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Smartphones at Sea

In a previous article we talked about staying connected while you’re at sea, and about how the major appeal of cruising has changed from getting away from it all to sharing your experiences as they happen. There is one device that is more responsible for this than any other: the smartphone. Ten years on from their introduction and they’re everywhere, and more like an appendage than a device. Leaving your smartphone at home can feel like losing a limb rather than setting your cares aside.

Unfortunately, the rates for talk, text, and data at sea are expensive. Horribly, ruinously, expensive. While it can be tempting to blame the cruise lines for this, they do after all have a reputation for nickeling-and-diming their customers, in reality your phone carrier is who will be sending you that painful bill. As far as your smartphone is concerned your cruise ship is a cell tower, and as it roams the high seas you roam internationally and an exorbitant rate applies to everything you do on your smartphone while at sea.

Your Per-Minute Costs by Carrier

Smart phone and hundred of dollar bills
A maxim for cruising—and indeed everyday life—should be “know before you go”. A little research, a bit of strategizing, and you can be making your friends jealous with selfies captioned, “wish you were here”, without breaking the bank. It wouldn’t be honest to say you were going to be able to do so cheaply, but some advance planning will keep your cellular bill within reason. The first step is to know what your carrier charges and if they have any special policies towards cruise ships.

No matter who your carrier is, or what cruise you’ve booked, you can step aboard immediately and start calling your friends with your smartphones and uploading pictures of your drinks for your Twitter followers to marvel over. You’ll just be paying as you go and at those exorbitant rates we talked about earlier. For AT&T customers that rings up to $2.50 a minute of talk, $0.50 to text and $1.30 to text a photo or a video, and $0.01 per kilobyte (KB) of data. Verizon offers a more reasonable $1.79 per minute, $0.50 per message sent and $0.05 for message received, and $0.002 per KB or $2.05 per megabyte (MB) of data. All of which has the possibility of varying between cruise ships. A price finder is available for AT&T Verizon and Sprint which you can see by following the links. For testing purposes we used the Carnival Sensation, Oasis and Quantum of Seas, and didn’t see a variation in prices but be advised that rates may be different for your ship, and that prices are subject to change without notice. Sprint posts rates of $2.99 a minute for talk, $0.50 for text sent and $0.15 for text received, no data rate was given. T-Mobiles rates are $5.99 per minute, $0.50 per text, and $15 per MB when you pay as you go on a crew.

We cannot recommend paying as you go on a cruise, but for your convenience here is a side-by-side comparison.

Pay as you go smartphones chart

Verizon and AT&T Packages

Verizon and AT&T offer packages for international travel that do work on cruise ships. For $30 and $60 dollars a month AT&T will give you 50 minutes of talk and reduce the per minute rate when you go over the limit to $1.00 per minute. At $30 there is no allowance for text, but when you pay $60 you get 100 texts, neither the $30 or $60 plan provides a data allotment. Only when you spring for the $120 a month plan do you get a well-rounded package that includes 50 minutes of talk, 100 texts, and 100 MB of data. That is still very restrictive compared with what you’re used to on land, but it is better than stumbling into a $500 phone bill unwittingly.

ATT price table

Verizon is far more forgiving and, for once, affordable. An access fee of $25 per month and per line nets you 100 MB, add another $15, also per line, nets you 100 minutes and 100 texts, Overages too are handled more reasonably costing $25 per 100 MB, $0.24 per minute over, and $0.25 per text over the limit. At sea Verizon is the far kindlier of the two largest US carriers.

Verizon pricing Table

Everything written above applies to those with a contract phone, and only to those with a contract phone. Those going cruising with prepaid phones are mostly out of luck when calling at sea. It would appear that the phone just simply will not connect to the cell towers when at sea. Tantalizingly, Verizon’s service finder will allow you to put through prepaid specific phones and suggest purchasing a travel package and the FAQ page says that you can use your prepaid Verizon phone on a cruise. A call to customer support resulted in being bounced from the postpay to the prepaid departments, and finally: a no. Whether this is an oversight on the website, or an unheard of and unimplemented service is undetermined.

Why not Wi-Fi?

A better option, and by far cheaper plan is to purchase an internet plan from the cruise line and make all your calls via Wi-Fi. This is the area where Sprint and T-Mobile customers may find some validation. Certain Apple iPhones and Android smartphones on these carriers have Wi-Fi calling enabled. This allows you to make calls and texts over the internet without being subject to cellular service, or excruciating roaming charges. It can be set up in the phone’s setting menu by placing the phone in airplane mode and enabling Wi-Fi calling. As the particulars are determined by your particular device and exhaustive instructions would be impossible to post here we recommend you familiarize yourself with your smartphone to ensure that your phone doesn’t switch to the cellular network automatically when the Wi-Fi fades and rack up charges without your knowledge. The advantage of T-Mobile and Sprint’s service is that Wi-Fi calling comes from your phone and number as if you were placing a regular call. For everyone else on different networks: there’s an app for that.

As a point of fact there is more than one app available to make Wi-Fi calls. The two most well-known are Skype and WhatsApp. Of the two Skype has been around longer and is probably the most well-known. Although most probably associate Skype with video chat from their PC it does allow voice only calls and functions similarly to your regular dialer on all major smartphones, and niche phones like Blackberries and Nokia Symbian phones. WhatsApp started out as text messaging over the internet and has grown to include voice calls. It is available on the three most common smartphone operating systems. There are other apps that make Wi-Fi calls but these are the two most common.

With both of these apps the main drawbacks are that they run in parallel with your already existing phone number instead of in tandem, and have a separate contact number to dial.  Anyone you want to call has to have the app and have it set up. Neither of these are serious issues if you’re communicating with reasonably tech savvy friends, but if you need to call mom or a dear old aunty to let them know you’re okay it can be a challenge to get them set up with either of these applications. Although, considering how hard it can be to get off the phone with an older relative and the per minute rates you may be charged it is a challenge well worth rising to.  With new data plans already rolled out by Carnival, and bow to stern coverage on some of Royal Caribbean’s ships Wi-Fi calling offers the possibility that you can call home, or someone else on the ship without paying a dime more than what you’ve already paid for the data package.

The technology underlying both cellular phones and Wi-Fi calling is related and always evolving, with ever greater bandwidth capacities.  On the old internet plans offered by the cruise lines Wi-Fi calling was impossible, and every call was 5.99 a minute.  As expensive as the current options may be they are a vast improvement over what came before.  At the very least you can plan ahead and avoid the very worst of the fees.

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