This trip review is looked at from two angles: the ports themselves and the cruise experience itself. I will not deal extensively with the various ports (since other reviews last year have done marvelous jobs at that already and, for the most part, these cities have been unchanged for the past 400 years, so I don't think one year between reviews justifies a need for further evaluation. I will, however, try to provide some pointers gained from our experience.
Overall, for the price, we got our money's worth. We got the itinerary we were looking for; the ship was well run; the cabin adequate and well kept; the food acceptable and the service was as to be expected if not better. That said, there were disappointments and from those disappointments, while not many, tainted the cruise experience such that we will think twice before picking Princess again, if only for the purpose of seeing how other cruise-lines operate. The food was only "acceptable"; there was a lack of information; Princess seemed to nickel and dime you; and disembarkation for St. Petersburg was terrible; and Princess' constant pushing of their on-board shops versus buying on land, turned us off.
My wife and I are in our late 50s. This was our fourth cruise having taken three previous cruises on NCL. We have traveled extensively in Europe always on our own making our own travel arraignments and going it alone. We decided to try a cruise this time to Europe and picked Princess for a number of reasons: the itinerary - visiting all of the Baltic capitals seemed to be ideally suited for a cruise; Princess had anytime dining which is a must for us; the cruise started in Copenhagen as opposed to England which meant that we did not have to chance bad seas in an English Channel crossing and it gave us more time to see more of Copenhagen which we thought we would need; with the US dollar being so low, we thought that this would be an affordable way to see Europe; and we picked Princess to see how NCL compared to other cruise lines. We picked a balcony cabin because we felt a porthole cabin would be too claustrophobic although we knew from experience that the minuscule time spent on the balcony meant that the extra money spent would be a waste. (Wouldn't it be nice if ships offered a choice between using the extra square footage as a balcony or inside the cabin.)
Traveling from the West Coast, we knew we were in for a long haul. From experience, we knew flying business class (obviously!) was the way to go if we could manage it. Using a whole lot of miles, we cashed in those for round trip business class tickets on Delta. We flew through Atlanta straight to Copenhagen. (A note here: try to avoid Heathrow if you can. Not only is it a mess of an airport, they charge you very high airport taxes and fees as opposed to other airports.) I have to say, the Delta service was extraordinary. The food was better on the plane than on the ship. And the service was 100 times better than on the ship. (Why is customer service not high on the list (or even, it seems, a concern) for cruise ships? I realize that pre-arraigned fixed tipping creates a loss of incentive, but, they don't tip airline stewardesses and stewards and they show, at least, a modicum of interest in customer service.)
We left early for Copenhagen to allow us to arrive a day before the cruise embarkation. This extra day allowed for potential airline screw ups - delays and lost baggage, neither of which occurred - and for extra time sightseeing in Copenhagen which we really did not need. This extra day eliminated that need for any more time in Copenhagen after the cruise, but we scheduled an extra day because Princess had warned us (in their general brochures) not to schedule a morning flight. I believe that we could have made it to our 11 AM flight and saved time and money.
We stayed at the Marriott. It was well located and we could use points (to again avoid being hit by the lowly US dollar.) Oftentimes, we have been (and you may be) tempted to try the local flavor hotels, especially the older or smaller quaint ones. In my humble opinion, most times, unless you are in a particularly small town or cultural setting, stick with the plain vanilla Marriott. No surprises. The rooms, service and amenities are pretty much as you expect in the US. You won't get too much of the local flavor, but when you are tired and just want a hot shower and a good bed, you want no surprises. Using points also gave us access to the Executive lounge. This was a godsend. They provided free continental breakfasts and afternoon appetizers, all the beverages (including alcohol) you could want, and free internet service (including computer). Given the cost of food, this extra was worth the cost of admission alone.
If I could give some advice, it would be to go to the ship late in the afternoon and give yourself some time to get to the dock. The late sailing time (8 PM or so) enables you to spend time during the embarkation day in Copenhagen to sightsee until about 3 or 4. Why rush to get to the ship only to sit there for hours or spend money going back to central Copenhagen. The Marriott does offer a shuttle bus, but it leaves around 11. Thus, we decided to take a taxi. However, if you are taking a taxi to the dock, late afternoon will hit rush hour traffic. Plus, and this is important, taxis (from the city center or city hotels) don't like to go to the cruise dock for embarkation because it is usually only a one-way fare for them. They will give you some excuse for not taking you there - "no room for your bags", but have the doorman help you get a taxi that will take you there. It may take some time finding one who will, hence, give yourself about an hour. You can take the local bus or train, but I think that is more hassle than it is worth. If you take the train (or local bus), you have to drag your bags to the train station and then drag them from the train depot to the cruise pier. That last leg looked to be about 3/4 mile, crossing busy roads. I saw people doing it and they were huffing and puffing and not looking too happy. The bus stop is located close to the train stop. The cost of the taxi was about $45. Sure it is more expensive, but you are on vacation and you can make up the cost elsewhere in the trip.
Processing for embarkation by Princess was a breeze at that time of the day.
