We have just experienced our very first cruise. A 7 night stay on the P&O Iona Cruise Ship around the Norwegian Fjords as a family of four. This is our honest review encompassing the good the bad and the very ugly.

Now as, more often than not, independent travellers our decision to book a cruise wasn’t taken lightly and honestly it was mostly a financial one. With (as it transpires) a little naivety and assumption thrown into the mix. So before I go on we are aware that a ship is, for all intense and purposes, an all inclusive resort on water. Lots of people love that so I hope you get as much from these series of posts and the information from a perspective of more off the beaten track people like ourselves.

As usual, there is no judgement here either way.

Why Cruise?

You see we have always wanted to visit Norway and the fjords as a family. Especially the 13 year old and as Norway is notoriously pricey to both travel to, stay, and indeed experience (hello £1 banana!) on research a cruise seemed like the most affordable way to do so.

On the whole I would still agree to that statement and indeed for most families (of 4 or less so you can fit in one cabin) it is. I am happy to be pretty transparent with costs which I have never shied away from that even though each persons ‘affordable’ is different. There is a separate post on the total cost of the trip, what specifically we booked on the cruise and when (if you’re interested in detail head over there) but essentially the cruise itself cost £2500 for the family. 2 adults, 2 children 9 & 13.

This post is to, in brief (or as brief as I can be (hello enthusiastic oversharer)) give our opinions and experience of cruising with P&O itself. The good, the bad and the very ugly of our specific week on our specific ship. I will share more on what we did and how we found Norway as a holiday with each destination separately. 

Now, let’s get into it.

 

The Good

  • Assisted Boarding

Due to my daughters needs we had pre booked assisted boarding which was nothing short of fantastic. The staff could not have been more helpful and welcoming taking us from terminal through security and direct to our cabin with care and enthusiasm. It made a huge difference to start our cruise in a positive way without having to carry a (no longer that small) child in queues. 

  • Decor

With Iona being a newer ship in their fleet the decor is modern, crisp and bright and does have an airy feel with alot of windows whilst keeping the traditional cruise ship glitz and glam. It all looked well maintained with a really thought through feel right to the furniture which I’d have been quite happy to take back in my suitcase!

  • Food

The food choice and quality was generally of a good standard if a little repetitive at times. Having said that some of the best we had was a lentil dahl on the first day and a viennese jam biscuit at afternoon tea which were never to be seen again. Believe me, we tried! They were flavourful and delicious.

We predominantly dined in one of the four main restaurants for all meals as we prefer the experience of table service to the buffet or the food court (quays) personally which definitely felt more canteen like. Though the fish and chips from the Hook Line & Vinegar were delicious and definitely worth the queues.

The menu in the main restaurants is simple. There was always steak and chips on the menu daily. It varied in quality and taste but on the whole were really good. I especially enjoyed the starters. The portions were small but there is always somewhere open for snacks/seconds if required.

We would often eat as soon as the restaurant opened at 5.30 before attending a show which was 6.45 so there wasn’t enough time for dessert. Therefore we would go to the Horizon buffet or the dessert section of the Quays after the show and choose a dessert (or two, they were small after all) to take back to the room. These were delicious with good choice and the matcha tiramisu in particular was a delight. 

  • Service

It was exceptional. There really isn’t much more than can be said but almost every staff member we came across was helpful, friendly and clearly trying their best. With the exception of a few in the restaurants when things didn’t go to plan as outlined below but you have to go with the majority and for this it was really welcoming when they are clearly under alot of pressure to keep everyone on the ship happy. It’s no mean feat.

  • Prices

On the ship there are supplements. You have to pay for drinks outside of the buffet restaurant (or purchase a drinks package) and some food items. It was nice to see that the prices on these food and drink items was reasonable and not too inflated.

Where there was an extra for certain activities onboard it was a nominal fee so would be affordable for all. 

There is an ice cream parlour on board (there is no ice cream available elsewhere other than as a dessert in the main restaurants) and costa coffee and the prices were what I would consider to be standard. 

  • Efficiency

When you go on a cruise it really brings new meaning to the idiom ‘running a tight ship’. And yes I know the origin refers to 19th century ship ropes being tight when powered only by wind but let us just all agree we know it means efficiency ok?

