Compass Bonaire half-day sail and snorkel independently for $55/person (like Aruba, found them highly reviewed on TripAdvisor). Another great experience. We later realized that they had a boat that served Princess bookings, which was rather crowded looking at about 20 people (and if I recall, more expensive). Evidently, our boat was supposed to have 11, but a group didn’t want to split up between our boat and the other. As a result, we were a group of 4, and the other couple simply wanted to sail, so we literally had two snorkel guides to ourselves. Impressive coral, very water clear the day we went, and a good variety of fish, though we saw only one (sleeping) sea turtle. The Dutch crew of 3 was very friendly and laid back. They offered us a light lunch and beer/rum punch, etc. on the return. 11 people on the boat might have made it a bit more crowded than I would have preferred, but certainly could have handled 8 with no problem. Highly recommended.
Disembarkation: This was very smooth. After breakfast in the MDR, went to our assigned location and for our group to be called. They organize luggage well and it was relatively easy to find. Went through customs/immigration in 5 minutes. On the paperwork for disembarkation, Princess said we ought to consider buying transfers to FLL (something like $10-$15 person) since a taxi line “might be 1-2 hours”. Since I knew a cab would be cheaper and our flight wasn’t until early afternoon, I wasn’t too concerned. It turns out the only line was the queue of taxis waiting for passengers. Made it to FLL in 10 minutes. Then returned to reality, such as the overcrowded FLL airport, which I remember being unpleasant from 10 years ago. Also included getting bumped out of first class on the return due to American Airlines overbooking. It was an enormous hassle even getting a confirmed seat in coach. Got a voucher and currently waiting to for a partial refund. Hence, any quibbles about our cruise should be taken as extraordinarily minor.
Tips. After each cruise, I think I learn a few tips to save for the next trip. Before providing mine, I would encourage readers to consider viewing the cruisetipstv youtube channel. Sheri has a wonderful set of links that even “seasoned” cruisers like I found valuable. That said, here are the ones I found helpful for this cruise:
• Pre-order bottled water if you want it ($6.90 including tip for 500ml 12-pack. We ordered 2 of them in advance (24 bottles). Once you get onboard, they’re $2.30 each). You can bring your own, but it was already too heavy to carry Coke Zero and tonic as is through the long security line at embarkation, so glad we did.
• Bring on your own soda (if you drink it), as it’s expensive/inconvenient if you do it on board (unless you get the soda package, which still isn’t cheap at $8/day).
• Mainly for men: a cruise Card/ID/money holder—forgot it and missed it. X gives them for Concierge Class. Far easier than bringing the whole wallet around the ship.
• Women (and men) with long hair: bring your own hairdryer. My wife says the ones on cruise ships are useless.
After returning to Princess, I feel we have a good sense of how it rates vs. Celebrity. Of course, we have not sailed on all the ships, so this is primarily a comparison Caribbean Princess (and likely its sister ships) and the Millennium-class ships on Celebrity:
Things about Princess we like better (in rough order of importance):
• Ultimate Balcony Dining
• One MDR is open for lunch every day (including embarkation day), with the possible exception of one port day. Hate that it wasn’t on our Celebrity cruises. Also Princess had an English pub-style lunch (fish and chips, bangers and mash, etc.) in Crown Grill one sea day (no fee, beyond beers, etc.). Having more options than the buffet at lunch is huge, at least on sea days!
• Bigger balconies on Caribe deck.
• Decent sized refrigerator in cabin (not a minibar, as on X).
• Self-service laundry (not super cheap at $3.00 each wash or dry load, but very convenient and found an empty one multiple times).
• More waiters/assistant waiters in MDR. Seems like they’re spread less thinly on Princess. Believe this is due to fewer sommeliers. I think on the whole that’s probably the right decision.
