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The simple trick to avoid thousands of dollars in cellphone charges on a cruise ship

19 Oct 2023
Matt Hochberg

Anyone can make a mistake on a cruise, but no one wants to make a mistake that could cost them thousands of dollars.

Freedom of the Seas sailing away from Miami

A costly mistake has a deeper effect than simply a lesson learned, and it can truly ruin your vacation.

There was a news story recently in the UK where a woman went on a Caribbean cruise and left her cell phone's antenna on, and it racked up some serious charges.

She was unaware that using her phone normally on a cruise ship shot up her monthly phone bill from £35 to £1186.59!

Why was her bill so high? Her phone was outside of its normal cellular network, and when you try to use a cell phone for calls, data, or texting on someone else's network, you incur crazy high rates.

Many cellular plans (even international plans) do not include calls, texts, or data on cruise ships and they will charge you extremely high roaming rates for such services that will show up weeks later on your phone bill.

Data usage is especially troublesome because smart phones will use data even when you are not actively using your phone.  Phones will continuously check for updates or notifications, as well as run app updates in the background.  All of this uses data, and that can drive up your bill without you even using the device.

Woman holding iPhone

In the case of this British woman, she was able to negotiate with the phone carrier to drop the price by half, but that's still many hundreds extra in fees that could have been avoided.

If that sounds like scary, the good news is you can protect yourself from running into a giant cell phone bill with a very simple trick.

Airplane mode

Airplane mode

Every cell phone has a feature that prevents the phone from using its antenna, but you need to remember to activate it.

There's a feature on every phone to put your phone into airplane mode, which disables your antenna until you re-enable it. 

As the name implies, it was designed for use while on an airplane but works just as well on a cruise ship. 

Sail away crowd

Your best bet is to get on the ship and before sail away, use your phone to let anyone know what's going on and then turn on airplane mode.  Keep it in airplane mode until you return home.

By keeping your phone in airplane mode, your phone cannot join any cellular networks and will not get you a giant bill later.

Don't worry, you can still use Wi-Fi while your phone is in airplane mode, which means you can connect to the ship's Wi-Fi or use a Wi-Fi hotspot in one of the ports of call you visit. This includes iMessage.

Some cruisers will tell you to turn data roaming off as a feature in your phone, but that requires a bit more digging into your phone settings and isn't as simple to enable or re-enable as airplane mode.  

Read more40 Best Royal Caribbean tips, tricks & hidden secrets

How to turn on airplane mode on with an iPhone

Example of airplane mode

The easiest way to turn on airplane mode with an iPhone is to swipe up.

Swipe down from the top-right corner of your screen to bring up Control Center. Then tap the airplane mode button, which looks like an airplane.

To turn it off later, just follow the same steps and click the airplane button again.

If you want to enable Wi-Fi or Bluetooth while your phone is in airplane mode, just swipe up from the bottom once again. Tap the Wi-Fi button to enable Wi-Fi or the Bluetooth button to enable Bluetooth.

How to turn airplane mode on with an Android

Android phone

If you have an Android device, the easiest way to activate airplane mode is similar to an iPhone.

Swipe down from the top of your home screen and then click the airplane mode button, which looks like an airplane.

You can still make calls with Wi-Fi calling

What if you want to be able to call and text friends and family, but don't want a giant bill?

The best strategy is to buy a Royal Caribbean Voom Wi-Fi package for your cruise and then use a feature known as Wi-Fi calling.

With an internet package for your cruise, you could rely purely on data and call with Facetime, Whatsapp, Facebook messenger or some other messaging app.

Read moreRoyal Caribbean WiFi: Guide to Internet at sea

Using a phone

If you need to make a "real" phone call, make sure Wi-Fi calling is enabled on your phone.

Wi-Fi calling is a feature nearly every cellular carrier provides that allows the phone to use Wi-Fi data instead of a cellular signal to place the call. This is useful in areas where there's bad cell coverage on land too!

The important thing is to activate Wi-Fi calling before your cruise while you're still at home.  There's no cost to use Wi-Fi calling, but it's a setting in your phone you need to activate.

Depending on your device and cellular carrier, the instructions will vary. Here are some instructions for the major carriers, but you can always do an internet search for your carrier:

Your cellular provider might sell a cruise ship specific cell plan, but I don't recommend them because they are expensive and perform poorly.  A cruise ship Wi-Fi package will probably work better, be cheaper, and has no limit.

Don't forget about Royal Caribbean's free chat feature

Chat feature in app

If you don't want to pay for a Wi-Fi package but still want to be able to communicate with people on your ship during the voyage, there's a free alternative.

The Royal Caribbean app has a chat feature that is free to use.

Read moreRoyal Caribbean app walkthrough and tips

You just need to have the Royal Caribbean app downloaded and installed on your phone before the cruise. Then once onboard, connect to the Wi-Fi and select the option to just use the app.

RC app

While not as full featured as other messaging apps, it's free to use and works well enough for communicating with someone else on the ship that has the app too.

Of course, it wont work for messaging anyone not on the ship.

Matt started Royal Caribbean Blog in 2010 as a place to share his passion for all things Royal Caribbean with readers. He oversees all the writers at Royal Caribbean Blog, and writes a great deal of content on a daily basis.  He has become one of the foremost expert on a Royal Caribbean cruise.

Over the years, he has reached Pinnacle Club status with Royal Caribbean's customer loyalty program.

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