We recently took a cruise with MSC Cruises to St Petersburg (Russia). We are a Dutch family with 2 children aged 14 and 17. We booked our cruise very early, in October, at a Dutch company called 'CruiseTravel'. In April we asked them to book excursions, but they refused. By that time I already contacted MSC Cruises the Netherlands a couple of times about these excursions. Because on CruiseCritic I read about sold out shore tours and especially for St. Petersburg we didn't want to take the risk. But after a while we did succeed to pre-book them. This all may appear irrelevant to you, but as first-timers we didn't know there is no need to do so.
To the port We travelled to the port of Amsterdam by train, the passenger terminal is very close to the main station of Amsterdam and car-parking is very very expensive (in front of the terminal is a car park price: 30 Euro/day) so this is the best way coming there. You just have to take the exit at the back of the station and after that it's a 15-minutes-walk, or you just take a taxi at the front-exit.
In the terminal everything was a bit strange. There were two Dutch girls to welcome us, but they didn't speak French and as there was a couple of French ladies before us, they asked us if we could tell them just to go upstairs! After that we had to re-tag our luggage because we should have used other tags! After that MSC 'appeared'. First we had to fill in a health-statement and while we did that someone was trying to sell us drink packages. We told him we would purchase them on board and but he tried to push a bit. Later on there were even more persons selling these things and they all seemed to be really angry when you refused. This made it very clear they did this based on a commission. I think it's a bad thing because this is where service meets commerce, and guest-satisfaction will decrease by these methods. However, the embarkation went very smoothly; it wasn't busy at all so there was no queue and at the desk everything went very quickly. Before we got on board a couple of pictures were taken. From train arrival till our first steps on board not even an hour had passed.