Time travelled: End of September 2021
The corona epidemic has hit many businesses in the hospitality sector, drastically decimating businesses dependent on visiting and staying guests to make revenue. One of these industries is the cruise ship industry, as cramming 4.000-6.000 guests onto a ship spells trouble with any communicable disease on board, but especially with Covid-19.
Subsequently, cruise lines have had to double up on security protocol, imposing restrictions that might turn many tourists to other destinations. These include accepting only vaccinated or recovered guests, imposing strict masks-only rules and restricting going on-shore to (paid) trips organised by the cruise line. One would think that the management has had quite a bit of time to work on solving these requirements, optimising them for efficiency and low nuisance factor. Unfortunately, at MSC, this isn’t the case.
To start with, it was mandated to bring printed-out, negative PCR test results to checkin. This was still before the October 15 cut-off for free-of-charge tests in Germany, so we lucked out there. After this date, the price of a test would likely have been at 40€ per person. At check in (or afterwards), no one even asked about us having had a test.
For the embarkation process, we were assigned a group number and were moved through the various steps in that group. MSC put us through a mandatory PCR test as part of the process. Once you got to the line that zig-zagged in front of the registration desks, that group separation failed. While you controlled the distance at least to the people in front of you, there was no distance at all between „folds“ of the line, so you met up with people in different onboarding groups that were still waiting in front of you and others behind you. A big fail on the part of MSC in my opinion, degrading the embarkation group concept to a big farce.
We have been on MSC ships before, but this was the first time we were literally inundated by personnel trying to sell us drinks packages or pay-extra restaurant seats right after boarding. You basically had to squeeze your way through personnel standing left and right to get to an elevator or the stairs. We’ve never had that on any cruiseline’s ship. Very annoying, it reminded me of a shopping street in southern Turkey many years ago where shopkeepers would yell all sorts of enticements about their wares and all but pull you into their stores.
Having had the chance to see ships run by AIDA, Celebrity, Costa, MSC and NCL, we have had the chance to gather a pretty large impression of designs and decoration themes to reference to. In comparison to any other ship we’ve been on, I found the Seaside to be incredibly drab and boring. The only decoration on walls seem to be mirrors and other chrome elements, the staircases are not decorated at all. You have brownish tones flowing into wine red into gray, with odd combinations of reflecting and dull metallic surfaces breaking these up. I have no idea what this style is called, and while I’m not a fan of gaudy decorations, this is the far other side of colorful. When your eye only sees drab colors, elements such as light rails done in black, with black lamp shades held onto the rails with cheapo plastic mounts in stark white really blows a fuse on the right side of your brain.
This drabness inundates you everywhere, including your cabin. There are seating arrangements in the pool area, for example (a „couch“ for two people and two chairs, all around a table), that were made of cheap looking plastic. Lounge chairs in bars will also radiate a certain „cheapo“ quality, I remember sitting in one at one of the bars for about half an hour and finding my back wet from sweat. These „lounge“ chairs are all, in my opinion, very uncomfortable - either you have to slide back too far to make contact with the backrest which leaves the edges of the seat digging into your calves or the chairs are plain uncomfortable. Maybe that is intentional, to keep you moving to different locations, hopefully consuming more drinks?
Also, due to having the comparison with quite a number of other ships, unfortunately I have to voice my disappointment in the service on this ship. With exceptions (for example in the Ipopema restaurant), service was poor to exceptionally horrible (Sports Bar), from clearly being ignored in bars to odd occurrences in the cabin. Example: for some reason, the cover of our son‘s bed cover had been partially dislodged one night. The next day, it had been removed and not replaced. I called reception three times (after being redirected from cabin service… why?) when finally someone came by with a completely new blanket (including cover). The „innards“ of the previous blanket stayed in our cabin until we disembarked.
