Some final thoughts (some possibly repetitious) from our first MSC cruise. Here’s a map of our journey.
Overall Impression: MSC Cruises wants to dominate the US market. They are trying to “Americanize” their existing product which has been successful in Europe for years, and they seem to have borrowed parts of each of the mass market lines in the US already: ginormous ships with bells and whistles like Royal Caribbean, a ship-within-a-ship concept like Norwegian, relatively affordable like Carnival.
They are still European, and that shows. (Well, much of the crew are Filipino, just like other lines.) If Europeans are tired of cruising near home and want to try sailing the Caribbean, my assumption is they will choose MSC Cruises, because it’s the home team. So, there is a mix of cultures on the ship, more than on the other mass market lines. If hearing languages you don’t understand bothers you, this is not your cruise line.
Dining: I thought overall the food was good. We ate more meals in the buffet than ever before and it had a decent selection. I could probably live on the pizza. My wife and I are trying to minimize the carbs and there were selections available that would help accomplish that. I’m not saying we always chose them.
I did hear someone ask where the “real food” was in the buffet. I found this hilarious, mainly because the tone was between anger and panic. If you don’t like multicultural dishes, you’ve never heard of veal scaloppine or other Mediterranean dishes and you don’t have an adventurous palate, this is not your cruise line. Look at the list of their international chef partners. If you haven’t heard of any of them, but you know who Guy Fieri is, stay with Carnival.
Late-night dining was a bit of a disappointment. They advertise the buffet is open 22 hours a day, but after 11pm or so (we were there after the late show), it was pizza and sandwiches. This is slightly better than Carnival because the pizza is better, but Norwegian has the Local (or O’Sheehans) which has a wider selection and it’s open 24×7.
The specialty restaurants were good but the meal plans all have a submenu of included choices, and you get one appetizer, one main with one side and one dessert. (In Teppenyaki, you pick your proteins and the rest is a set menu.) This gives you a much more limited selection than the menu shows. If you don’t like any of the options, you can replace it with a equivalent from the full menu at 50% off.
I liked the Butcher’s Cut steakhouse, but I will probably always upgrade since the meal plan choices were an 8oz filet, a sirloin or lamb chops. Ocean Cay (not to be confused with the deck named Ocean Cay or the new private island named Ocean Cay) didn’t have much on the menu that excited me. The was fish but not a lot of seafood. I would skip it next time. The Asian Market was very good, because as a “fusion” concept, you can order a complete dinner that is barely Asian.
We had the Trio dinner plan, which included one night at Ocean Cay, one at the Butcher’s Cut and one at the Asian Market. I prefer Norwegian’s plan where if you purchase three dinners, you can eat at the same restaurant three times if you choose. If the Trio plan requires me to have a meal at Ocean Cay, I need a different plan. There’s nothing wrong with Ocean Cay, the food and service were good, it just was a very limited menu. I had a variation on linguine with clam sauce, which was excellent but not carb friendly and it was the only main course that interested me.
We had one dinner in the dining room and the food and selection were good. I would just eat there, but after our experience with Freestyle on Norwegian, we weren’t looking forward to set dining times and assigned table mates. Of course, our table mates were lovely, and the food was good, so the fears may have been overblown.
On this itinerary, it’s easy to avoid the dining room – we had three nights with the Trio package, ate at Teppenyaki for 20% off the first cruise night, had a second (complimentary) dinner at the Butcher’s Cut with our a Black Card status, and were in port in San Juan one evening.
Entertainment: The entertainment was surprisingly good, which is to say, I enjoyed it. The shows were done by the same cast each evening, so each show was going to feature singers, jugglers, contortionists and acrobats, but each was entertaining and at thirty to forty minutes, the perfect length for the limited attention-span crowd.
There was even an opera matinee – a condensed version of Madame Butterfly. I can now say I’ve been to the opera, it was interesting and it only cost my forty minutes one afternoon.
The finale is a Michael Jackson tribute and regardless of what you think of the person, he produced some iconic music. Unfortunately, the music also had iconic videos, so watching the MJ impersonator dance while jugglers, acrobats, etc are sharing the stage did not always make sense because I was expecting the videos. It was a good show, but I thought Peter Punk, the show the previous night was stronger.
I now really don’t understand the complaints I read about the entertainment. Sure, it’s not Broadway shows, but it’s vastly superior to Carnival’s “make your own entertainment” game shows. Saying that MSC shows are “Cirque-esque” is a bit like saying the minor leagues are just like MLB, but it’s entertainment provided by professionals, and it is entertaining. If you don’t want to see the shows, there were musicians literally all over the ship.
Excursions: We booked all our excursions through MSC and were happy with all of them. In San Juan (an evening port call), we did an evening at Bacardi, which provided a quick history of rum, the history of the distillery and a discussion of the different rums they produce. Plus, you get a drink in the way in and the way out.
In St Thomas, we did a drive around the island with stops at the top of the second-highest mountain on the island and Magens Bay. We skipped the shopping and just took the ferry back to the ship.The driver/tour guide tended to repeat everything so I know Magens Bay beach is one of the top ten most beautiful beaches according to National Geographic.
In St Maarten, we were mostly concerned about times because we had a short day in port. The tour did take us over the whole island, and showed how much still needs to be done to recover from the hurricanes of 2017.
