What's the best way to communicate from a cruise ship?

By Bill McGee, special for USA TODAY

Communicating from or with a cruise ship has become easier than ever, but it's still rife with opportunities to pay too much. Since I last addressed this topic in January 2007, numerous new products and options have been introduced, making the shopping process a little more complex.

What hasn't changed is that a great many cruisers long for a bygone era when being at sea meant being away from it all. Most of today's ships sport all the entertainment and communications options of your average living room, so for better and for worse, those days are pretty much past.

Options abound

There are more ways than ever to talk, email or text, so a little preplanning can go a long way. This should be tackled before you head up the gangplank.

Many cruise lines offer a variety of communication programs, including Internet and e-mail access, mobile phone access, ship-to-shore and shore-to-ship phone lines and old-fashioned faxing. Charges vary so it's all about the two most important words in the travel industry: caveat emptor. And, oh, those roaming charges overseas and on the high seas! Cruise message boards abound with tales of vacationers who've been hit by additional charges even when they weren't using their mobile devices. Be clear about how to use the "data off" or "roaming off" or "airplane mode" feature on your phone.

Direct dialing

Direct dialing via satellite is available on many ships, and provides the convenience of using the stateroom phone. On Carnival, rates are $6.99 per minute to the U.S., Puerto Rico and Canada and $9.99 elsewhere. Other lines charge more.

DialAShip maintains extensive partnerships with more than two dozen cruise lines, but rates are a whopping $16 per minute.

Cellphone options

The major cell providers offer cruise coverage as well. AT&T, Sprint PCS and Verizon Wireless all charge $2.49 per minute for voice from cruise ships. But when I ran sample cruise ships through T-Mobile's pricing tool, it continually returned a rate of $4.99. In addition, it's 50 cents to send text messages and 5 cents to receive with most plans. However, check to see these services are compatible not only with your cruise line, but the specific ship you'll be sailing.

New services keep emerging and some can make sense for you, depending on your specific needs. For example, RebelFone maintains partnerships with 35 mobile network operators worldwide, thereby cutting down on roaming charges.

Wireless Maritime Services is always available in a pinch, but its FAQ section includes the ominous warning: "You are billed by your home network at the rates they determine."

Internet access and VOIP

A better alternative could be the Internet, since many cruise lines provide pre-paid options based on your usage. For seven-day sailings on Disney Cruise Line, it's 75 cents per minute pay-as-you-go, but 30 cents per minute if you purchase 250 minutes for $75.

Once you've secured Internet access, your communication with home can be even cheaper if you utilize a VOIP service such as Skype. 30 cents a minute is much more economical than those satellite and cellphone rates, but you and anyone you'd like to contact must have an account on Skype or whichever similar service you choose, so you should coordinate that before you leave.

Many ships feature Internet lounges and/or Wi-Fi spots, but once again you need to be clear about add-on charges to avoid huge sticker shock when you disembark.

Tips for keeping in touch

It's usually less expensive to call from a foreign port than from a ship, so consider this option whenever you dock.

Before you leave, establish guidelines with those on land about how often and how long you'll communicate.

If you're traveling with othersparticularly teenagersyou may want to establish some ground rules on usage before you set sail.

As with all forms of travel industry "ancillary revenue," the nickel-and-diming can really add up, so make sure you're clear in advance about all the charges you'll be accruing.

Even if you're a veteran cruiser, remember that each line has its own products and policies, so inquire before you use.

And remember that during an emergencyback home or at seacontact can always be established.

Social media can be particularly helpful when planning a cruise, so consider tapping your Facebook friends for real-world experiences of fellow cruisers who made unwise communications choices.

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