Our reliance on cell phones means that nearly everyone that goes on a cruise will have a cell phone on them. After a wonderful vacation, the last thing you want to do is come home to a massive cell phone bill.
The best way to avoid roaming charges on a cruise ship is to switch your phone to airplane mode, use the ship’s Wi-Fi, download apps in advance, and check if your carrier has an international cell phone plan.
There are plenty of horror stories of returning passengers receiving unexpected charges in the thousands of dollars.
Going on an entirely “unconnected cruise” is pretty much out of the question in our modern, interconnected world. It’s great that we can go on vacation and never miss an email or phone call from family.
With that in mind, we’ve put together some tips for using your smartphone at sea.
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Understanding Roaming Charges
Before discussing tips and strategies for avoiding big cell phone bills, we need to discuss why these bills occur.
Mobile phones work by communicating with nearby cell towers set up and operated by your cell phone provider. When you are in your home country, your service plan allows for the regular use of their network within the confines of your plan limits.
When you are outside your home country, you are outside your cell phone provider’s service area, referred to as “roaming.” When you are roaming, you will connect to another service providers twoer and network.
It goes without saying that there are no cell phone towers at sea, and once you leave the embarkation port, you will be roaming.
So how do you use your cell phone while at sea?
You have two options to stay connected while at sea; either connect to the ship’s cellular service or connect to the ship’s Wi-Fi. Both options will cost extra.
Cell Service on Cruise Ships
For traditional cell phone service, similar to what you will find at home, modern cruise ships use providers such as “Wireless Maritime Services” or “Cellular at Sea.” These systems use satellite technology to keep you connected without relying on mobile network towers.
Most cell phone companies will consider the cell phone on cruise ships as international roaming and charge you accordingly. Although the cell phone service on cruise ships is expensive, it is an excellent option if you need to make a quick phone call or text.
If you plan on using your phone on your cruise, check if your cell phone provider offers a cruise package. You may be able to purchase a flat rate package or a “pay-per-use” rate. These packages are expensive, but they will be considerably cheaper than incurring roaming charges.
Keep in mind that many cruise packages won’t include a data plan. If you won’t be needing traditional text and calling services, there is a cheaper way to use your phone on the ship – Wi-Fi.
Is there Wi-Fi on Cruise Ships
If you won’t need traditional texting and calling, the ship’s Wi-Fi network is a cheaper way to use your cell phone on a cruise ship. Apps like Signal and WhatsApp make it easy to make phone calls, chat, and video chat via the internet. The best part; all of these services can be used over Wi-Fi.
Modern cruise ships come equipped with Wi-Fi throughout the ship. Unfortunately, with few exceptions, most cruise ships will charge extra for the use of their onboard Wi-Fi, and some will limit the number of devices you can connect.
Once connected to Wi-Fi, you can use your phone just like you would at home. Just make sure that any calls or texts you make are over Wi-Fi. Otherwise, your service provider will consider them international roaming, even if you use the ship’s cell service.
Cell Service in Ports of Call
While most of your time will be spent on the ship, you will spend days in port. When you are in port and off the ship, your phone will work like you took a trip to another country where you will rely on international cell services.
Most cell phone providers offer short-term international plans that are surprisingly affordable. Many international roaming plans allow you to make calls, texts, and data just as you would at home.
Keep in mind that the international roaming plans will only cover services used when you are onshore. When you get back on the boat, you will need to use the ship’s cellular service or Wi-Fi. Using either one or the other will be more cost-effective than paying for both.
How to Avoid Roaming Charges on a Cruise Ship
Now that you understand how roaming charges work, here is a list of tips to help you use your cell phone while on a cruise.
Make Sure You Have an International Plan
Before going on a cruise, you will want to check which regions are included in your mobile plan’s coverage area. You may be surprised to find that some locations you will be visiting are already included in your plan.
