Cell phone plans and internet on a cruise ship are two very separate things and remain a common topic of confusion amongst new cruisers.
The last thing anyone wants is to arrive home after a fabulous vacation to a sky-high cell phone bill due to roaming fees. You may think that you have to turn your cell phone off completely to avoid this; however, that is not true!
Here is an overview of what you need to know about using your cell phone when on a cruise ship.
Yes, you can use your cell phone while on a cruise ship
Cell phones work by sending radio signals to a cell phone tower, which then sends them along to the recipient of the call or text. The problem is that there really aren’t very many cell towers at sea, meaning that service is spotty and unreliable, if not completely unavailable most of the time.
While you may have service in international ports through your cellular provider, don’t assume you will have cell coverage while sailing, especially out in the middle of the ocean on sea days.
Of course, that doesn't mean you have to keep your cell phone off the entire time. If you choose to use your cell phone while on a cruise ship, it is important that you keep it on airplane mode, regardless of whether or not you're purchasing an internet package.
Should I get an international data package through my cellular provider?
Many cell providers such as AT&T and Verizon offer their customers packages for international travel; however, figuring out the ins and outs of these plans can be a cumbersome task, especially when stopping at ports in several different countries.
There's a myriad of packages that differ by carrier and plan, so it is critical to check out what each option offers, specifically the prices per minute, text, data, and roaming charges, if applicable.
Once you leave a port and venture out to sea, the plan usually does not apply, and this is where the unexpectedly high phone bills come from. To mitigate this risk, it is a good idea to put your phone on airplane mode and enable Wi-Fi when embarking on a cruise ship. In fact, cruise lines often suggest this to cruisers to avoid unnecessary charges.
Some cruise lines offer packages that will allow guests to use their cell phones onboard. For example, Disney Cruise Line offers its Cellular at Sea program, allowing ship-to-shore calling.
This works with many cell phone carriers, including AT&T, and can be used throughout the ship, including staterooms. However, international roaming rates often apply and are usually very pricey.
Before you purchase any cruising at sea cell phone program, make sure that you understand the terms and conditions for both the cruise line and the cell provider.
I recommend purchasing an internet package through your cruise line, rather than dealing with your cellular provider
Cruise ships get their internet and cellular capabilities via satellite, which is more expensive than other land-based options. While this alternative does allow cruise lines to offer their customers internet and cell options, it means that it is rarely included in the base fare
Cruisers typically have the option of choosing between a couple of plans with different levels of service at various price points. Base packages usually allow passengers to check email, while the more expensive options are better for those who want to utilize streaming services.
Once a cruise is booked, internet/wi-fi plans will become available for purchase. These plans can run on average $20-30 per day depending upon the option selected. Most often, the best discounts are found pre-cruise, so it is best to keep an eye on prices.
Depending on the cruise line, it can be cheaper to bundle Wi-Fi with a drink package or purchase multiple plans at once, like if you are sailing onboard MSC Cruises.
Some staterooms, most often suites, include an internet plan, so make sure to review what benefits come with the cabin you have booked. Occasionally, cruise lines offer special promotions that include internet, such as Norwegian Cruise Line’s "Free at Sea" promotion that includes a set number of minutes based on which stateroom category you booked, as well as the length of your cruise.
Additionally, Royal Caribbean's VIP "The Key" program includes VOOM® Surf & Stream on one device, along with other perks like an exclusive embarkation day lunch in the Main Dining Room.
Before purchasing any plan, make sure that you read the fine print, as some plans do allow you to use the package on multiple devices. MSC Cruises, for instance, do not allow you to switch back and forth. If you have a cell phone and tablet you want to have access to, you will need a plan that covers two devices.
While iMessage will work to connect you with friends and family back home, if you want to communicate with someone who has an Andriod -- or you have one yourself -- you'll need a messenger app. Popular options include WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger. Just make sure that the internet option you select is fast enough to support the applications you want to use!
You cannot send or receive regular text messages at sea with a cruise ship internet plan
One important point to highlight is that if you purchase a cruise line’s internet package, you won’t receive text messages.
This can be a pain if you are logging into a site that requires dual-factor authorization, which has become increasingly popular with numerous organizations trying to prevent scammers from accessing accounts.
If it is critical to have access to a site during your cruise, you may want to contact tech support to see if there is another way to get the secondary authorization, such as email.
Other considerations when it comes to using a cell phone while on a cruise ship
Cruise ships have made great strides in their proprietary mobile apps, and they have become an integral part of the cruising experience.
Whether it's booking dining reservations, shows, or seeing what activities there are to do, cruise line apps are invaluable. The good news is that you do not need to buy an internet package for them. Simply download them ahead of your trip, and you are good to go!
Most cruise lines offer guests messaging services while onboard, although some charge and some don’t. Norwegian Cruise Line, for instance, changes $9.95 per person for their "Phone and Messenger Package."
This may be a good option for those who don't need full internet and just want a way to stay in touch with other guests on the ship
Using free internet in port is another option. While not always the most secure or reliable, it can be helpful for a quick post on Instagram or to check in with family and friends before getting back onboard.
Some streaming services like Netflix let you download programming ahead of time to enjoy during your cruise. This can save you from having to purchase a more expensive package that allows for streaming videos.
In-cabin phones can be useful if you need to reach someone ashore; however, they are not cheap
Cruise ships still have traditional phones in each cabin, which can be of help in keeping in touch with fellow cruisers, as well as calling ashore if need be. While this is a somewhat old-school approach, it's free if you're calling other staterooms, and they even have a voicemail!