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MSC Cruises is growing a lot, and we were on one of their older, smallest ships. I don't know how the experience would be on their modern megaships. The disadvantage for the MSC Armonia is the age. It doesn't have all the new bells and whistles, and the age is showing if you look carefully (a couple ceiling panels in the theater out of whack, etc). It had two advantages, though: it's small enough to fit in Havana's cruise terminal, which is a holdover from the 50s and can't accommodate larger ships; and it had a "family cabin" that we were able to nab that was 65% larger than most for the same price (you can see the layout here: https://www.cruisemapper.com/cabins/MSC-Armonia-607). The Family Cabin is great if you can snag it, but there are only two of them on the ship. The availability of the cabin (combined with 100% refundability of the deposit and the Cuban overnight) are why we booked this cruise. It was really nice to have a separate room for the kids and for the adults - it felt like a comfortable hotel room, not a cramped ship cabin. The only downsides were that the hideabed sofa showed wear on its cushions, and the shower is _tiny_. Food and Drink: The food was fine. The buffet was acceptable, with gelato available by the pool, and pizza available 24 hours (the pizza is European-style, and I've seen some American reviewers dislike it). The restaurant food was good, but fancier dishes like surf and turf required an upcharge (except for the special menu on Christmas). We didn't do a drinks package, but the cabin level we purchased ("Fantastica") included 12 drink coupons apiece for the 7-day cruise. That was enough for us (especially with some free drinks thanks to the the CruiseCritic connection - see below). The biggest issue is that they were out of some wines and cocktails that were on the menu, but we were able to find alternatives. Passengers: The biggest difference between this and other cruises we've done (Holland America, Carnival, Princess, and Royal Caribbean) is that the clientele was much more international. About 20% of the passengers were Chinese (which may have been a special group because of Christmas), and there were also large contingents from Italy, Brazil, and France (in addition to other languages). So, many announcements were in multiple languages, and the in-cabin TVs showed movies dubbed into other languages in addition to English. A practical effect was that the nightly entertainment de-emphasized words. We didn't have any magicians or comedians - it was all singing, dancing, and acrobatics. The acrobats were really impressive the first night, but they essentially repeated their acts with different costumes and music in the different shows, so it wasn't as impressive by the end of the trip. This sailing was only the 3rd sailing for MSC Armonia based out of Miami (previously based out of Mexico or Cuba). The one American cruise staff member said that she could tell that they were already changing the food to match the American audience instead of the Latin audience they were used to. Another change was adding trivia - that's apparently unique to American passengers. I suspect there will be other changes over time as they get used to the new clientele. Embarkation: Embarkation worked very smoothly for us. Our tickets asked us to arrive at 4:15, but they actually started boarding at 11:30. We split the difference and arrived at around 2:30, and there was barely a line at all. The only quirk was having to fill out an extra form because we were going to Cuba (I'll talk more about that later). But with that filled out, we boarded, and our cabin was immediately ready. Kids: There are kids' programs on board, but our kids have no interest in them. So, besides popping our heads into the room once on the first day and seeing kids dressed up for Christmas at the end of the cruise, we didn't experience it at all. Christmas: Christmas was celebrated on the ship with both a morning Catholic mass and an afternoon Santa party. There were also decorations around the ship and Christmas music playing a lot. The Santa party included a professional video about Santa waking up in the Italian Alps and racing to the ship. It was cute, and I suspect it was shown on a bunch of MSC ships. We could have received a gift of a Lego set, but the kids didn't care enough to wait. Overall, the Christmas theming and feel was stronger on a Holland America Oosterdam Christmas cruise we did two years ago, but it was fine. Special party: We had signed up for the Roll Call (https://www.cruisecritic.com/rollcalls/) in advance, and we learned about the Meet & Mingle (https://www.cruisecritic.com/rollcall/) through that. I advise signing up for that, if you go. The event was on the morning of the first full day of the cruise, which both happened to be a sea day and Christmas. We got some hor d'oeuvres and a couple glasses of champagne/mimosa apiece, and got to meet most of the senior staff. We had a nice chat with Claudio, the Cruise Relations manager, and he sent a bottle of champagne and some chocolate-covered strawberries to our cabin the next day (I think they usually charge $85 for that). I don't know if they do that for everyone from the Meet & Mingle, or if it was special because we talked with him. Either way, it was really nice to get a couple days of free champagne for just the cost of signing up for the Meet & Mingle! Stops: The first stop was supposed to be Montego Bay, Jamaica, but they announced the day before that we were going