If staying connected is a priority when you travel, consider a cruise. That suggestion might have elicited sneers in the past, but times are changing.
While cruising has long been known for Wi-Fi that’s expensive, slow and unreliable, some of the biggest cruise lines are now promising connectivity that’s not only cheaper, but lightning fast, thus removing an often-heard objection of would-be cruisers.
“Connectivity is the one thing that hotels and resorts have over cruise lines when it comes to offering a great vacation,” says Carolyn Spencer Brown, editor at CruiseCritic.com. “At hotels and resorts it’s assumed that you’re going to be able to stay connected at a reasonable price point. If cruise lines are going to compete with land resorts, they’re going to have to ramp up their connectivity.”
Two of the biggest players in the cruise industry are making giant strides in that direction.
This month, Royal Caribbean launched Quantum of the Seas, a “smart ship” packed with a host of high-tech bells and whistles, including Wi-Fi that’s so fast you can play Xbox Live with players around the globe, stream video and Skype with friends at home.
The enormous bandwidth is made possible by a constellation of low satellites that supply a constant beam of connectivity to the ship. Royal Caribbean is currently offering the same connectivity on Oasis of the Seas and Allure of the Seas, and it will be available on Anthem of the Seas when it launches in April.
Meanwhile, the world’s largest cruise ship operator, Carnival Corporation, is rolling out WiFi@Sea, a connectivity network it promises will be 10 times faster than what it had before.
“We certainly don’t want connectivity to be a barrier to someone who’s thinking about a land vacation versus a cruise,” says Arnold Donald, CEO of Carnival Corporation, whose brands include Carnival Cruise Lines, Costa Cruises, Cunard, Holland America Line, Princess Cruises and Seabourn.
Carnival’s “smart hybrid” solution uses a combination of land-based antennas installed along cruise routes, Wi-Fi from a port connection and satellites. The service will be rolled out in the Caribbean by the end of this year and made available on all 101 of the Carnival brands’ ships by the end of 2016.
While some passengers say they just want to unplug, they are increasingly in the minority. “People want to be connected,” says Brown. “Our readers want to share their experience from the ship. Part of the experience of cruising is sharing through photos and social media.”
“The propensity to want to be connected is greater on a mass market brand such as Carnival Cruise Lines,” says Donald, “and as you go up the scale from mass market to premium to luxury to ultra-luxury, that tails off.”
Yet even cruisers who think they don’t care about Wi-Fi may change their mind once they discover the advantages of onboard connectivity.
“What’s really interesting to me,” says Brown, “especially with Royal Caribbean’s offerings these days, is that it’s not just about giving passengers access to email and social media. It’s also about operations on the ship.”
Brown was impressed by the functionality of Quantum of the Seas’ RoyalIQ app and WOW band, an RFID bracelet that served as a key to her stateroom and allowed her to make purchases on the ship.
“Passengers are able to do so many more things via Wi-Fi now. Making dinner reservations and booking shore excursions while you’re on the ship is now possible through Wi-Fi, which is really exciting,” she says.
In the bigger picture, faster Wi-Fi has simply become a necessity in an industry that wants to grow. “If people opt to take a land vacation over a cruise vacation because they’re worried about staying in touch, then cruising is losing business,” says Brown.
While the popularity of cruising has soared in recent years, Carnival continues to see an ocean of possibility.
Nearly 22 million people are expected to have taken a cruise by the end of 2014, says Donald. “That’s a bunch of cruisers,” he says. “But consider this: Only about 3.3 percent of people in North America go on a cruise in any given year. About 533 million people live in North America, so if you do the math you can see that there’s a lot of untapped opportunity to introduce those people to cruising.”
Suzanne Rowan Kelleher is the family vacations expert at About.com.