Out at sea, there are no cell towers. That’s why cruise ships utilize at-sea providers like Wireless Maritime Services or Cellular at Sea. Guests can use their mobile devices and ship-to-shore services.
However, sending and receiving texts and using your phone can be very expensive using these services. So, to avoid costly fees, learn how to text on a cruise ship for free.
In The Article…
- How Can I Send an SMS Text Message?
- What if I Want to Send Texts, Receive Emails, or Make Calls at Sea?
- Can You Tell if You Are Connected to At-Sea Providers?
- How You Can Text on Cruise Ship for Free(ish)
- How Can You Text at Port for Free?
- Prepare Your Loved Ones if Texting Is Limited
How Can I Send an SMS Text Message?
Text messages travel over your mobile network. Therefore, you can send and receive only text messages (no pictures) in your phone’s app wherever there is service.
After your cruise ship leaves port and travels 12 miles out to sea, the vessel switches to at-sea providers. You will lose your cell tower signal if you don’t place your phone in airplane mode before reaching this distance.
Guests need to be aware of what happens next. Your phone will automatically connect to the at-sea provider if you don’t put your phone in airplane mode. So, if you send a text or make a call, you can be charged for it. These providers are very expensive, and you will receive an additional data charge plus a per-text charge. This applies to any incoming texts, too.
Avoiding Expensive Costs
It isn’t uncommon for passengers to return home to a sizable cellular bill, despite never making calls or sending texts. While many have unlimited data plans, apps can continually work in the background without you being aware of it. They check and update emails and texts and update themselves without you doing anything.
While traveling, if you are unaware this is happening, you will experience an extra charge on your bill because your phone has automatically connected to the at-sea provider and did its thing, running up data usage. Hence, you will get billed for it.
Simply put your phone in airplane mode when you leave the port to avoid this charge.
What if I Want to Send Texts, Receive Emails, or Make Calls at Sea?
If you want to do this through a network, then you may want to do one of the following things:
- Turn off your text alerts
- Disable your automatic email updates
- Place roaming data to the off position
- Disable any apps that run in the background
Additionally, depending on your carrier, you can prearrange cruise ship packages containing text, talk, and data. Larger companies have packages or special rates that allow you to text while on a cruise ship. These carriers include:
- Verizon International Plan (only on certain cruise lines)
- T-Mobile Magenta Max and Magenta (available on certain ships)
- AT&T Packages
Can You Tell if You Are Connected to At-Sea Providers?
While at sea, if you are not in airplane mode, you may be curious as to whether you will be aware if you are connected to any maritime providers. Sometimes, phones can pick up signals from cell phone towers despite being far from land.
However, your phone automatically connects to any at-sea provider. If it does, you will see one of these names on your phone:
- Telenor Maritime
- Wireless Maritime Services
- Cellular at Sea
If you didn’t mean to connect your phone, put it into airplane mode to prevent charges.
How You Can Text on Cruise Ship for Free(ish)
While you may feel like paying is the inevitable conclusion, there are ways to be able to use your device for free. Most carriers will recommend signing up for a monthly plan “just in case”; there are ways that you can avoid this. While it may not always be convenient, it is possible.
Text Messaging Apps
If you use WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, or WeChat, you may be able to use them whenever you have a Wi-Fi connection. Other suggestions are dependent on the cruise line you are traveling. Guests can use the following apps for texting:
- Shipmate (available in Apple and Google Play Stores)
- Cruise Norwegian by Norwegian Cruise Lines: (one-time fee)
- Celebrity Cruises App by Celebrity Cruises: This app allows guests to complete a faster check-in, obtain their safety briefing, engage in in-app chats, use a digital key, use an in-app calendar, reserve excursions, track expenses, automate their stateroom, and reserve dining.
- Carnival HUB by Carnival Cruise Lines: (for a one-time activation fee). It contains a chat feature, but the receiving passenger must use the Carnival HUB app to receive messages. It includes a group setting to allow family members/friends to communicate using the same conversation.
- MSC For Me by MSC Cruises: This web-based app provides free service to devices connected to the MSC intranet. There is no internet package purchase necessary to use this feature. The drawback is you can only use it on MSC Virtuosa, Bellissima, Grandiosa, Meraviglia, Seaside, and Seaview. It will be coming soon to the MSC Seascape, World Europa, and Eurabia. Functionality varies across ships and countries.
- Navigator by Disney Cruise Line: This app will allow guests to send free texts to people aboard the ship or to do a group chat. While it connects to onboard Wi-Fi, there isn’t a charge for app users to access it.
