Internet on a Cruise Ship, beware of Roaming!

MTN-DomeGetting online from the open Sea – it can be done, but it’s not great. 

On our recent cruise to the Bahamas, we knew we weren’t going to have much Internet access, but we needed to check email at least twice, just to see if we had any customer support issues to answer.  So, we splurged the $24 for one hour of online access at the ship’s Internet café.  It was slower than dial-up.  By the time we established the connection, Jim opened his Gmail and answered one or two messages, I opened my Gmail and did the same, our hour was up.

The picture at right is of the dome which covers the satellite dish on board the Norwegian Sky.  When you get over the disappointment about how slow and expensive it is, you really must marvel at how magic it is that it works at all.  I remember when we had the Datastorm Internet Satellite dish on the roof of our RV.  It was what made our RV lifestyle possible back then.  Making a satellite connection for Internet is a much greater feat than those for TV because, for TV, all you need is to Receive the signal.  For Internet, you also must be able to Send.  It’s a 2-way signal.  Getting the dish on our RV to hit the correct satellite, 22,000 miles away, took some serious fine-tuning, and a stiff wind could knock it off signal.  How the heck they get that technology to work on a ship at sea is beyond me! 

Companies who provide Internet for cruise ships and large yachts are MTN, KVH, and Inmarsat.  But even people on small sailboats, African safaris, and Himalayan treks can get Internet using Satellite phones from Iridium.  The phones will set you back about $1,000, and you can also rent them by the week for about $100.  It’s the service that is the expensive part -  How long do you think it will take until we all have inexpensive ‘communicators’ (a la Star Trek) which work from anywhere?

Understand Data Roaming

While we were docked in Freeport, I thought I’d try getting email on my Droid smartphone.  There was no Verizon 3G service, understandably, but I decided to see if there was a Roaming service available, surely they have cell towers in the Bahamas?  My setting for Data Roaming is usually off.  This is very important if you are in border areas.  People in the US, but close to the Canadian border, for example, may find that their phone is connecting to a cell tower on the Canadian side of the border, and they don’t even know it.  I’ve heard of cell phone bills in the thousands of dollars due to roaming fees.

Part of our job is to experiment with all the ways to stay connected while you travel, so I held my breath, turned on Data Roaming (settings, Wireless and Networks, Mobile Networks, Data Roaming), downloaded my email, and turned it off again.  If the fees were based on time, it was less than a minute!  But they’re not.  The fees are based on the amount of data transmitted.  My bill says that I used 1.4 Megabytes of data and the fee is $29.  I don’t think I’ll do that again. 


What about you?  Have you ever had a substantial bill from your cellphone provider for data roaming?


8 replies on “Internet on a Cruise Ship, beware of Roaming!”

  1. We recently completed a cruise to Mexico and Hawai’i. While traveling between two Hawaiian islands, we forgot and left our phones on, after having used them on the land. Next morning we had emails that we had run up $800 worth of data roaming, charged through the ship’s cell network.

    We have tried to get some adjustment to all this, but everyone points fingers at each other. The cruise line says they farm out the cell coverage onboard to another company. Verizon says that the other company just bills them and they are “passing it through”. This absurd system is overcharging passengers with no notice or warning. Yes, if you read deeply into the Verizon website, “foreign roaming data” charges are stated, but no one on the ship understood, or wanted to explain anything. There were no warnings given, since they get a piece of the action from the cell supplier. Verizon refuses to discuss the matter.

    SO BE WARNED: turn off your smart phone on cruise ships, run in “airplane” mode, try to disable foreign roaming, etc, etc.

  2. Yikes $8000 even $800 is bad – thankfully my tale of woe is not near that costly. But because we are Cdn Snowbords who spend 6 months in the USA I still do not have a Smartphone because of using any US Data plan in Cda. I have been a Verizon customer for 8+ years. Although it works great for voice in Cda and USA – Data usage will quickly kill my budget. However each spring and fall I still tether to my Verizon cell (they are going out of that option but with my contract so far so good) BUT 2 years ago I had to use my Verizon tether for 3 days in Cda until I was able to get my Hughes Dish operational. I just about died because my bill was $300 for 3 days of data. I had left my phone on all day like I did in the USA – not only when I needed to do something on-line. That was a BIG mistake and never again. 27 years fulltiming and I am still learning.

  3. Data services are typically usage based and roaming charges are driven by the network you are roaming on. In this case you are talking about the part of the roaming occuring on a cruise ship and the remainder in the Bahama’s. Verizon’s actually maintains a presence on 120+ cruise ships and the basic usage charge is $.02 per KB. If you check you will find that on crise ships Verizon’s rates are as follows:

    Voice Roaming Rate:
    $2.49 per minute
    Messaging Rates:
    $0.50/address sent
    $0.05/message received
    Global Data Monthly Access
    $30 50MB
    $75 150MB
    $125 300MB

    Rate after allowance
    $0.005/KB ($5.12/MB)

    Pay Per Use Rate: $0.02/KB ($20.48/MB)

    The smartest apprach if international roaming is necessary is to use a prepaid service to avoid bill shock.
    Be thankful you didn’t have a teenage girl sending out 500 text messages a day.

    • I left out part of the story. When you are at sea you are using the network established between the cruise shIp companies and the Maritime Communications Partner (MCP), in your case Verizon. The high costs are due to a number of factors including the fact that all communication is via sat. when at sea and you truely are a captive audience. As you enter each port the shipboard network is turned off you are then international roaming in that particular port. Frequently international roaming charges are lower than shipboard rates. Obviously, that was not the case in the Bahama’s

  4. I used my Verizon air card during our trip last summer from Colorado to Wisconsin. Northernmost point was at Avaca, WI. My Usage window said I was in the Global Roaming zone which I wasn’t (still in USA) and would be billed at $20 or so per MB. Contacting Verizon, I was assured I wasn’t being charged for being out of the US. This happened 3-4 other times on that trip, even when back in Colorado. No extra charge has ever appeared on my Verizon bill.

  5. Back in 2007, while on a trip in the Canadian Maritimes, on one of our first RV adventures, I returned from a hike in St. Johns, NS and my wife told me to sit down. She then told me that Verizon wanted to talk to me. As it turns out, I never thought to tell her not to use our air card in Canada and never had shown her how to reduce the size of photos before uploading them to the Internet. She has always put out a narrative frequently while we travelled around this great continent we call North America. While in Saint John, NB she had uploaded a bunch of photos to a web site so friends and family could enjoy our travels. The fraud person from Verizon told me we had run up a bill of over $8,000.00 from St. John’s in the Caribbean and wanted to be sure it was us. I explained that we were in St. Johns, Nova Scotia and had been in Saint John New Brunswick the previous week but had never been in the Caribbean. He said he needed to check something and would call me right back. Long story short, it cost us over $800.00.

  6. Looking forward to hear from other travelers about how you connect when outside of the US. Especially if you use Cellular or Satellite – WiFi hotspots work pretty much the same everywhere.

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