This was our family's second cruise, the other being on NCL Jewel. We have traveled quite a bit outside of cruising. I have no bias for or against any specific line. When we booked we were looking for a Christmas cruise vacation which would give us at least 9+ nights and good value.After seeing the kids sail free promotion, MSC fit our itinerary and budget. We booked the b2b and sailed Dec 16-30th. We are a family of 5 and my husband's family joined us on this cruise - 10 in total. We had 3 superior balcony rooms on deck 11. It wasn't until after we booked that I read the predominantly negative reviews. It made me quite fearful, but we decided to approach the trip with an attitude of gratitude for the opportunity to travel at Christmas, see new places and be somewhere warm.
We flew into Ft. Lauderdale 2 days before the cruise and stayed at the Renaissance. It was a convenient location and okay as far as accommodations. The rooms definitely need updating, though the lobby is nice. The fitness centre is way too small. The best part is the concierge room which gave us breakfast,and snacks in the evening. It was a nice place for the family to just sit and visit.
Embarkation: We took the hotel shuttle at $5 per person, maybe a 5 minute drive. We arrived around 11:45 and found embarkation very well organized and easy to navigate. I would say it took us an hour from parking lot to room. When we boarded we appreciated that there were people greeting us and someone to escort us directly to our room. She also took us to get our daughter's life jacket and kid's club information.
Ship: Overall, we thought it was a lovely ship. It was decorated for Christmas, there was Christmas music playing and the overall upkeep and cleanliness was very good. We were in room 11175 with 4 people. The upper berth was good but with the couch pulled out in the evening it was near impossible to get to the balcony or desk drawers, Storage I thought was a little less than the Jewel, but the bathroom storage was better. Our biggest complaint about the room, which is one of our only complaints, is the bedding. Good grief is it bad. The sheets and blankets are just terrible quality (no duvet) and the "pillow" is the worst I've ever encountered at any hotel (it's small chunks of foam). This would be an easy fix for MSC. The bathroom shower is gross with the tile grout being nasty and the shower curtain always sticking to you. We also had a t-shirt ruined because they use bleach to clean and we were drying a shirt on the clothes line and it fell, causing a bleach stain. Not a huge deal, but worth noting not to dry clothes on the line. The balcony size was good and the chairs were nice. We liked the location of the room and it's ease of access to other decks. We have a "no elevator rule" just to get a bit extra exercise.
Smoking: This is a problem for nonsmokers. MSC accommodates smokers unlike most places or businesses in North America. There are spots on the ship including the port side of the pool deck, and a few of the lounges which are really overrun with the smell of smoke. We tried to go to the logo shop but it was off a lounge which allowed smoking and we had to leave. This was a big negative for us.
Fitness Centre / Spa - We used the fitness centre every day. It could be a very busy place. Typically I went when it opened (6am). If you were there early or at an off time, it was fine. The atmosphere is lovely at the front of the ship. Being on the treadmill and sailing into a port when the sun was coming up was definitely a highlight for me. The selection of machines is okay, but there aren't enough to meet demand. There were only 6 treadmills and 2 of them broke part way through our first leg and they weren't ever fixed. This caused a lot of problems, particularly when people decided the 20 minute maximum didn't apply to them. What is with people who think rules are for everyone else but not them? I never used the spa services but they offered good sales on port days and toward the end of each week.
Service: Outstanding. We have no complaints. We loved our waiter, Suweda, and his assistant. He went above and beyond for us. Being on the b2b we were so glad to remain at the same table all 14 nights. Each night he did a trick for the kids or taught them how to fold an animal napkin. They were attentive for water and wine and automatically brought me decaf after dinner and my husband "leaded".We learned a lot about our servers by talking to them and being friendly. Our waiter has a 3 month old daughter he's never met! They work early in the morning until late at night with few breaks. We really appreciated how hard they worked to make each evening special.
Beyond the MDR, almost every employee we met was friendly and helpful. Our room steward, Roberto, was awesome. We loved his service, smile and eagerness to help. Sometimes there were language barriers but for the most part, every person was eager to smile, say Merry Christmas, and engage in conversations. They really like to share about where they are from and their families. Yes, we saw customers treating the staff like garbage. It was terrible. We tipped both our waiters and our room steward substantial amounts because they were excellent, they deserved it and we wanted to be generous at Christmas.Hearing announcements in 5 languages didn't bother us at all - frankly it`s amazing to see people so fluent in many languages.
Food: It was fine. There were some very good dishes and some okay and a few that weren't very good. If we did send something back, or just didn't eat it, our server was always good to ask how he could remedy the situation. The Christmas eve dinner was really nice and included free champagne (as did the Captain`s dinners) The formal nights were more formal than NCL and you saw a number of men in tuxedos. It was really nice.There were more casual nights in the MDR than I expected. The buffet was a little chaotic. The best advice is to use the back area, it`s much quieter. The worst time to eat is lunch so we usually skipped it and had a slice of pizza later. We also really liked the `tea time`offerings of sandwiches and scones or cookies. There is always something available.
Animation team: Loved this team. They made ship life really fun. We took part in pool side games & contests & line dancing. A couple of us won stuff in silly contests. We went to a Christmas night game that was hilarious. They also offer a stretching and aerobics class pool side every morning which was very good (and popular). We did it a couple of times after being in the fitness centre and it was a great way to start the day.Join in the fun with the entertainment team, they are a blast.
