Like most people, we chose Costa because it was the cheap end of the cruise market and we didn't even know if we'd enjoy the experience. If you are reading this, you are looking at the low end of the market and for a cheap cruise in the sunshine. Don't let that stop you, because we had a ball! We were so nervous after reading all the reviews on this, and thankfully, not a single one turned out to be true in our case.
The ship was full, that's over 3,800 passengers. You are in the hands of each of those 3,800+ people for how they behave and that can change cruise to cruise. On our ship the majority were Italians, second majority English speakers. Language is never a problem as the staff are all international speaking on average 5 different languages, with English as their second language. So from the beginning.....
Embarkation - this was messy! We got there by People Mover and the signposts were inadequate to direct us where to go, and asking people that worked there took us to the wrong building twice, dragging heavy suitcases along the way. The crowds headed towards the ship - don't follow! It turned out to be a poorly signposted building where we dumped our cases and then had to proceed to a terminal building with a number. You then wait for your number to be called and join a massive line of people to check in, despite having to check in on line before you leave?! This whole process took around 3 hours and was the worst experience of our entire trip.
On board - by the time we got on board it was getting late and the cabins were ready. If you had got there earlier, there was a buffet and welcome drink. We were not shown our cabin, we joined the masses and found it ourselves, cases in there waiting for us. We had a basic inside cabin on the 7th deck - brilliant deck! Excellently located for everything from restaurants to bars by using the stairs. Cabin was small and compact but had everything we needed and lots of space to put everything. It was immaculate. Bathroom was very clean, shower area only no bath, but large shower area and very good shower. The bed was large (2 singles pushed together) and incredibly comfortable. Our Cabin Steward was excellent - I expected a better level of customer service to those that paid for better cabins, but I was wrong. He treated everyone as if they were first class passengers and nothing was ever too much for him, and he was always helpful and cheerful. Each night the beds are turned down, and we walked into towel animals on the bed. Very small thing, but we found we looked forward to seeing what was on our bed each night! The initial pillows we had were too hard, not a problem, they were changed immediately for nice soft ones. Every day our cabin was cleaned to a very high standard, and never once did he get in our way, it all seemed to just happen.
Breakfast and Buffet Bars - Breakfast was busy around 0800 - 0930ish. There were queues of people (yes, we had orderly lines the whole cruise!!), these moved fast. Food was always being put out, and in general European breakfast choices (it is an Italian Cruise, so to be expected), with bacon, sausages (European style, not Walls!), pancakes, French Toast, scrambled egg, etc. Always a lot of choice and very nice. There is an omelette station on the Lido Deck, which is where you can also get a later breakfast.
Lunch was also Buffet bar - again orderly lines the entire week we were on board and a different theme each day (Mexican, Spanish, Greek, Chinese). The Lido and the Buffet bar tended to do different foods, so if you don't like what you see in one restaurant, then just walk through to the next and see what is on offer there. There was always fish, salad, hams, cheeses, prawns, squid, chicken and beef dishes on offer every day. Again, always fresh food being put out and more than enough choices for everyone to find something they liked. There was a selection of deserts and ice cream on tap. If you didn't fancy trying to find a table in the lunch rush hour, there was an open dining area with waitress service where you get a table on a first come first served basis. We didn't use this, as never really ate in the middle of the rush and enjoyed the food on offer so much, but the people we shared an evening table with enjoyed their lunches away from the lunchtime crowds. This is only available from 11.30 to around 1.30 though.
All day Buffet - this is mainly pizza and salad. We only did this twice though as the amount of food on board was more than enough for us not to need to eat between meals. The pizza was margarita or a ham/tuna choice (no tomato - just cheese). I preferred the salad choices over the pizza for a snack, but the pizza was always being made fresh. Each evening there was always someone walking around on Decks 5 and 9 with a tray with different types of food on it too.
Evening meals - We were sat at a table with another British couple and next to groups of Americans all travelling. They seem to put you in language groups, which is nice. The couple we sat with were wonderful and we really enjoyed our meals each night. There are 2 sittings, 7pm and 9.30pm. We got the 7pm slot which worked out in our favour in the end. Each night is a 7 course meal, each course is not big, but over the 7 courses it's more than enough for anyone. Some courses you get a selection (starters, pasta, main dish, desert), where there is no choice (ie salad course), select it any way otherwise you won't get it. We wrongly assumed that you got each course. On the other-hand if you don't like a course, you get to skip it. There are also certain foods available every day off the menu (burgers, spaghetti bolognase, beef steak). I stuck with the fish choices every day and not once did I have a bad meal. The food always arrived at a good temperature and I couldn't fault a single meal. Apart from one meat dish (veal), those that choice the meat options each night had no issues either. I can't vouch for the 9.30 sitting being the same service, but can see no reason why it wouldn't be. The waiters at the tables are incredibly busy the whole time, getting food to the tables, drinks, clearing up - they work like mad during this time, but you can always get service. Where we were sitting (Portofino restaurant), our waiters pre-empted our requests - they knew what drinks we would have after our first night, and everything was there waiting for us if we wanted it. There was never any issues getting wine topped up during the meals, or having wine at any point during the meal. We were always served with a smile and a "cheers!"
