In 2016, I had taken my family on our first MSC cruise aboard the MSC Divina out of Miami. At the time, I couldn’t pass up MSC’s deep discounts, kids sail free promotion, and loyalty match program. We sailed for 7 nights to the Eastern Caribbean for less than what a weekend booze cruise to the Bahamas would’ve cost. That cruise was enjoyable, but it failed to excel or impress. It was marred with glitches, snafus, and unmet expectations. I thought of it as a budget experience which needed a lot of polishing aboard a pretty ship. My wife hated it so much that she said that she didn’t want to sail on this cruise line again. So I told myself that most likely, I wouldn’t be choosing MSC for subsequent cruises.
But about a year later, I was browsing cruises for Thanksgiving 2018 and I came across a 7 night Mediterranean cruise aboard MSC’s brand new Meraviglia. What really caught my attention was not the ship or the itinerary, but an Aurea Duplex Suite, similar to Crown Loft Suites on Royal Caribbean’s Oasis class ships. And what caught my attention even more was the fact that I could book an Aurea Duplex Suite for one fourth the price of a Crown Loft Suite. I’d been wanting to experience this type of accommodation ever since they were introduced on Oasis! So on a whim, I booked the only Aurea Duplex Suite available, not even knowing if I could get my wife to agree to take this trip. But she said yes, and we stuck to the plan. A year and 4 months later, the day finally came to fly across the pond to sail on the MSC Meraviglia!
We are a young family of 4, which includes a 9 year old boy and a 6 year old girl. As the date approached, I questioned my sanity several times, and why I’d decided to take this trip. Don’t American families with kids this age normally take vacations to Disney, not to 5 European countries in 10 days?? I knew that I needed to make this trip as kid friendly (and wife friendly) as possible. So I did a lot of research, in order to accomplish this goal. From flights, to excursions, to onboard experience, everything was meticulously planned. And without giving too much away, I’m glad to say that it was worth it!
FLIGHTS, TRANSFERS, HOTEL, AND ROME
Another reason to select this itinerary was the fact that we could fly nonstop from Atlanta (where we live) to Rome, which was highly desirable, specially traveling with small children. Two of us were upgraded complimentarily to Delta One (with lay flat seats) so I gave one seat to my wife and then the the kids took turns and each enjoyed the second seat for half of the flight. I “enjoyed” my economy seat on row 25! But even in economy, Delta truly excels. Hot towels, small amenity package with eye shades, earplugs, and headphones, tasty and plentiful food selections, and extensive entertainment options. 9 hours and 5 minutes later, we landed at Rome’s Fiumicino Airport. Everyone’s behavior truly exceeded my expectations. Kids were very well behaved and relaxed, both going and returning.
In an effort to keep things simple for the family, I pre-booked all of our ground transfers. I used Stefano’s Rome Cabs, which was highly ranked on Trip Advisor. They did not disappoint! We prepaid for all of our transfers in (via PayPal) which simplified things further. Their YouTube videos on how to locate our driver were extremely helpful! Great, friendly, and very helpful drivers. I wouldn’t hesitate to use their services again.
We planned on spending two nights in Rome pre-cruise. I had decided to book a hotel near the Vatican, since this was the main attraction in our land itinerary. We chose Starhotels Michelangelo, literally within a 5-10 minute easy stroll to St Peter’s Square. I’d read that the area where this hotel is located is not in a very touristy part of town, and that it’s not too convenient to other attractions in Rome. But for our needs, it was absolutely perfect! The hotel is modern, the staff was very attentive, and our room was nicely and tastefully appointed. It is located in a decidedly not touristy area (more residential). Our room faced an apartment building. Several restaurants and small shops, mostly frequented by locals, were only a block away. It was nice to have a little haven where to escape the mob of tourists. Eating where the locals ate not only was a highlight of our stay, but it was also easier on my pocket.
In Rome, I booked “Skip the Line” Access to St Pete’s Basilica (money extremely well spent since the regular line snaked like a line for a new ride at Disney). We then took a taxi to the Trevi Fountain, did some shopping in that area, and visited the Colosseum.
