Is the MSC Divina Right For You?

After cruising with MSC out of Miami twice in a three months, one thing stands out, and that’s the fact some people don’t seem to be doing their research before booking on the Divina, or their travel agents aren’t doing it for them :). Understanding the differences between the various lines is important, regardless of who you end up booking with. Proper expectations play a key role in one’s happiness with something as expensive as a vacation, so why would you book a cruise based simply on the best fare, and not at least partially on others’ experiences? I recognize that you can’t trust all reviews, but if you read enough of them, you can identify positive and negative patterns and learn to filter out the noise.

In MSC’s case, their first couple of seasons in the US really didn’t seem to go well, at least from the perspective of American passengers. I can’t really speak to that, as we didn’t get to experience the Divina before she returned in 2015, but we’ve heard and read that it was still set up in a far more European manner than it sounded like people here wanted or were expecting. I get that a line starting operation in another country should be familiar with their market and adjust accordingly, and by not doing so they turned some people off. Personally, I think it would have been interesting to give that a try. I’ve read a few posts and reviews about those first couple of seasons, but one of the fairest I’ve seen comes from someone I’ve referenced before, Scott Sanfilipo, who sailed before and after their adjustments, and recapped his 2014 experience right before sailing again in 2015 in this blog entry. It’s definitely worth a read before continuing here.

Some of the things he talked about from the 2014 season have changed, and some haven’t. Just know that even now, this is a different product than the contemporary US-based lines. This isn’t Carnival, Norwegian or Royal, it’s MSC and they have their own identity. I can’t emphasize this enough: When booking any cruise, don’t just look at the cost, know what you’re comfortable with, what you want, and what each line offers. When looking at the Divina, I think the main question potential passengers have to answer honestly is:

Are you comfortable in a melting pot?

The ship appeals to Europeans as well as Americans, and in talking to a family from Sweden on our Christmas sailing, it was easy to understand why. For them it came down to an affordable way to get a feel for Caribbean cruising. On some Divina sailings kids sail free, so they didn’t have to pay for either of their boys. I’m sure there are plenty of other reasons too, but along that same “melting pot” theme, there are things you need to be aware of and comfortable with:

  • You’ll be surrounded by people speaking in other languages, more so than any other U.S.-based cruise we’ve been on. It’s not something that concerns me (and most of the time I don’t even notice), but on both of our sailings we overheard people randomly complaining about it when talking to each other about how their cruise was going.
  • Ship announcements happen in something like 5 languages. This happens during anything from Bingo to the muster drill. Frankly, this got to be a pet peeve of mine. Not that it happens, but how often I’d hear a fellow American complaining about it as it was happening.

The other big complaint in this area we heard more than once was that the crew and passengers were noticeably rude. We didn’t get that vibe at all. There are both rude and friendly people in all cultures, and frankly we didn’t see any more line cutting or rude attitudes out of passengers on the Divina than we’ve seen out of our fellow Americans on other sailings.

Some of the other big differences (good and bad) between MSC and the standard U.S. based lines that we noticed on our two sailings:

  1. No sail-away party. Actually, we didn’t notice this because we normally aren’t up on deck for it on any sailing, but we did hear it from a couple of people who were disappointed by it.
  2. No music constantly playing by the pool on the Divina. True, outside of music possibly playing when the entertainment staff is out there putting on events, I don’t recall constant blaring music by the pool all of the time. The one time I really appreciated this was on the last sailing. We were docked next to one of Carnival’s ships in Nassau, which was blasting canned music the entire time they were docked to an empty pool deck, while the Divina’s was quiet and peaceful.
  3. There’s still work to be done in the Divina’s MDR. At Christmas, they really had too many tables crammed too close together and not enough staff to handle the load. Our waiters were all friendly, but really couldn’t keep up with the number of tables they had. Even though we weren’t in the MDR on the last sailing, we heard similar complaints from those who were. 8/2017 Update: As mentioned in a recent post, the MDR experience on our August 2017 sailing was vastly improved, so to us, it looks like MSC has taken customer feedback and made positive change here!
  4. You get a more international selection of food in the MDR and Le Muse than you tend to on U.S.-based lines. Some meals were better than others, but it’s an interesting change of pace. One item I can’t rave about enough is the pizza. From a food aspect, I’d go back for that alone.
  5. The included shows were better than our previous 5 sailings (3x Carnival, 1x Celebrity, 1x NCL). I’m looking forward to comparing it to the entertainment on the Oasis of the Seas later this month, as it’s been far too long since we’ve been on Royal Caribbean for me to objectively compare the two.
  6. I’ve gone on a lot after both sailings about the Divina’s entertainment staff, and for good reason. They’re friendly, fun, and they know how to engage the passengers. We had plenty to do during sea days on both sailings. It was really nice to attend trivia without the same canned questions other lines use over and over, too. They’ve stuck in our memory far more than the entertainment staff on previous ships.

