Your First Princess Cruise

As you may very well possibly be aware (I may have mentioned it once or twice), we recently went on a cruise to The Far East on the Princess Cruises line. It was to be our first ever cruise and, not wishing to spend the entire honeymoon in a constant state of surprise, we cleverly (we thought) approached my new parents-in-law and enquired as to what to expect on our luxury sailing vacation since they were – and still are – old hands at this cruising malarkey.

The information they showered upon us was – it turned out – borderline useless, verging on the criminally negligent.

Diamond PrincessBut don’t worry: our near-constant state of surprise and frequent nautical faux pas didn’t entirely detract from a fantastic trip after all and I’ve returned with only minor thoughts of cold, cold revenge on my cruise intelligence-deficient in-laws. My major thoughts – you’ll no doubt be thrilled to hear – are to expel from my brain tissue such cruising knowledge as I have recently absorbed, both to make room for this year’s hot new minimalist cranium look and to prevent any future cruise virgins with the good taste to find this site from making any of the mistakes we made.

So, if you’re about to be a first-time cruiser or you’re cruising for the second time but some time between your first trip and this upcoming one you were hit on the head by a tortoise and have suffered debilitating memory loss ever since, then this guide to what to expect when you go cruising may be just what you need. Or you might be able to cancel or exchange for a skiing holiday in the Alps. Perhaps you’re pretentious.

The information in this guide to your first Princess cruise is based on my time aboard the Diamond Princess, Voyage M834 to the Far East, November 2008. If you are incapable of moving back in time to travel with me then your experience may differ.

A cruise costs quite a lot of money. When you look in the brochure you’ll probably think: Golly gosh! That’s quite a lot of money! A pricey sum and no mistake! And yet if you break down the cost of the cruise on a per day basis it actually works out to still cost quite a lot of money. But that doesn’t include any of the drinks you’ll be buying or the sneakily hidden automatic tipping (we’ll talk more on this in a minute) or any of the tours you’ll want to do. Including these additional expenses, a cruise actually turns out to cost quite a lot of money.

If you’re enjoying your honeymoon on a cruise then save money by not inviting anybody to the wedding reception beforehand. That’s what I did.

No Money
Your cruise will be cashless! Yes, cashless! Every time you buy something in the onboard shops or bars you simply wave a card at the person you’re buying from and no money changes hands! This might mean that you lose track of how much you’re spending on a daily basis so you should be careful. On the other hand there’s less chance of you going swimming with your wallet in your shorts so why not celebrate and buy everyone at the bar the cocktail of the day?

No, Money
Your cashless cruise with Princess will require that you bring cash in the form of American dollars. You’ll want dollar bills in order to do your laundry – smelly passengers risk keelhauling – and larger denominations if you want to buy any foreign currency on your trip from whichever one of the currency exchange machines has won the onboard Not Out Of Service Lotto.

You can avoid paying commission on exchanged money aboard by mugging local elderly people ashore and claiming Tourist Immunity.

Diamond Princess CrewSecret Signal
Once you’ve been on a Princess Cruise you become part of the Captain’s Circle, a secret cabal whose membership entitles you to complimentary cocktails, access to the Captain’s Cabin after 10pm for late night soul-searching, and soft toilet paper. Winking at security while touching your left ear lobe with your right thumb when you first board ship indicates you’ve been incorrectly given a blue "first time with Princess" card and you should be upgraded within twenty four hours. Or molested. Why not celebrate this by buying everyone at the bar the cocktail of the day?

Tipping is something you should do only if you want and only if you’ve had good service above and beyond that which the job demands. Unless you’re American or on a cruise or both. Then, tipping is something that happens automatically whether you like it or not every time you buy a drink or every time it passes midnight. You can’t prevent the drink-buying tipping – except by not drinking and, seriously, that’s not going to happen – but the daily automatic tipping (ten dollars per person per day) can and should be stopped by telling the bursar when you first board "Hi, thanks for not being upfront about the cost of the cruise and instead sticking a semi-secret, not inconsiderable gratuity on my final bill when you could have instead included that charge in the initial cost of the cruise and simply paid your staff more." The bursar will then cancel your automatic tipping and report your feelings to the cruise line directors who will eventually change this stupid system that, for example, on my cruise would have amounted to twenty-five thousand dollars worth of automatic tips added every single day of the sixteen-day cruise. Yeah, ouch is right.

Your Cabin
You will have a choice of cabins: inside, windowless ones for cheapskates or people who think they won’t spend much time in their cabin anyway so why bother spending money on something they won’t use, or outside ones with windows or balconies, or suites. If you’re reading this then you can’t afford a suite.

