Remember a time when cruising truly meant getting away from it all? Blissfully unaware of work piling up at the office, no cell phones buzzing with messages or computers cluttering up luggage, the cruiser simply tuned out and kicked back. Those blissful days are not so long ago; Norwegian Sky was the first cruise ship to feature an Internet cafe when it debuted in 1999.
But times have changed, and the Internet has become such a huge part of our lives that many of us can barely go 15 minutes -- much less a week at sea -- without checking email and texts. For those for whom being disconnected is unbearable, the good news is that Internet access at sea is a reality with Wi-Fi available on virtually all seagoing cruise ships (with the exception of a few barebones expedition ships). Even better news? With two of the industry's biggest players investing millions of dollars in communication infrastructures -- on land, on ships and in the sky via satellites -- more passengers are finding Wi-Fi service and prices more akin to what they are used to finding on land. There are still plenty of ships with spotty, slow and expensive service, but they are no longer the norm.
Over the next several years, these improvements will roll out to even more cruise ships. Passengers will be able to send emails, stream movies and Skype or FaceTime with friends almost as easily as they do at home. But -- and this is key -- there will always be some level of unreliability, especially the farther out to sea you sail.
No matter what type of Internet service you find on your cruise ship, there are tricks you can employ to get your Internet fix with less hassle. If you've ever cursed in frustration as your screen froze mid-email or are quivering in fear of being unable to check in as much as you'd like on an upcoming vacation, here are the seven things you need to know about Internet at sea.
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1. Internet via satellite will never be as reliable as your broadband at home.
It's the sad truth: Internet at sea, when provided by satellite service, is not going to be as reliable as on-land connections anytime soon. To understand why shipboard Internet isn't comparable to the broadband you enjoy at home, you first need to understand the technology behind it. The big golf ball-shaped domes visible on top of cruise ships are protective shells that encase freely moving satellite antennae. These antennae transmit a signal from the ship to a satellite, which then sends a signal back down to earth.
Maritime communication companies have sped up this process, which used to take a long time, through various means including adding more satellites, increasing the bandwidth that can be sent during each transmission and linking up with land-based towers when sailing closer to shore.
But the biggest limitation to reliability continues to be a clear path between the ship and the satellite. All the data being sent from the ship to the satellite and back (for example, pages loading on a browser) has to traverse this pathway. In order for there to be a connection, the antenna needs to be pointing at, and have an unobstructed line of sight to, the satellite. But sometimes that pathway between the antenna and the satellite is blocked. In port, it might be that a tall building is directly in between the ship and satellite. In the Norwegian fjords, the tall mountains often block satellites, so don't count on satellite reception there. However, it is true that the ship itself can block a signal -- on certain courses, the funnel or mast might be between the antenna and satellite.
Furthermore, when the ship has to change course quickly, it isn't uncommon for the signal to be temporarily lost. (Consider this yet another reason to frequently back up what you're writing.) Barring any obstructions, you can still get an Internet signal down in Antarctica and as far as 80 degrees north latitude in Svalbard.
Congestion within the path also can be a problem. As more people are on their computers or cell phones requiring data, congestion can build up and passengers could notice slower speeds.
Interestingly, river boats (many of which offer free Internet) continue to offer a particularly frustrating online experience, if only because of heightened expectations. Being so close to civilization, you'd think there should be a quicker connection. However, hills or mountains in the river valleys often block satellite connections, so river ships are forced to use cellular for their primary Internet connection. (Avalon Waterways estimates that, on its European itineraries, the ships will use cellular signals for Internet 92 percent of the time.) When the ship is near a cell phone tower, newer 3G or 4G service can provide faster service than what can be delivered through satellite. The disadvantage comes in areas with a lack of cell towers, where the cell signal is weaker and the connection speed slower.
2. Pricing is going down -- but don't expect miracles just yet.
The satellites used for at-sea Internet connections cost hundreds of millions of dollars. One technology expert explains that "One consumer -- a cruise line -- can't afford to keep a satellite up in space." And while that remains true, cruise lines are teaming up with maritime communications companies that either own their own satellites or rent such large amounts of bandwidth that they can bring prices down. Two companies, MTN Communications and O3b Networks, provide almost all of the satellite service for the cruise industry. While MTN doesn't actually own the satellites, the company rents space from satellite owners and, because of the accumulated volume it represents, can offer reasonable pricing.
Prices are being driven down even further as some cruise lines (the Carnival family of brands, for instance) begin to use hybrid systems that combine the more expensive satellite connections with cheaper land-based links. Using the hybrid system, select cruise ships within the Carnival and Holland America fleets can offer passengers a social media package that gives cruisers access to all social media sites for a mere $5 per day.
But social media does not require a lot of bandwidth; cruisers who want to use bandwidth-hogging applications like FaceTime and Skype will still have to pay more. Carnival, for instance, charges $25 per day for total Internet access, including social media, email, websites and streaming services. And on its ships that have enough bandwidth (there are only four), Royal Caribbean charges $15 per device, per day, for all-inclusive Internet access.
Additionally, updating cruise ships with modern technology takes time, and it will take a couple of years for entire fleets to be updated. And that's only for cruise lines that have chosen to prioritize Internet connectivity. Norwegian Cruise Line, for instance, has so far made minimal effort to bring the speed and price of Internet connectivity in line with land levels. (Pricing, in fact, has gone up.)
How much will you spend? Traditional onboard Internet prices are about 75 cents a minute, though you can buy packages offering anywhere from 60 minutes to 300 hours that work out to be cheaper on a price-per-minute basis.
