Please note that this review is for a cruise in the Mediterranean as I believe the experience in the Caribbean is different (as on MSC).
For us the cruising is mainly about the ports of call. From the ship we want good food available at convenient times, a comfortable cabin, efficient organization and friendly staff. We do not use the gym, spa, pools or bars and the only on board entertainment we are interested in is the occasional show in the theatre.
We find the Med too hot in the summer and just about right in November (about 18C) which is fortunate as this is when the best prices are to be found. Most lines find it hard to fill their ships at this time of year.
We sailed with Costa in 2001 & 2002 and have since sailed with RCI (2005 & 2007), MSC (2007), Celebrity (X) (2007, 2008 & 2009), NCL (2008) and Azamara (2009). Celebrity/Azamara has replaced RCI as our favourite mainly due to the excellent quality of food and the attention to detail.
The cruise was booked 3 weeks before departure. The reason for our choice was that the sailing was from Venice, my wife's favourite place, and the price was right. I booked a B3 balcony cabin on deck 8 near the rear lifts which I find a convenient position. In retrospect this was not a good decision and I should have chosen the deck below. The cabin was immediately below the lido which has metal chairs. They made a horrendous screeching noise when dragged across the floor which was VERY audible in our cabin. Apparently many people have yet to learn that it is possible to lift the chairs quietly into position... the hurried staff were the worst culprits.
The biggest problem pre-cruise was getting information e.g. we had selected second sitting for dinner but did not know the dining time and were getting concerned it would be too late with no where open to snack earlier in the evening. The Costa web site was of little use and I relied on Cruise Critic for much information. This was a bit hit and miss as many posts referred to Caribbean sailings.
We stayed at the Best Western Hotel Olimpia the night before the cruise which was located immediately next to Piazzale Roma and can be recommended. We went shopping and it was a comfortable 15C outside so I was walking around in a polo shirt whilst the locals were in thick coats.
EMBARKATION The cruise ticket was only sent by email to us a few of days before the cruise after we chased our TA. Embarkation was quoted as 1.30pm but following info from posts on CC we took the courtesy bus to arrive at midday. We were given ticket no. 4 and 1-3 were already boarding. I could not see any complimentary beverages but before looking any more our number was called. There were only 4 girls on the check in desks but this is not as bad as it sounds as they were only checking the forms. The actual handing in of forms, photographs for ID, issue of stateroom cards and credit card registration were handled on the ship. It took about 20 minutes to get on board.
On boarding we were greeted by the English speaking host Andreas. He did not know the dinner times but told us where and when to see the Maitre'D for table changes. He said that there were about 2200 passengers on this sailing (fully loaded is about 1000 more) with 1000 crew. From the internet I already knew there very many unsold cabins. At least this brought the passenger/crew ratio down to that similar to X/RCI so I hoped we would not share any of the bad experiences posted on CC by people cruising on busier sailings.
CABIN After lunch in the buffet (more of that later) we went to the cabin. The cabin was slightly larger than others we have had. This was put to good use in the bathroom which was the best laid out we have seen. The shower had a curtain but the cubicle was large enough so that this was not a problem. The air con was already set to minimum temperature and it proved to be more effective than on our other recent cruises. We take an electric fan to assist air circulation and usually sleep with the balcony door open. Fortunately for my wife the hairdryer was in a drawer rather than in the bathroom. As Coral Costa club members we got a bottle of Spumante (which we took to dinner on the 3rd night) and a fruit basket. I was looking forward to the fruit basket as on the Costa website it is described as having: 1 pear, 1 apple, 1 mango, 1 papaya, 1 banana, 2 kiwi, 6 strawberries, and assorted berries. I was a bit disappointed as what we actually got was 2 apples, 1 orange, 2 kiwi and some grapes.
We found the beds to be much the same as on other lines (RCI, X, Azamara, NCL) in that they are far too hard for us. The stateroom attendant did not know of any foam toppers like we have had on other lines, but used the method we have experienced before of putting the spare duvet on top of the mattress below the sheet. Our experience with the attendant was similar to that of other staff we encountered in that they were polite but not as overtly friendly and talkative as on X/RCI. This could also be said of most of the European passengers who are more reserved than those we enjoy meeting on the US style cruises.
