Number of Cruises: 60
Cruise Line: MSC Cruises
Ship: MSC Opera
Sailing Date: n/a
Itinerary: Eastern Caribbean
This is a review of the 11 night holiday cruise on the MSC Opera. It started on December 28 and ended on January 8, 2005. The review is going to be a long stream of consciousness review. My background includes the fact that I’ve been on about 60 cruises in the last dozen years, none at the premium level that MSC aspires to. (That means I have not sailed on Radisson, Crystal, Seabourne, or Silver Sea.) My personal experience has been on Princess, Holland America, NCL, Celebrity. Royal Caribbean, Viking, and Disney. It has been many years since I wrote a review, but I am doing this one because of the failure to live up to normal expectations and a belief that there should be a close relationship between what a company says it is and what it really is.
I’m going to try my best to make this a balanced review. I don’t think this cruise line is trying hard enough to fix its problems. I’ve read other reviews on the MSC line and it seems that problems have been identified and promises made that Mr. Sasso will turn this line into a premium experience. This is not happening any time soon, as the expression goes. The physical facility of the MSC Opera simply is not premium. It is a ship that starts with rooms that are too small when measured against the norm for ships catering to the mass market. That’s a problem that can’t be fixed. They avoid the subject of room size but it appears that the rooms are about 139 sq. ft. There is a chair that’s too big for the space under the desk. Some people have been told that they are replacing the chairs soon. The outside cabins come with a little table. A lot of people decided they would prefer not to have the table in the room because it was in the way. So, there were a lot of tables in the hall one day. The space ratio is not wonderful on this ship which is mid size tonnage and has a high capacity. You walk through lounges to go from the dining room to the theater, often getting stuck behind people who are walking through narrow aisles and doing it slowly.
Bathroom fixtures all worked well. The shower temperature was consistent so you didn’t have to get out of the way if it decided to suddenly get hot. The shower was one of those that are too small to pick up the soap that falls. And the shower curtain clings to those who weigh too much. Smells backed up into the bathroom just about every day that seemed to have something to do with the wind. Not pleasant smells. Ah, but the room is tastefully decorated with huge throw pillows on the bed. The TV system is incredibly poor for a brand new ship. Of course if you like old Bob Hope and Bing Crosby movies, this is the TV for you. Did not see any signs that they have a DVD collection to use with their TV system. The telephones are the cheapest possible with no specialized buttons and no message system. The inside rooms are too dark with no reading light over the bed. The bed, itself, which should have been a good experience because this is basically a new ship, turned out to be a bad experience. My bed had springs that were so close to the surface that they pushed up and made the bed uncomfortable. The only excuse I could think of was that the cruise line had purchased inferior beds but since I didn’t hear complaints from everybody, perhaps it was that some little child had been using the bed as a trampoline and ruined it. But this was a bed that was classifiable as unusable. About a week into the cruise I called in the room Stewardess to show her the problem and ask that they replace it. She said they were all new mattresses and simply offered to place another blanket on top of the pad that was already over the mattress. It helped a little but I never really got used to that lumpy feeling.
All rooms got a fruit bowl that was replenished automatically and those passengers who expressed a preference for certain things received what they wanted. There was a mini refrigerator which was stocked but you could take out some of their stuff to put some of yours in. There were helpers for room stewards and stewardesses and the rooms were done quickly when you left, the rooms were clean and the vacuum cleaners were in evidence. The whole ship should be run as well as housekeeping ..... they would do very well.
It appeared to me that the cruise line was trying to differentiate itself with not being pushy about drinks in lounges and not even asking if you want a drink in the Theater. They even had a reasonably priced wine package for only $91 for 7 bottles of wine and 7 bottles of water. Also day time activities were notable and abundant with bingo played as an activity rather than a way for the cruise line to make money. So if you are looking for a cruise line that doesn’t scream art auction and jackpot bingo and horse racing at you every day, this is a place to start. The lounge shows were better than expected as were the shows in the theater. However, I’d note two or three things here. First, this was a holiday cruise with extra entertainment on the ship. Second, there were a couple of hundred travel agents aboard who were judging the ship and MSC should have been putting its best foot forward. I would also note that no live music is provided in the theater other than solo instruments when the pianist or violinist played. So the music in the theater is not just enhanced with recordings. Of course that means you don’t have to offer applause to the MSC orchestra, because there is no MSC orchestra.
