Caribbean Christmas 2023/24, Part One


This year I’m only off for two weeks, but as I’m flying to pick up the ship in Barbados, so it is a full two weeks in the sun. As a single passenger I must book early to get a decent cabin, so it often means looking at what is on offer well in advance, usually as soon as they go on sale. I started looking for this trip as soon as the brochure became available, a few weeks before bookings opened. This year I have an additional advantage in that I have gone up a level in the P&O Peninsula Club and one of the benefits is that I can now reserve a booking the day before sales open to the general public.

When I picked up the P&O Winter 23 brochure from the local branch of Hays Travel, they did their utmost to get me to come back to make my booking. But the online agent I normally use adds in a discount on the fare on top of the discount I get for being a P&O past customer. I was a little disappointed to discover that there was no long holiday to the Caribbean this year that took in Christmas like last year. If I wanted a 35-day cruise it was either November or January, so that was out as I particularly want to be away over Christmas and the New Year.

P&O have two ships based in Bridgetown, Barbados each winter and they share fortnightly sailings on alternate weeks. This Christmas the two P&O ships are Britannia and Arvia. I have previously sailed on both ships; Britannia is a little older and smaller with a 3,647 capacity. Arvia is the newest ship in the P&O fleet and has a 5,200 capacity. I cruised on Arvia last June and thoroughly enjoyed my cruise, but I actually prefer Britannia for one reason, they have set dining where you sit on the same table with the same people at the same time, every evening. The Britannia also has open dining restaurants, where you pick the time and the size of table each evening.

WorthingGooner, Going Postal
I like Britannia, but not this Christmas.
Licence CC BY-SA 2.0

My only problem with Arvia is that it only has open dining, but I am old-fashioned and prefer to know when and with whom I am dining each evening. I found the food and the waiters to be equally good but on Britannia you can build a relationship with your waiter and his assistant as you have the same one every evening. Consequently, I immediately checked out Britannia’s sailing dates only to be disappointed when I found that I could either have a fortnight that included Christmas or New Year, but not both. But I realised that this meant that I should be able to get a holiday that included both Christmas and New Year on Arvia.

So, I checked out its departure dates and found I could fly from my nearest airport, Gatwick, on either Friday the 22nd or Saturday the 23rd of December returning overnight and landing back on the 6th or 7th of January. If you fly on the 22nd you get the 23rd on board in Bridgetown. If you fly on the 23rd you get a day in port at the end of your holiday. Having done both, I prefer the day in port at the beginning of my holiday. I find I can relax and properly begin my holiday. If I have the port day at the end of my holiday, I am busy packing and I think it is a wasted day.

WorthingGooner, Going Postal
It’s Arvia this Christmas.
P&O Arvia,
Licence CC BY-SA 4.0

I phoned my regular internet travel agent, Cruise118, to register for the cruise. One good thing about using the same company is that they have all your details and preferences. So they know you want a balcony cabin as soon as you tell them the cruise details. You don’t have to give them your passport details, they are on record. The girl checked on availability, and we decided on the cabin I wanted, the days I wanted to travel, and all the little details were registered with P&O. The following morning, when sales for my Peninsula Club level opened, she phoned me to say I had got the exact holiday and as soon as I paid the deposit it was a firm booking.

I can hear you asking why are the flights spread over two days? Well, it’s because of the number of planes needed to fly 5,200 people out to Bridgetown’s Grantley Adams International Airport. With around 300 people on each plane, you need 14 planes to get everyone to Barbados. So, if you spread your flights over two days you can use seven aircraft twice and it’s easier to lease seven aircraft for two days a week than 14 aircraft for one day a week. P&O spread their seven departures each day over several U.K. airports. I think that this Christmas, on the day I am flying, there are three flights from Gatwick, two from Manchester, and one each from Birmingham and East Midlands. In the past P&O have always used TUI as their charter airline, but this year some of the flights are operated by an airline I have never heard of, Maleth Aero, which has caused a lot of discontent on the cruise’s Facebook page.

