Category Archives: Advice

MSC Divina Summary

We were on MSC Divina for Christmas, with calls in San Juan, Tortola, St Maarten and Nassau. This was our second MSC cruise, having sailed on MSC Seaside in May. I started doing daily posts, and I still have my random notes, but the overall impression is more important than the daily details. This was a good cruise badly marred by missed expectations.

MSC Divina is a beautiful ship. The layout is a bit quirky but it is easy to get around. There are four elevator banks where many mega ships only have two. There are lots of bars, and they are spaced where the music from one doesn’t interfere with the music from the next. The buffet is large, with good selections. It is a large ship, and it will feel crowded. The customers will be much more European than other lines, and much more multi-lingual. If you’re used to hearing only English, this can be an issue.

We were in the Yacht Club (YC), which is MSC’s “ship within a ship” concept. When you look at MSC cruise ships and procedures, they borrow heavily from other lines. They’re building big ships like Royal, they were pricing like Carnival and the Yacht Club sounds a lot like Norwegian’s Haven. We have been in the Haven on four ships in three classes (Jewel, Epic and Breakaway class.) Yacht Club is not the Haven. It’s not even close.

I’ve asked some more experienced MSC cruisers for their thoughts on Facebook, and it doesn’t sound like it was us. It sounds like we may not have understood how MSC operates butI believe that is incumbent on them to explain as they enter a new market. I did get the tired “you’re American” excuse, but that’s my point – MSC wants to succeed in the US market, so treating us all like Europeans is going to fail. It did this week.

One common explanation of the service is that all MSC ships are run as individual business units, so there can be “inconsistencies”. I was told Yacht Club on other ships was better than on Divina. That is a lesson I wish I had known before the cruise. I am not interested in spending money and then find out, “Oh, that’s the bad ship.” This is enough to prevent me sailing in the Yacht Club in the future. Anything that may or may not be worth the money is not worth the risk.

Another common comment is that the service is “European”, not “American”, with the implication that Americans are very needy, demand constant attention, and all eat at McDonalds. Basically, we have no class. I’ve been to Europe. I know how service worked in Europe. This service was not to that level. Furthermore, if I am told that my needs will be met, then someone asking me within a few minutes of my arrival if I would like a drink is not unreasonable.

The reality for me is that Europeans are very defensive about “their” cruise line, and all complaints are reflected back on the speaker. “You Americans don’t understand.” “Americans are so high maintenance.” “Americans are too touchy-feely.” If Europeans want to spend twice the fare for worse service, that is their prerogative, but don’t tell me I’m needy just because I expect a drink in less than a half-hour in a bar that only serves five percent of the ship. All that place has is drinks. Where is mine?

Each evening, we would go into the Top Sail lounge (reserved for Yacht Club guests), find a table, and watch as butlers would serve other tables. After ten or fifteen minutes (or more), one would eventually ask if we wanted something. It should not be incumbent on me to go find someone to ask for service. If I go to the bar to get my own drink, magically appearing and offering to carry it to my table is not helpful. So, how does this work? Why did others get constant service?

When I finally went to the bar one night, a butler magically appeared and said she would bring the drinks to our table. That is half-assed service. Perhaps that is European service, but then tell me, “It’s like Panchos. You have to get everything yourself, but we’ll bring refills.”

One person on Facebook said that he would order drinks at the bar, and a butler would bring it to him. I finally started just sitting at the bar in the morning for coffee. If that’s the system, then somebody needs to say, up front, “Just order what you’d like at the bar, and we’ll bring it to you.” Otherwise, if I see a lounge with an empty bar, people sitting at tables with drinks, and waiters (“butlers”) wandering, I’m going to assume table service.

The interesting part of just sitting at the bar was watching the interactions of the bar staff and the butlers. The butlers who may fawn over customers can be rude to the bartenders. Caste system?