to Ocho Rios, instead. We didn't care, because we didn't have anything planned for that day. When we got there, we disembarked, walked through the gauntlet of taxi drivers, explored the tourist fake town a bit, and then found another taxi driver to take us to the Blue Hole (a series of waterfalls on the White River with places to play in the water). Everything (taxi drivers and Lonely Planet) said that the entrance fee would be $10, but it was $15 instead - we barely had enough cash on hand for that and for the driver. But it was a fun time there, and a decent exposure to Jamaicans having Boxing Day fun. The next stop was Grand Cayman. We booked an independent Stingray cruise with Captain Marvin's Watersports, and it went really well (and was cheaper than what the ship offered). We had booked a 10:30 outing because we didn't know when the ship would get in, but we were able to tender to the island by 8, and thus switch to the 8:30 trip instead. We really enjoyed meeting and feeding a large ray at the sandbar and then snorkeling at the reef. The third stop was Cozumel, which was the only stop we'd visited on previous cruises. It was also the only stop on which we bought a ship excurion - a trip to the Tulum ruins. We went with the ship on that one because the logistics of getting to Tulum were more complicated (two ferry rides and two bus rides), and we didn't want to risk being independent of the ship's responsibility for that. We were in the first group to leave the ship, the first ferry to the mainland, and the last ferry back to Cozumel - it really was a full day. The excursion itself was pretty good, with information about the Mayans and the site. We had time to use the beach, but the lack of a changing facility and the crowded beach dissuaded us. The only (minor) downside was the attempt by the guide to sell us customized Mayan jewelry. The last stop on the cruise was the main event - Havana. The 28-hour stop there was the original reason we looked at the MSC Armonia. Getting to Cuba is more involved that getting to the other countries. There's a $75/person visa to enter the country. The visa forms were delivered to the cabins, and the fee was charged automatically. If we hadn't wanted to use it, we could have turned the forms in for a refund, but only if the forms were not altered in any way - an accidental pen mark would be a $75 pen mark. And if you messed up the forms at all (by using a date format like 12 25 2000 instead of the Cuban format of 25 12 2000), you've have to pay for a brand new form. When we actually disembarked the first time, it was with the mad rush of hundreds of people, and we had to wait in line for about an hour, get our passports stamped, and then we were able to enter Cuba. Every time after that, we would just say "we've been off the ship before," and they would wave us through without looking at our passport. I'm not saying that you wouldn't necessarily need the visa if you just waited until the initial crush was complete, but it's possible. That was the Cuban side - there was also additional bureaucracy on the American side. Before we arrived, the Cruise Director had a meeting in which he said that he knew we might have heard online (like on these boards) that cruise excursions weren't necessary, but the only way he knew for sure that we wouldn't have problems re-entering the US would be if we bought an excursion from them and showed our ticket stub to US Customs and immigration. Well, we didn't do that. Instead, we bought a 3-hour walking tour of the Old City and a 4-hour driving tour of the rest of the city from havanacar.net (the guide was better with the car than with the walk), and we didn't have that ticket stub. Havanacar recommended that we enter "Support for the Cuban People" on our form at embarkation, so that's what we entered as we boarded, and we never saw the form again. And when we left the ship in Miami, the Customs agent just waved us through when we said we had nothing to declare, and the immigration agent looked at our passport and welcomed us back. So, in practice, there were no US restrictions on us at all. I'm not saying that everyone would have the same experience (we're a white family - maybe that helped; this happened during the partial government shutdown - maybe that had an effect), but we had nothing to worry about. For the visit to Havana itself, we had a great time. Unlike many Caribbean stops, Havana is a real city. It has 2 million people and 500 years of history. There's a lot of real local culture there. We were lucky that our overnight coincided with a free performance by the National Symphonic Orchestra of Cuba in San Francisco Plaza, and we loved watching the Cuban audience sway and dance with the music, even though we didn't know the music ourselves. Havana could easily be a place to visit for a week-long trip later on. Summary: Before we booked the cruise, I saw reviews that warned that we would likely be miserable on the ship, and that definitely wasn't the case. There were definite flaws (deferred superficial maintenance/trouble getting the right wines sometimes/etc), but they were minor in the overall scheme. I would sail with MSC again, and I would do the Armonia again as well. That said, I would go with Holland America instead if they had identical itineraries and prices - HA seems to just have everything pulled together better and is more luxurious. But if the Armonia continues to have the cheapest fares for Havana overnights and also continues to have the family cabins, I'd go for it again without question.

