MSC Cruise Lines Fumbles Their Way Across the Atlantic

While admittedly, we aren’t what I would consider big cruisers, but our experience is broadening. We have yet to find a cruise line we love that we can afford to take regularly. But we will keep trying.

Warning: This article is very long because I had a huge amount to say about our experience. If you can’t handle it, we understand.

Spoiler alert, we won’t be taking another MSC Cruise

At a high level, MSC did not meet our already low expectations of them, so this will likely be our one and only review of this cruise line. It was a struggle in so many ways, hence the length of this article.

What good can I say? Well, our cabin steward was helpful and diligent. Our balcony suite had an actual balcony. The pizza was reliably good. I liked one of the specialty restaurants. That about covers it. Everything else in this review is about something mediocre or worse.

Why did we choose MSC?

Price and itinerary. Even after factoring in the upcharges for drink and dining packages, it was still only about $125/nt/pp for a balcony cabin vs. $220/nt/pp for a balcony on Celebrity last year. Considering that cost included transport to Europe that we would incur anyway, it was a relative bargain.

I met a couple from Toronto who had spent $600pp for an inside cabin to go from Miami to Madeira. Since they didn’t get any additional packages, that was a great price for them for room/board/transport. We wouldn’t do an inside cabin, but that is a pretty sweet deal for those who would.

Booking the Cruise

There are several things to consider when booking your cruise. These include selecting a class of stateroom and the stateroom itself, choosing an agency to book through, selecting dining options, and pre-booking onboard experience packages and excursions.

We usually choose to identify which cruise we want to take via Vacations To Go (VTG) and then use Cruise Compete to see what is the best offer we can get. VTG makes it pretty easy to narrow down potential cruises based on a large variety of criteria. Next, we go to the cruise line’s website to see what classes of cabins are available, which class we want, and a specific, available cabin that looks good. Finally, we use Cruise Compete to obtain multiple bids to book the cruise. In the final step, different agencies typically give us a cut of their commission in the form of an onboard credit.

We didn’t have a lot of choice when booking this particular cruise. Even with a six-month lead time, very few cabins in our desired class remained when we went to book. We wound up booking directly through MSC because they offered us a sizeable onboard credit. This process was relatively straightforward.

Pre-Booking Excursions and Other Packages

Pre-booking (and pre-paying) excursions were also fairly straightforward.  We did this for some ports because unique and interesting tours were available. We chose to go self-guided in other ports since none of the tours offered seemed that interesting.

Pre-booking packages were much more difficult because it was impossible to tell how much of a deal we were really getting. While the WiFi package would have been a good choice because it was much more expensive onboard, the drinks package was no better buying early. Had we waited to buy the drinks package, we could have used our credit for it. Many cruise lines these days greatly increase your overall cost in this manner. They are also deliberately opaque in the pricing differences. Frankly, this is one of the biggest headaches around cruising, IMHO.

I was also unable to log into my MSC rewards account and there was no way to contact technical support. When I did reach a cruise line agent, they basically told me to try again in a few weeks and see if it worked then. If not, I was SOL. This turned out to be a harbinger of future IT issues with MSC.

Drinks Packages

Owing to the low cost of the cruise, it was no surprise that a couple of packages were needed to raise the experience beyond a basic comfort level. The most expensive and necessary package we chose was a mid-tier drinks package. That at least gave us soft and coffee drinks as well as beer, wine, and well liquor.

Unsurprisingly, the stock cocktails were a bit sharp, but for a $1.50 upcharge, we could get better liquor. We didn’t do this too frequently, so it was a better deal than paying for the next-tier package. The pricing for the package was significant, but not too bad for the crossing. The real shocker came when we saw the package pricing for the customers onboarding in Europe. The drink packages were incredibly expensive. It would take a lot of drinks to make that deal worthwhile, IMHO.

Dinner Package

There were two specialty restaurants onboard, the Butcher’s Cut Steakhouse and the Galaxy Kaito Sushi joint. We opted for a package of one prix-fix meal at each place for $75. The Sushi place was advertised as “the best at sea”. While we found the meal to be good, it wasn’t a knock-our-socks of experience.

