How Does MSC Compare to Other Mass Market Cruise Lines?

Recently I had the opportunity to sail on MSC for the first time, and it provided a number of insights into how the Italian-based company measures up against other mass market cruise lines.

We sailed on MSC’s newest ship, the Seascape, which carries over 5,000 passengers and more than 1,600 crew members per sailing. It was the largest ship we’ve ever sailed on. On our 8-night Caribbean itinerary we stopped in the following ports: Nassau, Bahamas; San Juan, Puerto Rico; Charlotte Amelie, St. Thomas; Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic; and Ocean Cay, Bahamas, MSC’s private island and marine reserve.

In the Bahamas and Puerto Rico, we were able to just walk off the ship and start meandering through town, which was really convenient. However, in St. Thomas, MSC docked in the cruise port further away from town and we had to pay $12/person roundtrip to take a shuttle into the commercial center. In the Dominican Republic, the cruise line offered a shuttle into Puerto Plata for $20/person roundtrip, but it wasn’t necessary as town was just a short walk away. Some of the other cruise lines we’ve sailed with have offered free shuttles into town, but that was not our experience with MSC.

It was our first time staying in a balcony stateroom and we were pleasantly surprised by how spacious our two-person room was, comfortably housing both a queen-size bed (which can be separated into twins) and a sofa for additional seating. Often the sofa is only available in Deluxe Balcony categories, so that was a nice bonus we weren’t expecting. (Three- and four-person rooms have a bunk in place of the sofa.) Our room was also very quiet and sound-proof. Even though MSC has a policy against kids occupying a stateroom by themselves (we had to reserve each stateroom in the name of one adult and one child), our cabin steward didn’t say anything about our two teenagers staying together in a cabin right next to us. So it appears the policy is only loosely enforced onboard (perhaps if our kids were younger they may not have been as tolerant). It did require my husband and daughter to switch keycards, however, which could have been problematic if we had purchased a drink package. Our cabin steward provided good consistent service with twice daily room cleanings, but we were a little sad to not find any towel animals or chocolates on our pillows at night like some of the other cruise lines offer. There also was no hair conditioner or body lotion provided (only shampoo and body wash); if you didn’t bring your own, these items were available for purchase in the gift shops onboard.

MSC is known for its competitive pricing, offering some of the lowest fares in the cruise industry and rivaling Carnival Corporation with its jaw-dropping entry-level rates. Yet in spite of the inexpensive fares, MSC provides a lot of value onboard its ships. The Seascape itself is beautiful with many enticing features like: a Jungle Pool Room with a retractable roof, four water slides, a multi-level kids water park and adventure course, the largest gym and spa we’ve seen at sea, a gourmet European chocolate and gelato shop, a plethora of interesting-themed lounges (including a sports bar and a dueling piano bar reminiscent of New York’s Times Square), and a massive Marketplace Buffet that nearly occupied the entirety of Deck 16. MSC is particularly popular with Europeans, and it’s easy to see the draw.

The food on the Seascape was especially enjoyable. The European flare MSC is known for came through loud and clear with delicious and attractive dishes in the main dining rooms, and one of the best buffets (and authentic Italian pizza) we’ve ever experienced at sea. As a vegetarian, I was able to find plenty of satisfying options both in the dining room and at the buffet. My friend who is strictly vegan, however, had a harder time finding enough variety on her recent MSC cruise. And I wouldn’t recommend MSC for guests who require gluten-free meals, either, as catering to special diets is not their forte. Although there are multiple specialty restaurants available for an additional fee, we did not try any of them on this trip.

While the food was generally very enjoyable, we did notice a difference in service between this cruise and others we have taken in the past. Dining room servers appeared to have too many tables assigned to them which made service slow and not as attentive as we were used to on other cruises. Although we did have the same waiter each night, there was not a two-person team dedicated to each table as we’ve experienced on some other cruise lines. And we noticed that due to the high volume of tables they were expected to service, we did not receive some of the personalized attentions we were used to on other cruise lines, like introducing themselves to you on the first night, or learning what you like/don’t like and having your table ready accordingly the next evening. For example, we prefer our bread with olive oil and balsamic vinegar instead of butter (something we picked up in Italy, so we were kind of surprised it wasn’t provided standard on an Italian cruise line). When I asked our waiter if that was available the first night he said he would bring it, but never got around to it. The next evening we asked again and someone other than our waiter brought it to us, but the preference wasn’t noted and it didn’t show up on our table again the next evening without having to ask for it. Something else to note is that unless you purchase the beverage package, there is no coffee or hot chocolate offered after dinner. Finally, MSC has done away with printed menus (this appears to be a carryover from their Covid-19 policies). You have to scan a QR code with your phone to see the menu each evening, but unfortunately ours only worked about half the time. When that happened, we were given one printed menu for the entire table to share, which was a little inconvenient.

