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I got what I paid for: My cheap family cruise on MSC Seashore

August 17 2022
25 min read
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Disney Cruise Line’s new ship Disney Wish is getting a lot of attention this summer. But with fares that start at $1,000 per day for a family of four, even a three- or four-night sailing might not be in most families' budgets.

In search of cheap family cruises myself, I followed the deals to a major but more under-the-radar cruise line, MSC Cruises.

MSC offers affordable Caribbean cruises thanks to free kids fares and onboard credits that passengers can put toward things like activities and non-included meals.

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I ended up paying less for a balcony cabin on a seven-night cruise to the Caribbean on MSC’s newest ship, MSC Seashore, than I would for a three-night Disney Wish cruise in a windowless inside cabin.

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Itinerary in hand, I thought I had found the secret to affordable family cruising and that I’d come home bragging to my friends that I had scored an amazing vacation for a fraction of the price folks would pay for other cruises.

The truth is, I got what I paid for and encountered more logistical hassles and nickel-and-diming than I’ve experienced on most of the 50-plus cruises I’ve been on.

Can you have a wonderful family vacation on a budget on an MSC Cruises ship? Of course. But for smoother sailing and fewer hassles, you will either need to shell out more money on your MSC voyage — or consider a different cruise line.

About MSC Cruises

MSC Cruises is a Europe-based cruise line, with a large presence in Europe, South America, the Middle East and Africa. Within the last five years, though, the line has made an effort to build and deploy ships with amenities and itineraries that are more targeted at American travelers.

Although it has been offering Caribbean cruises for about a decade now, MSC Cruises recently deployed more of its ships on itineraries out of Florida, many with stops at the line's new private island, Ocean Cay, for a relaxing beach day. The line is known to attract a diverse crowd, including a high percentage of international guests plus a mix of English and Spanish speakers from Florida. The combination of cultures and languages makes the line's onboard vibe a bit different than on other cruise lines that sail from mainland U.S. ports.

Because the line is not as well known among U.S. cruisers as Europeans, MSC Cruises' Florida fares have always been competitively priced and it routinely offers kids-sail-free deals. I paid $2,658 total for four people to share a balcony cabin on a weeklong Western Caribbean cruise in July on the line's newest cruise ship, MSC Seashore.

Contrast that with Disney Wish: The cheapest cruise you can currently book is $2,975 for a three-night cruise in a windowless inside cabin for four people. A seven-night Western Caribbean cruise on Royal Caribbean's new Wonder of the Seas next July is close to $6,000 for four people; the cheapest balcony cabin I could find on that ship for a weeklong Caribbean cruise was $3,300 in February 2023. (Of course, older ships on these lines will be priced lower.)

In my mind, MSC Cruises' lower fares and mass appeal make it a direct competitor with Carnival Cruise Line. The cheapest balcony cabin I could find for that line's newest ship, Mardi Gras, was $2,475 for four people on a weeklong Western Caribbean cruise in November 2023.

Going into this trip, I knew I wasn't going to find all the bells and whistles of a Royal Caribbean megaship or the service levels and entertainment expertise of a Disney ship. I was simply hoping that getting to experience a brand-new ship at a low price would give a line like Carnival or perhaps the older ships of Royal Caribbean and Norwegian Cruise Line a serious run for their money. Unfortunately, that wasn't quite the case.

MSC Seashore was indeed a beautiful ship with plenty to entertain the whole family. But the logistical operations, dining options and family-friendly amenities were simply not up to par with those offered on other lines. Here's what I took away from my experience.

MSC offers limited free or affordable dining choices

Buffet line on MSC Seashore. (Photo by Erica Silverstein/The Points Guy)

Let’s start with my biggest gripe about MSC Seashore as an affordable family vacation — the dearth of complimentary dining options. If you want to stick to the food venues where meals are included in your fare and not pay extra for fancy seafood or steak dinners, you have only two options on MSC: the buffet and the main dining room.

Technically, based on the fare class we purchased, we were entitled to free continental breakfast via room service. But since there was no table on our balcony, and only a cluttered desk surface where you could put down dishes, we'd likely be eating in our beds, so we ended up skipping in-cabin food service.