In Nassau, we did the Blue Lagoon island beach day, which is a good day at the beach in theory, except that you get into port late (scheduled arrival is noon) and you leave at seven, but we actually left early. So, with a half-hour to forty minutes each way on the ferry, and the last ferry that would make the ship’s all-aboard time at 4:15pm, it is hardly a beach “day.” This is the second time we’ve been to Blue Lagoon and we never got around to our included lunch either time. Snorkeling was fun. I’ll post the video eventually.
I was happy with the excursions. MSC doesn’t run them, but they seem to hire good companies that do.
Issues: There were only a couple of issues, but they both made Virginia unhappy and that can derail any future business. Our room steward did not know what a sharps container was. I would think he had served diabetics before and known their insulin needles don’t usually just go in the trash. I finally went to guest services where the woman who assisted me knew exactly what was needed, but later called to say they were out. She said the medical department would let us empty our portable sharps container there or the room steward could take it, have it emptied and bring it back. So, problem solved, but by asking two or three people over two days.
The second was Muster Drill. We attended and then got a letter from the Captain saying since we hadn’t attended, we needed to go to the makeup drill. I called guest services, told them we had attended, and they said ignore the letter. Good customer service, bad safety policy.
Muster Drill was very poorly run. I’m used to having a leader at each station and the leader’s job during the drill is twofold – to get people to sign in so they are counted as present, and to get people to shut up and focus. Neither was done. I was ready for an emergency because I knew where my muster station was, and I know how to put on a life jacket and follow instructions. I’m not sure all of my fellow passengers pass that test. Muster is a pain in the ass and a buzzkill, but it’s mandatory and the Concordia showed what happens if people don’t know where their muster station is or what to do when the general alarm sounds.
The only “mechanical” issue was the elevators which are the slowest known to mankind. By the third day, even rookies figured out to get in the first elevator that came along, even if it was going in the wrong direction because eventually it would go where you were trying to go.
Room service screwed up our breakfast delivery one morning and then told us the hot food we requested (at an additional charge) was no longer available because the galley was closed. This annoyed me because the delivery was late, so we discovered the problem late, but it was before hot breakfast ended. A customer-centric line would have sent a runner to the buffet to bring us the order. The rest of the time, room service worked, including producing a pot of coffee and a basket of pastries in six minutes. Again, Continental breakfast versus American breakfast.
Drinks: The restaurants serve bottled water by default, so if you ask for “water”, you have just purchased a liter of water. The only exceptions were the main dining room and Ocean Cay, which had pitchers of water. It’s possible there’s a code word for “tap water”, but we didn’t discover it.
In the buffet, there is the drink dispenser with lemonade, fruit punch, and undrinkable iced tea. There was water and ice in the ice machine. There is also a self-service soda (and beer and wine) machine. A 16oz soda from the machine is cheaper than a 12oz can from the bar.
Perks: Virginia and I are Latitudes Platinum Plus members on Norwegian, and we status-matched to MSC Voyagers Club Black a couple of years ago. Our Black status was about to expire, so we booked this cruise. Yes, we sailed to protect our status for our Christmas cruise. First-World problems.
We received more benefits with our Black Card from MSC than we get from Norwegian for being Platinum Plus. Both lines have priority embarkation, but with MSC, that means getting lead around the lines, checked in and boarded in record time. Disembarkation means an early exit but there is a color code designated for just Black members.
There was a bowl of fruit and a bottle of Prosecco in the room when we boarded.
We were invited to a Black Card-only cocktail party, which was attended by the Captain and senior staff. We received a free photo taken at the party. (The last Platinum Plus party we attended was a sales pitch.)
We were invited but didn’t attend the regular Voyagers Club party. From talking with the Captain at other parties, it sounded similar.
We each got a chocolate model of the ship.
We each got a free meal in a specialty restaurant from the meal package menu.
We each got an MSC ball cap.
The Cruise Critic Meet & Greet had free drinks and the Captain and senior staff attended. We all received a free copy of the group photo. MSC managed the party, I signed us up online and there was an invitation in our room when we boarded. On Norwegian, a Cruise Critic member has to drive the attendance and coordinate the event with the ship.
The Behind the Scenes tour included an MSC backpack and a glass of wine at the end.
That seems like a lot of swag for a week. Norwegian doesn’t really do gifts any longer and priority embarkation means you can go onboard whenever – but it took a bunch of cruises before one of our friends told us that. Norwegian gives the room a free meal in two of the specialty restaurants but the meals have limitations that are unique. The MSC limitations are the same as if you have the meal package, so it’s much easier to understand.
MSC Cruises may not care more about their repeat guests than Norwegian but they certainly act like they do.
Overall: I had a great cruise, and I think Virginia had a good to very good cruise. Nothing will ever replace Norwegian in her heart, but at the price differential currently, I would go on MSC Cruises any time, and it’s ahead of Carnival.
MSC Seaside was the largest ship we’ve sailed (I think) but except for the elevators, it didn’t seem overly crowded. The buffet was packed at times, but we always found a table.
I have a feeling many of the complaints aren’t driven by the crew, they’re driven by fellow passengers. (Someone told me when we met in the hallway that they were happy to find someone who spoke English. The crew all speak English.) If you don’t like “foreigners”, then first, you are an ugly American but secondly, don’t sail MSC Cruises.
This is not an American cruise line. This is a European company trying to attract Americans without alienating their European fans, and without having to run different ways in Europe and the US. That is a challenge, but I think they have made a good start.
We’ll be on the MSC Divina at Christmas this year.