The Steakhouse, however, was quite good. The prix-fix included a nice selection of appetizers and mains. I really enjoyed my 8-ounce filet mignon, especially with the 4 sauces that came with it. We liked our meal enough to come back and pay a la carte for another meal. One of the few bright spots during our time at sea.

WiFi and Laundry Packages

We had been told about the WiFi and laundry packages prior to boarding. We chose to buy those on board so we could use our credit to purchase.

Once aboard, we found the WiFi package priced at one device for $20/day, way over what we expected. Knowing that the WiFi probably wouldn’t work when we were in the middle of the Atlantic, we decided to pass at that price point. Yes, we were out of touch for a few days, but paying for an expensive, nonoperative connection would have really pissed us off.

The laundry package turned out to be one of the only decent packages we found. Basically, for $45, we could get 20 items laundered. It became less of a good deal when the service ruined a shirt Diana had recently bought. The cruise line wound up giving her credit for the purchase, but she was still disappointed and it was a hassle to resolve.

Spa Packages

Diana checked on spa treatments, but they were all pretty spendy, so opted for only one. In another case of not getting what was advertised, the Thermal Package was quite a dud. Diana believed it would give us access to an exclusive area with nice chaise lounges in a solarium with a nearby sauna and steam room, similar to our hotel in the Dolomites.

In reality, those features existed on some MSC ships, just not ours. Our ship simply had a sauna and steam room, nothing else. We learned this on day one, so we went by reception to get it removed. Twenty minutes of waiting and twenty minutes of discussion later, an email was sent to accounting (upstairs one deck). We were told they would give us credit in a couple of days. Days later, no credit. More time in line at reception. Days later again, just a credit for Diana, not me. More time in line. Another fail, more time in line. It was eventually resolved, but only after a lot of effort. Not exactly the soothing spa experience we had hoped for.

Boarding the MSC Divina

I had read comments online prior to our cruise about how bad onboarding for an MSC cruise could be. After check-in online, we had been given a relatively late window of 2:30-3:00 to get aboard. We arrived in the middle of our window and I was, frankly, surprised at how uncrowded the terminal was. We did have to wait a little while because the network was flakey, but we were processed smoothly and proceeded to board quickly. This was exceptional, I think. Most other interactions with MSC staff seemed to incur needless delays.

One reason I think things went well was that we chose to bring aboard our luggage ourselves. I know that it took quite a while for all the luggage to be delivered and I know there were some misplaced bags, so we were glad we did. I should add that a couple of days into our cruise, I met a lady who was quite unhappy. She waited 90 minutes in line to board the ship, never being able to sit. That in turn caused her such discomfort that she needed to borrow a wheelchair from the cruise line. Rather than handle the situation gracefully, the line chose to berate her for not thinking ahead to bring her own wheelchair, adding insult to injury, as it were. Another strike for MSC.

Reception, the Line From Hell

Once on board, everyone had to get to a kiosk or to the reception desk to attach a credit card to their account so that incidental charges would be accounted for. There were only five workstations at reception to service the 3000+ guests onboard, so you can imagine there were a number of times during the cruise when the line for reception seemed interminable.

This was another case where a bit of forethought could have made things smoother. Why not collect the credit card information online at check-in and spare everyone the drudgery of waiting in line to do it at sea? Actually, the line and the situation at reception were some of the most appalling parts of this cruise. In addition, they just plain provided us with incorrect information. They told us to go to reception in cases where was not required. More electronic assistance would be good.

Our Room – What is a Sofa?

We reserved a mid-ship balcony cabin for our cruise. It was a typical, small-ish but mostly functional cabin. The mid-ship location meant we were always walking a bit to get to where we wanted to be, but not too far. The balcony was the best feature of the room. It was at least a real balcony (not like that big window we got on Celebrity Edge last year). We enjoyed being out in the open air, especially during our days in the Caribbean. It was also nice to cool off at night because the AC in our room barely worked.

