MSC Cruises is a pan-European cruise line marketing and catering to European nationals such as Italians, French, Spanish, Germans and English. Right out of the box, making comparisons to Costa Cruise Lines is only logical. Costa is the only other pan-European cruise line with a similar multi-lingual approach. Both lines offer ships to accommodate guests in five different native languages simultaneously. This is not an easy trick, but it opens up the market enough that both cruise lines have been able to build substantial fleets with state-of-the-art mega-ships.
MSC Cruises was founded in Italy in 1994 by Gianluigi Aponte, the sole proprietor of Mediterranean Shipping Company, the second largest container company in the world (after Maersk). Aponte acquired the Achille Lauro line, owned by a fellow Italian from Sorrento. But he didn't really focus on the cruise industry until 2003 when he decided to change the name to MSC Cruises and start a newbuild program to create the largest and newest cruise line in the world. In 2008 MSC Cruises met that goal, where "young" refers to the relative age of all the ships in the fleet.
MSC has already made a solid reputation for itself in Europe and is now doing the same in the U.S. The line suffered from "growing pains in its early days, but it has now hit a stride where returning passengers are reportedly much more pleased with their experiences. Costa Cruise Lines, another Italy-based pan-European cruise line marketing its ships to America as a secondary market, is their main competitor and the line to which MSC is most often compared.
There are more similarities between MSC and Costa than differences. Both are Italian cruise lines offering cruises in five languages. The motto for MSC Cruises is "Italian service, Italian style," while the Costa slogan is "Cruising, Italian style." If I had to pick one, I would say Costa is more Italian, while MSC does a better job of catering to all Europeans. Both market 90% of the cruises solely to the European audience, but also move ships to the Caribbean and South America in the winter to market to North and South Americans. So, do we really need another cruise line offering Italian style cruising to the American audience? Well, in fact, while Costa may offer "Cruising Italian-style" MSC actually offers more of a pan-European product which most people consider more authentic and diversified.
If Costa is the European version of Carnival Cruise Lines, in Europe that would make MSC the European version of Carnival's top US competitor, Royal Caribbean. The comparison holds up well. MSC has a modern fleet with the second largest class of ships (the Fantasia-class at 138,000-tons and 4000 passengers) in the world outside of Royal Caribbean. MSC Cruises' ships are modern and elegant in décor, as opposed to the fantasyland interiors one encounters on Costa/Carnival. Just to reiterate, MSC is an independent cruise line, not under the umbrella of any U.S.-based corporation. Also for the record, Costa has been marketing its line to Americans for two decades now, whereas MSC only started in 2004.
The classic interiors of the newer MSC Cruises' ships feature brass, glass and marble. MSC especially appeals to families due to a year-round "kids sail free" policy applicable to up to age 17. There are plenty of triple and quad cabins onboard all MSC ships.
The first step MSC Cruises took in establishing credibility in the U.S. was to hire the highly respected Rick Sasso, former president of Celebrity Cruises under the Greek Chandris family and previously with Costa before Carnival bought that line, to head up the marketing and operations for MSC Cruises in North America.
MSC Cruises' new-build program started with the Lirica class. Four ships were built, relatively small at 60,000-tons for 2000 passengers, which is minute and somewhat crowded by today's standards. The ships are known to have lovely interiors but tend to be a bit crowded at times causing service to suffer. Lirica (2003) was followed by MSC Opera (2004), Armonia (2004) and Sinfonia (2005). Four ships were introduced in three years bringing the fleet to 8000 passenger berths.
The Musica class was first introduced in 2006. These three 90,000-ton ships carry 3000 passengers apiece. MSC Musica debuted in 2006, followed by MSC Orchestra (2007) and MSC Poesia (2008). These sisters will be joined by a fourth in 2010 when the MSC Magnifica sails out of the STX shipyard in France.
In the late fall of 2008 the largest cruise ship ever built for the European market, MSC Fantasia was introduced. This ship is 138,000-tons, also the same size as Royal Caribbean's Voyager class, and has a rough passenger capacity of 4000. It was joined by a sister ship, MSC Splendida, in July 2009. All together, the fleet now has 25,000 berths and so it can carry 100,000 people per month. This cruise line started in 2003 now carries 1,000,000 cruisers every year. Quite an ambitious and notable accomplishment.
