Falling in Love (with cruising) again: The MSC difference

Copyright 2018 Debra Littlejohn Shinder

This is the first in a series of “editorial commentaries” inspired by my first cruise, as a long-time Carnival cruiser, on the MSC Seaside. For a day-by-day account of that cruise and photos of my specific experiences, please see my previous blog posts, beginning with MSC SEASIDE: THE FULL EXPERIENCE (Part One). These next few articles will be more generalized and more opinionated ruminations on how I feel about cruising in general, MSC as a company, the Seaside in particular, and the Yacht Club “experience” on that ship. Thank you for coming along for the ride.

Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Carnival anymore

imageOne of the first things you’ll hear from other experienced cruisers when you start looking into sailing on MSC is “it’s different” – meaning different from the mainstream mass market American cruise lines (Carnival, Princess, Norwegian, Royal Caribbean, etc.). You’ll hear that it’s “more European” or that they do things “the Italian way.” But what does that really mean?

After 20 cruises on Carnival, something different was exactly what I was looking for. As I wrote a little over a year ago in my article titled Have you outgrown your cruise line?, I discovered cruising late in my life after having traveled a lot by air and land and I found it to be an entirely different and more relaxing way of going places.

My first cruise was on Carnival because friends and relatives were loyal to the brand and it had ships in Galveston, within easy driving distance of my home. I got “stuck” there because their prices were lower, the experience was a good value, and I had loyalty status and didn’t want to start over – and because of all the good friends I made and with whom I reunited on numerous cruises, both fellow cruisers and crew members.

But as prices rose, quality deteriorated, and mostly as I got tired of the same old ships and ports, I wanted to try something new and I set my sights on MSC, initially because of their loyalty match and their northern European and Mediterranean itineraries, but then as I researched, I got excited about the prospect of a more European experience right here in the states. I love traveling in Europe and enjoy the culture, especially in Italy and the rest of the Mediterranean.

NOTE: I made many memories and met many wonderful people on Carnival cruises, whose friendship I will treasure forever. In no way is this meant to bash Carnival or criticize it as a cruise line. To me, Carnival was like the starter home that you buy when you’re young, and you love it dearly and will always remember it fondly – but as you get older and your needs differ and your preferences change and you can afford more, it’s time to move on and up to something that’s a better fit for you at that point in your life.

Now, there are also some people who stay in that same house for fifty years and live out their whole lives there, raise their kids there, retire there, lovingly maintain the building and grounds as the neighborhood changes and neighbors come and go, and never have any desire to live anywhere else. And that’s great, too. Different strokes for different folks.

I just don’t like to be stuck somewhere simply out of habit and fear of the unknown. Most people are afraid of change – even when it’s good change. My husband went into depression when we moved from our old house to the new one, even though the new one is much, much nicer and the price was fantastic and affordable and the location is wonderful and he was the one who initially fell in love with it and wanted it in the first place. Now, of course, he loves this house and doesn’t want to ever move. Change is scary, more to some folks than others. People who have only or mostly cruised Carnival (or Royal, or Norwegian) are familiar with “their” cruise line; it feels like “home,” and they’re scared to step outside their comfort zones and try something else.

Unlike selling your house, though, you can try out a new cruise line and if you don’t like it, easily come back to the fold.

When I booked my first MSC cruise, then, I was coming at it from a different direction than many of the disgruntled Carnival cruisers who also booked the Seaside’s inaugural season sailings. They wanted something that was like the old Carnival, before the cutbacks. I wanted something that was … different. And I’m happy to say that’s what I got.

Different strokes for different cruisers

These differences are both strengths and weaknesses for MSC as it steps up its campaign to capture more of the North American cruising market share. Its distinctive European flavor is the very thing that attracts many people (including me), but that is also the source of many of the complaints and negative reviews that you’ll see in the groups and web boards.

NOTE: In my opinion, most of the negative reviews of the Seaside’s maiden and first few voyages stemmed from two different factors. The first category involves the “new ship shakedown period” issues that plague every brand new ship – and more so for the first ship of a brand new class – and that will be corrected over time. These are things such as plumbing problems, doors that don’t open/close properly, finishing touches that weren’t quite finished, and similar issues that you find in all new construction whether it’s a home/building on land or a ship at sea.

The second category falls under those cultural differences mentioned above, and I and other fans of MSC fervently hope those things are not “corrected” to emulate the other American cruise lines. It’s those differences that set MSC apart from the crowd and make it a great option for we who don’t expect or want the “same old same old.”

