Adrift at Sea No More—Wi-Fi on Cruise Ships Gets a Serious Boost

Internet connectivity on cruise sailings isn’t known for being super reliable. A new satellite-driven Wi-Fi technology could change that.

Cruise ship

It’s getting easier and more affordable to stay connected out on the open seas.

Photo by Tom Woodhouse/Unsplash

As a frequent cruiser, I’ve witnessed numerous internet connectivity meltdowns: the lawyer trying to download case files; the consultant anxious to examine a new contract; the reporter frantically working to send a story on deadline, complete with high-resolution images.

The main takeaway from all these encounters is that cruise ship internet service is often not as fast or reliable as broadband on land, and this can be frustrating even for the average traveler just trying to post their amazing photo of a cresting whale on social media. The importance of fast and dependable internet at sea goes beyond guests’ needs and preferences, too. Crew rely on ship Wi-Fi to stay in touch with their families back home, as they can spend months at sea.

Well aware of how important connectivity has become to travelers in a modern world, cruise lines are constantly racing to get ahead of the competition. The latest example is a recent partnership between Royal Caribbean Group—which includes the cruise lines Royal Caribbean International, Celebrity Cruises, and ultra-luxury line Silversea—and Elon Musk’s high-speed SpaceX Starlink. Royal Caribbean Group has historically had some of the best at-sea satellite access and is working to improve connectivity even further via this new technology.

Starlink is the first and largest satellite constellation using a low Earth orbit to decrease the distance information travels and deliver faster internet. Exact speeds and bandwidth that Royal Caribbean expects have not yet been disclosed.

Deployment of the high-speed SpaceX Starlink internet access has already begun across the Royal Caribbean fleet, with all the installations expected to be completed early in 2023. The rollout on Celebrity Cruises started with the line’s newest ship, Celebrity Beyond, and will be included on all of its Edge-class ships by the end of this year—and the rest of the fleet by May 2023.

According to Jason Liberty, president and CEO of Royal Caribbean Group, the new technology will be a game-changer for internet connectivity on cruise ships by allowing for, among other things, “more high-bandwidth activities like video streaming as well as activities like video calls.”

Royal’s agreement is only the beginning of Starlink’s bid for cruise ship business. A week after Royal Caribbean announced its Starlink deal in late August came news that SeaDream, the luxury line with two 112-passenger ships, SeaDream I and SeaDream II, would also rely on Musk’s technology for high-speed connectivity, making it the first boutique cruise line to do so.

What kind of Wi-Fi connection can you expect on your cruise ship?

Cruise companies such as Royal Caribbean and Carnival Corporation (which include brands Carnival Cruise Line, Princess Cruises, Holland America Line, and Seabourn) have made significant improvements in connectivity in recent years hoping to delete the anxiety cruise passengers feel when they can’t stay as connected on ships as they do on land.

While Royal has relied on satellites, including SES’s O3b medium orbit satellites, Carnival developed a hybrid system that uses a combination of satellites and land-based towers, which improved connectivity, especially in the Caribbean and Bahamas, bread-and-butter destinations for the cruise industry.

Princess Cruises, which in 2020 dramatically improved its internet access with O3b in medium Earth orbit and a geostationary network, as part of what it calls its MedallionNet, bragged in a press release that on its MedallionClass ships, passengers can work remotely with “access to their cloud-based enterprise applications such as storage, videoconferencing and email . . . without any frustrating signal drops.”

All these advancements cost cruise companies big time—up to hundreds of millions of dollars a year.

But the reality remains that on many ships service can still be spotty at times. Consider that ships are always moving and satellite service can be disrupted by geography (there may not be a clear so-called line of sight), weather, and other factors. Expedition ships in remote destinations have frequent service disruptions, despite the best efforts of cruise lines.

Add to that the fact that bandwidth is limited. You can imagine what happens when thousands of passengers on a cruise ship decide to log on at the same time. The other issue is that in order to gain access to better connectivity, passengers often have to pay a hefty sum.

The good news is that in addition to working to improve speeds, cruise lines have brought the cost of service down in recent years.

Tips for using Wi-Fi on cruise ships

Unlock unlimited internet access with a premium package

If you know you are going to want to have the fastest access and to have the option of, say, making calls on FaceTime or Zoom and streaming your favorite Netflix shows, spring for the best package the ship offers. Prices vary by sailing. Royal Caribbean, for instance, charges about $20 to $24 a day for its VOOM Surf & Stream service, which lets you access messenger services, browse the web, send emails, video chat, live stream, post on social media, and stream videos, movies, music, and TV shows (whether and how that pricing will change with the SpaceX deal is still unclear.) While that may sound pricey, consider that only a decade ago the standard rate for any internet on ships was about 75 cents a minute. Buy a package for the entire length of your cruise—as opposed to daily—and you’ll get a discount of up to 15 percent off of the daily rate and won’t need to always remind yourself to log off.

The benefits of a basic package

With a basic package, you can expect to pay about $13 to $18 per device per day (you can save up to 20 percent if you book in advance of your cruise). That allows for some web browsing, social media posting, and checking email. But don’t expect to be able to stream anything, and prepare to get frustrated if you try to download a large file of any kind.

Find out what kind of Wi-Fi might be included

The good news is that an increasing number of cruise lines—Celebrity Cruises and Viking among them—are including at least a basic internet package in their cruise fares. Lines such as Holland America, Norwegian, and Princess Cruises also run promotions that include free Wi-Fi. On river cruises, Wi-Fi is included, with ships relying on cell towers (because they are always near land), but it can be rather slow at times. Luxury ships also tend to include some Wi-Fi, with the option of upgrading to a premium package. Silversea, for instance, includes premium access for guests in its Medallion, Silver, Royal, Grand, and Owner’s suites and standard access for those in Vista and Veranda suites (in the latter you’ll have to pay if you want upgraded service). Seabourn includes complimentary basic Wi-Fi for one device per guest, or you can pay to upgrade to a streaming package.

Consider the best time to go online

One way to ensure you make the most of your connectivity is to go online when other passengers are less likely to be clogging the system. Want to show off your photos and videos to the folks back home? Log on in the wee hours or while others are busy with a popular event, such as a lecture or show, or are ashore.

Put your phone on airplane mode

A big mistake that freshman cruisers make is not putting their phone in airplane mode. Yes, you may get a connection, but at-sea roaming charges can be exorbitant. Horror stories of cruise passengers receiving bills from cell phone companies in the hundreds or even thousands of dollars are not uncommon. Logging onto the ship’s Wi-Fi is really your best, and cheapest, way to stay in touch. AT&T cell service subscribers also have the option of talk, text, and data on a $100 plan (with overage charges after 200 MB). Check with your cell service provider about international data and roaming options so you know what to expect.

Fran Golden covers cruises for AFAR.
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