Disclosure: I'm not a Costa employee, but all of my work experience has been in customer service, including many years as someone that had to say thank you when given sick bags, or worse :-) As a result, I have a tendency to have high expectations with regards to customer service and am, not surprisingly, frequently disappointed.
I had feared the worst when prior to our departure, I called Costa a couple of times and was given either incorrect or conflicting information about several things, including the free shuttle from Piazzale Roma to the Port. (I was told there was no free shuttle by Costa) I was also quoted 3 wildly different prices on the same day for the X1 package by 3 different people.
I don't know what it is with cruise lines, but it seems like every cruise I've taken gives the impression that this is the first time they've ever done an embarkation process.
Embarkation - We arrived at the Port of Venice using the free shuttle at 12:30. We did not have any luggage to check as we were travelling light. I didn't even see a sign telling anyone that was checking luggage where to do it. We went to the second floor and were then bounced around from one person to another, before being told we needed a number for boarding. Not having luggage to check appears to really throw them for a loop. We were given #18 even though we had been there early and had no luggage to check. As a result, we could not board until close to 4 pm. Honestly, I think it would have been faster if we DID have luggage to check.
Staff - The vast majority of the staff are wonderful. They work under incredibly trying circumstances and I don't think I could do what they do. Certainly not for 6 months at a time. They usually had greetings in the hallway or if they were walking by somewhere. Certainly if we said hello first! Our Dinner waiters had our drinks waiting for us by the time we arrived at the table each night. I don't know what they are being paid, but whatever it is, it's not enough.
The only staff I found somewhat unpleasant to deal with were the "Customer Service" staff. When I called and asked to speak with a supervisor as I had a billing complaint that had been unresolved - I was refused and she started arguing with me.
The Internet connection on board is very slow. Expect to have to pay 1 or two Euros just to get some pages to load. Some people travelling with us didn't think having to pay 3 Euros for one page to load was reasonable. They complained to the Customer Service staff and were basically told 'tough'. These staff could have made a couple who cruise often happy by removing 1 or 2 Euro charges from their account. I saw their final bill. It was fairly hefty. So Costa probably lost a future customer over that. Had my own billing problem not finally been rectified by the Maitre 'd (of all people) I certainly would not have recommended Costa to anyone.
The English speaking Hostess, Jazz, does try hard, though I personally wouldn't classify her has being fluent in English. Maybe it's just my experience with Canadian companies where it doesn't seem to matter how much you bastardize English as long as you're fluent in French.
Passengers - much has been written about this already so I'll just say that its interesting. I like watching people and it's never dull here let me tell you. On most North American cruises, or with a majority of English speakers on board, everyone seems to be in a party mood. Saying hello to each other, regardless of whether they know each other or not. Here, most people who are strangers don't greet one another as they don't know what language the other speaks.
Then there are those that treat the onboard staff like their personal wait staff. Motioning with a wave of the hand for them to get away from them, or to move a dish - stuff like that.
Interestingly, I didn't hear any complaints about the "Gratuity" tax being applied to accounts on the last night. I figured 42 Euros was appropriate for the level of service we received from most of the staff we encountered. I tipped several of them in addition to this the night before disembarkation. They seemed surprised, which I thought was rather sad - as they do work hard.
One of these days, the kids that run around in the buffet area or in the gym area (which is against the rules to begin with) are going to get hurt. I don't know how many times I came close to spilling hot coffee on some kid that ran in front of me or cut in front of me in line.
Yes there is smoking on board, and it can get pretty smoky in the piano area on Deck 3 at night. Fortunately I was pretty much ready for bed after dinner so I didn't have to deal with the smoke except to walk through those areas.
This trip had 1800 Germans, several hundred Italians, several hundred French and a smattering of English speakers on board. 2 Australians (very nice people) and a couple of other nationalities.
Rooms - Our room had a balcony and was very clean, except for an odd smell in the bathroom, that I've encountered on other ships. Nothing too offensive, just odd. Our Cabin Steward was super friendly and worked his butt off all day. Introduced himself right away and asked if we needed anything. This was our first time with a balcony and I'll never be able to go back I'm sure. The only negative I found was that balconies sometimes meant noisy neighbors. Apparently some people like constantly moving furniture around without benefit of picking it up, and having loud conversations that meant keeping the door shut at night. A shame as I love the sound of the water as I sleep. The bungee cord I took really came in handy!
Restaurant - We had the first sitting at 6:30 most nights. Am glad we did as I'd never be able to sleep with all the eating we did if we had the 2nd. Food was great! Most nights I didn't do all 7 courses as I often had just had lunch 4 hours previously. We usually had sit down lunch at the Ceres. Only ran into one waiter who really didn't seem to know what he was doing. He ended up charging us for beer that was supposed to be covered by our X1 package. Getting this sorted out entailed dealing with far too many people and grief to get it done. At dinner, our table and the next to it was all English speakers so we enjoyed that aspect as I found that Germans or Italians weren't too willing to converse with us at lunch when we were plunked at their table. Maitre 'd was nice, and arranged for our tables to have Caesar salad one night if we wanted it. The only negative thing about dinner was that they would dim or flick the lights at about 8:30 to signal to people to get moving and get out of the restaurant as the second seating was starting at 9. Through no fault of our own, we would usually still be waiting for dessert at that point.
I only ate breakfast at the buffet. Yes, it's the same thing everyday, but I found that on other lines as well, and theres quite a variety to start with. Besides, I'm happy with some fruit, yoghurt and coffee, and there was plenty more to eat on the rare occasions I wanted more.
The X1 package was a good idea, though I found that the wines that were served as part of this package were not up to par - and I'll drink just about anything! The Merlot was fine, but there was a Soave that was more like a Chardonnay. Still, at 5 Euros a drink, it's easy to get your moneys worth.
Ports of Call - I stayed on board in Bari. Didn't do any Costa excursions as I prefer to make my own way for the most part. Got off in Katakolon and walked around the village, and explored Izmir, Istanbul and Dubrovnik on our own as well and saw many of the same sites as those that paid for the excursions - but didn't get dragged to carpet shops ;-)
The Ship - its a nice ship though the layout on a couple of floors are odd. Several times we couldn't remember how to get to our restaurant as you had to go up or down one floor, then forward and then up or down again to get to it. Certainly very colorful! We were told that Costa spent close to 500 million Euros outfitting and decorating the interior. A shame they didn't splurge a little on the sound system in the Vesta dining room. During the entertainment they do, it sounds horrible.
Overall it was a great trip. Marred only by the disorderly embarkation process and the lack of customer service to quickly rectify an incorrect billing charge. We selected Costa primarily because of the routing and departure dates.
Would I go on another Costa Cruise? Certainly. However, I would be inclined to try another Cruise line before then, unless only Costa had the destinations I was looking for.
However, I would strongly recommend going with an open mind, things will be done differently. Be prepared to perhaps be in the minority as far as English-speaking guests go. As long as you're friendly and outgoing enough, I'm sure you'll meet up with others who are in the same boat (pun not really intended) Watch your bill and be sure to jump on any discrepancies immediately as it can take two days to get them sorted out. If it results from a problem in the dining room, see if the Maitre 'd can help you out.
Go and have fun, thats what it's all about!