As I said, we got our money's worth even though there are criticisms. Remember, you are on a mega-cruise (McCruise?) and volume business is what its all about. So, while we all should expect 5 star service, we (me included) need to remember that we are not paying for 5 star service. So, with that expectation, I believe, that on the whole, Princess delivers. The Crown Princess is a huge boat. It holds over 3,000 passengers and another 1,200 or so crew. That is both good and bad, I suppose. With a large boat (OK, ship), you may be less subject to rough seas. And, a large boat gives you more places to roam, especially important on a longer cruise - over seven days. However, there are crowds everywhere. The gift shops; deck chairs, buffet lines and tables and other common areas always seemed to be crowded.
Food. Food is always a biggy in cruise reviews and for good reason: that seems to be the favorite (only?) thing to do on the ship - eat. I thought the food in the dining rooms was fair to good. The salads always seemed to be a little limp, but the otherwise, the rest of the dishes were OK. My complaint here would be the selection. There was not a whole lot of selection for the entrees. In the buffet restaurants, Horizon Court and Caribe, the food was barely OK to lousy. The selection did not seem to change at all, especially for breakfast and lunch. Desserts were good, however, and there was never a shortage of food. There were also burger and pizza bars at no additional charge. Other critiques: the specialty restaurants were a hefty add-on charge - we did not try one this cruise as our experience has been that they just were not worth it and in speaking with someone who did, they concurred; charging for ice cream - lousy ice cream too; (Tip: if you want ice cream, go to the pay dessert/tapas bar next to the coffee bar and pay for the gelato - same price, but better ice cream). And, at the start of the cruise, at what must have been a cost savings attempt, Princess had servers at the buffet line doling out the portions. There must have been many complaints as this practice ended after a day or two. Credit to Princess for changing if this indeed was what happened. Finally, the coffee is almost undrinkable at all of their restaurants (not the coffee bar). Go to the coffee bar and figure on spending a few bucks every time you want coffee.
Service. The service for general needs, as with on most all cruises, was timely and adequate. What seems to be the universal criticism, however, is the attitude of the servers which, at best can be described at times to be ambivalent, at worst, disdain. On this cruise, I found that to be only partially true. It was true in the buffet restaurants, but not so in the sit-down restaurants or our cabin steward. Our cabin steward always had a smile and a hello for us. And, on the whole, with a few exceptions, the wait staff in the sit-down restaurants were eager to please. At the specialty bars, etc., the service was good, if not very good.
Criticisms. A few. 1. Nickel and diming by Princess. What is this with charging for a place to go for some peace and quiet? Princess charged something like $15 for a half day in the "Sanctuary" lounge. Will Princess next charge for deck chairs? They are already charging extra for food: specialty restaurants, ice cream. Tip: if you want someplace inside to go for peace and quiet during the day, go to the Skywalker Lounge at the stern of the ship. It is absolutely vacant, they leave you alone (or you can order a drink) and you get a terrific view. 2. St. Petersburg. Princess misleads you when they say that you can only use their tours otherwise you will need a visa. You can book with any number of local tours directly. (See my comment below on St. Petersburg.) And it was just a mess in debarkation. I realize that the Russian immigration only provides six or seven agents to process the whole boat. However, for Princess to reserve all but one of them for the Princess tours and then hold everyone back onboard until there is absolutely no one in line was just ridiculous. As a consequence, we were left waiting for an hour before we got off and thus, held up our tour group. Tip: No one tells you, but when Princess tells you to go to the lounge to get a debarkation number, go there a full hour or more before you need to get off the boat. 3. Debarkation in Copenhagen. See comment below. 4. What happened to ATM machines onboard? (Tip: You'll need cash in a few places for local transportation. While they say ATM machines abound in Europe making travelers' checks a thing of the past, in all of the ports we hit, ATM machines were hard to find in the immediate pier area. There is a cash conversion machine on-board, but, of course, you need cash. We finally resorted to just giving US dollars for tour guide tips.)
My last bit of criticism has to do with Princess's warning about buying from local vendors and constantly pushing their own on-board shops to buy things. Their warning: you can't be sure that what you are buying locally is the real deal or if it breaks or is not the real thing, getting satisfaction once you get home. This, of course, is all true. However, in my opinion, this really hinders the diversity and choice of what you can buy. For example, amber jewelry is a big shopping item on this cruise. While you have a nice array of choices on-board, they can not compare with what you will find in, say, the old town of Gdansk. So, while I agree you will take a chance if you buy locally ... there should be another option -- Princess could have considered to do as some other cruise lines do: pre-screen various merchants who will agree that they will be customer responsive to Princess passengers and have their stores indicate that they are an "approved store". (Princess can charge a fee for this to make up any money they loose from on-board sales.) While the price of goods will likely be made higher for going through this certification option, at least you would be afforded an opportunity to buy locally with less fear. It would not only support the local merchants, but give you a greater selection of items.
