Company Overview MSC Cruises is a pan-European cruise line marketing and catering to European nationals such as Italians, French, Spanish, Germans and English. Right out of the box, making comparisons to Costa Cruise Lines is only logical. Costa is the only other pan-European cruise line with a similar multi-lingual approach. Both lines offer ships to accommodate guests in five different native languages simultaneously. This is not an easy trick, but it opens up the market enough that both cruise lines have been able to build substantial fleets with state-of-the-art mega-ships.
MSC Cruises was founded in Italy in 1994 by Gianluigi Aponte, the sole proprietor of Mediterranean Shipping Company, the second largest container company in the world (after Maersk). Aponte acquired the Achille Lauro line, owned by a fellow Italian from Sorrento. But he didn't really focus on the cruise industry until 2003 when he decided to change the name to MSC Cruises and start a newbuild program to create the largest and newest cruise line in the world. In 2008 MSC Cruises met that goal, where "young" refers to the relative age of all the ships in the fleet.
MSC has already made a solid reputation for itself in Europe and is now doing the same in the U.S. The line suffered from "growing pains in its early days, but it has now hit a stride where returning passengers are reportedly much more pleased with their experiences. Costa Cruise Lines, another Italy-based pan-European cruise line marketing its ships to America as a secondary market, is their main competitor and the line to which MSC is most often compared.
There are more similarities between MSC and Costa than differences. Both are Italian cruise lines offering cruises in five languages. The motto for MSC Cruises is "Italian service, Italian style," while the Costa slogan is "Cruising, Italian style." If I had to pick one, I would say Costa is more Italian, while MSC does a better job of catering to all Europeans. Both market 90% of the cruises solely to the European audience, but also move ships to the Caribbean and South America in the winter to market to North and South Americans. So, do we really need another cruise line offering Italian style cruising to the American audience? Well, in fact, while Costa may offer "Cruising Italian-style" MSC actually offers more of a pan-European product which most people consider more authentic and diversified.
If Costa is the European version of Carnival Cruise Lines, in Europe that would make MSC the European version of Carnival's top US competitor, Royal Caribbean. The comparison holds up well. MSC has a modern fleet with the second largest class of ships (the Fantasia-class at 138,000-tons and 4000 passengers) in the world outside of Royal Caribbean. MSC Cruises' ships are modern and elegant in décor, as opposed to the fantasyland interiors one encounters on Costa/Carnival. Just to reiterate, MSC is an independent cruise line, not under the umbrella of any U.S.-based corporation. Also for the record, Costa has been marketing its line to Americans for two decades now, whereas MSC only started in 2004.
The classic interiors of the newer MSC Cruises' ships feature brass, glass and marble. MSC especially appeals to families due to a year-round "kids sail free" policy applicable to up to age 17. There are plenty of triple and quad cabins onboard all MSC ships.
The first step MSC Cruises took in establishing credibility in the U.S. was to hire the highly respected Rick Sasso, former president of Celebrity Cruises under the Greek Chandris family and previously with Costa before Carnival bought that line, to head up the marketing and operations for MSC Cruises in North America.
MSC Cruises' new-build program started with the Lirica class. Four ships were built, relatively small at 60,000-tons for 2000 passengers, which is minute and somewhat crowded by today's standards. The ships are known to have lovely interiors but tend to be a bit crowded at times causing service to suffer. Lirica (2003) was followed by MSC Opera (2004), Armonia (2004) and Sinfonia (2005). Four ships were introduced in three years bringing the fleet to 8000 passenger berths.
The Musica class was first introduced in 2006. These three 90,000-ton ships carry 3000 passengers apiece. MSC Musica debuted in 2006, followed by MSC Orchestra (2007) and MSC Poesia (2008). These sisters will be joined by a fourth in 2010 when the MSC Magnifica sails out of the STX shipyard in France.
In the late fall of 2008 the largest cruise ship ever built for the European market, MSC Fantasia was introduced. This ship is 138,000-tons, also the same size as Royal Caribbean's Voyager class, and has a rough passenger capacity of 4000. It was joined by a sister ship, MSC Splendida, in July 2009. All together, the fleet now has 25,000 berths and so it can carry 100,000 people per month. This cruise line started in 2003 now carries 1,000,000 cruisers every year. Quite an ambitious and notable accomplishment.
There is one ship currently under construction, the MSC Magnifica, which is a sister ship to the Musica class. A contract to build two more ships is still undernegotiationn, but the target dates of 2011 and 2012 have been informally pushed back. Still, by 2010 the 12 ships of MSC cruises will comprise of the "youngest" (average age of ships in service) fleet in the world.