Entertainment: We saw all of the shows the first week. We thought the overall talent was very good and the shows were entertaining. The music throughout the ship was often very nice too.
Key West: We walked around, bought a skim board at Ron Jon's for the kids to use at our subsequent beach days and also had a lot of fun sampling hot sauces at Peppers of Key West.
Cozumel; Granddad & DD went on the ship's dolphin swim & ride. According to my DD it was "the best day of her life". It was also a good value. The rest of us went to Paradise Beach. The kids loved the water toys. It's an excellent facility and I'd go back anytime.
Roatan: We hired a private tour (Jonathan from Rony's). Wow wow wow. We loved Jonathan. He was our guide but we also had a driver. I hadn't realized how much service we would get.He arranged every detail of the day, gave us great information on the island, and accompanied us everywhere, including sitting with my daughter while her hair was braided at the beach.He even went into two stores with my husband and 16 year old to try to find black pants for my son when he found out I`d left them at home. I can`t say enough about his service! We did the extreme zip line adventure at Pirates of the Caribbean (fantastic), did a grocery stop, did some shopping, & did a beach stop for lunch and swimming & got my DD hair braided. There were a lot of vendors but when you said no, they were respectful. We were at Bananarama and there was only one ship in port and it was busy - I wouldn't want to go if there were more ships.
Montego Bay: We booked through Jamaica for a day and did the Sunset Beach resort.
St. Thomas: We went to Emerald Beach and had a wonderful time. Though there`s no water toys, it`s beautiful and quiet. We heard later that the more popular beaches were packed. Ours was really quiet. We were in front of the Best Western but they wanted $10 for a chair so we moved down and bought a bucket of beer from the next place and they gave us a discount on the chair. Lunch was fine. After the beach we took our stuff back to the ship, changed then walked around the shopping area. It`s a bit of a hike and frankly unless you want jewelery, I wouldn't bother. I`d stay at the beach a bit longer.
San Juan: Loved this port. We did our own walking tour of the fort and explored the old town. We did some shopping and had a fantastic lunch at a restaurant that I can`t remember the name, but it`s the original home of the pina colada.
Nassau: We had intended to go to the British Colonial Hilton, but when we got there, they wouldn't sell us day passes because the hotel was too full. So, we just walked up to the public beach (Junkaroo). This was the worst beach we``d been to. It`s dirty, the scenery isn't appealing and there was a lot of glass in the sand. The only interesting thing was watching ships come into port and do u-turns and back in. That was cool. If we went back to this stop, we`d find a much better beach. As it turns out the weather was cool that day so we just shopped a bit before heading back to the ship.
B2B info - MSC does this very well. We got to keep the same cabin, cards, table assignment. If you are on the next sailing you meet in a lounge and wait for a little bit then they escort you off the ship as a group and essentially turn right around and walk you back on. Painless and easy. On the turnaround day we had the pool deck almost all to ourselves and only my kids were in the pool for about an hour - it was glorious.
Drink packages: Very good prices and value. We bought a soda (learned after you can bring soda on board), a beer package and the premium wine package. Okay, here was a problem - we paid $51 more for the premium package than did my in-laws for the regular wine package. Guess what: same wine. We got ripped off big time. There was no difference in the lists. We asked 4 people. I let it go, but it was a lot of money wasted. On board we bought 3 peter pan packages - one for each kid and that let them get nonalcoholic drinks when they wanted. We also bought a cocktail package 12 for the price of 10. You do pay 15% tip on the package if you buy it on board.
Kids: This is only my opinion and experience. If MSC offers kid`s sail free, they are promoting themselves as a family friendly cruise line. They were, in general, very accommodating and accepting and wonderful with our kids. But, the spaces designed for the kids and the kid`s program itself are not up to where it could be. It`s particularly bad for 13-17. All they were offered is to play Wii for one hour during our dinner seating and dancing at 10:30 at night. Seriously, dancing at 10:30. So, my DD only went a couple of times because it was pretty lame. The room for the 7-12 year olds is really small. MSC really needs to rethink how they approach kid`s programs. I will say, they did a nice job of the Christmas day activity. It wasn't there fault that some parents wouldn`t line up appropriately. Each child did get their own gift from a really amusing looking Santa.
Random: Christmas - I emailed the company ahead of the trip to ask about the availability of Christmas church services. Unfortunately they only offered Catholic Mass. Based in the US, it would have been appropriate and welcome, as we talked to others who agreed, to offer a Protestant service for Christmas.
Also, before we went I kept reading that the ship didn't change it`s clocks in ports - they do. We had a couple of time changes. And Yes, some of the times in port are very short.
Tipping - Our family of 5 for 14 nights paid $588 in auto charges and we tipped substantially extra on top of that and thought it was appropriate and deserved. We heard and saw a lot of people getting their auto daily tips taken off.I think it`s disgraceful and punishes people who are working incredibly hard.
Overall: I thought MSC exceeded our expectations, particularly because of the negative reviews we read before going. We had a 14 night holiday cruise vacation at a price which couldn't be touched on any other line. We had a lot of fun, met wonderful people, saw some beautiful places and enjoyed really nice weather and beaches. It was a wonderful family Christmas vacation.