Royal Princess Cruise Review by VikingExplorer
- Sail Date: April 2016
- Destination: Transatlantic
BACKGROUND: Transatlantic crossings are my idea of a wonderful way to begin or end a European cruise, and this Princess cruise itinerary offered places I had never visited. I’m working my way through a list of my ancestral countries, and this cruise was a great way to see some of the places on my list. I’m a mature, adventurous solo traveler who loves sea voyages and a lot of ports for my money. I have cruised 48 times in 36 years, on various cruise lines, but mostly on Princess.
TRAVEL TO THE PORT: I live where it is difficult to get anywhere directly, so I made a fun, leisurely trip out of the journey to the ship combining family visits en route with flights from my home via DC and on to Ft. Lauderdale. I had a private limo take me to the ship from the Ft. Lauderdale hotel, as past experience with too-few cabs and too many cruisers wanting to get to the port resulted in observing some ugly verbal confrontations between hotel guests and the cab drivers, and long waits to get to the ship. This is not an acceptable way to begin an expensive vacation, and I’d rather pay extra and have a dependable, cool, polite, and clean ride to the ship without the stress.
HOTEL: I stayed at a Hilton Homewood Suites property in Ft. Lauderdale before my cruise, and it was not only convenient to the port and airport, but had everything needed for a comfortable and friendly pre-cruise stay.
EMBARKATION: Total chaos with far too many people in too small a space, nobody knowing where to go, and endless lines which went in circles. Irritable port agents were trying to direct gridlocked traffic. The Princess agents were trying to organize people into lines, but they often did not know where to send people. I am Elite status with Princess Captains Circle, and was looking for the much-appreciated expedited check-in line. It took at least 20 minutes in the heat and confusion to find the line, which intersected the line for regular check-in. It took about 40 minutes altogether to find the line, fill out the health questionnaire, and wait for an available Princess agent to check in and finally board the ship. Mercifully, my cabin was ready when I reached it. Princess sends “timed boarding” bulletins to cruise guests with the hopes of staggering arrival and check-in times, but obviously this is totally and repeatedly ignored at every cruise I’ve been on. Everybody wants to be the first one on the ship, and who can blame them, perhaps.
SHIP: The Royal Princess is quite new, very big, and very tall. For complete statistical details, refer to the information on this ship on the Princess official website. The central atrium and plaza area are visually stunning and beautiful, and this is what you see when you enter at embarkation. Overall, the ship is lovely, and seems to have enough room for its passenger load of more than 3,500 guests. It seemed to be well maintained when seen from the outside at the pier. There is no official promenade deck, so circular walking is limited to the top deck sports area jogging track. It has all the usual cruise ship amenities, but does not feature the “theme park” or more unusual activities such as skating rinks, climbing walls, etc. found on other cruise lines. I would guess that this ship was designed for itineraries where a more mature age group would travel, rather than those wanting constant action and a tropical pool-side ambience. Most decks had a for-fee Laundromat, a blessing on longer cruises. $3 per wash, $3 per dry, $1.50 for detergent and fabric sheets. Save money and bring your own products. Machines on the wall dispense the tokens for the washers, products, and dryers – just slide your cruise card and it posts the cost to your shipboard account. Elite guests get complimentary laundry service, but there was a three-day backlog on my cruise (and the ship valet laundry service tends to shrink things). Corridors in the cabin decks seemed narrower than usual, and were often blocked by large carts with cleaning and linen supplies. Those cruisers with mobility issues and scooters or wheelchairs really had a struggle to get through the corridors at times, and it was impossible for two average-size people to walk side by side. There is no center staircase system currently on this ship, but rumor has it that this will be installed in the September dry-dock visit. The layout of the ship has the services, atrium and plaza, dining rooms, shops, entertainment, cafes, etc. on the bottom three levels (medical center is on deck 4 below all this), and then a thick layer of cabins-only decks, with several decks at the very top which house the buffet restaurants, pools, outdoor sports venues, huge outdoor movie screen, and other outdoor-type entertainment and dining facilities. Whoever designed the ship knew some strategic marketing strategies very well – almost every traffic pattern on the lower decks funnels directly through where the money-maker venues are – it is nearly impossible to avoid the shops, casino, art gallery, bars, as you come and go to the theater, restaurants, plaza area. The casino even has a convenient stairwell directly down into it near the art gallery.