Another example: my son and I came back from the pool, he left his pool towel on the bed to be changed. The cleaning guy took it away but never bothered to replace it (if you don‘t have all the pool towels when you disembark, you‘ll be charged 20€). I subsequently spoke with another guy making up a cabin two doors from ours. He made a couple of calls and assured me it would be taken care of. It wasn‘t - I had to go down to reception to get it settled. Annoying.
It seemed pretty obvious that the ship didn‘t have enough personnel in all areas except for the sit-down restaurant. When we tried to get our excursion confirmed that was to take place the next day (since the „smart“ TV in our room showed „no excursions booked“ - see below), we waited nearly 45 minutes since the poor guy at the excursions desk was all on his own.
Compared to other MSC ships, the build year is representative of technology used on board. Quoting a crew member, „this is a smart ship“. Unfortunately, the „smart“ isn‘t all that smart. Example: the drinks you consume during dinner are all shown on one tab and the waiter has to move all the drinks that aren‘t yours off into a holding tab before cashing you out. Bizarre.
They also implemented a new (well, not that new) concept for elevator operation: instead of pushing an up / down button to call an elevator, you select the floor number you want to go to and it assigns one of the four elevators to you. I used a system like this at the German Post tower in Bonn many years ago. On the Seaside, the system doesn’t work very well at all. For one, the elevators don‘t have an indicator of which floor they are currently on, which leads to impatient folks hitting their floor number again and again, seemingly surprised that the system assigns them the same elevator over and over. For another, the system frequently uses an elevator to pick up plenty of floors in one go. This leads to massively packed elevators, something the system is really supposed to try to avoid, especially during Covid times.
The TV in the room is also „smart“ - demonstrated expertly by the time it takes to „boot up“. It supports „video on demand“, something we didn‘t use and subsequently I don‘t know how much it costs (it certainly doesn‘t give you a clue when you select the service). Oddly, it didn‘t have any information on the excursion that we had booked for the next day, rather disconcerting considering that you don‘t get your confirmation and tickets until about 8PM the night before (subsequently, you also don‘t know what time to meet the next morning - seeing that the times vary day by day - that is really a shame). Despite the advertised capability to book excursions right from your TV, this failed at the end due to the „buy now“ button being grayed out for no discernible reason.
On the second to last night we nearly had an issue when our door lock all of a sudden stopped reacting to key cards held on it. Luckily, one of the kids was in the room when this happened and was able to let us in. One of us went down to reception and they sent someone to change the batteries. Folks, I‘m a smart home fan of sorts and I also have an electronic lock on my office door that runs on batteries. My lock‘s software is programmed so that you have to be a blind oaf to not realise that the batteries are running down. Not so with the lock on our cabin door: it didn‘t beep, it didn‘t flash red, it didn‘t give any clue whatsoever that it was time to change the batteries - it just died. I wonder what they do if no one happens to be in the cabin when the lock decides to quick working…?
We had a regular balcony cabin. There are other forms, such as cabins likely the same size as ours but with a huge balcony, extending all the way to the roof of the outside dining area, as well as balconies that have some sort of (tiny) bathtub on them. Of all the ships we’ve been on, this cabin had the least amount of stowage space by a long shot. Where normally you would have shelves around the TV, that space here is wasted with a plain wall. Above the bed would have been a great place to put some storage - but no, nothing. All we had (for two adults and two teens) was a smallish closet with three small shelves and two small drawers. Oh, and the drawer under the desk.
On the positive side, the couch folds out to two full-size bunk beds, quite an incredible feat of engineering. Much better than the “beds” that fold down out of the ceiling on some of the older ships. The TV was on the small side (I’m guessing 30”), so unless you have awesome eyesight, forget watching a soccer game from the bed.
For a ship this size, the number of specialty restaurants is surprisingly low (5) and they are all on deck 16 and exceptionally small. Apparently, the market for pay-extra dining on a ship like this just isn‘t big enough to warrant more sellable real estate.