On many ships, payment is per megabyte instead of by minute. On Disney Cruise Line ships, one MB costs 35 cents. As with per-minute pricing, buying megabytes via a package brings the price down. Pricing by the megabyte is also offered on Carnival Cruise Line ships, as well as select Royal Caribbean ships. As a rough guide, with 10 MBs you can spend 30 minutes on Facebook, Skype for four minutes or upload three photographs.
3. Head to the Caribbean for a better connection.
Here's a reason to take that Caribbean cruise: with so many cruise ships visiting the Caribbean, maritime communication company Ob3 Networks has placed more satellites in low orbit above the area in order to create the maximum possible coverage, or footprint. Because the signal is strongest in the center of a satellite footprint and weakest as the edges are approached, MTN Communications has created a method to keep its satellite aimed at ships in the Caribbean as they move. In that way, the ships stay within the satellite's footprint for most of their sailings.
Remember, as mentioned in point one above, many cruise lines are transitioning to a hybrid communications solution that combines satellites with terrestrial broadband connectivity so that if you're not in a destination with perfect satellite access, you're not out of luck.
4. There are work-arounds for travelers who must get online during vacation.
For those searching for the fastest Internet connection, try to use the Internet when few people are online, such as late at night or in port when most passengers are ashore. The first is especially important while sailing far out to sea. The more people online sharing limited bandwidth, the slower the connection will be. Another tip, because some ships switch to terrestrial (land-based) towers when sailing close to shore, try saving the bulk of your Internet usage for times when you're nearest land.
Unfortunately, there isn't much else an individual cruiser can do. Users won't find any difference between connecting through Wi-Fi or through a cable to a potential data port in their cabin, nor will the ship's Internet cafe offer any difference in connection.
Of course, the fastest -- and cheapest -- connection will always be onshore, and for those who simply want to check that all is well at home, using free Wi-Fi in port with your smartphone may be the best route. During cruises in the Mediterranean and Caribbean, we managed to find free Wi-Fi ashore near the pier in almost every port. Local tourism offices (or even the ship's crew, who seem to know all the hotspots in the ports they frequent) can be very helpful in pointing out where you can quickly connect and check messages at your convenience.
Another useful tip is to simply write your email in a word processing program or an offline version of your email provider, and then paste what you've written into an email (or hit send) as soon as you log in. It's best to have your own laptop if you want to take this approach, as many onboard computer terminals have been re-jiggered so you cannot access basic word processing programs like Microsoft Word or Notepad. This won't change your connection speed, but it may save you money and time.
5. Cruise ships do have a few tricks they can use to improve connection times.
Crystal Cruises invested a significant amount of money to improve its connection speed, and it's a good example of steps that other lines could take. Using a web-accelerating company, the line installed two devices. The first is a proxy that identifies Web pages that have already been accessed. For frequently accessed Web pages, such as Facebook or the New York Times, the system stores the information needed to load the pages. This means that redundant data is not transmitted again and again every time someone visits one of those websites. With less data being transmitted via satellite, the page can load more quickly.
Crystal also uses a package shaper, which assigns higher priority to certain groups of traffic. The line says that passenger Internet is the highest priority -- 80 percent of the total bandwidth capability goes to passengers. However, the mail server for company emails is allocated only 5 percent, so potentially large messages, such as passenger manifests that the ship needs to send ashore, won't be able to hog bandwidth capacity for passengers. They can also give certain users priority. For instance, the cruise sales office gets a higher priority so that when a cruiser sits down to consider another cruise, a fast, live connection will quickly check availability. The cruise line believes that by using these innovations, it has reduced the data going through the same connection by 50 to 70 percent, allowing for significantly faster speeds.
6. Some cruise lines will continue to limit streaming.
Skype and FaceTime -- two Internet-based phone and video chat services -- are ideal for staying in touch with family, friends, colleagues and clients while on a cruise. But most ships either block the applications altogether or still have a connection that is so slow as to make them unworkable. When used with video capability, both are particularly troublesome as they automatically detect bandwidth limitations and attempt to use as much of the fast connection as possible.
A Crystal Cruises technical expert explains that, "Skype has been developed in a way that it always tries to improve voice quality as much as it can... and this hogs bandwidth. For this reason, we block Skype onboard; two people on Skype can effectively kill the connection speed [for everyone else]." While not all lines ban Skype, many do (including Crystal), along with websites with streaming media like YouTube, which also use a proportionally high amount of bandwidth.
Only a handful of ships currently provide enough bandwidth to passengers to enable Skype or FaceTime use. Generally, such ships charge more for the ability to use these streaming services.
7. Turn your cell phone off to save money.
Cell phones are a particularly easy way to rack up expensive charges very quickly, as the caller is essentially billed by two companies. The satellite provider sets up a mini-cell tower on the ship and charges for the transmission that takes your voice and sends it to the satellite and back down to land. In addition, your cell phone provider (AT&T, Verizon, etc.) also charges a roaming rate. While you don't see a separate line in your bill from the satellite provider, rest assured it is getting a cut.
If you're looking to minimize costs, beware of incoming text messages. Keep your cell in airplane mode to prevent these charges, and don't use the mobile network provided by the ship to download messages. Data costs while roaming on a mobile network can be very heavy, so if you didn't bring your laptop and want to use your phone to surf or check messages, you are better off using the ship's Wi-Fi service. (Just turn off your phone's ability to access mobile signals, but keep the Wi-Fi ability active.) The rate is the same whether using a laptop or a cell phone, and those that want to quickly check messages need only log on for the few minutes it takes to download messages before signing off. Those who want to surf are still better off since they are not being charged for both data and minutes while roaming.
The best bet for smartphone users, however, is to find that free Wi-Fi hotspot ashore -- and download all your emails at no charge.
--by Ben Lyons, Cruise Critic Contributor, and Dori Saltzman, Editor