The dining room was my favorite place to eat on board

The main onboard dining room was very good for a mass-market ship. My mom eats gluten-free and I gravitate mostly toward vegetarian options, and the restaurant was able to accommodate our diets well. The kids menu had a lot of great choices for younger sailors (pasta, grilled chicken, hot dogs, etc.) and both my kids ordered from both the junior and regular menus.

The servers worked quickly and were pleasant though not overly friendly. That said, the dining room manager assisted my mother with her food allergies and was amazingly helpful. He would periodically stop by our table to chat or ask if he could help us whenever he saw us around the ship.

As most parents know, formal sit-down dining is not always your best option for three meals a day with kids — especially when dinner lasts 1 1/2 to 2 hours after a long day out in the sun, and breakfast and lunch aren't as quick as the grab-and-go buffet. My kids (and I) needed alternatives, as they would on any line. That left the buffet.

The buffet was crowded and uninspiring

Unlike on most big-ship cruise lines I’ve sailed — including Carnival, Norwegian and Royal Caribbean — the buffet menu aboard MSC Seashore rarely changed and the venue in which the buffet was set out was both crowded and confusing to navigate.

While having a standard list of menu items for breakfast was fine, every lunch service simply included pizza, a pasta station, grab-and-go burgers and hot dogs, a meat-carving station, a small salad bar and a display of deli meat. Some days there was a Mexican station, though it was hard to find in the enormous venue.

Related: The ultimate guide to cruise ship food and dining

One buffet counter somewhere had a rotating selection of hot lunch dishes, but when I finally found my way there, none of the dishes were labeled. In fact, nothing was labeled anywhere on the buffet, so you just had to guess what you were serving yourself. Hopefully, it's something MSC will rectify, especially for passengers who might have even more stringent dietary requirements than my family.

Only one area of the entire buffet had all the options laid out. That section was, quite frankly, a nightmare. The few times I dared navigate my way there, I found people pushing each other out of the way and cutting in line, which did not result in much friendly feeling among the would-be diners.

Your kids might love having pizza, french fries and burgers every day for lunch (mine certainly did), but after my third lunch of salad and cheese pizza, I was desperate for an alternative. They exist on other lines. Carnival Cruise Line, in addition to a buffet menu that changes daily, offers complimentary Guy Fieri burgers, a deli counter with a variety of options, a Mexican station serving tacos and burritos, 24/7 pizza (that gives the Italian MSC a run for its money) and a sea-day brunch with innovative options. You can even find additional free dining venues on select ships, including Guy Fieri's barbecue restaurant, Shaquille O’Neal's fried chicken restaurant, Mongolian Wok and other Asian or Indian eateries.

TPG tip: If you need an alternative lunch option on MSC Seashore, you can pay extra for a meal in one of the ship's five specialty restaurants, though they're only occasionally open midday. Head to Hola Tacos (a la carte or all you can eat for $17.99 per person), Kaito Sushi Bar (conveyor belt sushi and other Japanese dishes priced a la carte) or Butcher's Cut for its sea day brunch ($12 per person). The prices aren't terrible, but they can quickly add up for family of four — plus, you're looking at another sit-down, waiter-served meal with possibly squirmy kids.

There was no free soft-serve ice cream on MSC

Man getting soft-serve ice cream. (Photo courtesy of Carnival Cruise Line)

One last food gripe: A highlight of every family cruise I've been on is the free soft-serve ice cream on the pool deck. Your kids should be able to get themselves cones when it’s hot outside. It’s the quintessential vacation experience.

And every family-friendly line I’ve ever been on has this option. On Royal Caribbean's Wonder of the Seas, the center of the pool deck is a multimachine soft-serve ice cream station where you can help yourself to as much free ice cream as you'd like. Heck, even my very grown-up cruise on Windstar’s Star Pride had free soft-serve by the pool and alfresco grill restaurant.

That is, every family-friendly line except MSC.

MSC Cruises does have exceptional gelato at nearly every poolside bar as well as at the Venchi chocolate store/bar/gelateria. However, it costs $4 for a baby size and $6 for a regular size. The same pool deck bars also have a soft-serve machine, which is located behind the bar. The chocolate and vanilla are complimentary, but only if you purchase a pricy beverage package. If you’re on a budget, as we were, and don’t upgrade to the package, that soft-serve will cost the same as the gelato. No freebies for the kiddos, either.

