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7 Differences Between MSC and Costa Cruises – All Italian Cruise Lines Aren’t The Same

In this post, we look at the differences I have noticed between the cruise lines Costa and MSC.

Both are Italian cruise lines, and both offer very good value for money. They are very different from British or American cruise lines though.

I have taken many cruises with MSC, and two with Costa Cruises. One was on an older, smaller Costa ship, and one on a Mega Ship, Costa Smeralda.

These differences are related to the following:

  • Dining format
  • Water
  • Smoking
  • Buffet opening times
  • Ship design
  • Pizza & Ice Cream
  • Housekeeping

My First Costa Cruise

In December 2018 I took my first Costa Cruise onboard the Costa Luminosa.

I’d always seen bargain Costa Cruises popping into my inbox and this time I decided to take the plunge.

We booked a last-minute deal two weeks before the cruise, and set off for Venice. That cruise took us around Italy and the Greek Islands.

Costa Luminosa has now transferred to a different part of the Carnival parent company and is sailing after a refit as Carnival Luminosa.

I took a Cruise on Costa Smeralda in January 2023. We got a really cheap out-of-season deal, and I was interested to find out what I would get for my money

My Many MSC Cruises

I have cruised on:

  • MSC Opera
  • MSC Meraviglia
  • MSC Virtuosa
  • MSC Seaview
  • MSC Preziosa

…and have another new MSC Ship booked.

My first was in 2011 onboard the MSC Opera. Since that original cruise MSC seem to have really “Upped their game.”

The newer MSC ships are large, modern – and very sparkly! I always feel I get good value for money on an MSC cruise.

If you are booking from the UK, service charges are included within the fare. This makes a big difference to the cost of your cruise.

On Costa, they charge a daily service charge, like the American Cruise Lines.

MSC Meraviglia Toulon Mediterranean Cruise

1 – Dining Format – Main Dining Room

The main difference in dining between MSC and Costa is the number of courses offered/format of the dining experience.

Both cruise lines offer similar food focusing on Mediterranean cuisine (think pizza, pasta,bread etc). They also both have speciality restaurants which cost extra.

Dinner on MSC

Most guests cruising with MSC have fixed dining.

A more flexible option is available to guests who have paid more for a more expensive ‘Aurea’ category of cabin – but mostly, dining is fixed.

Dinner comprises a starter, main and dessert.

There is late and early seating and we could be in and out of dinner within around an hour. This is pretty standard on American and British cruise lines too.

MSC Meraviglia Panorama Restaurant
MSC Meraviglia Panorama Restaurant

Dinner on Costa Cruises

All dining on Costa is fixed time dining, and they offer an early or a late sitting.

Late is usually far more popular, and I found that most other guests liked to dine far later than me. I personally would always choose an early sitting if I could.

On Costa Luminosa there were a number of courses and guests seemed to pick and choose from whatever courses they wanted at the time.

We were table sharing with 4 other English-speaking guests on Costa Luminosa. Dinner always took at least two hours – sometimes two and a half or three!

We usually skipped a number of the courses but because we were table-sharing we had to wait for everybody else to finish.

When we sailed on Costa Smeralda we also had fixed dining, but we didn’t have to table share with others. We had a table for our party of four to ourselves.

It was a very modern ship, and I was impressed by how the waiters could also speak multiple languages, swapping from one to the next with ease.

Costa Cruises Luminosa Main Dining Room

2 – Water

Drinking Water on MSC

If you are from the UK and book an MSC cruise you’ll receive free tea/coffee and bottled water with main meals.

The waiters are always on hand to give you a top-up, and I make good use of this!

msc meraviglia water free main meals

Water on Costa Cruises

On Costa Cruises, you don’t get free water with meals. You need to buy bottled water.

Considering how cheap Costa cruises are I don’t think this is a big deal, but it is something to bear in mind when budgeting.

We bought a water package on Costa Luminosa, which made it slightly cheaper per bottle.

It is always really important to stay hydrated when cruising so this isn’t something to cut back on. There is water available all of the time in the buffet – if the buffet is open.

Having learnt from our first Costa Cruise experience, we bought a soda package as soon as we stepped onboard Costa Smeralda!

We had soda with all of our meals, so no free water wasn’t a problem.

On American and British lines tap water is always free in the main restaurants.

3 – Smoking

On all cruise lines and ships, there are designated smoking areas.

Some cruise lines have smoking areas on the top deck or promenade deck and all have smoking areas inside.

