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5 things I absolutely hated (and 4 I loved) about my cheap Costa Cruise (I might never do it again)

Jenna selfie next to x over buffet image

Would you sail on a cruise ship with a 2.8 star rating out of 5? Recently, I did just that, and by the end of my week onboard, I couldn't wait to disembark for good.

While researching European cruises earlier this year, I came across a cheap 7-night cruise on Costa Toscana, the world’s 8th biggest cruise ship, which launched in 2021. Wanting to try something new, I booked the cruise on a whim for $1,090 as a solo traveler.

Prior to booking, I kept an open mind about Costa Cruises. I wasn’t going to let my cruise experience be ruined by the lasting reputation from the Costa Concordia disaster of 2012, or even by the ship’s low rating on Cruise Critic’s website.

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Costa Toscana cruise critic rating

Yet by the end of my week onboard Costa Toscana, I was, unfortunately, more than ready to disembark. Although there were certain aspects of the vacation I enjoyed, including the food quality and itinerary, the experience was tainted by poor organization and ship design.

Here are 5 things I absolutely hated (and 4 I loved) about my cheap Costa Cruise.

I hated Costa Toscana’s main buffet, and it was unnecessarily chaotic

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Crowded buffet on Costa Toscana

On the first evening of my cruise, I was disturbed by the utter chaos of the ship’s main buffet, La Sagra Dei Sapori. It’s normal for hundreds of passengers to be at a cruise ship buffet at one time, but Costa Cruises failed at managing the crowds well.

For starters, the buffet was not self-service. Instead, passengers had to line up at a separate station for each type of food they wanted. In the mood for a salad? A bowl of pesto rigatoni? A piece of salmon? If so, you’ll have to line up at each respective station, and you should expect a long line—it could be a ten-minute wait for popular stations, particularly for meat and fish.

Frankly, I found the buffet system ridiculous on a cruise ship with 6,000 guests, and it was not the fault of the crew members or passengers, just bad ship design. Thankfully, during breakfast and lunch, Costa Toscana offers a self-service buffet at two of its main dining rooms. These buffets were far less crowded, with no shortage of seating and no lines to speak of.

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Costa Toscana buffet

Related: 10 things you should never do at a cruise ship buffet

I tried to avoid La Sagra Dei Sapori as much as possible in favor of the other buffets, but unfortunately, it was the only one open for dinner service. The saving grace of the buffet was that the food was quite good, especially the pasta!

I loved my easy embarkation process, but the flexible embarkation system isn’t perfect

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Embarkation in Rome

Many European cruise lines, including MSC and Costa, offer the ability to embark or disembark in any port of call. This makes their cruises sellable to a wider range of guests, as a Spanish guest, for instance, could embark in Barcelona instead of flying to Genoa, and vice versa.

This also makes planning cruises easier, as you can, theoretically, start a cruise vacation on any particular day. When I booked my cruise, I knew I wanted to start my vacation on April 26, so I booked my Costa Toscana cruise departing from Rome.

Rome, specifically the Civitavecchia port, is not the primary embarkation port for Costa Cruises. The cruise line’s homeport is in Savona, Italy, and it’s where a majority of cruisers embark and disembark. Starting my cruise in one of the secondary ports meant my embarkation process was simple; only a fraction of guests were embarking in Civitavecchia, so I encountered few lines and an overall pleasant embarkation experience.

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Costa Toscana cruise ship exterior

Flexible embarkation has its cons, of course. Although my embarkation day was relaxing, having new guests embark on the ship each day means there is a sense of confusion each morning and afternoon. Hundreds of guests with suitcases can be seen wandering the ship in the morning, and traditional activities like the sailaway party might happen midway through your cruise.

Regardless of these downsides, my embarkation process on Costa was seamless, and I was happy I didn’t have to be in a herd of thousands of other guests embarking at the same time.

Related: 11 Things You Should Never Do on Embarkation Day

I hated that adults-only spaces were not enforced

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Solarium on Costa Toscana

Costa Toscana technically has two adults-only pool spaces, but you shouldn’t actually expect these areas to be free of children.

