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Copyright © 1995-2005
Linda Coffman

Golden Princess Review
Plus, an RCCL vs. Princess review

by Ronald Epstein

This is going to be as comprehensive a review that I can provide for my first Princess cruise aboard their Golden Princess vessel. The review will also compare my Princess experience against past experiences aboard Royal Caribbean.

My Background
I am a male, 41 years of age. I have been an avid cruise enthusiast for the past 3-4 years. I have sailed exclusively with Royal Caribbean and have become highly satisfied with their ships and service. With no less than 5 past RCCL sailings under my belt, I decided to try Princess Cruises. To be honest, the only reason I chose Princess was because my girlfriend and I had some extra vacation time this year and the Golden Princess cruise
sailing from San Juan to New York City was VERY cheap.

I expected to go into this Princess cruise hating it. My expectations were very low. Boy was I surprised! The cruise was fantastic and Princess was just awesome! Read on as I compare the Princess against the Royal Caribbean cruise experience.

Arriving & Boarding
This was not a pleasant experience. We arrived at San Juan airport at 11am. My impressions of San Juan airport is that it is absolutely horrific. Once you arrive there is an extremely long walk to the baggage claim carousel. Since there are many different airlines represented here, finding your specific baggage area can be difficult as signs are not clearly marked. Even worse, once you do reach your specific airline baggage area there are no signs or monitors indicating which carousel will be dumping out which flight's baggage. There is nothing like being amongst a large crowd of passengers who have no clue where their baggage is to appear only to race in a mad rush to the nearest carousel that starts dumping out baggage.

Furthermore, there are no self-serve carriages to put your luggage on to tote across the airport. You must depend on porters to help you and there were difficulties finding them. I would hesitate ever flying into San Juan again.

A 15-20 minute taxi ride (cost $35 for 5 persons) brought us to the ship pier around 11:45am. Upon arrival we were greeted with a HUGE line of passengers waiting to board. There must have been a few hundred people ahead of us who had been waiting in line for an hour or more before we arrived. Our luggage was given to a loud, pushy porter who had his hands filled with money as if to indicate you better tip him if you want your luggage properly loaded onboard.

We got on the line, and waited an additional hour. We watched as hundreds of more travelers arrived stretching the line across the parking lot and around the outer fence. These poor people were waiting in the 90-degree beating sun waiting to get on the ship. Princess provided no refreshments or snacks to these people waiting on line. Royal Caribbean boardings have always been speedy with no lines and refreshments/fluids available for consumption.

I must say that once the line did begin moving shortly before 1:00pm, it moved rather fast. We were pulled into a holding room, given a health questionnaire to fill out, and then directed to a check-in line according to cabin location. The check-in process took no more than 5 minutes and we were ready to go up the gangplank.

Another problem we found with Princess was the manner in which they conducted WELCOME pictures while boarding. The line was at a standstill because a photographer was stopping everyone as pictures were taken. There was not enough room to get around this. On Royal Caribbean they have two lines, making those who don't want their picture taken to board much faster.

A major PLUS that we immediately discovered with Princess was that they had staff members on every cabin level waiting outside the elevators, directing you to your rooms. On all the past Royal Caribbean sailings I have made, there was never any staff member around to guide you to your cabin. They basically made you find it on your own. Way to go Princess!

Initial Impressions
Being a past Royal Caribbean traveler, I am used to the glitzy neon-lit decor inside their ships. There was actually a time that I enjoyed that type of decor... that is, until I walked around Princess.

The Golden Princess was beautiful. She didn't have the glitzy promenade that RCCL is famous for -- but its absence was what made me fall in love with this ship. The Princess ship had a more "classy" feel to it. Her surroundings were more subdued, with emphasis put on her polished brass. Even the elevators managed to impress me with their expensive-looking golden decor and heavy push-buttons that had a look of elegance to them. Nothing like the Royal Caribbean decor that looked a bit more cheap. There was far more elegance to be found on Princess.

Another major plus for Princess is the design of its ship and the manner in which they divide up the dining rooms and pools on different levels so that the guests don't all congregate in the same area. Our ship was sold out and yet you never got the feeling that any particular area of the ship was overcrowded. Try walking down the Royal Caribbean promenade on a sold-out ship and you find yourself shoulder-to-shoulder with your fellow passenger.

Our Cabin
When I sail on Royal Caribbean I always get a junior suite or higher. I like my room and balconies BIG and I like the concierge service that RCCL offers. The Princess cruise was a "cheapie" for us. It cost only $900 for 7 days and we got a simple balcony cabin. I feared the worst because I knew I would be staying in a tiny room with a tiny bathroom and shower.

