I had a little time booked off work, so was essentially trying to find a cruise that fit the budget and the time allowed. I had previously cruised with Princess only, so that was my first preference, but nothing appeared to be very good value that was departing during the time I had off. I stumbled across the P&O getaway fare and when you factored in that flights were included, it was a deal that was really too good to pass up.
We booked directly with P&O via their website and the flight booking element was more trial and error as it offered flights from all our first choice airports first, then announced they weren’t available. In fact the only option was economy from Gatwick. But in a few minutes it was booked, although somehow it managed to associate the booking with my old email address I had registered with Princess cruises, so it didn't send me any confirmation.
That said, it did put the cruise in my history with Princess that counts towards my loyalty level, but the history wasn’t transferable the other way, so I was a proper P&O newbie. Although my traveling companion had been slowly moving up the P&O loyalty scale, so this meant some decent onboard discounts.
Flights and Transfers (8/10)
As the flight departed at 09:10 from an airport 3 hours away from home, we opted to stay at the airport the night before. I got a decent deal at the Holiday Inn, close the the north terminal for about £90 which included the room, 15 night’s parking and a transfer to the airport. Although the same transfer bus also served the best western and Travelodge Gatwick Central, both of which would have been slightly better options as the Holiday Inn wasn’t partially special and the food and drink were expensive.
When we arrived at the airport, the check in process was P&O cruises branded, which was a nice touch and we filled in our health declaration forms before even getting to the counter. Although the queue moved slowly having just 2 people operate a check-in for a full flight. They were also pretty tight on the luggage allowance (at 23kg each), with a hand baggage allowance roughly the size of a holiday novel. Thankfully the luggage scales we used seem fairly accurate and thanks to some last minute case swapping we were both under. Just. The people in front of us experienced that horrible re-pack at check in, which is probably one of the most humiliating and stressful experiences a traveller can undergo.
I also booked lounge access at the airport, which was a bit of a waste of money as the BA Galleries Lounge it wasn’t. Very basic buffet breakfast with the option to order ONE hot item each, which was tasty but about 1/4 of the size it needed to be to be satisfying.
We kind of got the best option with the choice of aircraft as we were booked on the Thompson Dreamliner; although advance seat reservation was expensive at £15 for a basic seat and £35+ for an exit row seat (and you had to book both ways, whether you wanted it or not), it did make sense as the plane was a 3-3-3 configuration and a pair of travellers were likely to be separated across an aisle.
The seats were pretty roomy, and probably the best experience i’ve had in the “back of a plane” with decent touch screen entertainment and food that really wasn’t that bad. Drinks (apart from a cup of tea with the meal) were extra.
They did stop the inflight entertainment about 40 minutes before landing to make you watch promotional videos for P&O trips you might want to buy, which was a little annoying. They could have also perhaps done with saying that once you land there would be no toilet opportunities for at least an hour after touching down.. rather than telling you this as you were about to go down the steps.
Within a few minutes and organisation that verged more on the side of luck than judgement we were aboard a small bus with plastic seats and no air conditioning for the 40 minute ride to the ship. This was followed by a relatively smooth check in process where we also had to complete the same health forms that we’d done 9 hours previously at Gatwick. In all from landing to getting in the cabin is was about an hour and a half; plus we didn’t have to go through any luggage or immigration formalities.
Cabin and Ship (9/10)
As I mentioned previously, I’ve always sailed with Princess, who use the same design of ships. Therefore I was pretty comfortable with the layout of where most things were and what to expect. The ship was actually much prettier from a design point of view than the Princess version, and the cabin was exactly the same save for different carpets, curtains, bedding, pictures on the wall and lamps. The only real noticeable difference was the british sockets and a proper kettle; both of which were appreciated.
The cabin never once felt claustrophobic and the balcony was a decent size, having a bit of extra space which was offset by the fact that it was high and forward with a solid rail wall rather than the glass of 98% of the other balconies.
The rest of the ship was pretty much as per the Princess design, aside from nicer decor and better zoning of some of the outside areas. The only thing that didn’t really work for me was the layout at the bottom of the atrium, which on Princess is a more heavily used space thanks to the free 24 hour food available in the international cafe. Although the P&O version has more seats, the coffee was expensive and the food wasn’t much of a draw. So although the atrium looked pretty, it was pretty much a waste of space other than for 20 minutes sessions of dancing in the evening.
The ship was in good to excellent condition, only a few signs of age, but largely it was a pleasing place to be. The ship also held its own whenever in port by being one of the better looking ships around.
Food and Drink (7/10)
Food is always a subjective matter, but it really wasn’t bad. In fact some of the dishes were very good, nothing was ever breathtaking bad and only a few items of disappointments.
We ate in the buffet most days for breakfast and the choices were the same every single day. A little variety wouldn’t have killed them, that said the food was fine and fairly tasty.
For lunch it was either the pool side eating areas, or the buffet or a combination of both. The buffet had a little more variety at lunch time, and the vegetable Paella was very good (although the same dish made 3 other appearances described as something else at various points, it was good nevertheless). The burgers from the grill were tasty, the pizzas were a little ‘meh’.
One thing that did bug me about the buffet was the labelling. Although they had a sign on to say what was on each counter, it was often a little bit of guess work trying to establish which dish was which. While not particularly important if you are not fussy, if you are trying to keep to a particular dietary requirement, it makes unnecessarily hard work of it.