Your cabin will have one or more beds, a television set, a safe, a toilet, a shower, and not much else. But it will be enough. The television will be able to tune to a webcam view from the top of the ship and you’ll initially think this is the most pointless thing ever. And yet you’ll probably watch that channel more than anything else. The cruising spirit commands you to view the sea from the ship’s webcam. And afterwards, why not celebrate this by buying everyone at the bar the cocktail of the day?

If your TV makes people look green down the left side then you may be in my cabin. Have you found a thin gold chain? I may have left it there. It’s not worth much but it does have sentimental value. There’s no reward offered because I can get over the sentiment quite easily but it would be nice to avoid having to get another one from H. Samuel. Thanks.

Your Cabin Steward
The concept of someone entering the place where you live and sleep several times a day to move things around and leave little surprises for you may be one you experience regularly if drugs and crime have driven your neighbourhood into the ground or you live atop an ancient Indian burial ground. For everyone else you’re going to have to get used to coming back to your cabin during the day and exclaiming:

  • Oh, the bed’s been made!
  • Oh, the towels have been changed!
  • Oh, the bed’s been made again!
  • Oh, there are seventeen documents we’ve got to fill in before the Japanese will let us off the ship!
  • Oh, come on! Why does she keep making the bed?
  • Oh, all our toiletries have been arranged in descending size!
  • Oh, there was nothing wrong with the bed! It’s been made again! Is she on commission?
  • Oh, chocolates! How sweet!
  • Oh, will you please leave my bed alone you obsessive compulsive maniac!

Diamond Princess DeckTours
Unless you enjoy travelling halfway around the world just for the thrill of sitting on a ship in dock for half the voyage – and some people, it seems, do – then you’ll want to take advantage of a tour in each of your destinations.

If you aren’t fully versed in the art of queueing and sitting and waiting then you should probably get in some practice before your cruise starts now as embarkation and disembarkation for tours is one of the most thrilling (if you like disorganisation) and squeal-inducing (if you’re a queue afficionado) parts of your trip and I’d hate for you to not appreciate the otherwise mind- and arse-numbing experience of a lifetime.

Picture it: arrive at your tour meeting point in plenty of time to discover you’re one of the last there, get allocated your tour coach, watch other groups get called for upwards of an hour before you, then charge for that exit as your coach number and nineteen others all get called at once and you all pile onto the stairway waiting for the single security checkpoint to let you through. After that the tour’s got to be great, and luckily it usually is. Unless you go to Macau.

Don’t go to Macau.

Food & Drink
Food is free and plentiful and mostly quite good. Go for the Anytime dining option rather than set time dining or you’ll be forever missing shows and complaining about it to sensible people who decided they preferred flexible eating arrangements and meeting and eating with new people each night.

You have a choice of restaurants all of which serve exactly the same food but have their own special themed dish. In the Savoy it’s cabbage on a stick. Santa Fe’s speciality is tequila-soaked cactus, whilst you can enjoy the best seaweed you’ve ever eaten in Pacific Moon. There’s an international dining room too but I didn’t go there as it involved memorising a complex route that involves approaching from the deck above.

Orange juice at breakfast, coffee and tea, and tap water cost you nothing; all other drinks are charged to your final bill. Soft drinks are not free. This surprises some people who think Coke is harvested at sea by cruise ships in giant underwater net bags and Sprite is simply sea water after it’s undergone some propeller churning.

Sit near the automatic doors at the rear of the buffet dining if you like the smell of cigarettes wafting over your meal every time somebody wanders past. Who doesn’t?

Optional on even numbered decks, this still means that you’ll need to wear something should you wish to venture out onto the Promenade (deck 7). In addition, evenings are typically smart casual, meaning plenty of shirts, collared t-shirts, or t-shirts with collars drawn on them in felt pen are a must-have item for men. Oh, and underpants, it turns out. Did you know the ship has a brig?

On formal nights men are separated into those who are wearing tuxedos and those who just brought along a standard suit thinking that would be good enough, and a large fight commences at midnight in Club Fusion unless nearly everybody’s been in bed since 8PM because they’re old and it’s dark out (quite likely) or there’s some entertaining activity already occurring in the large club (a flying pig demonstration, for example). There are no prizes for the winners, or shame for the losers (other than the shame of knowing they should have bought a tuxedo); it’s all just for fun. If you are a victorious tuxedo-wearer then why not celebrate this by buying everyone at the bar the cocktail of the day?

Author: Mark

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  1. Mark, so you had a fabulous time then? Do you have any money left and would you go again? I can tell I will never get to go on a cruise. I need my money to pay for my funeral when I die!

