After my February Caribbean cruise on Holland America, I promised to do a piece comparing that company with my long-time favourite, Princess Cruises. Now that I've come back from my Panama Canal cruise with Princess, it's time to deliver the goods.
Before starting the comparisons, there are some significant points of similarity. Both companies are generally considered as being in the "premium cruise" category, a designation which is reflected in fares, quality and range of foods offered, and general overall service. Both offer a "classic cruise" type of experience with broadly similar daily programming and an overall, low-key atmosphere. Don't go to either of these companies for endless parties or for razzle-dazzle, theme-park types of attractions.
Anyone who knows me will readily understand why the calmer, quieter vibe of these two lines suits me right down to the ship's keel.
One other general comment. My comparisons are between the companies as they are, and not as compared to what they were like before the pandemic struck. In my opinion, it's pointless to keep hankering for a past which is gone, over, and done.
The Booking Process:
Both companies offer booking by phone directly, on line directly, or through third-party travel agents. There is one significant difference. Holland America does not offer a refund of the deposit you pay to secure a reservation. The deposit of hundreds of dollars is forfeited as soon as you pay it. Princess still offers a fully refundable deposit, except on certain promotional discount fares, and you can get a full refund of all monies paid up to the final booking date of the cruise.
Cabins are broadly comparable in terms of space. The space for putting away clothes and such is about the same, with Princess offering a slightly larger hanging closet. Both include a digital safe, and both include a small refrigerator. Holland America, on their newer ships, puts a small assortment of adult beverages in the refrigerator as a pay-as-you-use minibar, such as you might find in an upscale hotel. The beds are similar, with the Princess bed having a slight edge in overall comfort. Holland America, on the ship I was on, had a near-bathtub sized shower stall and more space to spread out your toiletries, whereas the Princess shower is about the size of an old glass phone booth and the vanity isn't much bigger.
A notable point: Holland America's three newest ships, the Pinnacle Class, actually offer a dozen cabins geared to solo travellers. It's a small gesture to a large and growing group of cruise patrons, but it also represents a trend which has gained even more speed on some other lines. You should be prepared to book early to get one. None of the Princess ships currently in service have any solo cabins.
Winner: Holland America, because of the much more spacious bathroom, and the solo cabins.
Princess still offers the traditional turn-down evening service as well as fuller cleaning service in the morning, although such amenities as chocolates on the pillow and the automatic daily ice bucket have vanished. Holland America now offers one daily service, your choice of morning or evening, by a team of two room attendants. There is a card you can fill out for the room attendants to request such services as daily ice bucket service.
Winner: No real winner. Cabin service was excellent in both companies.
Food: Meals are a big part of what you pay for on a cruise. Following on are several sections dealing with the whole business of meals. This first section relates purely to the menu.
Overall, Princess wins for the menus in the main dining room. They offer a larger assortment of both appetizers and main courses each night, and their menu selections are more adventurous with less repetition within a single cruise. Princess makes more of an effort to incorporate regional and local dishes within their menus each day.
In the buffet, Princess also offers a wider selection, with new emphasis on vegan, vegetarian, and gluten-free food options taking up a notable amount of the available space.
When you want a light snack, Princess offers on almost all ships the International Cafe, which serves up assorted small sandwiches and cakes, from Italian meats to Austrian stollen in season, along with premium coffees and teas and a full bar service. Holland America, on its largest ships, offers the Grand Dutch Cafe with a menu composed of such unique Dutch specialties as vleeskroketten or bitterballen as well as premium coffees and teas and a full bar service. Both cafes are excellent.
In the specialty restaurants, for which you pay extra, both Princess and Holland America give their very best for these upcharge customers. The one noteworthy difference is in the Italian area, where Princess presents a multi-course gourmet extravaganza at Sabatini's while Holland America's Canaletto has a much smaller and more conventional Italian menu -- although also at a smaller charge. Along the same lines, both companies offer a classic steak house experience and there's really nothing to choose between the Princess Crown Grill and the Holland America Pinnacle in quality of food. Holland America's Tamarind has no direct competitor on most Princess ships, and offers a truly epic Asian-fusion menu. Similarly unique is the Bayou Cafe and Steak House on Princess' two smallest ships, Island Princess and Coral Princess. Overall, the fact that Holland America offers five premium restaurants for 2600 passengers on their newest ships (the Pinnacle Class) while Princess offers just 2 for 2,200 passengers on the comparably sized Island Class ships is noteworthy.