TRANSFER TO CIVITAVECCHIA AND BOARDING THE SHIP
We enjoyed our morning in Rome. We returned to St. Peter’s Square for the Angelus with the Pope. Once again, our hotel’s location proved to be ideal. We entered St. Peter’s Square using a side entrance where the line was much shorter. Watching the Pope and listening to the Angelus was a definite highlight of this vacation, specially since the last time I had been to such an event had been 30 years prior when I was a child, and when St. John Paul II was the Pope.
We then returned to our hotel for our transfer to Civitavecchia. Our RomeCabs driver was already waiting for us! We were promptly driven to Civitavecchia, one hour away. We were dropped off right in front of the terminal around 2:00pm. Our driver told us where to meet our driver upon our return and bid us farewell.
I must say that I was a bit surprised at the facilities, which were basically an oversized temporary tent-like terminal. There was a line for passengers dropping off their luggage but we decided to skip that line since we were traveling with carry-ons only. We later learned that this was a mistake. We passed the security checkpoint and entered the check-in area. The smallish waiting area was pretty packed and they were calling group 22 to proceed to the check-in line.
Since we had the Aurea Experience, I inquired about the priority line. The agent asked me for my Aurea priority boarding card and when I said that I didn’t have one, he said that I had to go back outside and get it from the luggage drop off checkpoint which we had skipped. I showed him my paperwork clearly stating that we were Aurea passengers, hoping that he would allow me to proceed to priority check in without the card but he wouldn’t budge. So I went back outside, got the card, and returned. I handed the card to the same agent which now smilingly allowed us to proceed. I found the inability to think outside the box a bit off-putting and the extra hassle unnecessary, but I understand that he was probably trying to strictly follow rules that he’d been told to enforce. In the grand scheme of things, it was just a small blip in an otherwise easy check in process.
We proceeded to the next available check-in agent who quickly scanned our paperwork and gave us our key cards and wrist bands. These wrist bands could be used in lieu of key cards to open the cabin door and to charge things around the ship, but it couldn’t be used to embark or disembark at ports of call. Still a pretty nifty idea. We had our welcome aboard photo taken and we quickly proceeded onboard the ship. As we entered, our paperwork was once again scanned, our security photos were taken, and then we proceeded to the next desk which was for the kids club wristband for our children. We continued walking and were met by another agent who had a handheld device. She warmly welcomed us onboard, swiped our cards, and told us that our stateroom was ready and that we could proceed to it. She also informed us that lunch was being served at the buffet marketplace. In reality, this was another stop to try to “upsell” us to a drinking or specialty restaurant package, but since we already had a drink package included with the Aurea experience, she skipped that part of her speech. We then proceeded to a self-help kiosk to set up our onboard account. Quick and painless.
Because passengers embark and disembark at the various ports of call, smaller groups of passengers are checking in each day. I found this to be a welcome change. The general feel of organized chaos normally associated with embarkation days when an entire passenger compliment is being disembarked and embarked, and hordes of passengers are rushing to the buffet for their first lunch onboard, was greatly diminished. The ship never felt packed. In fact, on embarkation day, the ship felt quiet and uncrowded, most likely because most in-transit passengers were off the ship and touring Rome when we embarked.
This was the moment that I had been waiting for since I had booked the cruise 1 year and 4 months ago. Would this Aurea Duplex Suite be everything that I had hoped for? In a nutshell, it was! It was an amazing 2 deck loft suite, and the only thing that I regret about booking it is that we are now spoiled for life! Two bathrooms, two walk in closets, one that doubles as a dressing room, separate sleeping quarters in separate floors, dining area, Nespresso machine, and a large, forward facing balcony with loungers and our own jacuzzi tub! The views from the loft were breathtaking. We truly couldn’t have asked for better accommodations!
One drawback about the suite’s design is that it doesn’t have an open balcony. Since it faces forward, there’s a large glass wall to block the oncoming wind, but it also limits the ability to enjoy the ocean breeze, and it also limits the views left and right. Still, it was an absolutely fantastic place to watch the scenery, specially going in and out of port. Just be aware of this hindrance, specially if you’re someone who enjoys taking photos from your balcony like I do.
