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PCJ Galpin

Age: 57

Occupation:Retired Probation Officer

Number of Cruises: 3

Cruise Line: MSC Cruises

Ship: MSC Melody

Sailing Date: n/a

Itinerary: Eastern MediterraneanReview

Review of the cruise on board the MV Melody from Port Said, Egypt to Durban, South Africa.

It’s an old adage that you get what you pay for, and if you buy cheap you pay dear. This was the case with the Melody on this cruise. The ship itself is an old ship and doesn't have the modern facilities that other lines extol. Examples are that there are no cabins with balconies and the entertainment system in the cabins is dire. There are no tea or coffee making facilities in the cabins and these have to be ordered from room service, but are free. Fortunately this was opposite our cabin door, so we could just pop out and asked the staff, who always responded with good grace and quickly.

Food on board was of a good standard and plentiful (very Italian; squid, squid and more squid!) but it has to be asked how a cruise ship can run out of ordinary English tea bags! The coffee offered was so strong and stewed that it was undrinkable, so it wasn’t long before they ran out of Nescafe sachets as well. We had foreseen this and had bought our own supply.

The main problem with the cruise was that MSC Lines and their staff could not run the proverbial in a brewery. It started when we arrived in Cairo at five o'clock in the morning and were loaded into buses to be transferred to the ship in Port Said. This should have been a relatively simple operation, but instead turned into the most horrible experience that one could wish for at the start of a cruise. When we reached Port Said we were told (though who is to know) that the Egyptian authorities would not allow us on the boat. We were left in the buses without water or food then decanted into a nearby hotel, where we had to buy refreshments and wait in the lobby or on the front steps. After about 2 hours we were put back on the buses and driven the 300 yards to the ship, so we could board. We had to find our own luggage from the pile that was put on the narrow sidewalk, whilst fending off the ubiquitous hawkers, who were trying to sell their wares. We then waited in the sun, for an hour to board the ship and the rumor went down the line that the Egyptian authorities were demanding $11 per person ‘ exit visa costs’. This then went down to eight dollars without any rhyme or reason, but the group were unwilling to pay it and someone had to be called from the ship to sort it out. Like, you need this! By this time it was approximately 2 p.m. and after a night flight from Johannesburg and seven hours waiting, people were decidedly fraught. It has to be said that it was thankful that there were no children in the group.

The next problem was when we went on a trip for Petra in Jordan, which was for us the highlight of the cruise, and the one which virtually everybody wanted to be on. I believe that there were at least 14 buses went to Petra that day from the boat. They all went in a convoy, so of course, the place was filled to capacity. Now it has to be thought that if you go to Petra at the beginning of November, it's going to be quite warm and sunny. On this day, it was bitterly cold and there was a cold mist that only evaporated when we got to the site. Unfortunately nobody had bothered to think to ring ahead and see what the weather was like at Petra, and therefore people were dressed in thin cottons with sandals. It was felt by many that they picked up winter chills and coughs and sneezes from this experience, which lasted the rest of the cruise. In the brochure supplied by the tour office, it said that there would be a horse ride from the buses to the first entrance at the site. Needless to say, this did not occur, possibly because of the number of people, and it would have taken most of the day to complete.

As early as the second day of the cruise, a rumor went round among the passengers that we would not be visiting Zanzibar! My wife went to the guest services counter where she was told that this was definitely not true and that anytime lost by late departure from Port Said and in the Suez Canal (where I believe we went aground as I saw a tug pulling us to the side) would be made up on the days we were at sea.

On approximately the fifth day of the cruise, a piece of paper came out from the captain saying that we would not be stopping at Zanzibar! However we would be stopping for half a day at Sharm El Sheikh, a tourist destination in Egypt, which is known to the British especially, because there have been a number of bombings there. Unfortunately the day that the ship docked at Sharm was the day that Saddam Hussein was given a death sentence. I, for one, felt that it would be rather incautious to be a western tourist in town that has a history of indiscriminate bombing on that day. The ship offered no tours so people were left to just wander the streets on their own. It was noted by some passengers that whilst at Sharm the boat was refueled, thereby raising the question as to whether it was an economic reason that the captain had called there.

A possible positive from the lack of landing at Zanzibar was that passengers were offered a full day in the Seychelles capital, rather than the planned half day. However, no full day trips were offered, and once the planned half-day excursions had been completed there was very little else to do other than sit on board the boat.
The rumor did say that the captain did not like going to Zanzibar, because it required the use of rubber inflatable boats to ferry the passengers from the ship to the shore. This, it was thought, was too much of a hassle for the captain and crew.

