Everything cruisers need to know about the new Sky Princess ship
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It’s been a long time coming, but there’s finally — finally! — a new ship for North American fans of Princess Cruises: the just-unveiled, 3,660-passenger Sky Princess.
Yeah, sure, the “Love Boat line” rolled out a fancy new vessel, Majestic Princess, just two-and-a-half years ago. But, initially at least, that ship was aimed exclusively at the China market. It’s been more than five years since travelers based in North America had an all-new Princess ship to call their own.
So, if you’re a loyal Princess cruiser, that means you’re probably pretty excited about Sky Princess, which departed from Athens on Sunday on its inaugural voyage. After getting a sneak peek at the vessel over the weekend during a short pre-inaugural “shakedown cruise,” I will say this: There’s more on board than you might think.
At first glance, Sky Princess appears to be almost identical to the last few vessels unveiled by the line. It has the same central Piazza lined with cafes, bars, shops and restaurants, and its signature steakhouse, Lotus Spa and namesake theater are all right there where you’d expect to find them.
But it doesn’t take long to realize that, in its hallmark quiet and subtle way, Princess has made significant changes to this vessel — as compared to Majestic Princess and its two predecessors, Regal Princess and Royal Princess, all of which share the same basic architecture. All four are part of the Royal Class, which began rolling out in 2013.
As is always the case with Princess, you won’t see any radically over-the-top new features such as the deck-top roller coaster that Carnival is planning for its soon-to-debut Mardi Gras, or the record-size water slide that Royal Caribbean just added to its Navigator of the Seas. Compared to most of its big-ship rivals, Princess is known for a more serene, almost “old school” sort of cruising that isn’t about a lot of deck-top amusements.
The fifth-biggest brand after Royal Caribbean, Carnival, MSC Cruises and Norwegian Cruise Line, Princess has none of those upper deck flashes: no giant water parks, go-kart tracks, rock climbing walls or kiddie splash zones. And that’s on purpose. Princess executives long ago decided not to engage in what they call the “amusement park arms race” taking place between lines operating big, resort-like ships. Princess is a line that sticks to the basics, with top decks mostly featuring relaxing pool and lounge zones.
But you will find several new elements on Sky Princess that are groundbreaking in their own way, as well as quite a few tweaks to the basic Princess ship design that, for the most part, make it much better. Indeed, for Princess regulars, this might just be the best Princess ship yet. Here’s what to expect if you book a cruise on Sky Princess.
The biggest suites ever on a Princess ship
Perhaps the most noticeable additions to Sky Princess are the giant twin Sky Suites that lord over the main pool area on the top of the ship.
Measuring more than 1,800 square feet a piece, these are by far the biggest suites ever on a Princess vessel, which hasn’t really toyed with big suites. They’re also the first cabins at the line that can accommodate more than four people. With two bedrooms plus a living room with a pullout sofa, they’re designed for up to five people.
That said, as I saw during a tour of the two complexes, these aren’t the sort of truly epic suites with huge interior living spaces you’ll find on the latest Royal Caribbean or Regent Seven Seas ships. If that’s what you’re after, Princess still isn’t your line.
It turns out, more than half the touted square footage of the Sky Suites is occupied by giant wraparound balconies, leaving less than 1,000 square feet for the interior spaces (which, a bit to my surprise, almost seemed cramped). What the suites do offer is a pretty awesome home-theater experience. From lounge chairs on their elevated balconies, you have an eye-level view across the pool deck to the ship’s massive Movies Under the Star LED screen, which plays films at night. Not only is this the best seat in the house, but (for an extra charge, yet to be set) you can pick the movie that will play on the giant screen. In other words, if you’re staying in one of these suites, you can subject the entire vessel to your movie preferences.
My take? Clearly, the balconies steal the show. Princess claims they’re the biggest balconies in the cruise industry, which is a bit of a stretch (the massive Regent Suite on Regent Seven Seas’ Seven Seas Explorer has more balcony space). Still, they’re absolutely stellar for entertaining. If you’re traveling with a big group of friends or an affinity group, we could see booking one of these suites just to use as the ultimate party-at-sea spot — that is, if you can afford it. The Sky Suites also come with the highest price tag ever for a Princess cabin, with fares for seven-night sailings starting around $7,000 per person.
New balcony cabins and smaller suites, too
Eagle-eyed Princess fans will notice that Sky Princess is a tad bulkier at its front than earlier Royal Class vessels. The line has added a partial deck to make room for not just the giant Sky Suites, but also 52 more cabins.