Although this suite was truly the definition of luxury, I believe that it would’ve been better suited as part of the Yacht Club, not the Aurea Experience. The service and perks didn’t quite match a suite of this caliber. Toiletries consisted of a wall mounted shampoo and body wash dispenser, which made the suite feel just a bit less luxurious. Room service (except for continental breakfast) incurred an extra charge, and the items in the mini fridge also incurred an extra charge unless we paid extra to upgrade our included drink package. Yes, it came with perks like the mentioned drink package, access to the thermal suite at the spa, access to a private Aurea passenger deck, and complimentary massages, but our cabin steward seemed unfamiliar with features specific to this suite. For example, he failed to replenish the Nespresso pods, or provide new coffee mugs, and one day he removed our used bathrobes but never replaced them.
But once again, I had to remind myself that we had literally paid a fraction of what a similarly appointed Crown Loft Suite on Royal Caribbean would’ve cost. Those do come with a butler, a long list of suite specific perks, and are located in a private, exclusive section of the ship, but they would’ve cost $16,000 thousand dollars. In retrospect, I was grateful that MSC provided a way to experience a suite of this caliber but without the overinflated price tag, even if it didn’t come with all the perks on Royal’s Crown Loft Suites.
WOW! is all I can say. My wife and I both agreed that we hadn’t been this wowed about a new ship since we’d sailed on the Allure of the Seas during her inaugural season. Everywhere we went on the ship, we were wowed by something. It’s indeed a beautiful, well appointed, and a huge ship. It never felt crowded. In fact, during the day while the ship is in port, the ship feels blissfully uncrowded and quiet. At night, the main promenade would get crowded, but that added to the excitement of this area, which is the heart of the ship.
Electronic signage can be found near most elevators, which were helpful in determining daily activities, how to get from here to there, and to make reservations for shows and other things. Technology is used for other things, like to electronically locate photos taken by the ship’s photographer which was much better than browsing walls filled with hundreds of photos, like on older, less technologically advanced ships.
Entertainment on this ship is much more elaborate. The water park was absolutely fantastic. The water slides are fast, specially the one that lands you in a bowl. And even though the air temperature hovered in the 50F’s-60F’s, the water was heated which meant that we could comfortably use the outdoor pools and slides.
We purchased a Fun Pass for 70 Euros which gave us an additional 30 Euros. We used them for the flight and roller coaster simulators, the 4D cinema (which is more advanced and realistic than the one on the Divina), and for a night of bowling. Overall, great fun for the whole family.
Cirque du Soleil at Sea truly helped take the onboard entertainment to another level as well. The Carousel Lounge is the purposely built theater for the Cirque shows onboard. There are two exclusive shows; Sonor and Viaggio. Initially, we had booked both shows, but halfway through the week, they had technical difficulties, which required Cirque engineers to be flown in to fix the problem. As a consequence, shows were canceled 2 nights in a row, including our Sonor performance. Luckily we were able to attend Viaggio towards the end of the week, although we were assigned to the absolute worst seats in the house (back row against the wall, in a corner, so we had a sideways and slightly obstructed view which took away from our enjoyment). Still, it was a great show, with all the elements and special effects of Cirque shows on land. It is a shorter, somewhat watered down version of land shows, but still well worth the 15 Euro admission.
Main theater shows were a bit lackluster. The Broadway Theater is a wonderful venue, with unobstructed views and great acoustics, but the performances felt a notch below what we had experienced on the Divina. Scenography is not as elaborate or awe inspiring, and it’s compromised of mostly LED screens. Shows were mostly a tribute to “something”, like rock bands, musicals, etc, which felt less original than the shows that we’d seen on the Divina which had a more unique feel and theming. Singers and dancers were talented, but not more talented than what you’d expect for cruise ship entertainment. Still, we attended three shows: Paz, Born to Rock, and One More Day. All were about 40 minutes long.