The smoking area may be a special bar dedicated to smoking or a section of the casino or a bar.

Smoking on MSC

On MSC ships smoking isn’t allowed in cabins or on balconies.

MSC have designated smoking areas on the deck where smokers will find ashtrays.

They also have some bars/lounges where you can smoke but as far as I can remember they don’t have an entire lounge or bar dedicated to smoking. The same rules apply to vaping.

I don’t smoke and I’ve never really noticed anybody smoking on an MSC ship.

Smoking on Costa Cruises

On Costa Cruises, guests can smoke on their balconies and they usually have a designated cigar lounge where guests can smoke.

Electronic cigarettes can be used in the cabins. There also seemed to be a lot more smoking points around the ship on the top decks.

Smoking – cigarettes, cigars and pipes – is forbidden in all public areas of the ship except the areas marked as “Cigar Lounge”. Electronic cigarettes may only be used in the cabins and in the areas marked as “Cigar Lounge”. In some public areas, smoking is allowed only in designated outdoor Smoking Points equipped with ashtrays. Smoking is not allowed in cabins but is permitted outdoors on private balconies.

Costa Cruises

The smoking really didn’t bother me at all but it definitely was more noticeable than on other cruise lines that I’ve been on in the past.

Find out which cruise lines allow their guests to smoke on their balconies in the post below:

Cruise Line Balcony Smoking Policies – On These Four Lines You Can Still Smoke On The Balcony

Costa Cruises Bar Luminosa Outside Deck

4 – Buffet opening times

Buffet opening times on MSC

On MSC the buffet is almost always open.

On newer bigger ships like the Meraviglia often one side of the restaurant will close when they transition from breakfast to lunch or lunch to dinner. This means that the buffet rarely closes completely.

The buffet on MSC ships are often open up to 20 hours a day!!! 

Msc meraviglia buffet pastries

Buffet opening times on Costa Cruises

I don’t remember the exact times that the buffet was open on my Costa Cruises, but what I do remember is that the buffet closed between set meal times completely.

On Costa Smeralda, we were always waiting for afternoon snacks to open at 4 pm, as they served amazing Churos!

costa cruises buffet food

4 p.m. for afternoon snacks seemed a little late to us – but most of the Italians on board didn’t eat dinner until 9 p.m., so I suppose late afternoon snacks make sense.

On one day on Costa Luminosa, breakfast finished at 10 am (I was still asleep at this point) and it didn’t open until lunch at 12 pm.

Not a problem if you know this is going to happen and can maybe grab some snacks from the buffet the night before. I just didn’t expect there to be no “food-free time” on a cruise!

Find out all about what I ate on my Costa Smeralda Cruise, in the buffet, dining room and speciality restaurants here:

Everything I Ate on my Costa Cruise (Photos and Menus) – Food Review

Costa Luminosa Buffet

5 – Ship design

The Design of MSC Ships

MSC ships are very glamorous, they’re all about sparkles and have very clean lines and a modern look.

The MSC style is very distinctive and no other lines really have ships like it. I would describe the style as “Italian elegance.

Some of the newer MSC ships have a central “street” with an LED ceiling all the way along it. On this, they show a series of amazing animations, including ports of call the ship will be visiting.

msc virtuosa central street
MSC “Galleria Virtuosa” – or central street onboard MSC Virtuosa

Check out my video below to see what I mean:

The Design of Costa’s Ships

When I first stepped onboard the Costa Luminosa I was completely lost for words!

I’d never seen anything quite like it before. Costa ships are SO colourful and so fun, they’re full of life and there are quirky design pieces everywhere.

I particularly liked the statue of the big naked lady in the atrium. She is still there, even though the ship is now sailing as Carnival Luminosa…

Costa Luminosa Statue Women in Lobby

Costa Smeralda was no different. Every deck was a different ( bright) colour. That made it very easy to find your way back to your own cabin! Just stop going down the stairs when you get to the right colour…

costa smeralda bathroom interior
My favourite ever cruise ship public toilets – they reminded me of beach huts! Costa Smeralda.

Don’t sail on Costa ships if you prefer a tasteful, muted colour scheme!

6 – Pizza & Ice Cream!

Most cruise lines will have Pizza and Ice Cream on their menus.

This isn’t anything particularly special but because MSC and Costa are Italian cruise lines I had slightly higher expectations on the Pizza and Ice Cream front.

Pizza and Ice Cream on MSC

There is access to Pizza on MSC ships at almost all times of the day.

