New mobile communication devices are entering the market at such a quick pace that the number of cruise passengers boarding a ship with a smartphone, tablet, laptop or all the above in tow is higher than it’s ever been. As the cruise lines themselves catch up with new technologies, it's important as consumers to be wise in how to use the systems onboard to connect.
As a quick primer, most ships have two wireless networks that can be joined onboard: Wi-Fi and cellular. Both predominantly utilize a satellite connection and, because of their bandwidth limitations, cost considerably more for travelers to use than shoreside equivalents. Many devices can join both, one or the other, or neither, and it’s important to know when and how to configure them accordingly.
1. Don’t Be Afraid
Reports of astronomical roaming charges are enough to scare anyone into keeping their phone exclusively on “airplane mode” as a precaution to avoid any such fees, but merely turning on your cellular or Wi-Fi antenna does not necessarily mean charges are automatically on their way. Cellular is the one you have to be the most careful with, though, as any unforeseen incoming calls and texts will incur charges as well as any you place out.
2. Only Join Cellular If You Intend to Call or Text Out
Turning your cellular antenna on and joining the network likes of “Cellular at Sea” on a ship is the equivalent of roaming internationally, and will cost accordingly when placing a call or sending a text. Therefore, this connection should be used sparingly. Apple users can iMessage other Apple users over Wi-Fi instead of texting as an alternative as well.
Interestingly, Wireless Maritime Services and the “Cellular at Sea” network are actually part of AT&T, and the company’s cellular customers can save by purchasing a discounted package as you might internationally. The tiered structures include varying combinations of included talk time, texts and data usage.
3. Take Advantage of Free Wi-Fi Services
Alternatively, there are no inbound nor outbound penalties for simply joining the ship’s guest Wi-Fi network. In fact, there are many services available via native and web apps that freely utilize the wireless network. Most cruise line apps – native ones for iOS or Android of which are best downloaded ahead of your cruise – can access daily schedules, port and shore excursion information, deck plans and, in some cases, passenger text messaging systems and on-demand movies or TV complimentarily.
4. Select a Larger Internet Package
If you need to access the internet and your emails, you will need to pre-purchase a package or pay as you go, unless your cruise line offers it for free. Keep in mind that the connection will be much slower than the bandwidth speeds you are accustomed to at home or in the office. While newer systems are faster than they used to be, they are still slower in comparison.
So, it’s likely going to take more time to browse and access your email than you expect. As most cruise ship internet plans are time-limited, you need to consider which to buy carefully. You can pay by the minute, but packages are a better value. Should you exceed your time, of course, you can buy another package, but the simpler thing to do is to start out with one that’s likely longer than you think you’ll need just to be safe.
5. Login Strategically
Once you log on to the internet, time starts ticking off right away, so only stay on for as long as you actually need a live connection. If you're checking email, download your messages and their content fully, and then log off when you’re actually reading them and responding to them. Write drafts, and only log back in when you are ready to send them. Also, as incoming messages begin to download, start deleting any junk mail to save your device time from downloading unwanted messages. You can similarly load individual web pages in separate tabs then logoff while actually viewing them.
6. Alternatively Take a Disney Cruise Line Trip
Disney Cruise Line differs from the rest, as far as internet connections are concerned, by offering plans based on data usage instead of time. That is, you can stay logged in all the time, and only when your browsing or email downloading reaches a set amount of data throughput are you disconnected. If all you are needing is email access and basic browsing, this alternative can go much farther than the time-based ones, but beware social media, especially Facebook, which eat through data swiftly.
7. Board a Newer or Recently Refurbished Ship
Those requiring the absolute best connection at sea, who like to Skype or Periscope while on vacation, should seek out the newest ships or at least those that have been newly refurbished. More often than not, these are the ones that will feature the newest infrastructures and systems, and some are beginning to approach true high-bandwidth connections for even streaming video. Carnival Corporation, for instance, is making a point of rolling out faster internet connections across its fleets over time, and Royal Caribbean International features Voom on its newest ships, utilizing a dedicated satellite beam for more reliability.
8. Or Just Disconnect
The last thing to consider is the option to just disconnect altogether and unwind from technology during your cruise. Some genuinely require a connection, but quite a few do not. Sometimes it’s nice just to remove the noise and clutter from our lives and truly escape on vacation.
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