Can I make calls from my cell phone on a cruise?
Technically, you can, but it's not always possible. Depending on where your ship is at any given moment, you might or might not have a phone signal. When you do have one, it's coming through an at-sea provider (CellAtSea for Norwegian Cruise Line and Cellular At Sea for Royal Caribbean, as examples) and is considered a roaming charge by your cell carrier.
Rates are typically exceptionally high, with phone calls often costing upwards of $2.50 per minute. Verizon, for example, charges $2.99/minute for voice calls, while T-Mobile charges a whopping $5.99/minute. AT&T charges $3.00/minute, or you can purchase one of two cruise ship calling packages if you're sailing with one of more than 20 cruise lines.
When you're in port, your cell signal will typically switch to a carrier from the country or island you're visiting. Roaming charges in these areas vary; you'll want to check with your carrier for the pricing for each country you're visiting. If you've got T-Mobile, check to see if the destination visited is included in the Simple Choice plan. If it is, making phone calls will only be $0.25/minute. (Calls from Mexico and Canada using T-Mobile's Simple Choice plan are free. Other carriers offer discounts in these countries, depending on your plan.)
Can I send or receive text messages? Is texting less expensive than making a phone call?
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It's possible to send and receive text messages at sea, as long as you have a signal through your ship's roaming network. (Just make sure you turn off data roaming in your settings.) Texting costs a lot less than a voice call -- usually in line with standard, international "pay as you go" rates. Most major carriers charge $0.50 to send a message or deduct messages from your monthly allotment.
Many carriers also offer discounted international packages, where you can either prepay a flat fee for a set amount of text messages and/or data to use overseas or pay a flat daily fee for unlimited text messages and data usage. Check with your specific provider for details. On the flip side, you have no control over incoming text messages, so if you receive any while you are using your phone via the ship's signal, you will be charged. (Note: Internet is not required to send and receive text messages.)
How much does it cost to use the internet on my phone if I'm roaming?
Data use onboard is ridiculously expensive, especially because it tends to add up quickly. Always remember to put your phone in airplane mode or turn off data roaming before you head out to sea.
Even in port, the rates get pretty high. Most carriers, however, offer special plans or travel passes (for an additional fee) that allow you to use your domestic plan allowances while in port. Most T-Mobile plans include unlimited texting and data at up to 2G speeds in 210-plus countries. On the other hand, Verizon's TravelPass and AT&T's International Day Pass charge $5 to $10 per day for travelers to text, call and use data based on the plan they have at home. Without the pass, pay-per-use data rates for both carriers costs more than $2.00/MB on land.
Bear in mind that there also might be a limit to how much data you can use, per day, while in port, and you'll be charged an overage fee each time you exceed it. If your plan doesn't include international data and you don't want to purchase a travel pass, you can always look for Wi-Fi at a local restaurant or bar.
If you do wish to access the internet while onboard, you can connect to the ship's Wi-Fi. Note that most ships charge for Wi-Fi usage, so you'll need to compare data roaming prices against the ship's internet charges to see which is a better deal.
How can I make sure I am not charged by my phone company for unintentional phone use?
To ensure you are not charged by your phone company, you have two choices: turn off your phone as soon as your cruise ship leaves port, or, if you want to use offline applications, put your phone into airplane mode.
What about the apps on my cell phone? Can I use them without paying extra?
You won't pay extra for using any app that does not require data or is not connected to the internet. Apps such as games, food diaries and music players that have music already downloaded onto the phone can be used while your phone is in airplane mode without racking up any charges. You also can use your phone as an alarm clock, but you'll have to manually set the time if the time onboard changes. You can use your phone to take pictures, but they won't be backed up to the cloud. Any apps that must be connected to the internet to work -- such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Spotify and Pandora -- won't work without data or Wi-Fi, and if they're connected to data, they will quickly rack up charges you don't want to pay.
Are there any apps provided by my cruise line that I can use on the ship?
Most cruise lines provide at least one app for their passengers; not all are for use while on your cruise ship. Some are targeted at people still researching and planning their cruise vacations. For those apps designed to be used onboard, you do not need to pay to use them for functions like looking at deck plans, making restaurant reservations, looking at shore excursion choices, checking your onboard spending and other similar activities. Some apps provide communication features like texting or calling other people on the same ship who also have the app. This feature can cost money, depending on your cruise line. Check with your cruise line to find out which app(s) it offers, which ships support app functionality and if there are any costs associated with using them.
Can I use the Wi-Fi on my cell phone?
Yes, you can use the Wi-Fi feature on your cell phone to connect to your cruise ship's Wi-Fi, but you will have to purchase an internet package. Many ports offer free Wi-Fi to cruisers, but be aware these are open networks with limited security in place.
Can I video chat or use VoIP (like Skype or FaceTime)?
Only a handful of cruise lines -- including Carnival, Royal Caribbean, Celebrity Cruises, Disney Cruise Line and Princess -- have invested in high-bandwidth, high-speed internet capable of supporting Skype, FaceTime and other video chat platforms. You'll also have to pay more for the internet package that enables this type of use.
If I don't want to spend the money to use my cell phone, can I use the ship's phone to call home?
Yes, you can use the ship's phone to call home. Prices are high but can be a little less than what your cellphone company will charge you. For instance, Royal Caribbean charges a hefty $7.95/minute, but Carnival only charges $1.99/minute. If you really need to make a phone call during your cruise, your best bet, budget-wise, is to wait until you're in port and use Wi-Fi calling or buy a phone card. You can also check with your phone carrier to see if there is an international calling plan you can purchase for the duration of your trip for use in port. An international calling plan will often significantly lower the per-minute cost of any phone calls you make while traveling.
How can I learn more about using my cell phone on a cruise ship?
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The What to Expect on a Cruise series, written by Cruise Critic's editorial staff, is a resource guide, where we answer the most common questions about cruise ship life -- including cruise food, cabins, drinks and onboard fun -- as well as money matters before and during your cruise and visiting ports of call on your cruise.