I won’t be talking about the first category here; I’ll just be addressing the second. Some of the differences are subtle and some a little less so.  Those who have traveled a lot in southern Europe understand and (most of us) appreciate the Italian “way.”  Many of those whose only international travel has been in the Caribbean or Mexico on CCL/RCL/NCL cruises seem bewildered and upset by customs that seem strange or “wrong” to them. Specifically:

  • Long dining times. There have been many complaints about dinner lasting for 90 minutes to 2 hours. This makes perfect sense to anyone who knows Italian culture. Meal times, especially dinner, are not juimagest about eating; they are social occasions for long and leisurely conversations with family and friends while savoring multiple courses of food and wine. Many Americans are way too used to the concept of “fast food” in more than one sense. I love not being rushed to finish my meal and I loved the leisurely dining style in the Yacht Club restaurant on Seaside.
  • Dinner buffet is sparse. See above regarding the meal tradition in Italy. Buffets – dedicated to a “quick and dirty” eating style that is the antithesis of the Italian attitude toward food – aren’t very comm20180217_134548on outside tourist areas. On Seaside, the lunch buffet(s) – there are two of them – together offer pretty extensive choices, but at dinner time the larger one on deck 8 turns into a dining room (more on that later, in the blog post that will be titled Buon cibo, buon vino: the dining and drinking experience). Only the smaller buffet on deck 16, with limited menu, stays open. Again, this makes perfect sense in the context of an Italian ship.

    UPDATE: In response to feedback from cruisers, Seaside no longer closes the deck 8 buffet at dinner time. Now all non-Yacht Club guests are seated in one of the main dining rooms, with three seating times instead of two, and both buffets are open for dinner. 

