We had a great holiday. I was grateful for all the help I found out on forums like this one beforehand so I wanted to leave behind some tips that would have helped me plan my holiday in the hope it will be useful for others.
1) Excursions. The places we visited were the highlight of the holiday, particularly Lofoten Islands and North Cape. Be warned that the ship excursion prices were ridiculous and you could do anything you wanted at a fraction of the cost. I watched some of the excursion tour talks which actively said that you wouldn't be able to do private tours in locations like North Cape and Lofoten Islands - Absolute nonsense. We had various options everywhere to choose from at every stop ranging from organised tours (which tied into the ship's timetable which at at a stroke put pay to the Princess fear mongering that doing things privately meant you might get left behind) to getting on a local bus or hopping into a taxi - this might sound scary to some but it was simple and easy to do - everyone in Norway appeared to speak fluent English and all the services we used were well used to catering for cruise passengers. We had not pre-booked anything and bought all our tickets etc on the day with no issues whatsoever,
Some of the ship's tours cost around USD250 per person! I still don't know whether I am jealous of the people who can spend that in every port on top of paying for a holiday or whether I am astounded by why anyone would go on this when you can recreate it simply and easily yourself at a fraction of a cost with no risk. I repeat - NO RISK. For example I think the Princess trip to the the Viking Museum in the Lofoten Islands was 150 USD per person. Our family of 3 did the entire thing for under USD 80 (that is all in, not per person) with the freedom to do what we wanted when we wanted and not stuck with everyone on a coach. As I have said, if I had paid attention to the tour excursion talk I would have believed it would have been impossible to do this independently. The museum was amazing: Longboat trip, axe throwing, archery, lunch in a viking chieftain's house of lamb stew cooked in a pot over a fire, washed down with mead! We had a great time.
On a similar theme, I wouldn't have been able to look people in the eye if I tried to charge the USD 100 for trips to places literally metres away from where the ship docked that had an entry price of a fraction of the cost.
North Cape was another one where the scare stories were peddled about doing anything other than a ship's tour. This was beyond easy. There was a tourist information point yards away from where the ship docked and we were able to book a guided tour to the North Cape with numerous stops on the way and a fantastic local tour guide (Monica - very knowledgeable with some great comic lines). The Ice Bar in Honningsvag may seem tacky to some but we found it to be great fun! The North Cape was brilliant, we had great weather and lots of fun.
Again Olden was easy to do independently. We took a return coach trip that took us to the start of the main glacier trail and picked us up a couple of hours later. I read numerous things about using troll cars (golf buggies) and how difficult this walk to the glacier would be. Given we had a 4 year old I had been concerned we wouldn't be able to make it and whether we would need to get one of these troll cars. However there was no issue whatsoever with the walk up the hill. Yes it is a bit of a trek and much of it is clearly up a hill but for those of you wondering if you can make it and want something to gauge this by note that our 4 year old managed it with no complaint or any help whatsoever and we were up and down well in time to get the coach back.
Stravanger, Tromso, Trondheim, Bergen etc were all easy to walk and navigate around and we had no problem independently getting to all the museums and sites of interest we wanted to see. It was a bit rainy in Trondheim and Stravanger but we still had a great time.
2) The ship itself - I've seen various reviews saying the decor was dated, things were rusty etc. We honestly didn't notice - too busy having fun. I loved the amount of viewing points available on board. It was great fun navigating around the ship and my 4 year old loved guessing which lift would arrive first. We had an interior cabin so no window or balcony so it was great that there was always somewhere I could go to watch the world go by and I honestly think for this specific cruise that was the right call to make. Interior cabin also meant that we could make it pitch black to get the little one off to sleep. The cabin steward was good fun, always friendly, always willing to help and always eager to entertain our child. He also would fix up the bunk bed in such a way that our child could sleep whilst we could watch TV or read in the evening without disturbing them which really added to the quality of our holiday.
3) Food - We mainly ate int he evenings in fixed time dining. Our waitress and assistant waitress were brilliant and both were great at interacting with our 4 year old and going out of their way to get her the drinks and desserts she wanted. The Horizon buffet was a little bit busy and there was always a bit of a trek to find an empty table. The selection was always great, loved the variety of fresh fruit and desserts. The quality of some of the food didn't match the dining rooms but it was a buffet so I didn't expect it to. It was good for what it was and the pizzas were very good. The International Cafe was great and we ate far too many pastries and pies!!!