I think that about covers it. Really, it comes down to comfort level with a very diverse mix of passengers. I admit that before we sailed in December we were nervous after reading a lot of the reviews, but after both sailings, we’re quite happy we went. The differences made for some fun times, and we’ve enjoyed mixing things up and getting out of the comfort zone we’d built sailing on the contemporary lines. We look forward to the Seaside’s arrival next year and definitely plan to sail her.

For now, hopefully you’re more educated on what to expect from the Divina if you choose to sail with MSC! If you have any questions, feel free to ask in the comments and I’ll respond as time permits!



Opinion: Tipping on Cruises

This has been a hot-button issue as long as I can remember, and while I don’t expect my small voice here to change anything, I read something the other day that really made my blood boil, and I felt the need to vent about it.

We’re headed out on the MSC Divina for a Christmas cruise this coming Saturday, so I spent last week following Scott Sanfilippo‘s blog posts covering his time on the Divina. We know little about the ship, or even the line, so it was nice reading about his experience and seeing the pictures he was posting along the way. While reading his day 6 wrap up, this part stuck out:

(Side note: As I’m sitting here writing this, a couple is telling another couple that they removed their gratuities from their account over the missed port call in Great Stirrup Cay. Shameful and quite frankly selfish. The gratuities that are added to each passengers shipboard account daily are divided among the entire ships crew – from people you see every day, to those you don’t see working behind the scenes. The gratuity is what makes up the majority of the salary the crew members make, to pull that away from them over a missed port due to no fault of the crew or cruise line, is just unthinkable. Then to go and tell others to do the same? Ugh. I want to scream!)

Yea, me too, and I’m not even there. To recap: They had to head back to San Juan about 4 hours after they left the dock due to a medical emergency. This forced them to miss the next stop in Great Stirrup Cay, which apparently warrants removal of the gratuities for people who had absolutely nothing to do with the decision. Again, this all happened so the ship could rush someone with a medial emergency back to a hospital, which meant whatever happened was more than the doctor on board was equipped to handle.

That kind of reaction is unconscionable to me. Was it an inconvenience to their vacation? Sure, but how would they have felt if it was a loved one of theirs? I’m sure they’d have been more than happy to see the ship turn around and head back in that case. I know I would. Someone’s health was at risk, sorry you missed your port and had to “suffer” with more sea time and a short stop in Nassau. The Horror!

In my humble opinion, I have yet to hear a valid reason to remove gratuities from my bill. As numerous posts (such as this one and this one) have stated, it’s not just the crew you see that get a cut of your tips, it’s also the ones behind the scenes that helped make your cruise what it was. Other excuses I despise:

“The cruise lines should pay their employees a living wage and not make them depend on tips”: Okay, that’s true (I’d say the same for wait staff on land as well), but you removing your tips to “protest” it (example here) does nothing but hurt the people who worked hard for you on your cruise. No one upstairs cares, because it does’t negatively impact them directly. You want to change things? Write the CEO. Get the word out in the media. Do something productive that doesn’t involve shorting the staff of their income.

“Tipping isn’t a thing in my country”: Neat. It is here. Do the right thing and take care of the people who took care of you instead of thumbing your nose at the practice and refusing to tip. If you don’t want to tip, don’t travel to a region where it’s standard practice.

“I just tip the cabin steward and waiters directly and remove the automatic gratuities so I can make sure the money gets to the people who actually took care of me”: Well, in doing so, you shorted the people you don’t see who also worked hard to make your vacation a good one.