Halfway through my cruise, I decided to finally check out the adults-only Solarium space on Costa Toscana’s pool deck. To my surprise, I found kids swimming in the pool. When I walked by a few hours later, there were even more children at the pool.

It appeared the adults-only areas were not enforced on the ship, but I don’t necessarily blame my fellow passengers. The sign saying “adults-only” is so small that it’s easy to miss—although I’m not sure a bigger sign would make a difference, anyway.

Related: 13 Best Adult Cruise Lines

Costa Cruises caters to families with children, and there were kids virtually everywhere onboard. In general, I’d say Italians tolerate children in adult-centered spaces more than Americans, so I understand why there may have been kids at the adults-only pool.

Even so, those looking for an adult-focused getaway should steer clear of Costa.

I loved the Italian atmosphere onboard, from the food to the itinerary and decor, but it had its quirks

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Pistachio coffee on Costa Toscana

Because Costa Cruises is an Italian cruise line, it’s understandable that the onboard experience will be heavily catered to Italian tastes. If you board a Costa Cruise expecting an American-centric experience, you’re guaranteed to be surprised.

First off, the primary language spoken is Italian. English-speaking guests will not encounter language difficulties, though, as crew members all speak English.

The ship was designed in the theme of Italian cityscapes, with venues like Gelateria Amarillo designed to feel like an Italian piazza. Even the bars matched the ship’s Italian atmosphere, such as the Aperol Spritz Bar, which specialized in the famous Venetian apéritif.

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Gelateria on Costa Toscana

Of course, sailing on an Italian cruise line means you should expect more than just a few differences in terms of operations. Mealtimes, for instance, were much later than what many northern Europeans and North Americans would be used to.

The earliest dinner seating was at 6PM, but the buffet did not open until 7:30PM for dinner. Personally, I felt 6PM was a perfect dinner time for early seating, but I felt the buffet could have expanded the dinner hours to cut down on crowds.

Additionally, service was less hands-on than an American cruise line, which matched a European expectation of service. By default, guests should expect less chit-chat with crew members compared to a line like Royal Caribbean, although the staff was always friendly when I initiated a conversation.

I hated the tolerance for smoking onboard and wished the rules were stricter

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Pool deck on Costa Toscana

On the subject of cultural differences, one aspect of Costa Cruises I could not get over was the smoking tolerance. Having traveled extensively throughout Italy, I’ve become accustomed to a higher prevalence of smoking, but that doesn’t mean I enjoy it.

Smoking is far more common in Italy compared to the US, and with that comes a higher tolerance for cigarette smoke. Personally, I hate smelling and inhaling cigarette smoke, and this was a major con of cruising on Costa.

Related: Can you smoke on a cruise ship?

While the ship does have designated smoking areas, there seemed to be far more cigarette smoke compared to any European cruise I’ve taken prior. To make matters worse, guests are permitted to smoke on their balconies on Costa, but I was fortunate none of my balcony neighbors were smokers!

I loved the specialty restaurants—a dining package is almost a necessity on the ship

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Salmon on Costa Toscana

After being overwhelmed at Costa Toscana’s frenzied buffet, I decided to splurge on a 3-night dining package for my sailing. I spent €110 for the package, which entitled me to dine at three of the ship’s specialty restaurants.

I am usually cruising on a strict budget, but I’m never opposed to spending money on specialty dining, regardless of the cruise ship. I find the atmosphere of specialty restaurants much more intimate than the main dining rooms, and the quality of the food is typically several notches higher, too.

However, on Costa Toscana I didn’t just enjoy my meals at specialty restaurants—I loved them! The quality of ingredients at specialty restaurants, from the teriyaki salmon Teppanyaki to the Ligurian pesto pizza at Pizzeria Pummid'oro, was exceptional. Everything tasted like it could have come from a high-end restaurant on land.

Related: 16 hidden cruise ship extra charges you should know about

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Hibachi on Costa Toscana

If I had to change one thing about specialty dining on Costa Toscana, though, I would alter the dining package price. Unless one of your meals is at Archipelago—the ship’s most exclusive restaurant—you’re better off paying for each meal individually. I also thought the dining package rules could have been better explained, as I wasn't always sure what was and was not included in the package without asking.