I was sitting at the bar one morning, finishing a double espresso, and one of the butlers noticed, and said, “Would you like another?” I said, “Yes”, and she turned and barked “Double espresso” to the bartender – who was standing in front of me. He brewed a double espresso, took it to her and she brought it to me — four seats down the bar. How is this any better service than I could have gotten on my own? Where is the true value add?

Some on Facebook said they always smiled, and they got good service. This implies that we are not friendly. Yes, we did smile. We did say, “Hello.” I tend to say “Howdy” to anyone I pass, just because I’ve had too many family members attend Texas A&M. Now, did we spend hours discussing the staffs’ wants and dreams? No, and I shouldn’t have to do so for a basic level of service. Nobody on the staff knew our names. We had to ask our “dedicated” butler twice for extra towels. We didn’t even see him until the second day and he said they were short-handed and he was doing extra cabins. This is not my problem.

In retrospect, that first meeting should have prepared me for the week. If the first thing you are told is basically, “Expect poor service”, it will come true.

On arrival in the room, Virginia noticed what looked like a bloodstain on one of the pillowcases. She mentioned it to the room steward who was suitably horrified and replaced it – with another stained pillowcase. Who is bleeding in the laundry? Who is doing quality control?

Muster Drill was more organized than on MSC Seaside, but still completely unorganized. We did manage to sign in this time, but then we were asked where our life jackets were. We haven’t had to bring life jackets to a drill in ten years or more. I asked if I should go get them, since Virginia’s back was bothering her, and was told, “If anyone asks, just tell them you haven’t been to the room yet.” We were not the only ones without life jackets, but it did mean we couldn’t giggle and take selfies putting them on while the emergency information was being reviewed. If MSC ever has an emergency, it will be catastrophic. If the staff can’t handle a crowd in a drill, how will they handle a crisis?

San Juan (our first port call) was a debacle because we arrived late, and it was an evening call to begin with. The Cruise Director let everybody off the ship at once and then they had to try to get the excursions people off – and that blocked the doors so thoroughly that YC (“priority”) passengers could not get out. Again, crowd control. While we were standing in a crew corridor looking at the mobs of humanity, the port was closed when a Celebrity ship arrived. We almost missed a 7:30pm dinner reservation at a restaurant five minutes from port. We arrived in port at 4pm.

If you are going to sell priority embarkation and disembarkation as a perk, then those people need to go first. You don’t call the entire ship at once, especially when you’re late coming into port and people were freaking out about making it to their excursions. This was not a Yacht Club issue, I think it was a Cruise Director issue.

For Tortola and St Maarten, we had MSC-booked excursions, so we met by the concierge desk and were lead in groups to our excursions. It’s nice but I can find my excursion. I heard one man complaining about having to wait for the butler when he could have been outside at his tour already.

We had a junior butler see us coming back in St Maarten and he did escort us around the lines and onto the ship, past the hordes. It was a short port day and everyone was getting on at once. That was helpful. Our “dedicated” butler was nowhere in sight. However, there was a dedicated gangway for YC, so we could have found it ourselves.

In Nassau, we walked over to Senor Frogs for lunch. As the conga line wandered by, a bartender squirted sour mix from a ketchup bottle in my mouth, and our waiter was trying to avoid everyone since he was on roller skates carrying a tray of drinks, I realized what had been missing all week: fun. The Yacht Club was not fun, it was formal – but unwritten formal. It was the formal like having your grandkids at your Mom’s house, and watching constantly to make sure they don’t break anything. I hate formal. The Yacht Club is a bunch of Europeans pretending to be royalty. That is not me. I like butlers and service and high tea, but I don’t need to pretend to be upper class on vacation. I need to relax.

The food In the Yacht Club private restaurant is decent but the menu is very limited. While it changes each day, it is generally “meat in sauce”, “fish in sauce”, “risotto or pasta”, and “vegetarian.” It can get old quickly. We did have the restaurant manager preparing pasta every evening as a “special”, but if you’re on a low-carb diet, it’s really not the best thing to eat (it was delicious.) The lunch and dinner menus were very similar.

