Carnival Cruisee behind.
During an emergency, cruise ships offered onboard phones that you could use to make a call for several dollars a minute (by the way, they still exist). For more routine check-ins, cruisers would wait until their next port of call and whip out an international calling card (what?!) to use a pay phone on shore.
How quickly times change! Now, almost everyone walks around with a smartphone, allowing us to not only talk to anyone but giving us access to texting, email, social media and the Internet.
Best ways to use your smartphone on a cruise
For most people, the days of going on an entirely “unconnected cruise” are pretty much over. And for most of us, that's a welcome development. Now we can go on vacation without being completely detached from our families, friends and the world.
No matter how much you like to unwind when on vacation, odds are that you'll be bringing your smartphone with you on your next cruise. With that in mind, we've put together some tips when using your smartphone at sea — and a few things you should avoid doing at all costs.
Make sure you have an international plan
While many smartphones are international phones, you'll want to check your carrier’s website to ensure that you can even use your smartphone overseas. Many carriers have sections of their website that allow you to determine if your current device is travel friendly.
Head to your service provider's website to see what your coverage area includes for both calling and the Internet. You may be surprised what locations are already in your calling area, including some U.S. Virgin Islands, or parts of Canada and Mexico. The coverage area may give you enough space to get away without having to change anything or purchase a new plan.
During our travels to the Southern Caribbean recently, it was unclear from our provider’s website if San Juan, our departure port, was covered in our wireless plan, so we called to confirm that indeed our Internet and phone calls would be covered during our pre-cruise stay there, saving us some money.
You may need to call your provider for them to enable international roaming and service plans on certain smartphone models if you plan to use your wireless service during your vacation. Verizon and AT&T, for instance, have fairly inexpensive international plans — for instance, AT&T starts at $40 for 200 megabytes of data — but beware: If you exceed your allotted bandwidth usage, the expenses can add up quickly to hundreds of dollars. You should receive text messages from them when you're nearing your limit. (And see JD's warning, Are maritime carriers hijacking your smartphone when you're on a cruise ship?)
Download any apps you need before leaving
Don’t waste time and money downloading apps, games or software you need for your trip from your stateroom — do that before leaving. You may also want to use the ShipMate app so you can see who else is traveling aboard your vessel. For large parties, the Ripple Connect app (discontinued) allows you to call and text other cruisers with the app as long as you have access to the ship's Wi-Fi signal, without having to pay for an Internet plan.
Text, don't talk
Unless you really want to talk to those back home using your smartphone, we suggest passing on the international plans from your service provider. Rates for a weeklong Caribbean cruise start at about $25 to $30 for 100-120mb of data with 2G speeds, and that does not include any calls! Plans that include minutes start at around $40 and come with limited data usage as well.
Tech-savvy travelers might score the best deals with a local SIM card for their phones but that entails knowing how to install the card and dealing with foreign cell phone companies to setup service. And you can't install a SIM card on an iPhone without voiding your warranty.
Choose your cruise ship Internet plan wisely
Many cruise lines now offer a variety of internet packages based on the duration of your trip and online needs that will work with any smartphone. For instance, Carnival Cruise Lines offers a Social plan for $8 per day for unlimited access to social media networks and popular airline sites but not email or web browsing. The $12 per day (or $16 for 24 hours) Value plan adds access to email and the internet but restricts bandwidth-intensive activities, such as streaming movies and music, or VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) services, such as Skype and FaceTime. Other cruise lines offer unlimited internet access for daily rates that can be purchased at any point during your cruise.
We were able to save some money on Internet costs on our last cruise by waiting until day three of our sailing to purchase the internet package and sharing an unlimited device plan with other family members. Figure out what plan and duration of access is necessary for your smartphone before purchasing a plan. Remember, there is also the potential to save money on such packages by being a member of loyalty programs.