“My <waiter / cabin steward / whoever> didn’t do a good job, so I removed the gratuities”: Yea, sometimes bad service from a crew member happens for whatever reason. I’m not punishing the rest of the staff for one person’s bad day/week (we all have them), I’ll leave the tips in place and contact the cruise line later to pass along the issues I had with that one crew member. That’s just me, though.

Those are probably the most common reasons I hear for people to remove tips, so I’ll get off my soapbox now. All I ask is that anyone considering removing their tips take a step back and put serious thought into the impact it will have. A lot of people on these ships work hard to give their passengers a great vacation every week.



Travel Photography – What’s In My Bag?

With travel season approaching, I’ve been working on changes to the photo and video gear I carry with me. There was a time when I would carry my Nikon DSLR and all of my lenses with me on vacation, but over the past few years I’ve gotten to the point where I wanted to go as light as possible and not have to carry a full camera bag around with me. It started with our Thanksgiving cruise in 2012, where I found myself shooting around 60% of our pictures with my Nokia Lumia 920 vs 40% with my Nikon, slowly edging up to the point where I was shooting 90% of our vacation shots with my Lumia 1020.

There are exceptions, as I enjoy shooting auto racing when I get the chance, and I have yet to see anything below a DSLR and a set of good lenses that can handle the speed and low-light requirements, but for everything else, the lighter I can go, the happier I am. So with a cruise on tap in a week aboard the Norwegian Escape, followed by Thanksgiving at Disney World, I figured I’d post a quick walk-through of the gear I’ve settled on.

Photo Gear

For the first time in a long time, I’m not taking a DSLR with me, even as a backup. I will have two alternate devices with me, however:

  • My Lumia 1020 with camera grip: This may be a bit long in the tooth, and might be a little slow on a per-shot basis, but nothing in the phone space beats the PureView imaging system. This thing has been a favorite of mine for shooting since the day I bought it, and that’s why this is going to be my main back-up camera.
  • Sony DSC-WX350: I picked this up on the cheap as an open box item at Best Buy a few months ago to use as a business camera  for things like ship/resort tours, so we’d have something either of us could just pick up and shoot with at the drop of a hat. The results are pretty good for a P&S, in my opinion.

I really don’t expect to have to use either unless something happens to my primary. So what is my primary? Well, it’s my iPhone 6s Plus, equipped with a few extras. A quick shot of my gear (including the backups and tripod):

Primary gearBackup gear

Of the main gear in the left hand shot, the case is a CamKix medium GoPro case with the CamKix customizable magic foam. What am I carrying inside the case? Well, a few things:

  • Shoulderpod S1 Professional Smartphone Grip: I needed a way to mount the iPhone to my Gorillapod if the situation arose. After a little searching, I knew I had to have this. The reviews aren’t wrong, the handle’s solid and really helps stabilize both still and video scenarios.
  • Moment wide angle and telephoto lenses: I spent a lot of time comparing specs, reviews and sample shots of the various iPhone lenses. I’ve used cheap lenses from other companies before, and this is definitely a category where you get what you pay for. I wanted high quality glass, and I definitely feel I got it with the Moment lenses!
  • Spigen Neo Hybrid Carbon case: Normally I keep the Spigen Slim Armor Volt on my phone (wireless charging FTW!), but it’s too thick to allow mounting of my lenses, so for the duration of the trip I’ll be using this case.

I’m looking forward to putting this gear through its paces over the next 2-3 weeks. Feel free to follow us on Facebook and/or Instagram to see how the lenses perform on our trips!

Video Gear

For land trips, I generally just use my phone for any video I take, but when we go on cruises I also bring along a GoPro to handle any situations where the camera may get dirty, wet, or may need to be mounted to me in some way. This trip will be no exception, as I want to be sure I get plenty of video from the excursion we’re doing on my birthday in St Thomas, the BOSS Underwater Adventure.  I’ll likely end up doing some snorkeling at the other two ports, Tortola and Nassau, so it’ll get plenty of use this trip. Here’s my video setup:

Video gear

The case is a Shineda Water Resistant Large GoPro Case, which fits just about all of my GoPro gear. The main items in the case that I plan to use this trip:

  • GoPro Hero4 Silver plus extra battery: I bought this a while back as a replacement for my Hero2, which I gave to my daughter to use while at college. I’m looking forward to having the LCD to frame my shots vs hoping I’m getting what I think I’m aiming at :).
  • GoPole Bobber Floating Handgrip: This is my first trip with it, so I’ll be interested to see how I like it versus the regular wrist strap I’ve used for snorkeling in the past.
  • Head strap: This isn’t the official GoPro one, my daughter took that one with her when I gave her my Hero2. This is a knockoff my wife ran across at Five Below for $5, and frankly I can’t tell the difference.
  • Random mounts: Not sure I’ll use any of them, but since the case can hold them all, I figured I’d throw them in.