Onboard the MSC Meraviglia there is access to pizza for something like 20 hours a day! Amazing. It’s also possible to get Ice Cream in the main dining room any day.

We often got late-night pizza and took it back to our room. I can’t eat dairy but they also had cheeseless pizza!

msc cruises pizza

Pizza and Ice Cream on Costa Cruises

I expected the buffet and main dining room menus to be filled with pizza and ice creams.

However, we NEVER saw either on any menu. I suspect that this is because Costa has ice creams and pizza available at an extra cost, so don’t want to give these away for free.

A bit of a shame I thought – but as I said earlier, both Costa cruises were so cheap that I don’t think I can complain about the absence of pizza!

costa cruises pizza Pummid'Oro Pizzeria
Costa Cruises pizza in the restaurant “Pummid’Oro Pizzeria” (at an extra charge)

On Costa Smeralda, you could get mini pizzas, or you could pay to get a Pizza at an additional charge speciality restaurant.

I did go to the Pizza restaurant, but the experience was slightly spoilt for me by having someone else’s baby sat under our table as we ate! No, I am not joking…

Costa is a very popular line for families, probably because of their very cheap children’s fares.

Find out all about my Costa Smeralda experience, including the rogue baby in the pizza restaurant here:

7 – Housekeeping

On most cruise lines your cabin is made up and made down each day by your room steward. Your room will be tidied, your towels and bedding changed and things like your ice bucket refilled.

Your room steward will also bring you the daily schedule each evening and generally be around to help if you need anything.

Housekeeping on MSC Cruises

Like most American/British lines your room is cleaned twice a day on MSC Cruises.

The room is made up in the morning (bed made etc) and made down in the evening.

I usually end up getting into bed in the afternoon for a nap and I do feel a little bad about this considering they’ve just made it for me. An afternoon nap is an important part of a cruise for me!

Housekeeping on Costa Cruises

On Costa Cruises, your room is only cleaned once a day. Really this is all that is needed and it’s perfectly adequate.

My room on Costa Smeralda had one very unusual feature. Find out all about that here:


The above differences are really small parts of the cruise experience.

In general, the cruise lines are pretty similar and I’m sure that if you like cruising on one, you’d like cruising on the other.

It is important to remember how cheap MSC and Costa cruises can be. The price that I paid for the Costa Luminosa and MSC Meraviglia cruises were both well under £50 per night. At that price, I find it very difficult to complain!

Below are some similarities between the lines:

  • Passengers board at multiple ports during the cruise, this is unlike most American/British lines where there is a start and end point to each cruise.
  • Many languages are spoken onboard. Entertainment and general announcements are done in multiple languages.
  • The food is primarily Italian or Mediterranean, although other types of food are available.

I would describe MSC as an Italian cruise line, designed by Italians – but not for only Italian people

There are usually a lot of people onboard who speak English and I haven’t ever felt that language was a problem.

On Costa Cruises we were definitely more in the minority by being English-speaking – having said that, it wasn’t a problem at all and I had a great time on every cruise.

On Costa Cruises you get an “English Speaking Representative” who checks in with you to make sure you are having a good time and have no problems! A very nice touch, I thought.

Check out my MSC versus Costa Cruises video below:

Before You Go

If you’ve cruised with an American or British line before, check out this post about the differences between MSC and Royal Caribbean. They’re very different experiences, and it’s better if you’re prepared.

If you are looking to book a cheap cruise, read this post next. It tells you when is the best time to book to get the best possible deal.

When Are Cruise Prices At Their Cheapest? Hints and Tips To Help You Book At The Right Time

Free Insiders Cruise Line Guide

Ever wondered how the mainstream cruise lines compare? Cruise lines won’t tell you this, but I will.

This FREE guide shows you everything you need to know to find your perfect cruise line.


Friday 5th of April 2019

Based on the premise that when I go on a cruise I kind of expect there to always be free food available so that I can/could eat whenever I want ... I think I would/will stray away from Costa cruises. Would you be able to get room service on Costa Cruises for free when the buffet is closed? I guess I have only ever been on American cruise lines and they offer free room service so it would be interesting to know if Costa offers that when the buffet is closed?

Emma Le Teace

Sunday 7th of April 2019

Hey Lindsay, thanks for your comment! I believe they do offer room service but it is for a cost so isn't anything I would consider. This Costa cruise was less than £50 per night so I'm treating any food as a bonus! :)