Along with sunscreen and Hawaiian shirts, an ever-increasing number of cruise passengers are adding laptops and smartphones to their lists of must-pack items. The reason is simple: These days, staying in touch with friends and family stuck on land is easier than ever. Cruise ships now come fully wired with Internet cafes, front-to-back Wi-Fi and crystal-clear cell phone transmission. Whether you want to post selfies to Facebook, make cell phone calls to check in on grandma or surf the Web to feed your news habit, you'll be covered.
While many operators have been making technological leaps, not all cruise lines are equally wired. For the most part, cruise ship connections will never offer the same consistent high-speed service you get at home. Beyond that, Internet speeds can vary significantly from line to line, and ship to ship, depending on factors like location and available bandwidth (in other words, how much the line has invested in its Web setup).
Plus, staying in touch onboard isn't cheap, though pricing is getting better. Internet charges vary by cruise line, with some charging by the minute (from roughly 35 cents to $1 per minute). These lines usually offer packages for heavy users that discount the per-minute rate, often significantly. Other lines charge by bandwidth, meaning that folks who just want to send a few emails or post to Facebook will spend considerably less than those who want to use Skype or stream movies. Carnival Corp. is improving the Internet on all 10 of its lines and will be introducing packages that are based on what type of sites passengers use (such as social media), instead of simply charging for time online.
River cruise lines typically offer flat rates or even free Internet. Cellular rates at sea vary by wireless company, but they will generally reflect international roaming rates, which can be breathtakingly pricey. When the ship reaches port, pricing will switch to the country-specific roaming rate -- also not cheap unless you've signed up for an international calling plan.
For more background and tips on staying connected at sea, click here for nine things you need to know. Below is a rundown of what the major cruise lines offer for Internet and cellular service.
Internet and Wi-Fi: Both Azamara ships -- Journey and Quest -- have onboard computer centers, eConnections, with 24-hour access. Wireless access on smartphones and laptops is available in designated areas on the ship.
Fees: Internet minutes may be purchased in increments at a rate of 65 cents a minute or as packages based on the minutes you plan to use: $9.95 (15 minutes); $18.95 (30 minutes); $26.95 (45 minutes); $47.95 (85 minutes); $79.95 (150 minutes) and $99.95 (235 minutes). Only one device can be used at a time. For users who need even more time online, Azamara also offers a $69 a day unlimited Internet package. The system does not support Skype or other high-bandwidth programs.
Cell phones: Service is available via AT&T and Wireless Maritime for passengers with GPRS data service. Calling/texting packages are available, but roaming charges apply.
Internet and Wi-Fi: Carnival offers shipwide Wi-Fi on all its vessels. As well, the line has incorporated a custom-designed portal into its cyber cafe computers; this offers a variety of special features and promotes easy access to news and sports. On Carnival Sunshine, Carnival Dream, Carnival Magic and Carnival Breeze, the Internet cafe has been scrapped in lieu of "FunHub" terminals. The stations are spread out over the ships' main public areas on Decks 3, 4 and 5 and provide free access to a ship-specific information portal, as well as regular for-fee Web browsing. As part of a Carnival Corp. initiative, all Carnival ships will have Wifi@Sea enhanced Internet by the end of 2016.
Fees: Prices for Internet access on a Carnival cruise ship vary widely from ship to ship. Standard per minute pricing has been replaced on most ships with three social media packages. The "social" plan is $5 per day for unlimited access to social media networks, but not email or web browsing. The $16 per day "value" plan adds access to email and the Internet, but restricts bandwidth-intensive activities such as streaming movies and music or VoIP services (Skype and Facetime). For heavy Internet users, a $25 a day "premium" plan gives access to the entire Internet, streaming sites and VoIP applications. Ships with the $5 - $25 packages are Carnival Breeze, Carnival Ecstasy, Carnival Elation, Carnival Fascination, Carnival Freedom, Carnival Glory, Carnival Imagination, Carnival Inspiration, Carnival Paradise, Carnival Pride, Carnival Sensation, Carnival Magic, Carnival Splendor, Carnival Sunshine, Carnival Triumph, Carnival Valor, Carnival Fantasy, Carnival Liberty, Carnival Victory, Carnival Conquest and Carnival Dream with other ships getting the social packages by the end of first quarter 2016. Ships still without the packages offer standard pricing of 75 cents per minute, with packages available for 45 minutes ($29), 120 minutes ($59), 240 minutes ($89) and 400 minutes ($159). For all packages there is a one-time activation fee of $3.95. A limited number of laptops is available for rent on all Carnival ships for a fee ($9 to $10 a day); they're complimentary with the purchase of an Internet package.
