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How to Text on a Cruise Ship for Free in 2024

How to Text on a Cruise Ship for Free in 2024

Most people today use texting as an easy and convenient way to keep in touch with friends and family. But can you text on a cruise ship? You can—but it’s often very expensive. Here’s everything you need to know about text messaging on a cruise ship, and how to text on your next cruise for free.

There aren’t any cell towers out at sea, so cruise ships use an at-sea provider, like Cellular At Sea or Wireless Maritime Services, for ship-to-shore and mobile phone service.

When you’re on a cruise, you can connect to the maritime provider’s network to send and receive text messages and make phone calls. But it’s an expensive service that the cruise line doesn’t cover—even if you only connect to it accidentally!

But there are much better (and cheaper) ways to text on a cruise, both on the ship and while you’re in port. If you’d rather not return home to a giant phone bill, I’m sharing my best tips and tricks on texting during a cruise. And yes—I’ll tell you exactly how you can text for free!

Sending SMS text messages on a cruise ship

SMS text messages are sent via mobile network, so you should be able to send and receive text-only messages in your phone’s native message app anywhere your phone has service.

After you leave port and your cruise ship is about nine to twelve miles out at sea, the ship will connect to the at-sea provider. If you don’t put your phone in airplane mode before this point, once your phone loses the closest cell tower signal it will automatically connect to this service.

Using an at-sea provider can be super expensive! You’ll be charged for data as well as per text if you choose to use this service—and that’s for all incoming texts, too!

How to avoid hefty charges from at-sea providers

Lots of new cruisers have returned home from a relaxing cruise only to discover they’ve run up a huge phone bill, even if they never made any calls or sent a single text message.

Many of us are used to having unlimited data plans at home. Our smartphone apps are often working behind the scenes—updating and checking emails. We often don’t even notice, since we’re not charged any extra on our cell phone bill. But an at-sea provider will bill you for all of that data usage!

To make sure you’re not charged a penny for accidentally using this expensive service, just keep your phone in airplane mode.

But if you want to be able to send and receive texts and phone calls through the network while you’re at sea, here are some tips to help you avoid running up your bill:

  • Disable apps running in the background
  • Disable automatic email updates
  • Turn off roaming data
  • Unsubscribe from text alerts

Depending on your cell phone carrier, you might also be able to prearrange a cruise ship package with talk, text, and data included.

Most larger cell phone providers in the US have special rates or packages to send and receive texts on a cruise ship. For example:

How to tell if your mobile phone is connected to an at-sea provider

When you’re out at sea (and your phone isn’t in airplane mode) you might wonder how you’ll know if you’re connected to a maritime provider. Your phone can sometimes pick up a signal from a cell tower even when you’re several miles from land.

But when you lose that signal, your phone will connect to the at-sea provider. You might see one of these names pop up on your phone’s home screen, in place of a familiar land-based network:

  • Cellular at Sea
  • 901-18
  • NOR-18
  • Wireless Maritime Services (WMS)
  • Telenor Maritime
When you’re connected to a maritime provider, you’ll usually see the network on the home screen of your phone

If you didn’t mean to connect to the service, just switch to airplane mode to avoid any further charges.

Using messaging apps to text for free on a cruise ship

If you use text messaging apps like Facebook Messenger, WeChat, or WhatsApp, you can use them on a cruise ship whenever you have an internet connection. Many cruisers who use the free ShipMate app for cruise roll calls also use that app to message other passengers on the ship.

But you’re probably thinking, Wi-Fi on a cruise is expensive! It’s often still a little spendy, even though prices have dropped over the last few years. But on many cruise lines, you can connect to the internet for free!

Some of the more all-inclusive luxury cruise lines, like Regent Seven Seas and Viking Ocean, offer free Wi-Fi as part of the cruise fare, so you’ll be able to send and receive unlimited texts through your messaging app.

Read more: Which Cruise Lines Are All-Inclusive?

Most mainstream lines offer paid internet packages as well as pay-by-the-minute Wi-Fi use. But if you want it to be completely free, here are some tips to slash that price to zero:

Use free onboard credit for a Wi-Fi package

Savvy cruisers know that racking up free onboard credit is a great way to save money on a cruise. Why not use some of it to purchase a Wi-Fi package for your voyage? You can get free credit in a variety of ways—from booking during cruise line promotions, from your travel agency, even from being a cruise line shareholder!