Winner: Overall, Princess scores for food quality and diversity, but Holland America deserves definite recognition for a broader and more diverse range of specialty food experiences.
Food Service: As well as what you eat, how it is served is equally important.
To start with, the buffets. Both lines indicate that you can have table service of beverages in the buffet, a desirable factor for those of us suffering from the shakes, rattles, and rolls of advancing age. Overall, Princess handled this a bit better, but it largely depended on the passenger always sitting in the same general area of the buffet and forming a personal connection with a particular server who would thereafter come running whenever they saw you walk in. Holland America did it pretty well at lunch time, but at breakfast your choices were usually limited to either going and getting your own, and hoping you didn't slop hot coffee on your hand, or else doing without.
In the main dining rooms, Princess scored heavily. Service was excellent: prompt, organized, and attentive. Holland America's staff often seemed uncertain of who was to do what, for which tables, and at what times.
Re: reservations. Princess now has the entire dining reservation process available through their app, and it works well as long as you don't reserve a time for the main dining room at the top of the hour. Reservations can be made literally months before the ship sails, and then modified as needed/available. With a reservation, the longest I had to wait for a table was 7 minutes while others with reservations who had arrived ahead of me were seated. Holland America still requires you to reserve by phone each day for the main dining room. Both lines limit the number and size of reservations to leave room for walk-ins. As a walk-in diner on Holland America, I was often faced with a wait for a table of half an hour or more. Both companies will now hand walk-in diners a beeper if they have to wait for a table.
In the specialty restaurants, both lines fully lived up to the need to provide a premium service experience in accordance with the dining surcharge. Both lines offered reservations through the app for the specialty restaurants. No complaints there.
Winner: Princess hands down, in the main dining room, and by a smaller margin in the buffet. That said, both lines need to up their game in the buffet in a big way.
Food Costs: This item applies only to the specialty restaurants, since food at all meals is otherwise included in your fare.
Point by point: Both lines charge extra for premium coffees and teas, whether served at the buffet, in the dining room, or at a café.
For the steak house, I paid US$29 on Princess and US$59 on Holland America. Food and service were indistinguishable between the two. Holland America's steak house must be judged a massive rip-off by comparison.
For the Italian restaurant, I paid US$15 for Holland America and US$35 for Princess. However, the quality and originality of the Princess menu at Sabatini's, and the quality of the service, not to mention the much more spacious venue, set it in a completely different league from Holland America's Canaletto. I'd judge them equal for value, but Princess is far out in front with a truly unique and unusual meal experience. No spaghetti and meatballs on this menu!
Note that these prices appear to shift from time to time. I suspect that if there is a principle, it's that you get a better price by reserving earlier, but pay more if you wait until you're on board, at least with Holland America.
Other specialty restaurants are not comparable, since I haven't patronized them.
Winner: Princess, although Holland America is a formidable competitor.
Meal Seating: No question in my mind, Princess is the hands-down winner here. Seating in both the buffet and in the main dining room was far more crowded on Holland America. At busy times, someone was always just about in your lap. Princess offers more space to relax and enjoy your meal.
And that will be quite enough on the entire subject of meals!
Public Spaces: Public spaces on both ships were adequate, with enough room for people to move around without being crowded. Princess offers a more spacious atrium, with more room to move about, sit, etc. Holland America creates a more memorable atmosphere due to the line's long-standing tradition of commissioning contemporary artists to create works specifically for their ships. On Holland America's most recent ships, each vessel contains more than two thousand commissioned original art works, all sizes from small sculptures to floor-length paintings, from life-size figure sculptures to the immense stainless-steel spiral "thing" in the atrium of the Nieuw Statendam. By comparison, the now-standard warm-toned Italian look of nearly all Princess ships seems relatively bland and boring.
On the outdoor decks, many (most?) ships on both lines still offer a full-length or nearly full-length promenade deck, and it's always popular as a place for extended walks, especially on sea days. Princess continues to place large numbers of comfortable chairs and side tables on the promenade, providing ample seating for people who want to sit outside but out of the direct sunlight. Holland America had only a very limited number of seats -- perhaps a dozen for the entire promenade deck. The Royal Class of Princess ships eliminated the promenade altogether, a massive move in the wrong direction.