Cell Phones: Carnival passengers can use their phones fleetwide to make calls, text and surf the Web using data or Wi-Fi; roaming charges from cell phone carriers apply.
Internet and Wi-Fi: Most ships in the fleet offer Wi-Fi connectivity throughout, with the exception of Celebrity Century and Celebrity Xpedition, which offer Wi-Fi in public areas. All ships have 24-hour Internet cafes. Eclipse, Millennium, Solstice, Silhouette, Summit and Infinity also have iLounges with workstations and classes featuring the latest Apple products.
Fees: There is a flat Internet rate of 75 cents per minute or package rates of 38 minutes for $24.95; 90 minutes for $49.95; 208 minutes for $99.95 and 555 minutes for $199.95. The truly wired may want to book the "Involved" plan: 1,666 minutes for $399.95. The same rates apply to wireless hotspots on all ships, as well as to in-cabin Internet access.
Cell Phones: Passengers on all Celebrity ships can use their GSM or CDMA mobile phones onboard. Roaming charges will apply.
Internet and Wi-Fi: All ships have Internet cafes. Wi-Fi onboard works on all devices and is available throughout the ship.
Fees: A one-hour package will set you back €30 and three hours costs €48, plus a basic €3 connection fee; the packages can only be booked on the ships. Look for promotions, which vary ship to ship and may include "buy one, get one half price" on packages and discounted rates. As part of a Carnival Corp. initiative, all Costa ships will have Wifi@Sea enhanced Internet by the end of 2016.
Cell Phones:Calls are only possible when the ship is in dock.
Internet and Wi-Fi:Passengers on Crystal Serenity and Crystal Symphony can surf the Internet at the Computer University @ Sea, equipped with 40 workstations on each ship. Wireless access is available throughout the ship. Laptops can be rented onboard, and Technology Concierges are always on hand to help people with using computers or setting up their mobile devices. High-bandwidth applications like Skype, iChat, FaceTime and other similar services are not supported on Crystal ships.
Fees: Crystal offers five plans, ranging from 74 cents per minute "Pay as You Go" to $300 for 25 hours of access. Stateroom connection requires a special configuration of one's personal laptop at no charge. Renting a laptop is $5 per day.
Cell Phones: Access is available for phones and other mobile devices (provided by Wireless Maritime Services). Devices must be activated for international calling. Roaming fees apply and are set by your phone service provider.
Internet and Wi-Fi: Queen Elizabeth has a combined Internet Center and an iStudy seminar room, where computers are available for passenger use, as well as an additional eight computers in the library. Queen Mary has an Internet Center and a separate iStudy, both located in the Connexions Cafe, which provides tea and coffee in addition to computer stations and classes. By the end of 2015, Queen Victoria's Internet facilities will include a combined Internet Center and iStudy, as well as additional computers in the library. Wi-Fi onboard works on all devices and is available throughout the ship, but can be patchy and very slow. As part of a Carnival Corp. initiative, all Cunard ships will have Wifi@Sea enhanced Internet by the end of 2016.
Fees: Internet access will run you 75 cents per minute, unless you buy a package: 120 minutes for $47.95; 240 minutes for $89.95 or 480 minutes for $167.95. (These bring the price down to about $0.30 to $0.40 per minute.)
Cell Phones: GSM roaming service is available across the fleet.
Internet and Wi-Fi: Both Disney Magic and Disney Wonder have Internet Cafes (located in the Promenade Lounges), each with computer stations that provide email service and Web connectivity. On Disney Fantasy and Disney Dream, passengers can rent a laptop at the Cove Cafe for an additional charge. On all ships, computers are available in the teen club, Vibe. Wireless high-speed Internet is available for passengers bringing their own wireless-ready laptops or other electronic devices, with many hotspots set up in a variety of public areas.
Fees: Internet packages are based on the amount of megabytes used. Passengers can choose to pay as they go ($0.25 per MB) or choose from one of following three packages: The small package includes 100 MB for $19 ($0.19 per MB) and is ideal for occasional use, like checking email; the medium package offers 300 MB for $39 ($0.13 per MB) and is geared toward moderate users, like those who wish to upload images to social media; the large package covers most Internet needs, providing 1,000 MB for $89 ($0.09 per MB).
Cell Phones: Cell phone usage is available on all four ships, though it's limited to staterooms. If your carrier supports GPRS data service, you may use compatible Wireless Maritime Services (WMS) to check email and surf the Web on your phone. When the ship is in port, the service is off, and passengers can connect to local roaming networks.