Okay, so maybe I’ve failed the whole “carry less gear” goal, but at least it’ll be lighter. Regardless, I’m very much looking forward to putting the new stuff to work! After we get back, I’ll post my impressions of how the Moment lenses performed in real-world use.

Dealing in Absolutes

It’s been a while since my last post, mostly due to workload and lack of recent trips. We’re rectifying that over the next month and a half, as I’m headed to NYC for work this week (staying at the Doubletree in Lower Manhattan), and we’re going to Disney World in mid-May on vacation. While both should provide me with plenty of blog fodder, I did want to rant about an article I ran across a couple of months ago that really irritated me:

11 Reasons you should never ever take a cruise

It’s an older article that seems to reappear every year during peak cruise season. Headlines like that are obvious click-bait, and I hesitated to click on it for that very reason, but in the end gave in to my curiosities and contributed to the problem. It doesn’t bother me that the author and the referenced sources don’t like cruising, as everyone has different tastes. I just find articles that deal in absolutes annoying, regardless of the topic, especially when posted on a “trusted” site. As expected, it was an aggravating article filled with only one side of the story. Shocker.

Before we get in to the points presented, I want to start out by saying that I’m not sitting here trying to say that everyone should cruise and love it. Everyone’s different, and people have different travel tastes. People are capable of making up their own minds, but anyone on the fence about trying cruising that runs across biased drivel like that could end up swayed by someone else’s failure to present a fair argument. Let’s look at the reasons presented:

Dangerous fellow passengers: I’ve heard the arguments presented in here before, including from the sources quoted and other prominent maritime lawyers. I don’t doubt that the threat is real, but it’s also one that exists just about anywhere you go on vacation, whether it’s a cruise, all-inclusive resort, vacation house in some exotic country, etc.  I do agree with the insinuation that it’s a bad idea to let your kids roam freely on a ship, and it does surprise me every cruise to see how many young kids are allowed to do so. A little common sense goes a long way, especially when it comes to being aware of your surroundings, keeping an eye on your kids, and watching how much you drink. That applies to any vacation.

Unhealthy eating and drinking: I’ve fallen in to this trap on cruises before, as our Thanksgiving cruise in 2011 quickly ended my 2500cal (max) per day diet that helped me drop just over 60lbs, and it was a real struggle to get back on track, but that was solely on me for caving at the first sight of Carnival’s warm chocolate melting cake. The cruise lines have added a number of healthy options over the years, but when you’re surrounded by a lot of delicious (and unhealthy) food, your willpower is tested. We’ve done all-inclusive resorts with the same issues, but on a cruise, it can be argued that it’s harder to avoid the temptation since you can’t just leave to find healthier options elsewhere. Is this a reason to “never ever take a cruise”? No more so than any all-inclusive vacation, just be smart about what and how much you eat. USA Today has some solid tips on how to eat healthy on a cruise.

Food poisoning and norovirus: Yup, it happens, although we’ve been fortunate to never encounter either on a cruise. Norovirus exposures are something the media loves to call out, but only when it happens on a ship, since there’s nothing sexy about reporting outbreaks at more common locations like hospitals and nursing homes. According to CDC stats, there are between 19-21 million reported cases annually in the U.S.. If you count the number of passengers on all U.S.-based sailings who contracted noro last year, again based on CDC stats, you get 1,766 passengers and crew reported to have contracted noro. Comparing against the lower end of 19m cases per year, U.S.-based cruises accounted for less than 1% of reported noro outbreaks in this country. Being smart while on a cruise (or anywhere with food, frankly) can go a long way to staving it off, too. The CDC has tips for that:

