Marella Cruises and P&O Cruises are two very Brit-centric lines, with two very different onboard experiences. Both cruise lines are solid choices for British holidaymakers so we've pitted them against each -- covering everything from drinks packages to dress codes -- to help you decide which one would suit you.
Marella Cruises, owned by German tour operator, TUI, offers a similar experience to a traditional all-inclusive package holiday -- attracting the same type of holidaymaker.
P&O Cruises, however, offers arguably a more upmarket experience, with younger, bigger ships including Iona and sister Arvia (launching late 2022), and a broader dining and entertainment offering. However, there are many similarities -- everyone onboard will be British, and passengers can expect typical British dishes in the dining rooms, kettles in cabins and both have pubs and bars offering a wide selection of beers and gins -- one now even has its own onboard gin distillery!
Both are family-friendly brands with adults-only ships in their fleet; for Marella Cruises that's Marella Explorer 2, and for P&O Cruises it's Arcadia and Aurora. Both also include gratuities in the fare, though Marella goes one step further and includes booze -- a big selling point for Brits.
What are the COVID-19 Health Protocols?
Passengers over 12 are required to have had all doses of the COVID-19 vaccine at least 14 days before sailing. Passengers under 12 are exempt; though there are some nuances to this policy depending on the country of entry’s protocols, for example Barbados, where even children must be vaccinated to enter.
All passengers will undergo pre-board testing to demonstrate a negative COVID-19 result before being permitted to board, regardless of age.
Passengers will be required to wear face coverings in all public spaces onboard, with the exception of cabins, in the pool, when using the gym or spa facilities, having a spa treatment and when seated in a bar or restaurant.
Marella requires passengers to organise valid travel insurance (passengers won't be permitted to board without it). Marella offers insurance through AXA or it can be purchased separately. It's recommended to organise European cover for sailings with calls in Ireland.
Passengers will only be allowed to go ashore as part of Marella’s own shore excursions.
All passengers aged 18 and over are required to be fully vaccinated. Five to 17 year olds must either be fully vaccinated or provide a negative PCR result prior to departure, while those aged four and under can travel providing parents/guardians meet the vaccination requirements.
Pre-embarkation COVID-19 testing at the terminal will also take place at the cost of which is covered by the cruise line.
Travel insurance is mandatory and must include medical cover of £2 million minimum and cover for emergency evacuations and medical expenses related to COVID-19.
Additional health protocols include mandatory wearing of face masks during shore excursions and at all times indoors onboard, except when eating and drinking; inside cabins; using recreational water facilities; exercising in the gym and during spa treatments.
P&O Cruises will offer a range of vetted shore excursions for its UK sailings. Passengers will not be allowed to go ashore independently of these experiences.
Who are you going to meet?
Marella Cruises usually attracts exclusively Brits and predominantly families in school holidays.
During term time, expect couples aged 55-75.
The line is popular with first-timers, as many passengers will have been on a land-based holiday with parent company TUI and been persuaded to try a cruise.
P&O Cruises traditionally has two adults-only ships (Aurora and Arcadia), which attract a 55+ crowd.
Iona, launched in 2021, and Arvia, launching in December 2022, are family-friendly.
Catering exclusively to the British market, passengers are almost entirely from the U.K.
Where are they based, and where do they go?
The ships are primarily based in the Mediterranean and Adriatic in summer and the Caribbean and Canary Islands in winter.
Marella's cruises are all typically fly-cruises, with departures from 28 U.K. airports, a big selling point for anybody not based in the southeast.
Despite a successful UK season in 2021, you won’t find any Marella cruises from Newcastle or Southampton in 2022 -- all sailings are fly cruises.
P&O Cruises base most of its ships in Southampton, with no-fly options to the Baltic Sea, Norwegian fjords, Canary Islands, Spain & France and Mediterranean.
P&O Minicruises from Southampton include two- and three-night sailings to Holland and France on P&O Cruises Arcadia.
P&O Cruises Caribbean cruises are available in 2022 on Azura, Britannia and Ventura.
New ship Arvia will offer two cruises from Southampton in December 2022/January 2023.
What's the accommodation like?
Marella Cruises Cabins
Marella's fleet comprises four, medium-size refurbished ships -- Marella Discovery 1 and 2 and Marella Explorer 1 and 2 -- that the line has done a great job of transforming. The addition of these ships, which have been phased in as older ships have been phased out, has seen a significant number of balcony cabins added to the fleet.
The larger ships have also meant a wider variety of cabins, including suites and interconnecting rooms for families or groups of friends.