The food in the main restaurant also wasn’t bad. The most disappointing dish was the prime rib, which was about 1/3 of the size of that served by Princess with about a quarter of the taste. There was also only ever one meat free main course available, which meant it was either that or nothing. One night the entire veggie selection looked pretty boring, but I ordered it anyway and it turned out to be one of the most nicely balanced dishes I’ve ever eaten.
One night we also opted for the White Room at £25 per person. Although making a booking made it sound like they were doing you a favour by fitting you in, the place was less than half full. We did get a table on the outside deck for the evening, which was lovely. The food was OK, but probably not quite £50’s worth, save for a rather nice basket of bread.
Drinks were reasonably priced, considering their location; mostly on a par with with what you would pay in a restaurant or bar at home; and when you factored in the 8% loyalty discount, it made for much better value beverages than on other cruise lines where you have to mentally add 15% to the price of everything you’ve just ordered.
Room service was fine and easy to order through the clunky and slow interactive TV system. Although some dishes were free, some had a charge and there didn’t seem to be any logical connection between the cost of the dish and whether it was free or not.
We also did Glasshouse for the lunchtime tapas which was pretty good. Finally we tried East for a lunch special of £7.50 each, which was probably the best all round meal had on board as the food was good and had decent service; which is something that couldn’t be said for the majority of food and drink experiences…
This is where P&O need to do some serious work. First the positives, the room steward was excellent, and probably one of the better ones I have had. He was like a hawk and always said good morning / afternoon and always knew when you were away from your cabin whether or not you put the service tag out.
The bad bits were pretty much everything else. The reception desk was about as welcoming as the enclave to the Wicked Witch of the West and it apparently it was my fault that the bar code on my cruise card wasn’t printed properly and the fact that the other card didn’t open the cabin door.
In the restaurant things were worse. The first night not even a hello from the waiting staff; we have to ask for bread. And menus. And for someone to take a drinks order (who eventually did so just as we started the mains). The second night it took until the dessert course arriving for them to get the wine saved from the previous night and then the wine waiter actually stood and augured with us as we’d had the cheek to eat in deck 5 restaurant rather than deck 6 the night before. I could stand this no-longer so had a quiet word with both the wine manager and the restaurant manager who were apologetic. After this we were seated more quickly and only in a specific section where the staff were better (no doubt the corner reserved for the complainers).
On deck the drinks staff weren’t much better. It was often an issue getting someone to take your order (ironically the worse service was where there was less passengers around, where the few staff that were working didn’t really seem to care either way). Often the drinks would take an age, particularly if you were ordering expensive soft drinks from your pepsi card and even then service was hardly with a smile.
I also found it irritating that you couldn’t just get something directly from a bar and all interactions had to be with 2 people. Perhaps because the people pouring the drinks were even less polite than the waiting staff, with rarely even a please or thank you. Likewise if you asked for anything slightly different, the answer was never yes. It was always a problem or something they needed to “check on”.
Ironically decent service is one of the few things you would expect on a cruise ship to be a no-brainer, it does’t cost much to do and creates a good impression. They do have a similar CRUISE motivational customer service programme aboard P&O (the same as with Princess) but it seemed little more than a corporate slogan that staff didn’t care about and weren’t engaged with. To be honest, had it not been for the room steward, I would have given service a 1/10 rating. Simply not good enough.
Ports of Call
I’m not even going to give this section a rating, as unless you happen to be booked on exactly the same cruise as we went on, then it’s not going to be much help. I’ve never particularly liked the Caribbean and I still don’t. Although for warm, winter sunshine with comfortable temperatures in January you probably can’t get much better.
That said, special mention to Grand Turk, which does away with most of the things I find less agreeable about the islands (no aggressive hawkers), with a fanatic cruise terminal right on the beach. The terminal is also complete with a large pool and beach sun loungers that are free to use, but supported by the fact that drinks are very expensive. However, in terms of cruise terminals I’ve been to worldwide, this was the best of the lot; without question.
Again P&O have really got this whole fly cruise thing sorted. The operation seems to run with almost military precision where they check you in for your return flight and handle your case all the way from your cabin to destination airport.
This does create a few issues. Firstly if you are due to disembark on the second day of the turnaround, you still have to get up early on your second to last day to go clear the immigration at Barbados. Although the process was quick, it still involved getting up at 7am to do so; which had we know about we wouldn’t have bothered booking a tour that day so we could have done the clearance at our leisure.
The second issue is that you need to pop all your stuff outside the night before you get off, so this means that any remaining liquids you need for the overnight and the next day need to fly with you in your hand luggage, so have to be under 100ml.
As it happens we sacrificed a deodorant can and a tube of tooth paste on the last day, both being too big to fly, but both needed for the last day on board. Not much on an inconvenience, but next time I would bring small sized liquids especially for the last day.
What was nice is that you remain on board until your flight is called; so for us we departed the cabin at 09:00 and were able to make most of an additional day until we disembarked at 2pm. They then bussed us straight to the airport where all we had to do was clear security. You couldn’t really get much smoother or straight forward.
In Summary 8/10
If I had to use two words to sum up the whole experience, it would be “great value”. For what we paid we got a very good product, nice ship, nice food, smooth transfers and decent 2 weeks away in the winter sun. Would I book again? Yes probably, if the price was right. Although I don’t think I’d ever be rushing to book at the full price with P&O.
The only thing that left a taste in the mouth was the service, or lack of. I think it is all the more annoying as it’s something that can be fixed with little cost, it just needs some proper passion instilling in the staff. I don’t like to leave review on a bad note, because the experience was good. But it should have been brilliant.