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  2. We did indeed have a fabulous time. We have money left but not nearly as much as we expected. We will definitely go again once we pay off this one and save up enough for the next; it’s a great way to see the best parts of a large number of countries in a short time and it’s enabled us to be able to say that we would definitely love to go back to China for example. Vietnam and Thailand, while nice in their own ways, were just too humid for our delicate constitutions. We’d like to give Japan another chance with a trip to Tokyo but Okinawa’s off the list for good. Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore were very nice although their sizes might make return trips short ones. But China’s absolutely the place to go back to. Lovely people, fantastic places.

    You don’t need money to pay for your own funeral. That’s what relatives and neighbours sick of the smell are for.

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  3. That was the funniest thing about cruising I’ve ever read!

    I prefer smaller ships, but they don’t provide such good comedy.

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  4. Clothing optional areas? Interesting. Sounds like cruises are fun.

    Hope you have money left.

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  5. My TV makes people look green down the left side–but I’m fairly sure I’m not in your cabin. Then again my bed has been made and I’m quite sure I didn’t do that. I demand answers!!

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  6. We’ve been on more than a dozen cruises and each time we go it’s a different experience. I’m sorry your inlaws were not much help – the cruise experience is different depending on age of the cruisers, itinerary, ship/line, expectations.
    We think cruising gives us the best travel for the buck.

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  7. I am going on this self same cruise, itinerary and boat in November 2009. After reading your informative report, I cant make out if you are advising to cancel or not. I have got my head around the tipping fiasco, and like you think it is a "hidden" rip-off, advice on this would be much appreciated. I did enjoy your comments, as it always nice to read unbiased views.

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  8. Ray,

    Absolutely don’t cancel; it’s a wonderful itinerary and a fantastic cruise. I loved every minute of it, really. Well, except the embarkation bits … but you get over that once you’re on board or ashore.

    As for the tipping: once you’re on board – and at any point right up until the end, actually, although it’s probably easier if you do it as soon as possible to avoid any queues or forgetfulness – simply go to the bursar’s desk (deck 6, atrium) and just ask to stop the automatic tipping. All you’ll have to do is sign a simple form and you’re done.

    If you’ve got any specific questions regarding the ship, activities, or ports then ask away and I’ll try to answer if I can.

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  9. Mark,
    thanks for the advice, I can now rest easy and look forward to a slightly cheaper holiday if I take your advice re tipping.

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  10. Pretty funny stuff! Well done.

    But lemme ask you — did you really not know about the tipping?

    If so, either a) you need a new travel agent; b) you booked the cruise yourself, without the aid of a TA; or c) your in-laws really were criminally negligent. Perhaps some combination of those three things.

    Fair winds and following seas!
    -Joe L.

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  11. Joe,

    I did know about the tipping, yes. My objection was to the sneaky hiding of it. When I pick up a brochure I want to see the price I’ll pay, not the price I’ll pay minus another price I’ll pay unless I read section 14, paragraph 5 of the appendix and realise there’s an additional price automatically added which I can remove but which wasn’t obvious and let’s face it who reads those appendices anyway? That was my gripe.

    Hi, I’d like to buy that printer advertised there for thirty English pounds please!

    Certainly sir, here it is and … there, I’ve just killed your wife.

    What the … !

    Oh I’m sorry, sir. You see here in the end user licence agreement, right here, yes there, it says ‘spouse will be hacked to death with a fork during purchase of the item unless buyer requests for the spouse to be left alone.’

    Oh, I see. Hmmm. Well, I’ll know for next time I suppose. Would have been nice if the sticker had said ’30 English pounds and dead spouse.’

    Oh, I agree, but it is made in Malaysia and that’s how they do things over there.

    Oh, okay then.

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  12. This was the best laugh I have had in ages – am heading for this ship in a couple of months so found it really useful – I am on a crash diet as I believe my cabin is on an even numbered deck and I want to experience everything on board (including the (until now secret) optional nudity). Thanks for the tip-off. Must away to my exercycle! Thanks again

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  13. Your blog was funny but I hope a lot of people considering a first cruise don’t take it seriously. We’re taking our 7th cruise w/Princess in June. If you don’t think the crew deserves $10/day tip, tell the purser desk & it will be removed from the bill. If you don’t want your sheets/towels changed every day, just tell the steward not to do it. Balconies are great especially if you happen to be sailing into Greenland thru icebergs. The sunrises there looked more like sunsets. Cruises are expensive but land vacations aren’t much better. You can eat 24 hrs/day on a ship-all prepaid unless you go to one of the speciality restaurants & then you only pay a $10.00 extra charge. Most land tours these days like Vantage & Trafalgar don’t include dinners for over half the days of the tour. With the US$ practically worthless in Europe, you pay a fortune just to eat. The last time we stayed in Copenhagen overnight breakfast at the hotel for 2 people was $50! I can’t eat that much.