Marella offers a few single cabins and also embarks on tactical promotions from time to time, with zero or reduced single supplements.
Passengers wanting to reserve a specific cabin have to pay a £50 reservation fee.
All cabins feature tea and coffee-making facilities.
P&O Cruises Cabins
A wide variety of cabins are on the more modern ships, from interiors to suites.
A choice of interconnecting and family cabins onboard the family ships.
Britannia offers the line's first solo cabins with balconies. Azura and Ventura both have 18 dedicated single cabins.
At an average of 184 square feet, cabin sizes are on par with most other mainstream cruise lines.
Iona also offers a new class of cabin for the line, the 274-square-foot Conservatory Mini-suites, nautical-themed rooms with bifold-style doors to offer greater outdoor space.
All cabins feature tea and coffee-making facilities.
What are the dining options?
Marella Cruises Dining
Varies by ship: Some offer open seating in the main dining room, others fixed-time dining only, but there is always a casual buffet option.
The line has significantly improved its dining quality and options, both for a fee and for free, including a pan-Asian restaurant, Kora La; a surf and turf restaurant; an Italian restaurant, Vista or Gallery 47 (depending on the ship) and a sushi bar.
On Explorer 2, there's also a dedicated pasta and pizza restaurant, Nonna's, and a barbecue restaurant, Beach Cove. Explorer and Explorer 2 also feature the upmarket Dining Club, the priciest restaurant onboard and the only one to offer wine-pairing dinners.
P&O Cruises Dining
Celebrity chef Marco Pierre White oversees the Gala Dinner in the main dining rooms.
P&O Cruises have a roster of ‘Food Heroes’ and passengers have the opportunity to cook with Marco Pierre White and Eric "Cake Boy" Lanlard (pictured above) in the first Cookery Clubs at sea on Britannia and Iona.
Passengers cruising on Britannia, Azura, Ventura and Arcadia can choose Club Dining (traditional set seating) or Freedom Dining (flexible dining times and seating). On Iona, all restaurants are open-seating dining.
Wine expert 'Jolly' Olly Smith masterminds the Glass House on Aurora, Azura, Britannia, Ventura and Iona and accompanies selected cruises.
New 'Food Heroes' with a presence on Iona include renowned Spanish chef José Pizarro, Norwegian chefs Marie Forsberg and Kjartan Skjelde and Blur bassist-turned-cheesemaker, Alex James.
Popular speciality venues including Sindhu, The Glass House and Epicurean feature on all ships.
Iona has the most dining venues of any P&O Cruises ship with 30 options, including seven speciality restaurants. These include new venues, the Keel & Cow, a combination steakhouse and gastropub; and The Quays piazza, plus line favourites Sindhu; fine-dining restaurant Epicurean and The Glass House.
Dining can be pre-booked via the P&O Cruise personaliser.
What's each line's idea of fun?
Onboard sports options include paddle tennis, five-a-side football and basketball. All ships have outdoor pools and spa facilities, and the newer ships even feature climbing walls and outdoor cinema screens.
Marella Explorer and Marella Explorer 2 each has an extensive spa run by Champneys, the first seagoing venture for the company.
Lido Deck fun includes impromptu sessions of "Mr & Mrs" and "Family Feud".
Indoor fun includes bingo and quizzes.
P&O Cruises' ships offer traditional sports, such as short-tennis, mini-golf, basketball and cricket, often in a dedicated sports area (on the family ships); on the adults-only ships, you'll find shuffleboard and quoits.
All ships have pools; on the family-friendly ones, expect water games like volleyball and deck fun, including dancing with the exuberant entertainment team.
P&O prides itself on its sailaway deck parties, with dancing and flag-waving.
Iona packs in the most, with new-to-the-line four-screen cinema
What's night-time entertainment like?
A team of 11 big names has helped create 11 new West End-style shows. Typically, Marella also operates an annual music-themed 'Weekender' sailing.
Nightly entertainment, including live music, comedy shows, quizzes and karaoke, is centred on pubs and lounges.
Big screens on the Pool Deck show the latest movies with popcorn and cocktails served during viewings.
No strict formal nights, just the occasional 'dress to impress' evening, which can be interpreted as you wish.
In celebration of Iona's maiden voyage, departing Southampton on August 7, the sailing will likely feature extra festivities.
Features the in-house entertainment team Headliners, who perform a series of revues and shows.
Unique to Britannia and Iona is the Limelight Club, where former stars of stage and screen give intimate performances in a supper club-type setting.
