Some cruisers are on board for the ship and for the quiet time away from home, and they relish the empty-ship quiet that comes when the ship docks and the passengers pour off. But for most cruisers, shore excursions and ports o'call are the main event, and the big question is whether to buy an excursion from Princess, buy an excursion some other way, or just explore on your own.
We bought three excursions from Princess (Santorini, Messina, and Napoli), so I will just cover the pluses and minuses of that approach.
The primary benefits of buying from Princess is that it easy, simple, reliable, you might get a preferential tender, and they promise that the ship won't sail before you get back. Those are substantial benefits, so on our excursions Princess filled up a lot of tour buses at each destination.
The obvious downside is that you will pay a premium to Princess -- some say you will pay 2X or 3X what the excursion should cost, although it may not always be easy to compare.
There are less obvious downsides, too. First, because Princess has to arrange so many excursions, they can't possibly do the kind of quality control that a reputable tour company can do. What I mean is that Princess may have to subcontract 20 tour guides on 20 buses, and one of those tour guides is going to be the worst out of 20, and you have a chance of getting assigned to that tour guide.
As a result, although all three of our tour guides were competent, none of them were as good as the guides on the worst Viator we have ever taken. And that makes sense, because Viator can afford to retain only the best few guides in any location, whereas Princess HAS to employ dozens.
The advantages of early tendering and the ship not sailing without you might not be worth as much as it seems like to a new cruiser. First, the tender process is pretty efficient, as we will describe in Chapter 7, so a preferential spot can't be worth too much. In fact, you might actually be later off the ship, since you have to wait for your tour to be called, as opposed to maneuvering yourself onto the first tender.
Also, the risk of the ship leaving without you might not be that great. The ship is typically in port for maybe 8-12 hours, and the "All Aboard" time is made clear. So unless you are being rash and reckless on shore, you shouldn't normally be positioning yourself more than an hour away from port with one hour to go before all aboard. In other words, you typically can choose excursions and activities that can be completed well before you need to return to the ship. So if you are worried about living dangerously, you don't have to pay Princess to protect you -- you can just choose not to live dangerously.
On the other side of the scale, I can't speak for how easy it is to find non-Princess excursions at any particular location, or how reliable are the excursion providers camping out at the cruise port. On my next cruise, I will research alternatives to Princess excursions, both to save money and to potentially have a better experience.
But should you book a Princess excursion, here is what you can expect.
First, you will be assigned a time to report to the Princess Theater.
When your entire group arrives at the Princess Theater, you will be assigned a group number (e.g., Blue 7, Pink 21), where the color indicates the specific tour you have selected, and the number indicates the specific bus you will be traveling in. It's first-in, first-out, so if you arrive at the Princess Theater a little early, and there are multiple groups in your color, you might leave for your tender or tour bus a little earlier. PRO-TIP: being seated Stage Left in the Princess Theater better positions you to battle you fellow cruisers for the most coveted seats on the excursion bus.
The worst part of the excursion will be waiting in the Princess Theater, because Princess has a one-track mind when its customers are captive, so they loop a cheesy marketing video for the REFLECTIONS DVD, which costs $50 and purports to document the cruise and/or the excursions. I didn't get the DVD, so I express no opinion about the content or the quality, but note that Cruise Critic discussion boards convey decidedly mixed reviews).
The Horizon Buffet
The Dining Halls
9. The Scams
Fine Art Auction
See also our review of the MSC Grandiosa
9 Things I Wish I Had Brought On Board
5. Door Decals
[PICTURED: Passengers trapped in the Princess Theater, awaiting their excursion, subjected to a cheesy marketing video for the Reflections DVD. See how white and washed out is the video? It appears to be some ancient VHS converted to digital. In other words, it's not even a GOOD marketing pitch.]
See also our review of the MSC Grandiosa