These include 38 new balcony cabins and six ocean-view cabins around the adults-only Retreat area on Deck 17. But the big story (in addition to the Sky Suites) is the addition of six new Penthouse Suites, which are more than twice the size of standard balcony cabins and feature wide balconies. There also are two new forward-facing Window Suites that are even larger. Though they lack balconies, they sit at the corners of the front of Deck 17, and offer spectacular views over the bow.
In all, Sky Princess boasts 46 suites: 10 more than earlier vessels in the Royal Class. That’s a big increase, and a sign that suites are in hot demand at the line. If you’re the kind of Princess cruiser who wouldn’t be caught cruising in anything smaller than a minisuite, you’ll be pleased with the inventory on this ship.
Of course, there’s a downside to all the added suites and cabins. By ever so slightly increasing the passenger count on Sky Princess as compared to its older sisters, these extra rooms are ever so slightly making the public areas of the vessel a bit more crowded.
Sky Princess wasn’t running anywhere near full during the pre-inaugural “shakedown cruise” I boarded, so I couldn’t really get a sense of whether the extra passenger count will be noticeable. But it’s not a huge increase. At double occupancy of two passengers per cabin, we’re talking about an additional 108 passengers across a vessel designed for 3,660 people. That’s only a 3% jump.
A revamped pool and sun decks
Princess went into big-time tinkering mode when it came to the top decks of Sky Princess. Again, you won’t find any industry-first attractions, but there is more pool, hot tub and lounge space on the vessel than on any of the earlier Royal Class ships.
At the heart of the change is a revamp of the main pool area on Deck 16, also known as the Lido Deck. There are now two large pools (instead of one large pool and a smaller plunge pool), as well as three hot tubs, up from two on the earlier vessels; expanded lounge areas; and a relocated SeaView bar (which devout Princess cruisers will note no longer has nearly as good a sea view).
The additions were made by removing the mid-deck dancing fountain feature found on other Royal Class ships and drastically scaling back the over-the-ocean SeaWalk feature, which was initially touted as one of the signature attractions of the class.
Other top-deck changes include a doubling of the number of hot tubs (from two to four) in the sunning areas along the sides of Deck 17. There’s also a new pool at the very back of the ship on Deck 16, dubbed the Wake View. It’s backed by a bar and just behind the Horizon Court buffet in a space that, on earlier Royal Class-ships, is just a bar zone. The adults-only Retreat Pool and extra-charge Sanctuary near the front of Sky Princess have also been reconfigured.
Here, Princess hits a home run. It’s great that Princess added more places on the top decks to soak, whether in a pool or a hot tub. On a ship designed for more than 3,000 people, there really can never be too many places to get your toes wet, particularly on a sea day. The changes to the main pool area, in particular, also have improved the flow of people across the deck.
New twists on dining and entertainment
The interior public areas of Sky Princess have been tweaked quite a bit, too, though not in a way that anyone but a rabid Princess lover might immediately notice. As top executives like to say, Princess is a line that doesn’t do “revolution” when it comes to the design of each new vessel. It’s all about “evolution,” and in a gradual, don’t-upset-the-apple-cart sort of way. Princess likes its (many) regulars to see a consistent product as they hop from vessel to vessel around the world.
So, the basic layout of the ship’s main interior public decks (Decks 5 through 7) is pretty much the same as on earlier Royal Class ships, but with a somewhat lighter color scheme palate of neutral creams, browns and blues, with a few splashes of yellow and orange thrown in for good measure. As is Princess tradition, it’s nothing flashy like you’d find on a Carnival or Norwegian Cruise Line ship. Classy continues to be the mantra.
What has been added, as compared to early ships in the series, is a French eatery around the Piazza, Bistro Sur La Mer, with dishes by chef Emmanuel Renaut (whose restaurant in the French Alps boasts three Michelin stars). In a location that had been a lounge on the Royal Princess and Regal Princess, it comes with a $29 per person cover charge, just like the signature Crown Grill steakhouse. The concept first debuted on Majestic Princess in Asia.
There’s also, finally, al fresco restaurant seating at two of the restaurants around the Piazza (the bistro and a redesigned Alfredo’s pizzeria across the way). Princess is sort of late to the party when it comes to al fresco dining, which has been a growing trend at lines like Norwegian and Royal Caribbean.
