Most travelers depend on their cellphones for directions, photos, recommendations, wake-up alarms and ride hailing, not to mention calls and texts. But if your vacation plans involve a cruise, you will need to consider rethink your phone use. Simply put, you can’t use a cellphone on a cruise the way you can on land without incurring outrageous roaming charges.
What’s the smartest way to use your smartphone at sea without racking up a bill that costs more than your inside cabin? Will a cellphone even get reception in the middle of the ocean?
Here’s your guide to using cellphones on cruise ships and avoiding high fees while you sail the high seas.
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Do cellphones work on cruise ships?
Yes, you can make calls, text, and even video chat from a cruise ship. In port, you can connect to local roaming networks. At sea, you can either make calls via a satellite connection or pay for the ship’s Wi-Fi (also via satellite) and make Wi-Fi calls, text or video chat via the internet.
Bandwidth and connection speed can be an issue at sea. You may experience lag time on calls or slow connection speeds. Depending on where your ship is in the world and whether anything (like a mountain range) is blocking the connection to the satellite, your phone may not work temporarily for calls or Wi-Fi access.
Any part of your phone that does not require a network (downloads, photo apps, alarm clocks) will function as normal on board.
How can I avoid cellphone charges on a cruise?
Once you’ve drifted away from the nearest land-based cell tower, however, your phone will go into roaming mode. That’s when hefty charges can start to increase. We’re not talking about your average international roaming charges, but extra-expensive satellite roaming charges.
Surfing the internet, using social media, reading emails or checking the weather will all use data charged at a premium rate. Phone calls and messages, regardless if they are incoming or outgoing, will also be charged at a premium.
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If you want to avoid extra charges from your mobile phone service provider, put your smartphone on “airplane mode” sometime between boarding and when the ship sets sail. Even if you’re not actively using your phone, your smartphone is constantly utilizing data in the background, racking up charges you’re not even aware of. Better to keep cellular service off.
Airplane mode will switch off your phone’s transmitters for cell signal (calls and text messages) and data (browsing the web, using apps) ensuring you will not be privy to unwanted charges. But don’t worry: Your smartphone won’t be completely useless for the trip. Toggle on the Wi-Fi and Bluetooth features and make use of your phone in other ways.
Related: 7 extra-charge items on cruise ships that are worth the cost (and 7 that aren’t)
What if I accidentally use roaming services while on board?
It’s up to you to make sure your phone settings are adjusted to keep you from roaming at sea. Expect an alert via SMS text that you’re headed into roaming territory, but beyond that, service providers won’t necessarily notify you of overages and fees — you’ll just be surprised with a large charge on your next bill.
Keep a watchful eye on your “airplane mode” setting, ensuring it’s always on when you’re on board your cruise ship. If you forget, you won’t be charged for incoming calls you don’t accept, but some service providers will charge for unread text messages that arrive while your phone is roaming.
Use the ship’s Wi-Fi to monitor usage on your service provider’s app. If something seems off, contact the service provider’s customer service.
Related: 15 Ways That Cruising Newbies Waste Money on Ships
Can I access cruise-specific phone plans and costs?
If you plan on using your phone at sea, some service providers have cruise-specific plans available for when you’re at sea. These plans charge a premium for use through the ship’s satellite connection.
Once you’re in port, double-check whether your phone is connecting via the ship or the local land-based cell tower. Depending on the port, there might not be land-based reception. Cruise versus land-based roaming charges differ, with land-based reception often the less-expensive option.
These are the major US carrier’s cruise plans. Note the difference between SMS (text only, up to 160 characters long) and MMS (a message that contains media including photos, videos and audio files).
Verizon: Verizon’s “Pay As You Go” cruise rates are $0.99-$2.99 per minute for voice calls, depending on your destination and the country you’re calling. Data rates are $2.05/MB, 25 cents for a sent SMS, 5 cents for a received SMS and 25 cents for a sent or received MMS, available on most cruises. If you’re on one of the 400 ships that host Verizon (check the list here), Verizon will send you a text message alert offering you a $20 monthly plan with 50MB of data. Be careful, because 50MB will go quickly on a modern smartphone and overage fees start at $20 for 50MB.
AT&T: AT&T’s two cruise packages are both one-time charges that don’t recur. AT&T Cruise Talk & Text ($50) includes 50 minutes, overage at $2 per minute. AT&T Cruise Talk, Text & Data ($100) offers unlimited talk, text and 200MB of data with $2/MB overage fees.