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  14. Well, our first Princess Cruise is November this year, having never done such a ‘formal’ cruise before – usually we like to slum it with the oiks. We’re due on the Diamond Princess in the Far East later this year, and I thought that you’ve already answered some of our questions rather well!
    I’ve trawled through cruise forums for a sensible answer and yours was certainly the most informative and concise.
    To be fair, my queries were fairly pedestrian; mostly about tipping, attire and excursions, i.e. – do they treat you like proper scum if you remover the ‘daily pocket-pilfer’ ?? Are you expected to tip in addition to the hidden tipping? (or if you do cancel ‘auto-tip’ with the bursar do you end up tipping as much as you would have anyway?) I would like to add we aren’t tight by an means, but object to a blatant rip-off. Will a rather smart evening suit (no silk-lapels or silk band on the trouser for example) pass muster on a formal night – even if coupled with shiny shoes and a bow-tie? Are the excursions so extortionate that you are better off organising yourself locally?

    See, I do feel rather daft asking such dullard questions, but as you are an authority on the specific vessel we are due on Mark, I accept your opinion as just and fair (unless you have since bought shares and are extolling the virtues of paying for staff with tips instead of a proper wage…)
    Kind regards
    P.S. what was the age range of the passengers? I’m early 30’s, husband is early 40’s – we’re celebrating 10th Wedding Anniversary and fancied a taster of the East to see where we’d like to go back to and spend more time.

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  15. Gemma,

    They don’t treat you like scum – no need to worry there – and we found that there was a queue of people doing the same thing as us and suppressing the automatic tipping as soon as we boarded so if there’s any scum-sentiments they’ll be evenly spread around dozens of other cruise-couples and will thusly be easily tolerable.

    Though not compulsory there was tipping for most of the tour guides for the excursions we took; essentially it’s a handy way to get rid of whatever you don’t spend in any of the stops. Chinese Yuan are pretty but not of much use in Japan so it’s just as easy to donate them to the local economy, for instance. On the ship you can request envelopes to leave tips at the end for specific staff members but, again, it’s not compulsory and, since it’s at the end of the cruise and you’ll probably never see the staff again (or, if you do, they won’t remember you) you can get away with not bothering.

    Smart suit will be fine. I think there was probably a 60-40 split between the tuxedo-wearers and suit-wearers.

    The excursions mounted up in price but taken individually I thought they were good value and it’s doubtful we’d have arranged anything better ourselves. However – although we never went – I was not joking about Macau. Not a single person liked that trip and it was horribly expensive.

    Age range: well, we’re both in our late 30s and were frequently referred to as "that young couple". Talking to the staff about it we were told that the shorter cruises were popular with the younger crowd but once you hit the 3-weekers it tended to be more of the rich or the retired (or both). Nationality-wise there were more Brits on board than Americans (just) with Germans and Russians being the next largest ethnic groups.

    And, if it’s of any further use here are some videos:

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  16. Marvellous, you are a treasure. Thanks for such a prompt response! Saves an awful lot of trolling – sorry, trawling forums (fora?). It also looks like we’ll be bringing the average age down a notch or two too! I’ll be 33 by embarkation – still positively adolescent!
    It’s a 16 night cruise, and luckily they seem to have dropped Macau, they still keep tweaking the itinerary due to civil unrest (fair enough). Still includes China, South Korea, Japan, Thailand, Vietnam and Singapore.
    We’re happy to go along the organised excursion route rather than just ‘wing it’ as long as they aren’t all based around one of those long marketing exercises of Princess Cruise ‘chums-with-tat’. We’d love to see as much as we can in the limited shore-time. Is there anything in the ‘do-not-miss’ category?
    Thanks for the tipping tips, I hate to be stingy. Not averse to tux-hire/purchase either, but have just bought Mr G a beautiful evening suit (minus silk fripperies on the collar and trouser-leg so it can be worn to normal functions). We’ve got some time to think about such trivialities, but I’d rather sashay into the formal event with utter confidence that we may be able to pass ourselves off as seasoned cruise-pro’s – albeit with a huge cocktail bill awaiting us on disembarkation.

    Thanks again, please excuse the waffling.

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  17. We had a 19-night trip so it included 3 days in Beijing at the start; I don’t know what bits of China you’re doing but Beijing was wonderful and is on our list of places to go back to. South Korea wasn’t on our itinerary so I can’t really help there. For the excursions you’re not really going to be able to escape the "chums-with-tat" tours to a small extent but they’re fairly entertaining in their own ways.