Although the primary audience for the company is Europeans, the company is wooing American bargain hunters from its U.S. operations office established in Ft Lauderdale. The company now offers a selection of winter Caribbean voyages on beautiful, modern ships offering discounts to the same itineraries as the more well-known brands. Depending on what you expect out of a cruise, you just might find the right ticket on MSC Cruises.
Regarding your expectations; the same caveats we offer for Costa apply where MSC is concerned. Especially in Europe, English will not be the first language on board, or even the second or third. You will get your menus and daily programs in English, but communication with other passengers and onboard activities will not be like it is on English-only ships. The crew is adept at English so you will not have problem with service, but you might miss the usual trivia games or comedians you are used to seeing. Walking down the halls you will hear nothing but Italian, French, Spanish and German. Don't expect to make friends with fellow passengers easily.
The onboard entertainment is largely not language dependent. The productions shows feature magicians, acrobats, etc. Music the world over is primarily in English, so you will hear singers in your native tongue. The television channels are not optimized for English speakers, only CNN International, CNBC and Bloomberg are offered - no drama or comedy. Movies are available on pay per view, but pricey at almost 10 Euro per viewing.
The other drawbacks to European cruise ships, including MSC, is that Europeans are used to paying for room service and all beverages. So while in Europe, you cannot order room service unless you order off of the a la caret menu where a club sandwich is 3.50 Euro. In the buffet area if you order water it will come in a bottle and you will be charges .60 Euro (just under a dollar). There are tricks to avoid this - by the ice machine are glasses and a water tap. Coffee and orange juice (closer to orange soda) are free with breakfast in the buffet.
Also, Europeans smoke apologetically. MSC ships control the smoking pretty well, only allowing it in certain parts of certain rooms, but those extremely sensitive to just the smell of smoke will notice it.
Take note, however, that in the Caribbean the room service charges go away, buffet drinks like iced tea are free again, and onboard charges for movies and gelato are in Dollars instead of Euros.
The MSC Experience: First of all, it is important to note that MSC caters mostly to Europeans while in Europe, but when the ships come to the Caribbean they add Americans to the mix. They still make all announcements in five languages, but in the Caribbean English comes first. This is a classic American-style cruise with pool games, great food (especially in the buffet) and excellent entertainment. The only thing Americans need to know is that when in Europe they will not hear a lot of English unless they speak first. Most greetings to you will be "Buon Giorno," but if you reply "good evening they will respond in English. All of the crew speaks English comfortably.
MSC ships offers a mainstream cruise experience for every day Europeans. Americans with an open mind can appreciate the experience for what it is, but the general consensus was that this line is not for people who are not well-traveled in foreign countries. The basic cruise fares are pretty low, but you will encounter onboard charges. The alternative dining spots are a la carte instead of one service fee. This makes them more accessible if you want to get in and out for less, but you will pay about the same ($25 per person average) if you want a full three-course meal.
While the dining room has a no-smoking policy, so many Europeans still smoke (albeit in the areas where it is allowed) so much that you will smell smoke in many places, including the passenger corridors. The dining options on board are impressive, even if alternative restaurants do carry a la carte charges. On the Fantasia-class the Sports Bar stays open until 4:00 am and serves delicious a la carte at very reasonable prices; 2.50 Euro for a three-hamburger combo with fries. 1.50 Euro for a great boutique Mac & cheese. Gelato is $1.50 per scoop onboard and definitely worth the small cost. Some people would utter the phrase "nickel & dime" but we say they are optional charges at reasonable prices. Indulge a wee bit and you will feel far better for it.
Fellow Passengers: On Caribbean itineraries, expect about 70 percent of your fellow passengers to be American, the remainder European or South American. The 11-night cruises attract passengers over 65. Lower-priced one-week cruises attract younger passengers and more families.
In Europe the mix will be 95% non-English speaking. MSC Cruises attracts these nationalities in this order: Italian, French, Spanish, German and English. Much of that varies by where the cruise starts; MSC has ships home-ported in Genoa, Barcelona, Venice, Copenhagen, Naples and Dover.
Taking the Kids: Kids Sail Free! This policy applies on all sailings when kids ages 17 and younger share a stateroom with two full-fare-paying adults all year round. Hence, you see a lot of kids on MSC Cruises. In Europe, the children's programs are conducted mostly in Latin tongues, so American kids may feel a bit left out. There is a kids' menu in the dining room.
Tipping: On all sailings, gratuities are added to the guest's onboard account (guests have the option to make adjustments at any time during the cruise). In Europe, guidelines are 6 Euro per adult per day and 3 Euro per day for kids ages 4-17. In the Caribbean, gratuities are $12 per person per day and $6 for per child per day. The gratuity for bar service personnel is included in the price of the drink.