One day, I really didn’t want generic meat in sauce for lunch again – plus we were by the pool, in gale-force winds. My wife noticed a butler clearing pizza from a table, so we asked if we could just have pizza delivered to the One Pool lounge. We were told “no.” That is a word I did not expect to hear in an area where all my needs are met. Someone else had pizza, why not us?

We asked another butler later in the lounge (to see if it was policy or just a lazy butler), and he said, if one got it, everyone would want it (can’t you make more pizza?), it’s a lounge, not for eating (but they serve snacks), management didn’t want it (blame someone off the ship.)

At that point, YC completely failed at its mission. I wanted something easily accessible, I asked for something, they said “No.”

We got our Voyagers Club Diamond gift (drawstring backpacks) but never got our chocolate ships. We asked the room steward who said they were only for certain guests. We said “we are those guests” and he said he would ask the butler. (How did he not know we were Diamond guests? Somebody brought us backpacks as “thank you gifts.”)

The butler blamed the cruise consultant. The butler brought us another set of backpacks with the explanation that the cruise consultant missed some people on the list and others had not received it either. The ships then arrived at 8:10am on debarkation day.

We needed cash the last morning, so I went to ask the concierge if there was an ATM active on board. I had the question half-out when her phone rang, and she started what sounded like a personal call and walked into the office and closed the door. There was no backup at the desk.

This was not even bad service. It was negative service. This was “you are not important to me at all.” We were not made to “feel special.” We had a good cruise ruined by missed expectations.

  • I expect to meet my “dedicated” butler before day two.
  • I expect “dedicated butler” means a person will check in on you and see if everything is going well, and if you need anything.
  • I expect “priority disembarkation” means “first” or at least “after organized excursions.”
  • I expect to walk into a lounge and have someone come to take an order – especially if they are delivering drinks to a table next to me.
  • I expect to have a question answered if I have started the conversation. I don’t mind having the question interrupted, but I don’t expect to have it replaced by another conversation.
  • I expect reasonable requests will be met.
  • I expect some joy on a Christmas cruise.

We stopped at one of the bars one night on the way back from dinner, since the couple playing were doing Beatles songs. We sat at the bar, ordered drinks, and the bartender looked at my card and said, “Hey! My name is Kevin, too!” and gave me an exploding fist-bump. That may have been the first time someone used my name all week. Also, he was friendly – and having fun. What’s wrong with the Yacht Club staff?

Our last night on the ship, we went to the Butcher’s Cut (the specialty steakhouse) for dinner, since we get a free dinner as one of our Diamond perks. Virginia looked at the wine list and couldn’t find the Pinot Noir we had been drinking. She does not like most wine, so finding one she liked had been a minor miracle. She asked the waiter if they had it, showed him the photo of the label, and he said, “I’ll get it for you.” He went to the Yacht Club restaurant, got a bottle, and served us. That is the level of service I expected all week in the Yacht Club.

The Yacht Club was a huge disappointment and personally I think a complete waste of money. We had a better cruise on MSC Seaside in the Fantastica experience because we didn’t have many expectations and those were met or exceeded – with the exception of the sharps container issues. We have been in the Haven on Norwegian and the Yacht Club is not even close. This Yacht Club staff couldn’t meet basic Norwegian crew standards.

Was it bad? No, we’re still alive, we’re fed, we’re rested. Was it good? No, the service wasn’t anywhere near the level of expectation or even my level of tolerance. Was it worth the money? No. Do I recommend it for Americans? No. Do I recommend it for anyone who wants excellent service? No.

We're not going where?

There have been a couple of articles lately about a woman incensed at Norwegian Cruise Lines for completely ruining her long-planned birthday celebration by rerouting her cruise. It’s always interesting to me that the press covers them at all, because some of them know it’s a waste of time.

This will become even more of an issue for the entire industry now that all cruise traffic to Cuba has effectively been canceled.