There are only two ways to get free ice cream on MSC Seashore. Either you order it for dessert in the main dining room and get whatever flavor they’re serving that day (there's no choice), or you head to the one buffet counter that offers snacks for one hour from 4 to 5 p.m. every day, and you get in line with scores of other hot and hungry cruisers to ask for one of two flavors (usually vanilla, chocolate or strawberry) being doled out by one extremely overworked server.

It may seem like a small thing, and I probably thought it was before this particular sailing, but having free ice cream in the afternoon each day has made other cruises feel like truly special vacations, and my kids and I missed that feeling aboard MSC Seashore.

TPG tip: Only the Alcohol-Free and Minors drinks packages include soft-serve ice cream. Book your drinks package online in advance to save 15% off package prices. Or, book a cabin in the Yacht Club or Aurea fare class and a drinks package is included.

Our cabin was great — with 1 exception

Balcony cabin on MSC Seashore. (Photo by Erica Silverstein/The Points Guy)

Our standard balcony cabin was nice, and my family of four survived remarkably well in one room for a week, which is reason enough to thank MSC Cruises for a successful vacation.

The 172-square-foot cabin was not large, but it had more usable storage space than I anticipated. The sofa that converted into bunk beds meant that my kids weren’t sleeping right above my head, and being able to separate the king-size bed into two twins was handy since I was traveling with my mother instead of my husband. Our balcony was a reasonable size and had two chairs and an ottoman, so you could put your feet up.

I had a few minor quibbles (as you do in compact cruise ship cabins) about the shower size and the lack of a balcony table, but one design element did bother me — especially with four people in the room.

It was the closet. In our cabin, the closet was located by my mom’s side of the bed, with only minimal space between it and the mattress, which meant that it was difficult for me to get stuff out of the closet, especially if she was actually sitting or lying on the bed. My kids are still small, so I was able to store most of their stuff in the drawers across from their bunks. But if you have older kids who require more closet space, it might be a pain to have to squeeze by the bed to get anything from the closet.

Many other cruise lines solve this problem by putting the closets in the cabin hallway across from the bathroom. That makes them a lot easier to get at — even if your cabinmates might not be able to walk down the hallway while you're debating the day's fashion choices.

TPG tip: Some MSC Seashore cabins swap the position of the bed and the seating area, so the closet is next to the couch. This would be preferable for a couple or a family with one child, but not for a family where you'll have to squeeze by the bunk bed to access the closet. To avoid this layout entirely, you'll either want to upgrade to a suite or downgrade to an inside cabin, where the closet is next to an easy chair. (Though think twice before squeezing four people into a 150-square-foot room where the kids will be in bunks above the adults' twin beds.)

Related: Which cruise ship cabin should your family book?

The kids club had video games and Legos, but 1 kid still wouldn't go

My son checking out the video game options in MSC Seashore's Junior Club. (Photo by Erica Silverstein/The Points Guy)

As an adult, I'm not allowed into any kids club activities. Personally, I was intrigued by MSC's MasterChef at Sea event and the Fire and Ice live video game, but my kids weren’t interested in those activities, so I can't report back on how fun they are.

What I can tell you is that my daughter, who loved the kids clubs on Royal Caribbean and Princess Cruises, was not a fan of MSC Seashore’s club and refused to go most of the time. It's hard to say how much this was a fault of the kids club versus my daughter's capricious personality.

On paper, MSC Seashore's kids club looks pretty good. It offers free babysitting for 3-and-unders, which is rare in the industry. The rest of the kids club is divided into groups for ages 3 to 6 and 7 to 11 (both my kids fell into that latter group), and tweens and teens are technically separate but shared a hangout space. When I toured the Junior Club where my kids would be on the first day, I saw a bright play space with large windows, two foosball tables and cool electronics like a virtual piano.

My daughter's report was that, unlike on Royal Caribbean, the youth staff didn’t set time limits on video game use, so certain kids would “hog” the Nintendo Switches and she could never play the games. (One of these video game hogs was likely her older brother ....) MSC Cruises’ promotional material boasts about its partnership with Lego, and she reported that there were always Legos available for free play and she enjoyed that.

She also gave a thumbs-down to the arts and crafts projects, compared to other lines, because it was just “lame coloring” versus an actual craft, such as beading necklaces or making origami. She didn’t like any of the organized games as much as on other cruises, especially as they were often mandatory for everyone in the club instead of one of several activity choices.