Internet and Wi-Fi: Passengers can keep in touch via the Internet Room onboard. Wi-Fi service is available in hotspots, such as in the reception area and the library, on all four ships in the fleet. Passengers can go to the reception desk and purchase tokens with special codes to type into a laptop or mobile device when prompted. Internet access is also available at computer centers on all four ships.
Fees: These are among the least expensive rates in the industry: wireless access is £5 for 25 minutes; £10 for 55 minutes; £25 for 145 minutes and £50 for 300 minutes. Charges are billed to your onboard cruise ship account.
Cell Phones: All ships in the Fred. Olsen fleet are cell phone friendly (service provided by Maritime Communications Partners). Phones must be activated for international calling with the passenger's home provider, but otherwise no special codes or software are needed. Roaming fees apply.
Internet and Wi-Fi: Passengers onboard the line's expedition vessel MS Fram, as well as the 11 ships that do the Norwegian coastal voyages, can access the Internet in a small Internet cafe or via their own Wi-Fi enabled laptop or other mobile device. Internet service on Hurtigruten ships can be painfully slow, especially as the ships sail toward more remote areas.
Fees: There is no charge for Wi-Fi on the ships that do the Norwegian coastal voyages, but passengers on MS Fram do have to pay. Prices, charged in Norwegian kroner, are: 30 minutes for 40 kroner; 60 minutes for 60 kroner and six hours for 200 kroner.
Cell Phones: Passengers may use their cell phones, though roaming charges from their phone service providers will be charged. Cell phone service is spotty, especially the farther north the ship sails.
Internet and Wi-Fi: All Holland America have Internet cafes. The line's Explorations Cafe, powered by the New York Times, is a cozy, coffee house-style area where passengers can either use the computers provided or a wireless Internet device. High-speed terminals are scattered around the library and handily adjacent to a coffee bar. Wireless access is also available there, as it is in most public areas and all cabins. As part of a Carnival Corp. initiative, all Holland America ships will have Wifi@Sea enhanced Internet by the end of 2016.
Fees: As it gears up for faster Wi-fi, the line is testing three new plans -- including one geared toward social media -- across its fleet for an indefinite time.
The "Standard" plan offers 1,000 minutes for $250 (25 cents per minute), 500 minutes for $175 (35 cents per minute), 250 minutes for $100 (40 cents per minute), 100 minutes for $55 (55 cents per minute), a "pay as you go" option for 75 cents per minute and two "last day" plans: 30 minutes for $12 (40 cents per minute) and 15 minutes for $8.25 (55 cents per minute). The plan is available on Noordam, Oosterdam, Eurodam, Prinsendam and HAL's R-Class and S-Class ships.
On Nieuw Amsterdam and Zuiderdam, the "Hybrid" plan allows passengers to purchase either minutes or an unlimited Internet that spans the entire cruise. The plan offers 600 minutes for $199 (33 cents per minute), 400 minutes for $159 (40 cents per minute), 200 minutes for $99 (50 cents per minute), 30 minutes for $19 (63 cents per minute) and the "Unlimited Premium Voyage" package for $249.
Westerdam is the only ship to test the line's new social media package. Here's how those packages break down, priced for seven-day cruises. "Social" ($5 for 24 hours or $25 for the week) limits access to only eight social media sites, including Facebook and LinkedIn. "Enhanced" ($16 for 24 hours or $60 for the week) excludes videoconferencing and music streaming. "Premiere" ($25 for 24 hours or $99 for the week) has everything except video streaming.
Cell Phones: All ships in the Holland America fleet are cell phone friendly, and thanks to an agreement with Wireless Maritime Service, passengers can make and receive calls, send and receive text messages, and access emails and surf the Web with their phones. Phones must be activated for international calling with the passenger's home provider, but no special codes or software are needed. Roaming fees apply.
Internet and Wi-Fi: Internet service is available at computers in Internet cafes on all MSC ships. Wi-Fi is available in all cabins and common areas.
Fees: Internet prices vary by ship location. On cruises in the Caribbean, the cost for Internet is $29.90 for 60 minutes; $44.90 for 100 minutes; $99.90 for 300 minutes; $149.90 for 480 minutes and $299.90 for 24 hours. On ships sailing in the Mediterranean or Northern Europe, prices are 12 euros ($16.34) for 60 minutes; 19 euros ($25.88) for 100 minutes; 45 euros ($61.29) for 300 minutes; 59 euros ($80.35) for 480 minutes and 145 euros ($197.48) for 1,440 minutes. Laptops are available for rent on Fantasia-class vessels.
Cell Phones: GSM roaming service is available on all 12 MSC ships. Charges apply.