We booked a balcony cabin, Aloha deck, A719 (near the terrace pool). You know what? The room wasn't that tiny. It was more than adequate for the two of us. While the bathroom and shower were very small, it wasn't nearly as bad as I thought it would be. Even our balcony was the perfect size for just the two of us.

I learned a very important lesson on this trip... You don't necessarily have to get the biggest cabins on Princess to feel pampered. We were so happy that we saved $700 and went with a standard balcony over a Junior suite.

My first surprise about our Princess cabin was that a bathrobe was made available to me. On Royal Caribbean they won't even consider giving you a bathrobe unless you book a suite or have higher member status. In fact, unlike RCCL, Princess gives you a form to fill out from their website prior to travel where you can indicate what you would like added to your room at no extra charge. These items include a bathrobe, added egg-crate foam mattress support and specific sodas in your minibar.

Another HUGE service that Princess offers over RCCL is self-laundry service. I was shocked to see laundry rooms with washers, dryers, and a row of ironing boards with irons on top so your clothes always look perfect. Royal Caribbean charges extra for this service and you can't do it on your own.

The Food
Princess scores slightly higher on food over Royal Caribbean. Upon arrival we ate at the Horizon Court buffet on deck 14. Lunch was fairly tasty with a nice selection of hot and cold items. They have a salad bar that blows RCCL Windjammer buffet out of the water.

For breakfast, I had mixed feelings about eating at the Horizon Court. Their eggs and pancakes were horrific. Scrambled eggs were obviously powdered, not fresh. Pancakes were often hard, and you had to use some effort to scrape them off the serving plate. Bacon, sausage, hash browns and corn-beef hash were always available as well as a selection of cereals, rolls, bagels and fruit. My favorite item was EGGS BENEDICT, which they only served twice during the entire trip. Royal Caribbean Windjammer buffet breakfast was usually equally bad, so those wanting a better breakfast should head to the dining rooms.

For lunch I always hit the GRILL adjacent to the Dolphin pool midship on Deck 14. They serve 3 different types of pizza daily as well as burgers, hot dogs and french fries. Being an avid New York pizza lover (which is the best Pizza in the world), I was quite surprised by the quality of the pizza. It was actually well above average. I also loved the fact that burgers and fries were often cooked fresh when there was a crowd at the pool. 

We opted to buy Ice Cream at the Sundae bar one day. BIG MISTAKE! It cost approximately $3.95 per person for a Sundae concoction. My girlfriend and I each ordered a "death by chocolate." We watched as the girl dumped heaping scoops into a mixing bowl -- adding brownies, chocolate chips, oreo cookies and syrup. We each received (and I am not exaggerating) a humungous bowl of ice cream that could easily feed 2 people. While I applaud Princess for the portions (and it is easily worth the price charged), I caution people that you will not be able to finish what you are served. Again, I applaud Princess for the portion size for the price.

Now the best part... dinner! 5 of our 7 nights we ate in the dining room. On Royal Caribbean their dining room is one huge area, 3 levels high. Princess divides their dining areas into three separate restaurants, which makes eating a little more intimate. The service and quality of food aboard Princess was very, very good. Princess offers Personal Choice dining, an option I was quite skeptical about at first. Unlike Royal Caribbean where
you have an assigned table and company every night, the Personal Choice experience lets you eat in any of the dining rooms whenever YOU want.

We were with friends--a total of 5 persons. On many evenings we strutted in that dining room at a different time of our choosing and never waited more than 15 minutes for a table of our own. In fact, most nights there was no wait. The bad part of Freestyle is that you never have the same waiter, thus, they never learn your names or eating habits. Still, I would go Personal Choice over traditional anytime.

The dining room staff were exceptional. They had a terrific sense of humor and they were very attentive to our needs. A friend of mine who loves shrimp cocktail asked for 4 orders every night and never was refused. Sometimes I ordered two steaks without a flinch from the waiter. We were with a 9 year-old boy who the staff was very good to. He had a homework assignment where he had to collect seeds from various fruits and vegetables. When the staff learned of this, the head chef came out with a whole red and green pepper so that seeds could be scooped out for his collection. The only problem we had was that with all the nights that little boy ate in the dining room, he was never made aware that there was a kids menu available (with chicken fingers, onion rings, etc.) until the very last night of the voyage.

As I stated, food was very good and prepared exactly to our likening. Portions were plentiful and if there was always something on the menu that catered to a variety of tastes. 