One interesting takeaway from our experience was that, because MSC attracts a diverse, international crowd, many of the kids my daughter’s age at the Junior Club didn’t speak English. This made making friends difficult. On past cruises, she’s made little buddies on board and played together with them at the kids club, but that didn't happen this time.

My son, on the other hand, only was interested in the video games and not in making friends or participating in group games, so he liked the club just fine.

TPG tip: After eight cruises with kids, I can say that, despite cruise line advertising, your child may not love the kids club for any number of reasons and choose not to go. Be prepared to be flexible with your onboard plans.

Related: 5 best cruise lines for families

The water park was awesome, but I would have liked additional family-friendly activities

Pirates Cove water park on MSC Seashore. (Photo by Erica Silverstein/The Points Guy)

MSC Seashore has a super-fun, pirate-themed water park with waterslides and a splash area. It's got one slide that you ride in an inner tube while wearing a virtual reality headset, and you feel like you're swinging around a pirate ship dodging a giant sea monster, as well as a fast tube slide that's cantilevered off the side of the ship. The kiddie pool has spray guns, a dump bucket and baby slides, with some rope bridges above for the adventurous.

That gives the ship major points in my book.

However, on every other cruise ship I've been on with a water park, you just walk up and get in line for a slide. On MSC, I had to stand in line for 20 minutes just to sign a waiver and get bracelets for the whole family showing we were allowed to slide and that we had to wear for the rest of the cruise.

TPG tip: If you want to ride the slides (and you definitely do, kids and grown-ups both), aim to show up at the beginning of the session before the waiver line gets too long.

As for other family-friendly activities, MSC Seashore’s pingpong and foosball tables were always in high demand. The ship has two regular pools welcoming kids, a sports court for basketball and other athletic competitions and an arcade with extra-fee attractions, such as virtual sports, video games and an XD cinema (where the seats move and shake, to simulate a theme park ride).

There was no miniature golf, which is a fun, free family activity found on a lot of other big ships. If there was shuffleboard on Seashore, I never found it; my kids are oddly fond of that game.

For evening entertainment, MSC had a nightly show that was a mix of singing, dancing and acrobatics that were entertaining but also unremarkable. My kids' favorite was a comedy magician who performed one afternoon.

But there were no family-friendly movies on the pool deck LED screen (just one 10:30 p.m. screening of "Wonder Woman"), no obvious activities meant for families to play together (like Carnival's "Family Feud Live") and certainly nothing like Royal Caribbean's kid-wowing high-diving or ice skating shows.

We did find and attend one event meant for the entire family — a cupcake-decorating deck party. It ended up being chaotic, with long lines for the frosting bags (which were more for decoration than for taste, as we discovered), plus a raffle for which we had no idea how to get tickets. I'd take a little more organization over poor-tasting fanciful confections any day.

If my kids didn't want to go to the kids club or get wet, it was difficult to figure out what to do with them on board. They spent a lot of time watching TV in the room, which was not my first choice for a cruise vacation.

Related: Which cruise ship activities should you book ahead of time?

MSC Seashore does not have cruise logistics down yet

Guest relations desk on MSC Seashore. (Photo by Erica Silverstein/The Points Guy)

I have never said, “No other cruise line does it like this,” as much as I did on our first day on board MSC Seashore. And it wasn’t a good thing.

For instance, every other line I’ve ever sailed asks you to attach a credit card to your cruise account before you set sail. Once you get on board, you're already set up to make purchases with your cruise card.

MSC Cruises does not have an option to add your credit card online or in the terminal before embarkation. Instead, you must stand in line to use a kiosk to fund your cruise account after you board. I didn’t want to give my kids permission to spend my money on soda and arcade games, and it wasn’t clear how I should set limitations at the kiosk, so I had to ask guest services to help me with the confusing credit situation. The front desk queue was so long it snaked beyond the roped-off lanes, nearly out of the atrium lobby.

The cruise industry has mostly moved to virtual muster drills; most other lines ask passengers to watch the safety instructions in their cabin or on the cruise line's app and then check in at your muster station at your leisure.

But on MSC Seashore, we had to watch a video on our TV at an appointed time, then call a specific number from our cabin phone and then proceed in groups to our muster station to get our cards scanned. At which time the entire guest capacity of the ship was in the stairwells, either going down to their muster stations or returning to their cabins. Aside from the inconvenience, it also made social distancing impossible.