The Sky Princess designers also tinkered with the layout of one of the hottest places to grab a cocktail on Royal Class ships: The centrally-located bar outside the Crown Grill (named the Wheelhouse Bar on earlier vessels, now the Crown Grill Bar). The rectangular bar for this venue was, notably, moved from the side of the space to the center and reoriented to face the crossing corridor, which is no longer set off with waist-high dividers. This makes the space feel far more open and inviting. The bar also got a new lineup of concoctions dreamed up by mixologist Rob Floyd (of Paramount Network’s “Bar Rescue”).
Other changes include the addition of a jazz venue next to the casino; a revamped Gelato outlet; a more contemporary aesthetic in the main dining rooms; and an overhauled menu at the line’s extra-charge Italian restaurant, Sabatini’s.
In a final piece of the puzzle, Princess also is joining the escape room craze with its first escape room on a ship. Alas, this still wasn’t ready over the weekend, so I couldn’t test it, and it’s not expected to open until December.
I would give high marks to most of the changes to interior spaces, though I might quibble with some of the new menu offerings. Despite being the creation of a superstar chef, the dishes I tasted at Bistro Sur La Mer seemed oddly uninspired. I ordered a filet mignon that was skimpy (read: thin and small) and overwhelmed by a chunky wine sauce and sautéed onion. If you have a good cut of beef, there’s no reason to smother it with so much “stuff.” Similarly, the dishes coming out of the kitchen at Sabatini’s were a letdown, not just to me but other cruise writers on board.
That said, it could be that these restaurants just were having a bad day. This was, after all, a pre-inaugural cruise, when it’s perfectly normal to still be working out the kinks in advance of “real” passengers arriving. That’s the whole point of a shakedown. Princess only took delivery of Sky Princess from the Fincantieri shipyard a day before we sailed, which means the chefs in these restaurants barely had time to unpack their knives before we sat down to order. The fact they could turn out filet mignon at all is sort of remarkable.
Lots of high-tech features
First, I should say that Sky Princess has stunningly fast internet — at least for a cruise ship. For the past few years, Royal Caribbean’s Zoom internet has been the gold standard for fast internet on ships, way ahead of what other lines offer. But Princess clearly caught up. If you pay the $9.99 per day fee to hook up a device, you really will be able to stream Netflix shows, just like the line promised. Retiring early to my cabin one night, I had no trouble binge-watching several episodes of the French-Belgian thriller “Black Spot” (the dubbed version, of course).
But fast internet is just the beginning when it comes to new technology on display. Sky Princess is the first Princess ship purpose-built to work with the line’s new suite of high-tech OceanMedallion features, some of which are breaking ground in the cruise industry. Already available on four of Princess’s 17 other vessels, the features include the ability to order a wide array of food and drinks to any place you happen to be on the ship via an app (think: Uber Eats, but at sea) and to find and chat with friends and family via an app no matter where they are on board.
In both cases, the technology relies on each passenger carrying around a poker chip-size, RFID-tagged “medallion” that lets the ship know his or her location at every moment. More than 7,000 sensors embedded around the vessel pick up the signals emitted by the medallions.
Issued before boarding, the medallions allow for a lot of cool things. Perhaps the coolest is that, assuming you have your medallion with you, your cabin door will magically unlock as you approach it: No more rooting around for lost keys.
In what might strike some as a bit Big Brother, the medallions also tip off crew that you’re approaching, allowing them to address you by name — and maybe offer a favorite aperitif.
Big Brother or not, some of the features, such as the app-based ordering, are game-changing. Sitting in a comfy chair near the ship’s Crown Grill steakhouse, with no server in sight, I used Princess’s MedallionClass app to order my favorite cocktail, a sidecar, directly to my location. A few minutes later, a smiling server appeared with the drink on a tray. Since the ship knew where I was, thanks to the medallion in my pocket, she had no trouble finding me. She could see my location (and a picture of me) on her Princess-issued mobile device.
On the flip side, I could track my order from start to finish on the app. It very cutely showed a little ship “sailing” across the screen from “ordered” to “preparing” and “serving.”
The app also makes settling bills for such transactions seamless. The server with my sidecar didn’t ask me to sign anything, since the transaction had been recorded electronically.
Incidentally, the drink was free. To get more passengers to try the MedallionClass app, Princess is making the first drink you order with it gratis. Which is great, because sidecars on Sky Princess cost nearly $12!
In addition to food and drinks, you can order a wide range of retail items such as sunscreen and clothing by app to wherever you are on board. The app also allows you to check your bill, book shore excursions, buy a beverage package and play interactive games. In what could be a dangerous innovation for those who love to gamble, the app also allows for the playing of casino games from anywhere on board, including your room.