There is one ship currently under construction, the MSC Magnifica, which is a sister ship to the Musica class. A contract to build two more ships is still under negotiation, but the target dates of 2011 and 2012 have been informally pushed back. Still, by 2010 the 12 ships of MSC cruises will comprise of the "youngest" (average age of ships in service) fleet in the world.
Although the primary audience for the company is Europeans, the company is wooing American bargain hunters from its U.S. operations office established in Ft Lauderdale. The company now offers a selection of winter Caribbean voyages on beautiful, modern ships offering discounts to the same itineraries as the more well-known brands. Depending on what you expect out of a cruise, you just might find the right ticket on MSC Cruises.
Regarding your expectations; the same caveats we offer for Costa apply where MSC is concerned. Especially in Europe, English will not be the first language on board, or even the second or third. You will get your menus and daily programs in English, but communication with other passengers and onboard activities will not be like it is on English-only ships. The crew is adept at English so you will not have problem with service, but you might miss the usual trivia games or comedians you are used to seeing. Walking down the halls you will hear nothing but Italian, French, Spanish and German. Don't expect to make friends with fellow passengers easily.
The onboard entertainment is largely not language dependent. The productions shows feature magicians, acrobats, etc. Music the world over is primarily in English, so you will hear singers in your native tongue. The television channels are not optimized for English speakers, only CNN International, CNBC and Bloomberg are offered - no drama or comedy. Movies are available on pay per view, but pricey at almost 10 Euro per viewing.
The other drawbacks to European cruise ships, including MSC, is that Europeans are used to paying for room service and all beverages. So while in Europe, you cannot order room service unless you order off of the a la caret menu where a club sandwich is 3.50 Euro. In the buffet area if you order water it will come in a bottle and you will be charges .60 Euro (just under a dollar). There are tricks to avoid this - by the ice machine are glasses and a water tap. Coffee and orange juice (closer to orange soda) are free with breakfast in the buffet.
Also, Europeans smoke apologetically. MSC ships control the smoking pretty well, only allowing it in certain parts of certain rooms, but those extremely sensitive to just the smell of smoke will notice it.
Take note, however, that in the Caribbean the room service charges go away, buffet drinks like iced tea are free again, and onboard charges for movies and gelato are in Dollars instead of Euros.
First of all, it is important to note that MSC caters mostly to Europeans while in Europe, but when the ships come to the Caribbean they add Americans to the mix. They still make all announcements in five languages, but in the Caribbean English comes first. This is a classic American-style cruise with pool games, great food (especially in the buffet) and excellent entertainment. The only thing Americans need to know is that when in Europe they will not hear a lot of English unless they speak first. Most greetings to you will be "Buon Giorno," but if you reply "good evening they will respond in English. All of the crew speaks English comfortably.
MSC ships offers a mainstream cruise experience for every day Europeans. Americans with an open mind can appreciate the experience for what it is, but the general consensus was that this line is not for people who are not well-traveled in foreign countries. The basic cruise fares are pretty low, but you will encounter onboard charges. The alternative dining spots are a la carte instead of one service fee. This makes them more accessible if you want to get in and out for less, but you will pay about the same ($25 per person average) if you want a full three-course meal.
While the dining room has a no-smoking policy, so many Europeans still smoke (albeit in the areas where it is allowed) so much that you will smell smoke in many places, including the passenger corridors. The dining options on board are impressive, even if alternative restaurants do carry a la carte charges. On the Fantasia-class the Sports Bar stays open until 4:00 am and serves delicious a la carte at very reasonable prices; 2.50 Euro for a three-hamburger combo with fries. 1.50 Euro for a great boutique Mac & cheese. Gelato is $1.50 per scoop onboard and definitely worth the small cost. Some people would utter the phrase "nickel & dime" but we say they are optional charges at reasonable prices. Indulge a wee bit and you will feel far better for it.
On Caribbean itineraries, expect about 70 percent of your fellow passengers to be American, the remainder European or South American. The 11-night cruises attract passengers over 65. Lower-priced one-week cruises attract younger passengers and more families.