Princess used to distribute its final printed bulletin at the end of the cruise in the form of a “Log of the Cruise”. This was not done on this cruise, and I was very disappointed to lose out on this nice souvenir about the mileage, ports, weather, etc. After talking to Princess about this, I was told they were “experimenting” with not doing this, as there were people who did not care much for this. I’d rather have the cruise log at voyage end than the endless daily inserts of “sales” and “specials” which clogged the Princess Patter daily bulletin, and no doubt clogged the paper recycling bins as well. If something isn’t broken, don’t fix it, so please, Princess, stop “experimenting” with things people like.
Some of the Princess ships have recently installed high-end jewelry boutiques. The merchandise is beautiful, but somehow this offering doesn’t go with the type of passengers on these cruises. I saw a lot of sales people in the shop on the Royal Princess, but very few customers, if at all. It would be a more appropriate offering on Crystal or other up-market cruise lines.
The ship itself was extremely stable and comfortable in any and all weather conditions and no matter what speed it was traveling at. There were several days of bad weather with high winds and seas, but the ship just steamed along smoothly with very little excess motion noted, and had excellent stabilizer systems. In good weather and at top cruising speed, it was as steady as the Rock of Gibraltar we eventually visited.
CABIN: I reserved a mini-suite in a midship location on Deck 10. It was quiet, no vibration, no noise from cabins on either side. I could hear people in the corridor, however. Some of the stewards were up bright and early and were enthusiastically vacuuming far too early, and/or calling to each other or greeting guests by name in the corridor early in the morning. The balcony is much smaller than average, and the two deck chairs and ottomans and small round table took up 95% of the deck space. It was very hard to arrange even one chair and ottoman – had to put the other chair, ottoman and table tight into a corner to have room to stretch out and enjoy the balcony just for myself. The bathroom was larger than average, and had a hand-held shower over a large tub. Nice big rectangular sink, with a single-lever faucet. There was lovely marble in the bathroom. Plenty of shelf space, and incredibly good lighting. All the cabin lighting, and there were a lot of fixtures, was bright with more natural coloring, than the old yellowish or blue tubes usually found on the older ships. Good ventilation in the bathroom and cabin, too. The air conditioning did not work well at all in the hottest part of the trip, and once into a colder region and ports, it was freezing all over the ship as well as in the cabin. Had some problems with no cold water in the shower the first day, and no cold water in the sink the second day. Very scratchy and cheap toilet paper in the bathroom, same with the Kleenex tissues. A small amenity bag was in the bathroom, with extra upgraded toiletry items.
The bed was two twins firmly attached together, making a very nice king bed without the usual detectable center divide. Nice thick firm mattress, and decent linens, and four pillows offering both feather and polyester filling. Duvet covering was just right for the various cabin temperatures. Two large drapes are tied back against the walls, and could be used to close off the sitting area if desired. There were nice sheer curtains over the balcony glass wall, and on top of these were really good blackout curtains. There was a good-sized sleeper sofa, table, and chair in the sitting area, two flat screen TVs (bedroom and sitting area walls), large combination desk/vanity, good mirrors, and a large open closet area. Plenty of drawers and shelves for everything, and a convenient safe. Lots of good wooden hangers, too. The furniture seemed in better shape than on older ships, and the carpet was clean and nice. Lovely peaceful wood and color scheme, ample space, and the cabin was a blessed, peaceful retreat at any time. Having one wall completely of glass was fantastic for viewing the ocean and sky when it was too cold to be out on the balcony. The balcony is such a valued luxury to me that I am spoiled for life now and will only book balcony cabins. Be advised that with ecology in mind, this ship has a small slot by the door in which you place your cabin key card to activate the lights within the cabin. It is lighted at night, and also makes a great place to keep your card handy. Not expecting this, I was wondering why the lights did not work when I first entered the cabin, but found out quickly when placing the card in the slot what it was really for. Princess unfortunately does not offer any fare discounts for solo travelers occupying a double-occupancy cabin.