When it comes to dining, most cruise lines give you the option of early, late or anytime dining. Some, like Norwegian, skip assigned dining altogether. My favorite is anytime, so I don’t have to commit to a set time and can show up at the dining room when I'm hungry. On MSC, anytime dining is only an option for those who book the most expensive fare classes.

Instead, I selected early dining for my family, but it turns out there were three early dining times: 5:15, 6:15 and 7:15 p.m. You couldn’t choose among those options, and we were assigned the 5:15 slot, which is unreasonably early. We managed to switch to the 6:15 time, but only after waiting in two additional lines. It would have been nice to be able to designate our specific choice during the initial booking process rather than spending even more time in a line.

And all that was just on embarkation day.

On our first port day, the shore excursions team had no idea how to handle all the people reporting to the theater at their assigned times to get group numbers for their tours. To make matters worse, rain prevented the first tours from departing on time. That led to total chaos in the theater as dozens of people were going down the aisles to present their tickets and collect their group number stickers while dozens more were pushing past to get out the bottom door to head to the gangway.

It took us half an hour to get from inside the theater to outside the ship, including a long stretch squished into a narrow, windowless hallway, barely moving.

Am I complaining too much? I know from personal experience that you’ll wait in queues on all big-ship cruise lines, especially on embarkation day if you haven’t pre-booked shore excursions or you want to change your dining time. I definitely experienced a terrible muster drill on one of the first sailings of Carnival Sunrise, when the crew was new and working out the passenger flow of the upgraded ship.

But on MSC Seashore — a brand-new cruise ship from a longstanding line that’s been sailing from the U.S. since 2013 — the logistical snafus and numerous lines for everything from payment plans to waterslides were more frequent than I expect on your average cruise.

TPG tip: Forget spontaneity: If you want to avoid lines, book your shore excursions, beverage and dining packages and Wi-Fi plans online before your cruise. Not only can you skip lines, but you'll get a discounted rate. Or, upgrade to a room in the exclusive Yacht Club section of the ship, so you can get access to a personal concierge, who can make arrangements for you.

Bottom line

My daughter on MSC Seashore. (Photo by Erica Silverstein/The Points Guy)

Money can't buy happiness, but it can solve many of your problems on MSC.

Book a suite in the line's ship-within-a-ship Yacht Club, and you have access to more cabin space, exclusive no-fee restaurants and designated sun decks to avoid the crowds, and a butler and concierge to take care of logistics for you. Pay for a drinks package or a fare class that includes one, and your kids get all the free ice cream they desire. Enjoy brunch or lunch at the extra-fee specialty restaurants, and you'll get variety in your lunch menu.

But doing so means your vacation is no longer a budget one, which was my main reason for choosing MSC Cruises. Once you're spending that kind of money, you could look into a costlier cruise line, such as Royal Caribbean or even Disney Cruise Line. With a larger vacation budget comes more choice, too, including a larger variety of ships, U.S. embarkation ports and cruise destinations to consider.

To me, the ship seemed better suited to couples and groups of adult friends traveling together, who are content to spend time in the pools and hot tubs, who will enjoy the onboard nightlife, who will get more value out of a drinks package and the extra-fee restaurants, and who are cruising just two to a cabin.

If you are looking for a cheap family cruise, you can certainly have a great time on MSC Cruises, but it won't be paradise. My kids had a blast; my son will tell you that he loved the video games and the waterslides, and my daughter will say she liked eating french fries and chocolate croissants in the main dining room. We all loved our time in port, river tubing in Jamaica and swimming with turtles in Grand Cayman, but we paid extra for those tours.

At the end of the day, cruising on a budget on this specific cruise line came with more logistical hassles and a lack of dining and activity choices that added stress to my vacation as the adult in charge. I put up with more queues, hassles and TV time than I prefer to on a family cruise. Had I known, perhaps I could have thrown money at the problem, but at that point, I could have a better experience for a similar price on another line.

I'd consider another cruise with MSC with my husband or a girlfriend, now that I'm savvy on how to better work the system. But I'm still on the hunt for that cheap family cruise that offers outsize value for the price. I'll let you know when I find it.

Planning a cruise? Start with these stories:

Featured photo by Getty Images
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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