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MSC Cruises has been rated the worst cruise line by passengers who complained about poor customer service, surly staff and mediocre food, according to a new survey of Which? readers.

The consumer champion spoke to thousands of holidaymakers about their ocean cruise experiences and while some companies were satisfying their customers, MSC was firmly anchored at the bottom of the table for the second year running with a customer score of only 57 per cent.

MSC can carry almost 6,500 passengers at any one time across its fleet of 19 mega-liners. According to those surveyed this scale posed a problem. One passenger summed up the complaints of many by saying: “The ship was huge, with a lot of people, resulting in queues at key times – like meals and entertainment.”

To make matters worse, one holidaymaker reported feeling like they had to “cheer up the staff”. Another described an unruly scene of “people smoking on decks where it wasn’t permitted” and throwing cigarette ends everywhere. This led to a two-star social atmosphere rating.

MSC fared badly in most other categories too with bog-standard scores across the board. Food and drink was rated just two stars, as were port excursions. Cabins were a little better with a rating of three stars, and many describing all three as “average” or “disappointing”.

It is unsurprising then that when Which? asked holidaymakers if they had had a problem during their cruise, more than half of MSC passengers said they did. In fact, a fifth (19%) went as far as to complain compared with just four per cent across all brands.

Almost a quarter of those included in the survey had cruised with P&O in the last two years. Many of those surveyed were loyal customers who kept coming back, helping earn the company a respectable 71 per cent customer score.

With the most cruises departing from the UK to the Carribean, passengers told Which? they liked the ease of flight-free travel with P&O as well as the no dining rota while some even enjoyed the comedy acts ‘straight from the 1970s’. But several repeat travellers complained that standards have slipped, that it’s become a “downmarket company, priced accordingly” and akin to “Butlins on sea”.

The lowest star rating for P&O was for the social atmosphere with a few of those surveyed describing the pool area as being “overrun” and “a nightmare”. There were also expensive add-ons, including wi-fi costing £6.75-£24.95 a day.

Meanwhile, lesser-known Oceania cruises found itself in the top half of the table with a customer score of 81 per cent. While headline prices are high, this does include flights and food, and it’s cheaper than other luxury rivals. Those in the know were wowed by the 400 staff to 684 passenger ratio, with one revealing the team “could not have done more to make us feel like valued guests”.

This Miami-based luxury cruise line focuses on wellbeing, yoga and fitness but lost points when it came to entertainment. Those looking for a Broadway-style experience were disappointed with the “low-key” acts on offer.

No other cruise company came close to Viking Ocean Cruises. This company, which carries a maximum of 930 passengers per trip, scored an outstanding full five stars in every category.

The upmarket, adults-only ships allow holidaymakers to avoid the rowdy bars, casinos and “the hard sell” synonymous with cheaper rivals – resulting in top marks for value for money – something only achieved by next most highly rated, Saga.

Customers told us they appreciated the “classy”, “crowd-free” atmosphere with Viking. Instead, relaxation is the focus, with a Nordic spa among facilities on offer. There are also lecture theatres and jazz lounges.

No wonder then that this company sailed ahead of its rivals with an impressive 93 per cent customer score.

Which? found several brands with the cheapest tickets had a long, long list of expensive add-ons – from having to pay for excursions and expensive drink packages, to being asked to pay extra for better food – earning these ‘budget’ brands poor ratings.

In contrast, the brands that label themselves as ‘boutique cruises’ and mainly offer all-inclusive packages which sometimes include chauffeur services, private veranda as well as excursions and ad-hoc drinks and snacks fared far better overall.

Rory Boland, Which? Travel Editor, said: “Cruises shouldn’t be about long queues, expensive extras and rubbish excursions, especially when you’ve already forked out thousands of pounds for your trip and have limited choice about how you spend your time and money on board.

“Bargain headline prices often mean dubious add-ons once you set sail. A far better experience was had by those who paid for an all-inclusive cruise where pricier upfront tickets will give you peace of mind and might actually leave you paying less overall.”

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