Cruise lines do not always stick to the original published itineraries. Usually, this is weather-related, determined while enroute (Norwegian is famous for skipping its own private island, Great Stirrup Cay, where it tenders) and sometimes determined months beforehand – we rerouted from Harvest Caye twice because it wasn’t ready to open, and Hurricanes Irma and Maria rerouted our entire Christmas cruise in 2017.

The bottom line is that if you are specifically cruising to go to one special port, just go to that port. (If it’s one of the cruise lines’ private islands, you’re out of luck.) However, if your heart is set on going to Jamaica, just go to Jamaica for a week – don’t spend one day of a seven-day cruise in your “real” destination.

Cruise lines are regulated by the laws of the countries where they sail, and the laws of nature. If you always wanted to visit one place, just go there.

Insurance

I wrote an opinion piece on this earlier. This is designed to be factual.
Do you need insurance? Yes.
Do you have to buy trip insurance? It depends. Some people swear their credit card provides trip coverage. (Read the fine print.) Some think nothing could go wrong. Some wait until they get home and threaten to sue the cruise line.
Think of all the things that could happen.

  • Get sick before the trip.
  • Lose your job before the trip.
  • Get sent out of town on business the week of the trip.
  • You miss your flight.
  • Your flight is canceled.
  • Plane to the port is late.
  • Arrive late to the port.
  • Get sick on the trip.
  • Pass away on the cruise.
  • A close family member passes away while you’re cruising.
  • Miss the ship at a port.
  • Miss the flight home.

This is probably not an exhaustive list of what could go wrong. So, the question is – how many of these risks are you willing to take?
Also, consider the insurance source. The least path of resistance is to purchase insurance with your cruise. However, if you’re like us and book your own flights, the cruise line insurance probably won’t cover any problems.
Read the policy. The best policy you could probably get is “cancel for any reason” coverage. If you change your mind, you can get your money back.
Medical insurance will probably cover you out of the country – except Medicare and Medicaid. My corporate Aetna insurance covered all of my (and Virginia’s) misadventures but they considered the ship’s doctor “out of plan”, so the reimbursement was lower.
Yes, I said “reimbursement.” The ship’s medical center charges you cash money to your shipboard account. They’re not going to file with your insurance and bill you the difference. So, be prepared to pay full price onboard. Keep all your receipts! When you get home, file with your health insurance provider, take the receipts and what you reimbursed, and file that with your travel insurance provider. We’ve done this a few times, and have always received 100% of the money back. However, we’ve had medical bills on the ship that were our highest expense by far.
“I can’t afford the insurance.” How did you afford the cruise? More importantly, when the ship sails away in Mexico because your wife spent too much time shopping (or your husband spent too much time drinking), how are going to afford to get home?
Get trip insurance. Visit insuremytrip.com or your favorite broker. Just get it.
For those who are afraid of everything, here are some notes from Virginia’s research for our niece before their first cruise:
There is trip insurance that covers everything, which you can buy directly through an independent insurance company. My research found the most comprehensive plans are offered by Nationwide Insurance.  None of the other plans we have looked at cover as much, especially when it comes to pre-existing conditions and actual situations (both medical and ship related).  
Most plans don’t cover pre-existing conditions.  They have a “Look-back Period”, which varies from 90 or 120 to 180 days.  This means if, for instance, you had to cancel your trip because your Dad had to be hospitalized in an emergency for his COPD, and you decided it was serious enough not to leave, they would look back at HIS medical records for that period of time, and if there was any treatment, change of meds, or anything that indicated this was not an unforeseen outcome, they would not cover your trip cancellation.
Nationwide has a pre-existing condition waiver.  They also cover stuff that surprised me!  If your itinerary gets changed, they actually will compensate you per port.  This is an unusual benefit.
Not many insurance plans cover trip cancellation as well as medical while you are on the trip.  Compared to the coverage we have through the cruise line, they are a little more expensive, but they cover the flights, hotel, etc., rather than only the cruise.  While Virginia was writing this note originally, there was a big discussion about insurance on Cruise Critic, and many people were recommending Nationwide.
This is not a recommendation, since we haven’t used them (yet), but to get a quote and the complete details on the plan, call Nationwide at 877-970-9059.  This is different than their main number.  It is direct to the group that handles travel insurance.