On board the ship, during the cruise most of the staff were extremely helpful and provided a very good service. The need to translate everything into four or five languages did tend to give an air of the tower of Babel. Pleasant behavior could not be said of all staff, however. In the dining room it was noticeable that there was a differentiation between the European and other, mainly Balinese, serving staff. Europeans tended to be the station heads who took the orders from guests and then made their Balinese under-waiters fetch the food from the kitchen. We joked that all the station heads wanted to do was stand and ‘look cool’. Our station had a Balinese head and under-waiter and they shared the work between them. They chatted to each other and the diners, joked, laughed and generally created a happy atmosphere. We always sat at the same table because, if served by the European station heads, we found them rude and patronizing. On the last day the restaurant manager came to the two stations in front of us, obviously in a bad mood and looking for something to castigate the serving staff with. In the case of the European station head he gave a rebuke that was unpleasant to witness, but in the case of the Balinese station head, he was overbearing and aggressive.

Both my wife and I have cruised previously and there is an accepted tradition that gratuities are paid on a voluntary basis to members of staff who have provided an above-average service. This is usually to the cabin staff and of the restaurant waiting staff. Initially, the guest services handbook indicated that gratuities were at the discretion of guests, but halfway through the cruise the page was replaced. A rumor started that each guest would be required to pay six dollars per person per day and that the sum raised would be shared out between most members of staff. When the handbook page was replaced the amount had reduced to three dollars per person per day and it was automatically added to your onboard account It is not my practice have any money taken from me, under any pretext, without my approval. It is also my belief that large companies have a duty to pay all their employees proper wages and that the employees should not be dependent upon gratuities to supplement poor wages. I tip those who have offered me good service and do so personally. I asked to be excluded from the paying of the daily amounts and was given a piece of paper to sign to this effect. On this it asked why you wish to be excluded. I said that my reasons were not the business of MSC! At one point we were told that the payment was discretionary, but that each cabin would be telephoned by staff who would ask if the guest wished to opt out. I considered that this was inappropriate, as it might intimidate some guests into paying. At a briefing given on the next to last day, we were told that the change in the handbook had been made specifically because the boat would be taking on board South Africans for the summer season, who had little money and did not generally tip.

The final debacle was disembarkation. Originally, the estimated time of arrival in Durban was to have been in the early morning but, due to the unforeseen circumstance of a crewmember going overboard a few nights earlier, this had to be put back. This of course ruined everybody's plans for their onward journey, except for the people who actually lived in Durban.

We were given different colored labels to put on our baggage and told that instructions would be announced over the loudspeaker system in the ship, so that there would be an orderly disembarkation. Our luggage would be waiting for us in the arrivals hall, to pick up and then go through Customs. Some hopes. No announcements came over the public address system, and passengers in the lounges saw that others were leaving the ship. This led to a general rush to get off the ship and get into the hall to pick up the luggage. Of course it wasn't there!

After about 20 minutes the luggage started to come through, not on a conveyor belt but on two or three sack barrows, pushed by disconsolate porters. As soon as they entered the hall, they were descended upon by passengers who wanted to get their luggage and be away to catch onward flights to other parts of South Africa and Europe. Tempers became frayed as a result of this. It was fortunate that there were no incidences of violence, although there were a number of incidents of aggressive behavior by some passengers, most notably the Europeans, who had long flights to look forward to.

Our own personal experience was that it took two hours from docking to finding our luggage and by that time, we had missed our onward connection to Port Elizabeth. At Durban airport we had to buy two tickets on another airline so that we could return to Port Elizabeth that evening, otherwise we would have had to wait until the next day for a Kalula flight. During the disembarkation there was no assistance whatsoever from the crew of the Melody, and we gained the impression that their prime objective was to board the group who were sailing on the boat that evening and who, we were told, had been waiting for five hours in the summer heat already.

So, was it worth it?

The cruise itself was cheap, but then it was a re-location cruise, so it was in the company’s interest to fill as many cabins as possible. Food was good and the sea was like a millpond until we got near to Durban, then it became a little rough. There are staffing difficulties, now called human resource implications, that need to be ironed out but, on the whole most of the staff, appeared to want to do a good job and give a good experience to the guests.

The problem is systemic and it is the ability to organize a large group of people that is lacking, be this getting them on or off the boat, or just keeping them happy. It is important that guests feel they are informed and cared for, not just numbers and this was not present on board the MV Melody on this cruise. Many of the other guests had booked for the Monterey and felt they had already been poorly served. MSC’s main ability seems to be shipping containers round the world, which might be considered indicative. Until they can show me that they can run the proverbial in a brewery, you won't find me cruising with them again. I think I would save up a little bit more money and go with a company that has a different attitude to its paying customers. Remember, you buy cheap and you pay dear, as my mother-in-law used to say.


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