Royal Caribbean only exceeds in this area when it comes to its staff performing songs or having someone walk around and talk with the dining travelers. On RCCL there was a very humorous Indian guy that would walk around, answer questions, ask how your meal was and interject humor. The staff would get dressed in costume and sing/dance. There was even the flaming baked Alaska that was noticeably absent aboard this Princess vessel.

Royal Caribbean has a larger selection of desserts over Princess hands down! There were always a variety of different cakes, pies, cookies and puddings available on RCCL on a daily basis--even in the Windjammer buffet. You got actual huge portions of whatever you wanted. On Princess the dessert selection was always limited and there were only dinky pastries and cakes available at the buffet.

Oh, one note that I should make on behalf of my very picky friend who was traveling with me... he loved the fact that Princess has shaped butter in a bowl at the tables over the square wrapped blocks that Royal Caribbean offers. He feels that it is more classy, and I am inclined to agree with him.

Specialty Restaurants
As with everyone else that goes on a cruise where your food is included in the price--a question is brought up to why one should pay $15-$20 extra to eat at a specialty restaurant? The answer is simple: you get what you pay for.

On Royal Caribbean my girlfriend and I became avid fans of their Portofino restaurant. The quality of food and service were far better than what you would get in the dining room. When we boarded Princess we immediately signed up for a night at Sabatini's trattoria and Desert Rose southwestern restaurant.

I only somewhat enjoyed Sabatinis only because of the manner in which they served the food. They serve you with a 16-course meal, coming to your table and giving you a slice of meat, followed by a few crab cakes, followed by a few pieces of pasta, a slice of specialty pizza, soup, etc. All this leads up to your main course. I had lobster tail which was quite good and plentiful. I dunno -- the overall serving process was slow. Dinner took 2.5 hours to complete and it just wasn't a highly enjoyable experience. I will say that even though you got snippets of food throughout the 2.5 hours, the wait between courses caused your stomach to feel filled up. Cover charge: $20 per person.

The Desert Rose was an AWESOME experience. We ate there twice. For appetizers we had shrimp cocktail. The shrimp was huge! We also enjoyed clam chowder out of a bread bowl. But the absolute highlight? You got to choose from at least 7 different types of steak cooked to perfection. I had the 20-ounce porterhouse steak. It was awesome! Cover charge: $15 per person

The Pool
Here is where I immediately fell in love with Princess! I hate salt water pools. I hate swimming on Royal Caribbean ships for the fact that their pools are salt water. Who wants to taste salt in their mouth and get sting in their eyes, not to mention the fact you have to wash yourself down with fresh water the second you get out of the pool?

Golden Princess has four pools, including one swim-against-the current pool. The pools are filled with (OH YES!) fresh water. I spent a lot of time enjoying myself in the pool. If you get outside by 8:30am you can grab a prime spot and have the pool to yourself. An hour later the pool gets VERY crowded. Despite the fact there are 3 main pools, most people opt for the outside pool. Water temperature was about 84 degrees. It could have been a little warmer.

There is an ADULT ONLY pool at the rear of the ship, deck 12. Nobody really used it as quite frankly it is a bit of a joke. The pool is not only tiny, but because it sits at the stern of the ship, the water is always rough. 

Another PLUS for Princess is that it seems they keep their pools open 24 hours a day. On Royal Caribbean I could swear their pools were not open all night.

Here's an interesting thing that Princess can fix... their poolside and ship music. Sit out at the pool or inside at the bar and you will hear a selection of current and oldies pop music being played. Problem is, the music is on an endless loop so you hear the same damn songs day after day. Don't get me wrong -- the selection of music was great -- but it became tiresome very quickly.

The Internet
Here is where Princess loses a lot of points. I am self-employed and in constant need of Internet access -- even (unfortunately) when I vacation. I imagine that most people need to check their emails daily.

Princess has an Internet Cafe, but unless you are Platinum member, you are going to pay through the nose to use it at about $.35 per minute. There seems to be at least 15-20 computers available. Their computers, however, are painfully slow. Expect your Internet access to be slower than dial-up. You read right! I used their cafe for just two days and I had to stop from frustration of waiting minutes to see pages load -- even when I was the only person using the computer.

Fortunately I brought my laptop and took advantage of their WI-FI access. That's very expensive at $10.50 for 30 minutes. Even worse, you have to continually go to the Purser's desk to buy a new access card when your current minutes are up. I suggest heavy users buy a few access cards at once after you determine your laptop works. The WI-FI access is noticeably faster as it depends more on the speed of your computer. Unfortunately, access is only available in the Atrium area on Deck 5.