In Europe the mix will be 95% non-English speaking. MSC Cruises attracts these nationalities in this order: Italian, French, Spanish, German and English. Much of that varies by where the cruise starts; MSC has ships home-ported in Genoa, Barcelona, Venice, Copenhagen, Naples and Dover.
Kids Sail Free! This policy applies on all sailings when kids ages 17 and younger share a stateroom with two full-fare-paying adults all year round. Hence, you see a lot of kids on MSC Cruises. In Europe, the children's programs are conducted mostly in Latin tongues, so American kids may feel a bit left out. There is a kids' menu in the dining room.Tipping
On all sailings, gratuities are added to the guest's onboard account (guests have the option to make adjustments at any time during the cruise). In Europe, guidelines are 6 Euro per adult per day and 3 Euro per day for kids ages 4-17. In the Caribbean, gratuities are $12 per person per day and $6 for per child per day. The gratuity for bar service personnel is included in the price of the drink.
I found an itinerary for our annual anniversary cruise that we really liked. It was a 10 day sailing from Fort Lauderdale on MSC Poesia to Bonaire, Aruba, Cartegena, Cristobal, and Falmouth. Out of 72 cruises, we had never been to Bonaire, Cartegena, or Cristobal/Panama Canal.
We had sailed on MSC Orchestra several years ago with a group of agents, and while many did not, my wife and I really enjoyed MSC. Yes, it is focused on an international crowd, not particularly North Americans, but we found many dance venues each evening on the Orchestra and wanted to try it again. Besides, as past passenger (although it took a long time to get MSC Club numbers) we got a 5% past pax discount.
We were midships on deck 11 in a balcony, and it was convenient, as the nearby midships elevator went down to the areas where the lounges were, and the aft elevator to the buffet area. More than enough storage for two people, and the beds were great. No thick duvets, but I don't like duvets as they are too warm for me.
Each evening the shows were at 6:30for those with 8pm dining. Shows were about 35 minutes on average, and they were absolutely great. We went to every one except one night when it was just classical music. The dancers were terrific and the singers, soloist, superb. They mixed in some acrobats and aerial performances during the shows. Every show was different and unlike the typical cruise ship showtimes. Outstanding.
We found two lounges with 2 or 3 musicians each, and a solo acoustic guitarist in the wine bar. They played very danceable music, from the 40's to 90's in one, a duet, and the other tended to involve the ship entertainment staff, but did have samba, salsa and more. The bartenders recognized us by the second night when we'd arrive for cocktails and dancing before dinner, and had my martini and my wife's prosecco a glass of ice water ready promptly. After dinner we often returned to dance some more.
I've heard people in the past complain that it is all Italian food, but while Italian is always available on this Italian owned line, it is just an option. We had leg of lamb, osso bucco, chicken marsala, prawns, lobster, salmon, tilapia, dorado, and more. Chicken or cornish hens were available. Steaks were always available, but I was NOT impressed with the steaks. It was the same cut served under a variety of aliases and not great, but cooked right. The appetizers were varied and very good, as were the salads. Soups were so, so. Every night they had a sugar free desert option, but the baked alaska was one of the best we have had. Missed creme brulee, but wasn't disappointed in the choices. Breakfast buffet had freshly fried eggs, but no omelettes to order, but they did have omelettes on the buffet line. Great pastry choices. I never had trouble finding seating in the buffet. We ate breakfast in the dining room twice, as that was the only place to find lox and bagels. As I did last time, I enjoyed the pizza available on the buffet 12 hour a day.
They don't offer beverages in the theater. Service was very good in the buffet, and the lounges. Numerous staff from Bali, and far less East European or the Philippines than other lines. The dining room service was slow, and they never asked if we wanted more bread, or coffee, etc. Considering we were near the Captain's table, I would have expected better waitstaff. The Asst maitre de' or head waiter visited our table every night.
When I wanted a bottle of prosecco for the room, we just purchased it at the bar and took it to the room. They offered a wine package that provided 10 bottles of wine to choose from a list for onlye $183.99 if booked online before the cruise, or $199 if purchased onboard. We enjoyed several excellent Italian wines, some Australian, and a few American ones. Cocktails were moderately priced, $7.25 for a cocktail....much less than other cruise lines.
