My family had a very enjoyable, relaxing and safe Cruise with Princess in April 2010. There were no major hitches or issues. Following are some tips, based on our experience, and also based on our specific tastes (so, you might have to adjust them to your specific tastes/likes).
(01) Which Cruise Line?
As you might be aware, Princess, Seabourne, Cunard, Carnival, Holland America etc. are owned by one company! It is all about how these individual corporations are positioning themselves. For e.g. Carnival is all about “fun”. Princess is supposed to be a bit more “high end”, compared to Carnival etc. You can also note that the prices are all roughly the same. I would pick a Cruise line based on (a) Destination (b) Available Dates (c) Cabin Choices (available at the time of booking) (d) The Ship itself (check out its reviews online) (e) Price.
We liked our experience with Princess. As advertised, the staff were very friendly and helpful.
(02) Which is the best Cabin?
Based on insider information (provided by the “Ultimate Ship Tour” guide, Level8, middle cabin, is the best choice. That makes sense to me, since it was the lowest passenger Suite level (the lower, the better from a sea motion standpoint, I would think). Now, even though I booked the Cruise 7 months in advance, I had only a handful of Cabin choices when I booked. The Lesson? Book almost a year in advance! All the suites with balconies sell off fast.
(03) The Shows (Choices! Choices!)
Every Cruise Line will inform the travelers of the major shows on board, ahead of time. That helps. Also, in the case of Princess, we had a Daily Flier, describing all the on-board activities for that day. I.e. all relevant information in one 4-page document. Every morning, we used to review this and determine which activities we would do together and which ones we would do separately. I would strongly recommend having a “general outline” for the day. There are bound to be some very interesting events (e.g. History and Culture of the Ports of Call) and you would not want to miss that, in between all the distractions.
(04) Shore Excursions and Kids
If you have kids younger than 3 years, it is a good idea to load up on some easy-to-eat snacks before heading to the shore. My son is a big fan of Fruit Loops (the cereal). I used to have a couple of packets handy (taken from the Ship). Whenever he used to get cranky, I used to pull out the “magic solution” (i.e. Fruit Loops) 🙂 Also, make sure you have some drinking water from the ship. Clean and trust-worthy drinking water could be tough to get in some locations.
(05) Formal Night
We really enjoyed the Formal Night. In my opinion, you should go for it. Dress up, mingle, enjoy! Though you can skip the Formal Night, if that is your inclination, I would not recommend it. That is part of the experience in my opinion.
(06) Shore Excursions and the unavoidable Tourist Traps
Have you ever been on a conducted tour which did NOT stop at some “luxury store” or some such? It is highly unlikely. So, we might as well adjust to it. If what these stores are selling is something you are planning to buy, great! Go for it! I am talking about being in a situation where you are looking forward to an in-depth tour into the History and Culture of a Port and suddenly find yourself in a store selling something you have no interest in. For e.g. what happened to me at Mazatlan. I have nothing against Jewelry. It is just not my passion (Note that I said “my”. It sure is my wife’s passion 🙂 ). For me, an hour in one such store is pure torture. So what I do is to make sure of the available time (at the store) from the Guide and do some short walking around (i.e. exploring) of my own.
While on Shore Excursions, sit as much towards the front as possible. This allows you to hear the Guide better (though there is a mike) and also allows you to interact with them better.
(07) Interior Cabin or Cabin with Balcony?
This is a very important question. As mentioned above, I did not get much of a choice as far as cabins with balconies go. Also, my thinking was that “how much time am I going to spend in the cabin?”. While this is true to a large extent, shelling out the extra $$$ might be a good option in two cases (a) You do not have small kids (who might climb over the railings!) (b) The route is very scenic (e.g. Glaciers of Alaska). Having breakfast on a Balcony, while enjoying a spectacular view, is as MasterCard says, “Priceless!” …
If I were to do it again, I probably would take a Cabin with a Balcony.
(08) Should we take massages and should we splurge on drinks?
This is my philosophy … Play while you play, Work while you work, Enjoy while you enjoy … Well, you get the drift 🙂 A Cruise is meant to be a relaxing vacation. Then, why not really go full tilt? We took massages and we had a lot of drinks. By the by, it might be better to have the massages on your way out as opposed to during the return. This is because, from what I know, the return trip is sometimes done pretty fast and the ship movement is really enhanced. Also, by that time, you would start to feel a bit squeazy.
(09) Events for kids
Please make sure that you arrange at least one kid-friendly event every day. During our Cruise, Princess Pelicans (the play area for kids 6-9 years old) was a real boon. Our daughter really enjoyed it. For our 2-year-old son, everything was entertaining! It did not take much to keep him entertained.
(10) Ship Tour
After 9/11, Cruise companies are stingy in allowing passengers to attend a Ship Tour (at least that is what Princess told me). It cost me 150$ for a 3-hour Tour. But it was worth every dollar, in my opinion. Not only do you get to see areas of the Ship which other passengers would not even know about, the guide is a source of all “inside information” and “interesting stories”. Why 150$, I would have paid 300$ for such a Tour. Though they also gave a lot of freebies during the Tour, the main attraction was definitely the experience itself. It was supposedly a “lottery” in Sapphire Princess and I was one of the 6 people in that Tour.
(11) Cuisine and Seating
Regarding the the Cuisine/Food, Danger! Be careful! Else you could easily return with some “extra baggage” 🙂 Try to load up on Fruits as much as possible. My strategy was to have a really heavy breakfast (I love sausages and egg!) and then be on “Cruise Control” the rest of the way … Almost 80% of our meals were at seats near the window. Most of the time, the view was just great. I especially loved having a quiet breakfast (at around 7-7.30AM), while enjoying a view of the sea.
The first 6 days were more or less okay. None of us were uncomfortable. The last day was a bit rough. I have two possible reasons for this. (a) The return was done at a much faster pace and the movement was more pronounced (this is my feeling, though I do not have Ship Speed Statistics to back me up 🙂 ) (b) The first 6 days of movement had caught up with us. Anyway, we did not have to use the Sea-Sickness pills I had packed. Kids were fine throughout the Cruise.
(13) Cell Phone
Please make sure that you set it in the right mode (e.g. “Airplane Mode”, on an iPhone). Else, you will have a nice post-Cruise present from the Phone Company 🙂 It is cheaper to fly to a foreign country and talk to the person directly, as opposed to talking to that person using International Rates! 🙂
One final note: Plan in advance, leave sufficient time between flights/buses etc., research a bit on what to expect, keep an open mind, and ENJOY!