Our cruise was scheduled for departure on Tuesday (February 28th) afternoon from Pier 27 (the fancy “new” cruise terminal) in San Francisco. As we live in the city it was just a Lyft ride away. We arrived at the Port about 1 PM and the traffic was terrible. We probably spent 15 minutes in the traffic circle waiting to get up to the unloading point. The Lyft driver noted this was unusual but even still, as able bodied individuals (with rolling bags) we’d probably go a block further next time to get dropped off and walk it.
The cruises have special luggage tags, similar to airline tags, which you print out at home and attach to your bags. We bought cruise-specific plastic holders on Amazon to use. As soon as you get out of your vehicle, they have porters who collect your bags — so be ready to part with them the second you get out of the vehicle (i.e. have the luggage tags on before you leave the house). Also you will not see your bag again for 2-3 hours. They will be screened by security (mostly for booze, I’m sure) and eventually delivered to your stateroom. Ours showed up about 2 hours after we made it on the ship. Security screening for each person is a bit of a joke compared to say airports. They seem to be looking for only the most obvious problems, like machetes, bombs, and booze.
As it comes to timing, our ships departure was listed as 4:00 PM, with embarkation starting at 1:00 PM. However in the fine print somewhere it said there was some staggered boarding times (of which we didn’t pay any attention to) and more fine print saying show up no later than 3:00 PM. My recommendation would be to aim for whatever the start time is (in our case 1 PM). It’s much better to be early and have an extra hour on the cruise ship than be late and miss the ship.
Once onboard you’re on your own for a few hours. Since we had planned to purchase the unlimited drink package that was our first stop, made especially easy since they had hard to miss pop-up stands around the ship. The SO also wanted to sign up for a massage appointment so we also found our way to the spa. Both of these things we could have signed up for in advance but had not done so as we didn’t see any pressing need. It seems all pre-booking closes 7 days in advance of the cruise, so it either needs to be decided on early (which we did for the excursions) or you have to wait until you are on board.
At 3:30 PM was the muster drill. It’s like the safety briefing on an airplane but a bit longer and more involved. You need to go back to your cabin and grab your life jackets then find your way to your muster station (there are 4 on the Grand Princess, you’re assigned a specific location based on your stateroom). While the muster drill is boring, I’d suggest getting your life jacket and getting to the muster station a little bit early so you have a chance at a seat. Attendance is mandatory, suck it up. They scan your cruise card so they’ll know if you didn’t go. Quickly you will learn that they scan your cruise card for everything. For those who missed the first muster drill, there is a second one.
Speaking of the cruise card, this is awesomely the only single thing you will need with you all the time. Your card is issued to you during the embarkation process and does everything you need for the the duration of your cruise. It is your identification, as they take a picture of you as you board. They will scan and compare every time you get on and off the ship. It tells you your dining room, time, and table (or if you have anytime dining). It has your folio number which is essentially your shipboard credit account, everything you buy (including drinks and merchandise, extra services like the spa) will by put on your folio. It provides special functionality at places like the casino. Lastly it is also your room key. We found someone selling lanyards for a couple bucks, so we did that. I also noticed people with conference badge style plastic holders (so their card was easier to remove?) and even one guy with a badge reel like you get at work (my SO specifically forbade me from doing this on any future trip).
On the ship you have a number of dining options, of which I’ll talk more about later. However there are a few “premium” eateries which cost an additional fee to enjoy. From what I understand it’s typically about $30 per person extra for all the premium options (they don’t charge for the food itself). Somewhere I read that embarkation night was a great option for these eateries because they aren’t as busy. We called for reservations at the Crown Grill (steak house) and had the option of the 5:30 PM or 8:00 PM seating (these two seating times are fairly common to most of the eateries on board). We picked 5:30 and the place was no more than half full. Later we walked by and the 8 PM seating was a ghost town. So the first day is definitely a great option. The dinner was great and we were sitting at a port (left) side window, so we could watch the lights of the SF Bay Area grow faint in the distance as we enjoyed our meal.
A fair portion of our first day/evening was spent exploring the ship. Finding all the key locations and trying to figure out the best way around. These ships are large and confusing for most people. I consider myself very directionally savvy but still got turned around on occasion or took the slow route to our destination. Since there isn’t much going on for the first night (most people have had plane flights or other long trips and are tired), this is the best time to wander.
Part of our evening meandering led us to the Casino. Princess touts it as “Vegas-style” which as I’ve only been gambling (briefly) in Reno and Vegas, I’m not sure what the other possible options are. A majority of the Casino space is video games with about 8 or so table games. Unfortunately the video game system is a bit janky with the cruise card. Once you’re signed up, each machine you sit down at is: put in cruise card, hit “Withdraw (From Player Bank)", confirm withdrawal, select amount, enter PIN code, wait. Takes ~30 seconds before you can actually play. Cashing out (back to your card/player bank) takes about 10 seconds. It’s not as easy to hop around as it would be in Reno where it takes no more than 5 seconds to get on or off any machine. The biggest problem with the Casino is that smoking is allowed (where is not on 95% of the rest of the ship) and their ventilation isn’t as good as a real Casino. Not a smell I enjoy.
If you can’t find anything to do because cruise ships are just so boring (NOTE: SARCASM), go hang out in any one of the bars. Unlike a typical bar most everyone else there is happy and more than willing to talk. They’re on vacation and having a good time (note: You are also on vacation and hopefully having a good time). If it’s a little slow the bar staff is more than happy to chat with you also, they are at sea for 9 months at a time so they have some great stories to tell. The biggest annoyance about our drinking for the evening was that we were supposed to tell everyone we had “the package” for the first night (something about their registers catching up) and most of the staff asked us where our stickers were. Turns out this was the first cruise where the unlimited drink package did not get a special sticker on the cruise card. However after the first night this information seemed to get propagated to all the staff properly and it didn’t come up again.
Towards the end of the night I found the rocking of the ship a bit disconcerting. We had enough to drink and the rocking was gentle enough, that I couldn’t tell if the feeling was the drinks or the ship. Sometimes you’d step and things weren’t quite where your brain expected it to be. Also depending on where you are in the ship, its hard to tell what’s forwards vs aft and which manner the ship is pitching or rolling. However once you get towards bed time, the rocking is great. Slept amazing.