I hated the seating at entertainment venues, which made it impossible to watch shows

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Poltrona Frau Arena

My usage of the word hate in this article should be taken lightly. Truthfully, while I disliked certain things, I didn’t hate any aspects of my Costa Toscana experience except for one thing—the entertainment venues.

I’m not quite sure what the cruise line was thinking when designing the theaters on Costa Toscana, if you could even call them theaters. Unfortunately, the venues had so many obstructed views that it was nearly impossible to watch a show without showing up hours ahead of time.

The main entertainment space, named the Colosseo, is a three-deck-high “amphitheater” that functionally works as the ship’s main atrium. Shows in the Colosseo focus on acrobatics, circus tricks, and vocalists, and from what I could see, the shows were impressive.

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Colosseo on Costa Toscana

That being said, the Colosseo’s design ruined the experience for me. There is only a small amount of seating with a full view of the stage, but these seats were often occupied hours before a show began, as passengers also used the seating as a hangout space in the atrium.

Every other seat in the area gives an obstructed view. There are even television screens around the stage so passengers can watch the show (that is happening right in front of them) on the screen instead. The alternative is to stand behind the non-obstructed seats, but this isn’t exactly a comfortable option.

Poltrona Frau Arena, the ship's other entertainment space, doubled as a nightclub and production venue. Like the Colosseo, it was not set up like a traditional theater, which unfortunately meant seating options with adequate views were limited.

I loved the itinerary, even if we encountered poor weather

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Palermo Italy street

All in all, a cruise vacation is just as much about the ports you’ll visit as it is about the ship. While there were certain aspects I disliked about my Costa Toscana cruise, one thing I did love was the itinerary.

European cruises are among my favorite cruise itineraries, especially when visiting new-to-me ports. During my week onboard, Costa Toscana called upon five ports of call: Savona, Marseille, Barcelona, Palma de Mallorca, and Palermo.

Related: Mistakes to avoid on a European cruise

Exploring these diverse ports in three different countries was exhilarating. I had the chance to visit intricate cathedrals, taste local delicacies, and knock a few more cities off my travel bucket list.

Unfortunately, a few port days were marked with poor weather—particularly in Barcelona, where it poured rain from sunrise to sunset. Nonetheless, I made the most of my port days, and the dreamy itinerary was perhaps my favorite aspect of my Costa experience.

I hated the lack of onboard programming compared to other cruise lines

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Dance party on Costa Toscana

The last thing I disliked about my cheap Costa Toscana cruise was the lack of onboard programming.

On port days, Costa Toscana only seemed to offer most programming after 7PM, which mostly consisted of live music, production shows, and karaoke. Group exercise classes and the occasional trivia session were offered earlier in the day.

The itinerary’s only sea day saw more activities available, such as the Zorb challenge, during which participants ran through an obstacle course while stuck inside a giant inflatable ball. Even still, a majority of activities offered on sea days involved selling something, such as a free event to learn how to tie a sarong at the bikini store.

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Zorb challenge on Costa Toscana

I thoroughly enjoyed the activities I did attend, from live music to the midnight silent disco, and I only wished there was more available to do during the day.

Overall, I’m not sure I would sail on Costa Cruises again after my first experience

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Indoor pool on Costa Toscana

I always try to look at the bright side when cruising, but I’m not sure I would sail on Costa Cruises again.

While the ship was beautiful and I had nothing but positive interactions with crew members, it’s hard to overlook major downsides like the lack of daytime programming and poor crowd management. A few small tweaks, such as expanding hours at the buffet dinner service and offering poolside bar service, could have enhanced the overall experience greatly.

Even when comparing Costa Cruise and MSC Cruises—two of the major European lines—I preferred cruising on MSC by a long shot. I did find the food quality better on Costa Toscana compared to my MSC World Europa cruise last year, but MSC offers a greater variety of cuisines included in the cruise fare.

When reading Cruise Critic’s reviews about Costa Toscana, I unfortunately have to agree with a majority of them. Although I would consider sailing on the vessel again if a unique itinerary required it, I think I’ll stick to other cruise lines for my next European cruise.

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