Mechanical difficulties and their consequences: We’ve all seen the news reports of the various breakdowns ships have had in the past few years, with the most famous probably being the Carnival Triumph. That was easily the worst I’ve heard of in modern cruising, and it’s something Carnival learned from as well, upgrading the backup power on all ships as well as implementing other safety measures to try and avoid that kind of damage again. Cruise lines still encounter issues that cause them to cut trips short which isn’t surprising given the number of moving parts on a ship, but for the most part they seem to handle those situations appropriately and provide some level of compensation to passengers in the event a cruise is cut short or a port has to be skipped. Yes, it’s disappointing to miss ports, but it’s better to be safe than sorry. Yet another issue that seems to impact a very small number of cruisers every year.

Unqualified doctors: I can’t really speak to this one, as we’ve only had to deal with medical on one cruise after my daughter was hurt during a cruise-sponsored shore excursion in Jamaica during our trip on the Norwegian Jewel several years ago. The doc took good care of her (which is more than I can say for the rest of the staff we dealt with about it), and I don’t recall having any complaints in that regard. The author was sure to select a scary looking picture to try and play on people’s fears of non-American doctors, so be afraid!

Too much fun in the sun: This is one of the most ridiculous arguments in the list. No one every has too much fun in the sun on a non-cruise vacation, right? That really bad sunburn I got skiing in college or the one I got at the resort in Mexico when I fell asleep in a lounge chair must have been all in my head. The author’s grasping for straws here.

Cruises rock – and roll: Another one that’s got some truth to it, as storms do happen at sea. If you cruise during hurricane season to an area they tend to hit, the risk is increased as well. Ship propulsion systems have gotten pretty good over the past few years, with stabilizing systems that can dampen the effect of smaller storms, and we’ve seen course changes made to avoid larger ones. My wife gets motion sick very easily, but in all the cruises we’ve done she has only had an issue once, when we were buried on a low deck with a porthole in a storm, and only when she was looking out the window. She wears motion sickness patches that she gets a prescription for prior to departure, and outside of that one incident has been fine. One of these days I need to get her to do a guest post with tips on how to avoid motion sickness on a cruise.

Your bed might bug you: I honestly have no idea what the stats are here, but in 9 cruises spanning 4 lines, we’ve never had this issue or known of anyone that has. Hotels seemed to get more press on this a few years ago when there were larger outbreaks, which just goes to show that it can happen anywhere.

Nothing to sneeze at: I’m not really sure what they’re getting at here, as the author gives nothing in the way of cruise-centric statistics showing that you’re more likely to suffer from allergies on a ship other than to say some allergens prefer moist environments (duh). I have significant allergy issues. I was tested a few years ago, you know the one where they put a tray of needles on your back and stab you with 50 different allergens? Yea, I had very noticeable allergic reactions to 48 of them, yet I’ve never had allergy issues on a ship. I have issues in hotels with 100% down pillows, when we’re out on excursions in the jungle, and even when I mow, but that’s why I carry stuff like Claratin D.

Mental health challenges: This was the final argument against it, one that I feel was a reach yet again. I completely understand that the environment might not suit someone who’s on the edge, but quoting statistics that include what one of the quoted sources calls “alleged” suicides is reckless in my opinion. Unless you’ve got the evidence to back it up, you leave that alone. The most that I’ll say to this one is that anyone feeling depressed should consult a doctor prior to *any* vacation, regardless of where it is.

The last slide is the only part of this that’s actually somewhat objective in my opinion, with even the sources stating that the majority of people who cruise have a good time, just like any other type of vacation. Shame it was buried at the end of a bunch of obviously biased arguments.

As I said before, cruising isn’t for everyone, but a headline that deals in scary absolutes is nothing more than a cheap attempt at click-baiting. If you never cruised before and are interested, research it. Read reviews, talk to friends who have, look at actual statistics for things you’re concerned about. Use all that info to make up your own mind. If it doesn’t seem like something you’d want to do, spend your hard-earned money on a vacation you will enjoy! Just don’t base your opinion of anything you haven’t tried on such an obviously biased article.