P&O Cruises has partnered with Gary Barlow, the musical director of The 710 Club on Iona, where he will oversee the music club’s programming, selecting up-and-coming performers to showcase new talent.
Another fun spot on Iona is SkyDome, the ship’s glass dome-covered atrium that will showcase much of the ship’s action, including 710 Club; a cocktail bar; Ocean Studios four-screen cinema, plus deck parties and aerial performances.
Expect the likes of regular karaoke, comedy nights, quizzes and discos across an array of bars, including the signature Crow's Nest and Glass House.
P&O Cruises has a dress code, so at least one night per seven-day cruise will be formal, with black tie encouraged.
How well are families catered for?
Marella has rolled out kids' characters -- the M Crew -- across the fleet, complete with a movie and puppets.
Marella Explorer's kids' club is too small for the ship, with just 30 places.
Daytime kids' activities include arts and crafts, superhero theme parties, treasure hunts and behind-the-scenes tours that even pay visits to the bridge.
Evening kids’ fun includes talent shows, mini-discos and pyjama parties.
Family-friendly shore excursions are offered from all ships except the adults-only Marella Explorer 2.
On family-friendly ships, the range and quality of the children's facilities are superb, with excellent staff, outdoor space and a top-notch kids program.
All the family ships have kids’ pools and splash areas for toddlers.
Family ships have dedicated areas for family dining.
Also, on the family ships, family-friendly movies are shown during the day and early evening performances at the theatre.
How does pricing compare?
Example cruise fare: *£1,440 pp based on two passengers sharing a balcony cabin on a weeklong Mediterranean cruise in summer 2022.
All gratuities are included in the price of the cruise.
All non-premium alcohol and soft drinks are also included in the cruise fare.
For fly-cruises, flights and transfers are included.
Example cruise fare: *£1,049 pp based on two passengers sharing a balcony cabin on a weeklong Mediterranean cruise.
Gratuities are included in the cruise fare; drinks are excluded. P&O Cruises drinks package is £39.95 per person per day (Ultimate Drinks Package), including alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages.
Bar prices are the same as you'd pay on land or, in some cases, cheaper.
Added value offers when booking include a choice of onboard credit, car parking in Southampton or return coach travel to Southampton.
(*Prices subject to change)
What is the dress code?
Marella Cruises Dress Code
The dress code on Marella Cruises is broken down into three categories: Beachwear, Casual and Smart.
Beachwear is a 'come as you are' affair, so swimwear is fine.
Casual means tops and shorts or a sundress.
Smart is when passengers are required to dress up, with a smart shirt, suit, shirt and top, dress. Jacket and tie are not mandatory.
P&O Cruises Dress Code
P&O Cruises dress code is more traditional, with set nights for formal wear.
Dress code is cocktail dress, ball gown, tuxedo or dinner jacket/suit and tie on gala evenings and Black Tie nights.
On other nights it's smart/casual, with the line advising passengers to dress as you would for dinner in a nice restaurant. Smart denim jeans are permitted, along with trousers and shorts, skirts and tops or twin sets. Tailored shorts are also permitted in areas such as the buffet restaurants and open deck bars.
Shoes should be worn inside and no swimwear in the ship’s lounges, inside bars, restaurants or reception.
Fancy dress and novelty items of clothing are not permitted on P&O Cruises ships.
Is there a loyalty club programme?
Marella does not currently operate a loyalty programme.
P&O Cruises Peninsular Club
P&O Cruises Peninsular Club operates a tiered-based system with six levels, starting from the Pacific Tier, which requires 150 points to join.
One night on board = 10 points.
Club rewards include discounted prices, including five percent off Select Price bookings on selected cruises, onboard discounts, a dedicated magazine, welcome gifts, through to Champagne, priority check in and onboard events.
What's the bottom line?
Choose P&O Cruises if you’re looking for a more traditional cruise experience, with dressing for dinner. P&O Cruises also wins out on dining options on Britannia, and its newest ship Iona, both of which offer a great deal of choice. Both lines have varying facilities onboard, although P&O Cruises fleet is overall younger and offers a wider choice of entertainment. Iona’s partnership with Gary Barlow and fun new concepts such as a boutique cinema and gin distillery sets it apart. P&O Cruises' is the go-to line for no-fly cruises from Southampton.
Marella is unbeatable on pricing and for inclusions. Marella’s all-inclusive ships tend to have a happy, relaxed vibe; being British, its passengers enjoy not having to worry about tipping or drinks prices. Marella is a great option thanks to its seamless service, with flights from 28 UK airports that connect to its cruises, and an extensive cruise-and-stay programme.