Your existing cell phone plan may provide enough coverage to get you through the vacation without needing to purchase an additional plan or package.
During our Caribbean cruise, it was unclear on our service provider’s website if San Juan was covered in our wireless plan. We called our cell phone provider and were happy to find out that phone calls, text messaging, and the internet would be covered under our existing cell phone plan.
If you plan to use your cell phone in locations that aren’t within your plan’s coverage area, you want to purchase an international roaming package. Many cell phone providers offer surprising low-cost roaming plans that allow you to use your phone as you would back home.
And be careful: If you exceed your allotted roaming package usage, the expenses can add up quickly to hundreds of dollars.
Keep in mind that international roaming packages will only cover cell phone use once you are onshore. If you plan to use your cell phone on the ship, you may want to consider a cruise ship package.
Check if Your Wireless Carrier has a Cruise Line Package
Suppose you plan on using your phone while onboard your cruise ship. It’s a good idea to check if your service provider offers a cruise package.
Many cell phone providers now offer cruise ship packages that allow you to make calls and texts using the ship’s cellular service. The price for one of these packages is high and doesn’t typically cover data services, but they will be considerably cheaper than incurring roaming charges.
Download Any Apps You Need Before Leaving
Don’t waste precious bandwidth, time, and money downloading apps, games, or software you need for your trip. Plenty of apps help you explore destinations, create beautiful photo galleries, and aid your journey.
Before leaving for your vacation, make sure you download every app, game, and software you will be needing.
Get a Cruise Ship Wi-Fi Plan
Many modern cruise ships offer onboard internet and Wi-Fi packages to keep connected. Package plans vary among cruise lines, but they are far cheaper than international roaming packages.
Unless you really need to make traditional phone calls and texts, we recommend skipping the phone plans and opting for an onboard internet package instead.
Using the ship’s Wi-Fi, you can use apps like Signal and WhatsApp to make phone calls, chat, and video calls via the internet. It’s essential to keep in mind that the internet speed on cruise ships probably won’t be as fast as you are used to using.
Cruise lines will often discount the price of their Wi-Fi package during the cruise. On our last cruise, we saved 50% on purchasing an internet package by waiting until the middle of the cruise and sharing a family package with our family members.
Check for Wi-Fi Hotspots While at Port
Even if you don’t feel like purchasing any international roaming plans or Wi-Fi packages, you might be able to get internet access while visiting the ports.
While in port, you will often find restaurants, cafes, and shops that offer free Wi-Fi access. Many beach resorts also offer day passes which include Wi-Fi as part of the package price.
You can use the free Wi-Fi to check emails, post your vacation photos on social media, or browse your favorite cruise blog for vacation tips!
Tip: Many of these internet connections are public, and you should be cautious about which sites you visit while connected.
Put Your Phone on Airplane Mode Before You Step Foot on the Cruise
If you don’t have an international roaming package, make sure you put your phone on airplane mode BEFORE you step foot on the cruise.
In the excitement of seeing the ship for the first time, it might not dawn on you until you are on a tour of Cozumel when your phone starts vibrating. It is only then that you realize with the stream of text messages, emails, missed calls, social media updates, and web notifications that, you’ve forgotten to turn your phone on airplane mode. Don’t get hit with massive roaming bills; turn your phone on airplane mode!
Tip: You can still use Wi-Fi when your phone is on airplane mode.
Don’t Become Tied to Your Device
The convenience of smartphones on a cruise ship is a welcome luxury. But don’t let your smartphone become a distraction.
You are on vacation to see new places, meet new people, and most importantly – relax!
Endless scrolling through your phone can quickly ruin a vacation. Do your best to use your phone sparingly and enjoy your cruise holiday.
Unless you need traditional cell phone service, we recommend accessing the ship’s Wi-Fi with your phone instead. But if you do need to connect to the ship’s cellular network, it’s a good idea to check with your carrier ahead of time to see what international roaming packages are available.