  • Food “isn’t good.” Food is one of the most subjective topics around. Our taste buds are different so we all like different things and one person’s idea of heavenly cuisine is another’s culinary nightmare. I get that. I heard many complaints that “there’s too much fish and pasta.” To someone who adores seafood and Italian food (me), that’s definitely not a negative. As for those whose idea of a great meal is Guy’s Burgers or Pig & Anchor on Carnival ships, maybe MSC isn’t for you (although they do have burgers). Honestly, though, having eaten in the YC restaur20180221_185743ant and a couple of the specialty restaurants, perused the buffet, and seen the menus and photos of the food from the regular main dining rooms, I can’t imagine that there are people who can’t find anything they like to eat on Seaside. The gelato alone is worth the price of admission to me. Yes, the menus go a little heavy on the Mediterranean diet. Is that a surprise? Do you know what the “M” in “MSC” stands for?
  • Crew and staff “aren’t friendly.” I found this to be about as far from the truth as you can get, especially in the Yacht Club. And with a few minor exceptions, I also found the crew members throughout the ship, from waiters to officers, to be exceptionally helpful, accommodating, and yes – friendly. Ho20180223_152759wever, many of them tend to be more reserved and professional when they first meet you, and take their cues from you as to how familiar to be. Europeans don’t tend to be as effusive and outgoing with strangers as Americans, and those in service positions aren’t expected (or desired) to be buddy-buddy. Nonetheless, by the end of the seven day cruise, I felt close to my butler, waiter, several of the lounge staff, and a number of others including Captain Massa (who definitely is outgoing) and the YC director, Ivan.
  • Passengers are “rude.” I saw numerous complaints about other passengers, especially about “breaking in line.” Like it or not, except for the British, most Europeans aren’t big on lining up (or “queuing” as our friends in the U.K. call it – and they take it very seriously). Italians, especially, just don’t do queues. This is very frustrating to Americans who spent their elementary school days being rapped on the kimagenuckles – or at least sent to the end of the line – if they dared nudge in ahead of someone who was already there.  What you have to understand is that these people aren’t being intentionally obnoxious; they’re just being Italian. Please note that this goes both ways; there are many things we Americans think are perfectly acceptable that come off as rude and uncouth to people of other cultures (there’s a reason the moniker “ugly American” is so oft-used abroad).
  • Too many “foreign” languages. Seriously?  But yes, I’ve seen many reviews of Seaside (and MSC Divina) complaining that there are all these people speaking languages other than English – even complaints that the Captain’s announcements and the muster drill demonstrations are given in multiple languages. Guess what, people – English isn’t the only language in the world. And MSC caters to an international clientele; there are many Europeans who come to Florida because they want to sail in the Caribbean, just as many Americans go to Italy to sail in the Mediterranean. The difference is that most of thoImage result for bilingualse Europeans can speak two or three different languages, whereas only about one-fourth of those in the U.S. can hold a conversation in a second language. I love the international aspect of cruising on MSC and it gives me a chance to practice my Italian and learn more phrases in other languages.
  • Staff not fluent in English. I didn’t encounter anyone who was unable to communicate with English-speaking guests. Yes, many of the staff and crew have accents, some of them fairly heavy. Whenever someone apologizes to me that “my English is not so good,” my answer is “it’s better than my Italian/Spanish/German/French/Russian (whatever that person’s native language is).”
  • Cabins are too small/not enough storage. My Yacht Club deluxe suite was spacious and had a ton of closet and drawer space. However, I did get briefs tours of a Fantastica level balcony and an oceanview, and I agree that they are small (compared to Carnival’s OVs and balconies). I think this hearkens back to cultural differences, too. Europeans are generally used to living in smaller spaces; you don’t see many McMansions and huge walk-in closets there since cities tend to be more heavily populated and square footage is at a premium. If you’ve ever watched House Hunters International, you know this. There is a solution if it’s an issue for you: upgrade to a suite (YC or Aurea). As a bonus, you’ll get unlimited free drinks, too.
  • No calypso/Caribbean band on the pool deck. I saw a few mentions of this on Cruise Critic reviews. Okay, I guess since it’s a Caribbean cruise, it’s something some people really want. I’m not one of them; personally I like the classical piano and violin in the Top Sail lounge in the Yacht Club.  I also enjoyed tImage result for musiche smooth jazz in the Seaview Lounge downstairs. It seemed as if there were many different types of music in different venues – country & western, pop, rock, Latin, etc. – but I admit I don’t remember hearing Caribbean music. Is that a cultural thing, too? I don’t know.
  • Entertainment is “weird.” No, it’s not. The entertainment is more sophisticated than you may be used to, and it’s geared more toward an international audience so there’s less “talk” and more dancing and acrobatics. And yes, there is opera. Which some of us – even fourth generation Texans like me – thoroughly enjoy. It really irritates me to read reviews that claim to speak for Americans as a w20180220_215926hole (as in “they should know Americans don’t like opera.”). It irritated me even more when many people got up and walked out between acts of “Butterflies.”  Well, a) some Americans do like opera, b) not everybody on the ship is an American, anyway – remember? and c) why did you attend if you don’t like opera? Could you not read the description of the show before you decided to go?
  • The shower curtain and/or washcloths are missing. These were complaints I heard from a few people after the first sailings of Seaside. Some of the bathrooms are apparently patterned more after those in Europe, where it’s not uncommon for the entire bathroom to be part of the “shower room” with no curtains or glass doors separating it from the rest. (I say “apparently” because the bathroom in my Yacht Club deluxe suite did have a glass door).  Another tad of culture shock comes from the fact that most E20180217_121057uropean hotels (as opposed to American chains in Europe) don’t provide washcloths. Don’t believe me? Just do a web search for “washcloths in Europe” and sit back and peruse the wailing and weeping and gnashing of teeth on the travel forums. However, once again this wasn’t an issue in the Yacht Club. There were washcloths already waiting for me in my YC1 stateroom on Seaside, and I’ve heard from others that although their cabins didn’t have them, the stewards brought them some if they asked for them.
  • No standup comedians. I guess the comedy shows are important to some people, judging by the long lines to get into them on Carnival cruises. I have never been big on canned comedy acts, and I stopped going years ago, when most (not all) of the comedians stopped engaging in clever word play and started focusing on adolescent bathroom humor, denigration of political figures and those who vote for them, and/or the mistaken belief that dropping the “F bomb” into every sentence automatically makes their material hilarious when there’s no real joke there. So as you might guess, I didn’t miss or even notice the absence of the standup comics. Seaside does have an improv show – about which I heard one person complain (in apparent sincerity) that “they seemed to be just making it up as they go along.” Now that’s funny.
  • No hairy chest contests and similar so-called “fun ship” attributes. All I can say to that is “thank goodness.”

Bottom line: MSC is a European cruise line. Those who are used to or want “the American way” seem to be the ones who are complaining. Many of the crew likely came from European ships and are used to serving people of that culture. These are not “things wrong with the ship.” These are cultural differences. I and some others want to sail on MSC precisely because we want that European experience. Folks really need to research a cruise line before booking, and determine whether it fits in with what they as individuals or families want from a vacation.

