Cell phone service is available on virtually all passenger ships throughout the world because for travelers it is now a necessity. It also constitutes a significant revenue source for both the ships and cell companies. Unless you subscribe to a cruise ship package from your cellular carrier, extremely high charges can be accrued if certain basic phone settings are not understood or implemented. Failure to do so can include the potential to be billed for incoming calls not answered, which can cost as much as $7.50 every time your phone rings.
Isabel is a colleague who recently crossed the Atlantic on Cunard Lines from Southampton to New York with her T-Mobile iPhone handset. She left her phone turned on but was instructed to turn off data roaming so only text and phone calls could be received. She was also told not to answer a call unless it was a family emergency. She thought that with caller ID she could screen calls and determine if she needed to answer or ignore the phone ringing. She never gave it a thought that if she did not answer the phone there could be any adverse consequences.
As she sailed West, she received only two inbound calls, both of which she ignored. She let the phone ring until each call was picked up by her T-Mobile voicemail. Then she got the surprise: in her next billing cycle she was charged $15.00 for the two calls even though there was never an actual connection, or so she logically thought.
Most cellular networks only bill when a call is answered; not for airtime as was the practice when cellular was first introduced in the 1980s. It would be logical for consumers to assume the same rules apply for a cellular call regardless of the originating location. Unfortunately, that is not true on ships because of the way the network is configured and how inbound calls are handled and routed. While Isabel was correct in her assumption that not answering the phone meant no charges, it did not prevent a billable call. That is because when the system sent the call back to her voicemail, it determined there was in effect another call from the ship to the U.S. and hence the one-minute T-Mobile charge of six dollars plus tax. She was not billed for the incoming call but was charged for the call from the ship. It was considered as a new call, initiated to the U.S. voicemail system.
Depending upon whether you use the onboard cellular network or WiFi, there are several options for minimizing or eliminating potential charges. Here are my suggestions:
If you will not use cell, text, or data: Turn your phone completely off, rather than just putting it to sleep. Whether it is an iPhone or Android, there are two different operating states: sleep with screen off, and shutdown. If the phone is only in sleep mode, battery consumption is reduced because the screen (which accounts for much of the current drain) is not turned on. In this mode, many consumers believe their phone is turned off when the display is dark which is initiated by pressing the button on the right side of the handset. In truth, the phone is still working and is connected to the network, so it can receive calls, data, and text messages.
If you really do not want to accrue any possible charges, then press and hold both the right (screen) and left (volume) control buttons simultaneously until the phone asks whether it is to be turned off or restarted. If the phone is in the off-mode, it will not do anything that can cause a billable event, although technically the phone is still running in the background and may allow GPS tracking and other silent functions to occur, especially if malware or covert software has been downloaded without your knowledge;
If you do not want to make or receive any cellular communications but wish to access WiFi: Turn off cellular data roaming and place the phone in Airplane Mode, then enable WiFi and search and log into an available network. If you utilize a VoIP application like Skype, Vonage Extensions, or WhatsApp for placing or receiving calls, then answering or not answering a call will not result in charges because a cellular network is not involved, and no toll charges can occur;
If you only want to exchange text messages or phone calls: Turn data roaming off;
Reducing data usage if you log into a cellular carrier: If you are billed on a data usage basis, which can cost as much as twenty dollars per Mbyte, you want to drastically reduce the consumption of data. Turn off all non-critical programs that run in the background and are constantly refreshed. This can be as important on a cellular network as it is on Wi-Fi, especially if the ship has gone to pricing plans that track data usage rather than time;
Subscribe to a cellular package for lower rates: AT&T, in my view, has the only cruise ship pricing schemes that allow for cost control for calls, text, and data. Neither Verizon or T-Mobile have discounted or flat rate pricing, so if you anticipate using a lot of data, sending or receiving many texts, or making lots of calls, then AT&T is the best choice.
Use WiFi and VoIP services: Some of the cruise lines have introduced a different pricing scheme for their WiFi services, offering data access pricing rather than the traditional per minute charge. I am posting this article from a Holland America ship in South America heading toward Antarctica. They now offer unlimited WiFi access with different data allowances based upon price, which means WiFi can be left active all the time. Most of my calls have been through AT&T with their unlimited thirty-day call plan, or on WiFi with the Vonage Extension Application, which means free calls. I also utilize global two-way radio to keep in contact with my colleagues, which works over any IP connection.
When in port: I switch to T-Mobile as a second number configured as an eSIM because they offer free data, text, and $.25/minute phone calls. With T-Mobile, if WiFi is not available, most networks provide 3G or 4G access which allows the use of VoIP applications, which means free voice calls. You can also subscribe to the AT&T or Verizon daily flat rate plans for ten dollars a day, but remember these are only good while on shore, and not while at sea.
If you are on a cruise ship, be sure you pay attention to your phone settings and how it is configured consistent with your usage requirements. Otherwise you may be charged for services you did not utilize or receive.
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