Muster Drill

Muster Drill is held on every cruise ship at the start of every voyage. It accomplishes a number of goals – it teaches all passengers where their lifeboat gathering place is, it shows passengers how to wear their life jackets, and it follows international standards.
Cruise lines are serious about passengers attending the Muster Drill. The muster location for your cabin is usually on a placard on the back of your cabin door – the specific sub-location is generally on your keycard. (The door map will show you that muster station B is the main dining room, for example, but your keycard will show your specific group – B6. In that example , you would go to the main dining room (muster station B) and look for a crew member holding a B6 sign (group B6).
Look around you at the drill. This is not just people-watching (although it is interesting to see how hammered some passengers are this early in the cruise), the people around you are the people who will be in your lifeboat. That’s what muster is – it’s the preparation to abandon ship.
Not all lines require you to bring your life jacket, so check before the drill or listen to the announcements. Life jackets are usually in the closet in your cabin, but on the larger ships, they are sometimes only kept at the muster stations.
You must attend the drill. Yes, it’s as exciting as the airline safety drill, but it’s still mandatory attendance. Being at the drill proves that you have found your evacuation point once. If you don’t attend, the staff will track you down and make you attend a makeup session. Muster drill could be really short if everyone gets there on time.
The elevators stop during the drill, so if you’re allergic to stairs, go a few minutes early. (There is one available for handicapped passengers.)
Make sure you have your keycard scanned or check in at the muster station! It’s how the staff know you attended.
Listen for the description of the general alarm. On Norwegian, it’s seven short blasts of the horn, followed by a long blast. (Just remember seven dwarves and Snow White.) other lines should be the same or similar.
An interesting historical note – muster drills are part of SOLAS – the International Convention on Safety of Life at Sea. The first version was drafted after the RMS Titanic sank. So, thanks for nothing, iceberg.
Another interesting historical note – muster is done before ships leave port because the Costa Concordia ran aground before the muster drill had been held. Oops.

Internet

I thought I would start writing down subjects we think are obvious, but new cruisers might not have considered. A FAQ for the sea.
One of our friends messaged us a week or so back and said his son was leaving in a cruise the next day, and didn’t want to take his laptop, were there computers onboard?
My answer would have been “Yes”, but since we’ve been on one of her sister ships, Virginia actually gave directions to where the Internet Cafe is located, probably.
Everyone wants to disconnect on vacation, but few of us can. So, how do you get connected at sea?
Many ways.

  • The “no-hardware” method is to use the computers onboard. This means you’re in line with everyone else that left their laptop at home. You buy an Internet package, and you must login to your account to use the ship’s PCs. Your minutes count down as you work. SIGN OFF WHEN YOU’RE DONE. If you don’t logout, your minutes keep winding down, and anyone else that uses the computer will be using your minutes.
  • The “lightweight” method is bringing a tablet and using the ship’s WiFi. You buy an Internet package and login to your account on the tablet. This is a more secure method and you can check your email in your room or by the pool (if you’re lucky.) You still have to remember to logout!
  • The “cheap” method is using your cell phone in port, assuming you have an International plan (or one is included.) Our Sprint plan has cheap talk minutes in the Caribbean, but data is free (it’s 3G, but it’s free.) Check with your carrier. Make sure your phone is on Airplane mode on the ship! Ships have cell towers and most carriers are happy to have you use them – for a large fee.
  • The “free” method is using a cell phone in Airplane mode or a tablet or laptop and finding a place in each port with free WiFi. The crew probably knows some places, so ask around.

Internet Packages
Ships now have multiple Internet packages, so make sure you check what you get. For example, some lines have a Social Media package that includes most social media sites, but not email. I can’t live without email. If your laptop is for work, you may need a package that supports VPN so you can connect back to your office.
Whatever package you need, it may be cheaper to purchase it ahead of time, before you board.
If you can, disconnect. It’s a great feeling.