I so enjoyed my Christmas fly cruise to the Caribbean that a week or so after coming home I made my mind up to book one for Christmas 22/23. I like the Englishness of a P&O or Cunard cruise, so I popped into the nearest branch of Hays Travel and picked up the appropriate brochures. Being away at Christmas/New Year I wanted somewhere warm so I was looking for a return to the Caribbean or maybe a trip out of Southampton down to the Canaries. Skimming the Cunard brochure there was nothing that fitted my criteria, I didn’t want a transatlantic to New York and back, a trip to Norway or Iceland so they were out.
Next up was the P&O brochure. I could fly to Barbados from Gatwick and get 2 week on the Britannia but it flew home on New Year’s Eve. I could Fly to the Canaries and get a 2 week cruise that did include both Christmas and New Year on Azura. There was a cruise on the brand new ship Arvia (only its second voyage) to the Canaries out of Southampton. Or a 10 day trip to the Baltic (no thanks in winter). So I checked on the P&O website, the Fly cruise to the Canaries had capacity. The Arvia cruise was sold out nearly a year before sailing but the website offered me a cabin on a 35 night cruise out of Southampton to the Caribbean and back to Southampton. I hadn’t seen this in the brochure as I hadn’t considered such a long break.
Anyway I phoned my online travel agent (they give a discount on P&O prices) and chatted with an agent and booked for the long cruise on Ventura.
While chatting I said I had looked at Arvia but found it was sold out. She said it had sold out virtually as soon as it went on sale, but said if I intend to travel later in the year there was plenty of capacity on most ships. A couple of days later I had decided to go for a summer fortnight on the P&O Britannia in late June. The cruise sailed from and back to Southampton and stopped in La Coruña – Valencia – Marseille – Barcelona (2 days) – Cadiz. I got my preferred single balcony cabin and it is this cruise that is the subject of this postcard (or probably postcards!).
Getting ready for my last cruise had been hard work, there was a pile of paperwork to complete, I had to fly from Birmingham in the early morning so it was a train up the day before and overnight in a hotel. Then I had to have a PCR test 3 days before the flight, an antigen test at the airport and wear a face mask on the plane and in public areas of the ship. Of course, luggage was limited to 22 Kgs. This time I’m going from Southhampton’s Ocean Terminal and I have free parking. So that makes it somewhat easier for me. Living in Worthing, it’s a nice straightforward drive along the A27/M27 and turn off and follow the signs to the dock gate 4. At the terminal, porters take your luggage from your car to the ship while a man checks your car for bumps and scratches, so that they don’t get the blame. They give you a receipt for the car, a driver then takes it off to the car park and you go and check in at one of the dozens of desks.
Of course, I am fortunate to live relatively close to Southampton to be able to drive there fairly easily. But this cruise comes the day after the latest rail strike so I don’t know how badly rail travellers intending to arrive at Southampton Central are going to be affected. There is normally a constant stream of taxis operating between the station and the Ocean Terminal. P&O also have numerous coaches bringing passengers from all over the country and, of course, people will be flying into Southampton Airport. I have joined a Facebook group for this cruise and I have spoken to people coming by plane from Glasgow and Switzerland, coach from Grimsby, train from Manchester and ferry from the Isle of Wight and taxi from Poole.
Before this cruise there is plenty of messing around filling in forms, but you can do most of it online and you can use electronic documents to check-in. You need to be vaccinated and you can prove it with the NHS app. You need insurance, but you would be daft to travel without it. Once you have paid in full you can print off a boarding pass, e-ticket and as many luggage labels as you have suitcases (as you aren’t flying you have an unlimited luggage allowance). Once you have done that there are only two major hurdles left. 3 days before you travel you have to answer a health check form, 6 simple online questions which if you can tick YES to each you get an electronic pass.
That leaves just an antigen test to get a “Fit to Fly” certificate on the day before you sail as the only remaining hurdle. You can’t use an NHS test. Yes, as daft as it might sound, you do need a “Fit to Fly” certificate to sail. You have to arrange this yourself and I thought this might be difficult, but there are several ways you can get this. You can get a cheap do-it-yourself ‘at home’ test, or get a more expensive witnessed test. There are at least 6 at home test companies and they all work in similar fashion. You register with them on-line, pay a fee of about £15 and they send you a test kit. On the day of the test, you take the test and send a picture of the result to them with a picture of the name page of your passport and if you have passed the test they e-mail you a certificate within 3 hours.
If you go for a witnessed test you can get it from some branches of LLoyds Pharmacy, Boots and other Chemists or at many mainline stations or airports. There they will have someone conduct the test on you and if it is clear you will get a certificate in about 15 minutes. However, it will cost you upwards of £30. Cheaper at a chemist, much more expensive at an airport.
Then, of course, you have to do your packing. I have been on numerous cruises and over the years have built up a packing list of what I want to take. In the last few years this has changed, with things like mobile phone, iPad, Kindle and face masks added and camera deleted (I now use my iPhone). A couple of trips ago I bought a battery powered electric travel toothbrush so that got added. But I still make silly mistakes, like forgetting batteries for the toothbrush and my Kindle charging cable on my last trip! Fortunately P&O have a shop on board that sells this sort of thing for idiots like me.
On sailing day, P&O board their ships by deck, type of cabin and the level of passengers in the Peninsula Club. The more days you have spent at sea with P&O the more points you accumulate in the Peninsula Club and the higher the level you reach the more benefits you gain. My current level gives me an 8.5% discount on any on ship spending, like drinks, shopping and excursions. I will soon have enough sea days to be promoted to the next level and get a 10% discount.
It is not until you print off your boarding pass that you learn what time you are to board the ship. It will have arrived in Southampton at around 06:00 that morning and turnaround days are manic for the crew. In the case of Britannia, they have around about 5,000 passengers to disembark together with at least one piece of luggage each to manhandle ashore. In addition, there will be crew, shop staff and entertainment staff to change over. On Britannia there are 2,000 crew on board and it is not uncommon for 20% of these to change over.
Passengers are asked to vacate their cabins by 08:00 to enable them to be prepared for the next cruise. On board ship the restaurants will open early for breakfast and whether you choose to eat in the buffet restaurant or be served in one of the main restaurants will probably depend on what disembarkation time you have been allocated but I try to be served one last large cooked breakfast in a restaurant. By the time disembarkation starts all the luggage will be in the dockside terminal in a huge arrivals hall where it is laid out by deck for passengers to collect and pass through customs.
Now comes the panic for the cabin staff with beds to strip and make up a fresh. Bathrooms, cabins and balconies to clean and fridges to restock. It is all hands to the pump and it is not unusual to find barmen becoming baggage handlers for the day. The ship has to be ready for the passengers coming aboard from noon and those early arrivals will expect their cabins to be ready and to be able to eat lunch on board even if it is only in the buffet.
On this cruise I have been allocated my earliest ever boarding time, 12:15. You are asked not to arrive early as you may clash with the last of the stragglers coming off the previous cruise. So I expect to leave home at around 10:45 for a gentle drive. I am looking forward to a quick check-in and lunch on board before returning to my cabin where, provided my suitcase has arrived, I can unpack. Then I plan a rest, before heading to the sail away party, a complimentary glass of sparkling white wine and listen to the band playing on the dockside.
In Part 2 – you will discover if it all went as planned
© WorthingGooner 2022