- Royal Caribbean App by Royal Caribbean International: You can only use this app on Royal Caribbean’s Anthem, Quantum, Ovation of the Seas, and Harmony. This app will allow passengers to text or call others on the same ship. While free to download, the communications package enabling calling/texting contains a fee per device.
- MedallionNet by Princess Cruises: Guests on Princess Medallion Class receive Wi-Fi while on board. It will allow you to video chat, text, download email, share pics, stream music, shows, movies, and sports, and keep in touch with family and friends. Packages can be purchased for a single or four devices at a low rate daily. This is available on Caribbean Princess, Coral Princess, Ruby Princess, Crown Princess, Island Princess, Emerald Princess, Sky Princess, Diamond Princess, Grand Princess, Star Princess, Majestic Princess, Enchanted Princess, and Sapphire Princess.
- Navigator by Holland America: This web-based service allows passengers to book a spa treatment, shore excursion, or specialty dining or check the daily schedule, monitor onboard accounts, buy photos, and text other guests. It operates on all fleets and is free if your device is Wi-Fi enabled.
Some cruise lines allow you to connect to the internet for free without the need to buy a package. These include all-inclusive luxury lines like Viking Ocean and Regent Seven Seas. Internet access is part of your cruise fare, so you can keep in touch through a messaging app. There are also some Wi-Fi hacks you can use.
The downfall of these apps is that you can only connect to other passengers while on the ship. Once you reach the port, you will be unable to use it. However, if you want to reduce costs, you can incorporate the methods mentioned below.
Using Onboard Credit as Part of a Wi-Fi Package
Smart cruises know that receiving any onboard credit will save them money while cruising. Some will use it for gratuities, others for Wi-Fi packages. You can obtain credit by booking through promotions, cruise line shareholders, or travel agencies, just to name a few.
Join a Loyalty Program
Cruise lines tend to incorporate loyalty programs in hopes of attracting returning guests. The best way to reward these cruisers is with free benefits. Once you reach a particular tier, guests can obtain free internet on their cruise. They will sometimes offer free onboard credit for loyal customers, which you can use for internet access.
Book When There Is a Free Wi-Fi Promotion
There are cruise lines that frequently run sales with perks. Free Wi-Fi is a popular choice to draw guests. Norwegian Cruise Line frequently has Free at Sea promotions where guests can receive unlimited open bar, free airfare, excursions, specialty dining, internet, and a free third or fourth guest.
How Can You Text at Port for Free?
Once you reach the port, you may be tempted to check in with email, text, etc. Don’t take your phone out of airplane mode unless you are within your data coverage. If you aren’t, you will pay international rates.
Check your coverage with your phone provider before boarding, especially if you are going outside your home country. Providers tend to offer short-term international, talk, text, and data plans you can purchase before embarkation.
You can keep in touch outside your coverage area using messaging apps, provided you can connect to hotspots. You still can’t use SMS texts if you do not have any cellular data.
At some ports, connecting to a signal is easy. Others can be more challenging. Before disembarking, ask a crew member whether you will be able to connect to a network. Pre-pandemic, crew members had to pay for Wi-Fi while onboard. They are familiar with the best areas to pick up free good signals.
The best places to receive free Wi-Fi are often:
- Cruise terminals
- Restaurants/cafes, although many require you to make a purchase
- Coffee shops/fast food places
- Large malls/shopping centers
- Public libraries
Check if You Have International Coverage
You can use most smartphones anywhere. However, to use them outside the country, you may need to see if your carrier will cover you. Most contain the information on their website and will allow you to determine whether you can use your phone while cruising or whether you need to increase your coverage temporarily.
Be sure you can send texts, make calls, and use the internet. You will need to be aware of any exceptions.
Prepare Your Loved Ones if Texting Is Limited
If those around you are used to receiving an instant reply, you may want to prepare them for when you are taking your cruise. If they have never been on a cruise, they may be unaware that you may not be receiving their texts if you aren’t connected.
Most cruisers tell their family that regular text will not work at sea and will use airplane mode. They can use a messaging app if they need to contact you. Cruise lines usually have a designated phone number to be used in emergencies. They will require the name of the cruise ship and the guest’s full name to send a message.
For business, you may want to let people know that you won’t be able to receive or respond to their messages. Furthermore, sometimes messages never come through – even after you get home. Therefore, when it comes to business, email works best.
If you are wondering how to text on a cruise ship for free, you may realize that it is not easy and can be expensive. Sometimes, it is a matter of finding hotspots you can use while using messenger apps.
If you want to communicate with those on board, using the cruise line’s app is easy. However, you may have to get creative with keeping in touch with those not on the cruise.