Honestly you have to be in awe of the sheer scale of the operation. If you take time to look (an open kitchen door, the lorries and crates when you board and disembark the ship, at reception or behind the bar) you can see the effort and precision it takes to be THAT efficient. Each crew member really has to be applauded. 

  • Cabin Accommodation

As you would expect, cabins are small, yet perfectly formed. Every single slice of space was used to its advantage and even with four of us. Meaning the sofa and pull down bed above takes up the ‘lounge’ space. It still felt there was enough room. I am glad we opted for a balcony cabin as this gave us some more actual space and the illusion of space too.

The bathroom was bigger than we expected, there was ample storage space in there and cupboards in the room. It was good to have a little fridge too for water bottles, snacks we had brought with us or even to keep the aforementioned desserts fresh whilst we changed ready to enjoy them in bed! 

The bed was large and comfy, the pillows are huge but I asked for a thinner one which was brought to the room no problem. We could also have the little bedside reading lights on if the children were asleep so as not to disturb them. 

One thing I would say is the cases go under the bed and if you have more than two they wouldn’t fit so would take up space in the room you don’t have to spare. Worth bearing in mind if you are a family and plan on taking more. When you have the sofa bed made up the cushions from it have to fit down the side next to the curtains so theres lack of space there.

For sleeping the curtains were brilliant and thick so you could sleep despite the light and even have a nana nap should you wish! 

The cabins were perfectly adequate and when we moved to a conservatory suite (more on the why later) it of course was even better, a pod coffee machine (there’s a kettle in the standard cabin) and the extra room felt lovely if you wanted to pay the extra.

Unfortunately, due to our move I don’t have photos of the cabin because that was going to be a job I did at check out when it was clear of four peoples things! But this is the lovely conservatory of the second one. 

  • Cleanliness

I am a bit of a clean freak and I get that my expectations are usually higher than typical standards. On the ship however on the whole it was so clean and kept on top of at all times I was impressed. The cabins were spotless and all public areas and pools you really couldn’t fault.

  • Guests

A cruise, especially one as big as Iona is very peopley, which I will get into a little later. The positive is that most people are friendly and chatty, offering to take photos left right and centre, taking turns in lifts with casual jokes and funny small talk, I am sure you could easily make friends if you wanted to. Small talk is definitely enough for us. We are not holiday friends people!

Around the ship it felt a lovely mix between friendliness and guests just keeping themselves to themselves and their own experience. Everyone was welcoming of others whether that be babies to 90 year olds there was a real mix which felt very inclusive.

  • Celebration Night

Celebration night (the old captains night where it is black tie attire and a set 5 course menu in the main restaurants) feels like such a special evening. For us we just loved dressing up and seeing the lengths people go to. It’s not often these days you get to dress as if you’re going to a ball (well not for us anyway) and my teen absolutely loved it. To be able to really make an effort and not feeling at all overdressed is something to celebrate.

There was such a lovely feeling in the air and we loved that. Our favourite was people watching before and after dinner where we just walked around the ships admiring the outfits and peoples confidence on show for the world to see. It felt really special. Not to mention how proud I felt of our little family as they grow up. I am always grateful but some moments stick with you and make you realise how far you’ve come you know?

  • Entertainment

The quality of the on board entertainment was really good and plentiful. There were some very talented dancers and singers on the ship in the entertainment team and the shows in particular my musical theatre loving teen was in awe of. Some of the shows, especially maybe the acting, was what you would associate with a cruise entertainment (for me) meaning it was very obvious overacting but the children didn’t seem to mind.

The acrobatics and aerial skills in particular was awe inspiring. There was some talks and comedians in various parts of the ship and Eddy and Eva loved going to see a comedy magician. In the bar areas there was often musicians whether that was the piano or a singer with a guitar and they were always worth listening to. 

There was a deck with sports, golf, a splash pad, shuffle board, jenga and chess, a cinema and my personal favourite of the library with board games to play. Aswell as the bingo and quizzes in the bars there really was something for everyone. 

The Bad

  • People

As touched upon above, a cruise is VERY peopley. Turns out 5300 and 1300 staff on even the largest cruise ship is crowded. There was always a queue, a crowd, or people waiting even just for walking down the corridor or getting in a lift. As shy away from crowds kind of people, this was the thing that I was most worried about and it is very true. There’s not many places on a cruise ship where you are not in a crowd. Even on land. 

