Two very British lines (one German owned, one American owned), with two very different onboard experiences. Marella, owned by giant German tour operator, TUI, was called Thomson until a 2017 rebrand and offers a similar experience to a traditional all-inclusive package holiday -- attracting the same type of people.
P&O Cruises, however, offers arguably a more upmarket experience, with younger ships and a broader dining and entertainment offering. However, there are many similarities -- everyone onboard will be British, 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, depending on ships -- Marella's newest Marella Explorer 2 is adults only, while two of P&O Cruises -- Arcadia and Aurora -- do not allow kids (however, note that this summer 2021, P&O Cruises two ships require everyone of all ages onboard to be vaccinated, so youung kids will not be sailing).
Both include gratuities in the fare, though Marella goes one step further and includes booze -- a big selling point for Brits.
P&O Cruises and Marella Cruises are ready to set sail for a series of summer seacations and we've pitted them against each other to help you decide which one would suit you.
From accommodation to dining and each line’s respective COVID-19 protocols, here’s everything you need to know.
What are the COVID-19 Health Protocols?
- Passengers over 18 are required to have received both doses of the COVID-19 vaccine at least seven days before sailing. Passengers under 18 do not require a vaccine, but will need to have a lateral flow test pre-departure.
- All passengers will undergo pre-board testing to demonstrate a negative COVID-19 result before being permitted to board.
- 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.
- Proof of full COVID-19 vaccination required in order to sail. Passengers must be vaccinated at least seven days before departure. This applies to all passengers, making all sailings strictly adults only.
- Pre-embarkation COVID-19 testing at the terminal will also take place.
- 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 usually attracts exclusively Brits and predominantly families in school holidays. Marella’s summer 2021 sailings are for British residents only.
- 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.
- Despite being family-friendly ships, Britannia and Iona, the two ships resuming sailings in summer 2021, will be exclusively for adult British residents (as per the line’s COVID-19 policy, outlined below.).
- P&O Cruises traditionally has two adults-only ships (Aurora and Arcadia), which attract a 55+ crowd. These ships will remain adults-only when sailings resume.
- The four family ships -- Iona, Britannia, Ventura and Azura -- are family ships drawing similar clientele in the off-season, and families with kids during school holidays.
- Iona launched in 2021 -- which is the biggest ship ever built for the U.K. market -- is 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?
- For the 2021 season, Explorer and Explorer 2 will sail exclusively around the British Isles. Explorer is based in Southampton for southern England and Wales voyages from June to August, while Explorer 2 is based in Newcastle for northern British Isles departures in July and August.
- Outside of COVID times, the ships are primarily based in the Mediterranean and Adriatic in summer and in winter, the Caribbean, although Marella Explorer sails in summer from Newcastle to Norway and the Baltic Sea.
- Newcastle aside, 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 south east.
- In the summer of 2021, Iona and Britannia will sail three-, four-, six- and seven-night voyages from Southampton. Sailings will be a mix of coastal cruises with no calls and voyages with port visits, including Iona’s maiden voyage on August 7 to Scotland. Departures will take place between July and September.
- Based in Southampton, ships typically sail year round to destinations around the Mediterranean, Northern Europe, the Canary Islands and beyond.
- In winter months, Britannia and Azura are based in the Caribbean, operating fly-cruises from Barbados and St Lucia.
- Arcadia operates a long world voyage in winter, while Ventura offers no-fly cruises from Southampton to the Caribbean
- Iona’s maiden winter season will include the Northern Europe and the Canary Islands.
What's the accommodation like?
- Marella's fleet is made up of four, medium-size refurbished ships -- Marella Discovery 1 and 2 and Marella Explorer 1 and 2.
- The line has done a great job transforming the newer ships, while phasing out its older vessels. Their addition has seen a large 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.
- A wide variety of cabins on the more modern ships, starting at interiors and going up 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 older greater outdoor space.
- All cabins feature tea and coffee making facilities.
What are the dining options?
- Varies by ship: Some offer open seating in a 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 fee and for free, including a pan-Asian restaurant -- Kora La; a surf and turf restaurant, the main dining room and a sushi bar.
- On Explorer 2 there’s also a dedicated pasta and pizza restaurant, Nonna’s, and a barbecue venue called The Beach Cove. Explorer and Explorer 2 also feature the upmarket Dining Club, the priciest restaurant on board and the only one to offer wine-pairing dinners.
- 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 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.
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 offers 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 the night-time entertainment like?
- For 2021, Marella is hosting a fun “An Audience with Harry Redknapp” sailing departing July 16 that involves a live Q&A with the former football manager and “I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here” winner.
- A team of 11 big names -- including choreographer and dancer Tara Wilkinson, who has worked on hit shows Motown and The Full Monty, and Martyn Ford, a musical arranger and conductor who has worked alongside Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice -- has helped created 11 new West End-style shows.
- 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.
- Although P&O Cruises caters well for families, particularly on larger ships Iona and Britannia, because of its COVID-19 vaccination policy that’s currently in place, no children will be allowed to travel on the line's summer 2021 sailings.
- Ordinarily, on the 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.
How does pricing compare?
- Example cruise fare: £380 pp based on two passengers sharing a balcony cabin on a three-night UK short break.
- 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: £799 pp based on two passengers sharing a balcony cabin on a three-night UK short break.
- Gratuities are included in the cruise fare.
- 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.
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 its two newest ships, Britannia and Iona, both of which offer a great deal of choice.
- Both lines have varying facilities on board, although P&O’s 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.
- 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 U.K. airports that connect to its cruises, and an extensive cruise-and-stay programme.