Wi-Fi on cruise ships: 5 things to know about internet use on board
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I have good news for those of you who assume the only way to stay in touch with home from a cruise ship is via a message in a bottle: Cruise ships come equipped with internet, and cruise Wi-Fi connections have been getting faster at a rapid rate — and cheaper, too.
While checking emails and surfing the web on some vessels still requires the patience of Job, onboard technological improvements on many ships combined with new satellite and direct ship-to-shore systems is making cruise internet access much more like what you find on land (or even in the air).
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If you’re a first-time cruiser, you’re likely most concerned with the basics: Do cruise ships have Wi-Fi and how much does Wi-Fi cost on a cruise? Repeat cruisers who have paid the price for finicky service may be wondering the best way to access fast connection speeds across their devices while avoiding unnecessary charges.
I can guide you through the ins and outs of Wi-Fi on cruise ships. Here are five things to know about onboard internet before you set sail.
Wi-Fi on cruise ships will never be as fast (or reliable) as home
Yes, all cruise ships today offer an internet connection, but it might not be the seamless experience you’ve come to expect on land.
For most of the many years I’ve been writing about cruising, the typical internet connection at sea hasn’t just been slow. It’s been glacial. You’d click on a website only to experience many seconds of frustration. Maybe the page would come up. Maybe it wouldn’t. Maybe the cruise would end while you were still sitting there.
Why the slow speeds? To start, there is no Comcast cable wire running to your cruise ship. On cruise ships, every packet of data you are downloading onto your phone or computer, for the most part, is coming over a satellite, which is not a quick or inexpensive proposition.
The maritime communication companies that specialize in providing internet connections to ships have been trying to speed things up in recent years. Solutions have included adding more satellites and linking their systems to land-based towers that connect with ships as they near shore.
But, in the end, there are limits to just how well a satellite system can work. For starters, a ship needs a clear “line of sight” to a satellite to exchange data, something that isn’t always the case. Cruise ships traveling through the famed Norwegian fjords, for instance, can lose their satellite signal due to the height of surrounding mountains.
And there are certain parts of the world where satellite coverage is too thin or nonexistent to allow for internet access on cruise ships. During a sailing in the Russian Arctic on a Hapag-Lloyd Cruises ship, I was forced to live without internet for a good part of a week due to a lack of satellite coverage in the area (something, I must say, was kind of wonderful).
So while onboard cruise Wi-Fi speeds are getting better, they’ll never be as fast as at home, where a hard wire brings the signal straight to your router.
Onboard internet speed is getting much faster
On some cruise ships, the signal has become so much faster you now can stream Netflix from the comfort of your cabin — something that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago.
New satellite systems, paired with multimillion-dollar investments in shipboard technology, really are making things better in a big way. A turning point came in 2014, when cruise giant Royal Caribbean partnered with satellite company O3b Networks to create a new onboard internet system that it claimed was six times faster than anything else at sea. Called Voom, the system tapped into new Medium Earth Orbit satellites operated by O3b that can shoot their beams directly at ships as they move.
When I ran a speed test of Voom on Adventure of the Seas, I found the line’s fastest option, the Surf + Stream service, usually offered download speeds of just around 3 megabits per second. I never found download speeds exceeding 4 Mbps, but I did see it drop as low as 1.5 Mbps. While still significantly slower than many home connections, that’s fast enough to enjoy Netflix and other streaming video services, though I did experience grainy video and buffering issues on occasion.
Royal Caribbean still claims Voom is the fastest and best Wi-Fi option on cruise ships today. But we’re a bit skeptical – not because the Wi-Fi is slower than stated, but because other cruise lines, like Carnival Cruise Line, are quickly catching up.
Carnival cruise Wi-Fi is also fast enough to support Netflix streaming on some ships, the company says. The cruise line uses a hybrid system that combines faster satellite connections at sea with a network of less-expensive land-based towers that take over as its vessels near coastal areas.
On a sailing on one of the Carnival ships outfitted for faster internet, Carnival Sunrise, I did notice a significant improvement in cruise Wi-Fi speed. But the promised access to Netflix streaming wasn’t quite as smooth as I had hoped. Clicking on a favorite show, I only could watch for a few minutes before the connection inevitably froze.
Cruise internet costs have gone down
Just a few years back, you had to pay a small fortune for the privilege of accessing the internet on a cruise ship. The base rate for onboard Wi-Fi for years started around 75 cents a minute. That’s $45 for a single hour online!
The old pay-by-the-minute system, which could leave even modest internet users with sky-high bills, is now giving way to simpler and more affordable “all you can browse” plans on many lines.
How much does Wi-Fi cost on a cruise today? Well, the highest-speed version of Royal Caribbean’s Voom connection currently costs $24.99 per day for one device. In the old days of 75 cents-a-minute pricing, that same amount of money would have gotten you just 33 minutes of web time.
