Chapter 1 – Preliminaries
I had just returned from a Christmas and New Year cruise when I started thinking about booking the next Christmas cruise, being a single traveller, you need to book early to get what you want. So, I booked last Christmas’s long cruise to the Caribbean and this cruise at the same time, 18 months ago. This time I am going with P&O once again, but on its newest ship the Arvia. It was welcomed to the P&O fleet in the middle of December 2022 and like most new ships it had teething problems. It will be six months old when I board so hopefully all the little problems will have been worked out.
Last June I was on P&O Britannia for a cruise to the Mediterranean and thoroughly enjoyed it. This is a similar cruise but with several different ports of call. This time I should be visiting Palma, Majorca, La Spezia (for Florence) and Marseille as well as some of my old favourites like Barcelona and Vigo. Since my last cruise I have become a shareholder in Carnival Cruises and they offer shareholders an old-fashioned benefit. Shareholder benefits seem to be mostly a thing of the past in the U.K. and maybe it’s still offered by Carnival because they are an American Corporation. Anyway, they offer an extra cabin credit to shareholders with 100 or more shares travelling with one of their companies. On a 14-night or over cruise, you get £150 added to your cabin credit per cruise or the equivalent in local currency if the line you are on uses a different currency on board, say US Dollars, Australian Dollars, or Euros. I am not complaining, but they seem to have credited my account with £200.
At the moment, when you book a P&O cruise you have two different fares to pick from for the same grade of cabin. You can choose a ‘Saver Fare’ or a ‘Select Fare’. A Saver Fare is around £200 cheaper but for that you only get a guaranteed cabin in the grade you select. OK, once onboard the food, entertainment, prices etc are all the same but a Select Fare gives you a lot of little benefits. Firstly, you get to choose from all the unallocated cabins of your selected grade, then you get to choose between cabin credit, parking at Southampton or coach travel to Southampton. As I only live in Worthing coach travel is not an option so for me it’s between cabin credit or parking and that boils down to value. £100 cabin credit or £120 for a fortnight’s parking. Guess which I went for!
Of course, if I lived in Glasgow or Newcastle coach travel would become a much more viable option, especially with all the current rail strikes. In addition, a Select Fare allows free use of shuttle buses at ports where they are provided, the first choice of sitting for dinner in the main dining room and size of table you prefer. To my way of thinking that extra £200 is returned in value and peace of mind.
This summer’s cruise is notable by the dropping of very nearly all mention of Covid in the pre-cruise information I keep getting from P&O and my travel agent, Cruise118. On my last cruise, at Christmas, I had to have been vaccinated to travel, that has now gone completely. I had to take a lateral flow test in the 48 hours before sailing and email in proof it was negative, that has completely gone. The only place on the ship where wearing a face mask is compulsory is in the ship’s medical facility. They do advise that you should bring masks and hand gel with you as some countries still have the odd rule in place. Last time I was in Spain they were insisting on mask-wearing on public transport; however I believe this was dropped in February but you still are supposed to be masked in hospitals and pharmacies.
This cruise will be my 14th with P&O, their style suits me. They are very ‘British’, with menus tilted towards British tastes, all prices on board in Pounds Sterling, English being the language on the ship, British entertainment and entertainers. If you want a full English breakfast, you order a P&O breakfast so as not to upset the Welsh, Scots and Irish, but you get the full deal; fried eggs, bacon, sausages, grilled tomatoes, black pudding, beans (in a ramekin) and toast. Want to add fried bread, mushrooms or swap the fried eggs for poached or scrambled, just ask. The cereals are Kellogg, the tea and coffee unlimited and the milk is real not the long-life crap on Royal Caribbean. My only small breakfast moan is that there is always loads of jams and honey on the breakfast table but a shortage of marmalade. Mind you, you only have to ask, and marmalade will appear.
You get an electric kettle and tea, coffee and hot chocolate-making facilities in your cabin, something sadly missing on most other lines. Oh, and the teabags are PG Tips, the coffee Nescafé and the chocolate powder Cadbury’s. Royal Caribbean doesn’t normally have tea and coffee-making facilities in cabins, but they added them to cruises starting in the U.K. However, they are sticking with what we Britons generally think of as inferior tea, Lipton’s Yellow Label. Personally, I can’t see how Americans can drink it.
P&O, like every other cruise line I have sailed on, operates a loyalty scheme based on the number of days you have spent at sea. The P&O scheme is called the Peninsula Club and you are awarded 10 points per day at sea. Once you reach 150 points you are automatically enrolled in the bottom level of the scheme, the Pacific Tier, so basically anyone who take a 14-night holiday is on board for 15 days becomes a member and get a 5% discount on any on board spending. When you reach 501 points you move up to the Atlantic tier where in addition to the 7.5% discount, you get a quarterly magazine, a 5% discount on cruise bookings, a lapel pin badge and a free glass of champagne at a sail away event.
The next step up is to the Mediterranean tier, when you reach 1001 points, here the on-board discount goes up to 8.5%. In addition to the Pacific tier things, you get a pair of P&O slippers in your cabin and an invitation to a cocktail party where the booze is free and keeps coming for an hour. This is the tier I am in for this cruise as I have 1975 points. I know, you want to know how I have 1975 points when you get 10 points per night at sea. Well, there was a scheme prior to the Peninsula Club, and the points were awarded differently. But they were changed into Peninsula Club points, and I started off in it with an odd number.
The next tier up is the Caribbean tier and the 150 points I will be awarded at the end of this cruise takes me over the 2001 points I need to join this level and its additional benefits. For my forthcoming Christmas and New Year cruise, in addition to the Atlantic benefits you get a priority (early) boarding time, priority check-in, a welcome aboard reception (free drinks! and a hot and cold buffet), 10% onboard spending discount, a half bottle of Champagne in your fridge on arrival, and an officer hosted ‘fine dining event.’