The Costa Today programme gave us much needed information on dining times: The grill was only open till 4.30pm. Afternoon tea (sandwiches and cookies) was normally from 4pm to 5pm. Dinner first sitting at 6.15pm Dinner second sitting at 8.30pm (8.45pm on formal nights) NO EVENING BUFFET Pizza by the slice was available until 9.30pm then the area opened as a Pizzeria (choice of 4 daily offerings) from 10pm till 1am.
The second sitting meal times were different to those on Costa's web site (9pm) and posted on CC (9.15pm). Apparently it depends on the season and is later in the summer.
The sheet also gave details of the revised itinerary. Several ports had their stops brought forward by 30 minutes or 1 hour. This made sense due to the dark evenings at this time of year but I cannot see why this information could not have been emailed to us before the cruise as this would affect people who had organized independent excursions.
Also on the sheet was stated the alcohol policy. This again is not clear from the website but you can find it by searching the FAQs for "alcohol". This reads: "No food or drink purchased on land may be brought aboard when boarding the ship. Any local products purchased during excursions may be handed to Costa staff for safekeeping and collected before disembarking at the end of the cruise". HOWEVER, at the end of the cruise the daily info sheet stated that CONFISCATED items would be returned the last evening.
The minibar prices were a joke. 5.50 Euro for spirits, 4.50 Euro for a beer and 2.60 Euro for a soft drink. Now that most lines have stopped you bringing your own alcohol or buying it in the duty free for use in your cabin we have adopted a simple policy. Other than any freebies we do not drink alcohol whilst on board.
On later days we found that reasonable maps were provided for the ports of call (like X/RCI but unlike MSC).
We saw the Maitre'D at 2.30pm and asked for a table for 2 in a cool part of the restaurant preferably with some air movement.
FOOD And so to the food... This is very subjective so I'll explain where I'm coming from. I'm a meat and 2 veg guy and will always go for the beef if available. I like gravy but not many other sauces (no tomato sauce on burgers, no dressing on salads, etc). I also like fresh fruit and ice cream. I am not keen on seafood. We find the MDR food on RCI and NCL to be too fancy with steak only appearing on the daily menu about twice a week consequently we choose the buffet in the evening on these lines. I find the MDR beef entrees on X to be fantastic, better than in the specialty restaurant on NCL.
The lunch buffet was arranged canteen style with 4 lines. Each line had bread, pizza, salad, carvery, fresh pasta, hot food and deserts. They had proper electric Pizza ovens and the Pizza was good (not as good as in Italy but better than those on RCI or X and the inedible ones on NCL). The carvery never had beef but rather veal and sometimes lamb. There was no cook to order pasta like my wife loves on X. She did not have the fresh pasta offered as it was cream based rather than tomato based. The hot food had a reasonable selection of meats and fish. There was always one potato dish and one other vegetable dish... these were plainly cooked without sauces which suited me fine but I would have liked gravy which was only available some days at the carvery area. The selection of cake was very limited. There was usually fruit cocktail (unripe melon and pineapple) and occasionally some fresh whole fruit. I was surprised by the lack of fresh fruit... there were usually apples but little else, once bananas, once grapes, once pears and once oranges but that was it (this included breakfast). Unfortunately all 4 lines had identical fare and overall there was far less choice than on X/RCI/NCL.
We never encountered any difficulties finding a free table at the buffet at lunchtime. There was sometimes a delay in the empty tables being cleared and cleaned. On average we had to reject the advances of three bar staff that were not at all busy.
Every day in the buffet flies would settle on the table whilst you were eating. On one day they had a big pile of parmesan-reggiano cheese chunks. Having enjoyed some of this I later saw 2 flies crawling all over the pile! This seemed of no concern to the crew. This cruise was in November so I don't like to think what it would have been like in the heat of summer. We have never experienced this problem before on any other line.
The grill in the Lido had burgers, hot dogs and fries. Like the buffet this was self service. At least the food was hot. The fries suffered from not being fresh but were better than the cardboard offerings on MSC. The burgers were tastier than those on X.