We had access to the Thermal Suite as part of the Aurea Experience. I somewhat liked the setup on the Divina more, with a relaxation room facing floor to ceiling glass windows overlooking the ocean. On the Meraviglia, the thermal suite is fully enclosed with no windows, which made it feel a bit claustrophobic in my humble opinion. It is bigger, with more features, but it also seemed to be more crowded. They do have a thalassotherapy pool which I missed on the Divina. Maybe one of the reasons why the thermal suite on the Meraviglia felt more crowded than on the Divina was because it’s a fully coed facility, which provides a more inviting environment for couples. On the Divina, several facilities are gender specific, which forces couples to split up and spend less time using the facilities. We spent more time at the Thermal Suite on the Meraviglia than on the Divina, but there were times when we couldn’t use some facilities because they were so full.
FOOD AND DRINKS
Overall, I feel that cuisine has improved since we sailed on MSC back in 2016. There seemed to be a wider and tastier selection, both at the main dining room and at the buffet. On the Divina it felt as if we ate a lot of pizza because we just couldn’t find more appealing options. That wasn’t the case on the Meraviglia. We enjoyed most of what we ate, although things started to feel a bit repetitive as the week progressed. For the record, we did enjoy the pizza several times, but not because there wasn’t anything else to eat.
This ship does have plenty of other places to eat, but not for free. I feel that MSC has taken the “extra fee” concept a bit to the extreme. While it’s still possible to enjoy complimentary venues in addition to the main dining room and buffet on other cruise lines, on the Meraviglia we were pretty much limited to only two complimentary venues. I normally like to enjoy a night at a specialty restaurant when I cruise, but on the Meraviglia it seemed as if these venues carried a heftier fee than on other cruise lines. The one way to make the per restaurant cost more palatable was to purchase a 3 specialty restaurant package, but for someone like me who just wanted to select one specialty restaurant, these packages were not really useful and I saw them more as a way to force me to pay for something that I normally wouldn’t have purchased, so I skipped the whole concept completely on this sailing.
As part of the Aurea Experience, we had a drink package included. A week before our sailing, MSC decided to “downgrade” the drink package included to the “Easy Package” (meaning cheaper, more limited). However, we were grandfathered to our original package since we’d booked before the announced change. Still, there was some confusion at the beginning of the sailing. The first bartender that I spoke to told me that I had the Easy Package, but another bartender quickly corrected him and proceeded to inform me of what I was entitled to. This included all cocktails costing less than 10 Euros, draft beers, select wines by the glass, sodas, bottled water, specialty coffees, juices, and mock cocktails. One thing that was a bit of a head scratcher is that bottled water and sodas were free, but if we grabbed the same exact item from the mini fridge in the cabin, we’d get charged for those items. I just learned to grab these items from the bars around the ship free of charge and bring them back to our cabin. Overall, we calculated that having a drink package included in the Aurea Experience saved us about $500.
ITINERARY AND PORTS OF CALL
First of all, our arrival and departure times at pretty much every port of call was altered from what was printed on our embarkation papers and which we had used to book activities ashore. We would learn the night before arriving at each port of call that our arrival time would be an hour later, and/or our departure time would be an hour earlier. This proved to be a nuisance because we had booked activities with a scheduled admission time based on the itinerary the way that it had been published in advance. We had to unnecessarily rush to make our admission times several times.
Because we were traveling with 6 and 9 year old children, I ditched expensive shore excursions, conducted some research, and selected kid friendly activities ashore. Here’s what we did at each port:
- Palermo: We booked a Hop-On Hop-Off Bus tour. In all fairness, Palermo isn’t the prettiest city, but there are some interesting landmarks and sights throughout. This tour was a good way to see these sights in a kid friendly way.
- Valletta: One of my favorite ports of call in this itinerary. We took the ferry across the bay to The Three Cities and booked a self guided tour through Rolling Geeks. These are golf carts which provide turn by turn directions and audio commentary of what you’re seeing. If you make the wrong turn, you receive a call in your cart from their head office and they tell you how to get back on track, A really neat way to see the beautiful cities of Cospicua, Senglea, and Vittoriosa.