Renting Camera Gear

I know in my last post that I said I was done until after my trip this weekend, but after a package came today, I figured I had one more in me 🙂

I love to take pictures when on vacation, as most people do. I started shooting with DSLRs about 9 years ago when my daughter started in competitive cheer, but would say that even today, I’m an amateur photographer at best. While I used to lug my gear around any time we went on trips, I only really enjoy shooting with it under the right circumstances these days. Over the past few years, my interest in using the DSLR gear on vacations has waned, and while I do still take it with me, it serves as a backup camera to my point and shoot, which also happens to be my phone, currently a Nokia Lumia 1020 with the camera grip. While each has advantages and disadvantages, being able to carry such little weight when using a decent point and shoot is enough for me to leave the DSLR in the bag. Most of the time.

The main exception to my rule would be auto races, the one place I really enjoy shooting. Over the past few years, I’ve rented gear to haul to the following:

  • 2008 Grand Prix of Long Beach: Rented a Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G ED-IF AF-S VR to mount on my D80
  • 2010 Grand Prix of Long Beach: Rented a Nikon 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6 G ED-IF AF-S VR to mount on my D80
  • 2012 Rolex 24 at Daytona: Rented a Nikon D7000 + Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G ED VR II
  • 2015 Rolex 24 at Daytona: Rented a Nikon D750 + Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G ED VR II
  • Oh, and I also rented a Nikon 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6G ED AF-S VR to use with my D80 on a work trip to Yosemite in 2010.

The D750 and 70-200 arrived today, just in time for our departure tomorrow. I’ve used a couple of different services for this over the years, and, and have had nothing but good experiences with both of them. The majority of those listed above, however, have been with LensRentals. My main reason behind this is because they allow me to schedule well in advance what I want and when I need it, vs just waiting until a few days before the trip and hoping what I want is in stock. For this trip, I reserved the gear on the 7th for arrival today. I’ll keep it 4 days, and send it back in the packaging it arrived in on Monday on my way home, only needing to have some packing tape on hand since the return shipping label is included.

Both of the services do an outstanding job packaging their gear, which I would completely expect considering how much this equipment would cost to replace. Today’s box was no different:


The main reason I’m willing to rent and lug heavy gear around with me is that it’s next to impossible to get a decent shot of a race car at speed using a P&S. Shooting a moving vehicle is a mix of stable panning, fast glass, perfect shot settings, and good location. The professionals generate some awesome images. Me, I’m just happy to get pictures to use as desktop backgrounds, to be honest. The other challenge will be the number of pictures I take. I leave it in burst mode the whole weekend, and usually max out the camera buffer when I’m shooting a passing car from the fence line, and am guessing I’ll easily come home with somewhere between 2500-3000 pictures to sort through this trip. Most of that will likely be throw away, too, but the ones that turn out good will occupy my computer screens for quite a while.

Back to the rental services. Honestly, I find this to be a great way not only to try new gear, but to avoid paying the price of buying something you may only use a couple of times. I’ve always received solid, perfectly working gear, and the few times I did have to contact either company’s support for something, they were always very friendly and helpful. For anyone who’s never used a camera rental service but isn’t interested in renting DSLR gear, most of them aren’t limited to that, some have point and shoot cameras and GoPro gear, too.

One last recommendation for anyone renting high-end gear: Get the insurance for anything you’re not willing to pay replacement cost on. On our 2010 trip to Long Beach, I dropped my camera while it had the 18-200 rental lens on it. As soon as it left my hands, my heart sank. I didn’t even want to pick it up. When I did, I could tell that the lens was a bit jacked up, as the focus ring was loose, and the lens itself wasn’t 100% secure on the mount. We were at the car getting ready to head to the hotel on day 2 (of 3) when it happened, so I wrapped it up and waited to asses it further until we got to the hotel. When we got back to the room, I went ahead and emailed RentGlass to let them know what happened and ask for next steps. Long story short, after we got home, I sent the lens back as scheduled and waited to find out how much the repair was going to cost. Fortunately, none of the glass was damaged, and Nikon’s price to repair was only $125. That was the one time I skipped insurance, and I was sure I was going to have to pay for a new lens, so I was pretty happy with that outcome. It was a lesson for sure, and is still the only time I’ve ever dropped a camera.

Well, I’m off to finish packing since we’re off to Daytona in the morning! For now, here are a handful of my favorite shots taken with rental gear over the years:

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