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, Wi-Fi hotspots and crystal-clear cell phone transmission. So, whether you use a PDA for business, bring a cell phone to check in on grandma or need to surf the Web to feed your news habit, you'll be covered.
But, 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 high-speed service you get at home. Beyond that, Internet speeds can vary significantly from line to line, 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. Internet charges vary by cruise line, ranging from 35 cents to $1 per minute. (Cruise lines do offer packages for heavy users that discount the per-minute rate, often significantly, and some river lines 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 with wireless network cards 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: $40 (75 minutes), $60 (125 minutes), $80 (185 minutes) or $100 (265 minutes).
Cell phones: Service is available via AT&T and Wireless Maritime for passengers with GPRS data service. Roaming charges apply.
Carnival Cruise Lines
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 sites. Other highlights include PhotoWorks access -- you can build your own scrapbook -- and access to iTunes for music downloads. On Carnival Dream, Carnival Magic and Carnival Breeze, the Internet cafe has been scrapped in lieu of 36 "FunHub" terminals. The stations are spread out over Decks 3, 4 and 5 -- the ships' main public areas -- and provide free access to a ship-specific information portal, as well as regular Web browsing.
Fees: Internet access at the cyber cafe or on personal laptops costs 75 cents per minute. Alternatively, minutes can be bought in blocks: 480 minutes for $159; 240 minutes for $89; 120 minutes for $59; 45 minutes for $29. There is also 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 with GSM or CDMA wireless phones may now use their phones fleetwide; roaming charges from cell phone carriers apply.
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-stateroom Internet access.
Cell Phones: Passengers on all Celebrity ships can use their GSM or CDMA mobile phones onboard. Roaming charges will apply.
Costa Cruise Lines
Internet and Wi-Fi: All ships in the Costa fleet feature Internet cafes with work stations, the number of which varies according to the size of the ship. Wireless access is available in all common areas (even on the pool deck) and staterooms.
Fees: Pay-per-use costs a flat rate of €0.50 or $0.66 per minute. Package plans can be purchased: one hour for €10 or $13.19 or three hours for €24 or $31.52. Internet access requires a one-time activation fee of €3 or $3.94 to open an account. These fees are subject to change and are dependent on the currency exchange rate.
Cell Phones: GSM roaming is available on all Costa ships. Charges apply. CDMA service is not available.
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.
Fees:Crystal has abandoned its former confusing pricing system and now offers a more simplified series of plans, ranging from $0.74/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, wireless PDA's and other mobile devices.
Internet and Wi-Fi: Passengers on Cunard's three ships have 24-hour access to 30 computer terminals in the Cunard ConneXions rooms and the library. They can also log onto their own laptops in their cabins and in wireless locations throughout the ships, including the Golden Lion Pub, Sir Samuel's Lounge and the Games Deck. Queen Mary 2 also offers in-cabin email access via a "CruisE-mail" account. Among its many other bells and whistles, this interactive television system notifies you when there is a new e-mail.
Fees: Basic Internet charges on all three ships will run you 75 cents per minute; discount package rates are available, including $47.95 for two hours, $89.95 for four hours, and $167.95 for eight hours. CruisE-mail service fees are per-use and per-minute.
Cell Phones: Cell phone service is available on all three Cunard ships. Phones must have international roaming capabilities, and the passengers' service providers must have a roaming agreement with Maritime Communications Partner AS. Cell phone service is not available in theaters and restaurants onboard.
Disney Cruise Line
Internet and Wi-Fi: Both Disney Magic and Disney Wonder have Internet Cafes (located in the Promenade Lounges), each with 10 computer stations that provide e-mail service and Web connectivity. Computers are also available in the teen club, Vibe, for ages 13-17. Wireless high-speed Internet is available, with many hotspots set up in a variety of public areas. On Disney Fantasy and Disney Dream, passengers who bring their own wireless-ready laptops or other electronic device (e.g. iPad or Blackberry) may use wireless Internet access. Passengers can also use a cafe laptop at Cove Cafe for an additional charge.
Fees: Internet access costs 75 cents per minute. For sailings of seven nights or longer, packages can be purchased in increments of 100, 250 and 500 minutes at $55, $100 and $150, respectively. For sailings less than seven nights, packages can be purchased in increments of 50 minutes, 100 minutes and 250 minutes at $27.50, $40 and $75, respectively. Prices for Wi-Fi are the same.
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 e-mail and surf the Web on your phone. Check with your carrier about setting up international roaming service in advance. When the ship is in port, the service is off, and passengers can connect to local roaming networks.
Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines
Internet and Wi-Fi: Wi-Fi service is available in hotspots, such as the library and lounge in all four ships in the fleet. Passengers can go to reception 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 20 pence (about 32 cents) per minute, and Internet access is 25 pence (40 cents) per minute. Bundles of tokens are available at a discount; the cost varies by ship. Charges are billed to your onboard cruise ship account.
Cell Phones: All ships in the Fred. Olsen fleet are cell phone-friendly (provided by Maritime Communications Partners). Phones and PDA's 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:Holland America ships have some of the most attractive and useful Internet cafes at sea. Part of the line's "Explorations" cafe concept, the high-speed terminals are scattered around the library (also one of the best at sea) and handily adjacent to a coffee bar. Wireless access is also available there, as it is in most public areas and all cabins for folks who bring their own laptops.
Fees: After an initial activation fee of $3.95, the charge ranges from a flat rate of 75 cents per minute to package rates of 100 minutes for $55 and 250 minutes for $100. Rates for Wi-Fi are the same as they are at the cafes. For passengers whose laptops are not equipped for Wi-Fi, standard wireless cards are available for a fee of $10 per day (optional insurance at $5 per day). Laptops are also available for rent at $20 a day (insurance at $10 per day).