T-Mobile (and now Sprint): T-Mobile doesn’t feature cruise-specific packages. The provider’s rates on cruises are considered international roaming and charged accordingly with no data option. It costs 50 cents to send a text; received texts are taken from your domestic texting plan’s allotment, and a pricey $5.99 per minute applies to voice calls. Check specific ship availability and pricing here: T-Mobile on cruises.
US Cellular: US Cellular features roaming coverage on select cruise ships only with recurring plans. Prepaid plans are not eligible to connect while at sea. Rates are $4 per minute for voice calls made and received while at sea, 80 cents per sent text, 25 cents per text received, and $20/MB of data.
Metro by T-Mobile and Mint Mobile: There is currently no cruise ship roaming access for Metro by T-Mobile and Mint Mobile customers. Consider buying a prepaid International SIM card that has coverage on cruise ships and in international ports to avoid outages and manage costs.
Can I use my phone in port?
Once you’ve arrived in port, be wary of international roaming charges that might differ from your at-sea rates and change by country. Check your provider’s international plans and rates for each port you plan to visit on your itinerary.
Consider opting for an international SIM card that can keep you connected while in foreign countries and help with budgeting and allotting usage. International SIM cards offer the benefit of choice and variety, with an open market of plans that fit your budget and usage needs. You’ll be using a different phone number with that new SIM card, but you’ll still be able to access your web-based apps, email, and internet messaging like WhatsApp and Apple’s iMessage.
pro-tip: Pack a paper clip to easily eject and swap out SIM cards.
Can I use the ship’s Wi-Fi on my cellphone?
Nearly all major cruise lines sailing today have ship-wide Wi-Fi available. It’s pricey and can be slow or finicky, even on the cruise lines that bill their internet as the “fastest at sea.” However, you can definitely access the ship’s Wi-Fi on your phone if you purchase a plan.
Because the internet connection comes via satellite, passengers cannot rely on the same high-speed access as land-based, wired providers offer. Activities like video conferencing, high-definition streaming and online gaming are going to be more of a challenge on your phone at sea. Plan for spotty coverage.
Related: How can I get Wi-Fi on a cruise for free?
However, depending on the plan you choose, you will be able to text, voice call, video call, check email, and stream music and video. Make sure you have enabled your smartphone’s Wi-Fi calling, texting and video call options, or have downloaded apps to do these things pre-cruise.
Download your cruise line’s app prior to boarding, and you’ll be able to browse onboard internet packages available through the ship’s satellite internet service. Most cruise lines offer a few basic web-based services for free via their cruise app, including viewing activity schedules and deck plans, ordering food delivery and making reservations for shows or restaurants. Some even offer in-app texting (sometimes for a minimal fee).
Related: The ultimate guide to international smartphone use
What are the best ways to use my cellphone on a cruise?
There are plenty of ways to use your phone on board without incurring unwanted charges and fees.
Depending on your cruise line’s app, your smartphone might have the ability to unlock your cabin door, help you make dinner reservations, or even order a burger and cocktail to be delivered to you poolside. Just as we’ve seen landside, cruise ships have begun to use QR codes to replace physical bar and restaurant menus.
Smartphones make great cameras for capturing the many fun moments on board and in port. Consider a waterproof case or a plastic waterproof pouch to have the freedom and fun of bringing your phone with you in the ship’s pool and to the beaches at port.
Use your phone as an alarm clock to make sure you’re up at the right time for excursions, pool parties and dinner reservations.
Prior to boarding, always download media (movies, TV shows, music, books, podcasts, etc.) via your fast and cheaper home internet so you will have free entertainment at the ready on your vacation.
But remember, your cellphone won’t be useful to you if you run out of battery life. Double-check that you have packed the right chargers and outlet plugs, especially for accessories like Bluetooth earphones.
Consider bringing a travel power strip (one without surge protection) if your cabin’s electronic devices will all need to be charged overnight at the same time. Power brick chargers are essential for topping up power anywhere else on the ship or exploring a port.
Related: Wi-Fi on cruise ships: 5 things to know about internet use on board
Your smartphone will likely go everywhere you go on board a cruise ship, so plan ahead to make sure any and all fees are managed and expected. Cellphone roaming costs can add up quickly, but you can keep costs manageable by opting into a service provider’s package deal, buying international SIM cards or using onboard Wi-Fi for calling and web browsing.
Even on a cruise, your cellphone will be your number one travel accessory. Rove freely around the world, phone in hand — just don’t roam without understanding the costs first.
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