The bed wasn’t very comfortable, but the real disappointment was the promised sofa that somehow morphed into a single seat. It seems we had inadvertently been upgraded to a room with a bathtub, which makes the bathroom larger at the expense of having a smaller main area. This meant we couldn’t stretch out on the sofa, we were stuck with the mediocre chair thing.

Resolving the “Sofa” Issue, Not

I spent an hour at the reception desk trying to resolve the sofa issue, including 15 minutes of waiting in a relatively short line. The rest of the time was spent with a representative who was trying to get a definition of “sofa”, to presumably show how I had been given what was booked. For much of that time, he was struggling because the Internet speed at sea was too slow for his page to load for minutes at a time. Eventually, I asked to speak to a manager. No manager was on duty then (the middle of the day), so I had to wait for them to call my stateroom.

In the end, the cruise was too full to find a better place for us. As for compensation, I was told I could take it up with corporate. Figuring they would only offer me a future credit, I gave up, thinking I would never want to use that anyway.

Does this look like a sofa to you?

Bars – Liquor That Could Burn a Hole in Your Stomach

As would be expected, there were quite a number of bars on a ship of 3000+ guests. We never really found one that felt like a place to return to. In many of them, the seats were not that comfortable and there wasn’t much ambiance.

Moreover, we never found a bartender that made a great drink. I think the liquor quality played a part, but I also think many of the bartenders weren’t very well trained. Some of the concoctions they produced were either strange or too watery. Eventually, I settled on a long island iced tea for my go-to beverage. It seemed like one of the more difficult things to get wrong.

Dining – Meh!

Included dining for our room consisted of the main buffet, two sit-down restaurants, and one patisserie. The main buffet was open most of the day and the offerings changed throughout the day. The most reliable food onboard was the pizza, which was churned out from 11 am-10 pm. The rest of the fare was hit-and-miss. I was particularly disappointed by the grill area, which was never used as a grill. Burgers and hotdogs were cooked elsewhere and served up there. We had no idea when the item was cooked and they often looked dry and unappetizing. It reminds me of collecting a sandwich at a Disneyworld restaurant, if you have ever been.

During booking, we were forced to choose either the early (6 pm) or late (8:30 pm) seating for dining at a plated restaurant. We were not that keen on being forced to pick a time. In addition, when we were first seated, we were placed with 2 couples who barely spoke English. We didn’t want to work that hard to communicate at dinner, so we often showed up at one or the other restaurant and just asked to be seated.

On a prior cruise, we had learned to order several dishes at dinner, owing to the inconsistent size and quality of the dishes served. We witnessed several cruise vets doing this frequently as we table-hopped. I felt it was a shameful waste of food.

There were also a handful of food venues/restaurants where you can pay extra for made-to-order items like burgers/pizza/pastries/antipasti/smoothies/ice cream. While I can understand the desire to make a buck/euro somehow, having to fork over more money to get a burger was a bit greedy, IMHO.


Overall, we were disappointed with the entertainment. The quality of the headline evening acts wasn’t as good as we had last year on Celebrity. And besides the single acts at the bars, there was no live music, and all of the music during the shows was prerecorded. The House Band last year made the solo performers as well as the dance productions quite a bit better.

One day at sea, there was a navigation presentation in the main theater. Curious, I chose to attend. It was pathetic. The bridge officer chosen to give the presentation mostly just showed us screen snaps of our itinerary off the web. One slide discussed how their exhaust scrubbers minimized carbon output and would emit a cloud of white smoke. Still, we had already observed mostly black smoke was emitted at sea and they only ran the scrubbers when we were in sight of land, to save energy. A final slide was used to describe great circle routing, although the navigation officer making the presentation was unaware New York was on the East Coast of the US. It didn’t inspire confidence.

The bar performers were just ok. They really didn’t play with much energy. There were only a handful of TV channels and they were frequently dead when we lost the satellite feed in the middle of the ocean. One time, the sports bar chose to air a Professional Cornhole competition. Let that sink in. Bottom line, make sure you have a trove of media loaded on your device, and don’t leave home without it.