    The only excursion we did outside Beijing which I’d say was a must-do (because everything in Beijing was super) was Singapore taking in an historical tour of Chinatown (very interesting), Raffles (which is a stunning place that produces a rather nice cocktail you may have heard of), and then a visit to the "chums-with-tat" pewter factory; we all got to make our own pewter bowls and kept the bowls and aprons as souvenirs. Bizarrely entertaining.

    Shanghai: we went to the water town of Zhujiajiao which was lovely. It depends on whether you’d like a ride down the canals or whether you’d like to visit very tall buildings or museums as to whether that’s up your alley. Since we’d had 3 days in Beijing by this point we figured we’d get out of the main city for this trip.

    Vietnam: we did the Cu-Chi tunnels (and went down them (two out of about only ten on the coach who did so; bunch of cowards)). An eye-opener into just how awful it must have been there (and you get a chance to shoot guns!) but… a long trip on the coach (with faulty air-con, aargh!) and you wouldn’t believe the humidity. I was 99% sweat and 1% eyeballs with damp hair by the time we got back.

    The only place we never took an organised excursion was Okinawa (our only stop in Japan – we should have had two but there were quarantine issues (oh, and the Japanese are very strict about entry; expect heat scanners to detect illness and you’ll get your fingerprints electronically scanned too so if either of you are ex-Yakuza you might be refused entry)) because nothing jumped out at us. Talking to people who did some tours there they weren’t that impressed with what was on offer either.

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  18. Lovely lovely lovely. So much to think about. Incidentally, did you book all your excursions before you departed, or whilst on the ship? I’ve been reading far too many cruise forum posts and we didn’t want to end up wait-listed.
    Phil said – "ask that chap on his blog, he’ll know" So you have officially become our household cruise-oracle (sorry about that).
    P.S. Your videos were GREAT. A camcorder suddenly appeared on his birthday list though… Only 2 weeks to find one that’s compatible with a Macbook & iMovie!

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  19. We booked most of ours in advance for peace of mind. I don’t recall hearing any problems with people booking while on board but that’s not to say there wasn’t. We booked two while on board and had no issues with them.

    If you do book in advance all I’d say is mix them up a bit (unless you fear variety); we talked to some people who’d booked tours that effectively meant they were hitting the major tourist shopping area at every stop; nice to do it once but a bit too samey for our liking.

    And thank you for your kind video comment. Your critical appraisal has earned you a gold star. The camera I used was a cheapy eBay jobby (about £80 from Germany) which performed about as well as you’d expect a cheapy eBay jobby to perform. Its main benefit was its size; it could fit in my trouser pocket and shot (not great, admittedly) in HD. Kodak (Zi6/8) and Flip make similar models that won’t break the bank. Very convenient. Most cameras these days (especially HD ones) will take movies in H.264 format which should be supported by Quicktime.

    And, in addition to the videos I did take one or two (disclaimer: may be more than two) photos on the ship and at the stops which you may be interested in:

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  20. dude, you are TOO funny!! I feel the EXACT same way about the tipping thing! Just give me a bottom line! If I knew the 2000/person for the CRUISE was only to put gas in the tank, and that I personally need to be accountable to feed the employees’ families… just give me the grand total, please!! You were spot on with the bed being made a hundred times in a day… my wife and I killed ourselves laughing. You should be a writer if you aren’t already!!

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  21. Hey,

    We are off on the same cruise in a couple of weeks, my husband want to do the tunnels in Vietnam but its 3 hrs coach trip there and back, is it worth it? Also do they have toilets and food on board the coach for the 6 hr ride?

    We are off for our honeymoon also very much looking forward to it although they changed the itinerary round quite drastically!

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  22. Jenna,

    In my opinion the tunnels trip is worth it; squeezing down the tunnels was a great experience just to get a small taste of what it was like during the war. Most people didn’t go down the tunnels which seemed rather pointless after the trip there but that’s people for you. In addition – although I never did it – you can fire off an AK-47 or numerous other weapons while you’re there too.

    There are no toilets on the coach (I think; hazy memory) although they might make a pit stop en route (again, hazy memory) but that’s okay because you’ll sweat out any urine through every pore on your body and it’ll evaporate instantly. Or you can simply pee yourself and not look as if anything’s wrong anyway. Vietnam is humid. Really humid. Wear sweat-coloured clothes to look dry.

    No food on our coach but they do provide water. They’d have to otherwise you’d be dessicated. Did I mention the humidity? My advice: buy some small bottles of water either onboard or (cheaper option) in one of your earlier stops and take a few with you on top of what they provide.

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