4) Other passengers - There were a couple of times (on sea days) were I felt suffocated by the number of people around. This had been my main fear of going on a cruise. However this was only a couple of times and I just needed to go back to the cabin or get some outside space. After having read a fair few comments on this site making snide remarks about "little darlings" I was a little apprehensive about how other passengers would react to our young family. However i felt the vast majority of passengers went out their way to talk and interact with our child so my worries were misplaced. I did however witness some extremely rude behaviour from passengers to other passengers and cruise ship staff. At times it was breathtaking. I agree with other reviews i have read about people pretty much camping out to reserve seats in the princess theatre or in the various seating areas onboard. If you are going to spend most of your holiday sitting in a seat solely to reserve it all day, you may as well be sitting in a cafe in ASDA.
5) Entertainment - I thought the quizzes were quite fun but there was a little bit of a rush to try and get a seat (see above). The quality of the performance entertainment was very average. I thought the magician was in his element during the kid's show but Magic to Do and the evening adult magic show was pretty terrible. From where I was sitting it was like watching one of those magician tricks revealed shows. Watching him struggle to find the on switch or get the right grip beneath the table cloth to make the table float was a particular highlight. There was an "empty" box were people kept on appearing out of but from where I was sat I could see all the people in the "empty" box waiting to come out. Watching him fiddle about trying to get things out of his fake thumb etc made me feel bad for him. At one point he even had a pair of those light up thumbs that kids buy off the internet for a couple of quid - and he kept telling us he has performed at the White House - I can only assume it was for Bush junior! The singing made me tense akin to watching X Factor auditions. All in all entertaining but not in the way the intended.
It was never a big driver for us as we knew we wouldn't see much due to the little one's early bed times but if the ships's shows/performances were one of our driving factors in booking with Princess this would have been an area of disappointment.
6) Staff - I thought the staff were excellent and can only assume this is a major source of pride for Princess. Polite, Cheery, helpful and not overbearing. Alston our steward was fantastic and our table waiting team of Cherrie and Angge were both brilliant. They all definitely added to our holiday. I've noted some people seem to get very caught up in who the Captain is etc. I couldn't honestly tell you and I can't understand why anybody would care. Whoever he was, he didn't crash so top marks from me.
7) Drinks packages, Ice Cream etc - We couldn't make our mind up on whether to do a drinks package or not. We aren't big drinkers so the alcohol one was never on the cards but we were undecided about the soft drinks/coffee package. In the end we decided not to do this which was absolutely the right choice. In fact on the last night we were scrambling to use up all our free on board credit. I can see if you were going somewhere hot that this might be different but going to the Arctic meant the drinks package would be a huge mistake. I'd seen someone else see that the soft scoop ice cream was pretty inedible. I'd dismissed this when I read it thinking if it is ice cream and free then we would be frequent visitors rather than paying for gelato downstairs. However I was wrong. The soft scoop was digusting, truly disgusting. I took to mouthfuls and binned it. The gelato in the International Cafe was absolutely delicious and cost USD 1.50 for 3 massive scoops. This my friends was an absolute bargain and well worth the cost.
8) Extras. I've seen people comment about Princess trying to get you to spend money onboard. Looking back I guess there was a fair bit of this but I never really thought about it at the time and t didn't bother me in the slightest. I was on board to get to the destinations not to buy art, jewellery or spa treatments. Every now and then they would take your photo and it was available to buy for a ridiculous price but in the days of digital photography I'm not sure why people go in for this.
For the next few years we are converted to cruising. Having backpacked many places across the world, when we started our family we thought our holidays would be limited to Cornwall and Brittany. However we love the fact that we can travel in relative comfort, waking up in a new destination having the freedom to explore independently and then at the end of the day get back onto our floating hotel with all our stuff and relax. Whilst our family is still young this won't be the last cruise. I'd have no hesitation in choosing Princess again. Poor shows, a bit too much bingo, a bit crowded at times and older people hogging tables and seats but this is offset by generally good quality food and excellent standard of service from staff and that is all the foundation you need to make your own fun and have a great holiday.