Theatre shows - these were all multilingual shows. We enjoyed them all although some were far better than others. The Animation Team are really great to watch and listen to. Most songs are sung in a variety of languages and the costumes were lovely. A couple of the shows seems to be disjointed from one dance routing to another, but it made for good variety and did help everyone on board understand what was going on. The star acts were great. An acrobatic team from Hungary who were amazing to watch, a great Italian singer who sang in French, German, Spanish, Italian, English and Russian! And an entertainer who didn't actually speak but managed to pull of a silent film show that was so funny to watch using members of the audience. The shows are only on for around 45 minutes so are short enough to enjoy and still have a night afterwards.
Bars - right first things first - DO get the drinks package!!!! Drinks are not cheap, and the package is a great package, even if you don't drink a lot. It includes wine, water, soft drinks, coffee, cocktails, and all drinks not marked with a red * on the bar menu. That's most drinks all included. You can get water in a glass throughout all the meals anyway, but you can get large bottles for excursions or sitting up on deck sunbathing during the day. In the reviews we read, smoking was a problem that came up a few times. As I said in the start of this, you are reliant on the other 3,800+ people on board with you. I can honestly say that during the entire week, the only time I noticed smoking was the outside area of the bar on Deck 3 and late at night in the casino. Most of the bars and dance floors are strictly non-smoking around those areas. All restaurants are very strictly no smoking. This was adhered to the whole week of our trip. There were people smoking on deck, but not in huge numbers or to the point that is interfered with our enjoyment. In fact, we didn't even notice it. But this was more to do with the other people on board that same week than anything else, so this can change on your cruise, or any other we take. There are numerous bars, all serving the same drinks, with different entertainment on each night. There is something that everyone will like somewhere on board from the bar point of view.
Pools - the pools are small, salt water, not heated and not my favourite places. There weren't an awful lot of kids on board considering a fully booked cruise, but they did seem to fill the front pools in particular. The back one was more adult based, but the pool looked like a bath full of sun-cream rather than an inviting cool dip to cool down in. Jacuzzis are strictly over 16s only, but again, they did resemble a sun cream soup. Not really surprising considering the heat and numbers of people on board, but personally I didn't find them at all inviting and didn't actually use a pool at all, only the jacuzzi.
Sun loungers - this is Europe - if you are not up at the crack of dawn with a towel and a personal belonging in hand to tie on a sunbed, then forget it. These are more available when the ship is in dock or shortly before leaving each stop. Despite that lack of them, it didn't bother us. There was more than enough deck space to find a space somewhere and just lie down. It was just more annoying that there were loads of empty sun loungers lying around with just a towel on them! The towels on board are all provided, and as the ship comes in to dock, the pool attendants go around collecting all these up, so this is generally when you can start finding sun loungers after 6am!
Excursions - Very well organised really considering the getting on board fiasco! We booked 2 through Costa, but found out afterwards that there are always buses and taxis on hand at every port and you can do these places for very little cost. Getting on and off the ship for excursions was never any issue. The two we did through Costa was Olympia and Akrotiri in Santorini, both of which were excellent with incredibly knowledgeable and enthusiastic guides. The other stops we made our own way around. For example in Athens, you can get a taxi to and from the Acropolis for around 20 Euros. In Corfu, you can walk into town from the port. In Dubrovnik, you can get a local bus from the Cruise Terminal into the old town and back again for around 50 Kunas. Once in Dubrovnik centre through, you could use Euros.
Disembarking - we drew the short straw with this. You dock at 0900, but have to be out of your cabin by 0800. Your cases have to be packed and out of your room by 0100 and are then taken away for you to collect when you get off the ship. You are each given a colour coded strip that is your disembarkation time. We had the last one - 11am. From 0800 to 11am is a long wait on a docked ship! Although breakfast was supposed to be served only until 0930, we found the Lido deck carried on serving it, and even making eggs to order. We could also still get drinks on board. Despite having to wait, the whole getting off the ship was a lot smoother than the getting on experience.
Overall I was very concerned about this cruise because of the reviews. At the end of the day we had voluntarily chosen to cruise with the cheapest on the market, and on a ship designed to take as many people as possible, it was always quantity over quality. Once on board it will always be the other passengers and the staff that dictate your cruise. Maybe we were lucky, everyone lined up for everything, and were polite, courteous and friendly and the staff gave fantastic customer services and we had no issues with languages. At no point did I ever feel that this cruise was quantity over quality. Everyone we met, with the exception of very few bar staff, gave us incredible service and we were always welcomed with a smile.
This is a massive ship with a very large number of passengers on board, particularly when fully-booked, but they have an adequate number of very hard working staff who seemed to genuinely enjoy their job and who want to make sure you have a great cruise. If this is the bottom end of the cruising market, then I am intrigued by the other end of the scale based on the experience we had on board. I wouldn't hesitate to go with Costa again, or to do this cruise. We had a fantastic experience where everyone was so friendly and great, but then maybe that's the secret - as my mother used to say, treat others how you expect to be treated yourself, and everyone will treat you like a Queen!