Similar to our last experience, there was a fitness room and spa at the front of the ship. Owing to the calm seas, there was no issue with using the fitness equipment, although sometimes I had to wait 10 minutes for a machine to free up. It was good to get the parts moving.

The spa treatments were quite expensive, so Diana opted to get only a single massage. There were few scheduled activities of interest to us. AquaGym and Trivia Times often drove us away from the main pool because they were so loud. The painting and dance classes also didn’t draw us in. I suppose other folks might find these activities more engaging than we did.


Frankly, I don’t think it could have been better. In the Caribbean, we had warm, sunny days. Our six straight days crossing the Atlantic were quite calm. Sometimes the ocean was even glassy. We got a little rain in Madeira, but nothing else.

Ports in Europe and Africa were decidedly cooler but still quite nice. There were no real issues regarding motion sickness. I would certainly recommend this itinerary from a weather perspective.


Diana has written about our excursions and days in port in prior posts, so I won’t go into them here. I will say only that the 12m America’s Cup racing experience was a must, IMHO. In other cases, just enjoying a day on our own or possibly arranging our own tour through an outside company would be better for variety’s sake.

Another point of poor staff execution occurred when we went on our excursion in Casablanca. The groups were assembled just off the gangway and then we took a long walk down the pier to go through immigration and onto our tour buses. I noticed another guest in a wheelchair. She had been neglected by the staff and was likely going to get left behind. I had met her at a dinner one night, so I offered to help. I wound up wheeling her a quarter of a mile down the pier so she could catch up with her tour. 🙁

The walks on the piers could be very long

Death at Sea

One day into our six-day passage from Barbados to Madeira, a guest took gravely ill. After careful consideration, the captain chose to turn the ship back towards our nearest port in St. Martin. It was unclear at that time what impact it would have on the remainder of our itinerary, but most guests agreed it was the right choice.

Sadly, the passenger passed away 6 hours into our return trip. Since there was no longer any urgency to reach port, the captain resumed course to Madeira. I guess he put the hammer down because we made up the delay over the remainder of the crossing and arrived in Madeira basically on time.

Seeing the Doctor

Diana had her own brush with the ship’s doctor. She had developed some blisters while wearing a new pair of shoes during our first port of call in San Juan. They proved to be stubborn and one got infected. The doctor was able to treat her and provide antibiotics, which was good.

What wasn’t so good was the cost. The ship’s doctor didn’t take insurance and charged US pricing, $125 for a relatively short initial visit and then another $25 for an assistant to change a dressing. I had heard stories about people choosing to live on cruise ships, in part because there was a ship’s doctor available. The concept became much less appealing after this interaction. I can’t imagine what would happen with any chronic illnesses.

In Summation

A 20-day cruise was just too long and we can afford better. Perhaps if the experience were better, the extra days would not have seemed like a drag. But after fourteen days at sea, we really wished we didn’t have to endure another six.

The real disappointment for me was the general lack of attention to detail. I felt the necessary components were in place for a good cruise, but the staff was frequently unaware of how or unwilling to provide thoughtful service. A final example came on disembarkation when we were told to wait in a given lounge for instructions on how to get off the ship. Once a number of us had been corralled in the lounge, we were simply forgotten. No one ever came by to check on us or tell us that we could get off the ship. We left 40+ minutes later than expected and nearly missed our train leaving town. Just plain thoughtless.

Which cruise line won’t you try again?

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  1. We completely resonated with this sentence “We have yet to find a cruise line we love that we can afford to take regularly. ”

    A bummer that this exceeded even the low, low bar you had for them—and that it was a long itinerary too! As a reader, it was like a train wreck we couldn’t look away from.

  2. 100% relate to this “The real disappointment for me was the general lack of attention to detail. I felt the necessary components were in place for a good cruise, but the staff was frequently unaware of how or unwilling to provide thoughtful service.”

    Our 22 night crossing (Italy-Buenos Aires) was really suboptimal in so many of the same ways. Sorry you had such a poor experience.

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