One Sunday afternoon at the beach at Port Canaveral, we watched a giant cruise ship pull out of America’s busiest cruise port and wondered, is MSC a good cruise line? We heard the rumors, like MSC stands for Must Stay Cheap, Most Sail Confused, or Missing Sufficient Competency. We soon found MSC Cruises is growing quickly in the North American market, and offers the best cruise prices, sometimes less than half of what Royal Caribbean Cruises and Carnival Cruise lines are charging. Felicia and Tim have taken 5 MSC cruises to date, and they’ve answered most of the frequently asked questions about MSC. Here is what you need to know about MSC’s North American cruise operations.
Who Is MSC Cruises?
In 1988, the Mediterranean Shipping Company (MSC), the largest freight shipping company on Earth, entered the cruise business. They’re a billionaire-owned company that’s not publicly traded, so they lack shareholder influence or corporate transparency. Although their headquarters are in Geneva, Switzerland, a large part of MSC’s cruise operations seem to skew Italian in design, language, and policies. Don’t worry, all of their American-based sailings speak English. But don’t be surprised to hear announcements in at least two other languages. We learned MSC won’t hire a cruise director who isn’t fluent in English plus at least two other languages.
The standout feature of MSC Cruises is its comparatively low fares. Even suite cabins in MSC’s isolated Yacht Club area can be cheaper than plain balcony rooms on Icon of the Seas! Children under eighteen stay free in the same cabin as parents, only paying port fees and other taxes. But do these low fares sacrifice quality?
MSC Food: Is It Bad?
On social media, MSC Cruises is criticized for issues like subpar food, slow bar service, and entertainment. To be honest, the food is as good or better than anything we’ve experienced on Royal Caribbean, Carnival, Disney Cruises, Virgin, or Norwegian Cruise Lines. Our only disappointment was a bland filet mignon at MSC’s Butcher’s Cut specialty restaurant, which was resolved with a little salt, pepper, and mushrooms. MSC’s pizza is among the best pizza we’ve ever tried. Growing up in Philadelphia and New York City, that’s quite a compliment. Since MSC’s current special basically offers everyone a drink package for pennies on the dollar, of course the bars are crowded. But they’re no worse than a typical Miami-based 3-day Carnival or Royal Caribbean cruise.
There is still a large contingent of people who refuse to sail on MSC Cruises because of an April 2023 report where MSC Seaside failed a random CDC inspection. We were actually on that cruise, and suffered no illness. Having worked in restaurants, Tim read the CDC report and agrees that although the violations were concerning, they are quite common. Think violations similar to those commonly found in your local restaurant. We’re talking tongs touching other food, hand washing errors, crumbs where they’re not supposed to be, dirty water left in the wrong place, et cetera. We are certain all the violations were addressed and rectified immediately.
MSC Cruise Entertainment
And the although the entertainment we’ve seen on MSC Meraviglia, MSC Seascape, and MSC Seashore was comparable to “budget old age home entertainment,” MSC Seaside has two shows that were among the best we’ve ever seen on any cruise ship.
MSC’s fleet consists of “Italian-inspired” ships. Think an Atlantic City casino in their 1980s hey day with lots of shiny gold and shimmering crystal. They attempt to glamorize New York City on some of their ships with strange renderings of Times Square and the Statue of Liberty. Their dance parties are fun but feature mostly Latino music and line dances. If I hear Gasolina one more time I’m putting headphones on.
Most areas are family-friendly, featuring isolated children’s areas and a modest yet fun kid-centric water park. Don’t expect a Royal Caribbean Oasis-class water park with 30 water slides, but it’s big enough to keep the kids busy for a few days. There are some strange amusement-park inspired rides. some virtual reality and arcade games, and even two-lane bowling on some ships. There are also typical daily activities including trivia, dance classes, and karaoke that are as good as those found on any other major cruise line.
MSC Offers Four Room Experiences
When deciding if MSC is a good cruise line, we did experience some confusing. MSC offers an array of room choices in several classes they call ‘experiences’ called Bella, Fantastica, Aurea, and, although they don’t call this one an experience per-se, Yacht Club. Each experience has slightly different benefits and a different price, so you can choose pay a little more for very minor extras.
MSC Cruises’ Bella experience is the standard cruise package with no extra cost for just about any non-suite Interior, Ocean View or Balcony Cabin. With the Bella experience, you’ll be able to use the ship’s pools, gym, sports facilities and see shows in the theatre at no charge. Your children can attend sessions in the kids club each day for no extra cost. Your cabin may be located somewhere in the less-desirable areas of the ship such as starboard, way in the front or back, or somewhere that might be noisy like right below the buffet. We sailed with the Bella experience on MSC Seaside, and it wasn’t awful.
When you upgrade to the Fantastica experience, you get everything Bella people get, plus you can choose your cabin with more choices of where to book your room. You can also change your cabin depending on availability. There are a few other unremarkable offers and discounts available with Fantastica we didn’t find to be advantageous.
MSC Cruises’ Aurea experience upgrades room choices again and lets you choose from the best locations for balcony cabins, and also offers some suites with whirlpools on the balcony. There used to be a lot more freebees for Aurea guests, but they’ve been pared back significantly. The Aurea experience gives adults access to an exclusive sundeck (hint – there’s no bar there), but even Aurea suite guests cannot access Yacht Club. We didn’t think the Aurea experience was an attractive offer.
MSC Yacht Club is the Ultimate Experience
Since MSC’s Yacht Club is still so affordable, we’ve opted to sail in their suite class on four out of five of our MSC cruises. The Yacht Club area is completely isolated from the rest of the ship, accessible only via an escort, or with a Yacht Club room key or bracelet. The rooms are bigger, guests get a dedicated concierge desk and a shared butler, plus you can access an isolated top-tier restaurant and lounge area with open bar and impeccable service. We were supposed to get our choice of pillows and a daily newspaper that never materialized, so we settled for a free bottle of Absolut Vodka that we packed and took home. There is also a private pool area, priority boarding and debarkation, a captain’s party, preferred seating at all shows, and some spa access including the snow room among other niceties. Letting Tim loose in a snow room is never a good idea.
So, is MSC a good cruise line? We think so. To be completely honest, MSC Cruises is ideal for budget-conscious travelers seeking a fun vacation without breaking the bank. If you’re looking for a more fancy, opulent, upscale experience similar to to premium cruise lines like Regent, Silversea, or Windstar, just don’t leave the Yacht Club compound. You don’t have to until you’re leaving the ship.