Princess Cruises: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly?
In general, we were very happy with our vacation with Princess, especially our time aboard the Sun Princess. I'd be perfectly happy taking another cruise with Princess, but curiosity about other cruise lines may lead me to venture elsewhere.
Princess does an outstanding job at keeping their cruise passengers happy. The staff all appeared to be very well trained and friendly, the food is excellent, the on-board entertainment and activities plentiful, and almost all of the facilities comfortable and adequate to the task. Tour guides employed by Princess for the shore excursions and the land tour portion of our vacation were all friendly, knowledgeable, and entertaining. Several times tour guides passed around their personal photo albums depicting life in Alaska - a nice personal touch to our travels.
Princess's prices are competitive with other cruise lines, though you do need to take tipping, shore excursions, and other items into consideration when planning your own cruise. These additional costs can add up rapidly. Meals onboard are included in the cruise price, but any meals off-ship, including on the land-tours, are at your expense.
For the nightly shows on ship, Princess brings in some very good comedians, singers, and musicians. I enjoyed all of the shows I attended, but I did not attend any of the musical stage shows (Mom was disappointed with the one she attended).
The choice of cruises, land tours, and ships with Princess is easily the best and most varied we found - not just with their Alaskan cruises, but cruises all over the world. In Alaska, you can take cruises ranging from 7-nights to full-blown land and sea cruise-tours of up to 18-days. All land-tours may be customized for additional nights if desired, and Princess also offers pre-cruise and post-cruise tours in both Alaska and Vancouver.
Probably our most consistent complaint with our vacation was the lack of good coffee at any Princess-run facility, either onboard or ashore. The coffee was drinkable in the ship's dining rooms, but was pretty bad and often cold elsewhere aboard and ashore. The few times we encountered espresso bars ashore were looked forward to with great anticipation - even Starbucks was like a piece of heaven.
Other than the coffee, our only major complaint about life onboard was the Horizon Court buffet restaurant. Aside from only being open about 16 hours a day (as opposed to the 24 hours advertised by Princess), the food was frequently lackluster, and any sort of table service (such as drink refills) was nearly non-existent. It was frequently extremely crowded as well as people not willing to go outside to enjoy the scenery sat for hours at the available window tables.
The passenger laundry facilities onboard were a minor complaint - the facilities are small, and were usually in use by other passengers. Toward the end of the cruise, the lines to use the laundry became extremely long, even well into the night and wee hours of the morning. The ship could definitely use several more laundry rooms, and should encourage people going home immediately after the cruise to refrain from using the facilities.
Princess runs many of the different shore excursions - they have their own busses and tour guides. The busses used by Princess on these tours aren't ideal for sightseeing. They're roomy and comfortable and have good PA systems, but the windows tend to be on the small side - more like the windows you find on mass transit systems. (Actually, the transit busses used in Tacoma would have been far superior to the Princess busses.) Most of the towns in southeast Alaska are not built on level-ground, which means that many of the sights are well above or below road-level. The small windows made it nearly impossible to see these sights, especially if you were on the wrong side of the bus.
Stops made on the various shore excursions were sufficiently long enough for photography, bathroom breaks, and shopping, and the rest breaks came sufficiently often to prevent squirming in your seat. However, stops appropriate for photography were extremely infrequent, especially for the cool and rainy climate of southeast Alaska where the windows were fogged and rain-dappled enough to make photography (or even just seeing the various sights) impossible.
Once we disembarked and started our land-tour, though, stops and rest breaks seemed to become a foreign concept. Stops of any sort were far and few between, and usually not long enough to perform more than one activity such as use the restroom, take some pictures, or do some shopping, especially amidst the large crowds at each break point. The busses and trains used on the land tour were generally less comfortable than those we encountered on the shore excursions (the charter air flight to Fairbanks was one happy exception to this rule).
I already went on at length about our negative impressions of the Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge. Click the link for more information.
Something that bothered me a great deal was the ethnic makeup of the cruise passengers and the Princess employees. The passengers were almost entirely of Caucasian or Asian heritage, with very few of African or Hispanic or other heritage. I sincerely hope that this is more of a cultural and economic problem than of any effort by people in the tourism industry to discourage certain groups of people from enjoying a cruise. (It would be nice, too, if it were not an economic problem, but that's an entirely different story.)
The cultural makeup of the ship's crew was more disturbing. The crew is made up largely of Italians, Americans, Canadians, Australians, British, Filipinos, and Central and South Americans. Your nationality appears to determine where you work on the ship: Italians are ship's officers, head chefs, and lead dining room staff; Filipinos and Mexicans are waiters; other Central and South Americans are stewards and deck hands; while those nationalities with English as their primary language are either part of the Purser's staff, the Cruise Director's staff, or they tend bar or wait on bar patrons. The entertainment was primarily American and Canadian, but that may be just a reflection of the region traveled on this cruise. Princess employees on shore are mostly locals and/or college kids on summer jobs, and seem to more or less reflect the ethnic makeup of those groups.