Good value for Cuba cruise, especially in a Family Cabin

MSC Armonia Cruise Review by lmfinney

19 people found this helpful
Trip Details
  • Sail Date: December 2018
  • Destination: Cuba
  • Cabin Type: Oceanview Stateroom – Fantastica
MSC Cruises is growing a lot, and we were on one of their older, smallest ships. I don't know how the experience would be on their modern megaships.

The disadvantage for the MSC Armonia is the age. It doesn't have all the new bells and whistles, and the age is showing if you look carefully (a couple ceiling panels in the theater out of whack, etc). It had two advantages, though: it's small enough to fit in Havana's cruise terminal, which is a holdover from the 50s and can't accommodate larger ships; and it had a "family cabin" that we were able to nab that was 65% larger than most for the same price (you can see the layout here: https://www.cruisemapper.com/cabins/MSC-Armonia-607).

The Family Cabin is great if you can snag it, but there are only two of them on the ship. The availability of the cabin (combined with 100% refundability of the deposit and the Cuban overnight) are why we booked this cruise. It was really nice to have a separate room for the kids and for the adults - it felt like a comfortable hotel room, not a cramped ship cabin. The only downsides were that the hideabed sofa showed wear on its cushions, and the shower is _tiny_.

Food and Drink:

The food was fine. The buffet was acceptable, with gelato available by the pool, and pizza available 24 hours (the pizza is European-style, and I've seen some American reviewers dislike it). The restaurant food was good, but fancier dishes like surf and turf required an upcharge (except for the special menu on Christmas).

We didn't do a drinks package, but the cabin level we purchased ("Fantastica") included 12 drink coupons apiece for the 7-day cruise. That was enough for us (especially with some free drinks thanks to the the CruiseCritic connection - see below). The biggest issue is that they were out of some wines and cocktails that were on the menu, but we were able to find alternatives.

Passengers:

The biggest difference between this and other cruises we've done (Holland America, Carnival, Princess, and Royal Caribbean) is that the clientele was much more international. About 20% of the passengers were Chinese (which may have been a special group because of Christmas), and there were also large contingents from Italy, Brazil, and France (in addition to other languages). So, many announcements were in multiple languages, and the in-cabin TVs showed movies dubbed into other languages in addition to English.

A practical effect was that the nightly entertainment de-emphasized words. We didn't have any magicians or comedians - it was all singing, dancing, and acrobatics. The acrobats were really impressive the first night, but they essentially repeated their acts with different costumes and music in the different shows, so it wasn't as impressive by the end of the trip.

This sailing was only the 3rd sailing for MSC Armonia based out of Miami (previously based out of Mexico or Cuba). The one American cruise staff member said that she could tell that they were already changing the food to match the American audience instead of the Latin audience they were used to. Another change was adding trivia - that's apparently unique to American passengers. I suspect there will be other changes over time as they get used to the new clientele.