Royal Caribbean also offers a slower-speed version of Voom that can’t support streaming for $19.99 per day for one device. For both cruise internet packages, there are discounts for adding more devices and purchasing a package online before your sailing.
Another line bringing down internet costs dramatically is Carnival. At the very low end, it now offers a Social Wi-Fi plan that allows access to all the key social sites (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc.) as well as messaging services such as WhatsApp, for just $8 a day. A slightly more expensive Value Wi-Fi plan, at $12 per day, adds access to email and most websites.
The line’s top-tier Premium Wi-Fi plan, at $17 per day, triples the speed of the Value plan and adds access to VoIP calling on messaging apps and Skype (but not FaceTime). Passengers who pay for a Carnival Cruise Wi-Fi plan in advance of sailing get a 15% discount. That knocks the price of the top-tier Premium plan to just $14.45 per day.
But perhaps the biggest development in cruise internet costs in recent years is that many higher-end lines have begun offering internet access for — get this — free. Celebrity Cruises, Viking, Regent Seven Seas Cruises and Silversea Cruises are among lines now including unlimited internet time in the base cost of a voyage. At some of these lines, such as Regent and Celebrity, you can pay extra for faster service.
Another way to get free or cheaper internet time on ships is to join cruise line loyalty programs. Many offer free cruise Wi-Fi or discounted package pricing to customers who hit mid- to upper-tier levels.
At Celebrity Cruises, for instance, the top Zenith tier in the line’s Captain’s Club loyalty program comes with unlimited free internet (the faster plan since everyone gets the basic). At Princess Cruises, customers can get 50 percent off MedallionNet internet packages after reaching the Platinum level in the line’s Captain’s Circle loyalty program (to qualify, you’ll need to complete either five cruises, or 50 cruise days).
On Royal Caribbean, the path to free Internet on a cruise is through its high-end suites. Book a room in a Sky Class or Star Class suite (all suites above the junior suite level), and you’ll receive free Voom.
Apps offer an alternative to paid cruise Wi-Fi
In recent years, a growing number of cruise lines have rolled out free apps for your phone that will let you make reservations for onboard restaurants, spa treatments and other services without ever leaving your pool deck lounge chair. On some ships operated by Carnival, you even can order beer and pizza to wherever you happen to be using an app.
Many of these apps also will show you a schedule of daily activities, offer ship deck plans and sometimes port maps to help you get around, and let you check your onboard account statement in real time. On Celebrity Edge and other Celebrity Cruises Edge-class ships, you can even use an app to remotely open your cabin door, change channels on the television and turn off the lights.
While all these apps work off cruise ship Wi-Fi, the good news is they don’t require the purchase of a plan to use. Nor do they come with any other sort of fee — at least for most features.
At Carnival, you’ll pay $5 per cruise to add a “chat” feature to the line’s otherwise free HUB app that will let you communicate via text-like messages with other app-enabled passengers. Norwegian Cruise Line also requires passengers to pay a fee (currently $9.95 per cruise) to use a messaging and calling feature of its Cruise Norwegian app.
Cruise internet tip: Use airplane mode to avoid unwanted charges
Whether or not you’re purchasing a Wi-Fi plan on a cruise ship, I have one very strong piece of advice: Put your phone in airplane mode the moment you step on board the vessel and leave it that way for the duration of the sailing.
This is the safest way to avoid unwanted data charges, which can be enormous. (Remember the story of a family that recently racked up $14,000 in data charges on a cruise?)
As many cruisers have found the hard way, international phone plans such as AT&T’s $10-a-day International Day Pass do not apply to cruise ships at sea. If you let your AT&T phone roam while you’re on a vessel, you’ll pay $2.05 per megabyte of data — even if your base plan at home offers you unlimited data. You’ll also pay $3 per minute to make a call, $0.50 per text and $1.30 to send a photo. All that adds up very quickly.
AT&T does offer a “cruise talk, text and data” plan for a flat fee of $100 that allows unlimited talk and text during sailings up to 30 days in duration. But it only comes with 200 megabytes of data, with any overage billing at a still-hefty $2 per megabyte. It’s also not available on every ship. More than 170 vessels are part of the program.
If you insist on leaving your cellular service on during a cruise, you should at least disable any apps running in the background (as they’ll be eating up data, and running up your bill) and disable email auto-check.
Personally, I find it easier to just hit the airplane mode button. Once in airplane mode, I reactivate the Wi-Fi feature on my phone to access the cruise Wi-Fi, and sign up for a shipboard plan that will let me stay in touch by email or a VoIP service like WhatsApp.
Planning a cruise? Start with these stories:
- The 5 most desirable cabin locations on any cruise ship
- A beginners guide to picking a cruise line
- The 8 worst cabin locations on any cruise ship
- A quick guide to the most popular cruise lines
- 21 tips and tricks that will make your cruise go smoothly
- 12 best cruises for people who never want to grow up
- What to pack for your first cruise
Featured photo by davidgoldmanphoto/Getty Images.
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