• Afternoon tea every day
• Lower corkage fees
• A seemingly minor point, but they do a better job with drink/wine/specialty restaurant purchases. They just swipe your card and that’s it. On X, they bring back something that requires a signature for even the most trivial (e.g., a can of soda). More annoyingly, X has a space for “additional gratuity” which feels like you’re not tipping if you leave it blank. Princess just does the standard 15%. When compelled to leave additional tips (as I did for two comped drinks, specialty restaurants, a good buffet waiter), I left money in cash.
Things about Celebrity we like better:
• MDR food is (on average) slightly better (more interesting), but very close. Everything else (buffet, room service, etc.) seems significantly better on Celebrity. Pizza is about the same (neither I love, but slightly better on Princess). Buffet ice cream (not MDR dessert) is flat out gross on Princess (worse than McDonald’s soft serve). Pretty decent on X, and it’s made themselves.
• Less crowded public spaces on Celebrity. Often difficult to find chairs in the various public rooms (theater, lounges, public spaces) on Princess. One night we showed up for the late (10pm) show at and there was literally not a single seat and about 30 people standing up, and tons of us just giving up. Happened previously, but we were early enough that we got seats in the back. Also happened in some of the lounges too at times. On X, this was never an issue. Dining rooms on X also have more space between tables, it seems.
• The crowd is slightly younger and healthier on X. In both cases, we’re relatively “young”, which is fine, and I’m certainly not asking for kids. But more 30/40 somethings as well as spry 60 year olds on X. More slightly slower and older crowd on Princess with perhaps more health problems. Of course, each cruise itinerary is different. This probably skewed a bit older than equivalent X cruises during same time of year due to those being out of San Juan (therefore, more flying) and I would guess the older crowd prefers more sea days to active port days.
• Enrichment activities (like lectures, etc.). I think Celebrity has fallen a bit in recent times, but I recall very good ones on our Alaskan and one or two Caribbean cruises. Princess doesn’t have very much in this regard. For instance, the only one I even noticed was a lecture on the history of rock n roll, which sounded possibly great, but it was at 9:30am on the first sea day.
Things about equal between Princess and Celebrity:
• Service is a little more formal/better trained/refined on X, though perhaps friendlier on Princess. But really, it’s basically the same. Both generally very good (especially MDR, specialty restaurants, cabin stewards), but on both, you run across exceptions (international café, some bar staff, etc.).
• Evening entertainment. Catered to roughly the same tastes. At least Princess doesn’t have an a capella quartet, which I’ve never liked. More comedians on Princess, it seems. Slightly livelier and more lavish production shows on X, but very close.
• Décor/condition of the ships. I would actually give a slight advantage to X for this because it’s more modern and stylish, but I recognize this is personal taste. The cabins generally look better on X, but I actually find the balcony cabins on Princess slightly more functional (except for the too small shower).
• Hard-selling of (especially) non-cruise related goods (e.g., jewelry, art auctions, etc.). In the past, I would probably have given the nod to X, but on our last cruise, they seemed at least as bad as Princess. I actually don’t mind it that much provided there are more enriching activities on sea days, which I believe Celebrity still gets a slightly better ranking for. Either way, it’s usually tolerable for us.
• Wine list. X has a broader selection, but also higher prices. Princess is more limited, but well represented and fair prices. So perhaps slight nod to Princess. Princess has better beer selection. Our cocktails are usually limited to gin and tonics on cruises, but I find on ships cocktails can wilt quickly due the ice not being as cold as it needs to be.
Final Thoughts: We had a wonderful return to Princess and think four years in between cruises is likely too long. We don’t know where or when our next cruise will be, but we’re certainly going to look for a variety of options, including Alaska, Canadian Maritimes, or even Norwegian fjords, and Princess is certainly an attractive candidate cruise line. We still have a $100 deposit on Celebrity from four years ago, but the offer through Princess was less tempting (expires (but refundable), and the credit is smaller). As for the Caribbean, the latest we plan to be back is on a similar cruise four years from now during the next inauguration… Read Less