Cell Phones: All ships in the Holland America fleet are cell phone-friendly (provided by SeaMobile). Phones and PDA's 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 cabins and common areas; specifics vary by ship. On MSC Armonia, MSC Sinfonia, MSC Lirica, MSC Opera and MSC Melody, you can connect to the Internet with your laptop or PDA at wireless hotspots available in most public areas. In the Cyber library, you can use the browser just as you would at home. Just follow the instructions found on the home page to register and select the amount of credit you require.
Fees: Access in the Internet cafe is $5 for the first 10 minutes and $0.50 for every minute thereafter. A 60-minute package is available for $25. Wi-Fi cost is $15 for 30 minutes; $25 for 60 minutes; and $80 for 250 minutes. Purchase prepaid cards at the information desk. Laptops are available for rent on MSC Splendida and MSC Fantasia.
Cell Phones: GSM roaming service is available on all 12 MSC ships. Charges apply.
Norwegian Cruise Line
Internet and Wi-Fi:Norwegian offers 24-hour Internet cafes and shipwide wireless Internet access on all but two of its ships. Norwegian Sky and Pride of Americaare minor exceptions, as Wi-Fi is only available in certain public areas on these two ships and not in cabins. Shipboard e-mail addresses are also available through the Cruise Email system. Norwegian Epic also has iConcierge, a phone application that lets Apple, Android, Windows 7 and iPad users tap into onboard passenger information and make their own dining and excursion reservations. Norwegian expects to roll the program out fleetwide.
Fees: The pay-as-you-go rate is 75 cents per minute. Internet cafe and wireless users can buy 250- and 100-minute packages for 40 and 55 cents per minute. For Cruise Email, there is an additional charge of $3.95 per message sent. 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 e-mails and surf the Web on their own cell phones and mobile devices while the ship is at sea via the Freestyle Cellular Service. Roaming charges apply. The iConcierge phone app also allows ship-to-shore and shore-to-ship calling capabilities using advanced voiceover IP technology. A per-minute fee applies for this service.
Internet and Wi-Fi: Passengers onboard all Oceania ships can access the Internet via its 24-hour Oceania@Sea centers. All suites are equipped with laptops -- and the Owner's, Vista and Oceania suites each come with the added bonus of an iPad. Wireless access is available throughout all ships.
Fees: Access is a flat 95 cents per minute -- pretty pricey. Packages, which lower the per-minute rate, are also available, starting at 100 minutes for $80 and going up to 1,200 minutes for $540. Sending or receiving e-mail from a specially designated Oceania address costs $2 per message.
Cell Phones: Roaming access is available for passengers with GSM and CDMA phones aboard all Oceania ships. Charges apply.
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 e-mail addresses can be obtained through the Cruise Email TM system; the rate is £2.50 per message sent.
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. Laptop rentals are free of charge with a time plan.
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. Passengers with laptops without wireless network cards can purchase "Windows XP" compatible cards onboard.
Fees:Princess Cruises' pay-as-you-go rate is 75 cents per minute. There are also three time plans: 100 minutes for $55, 150 minutes for $75 and 250 minutes for $100. One perk of its top-tier frequent cruiser program is that those folks get credit toward package use.
Cell Phones: All Princess ships are cell phone operational (provided by Maritime Communications Partners). Phones and PDA's must be activated for international calling with the passenger's home provider before sailing. Roaming fees apply.
Regent Seven Seas
Internet and Wi-Fi: Computer centers with Internet access are available on Seven Seas Voyager, Mariner and Navigator. There are 12 to 24 computers available, depending on the ship. Wireless access is available throughout the ship, including most cabins, but bandwidth-heavy applications such as Skype and MagicJack are not permitted to be used onboard.
Fees: The pay-as-you-go rate is 75 cents per minute for Internet or wireless access. Package plans let you purchase 100 minutes for $45, 250 minutes for $87.50 or 800 minutes for $200. There is also a one-time activation fee of $3.95.
Cell Phones: GSM and CDMA roaming access is available aboard Seven Seas Voyager, Mariner and Navigator. Charges apply.
Fees: Cost for both wireless access and Internet usage at computer stations is $0.65 per minute, or passengers can opt for prepaid packages starting at $35 for 60 minutes and going up to $150 for 500 minutes.
Cell Phones: Mobile phone service is provided by Wireless Maritime Services. 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 at Seabourn Square or in the Computer Center, depending upon the ship.
Fees: The flat rate for both wireless and computer center access is 40 cents per minute. Prepaid plans are also available at reduced rates: two hours for $20, three hours for $30, four hours for $40 and unlimited weekly packages for $240. In Seabourn Square aboard the Odyssey-class ships -- Seabourn Odyssey, Seabourn Sojourn and Seabourn Quest -- passengers can borrow netbook computers for accessing the Internet if they haven't brought their own.
Cell Phones: Seabourn offers a mobile phone network that allows passengers to send and receive calls on their own compatible mobile phones and phone numbers 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: The rates for both wireless and computer center access are 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 PDA devices. Roaming charges apply. Before leaving home, passengers should contact their providers to confirm a roaming agreement with Silversea has been established for ship-to-shore communications.
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 Surfhas an Internet center with eight workstations.
Fees: Windstar offers three packages: 30 minutes for $22.50, 100 minutes for $55 and 250 minutes for $100.
Cell Phones: Mobile phone service is available fleetwide. The onboard international roaming network supports GSM and CDMA technology, and text messaging, GPRS and EDGE data service are available. Cell phone use is discouraged in public areas.
--Updated by Laura Randall, Cruise Critic Contributor