Embarkation:

Embarkation worked very smoothly for us. Our tickets asked us to arrive at 4:15, but they actually started boarding at 11:30. We split the difference and arrived at around 2:30, and there was barely a line at all. The only quirk was having to fill out an extra form because we were going to Cuba (I'll talk more about that later). But with that filled out, we boarded, and our cabin was immediately ready.

Kids:

There are kids' programs on board, but our kids have no interest in them. So, besides popping our heads into the room once on the first day and seeing kids dressed up for Christmas at the end of the cruise, we didn't experience it at all.

Christmas:

Christmas was celebrated on the ship with both a morning Catholic mass and an afternoon Santa party. There were also decorations around the ship and Christmas music playing a lot. The Santa party included a professional video about Santa waking up in the Italian Alps and racing to the ship. It was cute, and I suspect it was shown on a bunch of MSC ships. We could have received a gift of a Lego set, but the kids didn't care enough to wait. Overall, the Christmas theming and feel was stronger on a Holland America Oosterdam Christmas cruise we did two years ago, but it was fine.

Special party:

We had signed up for the Roll Call (https://www.cruisecritic.com/rollcalls/) in advance, and we learned about the Meet & Mingle (https://www.cruisecritic.com/rollcall/) through that. I advise signing up for that, if you go. The event was on the morning of the first full day of the cruise, which both happened to be a sea day and Christmas. We got some hor d'oeuvres and a couple glasses of champagne/mimosa apiece, and got to meet most of the senior staff. We had a nice chat with Claudio, the Cruise Relations manager, and he sent a bottle of champagne and some chocolate-covered strawberries to our cabin the next day (I think they usually charge $85 for that). I don't know if they do that for everyone from the Meet & Mingle, or if it was special because we talked with him. Either way, it was really nice to get a couple days of free champagne for just the cost of signing up for the Meet & Mingle!

Stops:

The first stop was supposed to be Montego Bay, Jamaica, but they announced the day before that we were going to Ocho Rios, instead. We didn't care, because we didn't have anything planned for that day. When we got there, we disembarked, walked through the gauntlet of taxi drivers, explored the tourist fake town a bit, and then found another taxi driver to take us to the Blue Hole (a series of waterfalls on the White River with places to play in the water). Everything (taxi drivers and Lonely Planet) said that the entrance fee would be $10, but it was $15 instead - we barely had enough cash on hand for that and for the driver. But it was a fun time there, and a decent exposure to Jamaicans having Boxing Day fun.

The next stop was Grand Cayman. We booked an independent Stingray cruise with Captain Marvin's Watersports, and it went really well (and was cheaper than what the ship offered). We had booked a 10:30 outing because we didn't know when the ship would get in, but we were able to tender to the island by 8, and thus switch to the 8:30 trip instead. We really enjoyed meeting and feeding a large ray at the sandbar and then snorkeling at the reef.

The third stop was Cozumel, which was the only stop we'd visited on previous cruises. It was also the only stop on which we bought a ship excurion - a trip to the Tulum ruins. We went with the ship on that one because the logistics of getting to Tulum were more complicated (two ferry rides and two bus rides), and we didn't want to risk being independent of the ship's responsibility for that. We were in the first group to leave the ship, the first ferry to the mainland, and the last ferry back to Cozumel - it really was a full day. The excursion itself was pretty good, with information about the Mayans and the site. We had time to use the beach, but the lack of a changing facility and the crowded beach dissuaded us. The only (minor) downside was the attempt by the guide to sell us customized Mayan jewelry.

The last stop on the cruise was the main event - Havana. The 28-hour stop there was the original reason we looked at the MSC Armonia.

Getting to Cuba is more involved that getting to the other countries. There's a $75/person visa to enter the country. The visa forms were delivered to the cabins, and the fee was charged automatically. If we hadn't wanted to use it, we could have turned the forms in for a refund, but only if the forms were not altered in any way - an accidental pen mark would be a $75 pen mark. And if you messed up the forms at all (by using a date format like 12 25 2000 instead of the Cuban format of 25 12 2000), you've have to pay for a brand new form. When we actually disembarked the first time, it was with the mad rush of hundreds of people, and we had to wait in line for about an hour, get our passports stamped, and then we were able to enter Cuba. Every time after that, we would just say "we've been off the ship before," and they would wave us through without looking at our passport. I'm not saying that you wouldn't necessarily need the visa if you just waited until the initial crush was complete, but it's possible.