Book when the cruise line is running a free Wi-Fi promotion

Some cruise lines always seem to be running sales that include lots of free perks, and a free Wi-Fi package is a popular promotion.

For example, Norwegian Cruise Line almost always has their Free At Sea promo in effect. You can often choose an internet package, among other free goodies.

Signing up for your favorite cruise line’s email list is the best way to see when they’re offering free Wi-Fi. Or, ask your travel agent to keep an eye out on your behalf.

Join your cruise line’s loyalty program

Most cruise lines have a free loyalty program to reward repeat cruisers with free perks. Once you reach a certain tier in the program, you’ll often earn free internet on each cruise. Some even offer onboard credit for loyal cruisers, which you can use for Wi-Fi.

Do any cruise lines have free messaging apps?

Today, several of the larger cruise lines offer text messaging as part of their onboard apps. Most are free for you to use while you’re on the ship! The catch? You can only send and receive texts with other passengers on your ship, and only while you’re on board. The chat function won’t work when you’re in port and on land.

But, these texting apps are a handy way to stay in touch with friends and family you’re cruising with, or to reach out to new friends you’ve met on board.

Let’s look at which cruise lines have a texting or chat function in their onboard apps:

Tip: Be sure to download your cruise line’s app before you set sail. Once you’re at sea, the only way to get the app on your device is by connecting to the ship’s Wi-Fi.

None of these cruise lines require you to purchase an internet package to use their apps. However, some of them—including Norwegian and Carnival—charge a small fee to use the chat function during your cruise. In 2023, Royal Caribbean made the chat function in their onboard app free for all guests.

Using messaging apps to text for free when you’re in port

Once you’re in port and back on dry land, you might be tempted to take your phone out of airplane mode to check your texts. Make sure you only do this if you’re within your data coverage zone! If you’re not, you could be hit with some pretty hefty roaming charges.

It’s a good idea to check your coverage zone with your phone provider before your cruise departs, especially if you’re cruising outside of your home country.

Tip: Many phone companies offer short-term international data, talk, and text plans that you can pre-purchase before your cruise.

But if you’re outside of your coverage area, you can still send and receive texts on messaging apps for free as long as you connect to a Wi-Fi hotspot. (However, you still won’t be able to use SMS texting if you don’t have cellular data.)

Finding free Wi-Fi when you’re in port

At some cruise ports, it’s super-easy to find a Wi-Fi signal. But at other ports it can be more of a challenge. Before you leave the ship for your day in port, ask the experts—the staff and crew on the ship!

Traditionally, crew members have had to pay for onboard Wi-Fi (although this hopefully will be changing in a post-pandemic world). So they know all the best spots to pick up a decent signal for free!

If you forget to ask, here are some spots I often find free Wi-Fi in ports around the world:

  • In the cruise terminal
  • At cafés and restaurants (many do require a purchase)
  • Near fast food restaurants and coffee shops
  • At beaches
  • At larger shopping centers or malls
  • Inside public libraries

You might not find a strong signal for free (you probably won’t be able to video chat), but it’s usually enough to send and receive texts.

How to prepare friends, family, and coworkers for your cruise when there’s limited texting

Are your friends, family, and coworkers used to you replying to texts right away? Especially if they’re not cruisers, they might not realize you won’t even see their messages if you’re not connected to the pricy at-sea provider on the ship.

For friends and family, I always let them know that “regular” texting won’t work once I set sail—I’ll be in airplane mode. If they want to keep in touch during the cruise, the best way to do it is via a messaging app.

Tip: Most cruise lines have a special emergency phone number if a family member on land urgently needs to reach you. They’ll need your full name and the ship’s name to send you an emergency message.

For coworkers and business associates who normally text your cell phone number, it’s a good idea to give them a heads-up that you won’t be able to see or reply to any of their texts during your entire cruise.

I’ve noticed that some of the SMS text messages people told me they’ve sent while I was cruising just never arrive—even once I’m home. So for any important messages that coworkers want you to see later, asking them to send an email is a better bet.

Do you have any other questions about how to text on a cruise ship for free? Do you prefer to stay connected by text messaging on a cruise, or would you rather take a vacation from your phone? Let me know in the comments below!

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Carrie Ann Karstunen