Friday, 27 May 2016

P & O Cruises Aurora With Kids - Our Honest Thoughts

As mentioned in my last post, we've just returned from a 7 night holiday to Norway aboard the P & O Cruises ship Aurora.

We booked the holiday just over a year ago, and travelled along with our friends Colin & Sarah and their baby son Harry (aged 10 months).

We had an absolutely brilliant time in Norway itself - the country was absolutely stunning, and we would absolutely love to return in the future - you can read all about our adventures in Norway and see our photos HERE or watch our videos on YouTube here and here.

For this post, I'm going to focus on the cruise aspect of the holiday and what we thought of our first experience with P & O Cruises.

Jon & I already knew that we loved cruise holidays - as someone with an extreme fear of flying, cruising is the perfect solution for me to be able to travel and visit wonderful new places without needing to worry about the anxiety that flying brings to me - we had our first cruise experience before we had children about 5 years ago, aboard Royal Caribbean's Independence Of The Seas and it absolutely was the best 10 days of our lives!

I honestly can't praise Royal Caribbean highly enough, that holiday was truly the holiday of a lifetime for us and the ship offered SO MUCH in the way of entertainment - there were lively parades and parties on board most nights, a great Royal Promenade down the centre of the ship lined with bars and shops, an amazing 3 tiered main restaurant serving food of an unbelievably high quality, an ice skating rink, a theatre producing world class shows, a flow rider surf machine, a video arcade, Johnny Rockets 50s themed diner and SO much more - we couldn't fit everything in to a 10 night holiday, there was that much to do!

So we knew that P & O Cruises would have a very hard time living up to the exceptionally high standard of cruising that Royal Caribbean had spoiled us with - but I was willing to go into it with an open mind, and hoped that P & O would surprise us - well it certainly did surprise me, but unfortunately not in a positive way.

For a ship that advertised itself as "Family friendly" I found the Aurora to be anything but, and that is what really annoyed me.

I have since been told by numerous people (including a travel agent I have spoken with about booking next year's cruise) that the Aurora is not a ship they would EVER recommend for travelling with young children as, despite the presence of a kids club, the ship is simply not at all geared toward entertainment for families - I have been told by many people that if we had gone with another P & O ship such as the Ventura, Azura or Britannia that we would have had a much better experience of a family-friendly holiday - I can only hope that this is the case and that my faith may one day be restored in P & O Cruises if we ever decide to give them another chance, but I am very annoyed that the Aurora was advertised to us as a family-friendly ship when it simply was not suitable for entertaining children at all.

Now I don't want to be overly negative - there were a lot of things about the holiday that we really enjoyed, and we certainly didn't allow the negative parts of the cruise to ruin it for us - we're not the kind of people not to enjoy a holiday, we will make the best of any situation and make our fun wherever we go - we will always ensure that the kids have a great time, and they did - but that was because WE worked to make sure that happened and really, a cruise holiday such as this should be providing enough entertainment for us not to need to work so hard to make our own...right?

We always take the chance to get involved in anything going on - and as the family-friendly entertainment on board was so very limited we made sure we attended everything suitable - the 4 sailaway gatherings (more of a sing song than a party), the Captains Reception Gala, the Black & White Themed Ball etc - we had hoped to be able to go along to a show but nothing was family-focused, instead the shows were all comedians, classical musicians or Queen and Franki Valli tribute acts - nothing that the children would have been interested in at all (whereas Royal Caribbean by comparison offered Fairytale themed broadway style shows, and Ice dancing shows which the kids would have loved!) - but we enjoyed the few things that we were able to attend and made the best of them.

So let's break it did the P & O Aurora really measure up and where did it fall down?

The Good

Staff - SOME of the staff on board were fantastic - helpful and friendly, and a real pleasure to be around. Infact a few of the waiters in the Horizon restaurant went out of their way to be friendly toward the children, and even gave them balloons and played with them which was lovely. Avilton in particular was a star, and whatever he's paid it isn't enough - he really made the holiday for us!

Main Dining Room Food - The food in the main dining room was pretty good every night. And on one evening a Marco Pierre White menu was given to us and - credit where credit is due - the food that evening was VERY good,

Speciality Restaurant Food - We booked into The Beach House restaurant one evening, which was a "fine dining" option at an additional cost of £7.50 per person. The food in here was really wonderful - a definite highlight of the cruise.

