Wi-Fi on cruise ships: What you need to know about internet use on board

I have good news for those of you who assume the only way to stay in touch with home from a cruise ship is via a message in a bottle: Cruise ships come equipped with internet, and cruise Wi-Fi connections have been getting faster at a rapid rate — and cheaper, too.

While checking emails and surfing the web on some vessels still requires the patience of Job, onboard technological improvements on many ships combined with new satellite and direct ship-to-shore systems are making cruise internet access much more like what you find on land.

If you’re a first-time cruiser, you’re likely most concerned with the basics: Do cruise ships have Wi-Fi and how much does Wi-Fi cost on a cruise? Repeat cruisers who have paid the price for finicky service may be wondering the best way to access fast connection speeds across their devices while avoiding unnecessary charges.

I can guide you through the ins and outs of Wi-Fi on cruise ships. Here are five things to know about onboard internet before you set sail.

1. Wi-Fi on cruise ships will never be as fast (or reliable) as home

Yes, all cruise ships today offer an internet connection, but it might not be the seamless experience you’ve come to expect on land.

For most of the many years I’ve been writing about cruising, the typical internet connection at sea hasn’t just been slow. It’s been glacial. You’d click on a website only to experience many seconds of frustration. Maybe the page would come up. Maybe it wouldn’t. Maybe the cruise would end while you were still sitting there.

Why the slow speeds? To start, there is no Comcast cable wire running to your cruise ship. On cruise ships, every packet of data you are downloading onto your phone or computer, for the most part, is coming over a satellite, which is not a quick or inexpensive proposition.

The maritime communication companies that specialize in providing internet connections to ships have been trying to speed things up in recent years. Solutions have included adding more satellites and linking their systems to land-based towers that connect with ships as they near shore.

But, in the end, there are limits to just how well a satellite system can work. For starters, a ship needs a clear “line of sight” to a satellite to exchange data, something that isn’t always the case. Cruise ships traveling through the famed Norwegian fjords, for instance, can lose their satellite signal due to the height of surrounding mountains.

And there are certain parts of the world where satellite coverage is too thin or nonexistent to allow for internet access on cruise ships. During a sailing in the Russian Arctic on a Hapag-Lloyd Cruises ship, I was forced to live without internet for a good part of a week due to a lack of satellite coverage in the area (something, I must say, was kind of wonderful).

So while onboard cruise Wi-Fi speeds are getting better, they’ll never be as fast as at home, where a hard wire brings the signal straight to your router.

2. Onboard internet speed is getting much faster

On some cruise ships, the signal has become so much faster you now can stream Netflix from the comfort of your cabin — something that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago.

New satellite systems, paired with multimillion-dollar investments in shipboard technology, really are making things better in a big way. A turning point came in 2014, when cruise giant Royal Caribbean partnered with satellite company O3b Networks to create a new onboard internet system that it claimed was six times faster than anything else at sea. Called Voom, the system tapped into new Medium Earth Orbit satellites operated by O3b that can shoot their beams directly at ships as they move.

When I ran a speed test of Voom on Adventure of the Seas, I found the line’s fastest option, the Surf + Stream service, usually offered download speeds of just around 3 megabits per second. I never found download speeds exceeding 4 Mbps, but I did see it drop as low as 1.5 Mbps. While still significantly slower than many home connections, that’s fast enough to enjoy Netflix and other streaming video services, though I did experience grainy video and buffering issues on occasion.

Royal Caribbean still claims Voom is the fastest and best Wi-Fi option on cruise ships today. But we’re a bit skeptical – not because the Wi-Fi is slower than stated, but because other cruise lines, like Carnival Cruise Line, are quickly catching up.

Carnival cruise Wi-Fi is also fast enough to support Netflix streaming on some ships, the company says. The cruise line uses a hybrid system that combines faster satellite connections at sea with a network of less-expensive land-based towers that take over as its vessels near coastal areas.

On a sailing on one of the Carnival ships outfitted for faster internet, Carnival Sunrise, I did notice a significant improvement in cruise Wi-Fi speed. But the promised access to Netflix streaming wasn’t quite as smooth as I had hoped. Clicking on a favorite show, I only could watch for a few minutes before the connection inevitably froze.

Some lines in just the last year or so have begun partnering with Elon Musk’s Starlink system for speedy internet.

3. Cruise internet costs have gone down

Just a few years back, you had to pay a small fortune for the privilege of accessing the internet on a cruise ship. The base rate for onboard Wi-Fi for years started around 75 cents a minute. That’s $45 for a single hour online!