Holland America's ships continue to feature a major pool area at the stern of the ship, with a large sundeck space facing the ship's wake. On Princess, the Grand Class ships have a smaller pool at the stern, with limited deck space around it. Whether the stern pool is designated "adults only" or not seems to vary from ship to ship on both lines, but the Holland America stern sundeck is a great feature.
Winner: Holland America, for the range and quality of its art commissions, and for the major stern pool and sundeck.
Both companies offer multiple entertainment experiences in various areas of the ship through the day, and ramp up the music in the bars during dinner hours, as well as having major shows in the theatre.
I'm no great friend of theatre production shows, so my comments relate to the more low-key entertainment in lounges and atria (and I must confess, I am astonished that the spell checker recognizes the correct Latin plural of "atrium"!).
Princess sticks stoutly to the tried-and-true formula in which each musician solo or team presents mostly the "greatest hits of the 50s to the 80s", suitably arranged for whichever instrument(s) or voice(s) happen to be on hand. I've been told that this kind of musical revue also describes most of their theatre shows.At best, you may get a really good jazz pianist who can riff on old standards with greater imagination.
Holland America, on the other hand, has gone full-throttle into emphasizing music as the signature mark of their ships, with the development of the Music Walk on their newer ships, a string of specialty music venues which each feature a different type or style of music: B.B.King's Blues Club, with its own in-house blues band, Billboard Onboard, where the greatest hits formula gets reimagined as "duelling pianists", complete with ringside seats around the pianos, the Rolling Stone Rock Room, with its own rock band, and Lincoln Center Live, where classical music is presented. Clever scheduling allows you to move from venue to venue, as each one in turn presents a 45-minute show.
Also distinctive is Holland America's in-house modern dance company, Step One Dance, which takes the stage in the main theatre, itself a fascinating amalgam of traditional stage and contemporary digital and video technology.
Winner: hands down, Holland America, for a distinctive and truly unique approach to entertainment.
In today's world, internet connectivity is an essential service. Both lines charge extra for this service, but with notable differences. Princess has a two-step rate plan, at a flat fee per week, to buy service for just one device or (at a higher rate) for up to four devices. Holland America offers a three-tier program which allows for more use of internet connectivity as you pay more. On the lowest tier, it allows for simple browsing and texting but that's all. Note that some of the Holland America premium rate packages include only the lowest level, which is what I had.
Princess internet functions at varying degrees of efficiency, depending where you are on the planet, and I suspect Holland America would be the same (I was cruising with HA in the Caribbean which is one of the real hot spot zones). More complex jobs (like blog posts) had to be done on Princess in the very early morning because the service would slow down markedly as the day went on. I was unaware of a similar slowdown on Holland America, but couldn't really judge the difference because it was the simple browsing and texting service.
Winner: no clear winner.
A key part of any modern cruise is the whole area of electronic connectivity, but more specifically the use of a custom-designed app by each company to help organize the services offered.
These apps can not be used for reserving cruises. That has to be done through each company's main web site due to the size and complexity of the search functions. The apps are used to handle the onboard services once a cruise has been booked.
Here's a quick rundown of some of the things you can and can't do on each company's app (P = Princess Medallion Class, H - Holland America Navigator).
 Check in before arrival at the pier. P H
 Advance reservations for shore excursions. P H
 Advance reservations for specialty dining. P H
 Advance reservations for main dining room. P
 Daily schedule of events on board. P H
 Custom personal schedule including onboard events, your excursions, your reservations. H
 Navigate around the ship. P H
 Online casino games. P
 Order food and drinks delivered to your current location on the ship. P
A couple of comments on this far-from-complete list. The lack of # 4 on Holland America is a serious hole in their offering. Princess really needs to get with the programme on # 6. You can customize the ship's daily schedule but can't include your excursions, reservations, etc. As for # 9, it's a regular routine to hear fellow cruisers complaining about why their food orders either didn't show up or took forty or fifty minutes to get there. I have never used that service, since it always seems to cause problems.
Winner: No clear winner in this department. Each company has its good aspects, but each company also needs to rethink other aspects of their app.
You're not going to back me into that corner! Both cruise lines offer desirable experiences, but both also have their glitches. I intend to continue cruising with both of them.