Sailing on a European/Italian line and complaining about European/Italian practices and customs is like sailing on Carnival and complaining about the party, party atmosphere or the hairy chest contests, or sailing on Cunard and complaining about having to dress up for dinner.

~~~

Now, did some people have legitimate complaints about the Seaside? Of course. As with any ship or any large building on land, there will always be some problems. Some unlucky people had toilets that stopped up (I can’t count the number of times that’s happened to me in hotels). Some were the victims of human or computer error that resulted in their billing being messed up, or items for which they had pre-paid not being credited. Some ran across staff members who were in a hurry, or having a bad day, or just not as nice as most – when you have well over a thousand staff members, there are bound to be a few who aren’t smiling, accommodating, and competent all of the time.

But that’s not unique to the Seaside, or MSC, or cruise ships. Life is imperfect, the people we encounter while going about it are imperfect. Where there’s a cruise, there will be complaints – even from those paying tens of thousands on Regent, Oceania, and Cunard. Where there’s a cruise ship, there will be problems. Where there are human beings, there will be “issues.” Because all people don’t like the same things. Because all cultures don’t do things the same way. Because we’re all subject to moods, to luck, to priorities that aren’t the same as someone else’s. Because “stuff happens.”

And it’s all subjective. I’ve been on cruises where everything went smoothly and the experience was almost magical, and heard others on that same cruise moan about what a lousy time they had. I’ve been on cruises that didn’t go so well (for me), where I felt the food was mediocre and the service was lacking and everything just seemed determined to go wrong, and read glowing reviews from others on the same cruise who christened it their best ever.

The above applies not just to cruises, but to all travel — indeed, to all life experiences. That’s why I read reviews avidly but take both complaints and accolades with a grain of salt. Sometimes it’s hard to believe that two different reviewers were on the same ship, at the same time, but they were. And the very experiences that make it so wonderful or so awful for one person might have the opposite or no effect on someone else’s enjoyment.

In the end, I remind myself that every experience, good or bad, serves a purpose — even if only as an opportunity to learn what not to do in the future. And I know that I am truly blessed to be able to have so many such experiences.

Finally, my experiences and my perceptions are all completely my own. What I love might not be what you love – so please take my reviews with a grain of salt, too (but only a grain. You wouldn’t want to get bloated from sodium overload). Smile 

Experiences matter

Another way in which MSC is different, which isn’t a cultural thing but a business strategy, is by offering all those different experience “levels.” This can be confusing, even to those who are very experienced cruisers on other lines.

When you book the cruise, you choose an experience – Bella, Fantastica, Aurea, Wellness or Yacht Club – which in turn determines which cabins are available to you and the amenities (such as free drinks, exclusive areas, priority embarkation/debarkation) that come with your “experience.” 

Bella, at the low end, will give you the lowest cost fare and is a little like the “base” model of an automobile; you get just the basics: the cabin, food in the buffet and assigned main dining room, the free entertainment and activities in the lounges and theaters. If you want extras, such as individual drinks or a drink package, you have to pay for it separately. You won’t have access to certain areas that are reserved for those in Yacht Club or Aurea levels. You’ll have lowest priority in choosing your dining or getting on and off the ship.

Amenities increase as you move up the “experience” ladder, until you get to the Yacht Club at the very top, which I will describe in exquisite detail in a later, dedicated article that will be titled Pampered but not Pretentious: The Yacht Club Experience.

I absolutely love that MSC offers different experiences, with different perks, at different prices. Just like the penthouse suite in a hotel or first class on a plane, if you pay more, you get more.

Different people care about different things when they cruise. Some don’t drink or drink very little, so the  unlimited alcohol packages that come with Aurea and Yacht Club won’t matter to them. Some never use the pools and hot tubs, so having less crowded, restricted access ones won’t be important. Some just want to eat pizza and burgers, so the higher quality Yacht Club restaurant wouldn’t appeal to them. Some might want to spend most of their time dancing to high energy music in the nightclubs, and find the soothing classical piano in the Yacht Club’s Top Sail lounge infinitely boring. Some only visit their cabins to shower and sleep, so the larger and more lavishly furnished YC and Aurea suites wouldn’t be something they would want to pay for.

The good thing is that unlike on a luxury cruise line where all cruise fares include all the amenities (and thus are all very expensive), with MSC you can pay for what you want – and still be on the same ship with friends or relatives who want something different and booked a different experience.

Leveling the loyalty playing field

The experience levels should not be confused with the loyalty status levels (Welcome, Classic, Silver, Gold and Black). Most cruisers are familiar with that concept, although here again MSC is different from most and especially from Carnival in that your loyalty status is based not only on how many days or cruises you’ve sailed, but also on which experience you were in for each cruise and the additional dollars that you spent on pre-bookings and on board expenditures.

You get loyalty points for money spent on drinks, specialty dining, excursions – basically everything except casino gambling. You get more loyalty points for booking a higher level even if, for example, you pay more for an Aurea suite than for a Yacht Club interior, as shown here on the MSC web site:

image

The current loyalty program is called the Voyagers Club and these are the current membership level thresholds:

image

Please see the MSC Voyagers Club web site for more information and any changes that occur after the date of this writing. And of course, MSC famously matches the loyalty status you’ve earned on other cruise lines. For example, if you’re at the top-tier Diamond level on Carnival, they’ll give you 10,000 points and a Black card on your very first MSC cruise. (You do have to cruise MSC again within 3 years to keep that status – a more than reasonable requirement, in my opinion).

I prefer MSC’s way of awarding loyalty points because it recognizes and rewards their best customers, i.e. those who contribute more to their bottom line, more effectively than the custom of counting cruises or days. Under Carnival’s system, sailing in a $399 interior cabin and spending nothing extra counts the same toward status as spending $4500 for a Captain’s Suite and racking up charges of $2000 more in specialty dining, drinks, photos, and excursions on that same cruise. I sail solo, pay double the per-person rate of those with two in their cabin, and only get half the total points awarded to the two of them. image

I’m not a big on-board spender; on my recent Seaside cruise, after on board credit was applied, my balance was only $44.82. In the Yacht Club, there’s really not much extra to want or need. But I do spend more for that YC experience, and I also think those who buy a lot on board should get credit for that.

Some will say basing loyalty on money spent “isn’t fair.”  Then more often than not, those are the same people who, when asked why they should get priority in lines and perks that newbie cruisers don’t get, turn around and say they “earned” their loyalty status by “all the money I spent on all those cruises.”  Umm. Indeed.