  • Noise

The fact that there are alot of people everywhere means that it can be noisy. The public areas are big with tall ceilings and open spaces but so many voices are bound to echo and so there’s no doubt it’s alot of sensory input especially in the skydome when there are lots of people in the pool. The buffet and quays is very loud for food and entertainment in certain bars can definitely be heard in close proximity. Going out on the open deck helps with this and thankfully you could mostly get away from it on the cabin decks too. Just don’t be too close to public areas. 

We also found that the headliners theatre, as good as the shows were, were just that little too loud when you’re in the audience. Like hurt your ears kind of loud. Something to bear in mind and take ear plugs if needed! 

  • Pools

The pools were quite small and a little cold which may be nice in summer but sitting in a warm tub in Norway in May could have been nicer with a few more degrees in the bubbles!

  • Missed Ports & Extra Sea Days

I wondered whether to add this as there is no fault here I want to make that clear but it certainly isn’t ideal.

We missed a port on our itinerary due to wind and safety is of course the primary concern for the Captain, it is disappointing though on a 4 port itinerary you suddenly lose 25% of the reason you cruise in the first place. Maybe such a big ship as Iona isn’t suited to the fjord destination. 

I would suggest making sure your cruise insurance covers missed ports, especially in places like Norway where the weather can be unpredictable any month of the year.

This led to an extra sea day and although they tried to lay on more entertainment I would say we felt we were done with that and there wasn’t anything that would interest us so it felt a little like wasted time. For us. 

  • Excursions

Again as off the beaten track kind of people we felt as though even docking and excursions felt a little like cattle doing the same as everyone else on a conveyor belt. Naturally in destinations there are popular sights and things to do so it is going to be busy. We did board a cruise after all. I think maybe it detracts from the beauty a little. 

The P&O excursions however are just SO expensive. When booking for a family of four it would have increased our cost by a half again of the cruise if we were to book an excursion every port. I am willing to accept if we just can’t afford something as we all know we have to prioritise in life and most of us won’t be able to afford it all. We should be so lucky. But the fact we actually could do the same things but at the fraction of the cost is eye watering really as there seems no need to charge such an inflated price. 

  • Off ship information 

There was little information available other than to download a pdf regarding the destinations unless you booked the excursions with them. I assume this is so you book an excursions with them but I think they should shout about the destination a bit more and let people make up their own minds.

  • Entertainment Planning Information

There’s no way of knowing beforehand when you are off the ship, like timings etc and even the entertainment through the week you only know the plans one day in advance.

I can only assume this is for selling excursions so you know you won’t miss the ship and makes it more difficult to plan your own itinerary and I am not sure what the trepidation for entertainment is.

As nice as it was to come back to the cabin and have your little magazine it would have been equally as nice to be able to plan the week a bit more especially with children and knowing that if you do indeed feel too tired to go to the silent disco one night that there was another one on the agenda for the week. 

With them sailing week in week out and assuming there is little change in both things and entertainment planned they could make this knowledge accessible beforehand even with a caveat of possible changes being unavoidable. 

 

  • Kids club

Our children 9 & 13 don’t really go to clubs on holiday but decided to try it as we were on the ship an extra day. Unfortunately they were in two different age categories so didn’t go together and they didn’t find them to be very friendly.

The teen section particularly was just a room and she didn’t feel welcome at all. This of course depends on your child and the other children there at that particular time but it should feel welcoming for everyone and staff didn’t seem to be engaged at all in our (albeit very limited) experience.

  • Photos

If you want to take photos in certain parts of the ship like the grand atrium they are closed off completely during some evenings especially celebration evenings with P&O photographers taking photos you then buy.

Tip is to go early. We got a family photo ( the good thing about having alot of people around is someone is always offering to take family photos for you) at 5.30pm on celebration night before it closed at 6pm.

*This isn’t the photo obviously but it is the location! 

  • P&O Communication 

This is less about the actual cruise and more about P&O and the ability to contact them. Their wait times for customer service phone lines are between 1 and 2 HOURS and they take up to three weeks (and counting to the email I have sent) to reply to emails. Their guest experience on board is amazing but communication pre and post cruise definitely needs some work. 