Kids Club - The staff in the kids club were absolutely wonderful, I cannot praise them highly enough! Sarah and Lucy in particular were such a credit to P & O and worth their weight in gold.

  There were 5 or 6 girls that we met, and each of them was very friendly to parents as well as to the kids - they were full of energy and enthusiasm, and really tried hard to make sure the kids had a great time. They offered a lot of activities as part of the kids club, and even hosted a Welcome Aboard party and Pirate Party for the children during the cruise which were both a lot of fun.

The Kids Club is supposed to be for children only, but Tyne is very unsure of being left alone at the moment and I didn't feel that a holiday was the time to force him into it - so instead I stayed with him. A lot of other parents wanted to do the same thing, but for health and safety reasons only 5 parents are permitted to be in the room at once so it is operated on a first come, first served basis. This is totally understandable and I have no problem with it at all! The quality and variety of toys on offer in the Kids Club was great too.

Family Play Room - Next door to kids club was a family play room which housed a soft play area, a lot of great quality toys, and some activities like drawing, board games etc - there was also an outside area with Cozy Coupes and Giant Connect Four. This was a room where parents stayed to supervise their own children and was an absolute god send on a ship where there was very little else for children to do! We used this every single day without fail and the kids loved it in there!

Decor & Cleanliness - the ship was really beautiful to look at, and the decor in every room had been well thought out. Everything was very beautiful and timelessly elegant, and the standard of cleanliness was very very high.  

Classical Sailaways - There was a classical sailaway held as we left most ports, where classical music was played for passengers as we watched the ship sail through the beautiful fjords - these were a truly magical and unforgettable experience.

The Bad

Staff Attitude  - Unfortunately, we found that a LOT of the staff had a very poor attitude towards children on the ship. Our kids are not  loud or "naughty" and spend most of the time happily sitting at the table or wherever we are, chatting and playing quietly so it's not as if they were being a real nuisance (in fact we had at least 5 people compliment us on how well behaved they were at dinner throughout the week!) yet regardless of that it seemed that many of the staff just didn't want to be around kids at all and had no time or desire to be at all accommodating towards them.

On numerous occasions in the buffet restaurant we asked for a highchair, only to have eyes rolled at us and to be told "I'll find one when I can"...leaving us with Noah on our knees as we tried to eat, as we were unable to find any ourselves.

On another occasion we tried to sit in the Costa Coffee bar for a drink and a slice of cake, only to be told that the children weren't allowed to have any cake because it "comes free with the coffee - so if they want cake, they have to order a coffee"...?!!???

What child wants or is allowed to drink coffee?! Yet they're supposed to sit there without any cake, or we have to give them ours and go without, otherwise not be able to use the Costa Coffee venue at all?! Even paying for a slice of cake wasn't an option (Despite the fact that the cake is the same cake given for free in the Horizon restaurant, and we have already paid for it in our cruise price!)

On another occasion we tried to enjoy a quiet lunch in The Glass House restaurant during a port day, it was very quiet and we were the only ones there - The Glass House is a chargeable restaurant and we were paying a £5.00 surcharge for 3 small Tapas style plates of food for the children and then extra again for our own meals - we wanted to opt for 2 plates of chicken tenders, 1 each for the children but were told this wasn't allowed - it had to be 3 DIFFERENT tapas plates. I explained that everything else on the menu was seafood which the children don't eat, and was told it doesn't matter - we were not allowed to have 2 of the chicken and no alternative option was offered.  I found the lack of flexibility to be VERY unhelpful, particularly given the ships EXTREMELY poor availability of food for a young child - which I'll detail below.
This meant that the children had to share one chicken goujon each, otherwise we had to pay another £5 and acquire 2 extra plates of useless food that nobody would eat - simply to get the plate of chicken that we wanted!

POOR Children's food choices - I was quite surprised that the main menu for children contained only the standard things like chicken nuggets and chips, burgers, hot dogs etc (And a shockingly poor selection for Vegetarians - a vegetarian child would have had to live on the same pasta dish every day for the duration of the holiday!) but I suppose that's the case in most places so I can make peace with that.