The healthy eating options consisted of an often empty small chilled cabinet at the far end of the Lido next to the ice cream machine which I seem to remember sometimes contained some plates of cake. Even here there was no fresh whole fruit (unlike the excellent Aqua Spa cafe on X).
They had one ice cream machine open in the buffet (chocolate & vanilla) and one in the Lido (strawberry & vanilla). This is like RCI & NCL whereas X has a wonderful (free) ice cream station in the buffet area. On MSC there is no free ice cream in the buffet. The machines closed for the day when lunch finished. There was also gelato for sale at the pool bar.
Coffee and ice water were freely available whilst food was served so I believe this would have been till at least 1am. None of the MSC problems then! The coffee was better than on X. No iced tea and lemonade like X/RCI/NCL or the lovely fruit juice of X though.
Afternoon sandwiches and cookies were served from 4pm-5pm.
We only used the MDR for dinner. The menu had fewer options than that on Costa's Caribbean cruises: Appetizers - choice of 3. Not much in the way of seafood (OK by me). Shrimps cocktail only available on 1 night. No always available options. Soup - NO choice. No cold soups. Usually a creamed soup and very tasty. Pasta - choice of 2 + always available spaghetti. EntrEe - choice of 4 inc. 1 vegetarian + about 3 always available options. Steak appeared 3 times but was bland and not tender. On the first night the steak was the worst I have ever had... like rubber which I had difficulty even cutting through with the knife. Prime rib is normally one of my favorites but their aged prime rib was unrecognizable. The vegetables were cooked plainly. There was very little sauce. Salad - normally served alongside the entrEe - NO choice. Almost entirely iceberg lettuce. No Caesar salad or any other always available option. Cheese and crackers. Desserts - quite a nice selection. Coffee - freely available (unlike MSC) but not as good as in the buffet. Iced water was freely available.
I did not have any problem with the MDR food other than the disappointing steaks. However, I would not describe the MDR dining experience as a highlight of the cruise. It was similar in quality to RCI and NCL (well below X) but without as much choice. We would have dined in the buffet if one were available in the evening. It was always hot in the MDR and I was glad that dressing up was optional on formal nights as I would not like to have had to put on a jacket or tie. I would agree with a posting on CC that on formal night the attire for men was about this: Tux 5%, Dark Suit 50%, Sport coat or dress shirt with tie 20%, Casual 25%
Our table for 2 was at the far end of the room furthest from entrance and the kitchens. On the first night our waiter and assistant had only our table of 2 to serve and the whole meal took 1 hour. Subsequently they were serving 24 passengers at our sitting (2x tables of 2 and 2x tables of 10). They struggled big time and were very apologetic. I believe this is their full workload which I think is about double that on X. On most tables passengers seemed to be on drinks packages and it was the waiters' jobs to bring the bottled water and opened bottles of wine to the tables for the passengers to serve themselves from. I did not see any sommeliers or bar staff in the MDR and no one asked us if we wanted to buy wine or have anything from the bar. Our jug of iced tap water was usually waiting on the table for us to serve ourselves. We always arrived promptly and our waiter took our order first but the orders (inc. those for deserts) were taken from all his tables before anyone went to the kitchens so it was always 30+ minutes before the appetizers arrived. Our meals took 1 3/4 - 2 hours and we were often the last ones out of the restaurant. Soup usually was served with the contents splashed on the outside of the bowls. My salad often arrived after I had finished the entree. I was amazed to see the waiter cutting up blocks of cheese and preparing the cheese plates himself at his station during his "spare" time! On the last night they ran out of crackers so the waiter had opened his remaining packs and rationed us to one cracker per plate. I noticed that at the neighbouring stations behind me one waiter had only one table of 8 to serve for the whole cruise and another only one table of 6... the passengers on these tables would no doubt say the service was excellent in the MDR. One would have thought our assistant Maitre'D would have resolved the problem but he was not really interested in talking to us as he was too busy fawning over the large tables of Italians.
The music was not too loud but apart from 1 night they played the same 30 minute CD over and over... we got Englebert Humperdinck's "the last waltz" etc. 4 times per night!
Forget room service. It is chargeable and they only had snacks not meals... not even a burger!!! No chance of dining in your room from the whole MDR menu like on X.