Ports of Call. As I mentioned, I will not give a blow by blow recount of our visit in each port and what they had to offer. Rather, I will try to give a few tips that will hopefully make things easier and better for your brief stays. All in all, you will not have sufficient time to do everything you want to do in each and all of the ports. To think that you can do all you want to do in, say, Stockholm in 5 or 6 hours is unrealistic. So, make a list of what your priorities are and develop a plan on how you might try to accomplish that. For example, if your target sites are spread around, see if a Hop-on-Hop-off (HOHO) bus will get you there. Or, think about taking a guided tour provided by Princess. Given the dollar's value, the price of a Princess guided tour is not much more than a HOHO bus. And, listen to John Lawrence's talks on the various stops. He has good practical insights on what to do and how to get around. His talks were invaluable. My conclusion is that you will see most of what you want to see in each city, but you will feel rushed and you will not get a good flavor of the city.
Stockholm. You have a very short time here. We wanted to see the Vasa Museum, then the local palace and do a bit of local shopping and walking around. The Vasa is located away from the city center. So, we opted for a Princess city tour that took us to the Vasa and then back into town for a tour of the armory. Forget the armory, it is a total waste of time. But, do see the Vasa as it is indeed impressive. Our Princess tour also did not leave us any time to stroll around the old town streets. That was a big disappointment for us. If we had it to do over again, either we would go it alone or we would take the city tour, but do our own thing when they got back to the old part of town.
Helsinki. There was not anything really in particular we wanted to see except the Rock Church. So, we opted for the HOHO. You can catch this at the dockside, but be aware that they DO NOT take credit cards, contrary to Mr. Lawrence and the local tourist guides dockside. They'll take US Dollars, but likely at a poor exchange rate. Walking the Esplanade was disappointing and not worth doing. The most fun was the open market.
St. Petersburg. This will be the highlight of your trip. Spend your money and energy and take a two-day tour of as many sights as you can fit in. You will likely never get back here and the history is very interesting. Listen to John Lawrence's talks if you are not familiar with the history. It will enliven your experience. And, my suggestion is to take a local-based tour. Permit me here to plug Alla Tours http://www.alla-tour.com/ We booked with them. (There are others such as DenRus, but we liked Alla's itinerary.) Don't worry, Alla does not ask for any payment up front or credit card info. The tour package was equivalent or better than Princess. It was also cheaper. And, they use only 21 person vans, rather than huge buses. That makes getting off and on the vehicles much quicker - something you will do frequently on the tour. You can also customize and reserve one for your own group. Alla was always eager to please us. And, the tour guide, Elena, was excellent, just excellent. Every expectation of the tour was realized, which was good since St. Petersburg was expected to be and, in the end, was the most significant stop of the cruise. Just give yourself plenty of time - at least an hour -- to get off the boat to meet up with your tour group.
Tallin. This was somewhat of a disappointment. You can walk to the old town, but it is a hike - a good 30 to 45 minutes and some of it uphill. And, once there, we did not find it too exciting, just souvenir shops, basically.
Gdansk. Go into Gdansk and do not think about staying around the boat and walking into Gdynia. Directions into Gdynia would be too complex and John Lawrence did not even want to try. Plus, it did not look like there was much there. Either take a Gdansk-on-your-own for the transportation to Gdansk or a city tour which is only about $10 more. We were pleasantly surprised. The old town with all of its shops was much more interesting than expected and better by far than Tallin. There was much in the way of amber if that is what you are looking for.
Oslo. Two things were on our itinerary here: Vigeland Park and the Noble Peace Prize site. Since Vigeland Park is outside of the main part of the city, you will need transportation. We took the local trolley car. You will need local cash to buy your tickets - two tickets for a round trip. Give yourself time to get the tickets as it will take you a few minutes to figure out the machine (no English here) or to wait for those in front of you to do the same. If the trolley comes before you can get your ticket, enter the car at the front and pay the driver the cash. It will cost you a bit more, but, maybe like our driver did with some folks, because there was such a crowd of tourist needing tickets and he wanted to stay on schedule, he just took off. I don't know if he ever did get the fares from those folks. We were there on Sunday and just about everything was closed. Probably good too, because Oslo is supposed to have the highest cost of living in the world. As for the Noble Peace Prize, you have two options: the Noble Museum and the City Hall where they present the Prize. We took the Museum tour (tour is free, but there is an entrance fee). I think we might have gotten just as much out of the experience to go to the City Hall and take there free tour (with entrance fee). But, the museum has a lot, if you want to spend the time.
Disembarkation in Copenhagen. If you are going to the airport to fly out that day, take a Princess bus. If you are not, take a taxi. The Princess will get you off the boat early in the morning to meet you plane if you take their bus. However, the bus charge is something like $45 per person. A taxi into town is $45 for the whole car. Finally, at the airport, give yourself plenty of time for security checks. We had our passport checked three times and had to go through two metal detection machines.
Finally, mellow out and be happy. You are on vacation.
Balcony cabin on the Aloha Deck. Bed and closet were great. Bathroom was tiny. The balcony was a waste of space and the space could better have been used to make the cabin larger.