This Northern Europe voyage was my second cruise with MSC. My first trip took place three years ago and since then I have noticed quite a few changes. For one, drinking- water seems to be at a premium. After lunch, water is only available at the bars, restaurants, and the cabin's mini bar at the cost of Euro 1.80 per bottle. The filling of bottles at the beverage stations is not allowed. For someone like myself who is used to drinking quite a few liters of water a day, the cost can add up quickly. The rationing of water is not the only cost cutting measure. Complimentary coffee/tea after lunch with your desert are no longer an option. In the dining room coffee or tea are not available at all.
Many other cruise lines offer a dinner buffet as an alternative option to the restaurant dining; not MSC, the buffet and its beverage stations shut down at 5PM. So be aware to pack a suit and or an evening dress if you like to eat dinner at the two formal nights. (Room service is available at a cost per item system.)
Breakfast is also an interesting experience. Be prepared to stand in line for your morning coffee where the waiters dish out a carefully measured cup at a time. Once you are in possession of your cup of luke warm and rather bitter java, your next quest will be to find a seat in the overcrowded room. If you get lucky and find an empty chair and you do not have to join the other passengers who had no choice but to eat standing up while balancing their plates on the bar counter, you can get back in line to get the rest of your breakfast.
The food selection and quality at the breakfast and lunch buffet was poor. Most fruit came from a can and was heavily coated in sugary syrup. The desert was a choice of cake A or cake B. I thought it was strange that spaghetti, a stable in the Italian cuisine, was never offered. This cruise was the first trip where I could not look forward to indulge myself in culinary delights. Teatime, which was offered daily, consisted of soggy sandwiches. Dinner was a better experience, where "interesting" regional Italian dishes were served.
The staff seems to notice the discount culture and strict saving measurements surrounding the ship and looks disillusioned and confused.
The daily activity program on board the ship is sharply reduced in quantity and quality compared to other cruise lines. Bring a book or magazine for sea days.
On a positive note, the cabin was spacious and clean, the shows were entertaining, and the ports of call were very interesting. While in St. Petersburg, I went on two organized ship tours: the city tour and Peter and Paul fortress in the morning, and the canal cruise and Yussupov palace in the afternoon. While the afternoon tour was worth every penny, the morning tour could be skipped without noticing the difference.
Also be aware that the Euro 7.00 service charge per day and person is now mandatory. If you enjoyed the service or not, it doesn't matter- you will certainly be billed for it. Would I take a cruise with MSC again? No, grazie. There are many other cruise lines that offer far superior service and amenities for a few bucks more. As an example, last year I was on board the Star Princess, which can be compared to riding in a Rolls Royce as opposed to a Yugo.