ACTIVITIES: Something for everyone, with enormous variety, which seem to be aimed at a mature guest population. There are fitness, gambling, spa, shopping, entertainment, enrichment, dining, and everything in between type of activities from morning until late at night, plus the heavenly option of doing nothing more than sitting on one’s balcony and reading or relaxing while watching the ocean roll by. As a Zumba fan, I was thrilled to see Zumba twice a day on sea days. There was a very popular “Pop Choir” for those who enjoy choral singing, and we did two performances – “Sound of Music” and a collection of more popular modern music. Both were well attended and appreciated by the passenger audience. There was also a “Runway At Sea” fashion show, with models both female and male from the passengers, and some very lovely high-end jewelry and clothing were loaned to the passenger models in the show in the lovely atrium area. If shuffleboard and napkin-folding are your thing, this was offered as well. Book clubs, bridge, needlework groups, various get-togethers for different professions and interests, games, live closed-circuit TV programming with passengers, internet café, wine tasting – you name it and some form of activity seemed to be available, but not always at sensible or convenient times. Religious services and Bible study were also offered at appropriate times. Shopping fans had a lot of boutiques and “sidewalk” and “bargain table” sales to spend money on. You could not be bored on this ship unless you deliberately tried to be. Some guests were happy just eating all the time, and there were ample opportunities to enjoy food from all over the world. Some items were free, others had a fee. Many guests enjoyed socializing with each other, and IPhones, tablets, laptops, and other IT gadgets were visible in use all over the ship. "Enrichment" activities often were infomercials for ship services, rather than genuine educational or enlightening information.
ENTERTAINMENT: The best entertainment on the ship was the Alegria Strings, a quartet of beautiful young talented ladies from Ukraine. They could and did play a huge variety of musical styles, and were immensely popular every time they appeared. I saw one production show, which was very dated despite the colorful costumes and lights. The lead female singer was badly off key. It reminded me of a high school theatrical performance. I did not go to the rest of the shows, as I don’t care for comedians, magicians, or other vaudeville-type performers. Seats were hard to find without sitting in one an hour before the show began, and many people were standing or sitting in the aisles or stairs on the floor. I saw some younger people using cell phones or laptops before and during the show I attended, while elderly or disabled people were forced to stand or sit on the floor. The few times I went to the lounges, the entertainment there was also a bit off-key and just not very good. In-cabin TV programming offered better options than the live performers in most cases. Some of the music heard in the atrium and plaza area was so over-reverbed and over-amplified that conversation was impossible. This was terrible, as this area is so inviting for socialization, with the various food cafes and other shops, nice seating, and great people-watching opportunities. There is a TV-style studio on the ship, where live programming was broadcast from, as well as other game-show type programming and passenger activities. It’s small, but has all the authentic TV studio lights, cameras, etc. The popular Movies Under the Stars seemed to have a dedicated small following, but most of the at-sea weather was hardly conducive to sitting out in the elements and wind for the movies. The movies seemed to be on day and night, and if one wanted quiet around the pool area, you were out of luck.
While not strictly entertainment, the extremely well-spoken British captain usually made an announcement at noon as to weather, sea conditions, location, and some nautical information or folklore as well. He was excellent at doing this, but unfortunately very difficult to hear as the volume from the bridge PA system was turned down too low. If one were in the buffet dining area at noon, the noise level there drowned out most of what the captain had to say. It was interesting to note that you could hear the announcements (many very badly timed) for the money-maker things like art auctions loud and clear anywhere in the ship, however.
DINING: The food in the dining room was not very good. I heard several passengers comment that they could get better food at Denny’s or any chain restaurant or local diner. Why the ship dining decision-makers had to have a “Caribbean”-themed menu all the way across the Atlantic to Portugal and Spain, I will never understand. This area is NOT the Caribbean. Everything on the menu seemed to be some kind of weird alcohol-infused fruit thing or cold fruit soup, and nearly every plate had a pile of what looked like regurgitated bits of red and green peppers and some sort of brown stuff I could not identify. Menus had a skimpy assortment of each course, not like the good old days of cruising when there may have been 8 or 9 choices. Home-cooking choices such as fried chicken, or other ordinary fare, were available every night. Princess customer relations has told me that surveys from older passengers have requested plain, more bland home cooking type foods than the “fancy” or gourmet items usually enjoyed on cruise ship menus, and they apparently have listened to this. It’s a valid point, and considerate of older guests who may have delicate digestive tracts – but most people want things they don’t get at home, usually, when they cruise. Some of the food offerings were just plain weird – perhaps a good way to get rid of leftovers. One night the desert plant, yucca, was offered with a fancy French name. and it looked like green string or some kind of fiber that wasn’t meant for humans to eat. The fish was mostly bait quality, and one night it was so badly prepared it resembled raw whale blubber. The lobster tails were tiny, but properly prepared on the few occasions they appeared. Portion sizing is very generous for a cruise ship. The Caesar salad the first night was actually warm, with odd-tasting dressing. I sent it back twice, and just gave up on it. I remember Princess cuisine from cruising 30 years ago, with real, hearty, tasty, even gourmet, Continental cuisine, and times sure have changed. There were no “heart healthy” comments on the menus, which is a mixed blessing. The famous Princess fettuccine Alfredo was a disgrace. The old style years ago had a marvelous cream sauce so thick a spoon would stand up in it, and the pasta was home-made. In