 

  • Food & Allergies

This might be a niche one for allergy parents out there. Or I guess adults with allergies too.

Where above I said the food was plentiful and generally of a good standard, the exception to this is within the area of food allergies. I would say this was very poor.

My daughter has food allergies and having had difficult experiences with hotels in the past I made sure to do my research with P&O. I even spent an hour and half on wait to their customer care team before departure to be reassured that it would not be a problem. This wasn’t entirely our experience.

In the main restaurants where we dined most days they ask you to pre order your allergy meals the day before. However if we hadn’t dined in there the day before or in fact the first time we weren’t aware of this invisible ‘rule’ they were a bit funny about it, bordering rude at times.

The menu didn’t list allergens at all and the staff didn’t seem to know either. She would have to tell them what she would like and they would ask the chef. However they never came back when we did order or pre order. They didn’t tell us if it was something she couldn’t have and would just bring it with different sauces/accompaniments which either weren’t nice (they served this strange gravy to her at almost all meals) didn’t go with the meal or there were times she had to have something she genuinely didn’t like or ended up not eating whilst we were and then eating alone.

They also repeatedly mixed up being allergic to eggs to being allergic to dairy which I had to explain one is cow and one is chicken. Yet at each meal time, three times per day we were having the same conversations with different staff with wildly different responses. On a number of occasions we overheard staff talking about my daughter in a not positive light and she definitely felt like she was a burden which isn’t nice for her, or us. They didn’t seem set up to deal with anything out of the ordinary. 

The service and education around allergies should be more consistent and universal for the safety and experience of guests who do not choose to have these needs and not a matter of waiter pot luck.

For example she had ordered breakfast of american pancakes which we were told did not contain egg (her allergy) and ate them happily. The following day, when ordered again we were told she couldn’t have them. I respectfully asked them to ask the chef again as she had already had them the previous day  therefore they had either given her egg (she hadn’t had a reaction) or they had made a mistake. They again told us it contained egg and she had to choose something else. They were very rude about it too saying to each other right next to our table “what exactly does she want us to do?”. 

We decided to have something else and then she would pop up to the buffet restaurant where the same pancakes were offered (all allergens were listed on the buffet food signs) which did not contain eggs so she could have them. Only then to have all our breakfast served to us and be told actually she could have them. No apology and no learnings.

This misunderstandings which happened on more than one occasion did not fill me with confidence on the safety of food for my child and I would love for that to be an area they improve to ensure inclusivity for all, not just people with no additional needs.

Another, small in comparison to the above, gripe with the food is that they only had instant decaf coffee. As someone who cannot drink caffeine and found out they did have decaf pods in the suite coffee machines this was gutting! Small, but as a coffee lover important all the same.

  • Balcony

I was SO disappointed with this that I almost chose to add it into UGLY as I don’t think it is acceptable not to know about this beforehand. Instead I will write it here just close enough to that category that it could be both! Just know how passionate I feel about it!

We booked a deluxe balcony cabin. We did not pay the extra to choose our room but did pay extra for a deluxe balcony.

When we arrived we were on the 15th floor (15706 to be exact, cabin floors are 4&5 then 8-15) just below the main restaurant that hung over our room meaning we had a very un deluxe restricted view. I SO wish we would have been told about it because I most definitely would have changed the room. After all when you go to the fjords, the views when sailing through the fjords in and out of port are some of the very best you can imagine. Like take your breathe away *chefs kiss* thank you bless you mother nature. 

I wouldn’t want anyone else to have this particular expectation vs reality moment and much like a theatre or concert seat there should be a flag to say you could end up with this overhang. When I shared this on my instagram I had alot of people respond that they would not be happy with this so please don’t be us! Avoid deck 15 and know if you choose the option where you do not choose your cabin deck and number, you will have no choice. They should make it much clearer.

The Ugly

  • Money Money Money

Even though I added in the good above that the food and drinks prices were reasonable; that’s where it ends. Whilst the individual cost of extras was not extreme, the amount you were encouraged to spend was ALOT. Everything on board seemed to be centred around consumerism and upselling which felt at times to be crass. You just had to look in the daily horizon magazine to see talks upon talks showing handbags and watches and essentially it was selling dressed up as entertainment. It was all about the hard sell.