Other differences we noted had to do with the buffet. I was surprised that the breakfast buffet started to close down at 10:30 a.m. in spite of crowds of people still looking for breakfast. There were only limited options available between 10:30-11:30 when lunch service began. Likewise in the evening, the buffet was only open from 6-9 p.m. During the afternoon hours of 3-6 p.m. and 9 p.m. to midnight, limited food options were available (unless you paid for specialty dining). The more limited hours of operation in the buffet may be surprising to Americans who are used to having a variety of food options available at all hours. We also noticed that tables in the buffet area were not cleared promptly and it was often difficult to find an empty table that was clean. The outdoor eating deck started clean in the morning but gradually grew dirtier as the day went on. These were relatively minor inconveniences, but they were noticeable to someone who has cruised before.

The onboard entertainment was the area I felt has the largest room for improvement. Noticeably absent were on deck sail away parties on embarkation day and after leaving each port (I personally didn’t miss them, but some might). I found the evening shows to be of average quality with strong vocalists and a comedian one night who was pretty funny and (mostly) family friendly. My main complaint is that there are not enough organized activities throughout the day, especially on days at sea. Daytime entertainment consisted largely of trivia games and bingo, with a dance class, exercise class, and group game thrown in at some point during the day. There are no port talks to inform you about the upcoming port of call, which I really missed, so guests are left to research each port destination on their own. And there was no library onboard to check out books or games. For such a large ship, there were only two pools available for general use (that allowed kids), which meant the pool areas were too crowded to use comfortably. And to top it off, the pools and hot tubs all closed early (by 9 p.m.), so it wasn’t an option to go late to avoid daytime crowds. While the gym was exceptionally large for a cruise ship, it was very busy, and the ping pong tables and the sole pool table on board were always in use. One thing we really missed was not having a dedicated walking/running track on the ship, which is something we’ve become accustomed to on other sailings. Although there was a big outdoor movie screen, movies were only shown on it one or two nights out of eight and never during the daytime. All in all, there was too much down time on board and I didn’t come prepared to fill it myself. On past cruises, I’ve had trouble deciding between activities scheduled at the same time because there were so many fun options to choose from; on this cruise, I only found 2-3 activities for the entire day that sounded interesting to me. As someone who doesn’t enjoy too much idle time, I missed the plethora of activities that other cruise lines work into the daily schedule.

Many of the service and entertainment shortcomings mentioned above would go unnoticed by first-time cruisers or passengers who have never sailed on premium brands. And since it was only the ship’s third week in service, it is possible that some of these items may just be kinks that will be worked out over time. Overall, the issues seemed to stem from understaffing. We noticed the ship was not cleaned frequently throughout the day—some spaces like the stairwells were only clean in the morning and gradually grew dirtier as the day went on. These are staffing issues that could easily be rectified and hopefully will be in the future.

If you think you’re going to want the Internet package or any spa services, be sure to add them to your reservation before you check in for your cruise. Once you check in you can’t add them anymore and they are MUCH more expensive on the ship.

Mega ships like the MSC Seascape have a lot of advantages in terms of cutting-edge features, but the drawback is they are crowded. Onboarding so many people makes for a chaotic process on embarkation day. You need to make reservations for the evening shows because there isn’t enough room for everyone to attend. And as mentioned above, the pool, gym, game tables and buffet were always extremely crowded. But in spite of these drawbacks, the Seascape has many nice features, not the least of which is the opportunity to visit MSC’s private island and marine reserve on their Caribbean itineraries. Understated and naturally beautiful, I appreciated MSC’s carefully chosen balance of improving the island enough to make it attractive and comfortable, but not so much that it felt like a theme park.

In conclusion, I will continue to recommend MSC (and the Seascape in particular) for first-time cruisers, those who have never sailed on a premium brand, and those who prefer (or at least don’t mind) European service standards. For that niche of traveler, MSC is an excellent value and guests in this mindset will have the most enjoyable experience onboard. We enjoyed our cruise on the Seascape and were grateful for the opportunity to experience it first-hand. Thank you, MSC!