Yes, announcements were in English, German, Spanish, French, and Italian, but they were infrequent....and none were promoting bingo, fortunately. Even the intro to the shows was multilingual, with the Cruise Director doing all but the English (which she could speak fluently), and the Asst Cruise Director (from South Africa) doing the English. TV had CNN International and Headline News Network, and movies in several languages. TV also had for fee movies available.
All ports were pierside, so no tendering issues. In Bonaire I had booked a private snorkeling tour and in shallow water saw tarpon, bonefish, and many others.
In Aruba we booked a terrific snorkeling excursion through Shore Excursion Group: The Antillia Shipwreck Sail and Snorkel Trip Taxi to the Hyatt Hotel at Palm Beach and a dingy out to the catamaran. Water was really clear over the wreck, with lots of fish, and a reef stop later was not as good. They even provided everyone with a I love Aruba T-shirt.
In Cartagena we exited the terminal and found vendors who were offering a 2 1/2 hour van tour of old and new Cartagena for $20 per person. The new city looks like Miami, and the older city like Old San Juan. They even took us to an emerald museum, and some walking in the old city.
In Cristobal we had booked an MSC tour, about 10 hours, a transit of the canal by ferry. We were bused to a landing in Gatun Lake, and then sailed through the San Miguela and Miraflores locks into the Pacific. We bused back to the ship. Great trip, but HOT. Some of the ferry was airconditioned, and they included a Panamanian Lunch. A great tour guide, who has lived her life in Panama, but is from Pennsylvania.
In Falmouth we just did the MSC excursion, Chukka Beach Break: a van ride to a nearby beach and chair.
Weather was great the whole time. Wifi aboard was faster than any other ship I've been on, and a package of 300 minutes was only $83.99.
We really enjoyed ourselves, and wouldn't hesitate to book MSC in the Western Hemisphere again. We met a number of other North Americans who have booked MSC several times. Kids under 12 sail for just taxes, and kids 12-17 sail for $99 plus taxes. Deposits are just $200 a couple all the time.
Abbolutely fantastic! We have had many pleasant experiences with MSC in the past. They offer great values in the off season. This was first time in there "Yacht Club" this is well worth the cost. If you can afford to, you really shoulde experience the Yacht Club for that ship within a ship.
Well, where do I begin? Having previously sailed on the Windsurf in the caribbean we were a bit apprehensive about sailing on such a large ship. Having read the reviews of the Fantasia we started to worry - but hey don't believe the rubbish reviews it's had! We booked 3 weeks before the cruise and only paid £431 each (cruise only) to sail the Western Med. my only prerequisite was that we didn't have an inside cabin. We were sailing from Barcelona then onwards to Marseille, Genoa, Naples, Palermo, Tunis then back to Barcelona.
Check in/cabins/public areas/food/atmosphere etc:
We did the web check-in prior to arriving (recommended - you get to check in first!). it took us less than 20 mins to check in and were straight on board by 12.00 noon. Our cabin ended up on deck 12 with an unrestricted balcony view - Fab!! Deck 13 being the only accom deck above us. We couldn't believe it for the price! the cabin was really nice, plenty of room for all our stuff. Lots of wardrobes, drawers, safe, dressing table, sofa etc and chairs and table on the balcony. The bathroomhad lots of towels (changed twice daily), dispensers containing shampoo and body wash. There was a good hairdryer in the drawer also so no need to take one. Bed was very comfy and all the linen lovely crisp and clean. the cabin was spotless and kept that way by our steward. So, no need to bring towels (including pool towels - you check these out each day) shampoo, bodywash or hairdryer (unless you are very particular). There was also complementary toothpaste tubes. We had purchased the Allegrissimo drinks package 166 euros each (both of us had to purchase it) but it ended up well worth it. we kept all our chits for the drinks we bought (cocktails, beers, spirits, soft drinks, water, coffee etc) and we 'spent' 533 euros, so well over what we had paid. You also didn't have to pay the 15% gratuity if you purchased this package. It could end up quite costly if you have to purchase water, cokes etc (all branded) during the day and then a bottle of wine etc and drinks in the evening. the minibar or water in your room is not included in this package, but to be honest we didn't need it and it wasn't worth it. you could get water/drinks with your card and take it wherever you want. so we got bottles for when we went ashore. Prices (if you pay as you go are in the region of (all in euros) : glass of wine 4.50, cappuccino 2.00, large beer 4.90, cocktails 6.25, small bottle water 1.45, bottle wine 20, coke 2.70, fresh juices 3.50 then 15% on top for gratuity). so, it could all add up quickly.
