MSC Cruises - Embarkation Day in Southampton (May 2023)
In May 2023, we boarded MSC Virtuosa as first time MSC cruisers. This was also the first time we sailed from the new Horizon Cruise Terminal. We're experienced cruisers, with P&O being our favoured cruise line, but we have also cruised with Princess and Holland America Line. As new to MSC cruisers, we found parts of the embarkation process to be a little overwhelming and confusing, so hopefully this guide will help others in a similar position.
MSC for Me
We downloaded and used the MSC for Me app prior to boarding to allow us to check in. This app is similar to those used by other cruise lines, enabling you to enter your passport details etc in advance, so that the process is faster at the terminal. MSC for Me is available via your App Store and you can login in either using your MSC Voyagers account or cruise booking information. Once you're in, you'll have a cruise countdown on your homepage. You will also have access to book excursions, check in, and prebook other items such as drinks and dining packages.
We were able to complete the initial check in information which included passport details, emergency contact information and insurance information but couldn't get the app to accept our credit card details. From viewing MSC Facebook groups, we discovered that this is a common issue and we had no problem adding a credit card once onboard.
Arriving in Southampton
We initially had a boarding time of 2pm but this was updated close to our sailing date and became 12pm. MSC start boarding early, so if you're used to other cruise lines such as P&O Cruises, don't be surprised to receive a 10am slot with MSC. When we arrived at Horizon Cruise Terminal, the only way to describe it was chaotic. We arrived pretty much bang on our boarding time, but in all honesty it wouldn't have mattered. Nobody checked any paperwork, and there were no staff directing passengers into queues. We later learnt that the queues had really built up by 12 and had we arrived a bit earlier and ignored the time we were given, we'd have had a much smoother boarding experience.
We joined a large queue to hand over our luggage, then continued on in the same queue so that we could enter the terminal building. At Horizon, security is set up on the ground floor. Here you will go through security, where your hand luggage backs are scanned. After this, you can head on up to check in. We then had to join a third queue, this time to get to the check in desks. Some guests were randomly being pulled out of this queue and sent straight to the priority check in desk. There didn't appear to be any qualifying criteria for this, the member of staff just seemed to pull out random groups.
All in all, we were queuing for about an hour outside and a further 20 minutes inside the building. As we'd completed most of our details via the MSC for Me app, the check in process itself was very fast. Cruise cards were handed to us at the check in desk and we were able to proceed onto the ship. It's also worth noting that this was a full sailing, during UK school holidays, so there were just over 6000 passengers embarking on this date, with over 2000 of them being children.
Onboard the Ship
As previously mentioned, we weren't able to register a credit card prior to boarding. Unlike every cruise line we've sailed with previously, they don't complete this step for you at the check in desk. Once onboard, there are numerous machines. Most of these are around the atrium area, where you register your card yourself. You can also load cash onto your cruise card at these machines. The machines closest to the gangway had large queues, but if you took the time to go up a flight of stairs or two, there were some quieter machines. You have to complete this step before you can order anything onboard, even if you have a drinks package, so understandably everybody was trying to get this done straight away.
We had a small issue with our credit card registration but it wasn't major. We wanted to register one card for both of us, but the member of staff helping us directed us to untick the box to allow this. This meant we had to return and register the same card for the other person and we ended up with two separate charges to the card after the cruise instead of just one.
Overall, the embarkation process could have been smoother. The main issue for us was the lack of communication. Along with lots of others, we had to join a queue without knowing what it was for and hope for the best. Luckily, it was the correct queue. However, the group in front of us ended up queuing twice as there was no separate queue to check in if you'd previously dropped your luggage off. Horizon Cruise Terminal is a nice, modern building and once we were inside, we found it to be set up well. Regular cruisers will know that there is always debate regarding embarkation times. We think there needs to be a middle ground between MSC's free for all approach, and P&O's very strict if you aren't right on time you aren't coming in approach.
If you want to know more abut our embarkation experience, we talk about it in our Day 1 Vlog over on our YouTube channel, check it out below.