The pre-cruise experience with P&O is easily summarised; the online aspects need improvement, while the actual embarkation was remarkably smooth.
Online, P&O needs to up its game. Specifically, they need to look at their website through the eyes of customers who have never cruised before and then start filling in the big information gaps. There is, for example, a lot of references to a Black Tie dress code evening, but no indication of which evening that would be, complicating decisions over restaurant bookings and the precise form our “black tie would take”. Step-by-step descriptions of the embarkation and disembarkation procedures would also be helpful.
There were also some issues with the online check-in process - the PDF file for the self-print baggage tags was not correctly formatted, so printed far too small and took some considerable finagling before it was useable. P&O do provide pre-printed baggage tags in a “Welcome Aboard” brochure that’s posted shortly after you book. However, as I was offered a cabin upgrade close to departure, we had to print fresh ones.
Other online services, such as booking specialty restaurants and spa treatments seem to work perfectly well.
The actual embarkation process itself was painless. There was almost no traffic driving to Southampton on a Sunday afternoon and, with a large printed label on the dashboard, we were swiftly directed to our pre-booked parking within walking distance of the ship. For these short cruises, you park yourself on the quayside, whereas a valet system operates for longer voyages.
Approaching the cruise terminal on foot, it looked like complete chaos. In practice, all went smoothly. Large baggage was taken at various “pods” outside the building. There was then an initial line to enter the building and be handed the relevant health questionnaires, then another short wait for staff to check your ticket and allocate a boarding group before asking you to take a seat. In truth, I was sat down for less than five minutes before my boarding group was called to check-in, despite it being almost an hour before the boarding time allocated on my ticket.
At that point, after checking your passport and registering a credit card, I was issued my Cruise Card, which doubles as a cabin door key and onboard payment system, then invited to proceed through security. While featuring the same baggage and metal-detection screening as airports, somehow, the whole process was less frantic and over in minutes, then I was free to walk onto the ship.
Cabins were ready for immediate occupation, which I understand is normal for P&O. This contrasts with most American lines, who will let you board but restrict to you to bars and public areas while they complete the cabin servicing. Indeed, my luggage had also made it to the cabin before me, which was a nice surprise.
The ship seemed busy, with families and other groups eagerly exploring, but it was remarkably easy to find a quiet table for a glass of wine.