Internet and Wi-Fi: Norwegian offers 24-hour Internet cafes and shipwide wireless Internet access on all of its ships but Norwegian Sky. iConcierge, a phone application that lets Apple, Android, Windows 7 and iPad users tap into onboard passenger information, communicate with other guests onboard and make their own dining and excursion reservations, is currently available on Norwegian Epic, Norwegian Breakaway, Norwegian Getaway, Norwegian Pearl, Norwegian Jewel, Norwegian Pride of America, Norwegian Star and Norwegian Sun. The app is being rolled out fleetwide.
Fees: The pay-as-you-go rate is 95 cents per minute. Internet cafe and wireless users on cruises six nights and longer can buy 250- and 100-minute packages for $129 and $85, respectively. There is a one-time activation fee of $3.95 for initial login. Norwegian Sky has its own pricing model – 60 minutes for $39 or 100 minutes for $55, and Norwegian Breakaway is the only ship in the fleet running data plans – 300 mb for $59 or 1000 mb for $125. Laptop rental is complimentary with any time-plan purchase, but it's subject to availability. The iConcierge app is free to download, but there is an introductory rate of $7.95 per person if you want to make and send unlimited calls and messages to other passengers while onboard.
Cell Phones: Passengers can make and receive calls, send and receive text messages, read emails and surf the Web on their own cell phones and mobile devices while the ship is at sea via a satellite connection. Roaming charges apply. The iConcierge phone app also allows ship-to-shore and shore-to-ship calling capabilities using VoIP (Voice over IP technology). A per-minute fee applies for this service.
Internet and Wi-Fi: All Oceania ships have shipwide Wi-Fi access. Passengers can sign up to gain access in their Internet center, Oceania@Sea, or by connecting to the network directly from their device. All suites are equipped with laptops -- and the Owner's, Vista and Oceania suites each come with the added bonus of an iPad.
Fees: Internet minutes are available at the rate of 99 cents per minute or at a reduced rate when a package is purchased. An unlimited package is available at $27.99 per passenger, per day, for cruises 12 days or less, and $21.99 per passenger, per day, for cruises 13 days or longer. A 200-minute package is available for $160.
Cell Phones: For passengers traveling with their smartphones, Oceania Cruises now offers a Wi-Fi enabled app called Connect@Sea that allows cruisers to send and receive calls and messages to other Connect@Sea app users on the ship, as well as make calls from the ship to people on land. It's recommended to download the app before sailing. The app is then activated onboard with the purchase of a Connect@Sea Plan. The plan cost is per person, varies by length of cruise and includes unlimited calls and messages to onboard users. Calls made to friends and family on land incur per-minute charges.
Internet and Wi-Fi: Internet access is available in the cyber cafes onboard all of P&O Cruises' ships, plus at Wi-Fi hotspots around the ship. On some ships, Internet access is available in passenger cabins, but this depends on the strength of the signal while at sea. Shipboard email addresses can be obtained through the Cruise Email TM system; the rate is £2.50 per message sent. As part of a Carnival Corp. initiative, all P & O ships will have Wifi@Sea enhanced Internet by the end of 2016.
Fees: The pay-as-you-go rate for Internet or wireless access is 50 pence per minute, plus there is an activation charge of £2.50. Time packages are available at the Cyber Centre, though rates vary by ship. On a standard cruise (seven to 24 nights), a 250-minute time plan costs £62.50, and a 100-minute time plan costs £35. You can also purchase time plans ahead of your trip and get 120 minutes for the cost of 100 minutes or 280 minutes for the cost of 250 minutes.
Cell Phones: Mobile phone reception is available on all ships if your phone is capable of roaming internationally with Maritime Communications Partners.
Internet and Wi-Fi: Wireless hotspots are available in public areas and cabins on all ships. All Princess ships have Internet cafes; the number of computer terminals ranges from eight to 26, depending on the ship. High bandwidth activities like VoIP and streaming video may be restricted onboard ships.
Fees: Princess Cruises' pay-as-you-go rate is 79 cents per minute. There are also four time plans: 100 minutes for $69 (pre-purchase for $72.95 with 20 bonus minutes); 200 minutes for $99 (pre-purchase for $102.95 with 40 bonus minutes); 400 minutes for $159 (pre-purchase for $162.95 with 60 bonus minutes) and 600 minutes for $199 (pre-purchase for $202.95 with 80 bonus minutes). World cruisers also can buy 1,000 minutes for $249 or pre-purchase for $252.95 with 100 bonus minutes included. Princess also offers a last-day-of-sailing, 15-minute Internet special for $8.99. Passengers in the top tier of the line's frequent cruise program gain credit towards Internet package use. As part of a Carnival Corp. initiative, all Princess ships will have Wifi@Sea enhanced Internet by the end of 2016.