- Barcelona: We pre-booked admission to La Sagrada Familia and the Camp Nou Experience, home of the FC Barcelona. We moved easily around town by taxi. We had planned on spending a bit of time along Las Ramblas, but my 9 year old lost his embarkation card which he had been wearing on a lanyard (I know, bad parenting choice), and he started freaking out about being left behind in Barcelona. Even though we knew that he wouldn’t be left behind, we decided to return to the ship a bit earlier than planned because we didn’t know how long it would take to get him a new card and board the ship. The process was fairly quick and simple. The agent at the entrance to the terminal had a printed copy of the passenger manifest. She quickly verified that he was indeed on the list and then proceeded to ask for his passport to verify his identity before allowing him to proceed onboard. Thankfully I did have his passport with me, so I showed it, and we proceeded to the ship. As we boarded the ship, the security officer asked for our cabin number and with that, he pulled up his embarkation photo on the computer. From there we proceeded to the information desk where new cards (for the whole family) had to be issued for security reasons.
Moral of the story is that, even though many savvy cruisers recommend leaving passports in the safe on the ship when going ashore, having our passports with us allowed me to expedite and quickly resolve this hiccup in our travel plans. The MSC security officer also recommended to always take passports ashore, not only for what happened to us, but for a myriad of other things that could arise.
- Marseille: We had planned on taking it easy in Marseille, head to the city center, explore the Cathedral, walk around the Vieux Port, have lunch, and return to the ship. MSC left vouchers in our room the night before offering bus transportation from the cruise terminal to the city center. If we chose to use them, our shipboard account would be charged 9 Euros per person. We decided to ditch those and take advantage of the complimentary bus provided by the city. Finding the bus was easy enough. All we had to do was follow the green line painted on the sidewalk. This would’ve been a great idea if it hadn’t been cold and rainy, if there hadn’t been three other ships in port, meaning hundreds of other passengers with the same idea, and if we didn’t have to walk 1 kilometer from the cruise terminal to the bus stop at the entrance of this industrial port. We then had to wait 40 minutes in line until we were able to get on a bus. Needless to say, we took a taxi back once we decided to return to the ship. But once we got to the city center we truly enjoyed the sights. The Cathedral was beautiful, Vieux Port was charming, and we enjoyed our lunch. Since it was raining and cold, we couldn’t enjoy sitting out on the patio as we had planned, but we still enjoyed our time.
Once again, we chose to return to the ship early, first because MSC had posted an unusually early “all aboard time”, and second because we noticed an unusually large police presence as we walked along the Vieux Port. We asked a local person if that was normal and he said no, and that the police were there because of the ongoing riots throughout France concerning the escalating fuel prices. He recommended that we return to the ship soon because many roads were being blocked by protesters. Sure enough, our taxi driver had to take several detours to get us back to the ship since roads had indeed been blocked. He would stop and wave down another passing taxi and ask which way they’d gone back to the terminal, and then he’d take another detour. We finally made it back to our ship, but the uncertainty got our hearts pounding a bit.
Genoa: Our last port of call. Because we were getting off the ship early the next day, I wanted to keep things simple so that we could return to the ship, pack, and get a good night rest before our return trip home. We went to the Acquario di Genova, located near the cruise terminal. It would’ve been a fairly easy 20 minute walk, but we decided to take a taxi. 15 Euros flat fee. The aquarium is a bit old, but it’s comprehensive and extensive. It is considered the largest aquarium in Europe. It was what the kids needed after a long week of sightseeing. We returned to the ship early, packed our bags, and enjoyed an afternoon of family activities on the ship, bowling and 4D cinema.
As mentioned before, our arrival and departure times at each port of call kept getting changed which was annoying, but nothing proved to be truly nerve wrecking until they changed our return time to Civitavecchia. When I booked this cruise and flights, the itinerary showed a 7:00am arrival so a 12:30pm return flight seemed reasonable. About 6 months before the cruise, the airline changed our departure time to 11:25am which gave me reason to consider changing the flights, even if we couldn’t fly nonstop back to Atlanta. After asking on these forums, I was reassured that I’d still have enough time to make our flight as long as there were no further changes or delays. Well, the day before our return to Civitavecchia, MSC posted a delayed 8:00am arrival time, and to make things tighter, I learned when I checked in for our flight that Delta had posted an early departure of 11:15am. Now I barely had 3 hours to disembark, gather our luggage, drive 45 minutes to the airport, check in, go through airport security, go through customs with small children in the longer, general lane, and get to our gate. Overstressing about the compressed timeline and logistics and being snippy was not how I wanted to spend my last few hours onboard an otherwise fantastic vacation.