recent years, the sauce has been watered down to the consistency of skim milk, was often missing from the pasta on my cruise, and was nearly tasteless. The noodles are definitely commercial and bought in bulk, and taste strange. Vegetarians sure don’t get much choice, as there is one main course item on each menu, and it is usually heavy in onions and peppers or strange sauces and contents. Deserts were OK, but tended heavily towards ice cream or strange combinations of fruit and nuts. Lots of nuts – nut allergy folks beware. Most deserts seemed to rest on a smear of cherry jelly on the desert plates. Cheesecake and ice cream were among offerings nightly as alternate choices, and there was fruit and cheese for those wishing it. The dining service was slowed by the waiters offering their suggestions, but most people on cruises know what they want and don’t want to waste time hearing about what their waiter thinks is good. Everybody has different tastes. It was extremely annoying during the meal to have the bar waiters come around and try to push expensive liqueurs and after-dinner drinks, or beer, or wine. I had to repeatedly ask for my water glass to be filled, and I like a lot of ice in the water, something which seemed impossible to get without asking for a glass of ice first. The headwaiter annoyingly timed his little visits with the standard “how was your day” question, as if he really cared. He also wasn’t happy to be told about poor quality food that had to be sent back, or very slow service. The last night of the cruise, the ancient old traditional Baked Alaska parade was put on right before the main course was served, and the dining room was put into darkness. A blaring announcement tried to rally everybody to applaud the “great food and service”, and all I could think of was the poor quality of both, plus waiting another 15 minutes after over an hour waiting for the first course. I got up and left and enjoyed a quiet, solitary, peaceful dinner in the Horizon Court buffet. There is some Princess-sponsored chef who is famous for chocolate items, and some of his desert concoctions were interesting and rather good, but overall the food was disappointing and mediocre in the dining room. Reports from those who ate at the for-fee specialty dining venues reported better food.
I did not have time to have a dining room lunch on this cruise.
The Horizon Court buffet was massive, with a serpentine of labyrinths where food was available, and the Bistro had different offerings within the Court. There is a cute little Pastry Shop in the Bistro, for breakfast pastries and deserts later in the day. It was very popular with both the foodies and some fruit flies who favored hovering over the open baskets of pastries at the entrance. Once I figured out how to maneuver to which type of food at the buffet area, however, it was fun and easy to find what I wanted and see an endless display of lots of different kinds of foods, both hot and cold. There are no trays to hold your dish or dishes, however, and as Princess used to have a fairly decent-sized oval plastic tray plate, now they have gone to a smaller round dinner plate which does not hold much. Unless you can tolerate piling all types of food in layers on your plate, you need four hands or a waiter to get a bowl of soup, plate of salad, main entrees on the dinner plate, and then hike to the Pastry Shop for desert. With very few exceptions, the soups on display appeared to be what looked like “gray water” or dishwater consistency broth, with the same limp, pale vegetables in the liquid every day. I put some food down on a table, went back for what I was missing, and came back to find it all gone. Very inconvenient, and had to start all over. Beverage service was OK to slow in the Horizon Court area, with a lot of zombie-like servers standing around in the morning doing nothing, and very few servers at the busy times of day. Even at breakfast, waiters were very annoying in trying to push beverage packages, beer, and wine – not what I need or want at 6 AM. Serving tongs were not always placed on something clean in the buffet lines, and not everyone used hand sanitizer, either. The dinner meal in Horizon Court was served on plastic table mats which felt sticky to the touch, and had silverware directly on them. I did not see the mats cleaned while there, and worried about how clean the silverware was. The international foods, such as Asian, Indian, Mexican and themed foods from Greece and elsewhere were far better than the typical and usual American foods. Despite the size and complexity of the Horizon Court buffet area, it had a far better selection of food than others I’ve seen. Their main big problem was keeping hot food hot, and cold food cold. It rarely happened, and as well, the pastries were hard, stale, and dry even as soon as the buffet opened, and French toasty and waffles were cold and soggy. Maybe it doesn’t matter if you get hungry enough, but considering the cost of the cruise, they really need to do much better – and it’s also a health hazard to serve food not kept at proper temperatures. The flooring in the buffet areas was stone or other slippery material, and there were always spills and water, which made things very dangerous to walk on despite warning signs, and especially in rough weather.