Cell Phones: All Princess ships are cell phone operational (service provided by Maritime Communications Partners). Phones must be activated for international calling with the passenger's home provider before sailing. Roaming fees apply and are set by your phone service provider.
Internet and Wi-Fi: Computer centers with Internet access are available on all Regent ships. Wireless access is available throughout the ships, including most cabins, but bandwidth-heavy applications such as Skype and FaceTime are not permitted to be used onboard.
Fees: The pay-as-you-go rate is 99 cents per minute (plus a one-time activation fee of $3.95) for Internet or wireless access. A 200-minute package is available for $160, plus the one-time activation fee of $3.95. An unlimited package also is offered at a cost of $29.99 per day, with no activation fee. Passengers in concierge-level suites and higher receive up to 500 free minutes of Internet.
Cell Phones: GSM and CDMA roaming access are available on all ships. Charges apply
Internet and Wi-Fi: Wi-Fi access is available on every ship in Royal Caribbean's fleet, and most ships have bow-to-stern Wi-Fi. Those that don't have Wi-Fi throughout have hotspots. All ships also have Internet cafes. Passengers can access Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines Ltd. websites (including those for sister companies Azamara Club Cruises and Celebrity Cruises) for free. Oasis of the Seas, Allure of the Seas, Anthem of the Seas and Quantum of the Seas boast the fastest signals in the fleet; the company invested custom-built antennae for those ships. Speeds are fast enough that downloading streaming video or posting video to social media sites is possible. The line plans to expand bandwidth fleetwide, with Jewel of the Seas, Majesty of the Seas, Enchantment of the Seas and Freedom of the Seas receiving the service in May 2016.
Fees: The cost for Internet varies from ship to ship. On Oasis, Allure, Anthem and Quantum of the Seas, the only option is the VOOM package. The cost is $15 a device per day and users can do anything on their laptops or mobile devices that they do at home. On all other ships, the unlimited Internet package costs $20 per device, per day. Users may do everything online except use streaming services and applications.
Cell Phones: Mobile phone service is provided by AT&T/Cellular at Sea. Check with your home provider before sailing about compatibility and international roaming charges.
Internet and Wi-Fi: All Seabourn ships are wired for Wi-Fi access in all suites and most public areas. Several computer terminals are also available in the Computer Center, depending upon the ship. As part of a Carnival Corp. initiative, all Seabourn ships will have Wifi@Sea enhanced Internet by the end of 2016.
Fees: Prepaid plans are available at reduced rates: two hours for $19.95; three hours for $29.95; four hours for $39.95 and unlimited weekly packages for $239.95. For passengers cruising longer than seven days, an unlimited package is available for $399.95.
Cell Phones: Seabourn offers a mobile phone network that allows passengers to send and receive calls on their own compatible mobile phones while the ship is at sea. Charges apply.
Internet and Wi-Fi: Onboard Internet services are available with a range of pricing plans. Passengers may use their own laptops and wireless cards to access the Internet and personal e-mail in their cabins or at Wi-Fi locations throughout the ship. Computers, e-mail and Internet access are also available onboard via Internet cafes on all ships.
Fees: Starting in January 2016, Silversea will offer at least one hour per day of free Wi-Fi to all passengers on all of its ships. Passengers sailing in the upper level suites will receive complimentary Wi-Fi for the duration of their voyages. Otherwise, on most sailings the rate for both wireless and computer center access is 50 cents per minute. Passengers can also purchase packages of 100 minutes for $45; 250 minutes for $85 and 1,000 minutes for $250.
Cell Phones:When onboard, passengers can make and receive phone calls, text messages and other data services on their own mobile phone or digital device. Roaming charges apply.
Internet and Wi-Fi: Wireless Internet is available in most public areas and cabins on all Windstar ships, and passengers can access computers and rent laptops onboard. Wind Surf has an Internet center with eight workstations.
Fees: Windstar offers two packages: the Email Plan ($50) and the Surfing Plan ($100). The Email Plan provides passengers with 100 MB of data to use throughout the cruise; it's recommended for people who do very little browsing, only checking email periodically. Estimated minutes for the Email Plan range from 15 to 60. The Surfing Plan offers 250 MB of data, ideal for additional browsing and small file transfers (such as posting pictures to a social media site). Estimated minutes range from 45 to 180 (approximately 3 hours) for this plan.
Cell Phones: Mobile phone service is available fleetwide, both at sea and in port. At sea, the onboard international roaming network supports GSM and CDMA technology. Text messaging, GPRS and EDGE data service also are available.
--By Cruise Critic Staff