However, the choice available for a 13 month old child like Noah at lunch times was pretty much non existent - lunch was available in the Horizon restaurant every day but consisted of things like spicy chilli, hot curries, seafood, burgers and hot dogs, etc - all things that were unsuitable for a 13 month old due to the spiciness or size of things like the burgers etc. We found that Noah had to pretty much exist on a lunch time diet of nothing but chips every single day. For a ship advertised as "child friendly" this really isn't good enough at all.

Baby food jars are available for younger babies (though my friend said these were very limited in their flavour choice), but for a baby of Noah's age there needed to be a much better variety of suitable, non-spicy things - chicken goujons, plain fish, rice with a milder accompaniment, plain vegetables - all would be quite simple options but none of these were available. 

I did notice that the staffs children were made special dinners with far more suitable things like sausage and mash offered, but these seemed to be reserved for staff only as none were ever made available to us!

We also chose to dine in the speciality Beach House restaurant one evening but I enquired first of all about whether it was child friendly and if children would be catered for - I was advised that yes, it would be fine. However when we arrived, we were told there was no childrens menu and they would need to order from the main menu - which contained huge burgers, spicy tacos, sizzling hot plates, etc - nothing suitable for them at all apart from ONE meal choice of chicken tenders - but of course, they still charged us the £7.50 supplement for each for them!

I also expected that a ship claiming to be "child friendly" would offer cordials to drink - again, I was wrong. Only pure orange juice was available.

And, this may have been naive of me, but I did also expect that child-suitable dinnerware and cutlery would be available too - it wasn't. The boys were served on full sized, smashable dinner plates every night with full sized silver cutlery - manageable for Tyne, kind of ridiculous for 13 month old Noah!

Lack Of Safe Baby Change Facilities - The baby change facilities were few and far between, and quite often we found ourselves having to travel up or down by 4 or 5 decks simply to change a nappy. A child friendly ship should surely have baby changes facilities available on every level?!

The facilities were also located in the disabled toilets and half the time we'd get there only to find them locked and out of use! We ended up travelling all the way back to our room to change Noah most of the time, which is a real pain when you're trying to enjoy a meal or drink on Deck 12 only to have to venture down to deck 7 and back up again!

Our friends and the numerous other parents on board that we spoke to all had the same issue and complained of always having to travel back to their rooms to change their children's nappies. Its massively inconvenient.

In addition to this, the baby change facilities were quite unsafe for a ship which was at times moving a LOT given that none of the changing platforms had any safety straps!

*Early Closure Of Family Play Room - The fantastic family play room that I mentioned above, which is for parents to supervise their own children in, was closed at 5pm every night (It also closed for 2 hours at noon everyday, and didn't open on port days at all until 2 pm - so was only available for 3 hours).

 I find this pretty silly - there is next to nothing going on aboard that ship to entertain children so would it hurt to leave that room open so that they can play in there after dinner?! It would have been very useful for taking them to whilst one of us was getting dressed for dinner, or even to go to if they woke during the night to avoid disturbing other passengers - why does it need to close at the same time as kids club when its an unsupervised space anyway?!

Penny Pinching - I was quite surprised by how very tight P & O came across as a company - of course I understand that they're a business and their aim is to make as much profit as possible, but in situations like the above mentioned one whereby we weren't allowed to choose the chicken option twice despite paying a surcharge for the meal they came across as not willing to give an inch at all.

This happened in other ways too - there were 4 bottles of water in our mini fridge when we arrived, nothing else. There was no sign on the fridge, no price list - nothing to indicate a charge so we assumed they were complimentary otherwise there would surely be a price or some other options of drinks in there.

After a few days, I found a notice tucked away inside a folder - which had a hole in meaning it SHOULD have been hanging on the bottles - saying something along the lines of "Bottles of water = £10. If you don't want me, ask your cabin steward to take me away"

I wasn't too happy that, despite the sign being designed to be hung on the bottles, it wasn't - it was hidden away. So I mentioned it to reception - who told me that P & O mention in their email that water in the fridge is chargeable! This just seemed like a very sly tactic to me to make an additional £10 out of every cabin (which, with almost 2,000 passengers on board, would be a substantial amount of money!) - Why go to the trouble of mentioning it in the email when you could simply hang the sign on the bottles to make people aware of the cost?! Does this not just seem like a very sly way of covering yourself but ensuring that you get that money out of everybody?!