PORTS: They were wonderful and varied. After the Atlantic crossing portion of the cruise, visited ports included Funchal and Lisbon in Portugal, Gibraltar, and Malaga, Cartagena, and Palma de Mallorca in Spain, before the final port of Barcelona at cruise end. A port call at Cadiz (for Seville) was cancelled due to safety concerns in very bad weather, and Lisbon was substituted on short notice. All the ports were a good sampling and introduction into what their respective countries had to offer, and I definitely hope to return and see more of the area next year. Gibraltar, especially, was impressive as it appeared out of the haze and sea spray while sailing through the Straits of Gibraltar. Seeing both the European and African continents at the same time, and then the legendary Rock of Gibraltar was a scenic highlight for me on this cruise. The weather at Gibraltar was gorgeous, with a brisk breeze, warm sunshine, and totally clear viewing from the top of the Rock. There were high winds on the voyage to Gibraltar, and the captain did an outstanding and comfortable job getting the ship safely docked in port. This cruise had an outstanding overall itinerary.
EXCURSIONS: There were plenty to choose from at all the ports, but from long experience, I’ve had enough over-long, hot stuffy bus tours to last a lifetime, and now pre-book my own private tours outside of Princess. While I cannot comment on the quality of the tours offered due to not taking any on this cruise, I heard mixed reviews from those on the Princess tours - most guests seemed to enjoy what they had booked. It appeared from the tour listings that many of the tours were aimed at wine-tasting and shopping. Some tours were all-day marathons with a meal or snack included – many of the places visited had the highlight attractions hours away from the ports, unfortunately. Shuttle bus service was provided for a fee by the ship in most of the ports for independent travelers who just wanted to get into town from the ship – but often the cost of the shuttle was more than a taxi. It was a nice convenience option to have the shuttles, however.
DISEMBARKATION: This was one of the best-organized activities on the ship, and something Princess does exceptionally well. You choose your time and needs on a form, the staff assigns color-coded luggage tags and a where to meet and leave the ship time and place on a return form, luggage goes out by 11 PM the night before cruise end, and you are all set. I never heard a sound as the luggage in the corridor was collected during the night. If you wish to haul your own bags off the ship at dawn, that option is available, as well. If you don’t like your assigned time, just see Guest Services and they will take care of any changes. Most people were off the ship earlier than expected, and I left with perhaps 12 people around 7:30 AM, off the ship in minutes, and the bags were ready in the terminal, grouped neatly by color, in Barcelona. There was a short line to pass through the border control booths, and that was it. Very quick, polite, and efficient. The disembarkation planners should be in charge of service in the dining room. A private limo service took me efficiently to the Barcelona airport ahead of schedule.
SUMMARY: The Royal Princess is a very big and very beautiful ship. Cruises with Princess offer an affordable way to see a lot of ports, offer numerous cabin choices, and have some really good itineraries around the globe. I sail with Princess mainly for the boat ride, the ports, and assurance of usually clean, very nice cabins and a more mature passenger population on the itineraries I enjoy. The cruise ambience is nice without being snobby or stuffy, and the atmosphere is casual but not slob. There are a few formal dress evenings, but the dress code (despite posted signs at the dining room) is rarely enforced. I would like to see better dining room service and higher-quality food, but after years of repeated feedback to Princess, I’ve not seen any changes. Carnival Corporation owns Princess, and is trying to cut costs and save money, and perhaps cutting staff and food quality is how they believe they will save. Hitting the dining service and food quality is not the right way, however, and people will eventually tire of this and go elsewhere, no matter how lovely the ship is or how many ports are on a particular cruise. Some aspects of the Carnival style have filtered down into what used to be a very classy middle-of-the-road affordable cruise experience for many people. It is sad to observe the changes since I began cruising with Princess in 1980, and especially since Carnival bought Princess. Bigger ships do not mean better quality. Otherwise, on my recent cruise, the itinerary was fabulous, and a transatlantic crossing is a wonderful way to spend a week if you have the time. I would gladly repeat a transatlantic crossing just by itself for the experience, and this was my second crossing. Having a week after the crossing to cruise on with a port every day enhances the experience. I arrived at the first port in the right time zone physically and mentally, rested and ready to explore a new or old world. Princess does a good job in many aspects of cruising, and I look forward to further cruising with this line - but just be aware of the realities of their service and food – it’s not the good old days of cruising, if that is what you are expecting.
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