The cruise ships with the best Wi-Fi

CNN  — 

What happened on cruise ships used to stay on cruise ships – at least until the boat reached the next port.

One of the remaining Internet-free places on the planet, passengers could spend days wallowing in isolation unless they spent serious cash on a telegram or ship-to-shore call.

Then, in 1999 Norwegian Cruise Lines introduced the first on-board Internet cafe. And nothing much changed.

Because, even though cruise lines have been rolling out connectivity at sea ever since, coverage has been frustratingly patchy, slow and expensive.

That’s despite one-in-five passengers now considering it important to be plugged into the web while afloat, at least according to a poll by review site Cruise Critic.

It’s changing now though. Over the past few years, cruise lines have been improving their satellite technology to boost connection speeds and working out ways to accommodate different budgets.

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“They are tapping into the desire to stay connected by offering faster, more cost-effective Wi-Fi solutions,” says Adam Coulter, Cruise Critic’s editor.

“Package offerings now provide a greater variety of choice, enabling travelers to select the best option for their personal requirements.”

While speed and costs still vary, many companies now offer tiered packages, allowing passengers to choose between per-day rates or data usage plans.

Norwegian Cruise Lines has tried to stay ahead of the game, working to quadruple its internet connectivity. By July 2016 all 23 of its ships will be upgraded to a faster service called SpeedNet.

But is it any good?

Tech consultant Henry Mui, 60, sailed to Bermuda aboard Breakaway, one of Norwegian’s larger ships, earlier this year.

While Norwegian typically offers unlimited Internet for $29.99 per day on shorter cruises, or per-minute plans of $125 for 250 minutes or $75 for 100, Breakaway has been trialing data packages of 300MB for $59 or 1,000MB for $125.

Mui took a free 250-minute package as part of a promotion that was capped at 1,000MB.

“The data plan turned out to be far better than we expected, as we had over 30 logged sessions and used just over 1,000 minutes for our 1GB-worth of free data,” he says.

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Up to speed?

Internet service at sea can now rival connections on solid ground.

Mui used the service largely to send emails, surf the web, use Google Hangout and make Wi-Fi voice calls.

“The calls were not dropped and overall it was reasonably fast and reliable with acceptable upload times,” he adds.

“Anything faster by a significant margin would be a big welcome for users who need to be connected. I always tell others, in case of ‘real’ emergencies, the cost to get connected to the Internet and Wi-Fi is irrelevant, just get online and worry about the expenses later.”

Royal Caribbean’s Voom service, which is fast enough to stream music, movies and videos, is now available fleet-wide on all 25 ships.

Deals range between $12.99 and $17.99 a day. Fast speeds are the result of combining new satellite technology with custom-built ship antennas.

Michael Bayley, president and CEO of Royal Caribbean International, calls Voom a “game-changer for the industry.”

“Everything our guests and crew can do online at home, they will now be able to do from on-board all of our ships around the world,” he says.

But can Voom really rival speeds on land? Cruise Critic’s Mike Ewing tested it on Harmony of the Seas, the world’s largest cruise ship.

After success sending emails and posting to social media sites he uploaded pictures and video.

“Our video post had ‘likes’ from the other side of the globe in seconds, and we streamed video on Netflix and Amazon and never encountered any problems,” he says. “It’s at least as fast as a really high-quality hotel connection on solid ground.”

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FaceTime from the Panama Canal

Celebrity Cruises’ Xcelerate is another breakthrough service offering speeds fast enough to enjoy video streaming and gaming on board.

“Xcelerate is going to give our digitally connected guests a new opportunity to share their amazing travel experiences in real time anywhere in the world,” says Lisa Lutoff-Perlo, Celebrity Cruises CEO and president.

For a 10-day or longer cruise the price for unlimited access is $199. Worth it?

Project manager Tom Freed, 64, tried it out on a 14-night cruise with his wife on Celebrity’s Infinity, sailing from San Diego to Miami through the Panama Canal.

He bought the $199 package, but managed to get a 25% loyalty discount, making it $150 or about $10 per day.

“We had used the old service on previous Celebrity cruises and it reminded me of dial-up internet from the ’80s, but Xcelerate was way better and worth the expenditure,” he says.

Internet connectivity helped make one of the highlights of his trip.

“I did a live Facetime video chat with a buddy in Scotland while we were in the middle of the Panama Canal,” says Freed, who’d met this friend on a Celebrity cruise two years earlier.

“I actually had goose bumps from the excitement of being able to share live video with him.”

For some these costs are still too high, no matter what experience they may afford. Carnival says it’s addressing the issue with its WiFi@Sea service, offering a three-tiered approach with prices starting at $5 a day.

Useful for younger guests, it provides access to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, LinkedIn, Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp, but excludes Snapchat.

MSC Cruises also offers a social media package, which includes Snapchat, at $4.50 per day or $16.50 for a full seven-day cruise.

“Cruise lines are moving away from the one-size-fits-all approach to Internet connection,” says Cruise Critic’s Coulter. “As a result, travelers will continue to see internet options more closely mirroring those they’re used to on land.”

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