There are two buffet restaurants available, but despite it being a great idea during Covid times to try to separate people from one another as much as possible, the one on deck 16 („family lounge“) was opened only once. What a missed opportunity. On the positive side, we spent most evenings eating in the sit-down Ipopema restaurant on deck 6, with a table for four by a window. The food selection was excellent, the food quality good to excellent. Individual servings were rather small, making dessert a near-necessity (albeit a tasty one) in order to feel half way satiated.
Drinks are, of course, not included and with wine bottles running from 25 to 140€, the option of having your server save the half-empty bottle for the next evening is a good option. In general, drinks on board were expensive: €7,50 for an imported draft beer is up there, as is 9€ for a gin and tonic. That is without the 15% service charge. Mind you, it may be that all cruise companies adjusted their drink prices steeply to offset some of the losses during lockdown periods, but even higher-value cruise ships run by AIDA weren‘t this expensive.
The main buffet restaurant, the Marketplace Buffet, is a tight job for normal times; with the special Covid rules in place, the line to pick up the mandatory tray and plate often runs out of the restaurant. Right around the corner from picking up the trays is where drinks are distributed, so you have a pileup here as well, making walking through that part of the restaurant a real challenge. If you sit near this area, you get to be privy to a number of near-misses (or complete drink or plate trashings). There is a second buffet restaurant on deck 16 that was closed until the second to last day of our cruise, where they opened it for about 2 1/2 hours. Another lost chance to get more space between people. Instead, for the most part, you were stuck squeezing through the crowds (sometimes the lines went out of the restaurant straight back to the elevators!).
Pool + Slides
The two water slides that both “hang over the deck” are a real draw, of course, though even the “see-through” slide isn’t as thrilling as it looks, as the tube isn’t really see-through.
On the negative side, you have to walk up metal stairs that are exposed to the elements to get to the starting platform, so if you’re cruising (as we were) in October, the walk up and the waiting in line gets very windy and cold. Also, at least on the one sea day I checked, they were closed. The Seaside was originally built to sail in the Carribean, where open waiting areas aren‘t an issue - in the Mediterranean in October, this just doesn‘t work.
Due to the Covid rules, hot tubs need to be registered for a 20 minute slot if you want to bubble in hot water. Oddly enough, there doesn‘t seem to be a limit on the number of people in the pool.
According to MSC, you can only go off the ship if you join an MSC-organised excursion. While I greatly doubt the legality of this scheme, we weren’t going to engage a lawyer about it. Gone are the days of using a fantastic port of call for a leisurely walk through town, stopping at the shops you find interesting and possibly having a taste of the local cuisine here and the local wine there. Not only aren‘t all excursions bookable (or even shown) before setting off on your cruise, actually booking them is quite a challenge (see references to this above).
This scheme by MSC is really infuriating in several ways. For one, it completely cuts off the competition (yes, there are alternative tour operators that offer excellent packages for much lower cost than the cruise lines). For another, it means that worst case, you get hurried through the scenic part of a town by a tour guide that barely speaks your language, basically telling you what you should find of interest.
To be fair, not every guide was like this, some were quite excellent, some gave you „20 minutes to shop in the MSC-approved souvenir store, though I won‘t be checking on you…“ What makes an MSC-approved store „safer“ than the store next to it? This situation alone tells me this has nothing to do with preventing the spread of Covid, it is just abusing the situation to create a „captive audience“.
In a nutshell, cruising with these restrictions in general is not something I would recommend to anyone that is not the „we want everything organised for us“ crowd. Our next cruise is booked for next summer and hopefully, restrictions will be more relaxed. It will also be on AIDA, which has exceptional ship management, a fantastic food concept and much better service, all areas that MSC has failed on this ship and cruise.
While MSC does have better ships, the Seaside is one I personally rate one star out of five. That is harsh, and I‘ve never rated a ship this badly, but there were just too many issues and bad experiences during the week we spent on board.