That was the Cuban side - there was also additional bureaucracy on the American side. Before we arrived, the Cruise Director had a meeting in which he said that he knew we might have heard online (like on these boards) that cruise excursions weren't necessary, but the only way he knew for sure that we wouldn't have problems re-entering the US would be if we bought an excursion from them and showed our ticket stub to US Customs and immigration. Well, we didn't do that. Instead, we bought a 3-hour walking tour of the Old City and a 4-hour driving tour of the rest of the city from havanacar.net (the guide was better with the car than with the walk), and we didn't have that ticket stub. Havanacar recommended that we enter "Support for the Cuban People" on our form at embarkation, so that's what we entered as we boarded, and we never saw the form again. And when we left the ship in Miami, the Customs agent just waved us through when we said we had nothing to declare, and the immigration agent looked at our passport and welcomed us back.

So, in practice, there were no US restrictions on us at all. I'm not saying that everyone would have the same experience (we're a white family - maybe that helped; this happened during the partial government shutdown - maybe that had an effect), but we had nothing to worry about.

For the visit to Havana itself, we had a great time. Unlike many Caribbean stops, Havana is a real city. It has 2 million people and 500 years of history. There's a lot of real local culture there. We were lucky that our overnight coincided with a free performance by the National Symphonic Orchestra of Cuba in San Francisco Plaza, and we loved watching the Cuban audience sway and dance with the music, even though we didn't know the music ourselves. Havana could easily be a place to visit for a week-long trip later on.

Summary:

Before we booked the cruise, I saw reviews that warned that we would likely be miserable on the ship, and that definitely wasn't the case. There were definite flaws (deferred superficial maintenance/trouble getting the right wines sometimes/etc), but they were minor in the overall scheme.

I would sail with MSC again, and I would do the Armonia again as well. That said, I would go with Holland America instead if they had identical itineraries and prices - HA seems to just have everything pulled together better and is more luxurious. But if the Armonia continues to have the cheapest fares for Havana overnights and also continues to have the family cabins, I'd go for it again without question.
lmfinney’s Full Rating Summary
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Cabin Review

Oceanview Stateroom – Fantastica
Cabin O2 9006
Cabins 9003 and 9006 are special Family Cabins, and we were fortunate to grab one. These cabins are really two-room suites, but they are priced the same as other Oceanview staterooms.

In addition to the typical space for an Oceanview, there is a separate adjoining room that's about 65% the size of the original room (you can see the layout here: https://www.cruisemapper.com/cabins/MSC-Armonia-607). The second room is essentially the same size as the original room, minus the bathroom. Both rooms have a window (one out the side, and the other with an obstructed view out the front), and both rooms have closets.

The main room has a hide-a-bed sofa, and the second room has two twin beds (mergable into a queen) and a bunk bed. We chose to have the parents in the sofa, and the kids in the twin beds in the second room. The sofa bed wasn't as comfortable for the adults as the queen bed would have been, but we chose this option for privacy.

We talked to the head of Customer Relations at the Meet & Mingle Party (https://www.cruisecritic.com/rollcall/), and he said that they used to market these cabins as special inside suites, but passengers complained about the lack of a balcony. So, now they are just marketed and priced as Oceanviews. They are so much more than a typical cabin, though.

The only downside for the cabin is that the shower is _tiny_, but that would be true of any cabin (oh, and the hideabed sofa needs new cushions).