The mix of passengers was clearly many fewer Americans than expected. It seemed like half of the people on board were Italians and as time went by the Americans, primarily the travel agents mentioned previously, noted that the waiters seemed to be giving preferential treatment to their countrymen. There was a certain amount of “shmoozing” with the Italians while Americans could wait forever for a refill of their water glass. Service from many waiters was cool, impersonal and in some cases appeared to be almost hostile. If you were particularly unlucky, as we were, you had a waiter for 11 nights who was either grossly incompetent or didn’t speak enough English to answer questions about the menu items. There were a few waiters who seem to think that the Italian signature meant showing a rather chilly attitude. Our first breakfast in the dining room I found that waiters did not mind serving food at room temperature that should have been served hot. I ordered a waffle and sausage and was shocked that it had been taken out of the kitchen cold. Coffee on the ship was generally dreadful. Most of the time you thought you must be drinking bad decaf. If you asked for tea at my table at night, the waiter and assistant waiter didn’t seem to realize that the menu provided a choice of teas. You got a pot of Lipton. We asked the waiter for Earl Grey one evening and he didn’t have a clue what we were asking for. His English language skills were almost nonexistent. If you ordered ham with your egg, you got spam. If you ordered bacon, some of the time you got bacon scraps that were extremely greasy rather than bacon strips. Couldn’t help looking around the dining room when some things were served to see what the people from Italy were being served. Some people noted preferential treatment. Fresh fruit compote on the morning menu was actually just canned fruit. There were too many instances of asking for things that never came. That included asking for Ketchup when you got a hamburger at lunch and getting it or not depending on whether the stars were aligned right. Some translations were strange. For instance, we kept seeing jelly on the afternoon menu under deserts. What they meant was jello. Close, but no cigar. At the end of the cruise we found the last few days things had run out like diet coke, lox, cranberry juice, and even their blend of tropical juice.
Officers and crew have not been coached on this ship about the importance of saying hello to people they pass in the hall. It does not make the Americans feel comfortable when they pass staff members who “don’t see them.”
I’d say that we didn’t go through one meal at night where the waiter seemed to be other than confused. Sometimes you didn’t get the salad ordered, sometimes it was something else he just forgot or he served to someone else. The assistant waiter, was usually missing in action during the meal but he was probably busy in the kitchen. Our table was very close to the kitchen entrance so it was not a matter of distance. We did not encounter any waiter at breakfast or lunch who was as ill prepared for the job as the one that we had at night. Some waiters were absolutely fine while others seemed not to take their jobs seriously. Water glasses would remain empty for a half hour if you had the wrong waiter. There was an interesting way that some waiters served breakfast. They would bring everything you ordered out at once. That was not exactly elegant service when your fruit salad comes at the same time as your french toast and perhaps even a third dish. The idea was to serve your breakfast and be gone. Oh, you wanted a second cup of our wonderful coffee? If you were lucky in the morning and got a half way decent cup of coffee, they managed to make the second cup something that was less than desirable.
Under the heading of things they didn’t do right came lobster night. I don’t know how the first seating lobster came out but our second seating lobster was extraordinarily dry, as if it had been standing under heat for entirely too long.
There was a safe in the room but they didn’t tell you where it was hidden. When we couldn’t find ours, I finally called the desk to ask them if there was a safe in the room. Yes, it was behind the mirror. We didn’t know there was anything behind the mirror but there was the safe and more shelves. Perhaps we would not have had this problem if we had actually been shown to our room as MSC claims they do. If you come on when others are coming on they decide that showing you to the elevator downstairs is good enough. The other people at our dining room table had the same problem with the safe but they didn’t call. They just assumed there was no safe. So we told them where to look.
There was no notification to passengers that they had decided to alter the itinerary. Perhaps some people found out when they went to the shore excursion desk. But many people don’t seem to know where they are supposed to be from day to day. The middle of the itinerary was shuffled so Grenada, St, Marten, and Antigua and St. Lucia were out of turn and times in port were shifted. The shuffle was not a bad thing but I object to having to find out only by reading that the ship was leaving San Juan to go to St. Marten when I knew that it was supposed to go to Antigua that day. I had to ask for a copy of the new itinerary at the front desk where I first got a blank stare and then she pulled a little piece of paper out of a drawer.
They didn’t pipe in announcement to the rooms except for the emergency drill. All announcements, and there were very few, were made in five languages. That included the cruise director who introduced the shows with approximately a one minute introduction in each language. Her language skills were great but there were things about communicating with the people that were lacking. At the end of the evening shows there was never any mention of the next day’s port or arrival time, only the next day’s show. Never even mentioned time changes effective that night. The time change notice was printed in the daily activity paper left in the room the evening before the day it was used. Down at the bottom of the page for the Wednesday paper which you received Tuesday night, it would contain a few words about resetting the clocks on Wednesday evening. A lot of people missed this cue. There was no note left on pillows to remind you that night. It was also noted that presentations to passengers regarding intro to the ship and disembarkation were not taped and shown on the cabin TV.
All announcements until the last day started with English, then worked through Italian, German, French, and Spanish. I doubt if all of that was really necessary. But it was interesting that on the morning that we were departing the ship, the pattern was broken with Italians receiving the announcement first that their color was now debarking. That gave them a head start to avoid what turned out to be an incredibly long line waiting to exit the ship. Only six colors were used for disembarkation and the ship was full. That meant about too many people in each group given the fact that there must have been a lot of quads in use. The ship used no tag system to stop people from getting off out of turn so you saw people in the terminal at all color areas even when you were in the first group.
