Most travelers depend on their cellphones for many reasons, along with making calls and texts. But if your vacation plans involve a cruise, you will need to rethink your phone use, because you just can’t use a cell phone on a cruise the way you can on land without incurring outrageous charges. Trust me- I learned this the hard way! Follow these guidelines to use your phone on a cruise ship and avoid the high fees.
You can definitely make calls, text, and even video chat from a cruise ship. In port, you can connect to local roaming networks. At sea, you can either make calls via a satellite connection or pay for the ship’s wi-fi to make wi-fi calls, text, or video chat via the internet.
The biggest frustration at sea is the connection speed. It's a big issue because you'll experience lag time on calls and very slow connection speeds. Depending on where your ship is in the world and whether anything (like a mountain range) is blocking the connection to the satellite, your phone may not work temporarily for calls or wi-fi access. Any part of your phone that does not require a network (downloads, photo apps, alarm clocks) will function as normal on board.
If you want to avoid extra charges from your phone service provider, always put your smartphone on airplane mode, because once you’ve sailed away from the nearest land-based cell tower, your phone will go into roaming mode. That’s when big charges can start to accrue. These are NOT your average international roaming charges, but extra-expensive satellite roaming charges. Using the internet, social media, reading emails, or checking the weather will all use data charged at a premium rate. Phone calls and messages, whether they are incoming or outgoing, will also be charged at a premium. If you want to avoid these charges, put your phone on airplane mode sometime between boarding and when the ship sets sail. Even if you’re not actively using your phone, your phone is constantly receiving data in the background, racking up charges you’re not even aware of, so it's safer to just keep cell service off.
You also want to make sure that you don't accidentally use roaming services while on board. You will always receive a text when you’re headed into roaming territory, but beyond that your service provider won’t notify you of overages and fees. You’ll just be surprised with a large charge on your next bill. It's important to keep an eye on your airplane mode setting, and make sure it’s always on when you’re on board your cruise ship. If you forget, you won’t be charged for incoming calls you don’t accept, but your provider will charge for unread text messages that arrive while your phone is roaming.
Once you’re in port, double-check whether your phone is connecting via the ship or the local land-based cell tower. Depending on the port, there might not be land-based reception. Cruise versus land-based roaming charges are different, with land-based reception the less-expensive option.
Before using your phone in port, check your provider’s international plans and rates for each port you plan to visit on your itinerary. Once you’ve arrived in port, be aware of international roaming charges that might differ from your at-sea rates. These rates will change by country. Consider choosing an international SIM card that can keep you connected while in foreign countries and help with budgeting. These cards give you a choice of plans so that you can choose the one that fits your budget. You’ll be using a different phone number with a SIM card, but you’ll still be able to access your apps, email, and internet messaging like WhatsApp and iMessage.
All major cruise lines have ship-wide wi-fi available; however, it's expensive and slow, even on the cruise lines that say their internet is the “fastest at sea.” However, you can definitely access the ship’s wi-fi on your phone if you purchase a plan.
Just be aware that it won't be the same high-speed access that you're used to having. Activities like video conferencing, high-definition streaming, and online gaming are going to be more of a challenge on your phone at sea. However, depending on the plan you choose, you will be able to text, voice call, video call, check email, and stream music and video. Make sure you have enabled your smartphone’s wi-fi calling, texting, and video call options, or have downloaded apps to do these things before you board your cruise.
Download your cruise line’s app prior to boarding, and you’ll be able to browse onboard internet packages available through the ship’s satellite internet service. Most cruise lines offer a few basic web-based services for free on their cruise app, including viewing activity schedules and deck plans, ordering food delivery, and making reservations for shows or restaurants. Some even offer in-app texting.
If you don't want to try navigating all this, remember that your phone can be useful even if you do keep airplane mode on the entire time. Obviously, today's phones make great cameras for capturing the many fun moments on board and in port. Depending on your cruise line’s app, your phone might have the ability to unlock your cabin door, help you make dinner reservations, or even to order food and cocktails to be delivered to you poolside. Use your phone as an alarm clock to make sure you’re up at the right time for excursions, shows, and dinner reservations. Before boarding, always download media (movies, TV shows, music, books, podcasts, etc.) using your fast and cheaper home internet so you will have free entertainment at sea. Your phone will probably go everywhere you go on board the cruise ship, so plan ahead to make sure any and all fees are managed and expected. Roaming costs can add up quickly, but you can keep costs manageable by using your service provider’s package deal, buying international SIM cards, or using onboard Wi-Fi for calling and web browsing. Even on a cruise, your cellphone will be your number one travel accessory.