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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.
Meanwhile, you were paying a small fortune for the privilege of giving it a try. The base rate for Wi-Fi on many ships for years started around 75 cents a minute. That’s $45 for a single hour online!
But we 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: The Wi-Fi connection on ships has 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, on-board technological improvements on many ships combined with new satellite and direct ship-to-shore systems is making the internet experience at sea much more like what you find on land (or even in the air).
On some 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.
If you’re booking a cruise and wondering about your connectivity, here are five things to know before you set sail.
Cruise Wi-Fi Will Never Be as Fast (or Reliable) as Home
There is no Comcast cable wire running to your cruise ship. That should be obvious, right? We’re pretty sure it is. Except that I routinely encounter people on ships who don’t understand why the internet can’t be as fast as it is at their home, where they probably have a hard wire bringing it in at speeds of 50, 100 or even 200 megabits per second.
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 simple or inexpensive proposition.
There are maritime communication companies that specialize in providing internet connections to ships, and in recent years, they’ve been speeding things up by 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. Vessels 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. Last year, 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).
But It Is Getting Much Faster
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 on-board 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.
Speed tests run by the cruise site Cruzely.com in 2018 found Voom allowed for downloading at 3 to 5 megabits per second. While still significantly slower than many home connections, that’s fast enough to enjoy Netflix and other streaming video services.
Royal Caribbean still claims the Wi-Fi speed on its ships is six times faster than on any other cruise vessel. But we’re a bit skeptical, given the catch-up we’ve seen at other lines. Carnival Cruise Line has begun touting internet connections fast enough to support Netflix streaming, too, on some of its ships. The company 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 recent sailing on one of the Carnival ships outfitted for faster internet, Carnival Sunrise, I did notice a significant improvement in speed. But as I wrote in May, 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.
And It’s Becoming More Affordable
At many lines, the old pay-by-the-minute system that could leave even modest internet users with sky-high bills is giving way to simpler and more affordable “all you can browse” plans. The highest-speed version of Royal Caribbean’s Voom connection currently costs $19.99 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 27 minutes of web time. Royal Caribbean also offers a slower-speed version of Voom that can’t support streaming for $15.99 per day for one device. For both packages, there are discounts for adding more devices.
Another line bringing down 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 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. Viking Cruises, Crystal Cruises, Regent Seven Seas Cruises and Silversea are among lines now including unlimited internet time in the base cost of a voyage. At some of these lines, such as Regent, you can pay extra for faster service.
Another way to get free internet time on ships is to join cruise line loyalty programs. Many offer at least a few hours of free internet per voyage to customers who hit mid- to upper-tier levels. At Princess Cruises, for instance, customers can get 150 to 500 minutes of free internet time per voyage, depending on the voyage length, after reaching the Platinum level in the line’s Captain’s Circle loyalty program (to qualify, you’ll need to complete either six cruises, or 51 cruise days). At Celebrity Cruises, the top Zenith tier in the line’s Captain’s Club loyalty program comes with unlimited free internet.
Apps Offer an Alternative to Paid 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 on-board restaurants, spa treatments and other services without ever leaving your Lido 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 one of Celebrity Cruises’ newest ships, Celebrity Edge, you even can 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 the Wi-Fi systems on ships, 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.
Use Airplane Mode to Avoid Unwanted Charges
Whether or not you’re purchasing a Wi-Fi plan on a 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 an exorbitant $6.14 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. As of this month, about 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 ship’s Wi-Fi, and sign up for a shipboard plan that will let me stay in touch by email or a VoIP service like WhatsApp.
Featured photo by leonardo yip / Unsplash.
Know before you go.
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