A handful of hiccups
Princess executives are super excited about the new medallion-related technology — so excited, they’ve made it a core element of recent marketing efforts. But after trying it out for a few days, I think they jumped the gun a tad. I would have waited on the rollout until it was a bit more refined.
Perhaps the most obvious flaw is that it takes not one but four different apps to access all the medallion-based features. In addition to the main MedallionClass app, which handles several functions, there are separate apps for shipboard navigation, game playing and casino play. Believe it or not, this is an improvement, as it initially took even more apps to run everything. Princess is in the process of streamlining the system.
The MedallionClass app also still lacks some basic functions, like the ability to make dining and spa reservations on board (or even see what options are available in those areas). It can be a bit wonky, too, if you don’t have your medallion close to your device. I struggled to order a drink when my medallion was in my back pocket instead of on a lanyard around my neck — talk about cruise wear.
And not to pile on too much, but I also will say the four apps eat up a stunning amount of storage space on devices. On my iPhone, the cumulative count was nearly 2 gigabytes.
What it costs
Sky Princess will sail several voyages in the Mediterranean over the next month before repositioning to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, for seven-night trips to the Eastern and Western Caribbean. The Eastern Caribbean trips will feature stops in St. Thomas, St. Maarten and Princess Cays, the line’s private island in the Bahamas. The Western Caribbean itinerary will bring calls in Belize City, Belize; Roatan, Honduras; and Cozumel and Costa Maya, Mexico.
As of Monday, Eastern Caribbean trips were available from $649 per person, not including taxes and fees of $136.80. That works out to about $112 per night, per person, with taxes and fees for a package that includes your lodging, transportation and meals. The Western Caribbean trips are starting at $789 per person, plus another $150.23 in taxes and fees. That’s closer to $132 per night, per person.
Yes, there’s a premium to go to the Western Caribbean.
Of course, the rates are just for one person and based on “double occupancy” of your cabin, so the per room rate really is twice that amount. It also doesn’t include extra charges you ring up on board. While meals are included at several onboard restaurants, you’ll pay extra for the Crown Grill steakhouse and other specialty dining destinations. And you’ll also pay extra for drinks. Most beers at Sky Princess bars run from $6.25 to $6.75, and wine starts at $8 per glass ($32 for the least expensive bottle).
The aforementioned fares are also for the least-expensive, windowless “interior” cabin. There are all sorts of cabin categories on Princess ships, including those bigger balcony cabins and suites, at a wide range of price points. And pricing for cruises fluctuate week-by-week depending on demand, just as they do with flights. The rates above are for sailings during off-season weeks. You’ll pay more for more popular times of year, such as over Christmas.
One other thing for which you’ll need to budget is the automatic service gratuity that Princess adds to bills, which runs $14.50 per person, per day for most cabins. Suite passengers pay more.
Princess has made significant changes to Sky Princess as compared to earlier vessels in its Royal Class series and, for the most part, they are all for the better. I’ve sailed on nearly all the line’s new ships over the past couple decades, and I have no qualms saying Sky Princess is the best I’ve seen. The technological enhancements on the vessel, in particular, are impressive (if still in need of a little work).
Of course, one thing to keep in mind is that, whatever the changes, Sky Princess still is a Princess ship. If you haven’t liked Princess vessels in the past, you’re not going to suddenly fall in love with this one, even if it has more hot tubs and cabin doors that unlock when you approach.
Princess also appeals to an older demographic than lines such as Carnival and Norwegian. The average age of passengers is around 57, and you’ll usually see a lot of couples on board in their 50s, 60s and 70s. These aren’t people necessarily craving roller coasters and skydiving simulators at sea. Princess gets some families with kids, too — just not the kind expecting an amusement park experience.
Editor’s note: TPG always tries to pay full price for any travel staff and writers take, and usually doesn’t inform companies in advance of plans to review. However, there are times when — especially with cruise lines — we need to work with travel providers to gain early access to products before they go into regular service. To attend this four-night “shakedown” sailing of Sky Princess, which was operated in advance of the ship’s official debut on a non-revenue basis for Princess employees, travel agents, media and others who needed to see the ship for business reasons, TPG agreed to pay a negotiated $400 rate to be on board. This is roughly in line with the starting rates of the ship on a per person, per day basis. TPG also paid all costs to get to and from the vessel.
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