Not long ago, it was difficult and expensive to contact a passenger on a ship at sea--and many people liked that that way. For people looking to "get away from it all" hopping on a cruise was a sure bet to find peace and quiet from the outside world. As recently as 1990, most ships still used the Telex wireless radiotelegraph system invented in the 1930s.
By 1996 satellite telephone systems were more common and allowed you to dial a cruise ship directly at a hefty price tag; a typical ship-to-shore phone call could cost about $12 per minute.
All of that changed with digital satellite technology. Today we can convert phone calls into digital data and transmit several of them, as well as Internet access, simultaneously over satellite links. However, the cost still remains extremely high.
One famous case involved a Chicago Bears fan who didn't want to miss a game and streamed it during a cruise, his subsequent monthly bill was more than $27,000.
While we can't promise cheap communication, We’ll tell you how to avoid this.
Cell Phone Tips for Cruise Ships
When you phone is “roaming” it means it must access a network belonging to an outside service provider, and your provider likes to charge you for that...a lot.
Think of cruise ships as the ultimate roaming situation.
Cell phones generally operate on land-based systems that only work when they can “see” cell towers, but on a cruise ship, your phone needs to access satellites to reach the terrestrial networks.
Complicating matters, phones from different U.S. carriers, including Verizon (VZ) or AT&T (T), don’t automatically talk to satellites, or even directly to each other. This led to the creation of “Tower of Babel,” black boxes for cruise ships that can turn any cell call into satellite data. These boxes cost money, and so does using the limited bandwidth of satellites.
Making a voice call on your cell phone during a cruise will cost you anywhere from $3.50 to $5.00 per minute, and using your phone for “data” -- like e-mail and Web access -- can be ridiculously expensive.
How can you cut your costs? It might be cheaper to use your cell phone in port – assuming your phone is made to work in foreign countries. If not, your phone should still work on the cruise ship, because ship systems are designed to work with all types of cell phones.
Be aware that sending data such as e-mail, Web access or even texting while on a cruise or overseas can be very expensive--the Apple iPhone (AAPL) is notorious for this. Make sure the “data roaming” option on your phone is turned off for the entire vacation.
Bottom line: Don’t use your cell phone for data at all, and keep your voice calls very short.
Tips for Internet Access on Cruises
Most cruise ships now offer Internet, but this also involves satellite links, which means it's not going to be cheep.
The average charge for Internet access on a cruise ship is about 50 cents per minute. Most ships offer pre-paid plans for anywhere from 30 to 500 minutes; the bigger the plan, the less you pay per minute. For example, you may get 500 minutes for $150, which comes out to 33 cents per minute. The good way to save is to limit your connection time--there is no extra charge for logging on and off.
Most ships allow you to use your own laptop for Internet access, which I recommend. You should have it configured to log in and download your e-mail automatically. Unfortunately, while many XP-based computers offered “Outlook Express” to download your e-mail, the new Windows 7 computers use the “Windows Live” program - which does not download messages to your computer. You have to remain connected to the Internet to read your e-mail.
A good replacement program for Outlook Express compatible with Windows 7 is Thunderbird, from Mozilla, the makers of the Firefox browser.
If you use Outlook [XP] or Thunderbird (Windows 7), log onto the Internet with your laptop a day or two before you board the cruise. If you haven’t used your laptop for a few months, it may want to download hundreds of e-mail messages before you can get the most recent ones, and you don't want to waste time and money doing this on the ship.
On the ship, you should be able to download your newest e-mail in a few minutes and then disconnect. You can answer all your e-mail offline, then reconnect to send all the replies in one batch.
If you do not bring your own laptop, you can use the ship’s computer center and access your e-mail through Webmail – such as Gmail or Hotmail. Just remember to bring your user names and passwords with you, and to have the e-mail addresses of all of your favorite contacts written down--outside computers don't have your passwords stored.
If you cannot download your e-mail, or if you like to browse and reply to Facebook or forums, open a word processor program to copy and paste the messages that require a response from you. You can re-read the messages and compose your answers offline. Then when you reconnect, you can paste your pre-written replies into the proper places.
Cruise ship communication has improved so much that even road warriors like me can cruise and never miss a deadline. My usual practice is to buy the biggest Internet package available as soon as I board. I find watching the clock makes me too nervous to work, and I end up spending more because I am trying too hard to save money.
As always – if you need to know more about cruising we urge you to consult our Cruising101 FAQ.
I started writing about stock market investing for Motley Fool in 1995, but previously I worked aboard cruise ships. I co-started CruiseMates.com, the first cruise travel guide on the Internet in New York City in 1999. CruiseMates, one the Web’s top cruise travel guides was acquired by Internet Brands(NASDAQ: INET) in 2006. Once CEO, I am now the editor of CruiseMates – Paul Motter
Paul Motter is the editor of CruiseMates.com, an online cruise guide. Follow him on Twitter @cruisemates.