We received our disembarkation information packet in our cabin which provided red tags with an 8:30am MEETING time at one of the lounges. No mention of any other options, like self-assist debarkation. I went to the information desk to ask about the quickest way to disembark once we got to Civitavecchia. First the agent said that the arrival time had ALWAYS been 8:00am (liar, and I had the paperwork to prove it), and then she said that we had already been given red tags which meant that we’d be off the ship with the first group. I then asked her if there was such a thing as self-assist debarkation in Civitavecchia and that’s when she finally said that I could proceed on my own to the disembarkation point and that I’d be allowed to get off the ship as soon as we received clearance from local authorities.
The next morning, we had breakfast at the buffet marketplace at 6:00am, and based on the hordes of passengers having breakfast that early, I was sure that debarkation would be a nightmare. One hour prior to our arrival in Civitavecchia, I lined up at the debarkation point and thankfully secured the second spot in line. The debarkation point was ideally located on deck 6, right on the Galleria Meraviglia, so my wife and kids sat at one of the bars and comfortably enjoyed one final cappuccino and hot chocolate before we got off the ship.
Based on the number of people that we’d seen at breakfast, and based on our experience with self assist debarkation back in the US where half the passengers on the ship are trampling each other to get off the ship as early as possible, I was expecting a similar scenario here, but it never materialized. Only about 15-20 people total lined up to do self assist, either because nobody really cared to get off the ship in a hurry, or because nobody even knew about it. In all fairness, it wasn’t printed anywhere in the debarkation paperwork, and I only knew about it because I dragged the information out of the information desk agent. But whatever the case, it didn’t matter. I was just glad that the mob that I expected didn’t materialize. The only passengers in line were also families from the USA with early flights home, all stressed out as much if not more than us. Maybe this was another lesson on how Americans like to do things in a more and unnecessary stressful way than the rest of the world! I know that I learned my lesson and will never book a tight flight or stress over things that I have no control over while on vacation.
Promptly at 8:00am, we were cleared to disembark. We walked in the terminal and realized that no customs are required getting off the ship in Civitavecchia! We were on the sidewalk within minutes of getting off the ship. It was storming with gusty winds, but standing in the rain was our Rome Cabs driver holding a very wet and soggy sign with our name on it! I could’ve hugged her! She quickly handed out umbrellas to my wife and children, and between the two of us we loaded all the luggage in our awaiting car. She helped us dry off before departing. We were literally the first car to pull away from the parking lot! Before we knew it, we were on the highway, on our way back to the Fiumicino airport.
We arrived at the airport shortly after 9:00am, but it wasn’t until we had cleared the customs checkpoint and found myself sitting at our gate at 10:30am when I started relaxing again. We left Rome behind but took with us amazing memories that we will always treasure.
Our cruise on the Meraviglia was absolutely fantastic, and after 32 cruises across several cruise lines (Royal Caribbean, Carnival, Costa, Holland America, Princess, Disney) I can say that it was without a doubt one of the best cruises I’ve ever taken. Overall, MSC has greatly improved their product since the last time we sailed on them in 2016. Friendlier, more attentive and pleasing crew, better food options, less snafus and technical glitches, amazing new ship with more amenities, and an overall better experience. With the Meraviglia repositioning to the USA next year, MSC’s expanding presence in the region, and improved product, I believe that they will provide some stiff competition to the US based cruise lines, and I won’t hesitate to sail on them again.
There’s always some room for improvement, but the positives far outweighed the negatives. I did feel that MSC’s product is designed to force people to spend extra (buy or upgrade their drink package, limit dining options to force people to purchase specialty restaurant packages, downgrading some of the perks included with the different experiences, cutting back in some free entertainment to entice people to pay for upgraded entertainment, and charging for some basic things that should be free). But then again, all cruise lines are in some way or another doing the same to increase their onboard revenue, so I can’t really point fingers specifically at MSC for this practice, but instead at the whole cruise industry.
Once again, this was a wonderful cruise, and the Meraviglia truly lived up to its name, which translates to “Wonder”. This ship and experience were indeed wonderful. Read Less