When I take a cruise, I try to be as disconnected with the rest of world as possible. I put my phone in airplane mode and I stop syncing all of my work e-mail. However, sometimes being completely disconnected is just not an option. On my first cruise, I was actually looking for another job, so I had to check e-mail and make a few phone calls. On-board the ship, you have the option of using your mobile phone or the ship’s WiFi. However, both come with a cost, so follow the tips in this article to avoid expensive charges.
Using your mobile phone at sea
Before you leave on your trip, make sure that you have International roaming service turned on your mobile phone plan. You can usually do this online or you can give your operator a call and ask them to enable it. Before your ship leaves, you absolutely want to turn off Data Roaming on your phone. If you don’t and your phone starts using data while roaming, it could cost you dearly. While at sea, the data roaming rate is $15 per MB (charges may vary with your carrier). Leaving your phone on with data roaming for just a few minutes could cost you hundred of dollars. Make sure data roaming is off.
Once you set off to sea, it won’t be long before cell phone service is available on the ship. You just turn your phone on as usual and it will connect to a network called Cellular at Sea. In general, your phone should work just about anywhere on the ship. Coverage varies from time to time because the service is based on satellite availability. I find it works most of the time but there have been a few times where I couldn’t get it to connect. Voice calls are $6 per minute with my home carrier, T-Mobile. With the calls I have placed, they have been crystal clear. The person you are talking to would never know that you were sitting on a ship unless they happen to hear the waves.
Each text message, sent or received costs $0.50. What I tend to do is leave my phone off in airplane mode and only turn it on once or twice a day (usually at night). Any text messages that you may have received during the day will come in all at once (which means you pay for them).
Depending on your cruise itinerary, you may find yourself sailing close enough to islands to pick up cellular signals. On the last night of my last cruise, I was able to pick up a signal from one of the islands of the Bahamas. That particular carrier wasn’t included in my free international plan, but it’s per minute rate was only $3.49 instead of $6.
Using your mobile phone at port
If I can help it, I will try and wait and connect when I am at port. While most ports are subject to International roaming, prices are considerably cheaper, especially if you use T-Mobile. While other carriers gauge you for International roaming, T-Mobile includes free calls, texts, and data in many countries such as the Bahamas, Saint Maarten, and more. T-Mobile’s international data is only transmitted at EDGE speeds so it is a little slow, but you can buy high speed buckets if needed. Depending on the port you are in, the quality of service will vary though.
If your itinerary stops in San Juan, Puerto Rico doesn’t forget that this is a United States territory. As a result, you can use your phone just like you were in the Untied States. This may vary by carrier but I know it’s the case with at least AT&T and T-Mobile.
Using the ship’s WiFi
Disney Cruise Line features WiFi on its ships. Previously, you used to pay per minute used. This meant that if you forgot to turn it off by clicking the sign-out link, you could find a most-unfortunate ship folio. Now, you pay per MB. Prices are not great, but they are doable. If you plan on using the WiFi a lot to post pictures of you having fun to facebook, you may want to get the largest plan at $89 per GB. As a comparison, this is the starting size of many mobile plans now so if you are smart that data can go a long ways. To connect to the ship’s WiFi, look for the network DCL-GUEST. You will be taken to a page to sign-up for a package after that.
At the time of writing, Disney Cruise Line was offering a free 50 MB package to users claiming it on the day of departure. All you have to do is sign-up for it by going to dclguest.com. Note that address only works when onboard a Disney ship. You don’t need a credit card just your stateroom information. You have to sign up before midnight on your first day to get this offer. Keep in mind, 50 MB is not a lot and you can burn that much data easily just by opening facebook. My recommendation is after you sign up for the free data, you click the sign out button and go enjoy the rest of your cruise.
What can you do with this 50 MB of data? I saved it for checking into our flights on the last day of the cruise. Some airlines have automatic checkin with Disney, but a lot don’t like Southwest so this data comes in handy.
Getting the most of your WiFi data
The WiFi works fairly well and is fast enough. It won’t be as fast at home, but it will be good enough for you to check your e-mail, post some pictures, or check facebook. You don’t want to do anything like stream videos though as it won’t work well and it will consume data quickly.
As you are using your data, Connect@Sea will send you e-mails periodically telling you how much data you have used. Of course, receiving that e-mail consumes some of your data. :) If you are going to purchase data, I recommend using a tablet or a phone because they tend to use less data in the background. You can use a laptop, but you will want to check a few extra settings before proceeding. With whatever device you use, you will want to turn off e-mail synchronization except for the accounts you care about before you connect. You also want to make sure automatic software and OS updates are turned off. Finally, most phones now will automatically upload pictures that you took to OneDrive, Google Drive, or iCloud whenever connected to WiFi. You want to turn this feature off so that all of your data isn’t consumed in the background.
If you do want to use a Windows laptop to connect to the WiFi, you want to be sure and mark the DCL-GUEST network as a metered network. This will disable all of the background services that sync data. Refer to this FAQ on metered networks for more information on configuration.
Whenever you finish using the WiFi, be sure and go back to dclguest.com and click the Sign out button. I also recommend putting your device back in Airplane Mode or disconnecting the WiFi if you aren’t sure you have signed out. That way you aren’t consuming data when you aren’t even using your device.
Disney Cruise Line App
The Disney Cruise Line Navigator app, available on Google Play and the App Store, also makes use of the DCL-GUEST WiFi network. It’s free to use though and does not use any data. This app is handy because it has all of the information in the Navigator (the daily activities guide) as well as other information about what is going on at the ship. You can even see what is for dinner throughout the week. Be sure and download this app before you leave port!
Staying connected while at sea can be costly, but if you are smart you can minimize your costs. Use your connectivity at your own risk though. If you have any doubts to how much money you are spending checking with guest services or your mobile carrier. You’re supposed to be on vacation though anyways, so try to relax and stay disconnected as long as you can. :)