The old pay-by-the-minute system, which could leave even modest internet users with sky-high bills, is now giving way to simpler and more affordable “all you can browse” plans on many lines.

How much does Wi-Fi cost on a cruise today? Well, the highest-speed version of Royal Caribbean’s Voom connection currently costs $26.99 per day for one device. In the old days of 75 cents-a-minute pricing, that same amount of money would have gotten you just 36 minutes of web time.

Royal Caribbean also offers a slower-speed version of Voom that can’t support streaming for $19.99 per day for one device. For both cruise internet packages, there are discounts for adding more devices and purchasing a package online before your sailing.

Another line bringing down internet costs dramatically is Carnival. At the very low end, it now offers a Social Wi-Fi plan that allows access to all the key social sites (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc.) as well as messaging services such as WhatsApp, for just $15.30 a day ($18 when purchased onboard). A slightly more expensive Value Wi-Fi plan, at $19.55 per day when bought in advance ($23 per day when bought onboard), adds access to email and most websites.

The line’s top-tier Premium Wi-Fi plan, at $21.25 per day when bought in advance ($25 when bought onboard), triples the speed of the Value plan and adds access to VoIP calling on messaging apps and Skype (but not FaceTime). Note that you might be able to make Wi-Fi calls from an iPhone or via WhatsApp, even with the less expensive plan. Passengers who pay for a Carnival Cruise Wi-Fi plan in advance of sailing get a 15% discount.

But perhaps the biggest development in cruise internet costs in recent years is that many higher-end lines have begun offering internet access for — get this — free. Viking, Regent Seven Seas Cruises, and Silversea Cruises are among lines now including unlimited internet time in the base cost of a voyage. At some of these lines, such as Regent, you can pay extra for faster service.

Another way to get free or cheaper internet time on ships is to join cruise line loyalty programs. Many offer free cruise Wi-Fi or discounted package pricing to customers who hit mid- to upper-tier levels.

At Celebrity Cruises, for instance, the top Zenith tier in the line’s Captain’s Club offers unlimited free internet access. The line’s second-highest tier, Elite Plus, offers 240 minutes of complimentary internet access.

4. Not all cruise lines offer the same Wi-Fi experience

It’s important to note that not all cruise lines offer the same Wi-Fi experience. While some lines have invested heavily in new technology to improve internet speeds and connectivity, others may still have slower and less reliable connections.

If fast and reliable Wi-Fi is a priority for you, it’s worth researching which cruise lines have made the most significant investments in their onboard internet systems. Look for cruise lines that have partnered with satellite companies or implemented hybrid systems to provide faster speeds. Reading reviews from past passengers can also give you an idea of the overall quality of the Wi-Fi experience on different cruise lines.

5. Tips for maximizing your cruise Wi-Fi experience

While cruise ship Wi-Fi has come a long way, there are still some limitations and challenges to consider. Here are a few tips for maximizing your cruise Wi-Fi experience:

– Purchase a Wi-Fi package in advance: Many cruise lines offer discounted rates for Wi-Fi packages if you purchase them before your sailing. Take advantage of these pre-cruise deals to save money and ensure you have internet access throughout your trip.

– Limit your data usage: Even with faster speeds, cruise ship Wi-Fi can still be slower than what you’re used to on land. To avoid frustration, limit your data usage by avoiding bandwidth-intensive activities like streaming movies or downloading large files. Stick to basic web browsing, email, and social media to make the most of your Wi-Fi connection.

– Connect during off-peak hours: Wi-Fi speeds can vary depending on how many passengers are using the network at the same time. To increase your chances of faster speeds, try connecting during off-peak hours when fewer people are online, such as early morning or late at night.

– Use Wi-Fi calling apps: If you want to make calls while onboard, consider using Wi-Fi calling apps like WhatsApp or Skype. These apps use less bandwidth than traditional phone calls and can help you save money on international roaming charges.

– Be patient: Despite improvements in cruise ship Wi-Fi, there may still be times when the connection is slow or unreliable. Remember to be patient and understand that you’re on vacation to relax and disconnect from the outside world. Embrace the opportunity to disconnect and enjoy the onboard amenities and activities instead.

In conclusion, cruise ship Wi-Fi has come a long way in recent years, with faster speeds and more affordable pricing. While it may not be as fast or reliable as home internet, it’s still possible to stay connected and browse the web while sailing the high seas. By researching which cruise lines offer the best Wi-Fi experience, purchasing a package in advance, and following some simple tips, you can make the most of your cruise internet access and stay connected with loved ones back home.

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