The public areas of the ship are beautiful and this ship is SO clean. there is not a speck of dust or dirt anywhere. they are always cleaning. The clientele was predominantly Italian, French, Russian, Spanish, South American, English and American. It was all very noisy but great with lots of atmosphere. Don't choose this ship if you want a quiet time. There was always things going on, plenty of activities all day and night. there was a show nearly every night in the huge theatre which included a Michael Jackson tribute night which was great. There was bingo before the show if you wanted your chance to win 25,000 euros. the casino was quite big with a nice bar. Now, for all you smokers out there there are plenty of places to smoke. You can smoke anywhere in the casino, parts of the coffee lounge and various other music lounges together with all along the port side of the ship. You are not allowed to smoke on balconies though which was fine. there was always somewhere to go for a smoke! There were 2 gala evenings whilst we were there so if you wanted to dress up you wanted to though it wasn't compulsory. You just couldn't wear shorts in the evenings in the 2 main dining rooms. (it was ok in the buffet). So, basically you could dress up or down and didn't feel out of place either way. There was no need to take a dinner jacket or tie (which some people did) but it wasn't THAT formal if you get my meaning. There were plenty of places to sunbathe (best part was up on deck 15 at the rear (Zen space). This had lots of sunbathing area with plenty of loungers, near the bar, swimming pool, jacuzzis etc. No real need to move - the waiters come to you! and it was only 1 deck down for lunch/afternoon tea etc. I must say that we had one day at sea therefore the whole ship was sunbathing and there were plenty of loungers for everyone.
now the food - you could eat pretty much 24 hours a day. YOu were allocated a restaurant to eat at for breakfast lunch and dinner but it wasn't compulsory to go there all the time. You could go to the buffet instead. Most people ate breakfast and lunch in the buffet then went to their designated restaurant in the evening. There was plenty of choice of food and anyone who says they couldn't find anything to eat or it was bland must be mad. There was always lots of salads, pasta, pizzas, grill meat, ethnic counter (curries etc), chefs specials, bakery everything you could possibly think of. the evening meals in the restaurants were 6 courses long with plenty of choice in each section. If youwere on the drinks package you could also get your drinks in there with no problem. They gave us bottles of wine rather than by the glass when we asked for it. they were also very flexible if we wanted to swap a starter and have it as a main course etc. Also, I asked for cheese and biscuits instead of a dessert and it was no problem. a couple of nights they had displays in there and had us all singing 'Volare' and waving our napkins around - it was really funny. so, not stuffy at all. With the drinks package you could also get ice creams (loads to choose from). the coffee (cappuccinos) were great. Best of all they make fab cocktails (everything you can imagine) even if its not on the list they will make it for you.
I forgot to mention the speciality restaurant - a tex mex. If you wait they put a sign up saying 50% discount if you book for the next evening, as it is a pay as you go restaurant. It isn't expensive anyway, and the drinks are included half price. so starters end up at about 2 euros and a big rib eye steak for 7 euros.
There are lots of pools (indoor and out), jacuzzis etc, water slide etc for the kids so plenty going on, particularly around the main pool area. It's a bit like being at a water park.
there are also a few shops onboard, clothes, duty free (cigarettes are really cheap 59.95 euros for 4 cartons L&M's). perfume (they also sell a small selection of emergency toiletries, sanitary products etc).
Nearly all the staff who served us anywhere on the ship spoke some English (enough to be understood to ask for things or where things were). They all have name badges which also says where they are from which was useful. There was a mixture from Idonesia, Brazil, eastern europe, Italian and most anywhere else you could think of. They were all very polite and efficient -so the standard of service was great. we didn't have to wait long for anything.
There is a daily service charge of 7 euros per person per night which goes towards the tips for staff and appears on your bill at the end. I believe that you can have this taken off if you really thought it was rubbish but I can't see how anyone would do so as the service is excellent and remember there are hundreds 'down below' who you never get to see but make sure everything runs smoothly.