I am a few cruises off the 2501 points I need to get to the more exclusive Baltic Level, but with the future bookings I have already made the club’s website says I will make it for my Christmas ’24 cruise. Then I will be entitled to all the Caribbean level benefits, plus priority cruise booking, 10% discount on P&O travel insurance, priority seat booking on fly cruises, an annual gift, and a 50% discount on the ship’s laundry! There is one other tier, the Ligurian, but I doubt I will ever make that level as in addition to 2501 points of the Baltic tier you need to have been at sea for 201+ nights in the three years before you sail.
I tend to try and book my travel insurance fairly soon after booking for two reasons, firstly insurance costs always go up so if I leave it a while it is inevitably more expensive and as I had a stroke some years ago, it is never cheap. Secondly, traveling alone you get caught for a bigger fare and if some calamity occurs the insurance will often pay you back more than it costs. Mind I have only once had to claim on travel insurance and that was years back when I was travelling with my brother, and he broke his leg shortly before we were due to travel.
As time progressed, I got more and more countdown emails, there are 60 weeks to go, there are 50 weeks to go – have you booked your excursions yet? Forty weeks to go, and so on. With three months to go it was time to pay the remaining bill so that is a clue to me to start looking at booking excursions. On P&O’s website you can log in to your cruise, using your booking reference, and see all the excursions for each port of call. As this is a huge ship, with 5,200 passengers on board, there are perhaps 25 to 30 excursions per port, many of which will have multiple 60-seat coaches. There tends to be trips for every sort of person. In the likes of Barcelona, you can do a Gaudi tour, a trip to the Holy Family Cathedral, city sightseeing tours, a trip to the Barcelona FC Stadium (very popular and sells out quickly), trips into the country, trips on a sailboat, trips to the beach, and so on.
Of course, you don’t have to go on an organised trip. You can just walk off the ship and do you own thing. In ports like Cadiz, you are bang in the middle of town so exploring on your own is easy. At ports like Barcelona, you are some way from the town centre and P&O put on a shuttle bus to the bottom of the Ramblas and there are always taxis which you can often share with other passengers. I have booked excursions in most ports of call, and having been to some before, I have tried to do something different. For example, the stop at La Spezia has numerous trips to Florence and/or Pisa. Having been to both, I have opted for a trip up the coast to what is advertised as a beautiful seaside town.
Of course, you have to pay for excursions and the full day trips cost a lot more than 1/2 day trips. Booking in advance also means you paying in advance on a debit or credit card. You can, of course, leave booking excursions until you are on board the ship and many people do because then you can pay with cabin credits. But you are taking a chance that there will be space on the trips you want. You have no chance if you want to go to the Barcelona stadium, that excursion has been sold out for months. Whether you book in advance or on board, you still get the discount associated with your Peninsular Club tier.
When I booked my excursions, I also booked access to the onboard internet. There used to be three levels of access but that has been reduced to two, the Essential level and the Ultimate level. The Essential level lets you browse the internet, use email and social media, text and images (but not video). The Ultimate level is 50% more expensive but is faster and gives you access to stream videos and music. The Essential level is good enough for me I don’t need to stream video or music while on board, but at £12 a day for the whole cruise or £18 for individual days it’s not cheap, and yes, I did get 8.5% off that.
With three weeks to go before departure P&O email to say that the online check-in is open. Once again you must upload a lot of information that they already have! Admittedly some of the online forms are pre-filled, but despite my continually correcting the passport number they hold for me every holiday, I get my previous passport number being displayed. So, after making sure I am being offered the same name and address they have been writing to me at for the past 20 years, my unchanged phone number, my unchanged next of kin (name, address and phone number), I finally get to something that does change, insurance information.
Great, I now have achieved two green ticks. Only a passport-size picture to upload. I keep one on my iPad just for this purpose, but for some reason this time the software refuses to accept it properly and uploads a picture of my nose. Several failed attempts later I decided to use the option to use my tablet’s built-in camera and take a selfie. My first attempt was not a bad likeness, but I realised I needed to comb my hair, have a shave and hold the iPad much farther away as I needed a head and shoulders picture. The LGND’s daddy came to the rescue and took the picture for me, I uploaded it and got my final green tick.
With three green ticks the buttons to allow me to download and print my boarding pass and luggage labels illuminated. So, I thought I better print off all the paperwork I would need. The car parking and insurance were simple and went straight to my printer. Next came the boarding pass, instead of going straight to the printer it downloaded a .PDF that disappeared into the bowels of the iPad. I bit of head-scratching later I found it in a ‘downloads’ folder in Files. On calling it up I found my boarding time is 15:30 so it’s no lunch on board for me! The final bit of printing was the luggage labels but when I hit the button all I got was a message telling me the webpage I was trying to access was not available. Eventually, I managed to find another link to the page that worked, and I printed off the labels.
Two weeks before departure and I have been chatting with some people who shared my dinner table on board Britannia in June last year and are on this cruise. As the first night on board a new ship is mad with a sail away party on deck and everyone trying to find the best place to eat and drink, we have agreed to meet and eat in the Epicurean Restaurant on my birthday.
The next thing is packing! With a week and a half to go, I have got my suitcase out of storage and started getting my things laid out in the spare room. I have got my dinner suit out and my dress shirts. Bow ties and cuff links are ready but there are only two formal nights on this cruise so do I need two dress shirts? Not long to go now.
© WorthingGooner 2023