EXCURSIONS On Bari we took a ship's tour which started at midday and they conveniently opened lunch an hour early. We did the Sassi of Matera which was enjoyable and reasonable value. There were not enough English speaking people for the trip so they combined the German speaking one with ours. We had two tour guides on our coach and they took it in turns to speak. When we got back after 5pm the only choice was Pizza to last until dinner whereas we would normally hit the grill at this point.
TENDERING With way less than a full ship and being the only cruise ship in port on all our ports of call I was not anticipating too many problems. It should not surprise anyone that the ship's excursions get priority tendering. I was pleased to read from another review that there were no priority passes for any cabin grades as I find this a form of queue jumping in front of what would become second class passengers. (We did not use the priority passes we got from X earlier this year on that sailing).
We docked in Katakolon so no problem there.
For Santorini I would criticize Costa in that I do not think they should advertise the hours in port as 7am-1pm when this only applies if you are on a ship's excursion. I believe it should be listed as a technical stop at 7am for those on ship's excursions and the timings for when positioned off Fira shown in the itinerary.
After dropping off those on the ship's excursions, the ship was due to be repositioned and tendering due to start for the other passengers at 8.45. They were ahead of this schedule and when we went down to the theatre at 9.15 they were just about to go free tendering (without ticket). We went straight through to the tenders, then on the cable car (with no queuing) and were in Fira by 9.30.
Since most ships' excursions leave you in Fira with a cable car ticket our idea was to go back down before the rush. We caught the cable car down at about 11.00 and once again there was no queue for the cable car or the tender. Despite the published schedule, the cable cars run continuously when cruise ships are in port even in November.
In Mykonos our revised schedule was to be in port from 5pm-10pm. We arrived early and as many people were still at afternoon tea we decided not to wait until free tendering. When we got to the theatre the tender ticket was for the next number to be called so again it was almost straight onto the tender. After an hour we came back and again there were no queues for the tender.
There was an evening buffet on the evening we were docked in Mykonos which seemed pointless to me as the opening time was only from 7pm-8.30pm.
The seas were supposed to be rougher (I didn't feel it) for Dubrovnik so we docked instead of tendering. Shuttle buses were available for 6 Euros return.
SHOWS The fantasy show on the first night was good (hand shadows) as were the acrobats on the second night. Soloist singers and pianists do not interest us so the only other two shows we went to were those featuring the ship's singers and dancers. The first of these was pretty dire and we did not last too long before leaving. The second was slightly better and we managed to stick it out to the end. These production shows were not as good as the ones on X/RCI.
DISEMBAKATION We had already received our luggage tags but the time of leaving the ship was only announced in the Today sheet delivered whilst we were at our last dinner. That was OK for us but was leaving it a bit late for anyone who needed their tags changed to a different colour. There was no option offered allowing you to take your own suitcases off the ship. Guests were requested to leave their cabins by 8am and we were near the last of those leaving ship at 10.15. We were not given any option of staying on board for lunch as had been posted by some on CC. We then had our biggest delay as Costa had not paid for enough shuttle buses to Piazzale Roma and we had to stand in line for over 1 hour.
We then checked into the Hotel Arlecchino (same management as the Olimpia) next to Piazzale Roma for 2 nights. This hotel can also be recommended.
Just prior to our arrival in Venice it had just suffered the Acqua Alta. From our balcony we could see people wading through the flooded pavements outside St Marks square. By midday this had cleared and it was possible to walk the streets without wellies.
SUMMARY We paid £349 ($570) inc. taxes per person for this 7 day cruise only in a balcony cabin. This was about half the price advertised by any other UK, US or German travel agents. We always book in the last 2 months before departure (after the "final payment" date) to get the best discounts and this price met my target of £50 per night for a balcony cabin although this is getting harder to do with the current value of the £. Daily gratuities of 6.50 Euro per person are automatically added to your on board account. I consider the cruise value for money for what we paid. After the cruise my wife was surprised at what the brochure price was as she thought the experience one of a budget cruise line.
It is unlikely that we will sail Costa again. Costa is owned by Carnival and is not as penny pinching as MSC (Moneygrabbing Shipping Company?) but we just prefer the US style cruising of X/RCI to that offered by Costa and MSC in the Mediterranean.