Now don’t get me wrong I know that P&O want to make money, unfortunately that is the way of the world and on a cruise some things cost a supplement or can be purchased. There is (in and of itself) nothing inherently wrong with that and P&O offer a competitive price for the cruise itself.

I think it was just more of the ship experience than I expected or would have liked it to be. Especially when it came to excursions, the prices for families were eye watering and you know what, totally unaffordable for the masses and at times, exploitative. 

The above also leads into this one which is probably the worst I feel about the cruise in itself and even writing it still makes me feel the unease in my chest.

  • Paracetamol

On the first night our child was in pain. As parents we all know that happens sometimes and we had realised that stupidly we had forgotten to pack calpol (a complete rookie mistake for us seasoned parents of a child with a chronic condition and just goes to show it can happen to the best of us *added to ‘what to pack for a cruise with children’ blog post!) so off we go around the ship to look in the shops for the most common item to frequent parenthood. Calpol (other paracetamol products are available). To find – none. Nada. Absolutely nothing.

Confused, we enquired at reception only to be told they did not sell and could not give paracetamol to our child without seeing an onboard doctor in the medical centre. As it was the evening this would cost us a staggering £150. Or, if we wanted, we could wait until the morning when it would be ‘just’ £80. For Calpol. 

This to me, on a cruise that is set up and advertised for families, with kids club and such, to be incredibly infuriating and a little dare I say greedy and exploitative again. Now there might be a reason, or a policy, that I am so far unaware of why they can’t sell it. They did not enlighten us to if there was.

But for me this is unforgivable.

We did not need to see a doctor for leg pain caused by an existing condition. We just needed to turn back time and remember the calpol. What we did in the end, which was sad for my child but needed, was to wait until the next day to find a pharmacy when at the first port. We purchased a bottle for £6. Note if you do happen to find yourself in a similar position in Norway. The liquid paracetamol only comes in the weaker ‘infant’ strength so for a 9 year old we had to buy two bottles.

That was settled but had we been at sea for a longer period it may have been a different story. If a policy does exist, they should make this very clear on booking and thus far I have found no mention.  

Lastly, and I am very aware that this will not be universal (I would hope) and was just our experience, however it was our experience so I want to be completely transparent, if a little brief. 

  • Unsociable Behaviour

On the second to last night, when we had been unexpectedly gifted a weather induced extra sea day; which I can only imagine drove up bar sales somewhat. We experienced severe behaviour, noise and upset from the cabin next door whilst we were trying to get to sleep. To cut a long story short we ended up having to be moved to a different part of the ship after waiting in reception with children in their pyjamas at 11pm to a room that, whilst lovely, did not have enough beds and we had no choice but to make do sharing and with only one small bag.

We had to stay there two nights and then move all of our belongings with us. Eddy ended up sleeping in the conservatory part on a sofa which is a little less than the holiday we had wished for. Especially for the 6ft 3 man on a sofa.

This is by no means a complaint of the staff. We witnessed them doing everything they could for us and there simply was (to their knowledge) no more rooms to accommodate us and their apologies and understanding was genuine.

But this was an extremely unsettling experience for us, especially the girls having animosity directed towards them in what should have been a safe space with quite literally no escape.

I don’t know how often this happens but I feel like maybe there should be a better way to deal with it or way to enforce rules on parties/music/noise/behaviour in cabins. Possibly even management of alcohol consumption especially on extended sea days as this was definitely a contributing factor in this particular instance.

I of course hope that that never happens to anyone else but it was our experience. 

Summary

If you take the cruise ship for what it is, you have to marvel at it. It is impressive, it’s bigger than you can imagine, it’s sparkly, it’s beautiful, it’s bright, it’s clean and the organisation has to be applauded.

The service was really great, it felt welcoming for the most part and you could be on a ship with 1000s of people and still have your own individual experience and for that I am grateful.

It is a floating all inclusive resort which definitely lives up to that and opens up the world to the masses from the water. There’s loads to do, loads to eat and whilst I have nothing to compare it to I would say with the exception of the minority of other people and the fact we don’t really like crowds, it is a good cruise ship experience taking it for face value and we enjoyed alot of our time as a family. 

So thank you P&O and Norway, for the memories. 

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