Grab one of these if you can. The availability (combined with 100% initial refundability of the deposit) is why we signed up.
Tormalina Deck Inside Cabins, Outside Cabins, Balcony Cabins, Suite Cabins

Port & Shore Excursion Reviews

  • Tulum
    which was the only stop we'd visited on previous cruises. It was also the only stop on which we bought a ship excurion - a trip to the Tulum ruins. We went with the ship on that one because the logistics of getting to Tulum were more complicated (two ferry rides and two bus rides), and we didn't want to risk being independent of the ship's responsibility for that. We were in the first group to leave the ship, the first ferry to the mainland, and the last ferry back to Cozumel - it really was a full day. The excursion itself was pretty good, with information about the Mayans and the site. We had time to use the beach, but the lack of a changing facility and the crowded beach dissuaded us. The only (minor) downside was the attempt by the guide to sell us customized Mayan jewelry.
    View All 124 Tulum Reviews
  • Stingray Swim
    We booked an independent Stingray cruise with Captain Marvin's Watersports, and it went really well (and was cheaper than what the ship offered). We had booked a 10:30 outing because we didn't know when the ship would get in, but we were able to tender to the island by 8, and thus switch to the 8:30 trip instead. We really enjoyed meeting and feeding a large ray at the sandbar and then snorkeling at the reef.
    View All 734 Stingray Swim Reviews
  • City Tour
    Getting to Cuba is more involved that getting to the other countries. There's a $75/person visa to enter the country. The visa forms were delivered to the cabins, and the fee was charged automatically. If we hadn't wanted to use it, we could have turned the forms in for a refund, but only if the forms were not altered in any way - an accidental pen mark would be a $75 pen mark. And if you messed up the forms at all (by using a date format like 12 25 2000 instead of the Cuban format of 25 12 2000), you've have to pay for a brand new form. When we actually disembarked the first time, it was with the mad rush of hundreds of people, and we had to wait in line for about an hour, get our passports stamped, and then we were able to enter Cuba. Every time after that, we would just say "we've been off the ship before," and they would wave us through without looking at our passport. I'm not saying that you wouldn't necessarily need the visa if you just waited until the initial crush was complete, but it's possible.

    That was the Cuban side - there was also additional bureaucracy on the American side. Before we arrived, the Cruise Director had a meeting in which he said that he knew we might have heard online (like on these boards) that cruise excursions weren't necessary, but the only way he knew for sure that we wouldn't have problems re-entering the US would be if we bought an excursion from them and showed our ticket stub to US Customs and immigration. Well, we didn't do that. Instead, we bought a 3-hour walking tour of the Old City and a 4-hour driving tour of the rest of the city from havanacar.net (the guide was better with the car than with the walk), and we didn't have that ticket stub. Havanacar recommended that we enter "Support for the Cuban People" on our form at embarkation, so that's what we entered as we boarded, and we never saw the form again. And when we left the ship in Miami, the Customs agent just waved us through when we said we had nothing to declare, and the immigration agent looked at our passport and welcomed us back.

    So, in practice, there were no US restrictions on us at all. I'm not saying that everyone would have the same experience (we're a white family - maybe that helped; this happened during the partial government shutdown - maybe that had an effect), but we had nothing to worry about.

    For the visit to Havana itself, we had a great time. Unlike many Caribbean stops, Havana is a real city. It has 2 million people and 500 years of history. There's a lot of real local culture there. We were lucky that our overnight coincided with a free performance by the National Symphonic Orchestra of Cuba in San Francisco Plaza, and we loved watching the Cuban audience sway and dance with the music, even though we didn't know the music ourselves. Havana could easily be a place to visit for a week-long trip later on.
    View All 212 City Tour Reviews
  • Irie Blue Hole
    The first stop was supposed to be Montego Bay, Jamaica, but they announced the day before that we were going to Ocho Rios, instead. We didn't care, because we didn't have anything planned for that day. When we got there, we disembarked, walked through the gauntlet of taxi drivers, explored the tourist fake town a bit, and then found another taxi driver to take us to the Blue Hole (a series of waterfalls on the White River with places to play in the water). Everything (taxi drivers and Lonely Planet) said that the entrance fee would be $10, but it was $15 instead - we barely had enough cash on hand for that and for the driver. But it was a fun time there, and a decent exposure to Jamaicans having Boxing Day fun.
    View All 47 Irie Blue Hole Reviews