My wife and I recently took our first Princess cruise on the Golden in the Mediterranean. We have cruised 6 times on HAL, once each on Costa and on RCCL. We went on this Princess cruise because they were offering a selection of ports we wanted to visit and because we wanted to try other cruise lines to see how they compare.
Here are some of our feelings on the two cruise lines. Princess has excellent food, probably a little better than HAL and definitely better than RCCL and Costa. The service we received was as good as on HAL although a little different because of the differences in the makeup of the crews on the two cruise lines. As you know if you have cruised on HAL, many of the crew (waiters and room stewards) are Indonesian and are trained in HAL's school. The officers are usually either Dutch or English. The bar staff is mainly from the Philipines. Princess crews on the other hand seem to be from all over the world. We met a number of waiters from Eastern Europe (Poland, Crottia, Serbia, etc.). Our room steward, who did an excellent job, was from Puerto Rico but I saw name tags from many different countries around the ship. You see more women in waiter and room steward roles which you almost never see on HAL ships. Princess's officers seem to be mainly English although there may be some from other Western European and even from America or Canada.
One big difference was the emphasis on "personal choice" dining. There were 3 main dining rooms and only one of them had traditional fixed seat dining. The other two were for Personal Choice customers. We had originally asked for 2nd seating traditional dining but were told the waiting list was over several hundred people and we would be assigned to PC dining. In some ways we enjoyed this as we were able to sit by ourselves at a table for two if we didn't feel like talking a lot and other evenings we could sit with others. But we missed the friendships and relationships that develop when you sit with the same people each night and tell each other what you did that day. We also quickly discovered that if you wanted to eat later with PC dining you would end up having to wait in line. The lines began around 7:45 to 8 and seemed to continue until after 9 PM. The PC dining room was open until 10. We avoided the lines by eating between 7 and 7:30 each evening and never had to wait for a table. As mentioned earlier the food was excellent in both of the PC dining rooms and the service was also very good in spite of having different waiters almost every night. As an aside comment, you can if you want reserve a time as well as a table with a certain waiter for each night in the PC dining rooms. We didn't take advantage of this option but I was told by some people who did it worked just like traditional seating except you got to pick the time to start your dinner. It would have worked especially well if you were travelling with other couples or with families who were cruising together.
The Golden was the biggest ship we had cruised on. It holds 2600 at two per cabin and had 2850 on our cruise. But except for the first afternoon after we had sailed from Barcelona it never seemed extremely crowded. That day almost everyone seemed to wait to have lunch at the buffet restaurant and it was extremely crowded and uncomfortable. But most of the time the ship did not seem crowded in spite of the number of people. It was also in spite of it's size a relatively easy ship to find your way around. Most of the public areas were on 3 lower decks, 5, 6 and 7 and then the top 3 decks. Once you were on the ship a couple of days it wasn't hard to find your way to any of the more common destinations. One other surprise was that although this is a "BIG" ship, it doesn't feel that way. We often ran into people we had either eaten with or who were took our shore excursions with. It was surprising how often you saw people you had talked with before.
Everyone from the crew that we dealt with were friendly and helpful. We even got to talk with Captain at the Captain's welcoming party. It was the first time on any of our cruises that we actually had a real conversation with a captain. He was English and was very pleasant to talk with. The people at the Pursor's desk in spite of at times having lines to deal with remained pleasant and efficient. The waiters and bar attendents did not try to encourage you to buy their wares especially once you had said no once. As mentioned above, our cabin attendent was excellent. He kept the cabin immaculate and was available when needed but was never in the way. Our PC dining choice made his work a little harder since we didn't always leave for dinner at exactly the same time but he worked with us and we always returned to a clean cabin with the beds turned down and a chocolate treat on the pillows.
The one "rip-off" I will complain about was the bingo game. Although they were pulling in large numbers of people each day the "jackpot" never seemed to grow in porportion to the number of people playing so I did not play the final day as I have done on almost everyone of our HAL cruises.
The ship had a large and well run casino but it never seemed to have a lot of people playing. I don't know if this was because they weren't winning or if it was because there were so many other things to do on the ship.
Neither my wife or I are much for the shows that the ships have so I will avoid any comments on them except to note that there were at least two different shows each evening and they seemed to be well attended.
One big difference between HAL and Princess is the average age of the cruising population. I would suspect that the average age on our Golden cruise was in the mid 40"s while on our HAL cruises my guess's to an average has always been somewhere in the 60's. By the way we are in our mid-50's. There were also a lot more children and teenagers than on any of our HAL cruises but because of good programs for them we did not notice them in a bad way during the cruise except for the fact they tended to occupy the hot tubs on some of the pools seemily constantly.
We went on 3 ship arranged shore excursions and all were well run and well organized. All the other ports we did privately arranged excurions. The ship left each port on time and arrived in each port on time. We had an extemely smooth trip and heard no complaints about sea sickness or about other illness.
All in all we enjoyed our time on the Golden and will be looking at other locations that Princess has cruises in the future. I don't know that we will avoid HAL to sail totally on Princess but I will say that I definitely want to try some of the other Princess ships. We also want to try out Celebrity which we have heard great things about and have never been on.
Each cruise line does something special. With Princess, the atmosphere is one of quiet elegance. No one really cares what anyone else is wearing or doing. It's a very intimate cruise experience. We like the British crew that tends to be more prevalent on Princess and we like the flexibility of PC dining. I hate being kept to a schedule when on vacation and with PC dining, you never have to worry about rushing back from a shore excursion, taking a shower and getting to dinner on time.
I see that you have not cruised before dogladyjw , from your countdown clock, but will be on your first cruise in 2 days, on HAL.
I hope you have a wonderful time, and will post what you like best about cruising when you return. That would help other new cruisers decide which line to book for their first cruise.
It has been my experience that your first cruise is ALWAYS special.........our first was on HAL, and of course, our second cruise on a different line did not meet our first cruise memories. We persevered, however, and hope you do too.
Bon Voyage, and smooth seas to you.