~~~

 

Speaking of loyalty

The whole concept of loyalty to a brand is an interesting one to me from a sociological and psychological perspective. Some people are fiercely loyal to the point where any criticism of their chosen product/service feels like a personal attack – and some of them are quick to attack back.  It seems that with cruise lines, in particular, many people have a big emotional investment in their favorites. If you suggest that another line might be better (for you), they feel threatened, as if their character (or at least their judgment) is being called into question.

Then there are those who secretly would like to try something different, but are afraid to. It’s just so much easier to stick with what you know. Companies count on this. We humans crave the familiar (while at the same time getting bored easily and longing for new adventures — we are creatures of contradiction that way). We don’t like to be the “newbie” or to feel stupid because we don’t know how something works or what theImage result for love and loyalty routines are. So we stay put. Heck, think of all the people who stay with spouses they don’t love or jobs they hate just because they’re afraid of change — and those have far more serious impact on our lives than being dissatisfied with a cruise line.

I felt like a fish out of water at first in the MSC forums and Facebook groups. But I absorbed as much knowledge as I could, asked questions, read about others’ experiences, studied the official sites, and came to feel at home there. And although — people being people wherever you find them — there are folks in those groups who are just as annoying as the Carnival trolls, I have to say that in general, I find those most of those groups more congenial than most of the Carnival pages (I think one reason is that most have fewer members, though).

The thing is: you don’t owe any cruise line, or any company, your loyalty. Their marketing machines (paid and unpaid) have tried to sell you on the idea that you do. All companies try to do that. OMG, how could you possibly drive a vehicle that’s made by GM when you’ve always been a member of the “Ford family”? (It’s even worse if you should consider one of those – shudder – foreign cars). Your world won’t be the same if you use an evil “off brand” detergent instead of Tide. You gave up your iPhone for a Samsung Galaxy? How could you? And so forth and so on.

It’s a lie. You are free to choose. When you look around and realize the loyalty perks are the only reason you have to pick imagea particular cruise line, it’s probably time to pick a different one, if only to expand your horizons and let you know what else is out there. It’s not good to get stuck in a box, even a comfortable, cushy box. It’s even less good when the cushions in the box start wearing thin and the hard edges are poking you in the side.

Booking a cruise is not a lifetime commitment. If you try something new and don’t like it, you can go back to the old one — or you can try yet another “something else” until you find the one that makes you happiest. I believe I just might have found that in MSC and the Yacht Club experience.  One reason for that is the beautiful story behind the MSC family, which will be the subject of my next post.

~~~

Up Next: La mia famiglia

 

 

 

 

 

 

About debshinder

Technology analyst and author, specializing in enterprise security. Author of or contributor to over 25 books, including "Scene of the Cybercrime." Fourteen-year Microsoft MVP, married to Microsoft FTE Tom Shinder, and proud mom of two wonderful grown-up human children and three amazing Japanese Chin pups. In my spare time, I love to travel - especially on cruise ships - and write about my grand adventures.
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