Kid, kids, and more kids. This was a great time for families to bring the kids who apparently got a special giving them third and fourth spaces free. We have never seen kids running wild on a ship like we saw on this ship. They were always in the front row of the theater for the late show and although they were not disruptive, on more than one occasion they picked up and left after realizing they didn’t want to see that particular show. They almost never walked. Running was not discouraged by parents or staff, although parents sere almost never visible. We saw several instances of near accidents as they ran in front of people. They really showed their stuff on the morning of departure when they used the stage as their playground and ran up and down the aisles. They kicked the stage lights, used the microphone that was turned on and went backstage. Here was a holding place for hundreds of passengers and not one person from the crew to make sure things were in order.
MSC has introduced a new tipping policy to the cruise line, perhaps to deal with the dining room problem where cruisers feel service is not up to par for the industry. At a time when we finally see Holland America giving up on its “tipping not required” which proved to be nothing but confusing an unfair to employees, MSC gives us the same words. But it is a bit worse here. The meeting in the theater for the English speakers prior to debarkation told them that tipping was not required but if they wanted to reward excellent service they could. The guideline given was a total of $4 to $7 per person for the service personnel. There was a meeting of the travel agents later that day where the agents were told that MSC’s policy was that tipping was not required and “not expected.” Those were the words uttered by the person who was the liaison with the travel agents. Then the girl got up to talk to the agents about the same stuff she told the cruisers in the morning. She got to the tipping part and I noticed a significant difference in her presentation. She didn’t say that tipping was not expected and she changed the guideline to $4 to $6. So, the agents who may have listened closely can go back and tell their customers that tipping is not expected even though it is expected. I must say that when there are headwaiters on other ships who expect some tips, they make themselves known. These didn’t bother. Part of not bothering is that when you walk into the dining room in the morning and in the afternoon you are not seated. To the MSC dining room staff, open seating means you find a table for yourself and if you pick a table that they don’t want to serve because it has already been used, they ask you to change tables. They caught hell from one woman who told them where to get off when they told her she would have to change her table. The tipping discussion was the first time I knew that there were actually headwaiters used on the ship. Part of their recommendation was that you could give the headwaiter for your section the envelope with the tips for the dining room staff. Can you imagine? I’m just not such a trusting soul.
The ship’s towel system for use of towels ashore is that they set up a tent outside the ship and you sign for the towels you want. You can get more than one each with no problem and despite my expectation that you’d have a long line, that does not happen. The system worked well and it was nice not to have just one towel when two were better for the beach. Returns were also quick and you didn’t have to take your sandy towel back to your room. Returning to the ship was not overly difficult because they were not overly concerned if you brought a bottle of something onboard. (They did make it clear that the ship’s policy was that you check your booze at the door. But that seemed to be more a voluntary thing than mandatory in practice.)
Four treadmills for a ship of about 1600 passengers is not really adequate for the American market. They had other equipment, of course, but treadmills are the real test. All the messages on the equipment readouts were in Italian and the machines were not the usual ones that people know how to turn on. So it made for some difficulty that was not necessary. There were sign-up sheets for the treadmills on a wall nearby but they were not labeled as sign up sheets. There was no sign at the machines telling people they had to sign up. In fact, only two of the four machines had numbers on them. As you might expect, there were some problems caused by people using machines that they had not signed up for when the person came who had signed up for that period.
The last morning experience was a topper that just made us more sure that this cruise line is not really aiming at the premium market. Passengers were told that they must get out of their rooms by 7:30 and can’t leave anything in the rooms. That means dragging your bags to the dining room where you are greeted with an abbreviated menu. The only hot item is scrambled eggs and you can have bagel and cream cheese but don’t ask for smoked salmon on your last morning because it is not being served. Then when you finish you can wait in the Theater if you are in the first group to be called and wait till 9:30 or so before they call your group. Some people were placed in the 12th floor disco to wait. Always nice to have to wait for elevators to take you down to disembark.
The things that went wrong that are attributable to management failure were clear enough. The failure to match matching English speaking waiters with the Americans at night or the failure to train or hire qualified waiters is a management problem. Failure to communicate changes of itineraries and remind people about time changes is a failure of management. Failure to understand that Americans are not used to small rooms in hotels that Europeans have become accustomed to is a management failure. The introductory bargain pricing for the new MSC ships may last until they give up the American market and they will wonder why they didn’t make it.
Under things they did right, they provided a Catholic mass every day making provision for a priest on board the ship. On the flip side, however, is the fact that they failed to provide a Sunday service that was interdenominational.
All in all, I found myself wishing that those who are in managerial positions on the ship could be sent on a cruise on a ship where they know what is expected and do it. If the benefits derived from hiring a big name exec who used to work for Celebrity are primarily public relations benefits, MSC will not survive in the American market. The competition in the Caribbean is strong and travel agents will get the word that selling MSC is ok only if you don’t depend on repeat customers. Most travel agencies see short term though rather than long term, knowing that the internet has brought a decline in customer loyalty.