One day, we purchased an ice cream for Tyne (note: Ice cream is free on Royal Caribbean ships!) and he accidentally dropped it right away as children often do - the guy serving us saw this happen. It was one scoop of ice cream for £2. Did he charge us again to replace the scoop? Of course he did!!! As if P & O would lose out on that £2!!!

*Room Service Failure - In our cabin, as with on any cruise ship or in any hotel, there were order forms for breakfast to hang out on your cabin door each night if you wanted to have your breakfast delivered at a certain time.

We did attempt to get to breakfast in the restaurant one morning, but we found that the children wanted to sleep in and as the main dining room breakfasts stopped at 9am it wasn't suitable for us (We didn't enjoy the Horizon buffet breakfast as it was very busy) - so instead we decided we'd skip the hot breakfasts and just have a continental breakfast delivered to our cabin at a suitable time.

Each night we filled the form out, and hung it on our door as advised - there was no time limit on when to put it out, but it was always out before midnight anyway - yet every single morning, the order form was still hanging on our door - nobody ever took our order and no breakfasts ever arrived.

This was a massive inconvenience - it meant we had to place our orders over the phone with room service, who were difficult to reach during the morning rush, and then wait around 40 minutes for it to arrive which held our day up - it would have been a huge help if our orders had simply been taken and our breakfast delivered during the time slot we asked for.

I can understand this mistake happening once and an order missed - but this happened EVERY SINGLE DAY of the cruise.

On the third day, I had simply had enough and so I wrote a complaint letter - detailing this problem, and our issue with finding suitable meals at lunch time for Noah - and we handed it in to reception.

What happened? See below...

*NO RESPONSE TO COMPLAINT - Now this is where I get REALLY angry. If someone had bothered to simply acknowledge our complaint letter, and perhaps look into why our breakfast orders weren't being taken and resolve that issue and perhaps offer a simple ham sandwich or rice pudding for Noah to eat at lunch time - I would have gone away a happy customer.

It wouldn't have been my favourite ship ever but I wouldn't have been angry - I'd simply have tried a larger P & O ship next time - but the fact that we received absolutely NO response to our complaint letter whatsoever really sticks in my throat.

And it's not like we handed it in and forgot about it - we went to reception every single day and asked if our letter had been passed on, and every single day we were assured that it had been given to the reception manager who would contact us shortly - but she never did.

She had four whole days to get in touch with us after we gave that letter in, and she didn't bother to  at all - no apology, no resolution to our problem, no acknowledgement of our complaint whatsoever.

I find this absolutely appalling.

Overall Verdict

It seems that once P & O Cruises had our money they were no longer interested in whether we were happy, enjoying our holiday or receiving a good service and I find that extremely disappointed.

After booking this holiday last May and looking forward to it all year as our first proper family holiday, I am very saddened and disappointed by the experience we had with P & O Cruises. I had been so excited to experience cruising with them, as had the children, and it feels pretty rotten to be so let down after such a build up.

That's not to say that we didn't enjoy our trip to Norway, we did - and it certainly hasn't put us off cruising at all - but would I recommend P & O Cruises to any other families? Certainly not based on the service we received during our holiday.

And unfortunately my thoughts were echoed by most of the other passengers that I spoke with - one particular gentleman that we shared a train ride with in Olden told us that he had found the cruise to be a thorough disappointment after sailing for many years with P & O, and very that their standards had slipped massively in recent years - a sentiment I heard echoed by many on board.

It's a real shame...with just a few very simple changes, P & O could make Aurora a far more family friendly environment and I spent a lot of time discussing this with other parents on board who shared my opinion - it really wouldn't be difficult to do and I could suggest some very simply ways to dramatically improve things for families on board - but I fear that P & O simply don't care about your experience once they have your money. That's the certainly the impression that their lack of acknowledgement of our complaint gave to me.

Have you had a better experience with P & O? Is cruising something you'd consider? I'd love to hear from you!

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