On many Royal Caribbean ships you can get dial-up access in your stateroom for about $100 for a 7-day cruise. This access is UNLIMITED so you can stay online all day long. The access speed is around 40K compared to the much slower speeds with Princess. Princess needs to make a concerned effort to offer cabins with unlimited Internet access at a rate that is somewhat affordable.

Liquor - on board and self-supplied
I talk to many people who cruise. I have loads of friends who take several cruises a year, and I listen to fellow cruise mates who sail with me regarding their experiences. You know why many people enjoy sailing Royal Caribbean and Princess? These lines don't make a huge deal about bringing your own liquor aboard. I think these lines realize how important this plays a part in people deciding who to cruise with.

Take for example NCL Cruise Lines. Do you realize they hire a staff just to scour your luggage and confiscate liquor when you board? I know so many people who have sailed with NCL only to have their liquor confiscated. While Princess and Royal Caribbean have policies against bringing liquor aboard, they are rather lax about enforcing it as long as you don't blatantly bring it aboard in boxes. Stash it in your checked luggage and it will arrive to your cabin without incident.

The liquor on Princess is far cheaper than RCCL. Their drinks are about $3-$5, far cheaper than Royal Caribbean. There was a 5-bottle deal for Dos Equis Beer on ice for $5. How can you beat that? Bottles of liquor ordered in advance can be delivered to your stateroom at reasonable prices. 

Cleanliness and Appearance
Again, Princess excels here. The Royal Caribbean fleet looks a little worn these days. I see wear and tear on those ships all the time. On Golden Princess I was amazed at the amount of polishing, carpet replacing, and overall cleaning being done on a daily basis.

There is also a great emphasis put on sanitizing hands with dispensed lotion available at every bathroom and buffet station. You never see this kind of emphasis when sailing with Royal Caribbean. 

Royal Caribbean excels here by a mile! RCCL puts so much money into their entertainment. Their shows are huge--almost Broadway caliber. They have an onboard ice rink that offers an amazing show.

I was very disappointed with Princess shows. They mainly have comedians, singers and jugglers. Their shows are "okay" and rarely memorable.

A nice touch was the movies they showed in the Princess Theater where a great view was to be had anywhere you sat thanks to the fact there are no pillars blocking view. We watched fairly current Hollywood fare that is just about due for DVD release. A major PLUS for Princess is that while their onboard selection of in-cabin TV channels is greatly limited, they don't douse you with promotional commercials. Princess had a much better in-cabin movie selection than RCCL.

Royal Caribbean offers a wider selection of channel choices (including network channels on occasion) but, my God, they hit you with those damn "Lust for Life" commercials at every turn. By the end of the week after sailing RCCL you hear those damn "Boom Boom Boom" theme music drums in your head. For God's sake RCCL--cut it out!

Princess again wins here... sort of. Disembarkation could have been handled a little better for the fact that the gangway area was overly crowded and Princess added to the problem by not allowing one color code area to fully disembark before calling the next. Luggage was handled VERY well. Bags were neatly lined in on the dock according to color code. A Princess rep was there to help people find their luggage.

Ever claim luggage with Royal Caribbean? It is the most frustrating experience you will ever endure. Bags are tossed on a moving carousel with no order to them whatsoever. There are no ship reps around to help with luggage that can't be found. One recent Hawaiian cruise RCCL dumped all the luggage in a warehouse in a highly disorganized fashion.

You also probably noticed that I made no mention of Islands we visited. First, I wanted to concentrate on giving you details about Golden Princess vs. Royal Caribbean. I also have to be quite frank in saying that after sailing in the Caribbean all this time, the islands really suck for people who don't go on excursions. You get dropped off in a tourist shopping area and on many islands the natives hassle you for taxi rides, timeshare offers and shopping discounts. St. Martin, Antigua and Cozumel are amongst the worst spots in the Caribbean to be dropped off.

For me, I enjoy the ship. I cruise to the same destinations more than once just because the days at sea are more important than where we go. On Island days I may get off to shop and be hassled by natives, but quickly get back on the ship and enjoy the pool before anyone gets back.

Both Princess and Royal Caribbean seem to be the most popular cruise lines for mid-budget cruisers. They give you the best bang for the buck without having to stoop to Carnival level or exceed to Crystal level.

In actuality, both lines receive high marks for what they are. In all honesty, both are very close to each other in plus and minus departments. If I had a choice whom to sail with again, Princess would have been that choice.

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