It’s not so much that a shortage of pilots has made P&O contract an unknown airline, but the fact that the Airbus A330s that Maltese carrier Maleth is going to use are all one class and they have no seat back entertainment that has upset people. For the first time on many trips to Bridgetown to join P&O cruises, I opted to upgrade my flights to Premium Class. For a bit extra I paid to be seated in one of the 63 Premium Class seats, which are wider, have more leg room and serve better meals. Fortunately, my flights are still being operated by TUI on one of their 787 Dreamliners, but if I had booked a flight that had been switched to Maleth I would have been annoyed to get an inferior service with no seat back entertainment.

But what is worse is that as Maleth are one class, so those 63 passengers on each of their flights who had booked Premium are being downgraded to Economy. P&O say that the flights are comparable to TUI with the same food and free drinks on the flight, but I’m not so sure. I understand that people who have been downgraded are being refunded the extra they paid for Premium and getting additional cabin credit. I’m just happy that I’m still flying in Premium with TUI, I will let you know if it was worth the extra when I report on my flight out.

WorthingGooner, Going Postal
Maleth Aero like to stay anonymous.
Maleth-Aero, 9H-CFS, Airbus A330-223,
Anna Zvereva
Licence CC BY-SA 2.0

As I had lashed out and spent £400 upgrading my flight, I decided I would also upgrade parking at Gatwick to valet parking. I have heard so many stories of rip-off valet parking at Gatwick, where fly-by-night companies either park your car in a street in Horley or in a muddy field, I decided that I would use the official Gatwick Airport parking. It may be a little more expensive, but it is parked on the airport. I leave the car in the North Terminal short-term car park with a uniformed official. The car park barrier opens to let me in after reading my number plate! When I leave the car it is a covered walk all the way to check-in.

In reverse, I pick up the car from the same short-term car park and they promise to monitor the incoming flights and have your car there for you to pick up when you land. I hope this works as well as it reads.

One other little pre-cruise moan. Like many airlines TUI have decided to make more money by changing £30 each way to reserve a seat. I suppose if you are in a couple or travelling with children and want to ensure you are sitting together it is worth paying the extra £60 per person (it is not possible to book one way only). But I am on my own and with the premium seats arranged 2,3,2 in ten rows, I have decided I will take potluck on which seat I get. Whatever seat I get I am never going to be more than one from the gangway.

P&O started to send ‘countdown’ emails weeks ago. First, it was how many days there were to go before flying. Then they started adding little reminders to book extras, excursions, onboard wi-fi, the specialist restaurants and spa treatments to name a few. Most of this I have ignored. I booked wi-fi months ago when it was ‘on offer’ for a while and my choice of excursions when they first went on sale so I could get what a want. Booking a specialist restaurant in advance is a complete waste of time, unless you want to book one for Christmas Eve, on most days it is easier to book when you are onboard. Once onboard you have access to the free My Wifi app on smartphones and tablets. Through this you can book anything from a seat in the theatre to a reservation for dinner in the Main Dining Room or one of the specialist restaurants. That is good enough for me.

As the sailing date has got closer the emails have been more along the lines of, do you have a valid passport, have you got holiday insurance? With three weeks to go online check-in opened and you can use the internet to check-in for the flight and cruise. Once done you can print off your boarding pass for the flight and ship and your baggage labels. To check-in you need to register either a credit or debit card for the ship to charge onboard purchases that exceed your cabin credit against. P&O will accumulate these charges and charge them to your card after midnight on your last night on board. There is one small exception to this when you first register a card P&O will make a test £1 debit to ensure the card is genuine, this £1 is set against any final charges or refunded if there aren’t any.

Another thing necessary for check-in is to upload a passport-size photograph. This is used by the ship’s crew to identify people embarking or disembarking the ship. Everyone is issued with a “ship’s card” which serves as a door key, an identification card and a charge card when purchasing anything on board. Ships are a cash-free zone. If you don’t have a passport photo to scan, you don’t have to worry as the software allows you to use a smartphone or tablet to take the photo. If P&O are not happy with the quality of an uploaded photo when you get to the converted banana warehouse that is the cruise terminal in Bridgetown, they will take your photo again.