Our ports of call:
Here I am not going to give you our impressions as I think you can make your own mind up about that, but more about where the ship docks, how you get to the places etc. This is what I was trying to find out before I went with difficulty. Because the ship is so big it docks in commercial ports which means you can, in some places, be quite a way from the town/sights and it's too far to walk, so here you go...
We embarked in Barcelona and got straight on the ship so more about there later....
We set sail and woke up in Marseille. At the port we were off quickly and there was tour buses (City sightseeing tours - hop on/off type). Though where the ship docks it was close enough to walk into the main part (marina and streets surrounding the harbour).
Next stop was Genoa. There were City sightseeing tour buses right outside where you walked out of the terminal building so you don't really need to get a taxi to get into the town. It is within walking distance.
Naples - it is quite a bit away from the town, but like us, most people wanted to go to Pompeii. We booked the tour on the ship which was 51 euros each. this included the bus to pompeii (about 25 mins away), our entrance fee in and a tour guide. We didn't bother going into Naples or to Sorrento as to us many of these towns are very similar. Indeed some people we met did the Pompeii and Sorrento trip and wished they had just done Pompeii because they could have had longer there. When you get to the Pompeii site there are a few stalls, a museum and some cafes etc - though they are expensive (they have a captive audience!). Though there is a shop at the museum and that was quite reasonable for gifts. I think it was worth the ships excursion in this case.
Palermo - we got a sightseeing bus right outside the terminal. YOu got 10% off the price of your ticket if you had already done a trip with them in another place - you just show them your ticket. Palermo has some nice buildings and architecture, but it is dirty, noisy and to be honest I wouldn't go there again.
La Goulette (Tunis):
Now believe it or not this was probably the most structured in terms of transport away from the port. The ship moors right up to the purpose built small terminal building. Awaiting you are some camels that you can pay to have your photo on walking beside the ship. There are 3 main areas to visit - Carthage, Medina (shopping - souks) and Sidi Al Bouid. There is a taxi rank where the prices are shown and are set. So for two trips (we went to Carthage and Sidi village) it was 40 euros for the taxi not per person and you could have the driver up to 5 hours (he waits for you wherever you go). It can be economical to share if you can with other people). Our driver took us to Carthage and paid for us to go in the museum (we gave him the money 10 euros as he paid in Tunisian money. It was probably a lot more than what he paid but it saved us the hassle of changing our money then changing it back again as you can't take their currency out of the country. In any case you can use euros in most places. Our driver took us all over the place where there were other ruins so we could get out have a look and take photos etc. He brought us back to ship with plenty of time to spare.
Finally... Barcelona. We were off the ship by 0930. You have to be out of your cabin by 8.00am. Our flight wasn't until 9.00pm so we had all day to kill with our luggage. As you come through the terminal building there is a kiosk next to the baggage carousel called DW. you can leave your luggage with them (9euros per bag) and they will deliver it wherever you want (airport etc). they tag up your bag, give you a receipt and instructions where to collect and a phone number. they arrange a time with you, then you can go off. we opted to have our bags delivered to the airport. YOu have to meet them outside arrivals at terminal 1 at the specified time in the parking across the road. they have a distinctive van (though they turned up in a UPS van for us). all our luggage was there on a trolley with the chap from the kiosk ready for us to go. it was WELL worth it.
anyhow.. Barcelona. The terminal is quite a way from the centre itself but as you come out there is a shuttle bus (on the left hand side when you come out the door where the coaches are). It is the port bus. It was 3.50 euros one way and it drops you off by the big statue at the bottom of La Rambla (by the marina). it is easy then to walk up into where everything is going on. Be prepared to have your walking shoes on! or you can take the easy option and get the tour bus (hop on/off) though there is still lots where you will want to get off and walk. We went all around the Plaza Catalunya, gothic quarter, Port Vell etc.
well, I think that is about all I can tell you about our trip on the MSC Fantasia. Would I travel with MSC again - definitely. and, for those of you who have kids they go free (think it's under 14). For the price we paid even with our flights and drinks package I though it was a bargain particularly with the upgrade of cabin for free.
We are off on a Carnival cruise over Christmas and New Year in the Caribbean - so fingers crossed!