Check for Wi-Fi hotspots while on shore
Even if you don't feel like spending money using your smartphone at sea, when docked at a port of call, you might be able to get Internet access at restaurants, cafes, and even beaches for a limited time for free. (Cruiseable's travel guides list free Wi-Fi hotspots at hundreds of ports.) Many beach resorts and hotels that offer day passes now include access to Wi-Fi as part of the package price. So, you could score some time to check your email, post some vacation photos on social media, get caught up on the news or browse your favorite cruise website while on a shore excursion. Since many of these networks are public, you should be cautious about which sites you visit while connected.
Use Wi-Fi for voice calls
Many phones now enable you to use Wi-Fi calling (e.g., Skype) so you can get in touch with family and friends back home without paying roaming charges. You need a fairly strong Internet signal for a high-quality call, so depending on your location and Internet speed, your experience may be a bit choppy! But, if you already have an Internet plan on your cruise ship or are connected to free Wi-Fi in port, it's worth giving this calling feature a try. The worst that could happen is that you get disconnected and have to go back to texting or email. Voice calling uses your phone's Internet connection rather than your cellular plan's voice minutes. In addition to Skype, other good VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) apps include WhatsApp, RingCentral and Viber. CoWorker has a good roundup.
Bring your smartphone accessories
Nothing is worse than traveling with your smartphone device and realizing that you don’t have all your accessories. So, make sure you pack all necessary power cords, extra battery/power back-up and charging stations.
Also make sure your smartphone is protected during your cruise. When going to the beach or relaxing near the pool, consider getting a waterproof case to help prevent serious damage from happening to your precious cargo. (See Janet's article on handy gear to pack.)
Tips on how not to use your phone on a ship
Now, that's a good start. But you'll also want to take advantage of some of the mistakes we've made and others have made over the years. So here are some additional tips about how not to use your smartphone on a cruise.
Don't forget to put your phone in airplane mode
It might not dawn on you until you are sitting on the shorelines of the Bahamas, and all of a sudden your phone starts vibrating. It is only then that you realize a stream of texting messages, emails and social media updates are coming through as you somehow maneuvered into a service area. Don’t get hit with a barrage of data roaming fees — leave your phone in airplane mode! A lot of folks don't realize: You can still use Wi-Fi in this mode.
Don't be careless with your personal data
Whether you're on your ship or at a port of call, the Wi-Fi you are using is public -- that is, it's easily accessible to those who know a thing or two about computers. Unless it's absolutely necessary, we recommend never accessing private accounts, such as bank accounts or credit cards, while connected to these networks. Further, when searching for Wi-Fi hotspots, you should be extra cautious about which networks you choose and only sign on to connections you can confirm belong to a reputable company or retailer. Nothing would be worse than having your personal data or identity snatched while you are trying to access the Web. And even if you're in a friendly-looking cafe, there are still steps you should take to stay safe when using an open Wi-Fi network.
Be prepared for slow Internet speeds
The Internet on cruise ships has come a long way in recent years. Using your smartphone almost anywhere on a ship is a convenience that didn’t exist a few years ago. That being said, the Internet speeds are still slower (often considerably slower) than the broadband and 4G speeds you are probably used to back home. While speeds are getting faster, you shouldn't count on streaming music or video, and both upload and download speeds will likely not be as fast as you would like, even on the most technologically advanced ships.
Don't become tied to your device
The modern convenience of using a smartphone on a cruise ship is truly a great improvement and welcomed luxury. But you're still on vacation to see interesting new places, meet new people and have some fun and relaxation. Endless scrolling on your smartphone is not the way to spend your vacation.
When sailing on Quantum of the Seas, the most technologically advanced ship, we could not get over the number of people that were always on their phone, resulting in a loss of some of the spontaneity and camaraderie we've come to love about cruising.
How do you use your smartphone?
Do you have any tips on how to best use your smartphone at sea? Leave us a comment to share your experiences of how you stay connected while on a cruise ship.
See anything wrong in the article above? Sound off in the comments below. Updated from an earlier version.