I understand that last Christmas Day Arvia was on its maiden voyage out of Southampton to the Canary Islands and back and Christmas dinner onboard was nothing short of a disaster. On Arvia there are only two main dining rooms (unlike its sister ship Iona where there are four) and their capacity is nowhere near big enough to serve most of the people on board. Nobody had anticipated most people on board opting to eat their Christmas dinner in one of the MDRs or late in the evening. Despite the same meal being served in several other restaurants, like the Olive Tree and the 5th Street Diner, and extra tables being set up in the wide passages to and from the MDRs and people being directed to the buffet where waiter service was quickly set up, the queues at the MDRs became huge and some people didn’t get their Christmas dinner until 11 at night.

P&O learnt a lesson and for New Year’s Eve all passengers were allocated a restaurant and sitting for the gala evening meal, and I understand everything went to plan. This year, some weeks ago, P&O emailed me asking if I wanted 1st or 2nd sitting for both Christmas Day and New Year’s Eve and what size table I would like to be seated on. I quickly replied 2nd sitting and a table for eight. I have been told that has been recorded and the actual table and restaurant will be on a card in my cabin when I board. That seems a sensible solution to last year’s chaos.

Two weeks to go

With two weeks to go I have got my suitcase out and on a bed in the spare bedroom. I have started sorting out my stuff and I have already realised that I need a lot less for two weeks than I did for four weeks last year. I also don’t need any more warm clothing than I will be travelling in which is a bit different to last Christmas. I haven’t made up my mind whether to take ‘washing sheets’ for the onboard laundrette but it is hardly a hardship to carry some there and not use them.

It seems very strange to be getting out my summer short-sleeved shirts and shorts. Now I wonder where I put my Christmas tee shirt, it should come in handy for daytime on Christmas Day. The evening is a black tie and dress suit affair so that must come out of the back of the wardrobe.

I have been keeping an eye on the cruise’s Facebook page and there seems to be an awful lot of first-time cruisers asking questions that they only have to read the P&O website for answers. Do we get fed on the flight? Yes – lunch and tea (it’s a long flight) and free booze in the Premier Class cabin (that’s me!). Can I pay for extra kilos of luggage? Yes – but if you need extra weight, you are taking too many pairs of shoes with you! Will Father Christmas be on board? Of course! What currency are you taking? US Dollars for most islands, Euros for French islands, Pounds for Gatwick and tipping on board, credit and debit cards (I will have all bases covered!).

Ten days to go

Online check-in has opened. I made sure everything in the details P&O hold on me was up to date, got an array of green ticks and printed off the embarkation sheet and luggage labels. They are in an A4 envelope with the insurance details and other stuff in my cabin bag. No airline ticket anymore, once you have checked in online that’s it, you just need to check the luggage in and show the embarkation documents. All my cards are posted and presents sorted, however some still to wrap.

72 hours to go

I must fill in the online Barbados immigration form. P&O have an example showing what the answer is to each question on their website. The only problem is that Barbados immigration has changed the online form! I filled it in quite quickly discovering one or two oddities like it asks for your phone number, but you must prefix the number with (+44) and it has to be a mobile number. You need an email address. All dates are in American format. You have to upload a photo of the data page of your passport (under 3MB) but on my iPad it lets me use its front camera to take the picture. I got the permission to enter Barbados back in seconds and printed it off and added it to my documents. Gosh, did this form set off a flurry of questions on the Facebook group, I think I am going to sail with a load of idiots!

36 hours to go

My packing is complete, and my suitcase locked and ready to put in the boot of the car on the Thursday evening before I drive to Gatwick early Friday morning. My fridge is virtually empty, all that remains is milk, butter, half a dozen eggs and a packet of Tunnocks Caramel Wafers. I head next door with LGND’s Christmas presents. Her daddy comes to the door and hides the presents as she is in the dining room eating cheese and crackers, drinking a glass of milk with her mummy reading Enid Blyton’s The Faraway Tree to her. She has badgered her daddy to take her out in the car after dark to see all the houses with Christmas lights! He handed me four Christmas cards to give to performers on the ship.

It’s going to be an early night on Thursday evening as I intend to leave at six am Friday to drive to Gatwick. I decided I better weigh my suitcase as we are only allowed 23 kg on the plane. Some years ago, I bought digital scales specifically designed to weigh cases. It tells me my bag weighs 18 kg, so it goes into the boot. As the clock reaches 10 pm I turn in.

Part 2 – Gatwick, the flight out and hot sunshine!

© WorthingGooner 2024