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Travelers taking a land-based vacation expect local cafes and attractions, not to mention their hotel rooms, to have quality Wi-Fi that lets them connect with the outside world. And much of the time travelers get just that.

But when they board a cruise ship, it’s another matter.

Connecting a ship to Wi-Fi comes with a unique set of challenges that makes surfing the web on a plane seem like a simple math problem. Cruise lines need a connection that allows thousands of people at a time to stream Hulu or update Facebook from a position many of miles out to sea, and getting that bandwidth that far out isn’t easy. The costly packages available to cruisers reflects the immense task of offering Wi-Fi reliant on satellite signals connecting with a moving target.

Last year, Skift talked to Royal Caribbean’s chief information officer (CIO) Bill Martin on the brand piloting next-generation Wi-Fi connectivity through a startup called O3B, an acronym for “the other three billion” people on Earth who don’t have high-speed Internet access. For the pilot, Royal Caribbean gave away free Wi-Fi access to more than 5,000 passengers on voyages aboard Oasis of the Seas and Quantum of the Seas where Martin says a terabyte of data was used within the first four days of offering free access.

“We probably wouldn’t be able to use that much data in a month, even shore-side activity doesn’t compare,” said Martin. “The speed is good enough to run high-definition video, but the question is always ‘how much does the guest value it?'”

Martin said Royal Caribbean is also looking at offering Wi-Fi while in port. Carnival Cruise Lines is considering similar tech for its ports of call.

Of the big three in cruising — Royal Caribbean, Carnival, and Norwegian Cruise Lines — the latter is the only line that hasn’t announced plans to implement enhanced Wi-Fi technology with increased bandwidth. Rivaling Royal Caribbean’s O3B pilot is Carnival’s WiFi@Sea network which integrates land-based antennas installed along cruise routes, Wi-Fi from a port connection, and advanced satellites.

Carnival unveiled WiFi@Sea for beta testing on Caribbean voyages last year and plans to eventually roll out the network on the 101 ships across all nine of its brands.

What Kind of Cruise Wi-Fi Package Works Best?

The majority of brands offer packages for certain timeframes of Wi-Fi usage, a pay-as-you-go practice more akin to international roaming fees or data plans. On any given cruise brand, passengers can spend between $50 to $100 a day or more just on Wi-Fi. For cruise lines which already operate on rather low per-day fees for passengers, this is seen as an add-on fee rather than something to bake into the total cost.

“That’s a revenue management question for [Royal Caribbean International], but for the rest of the industry it’s a technology question,” said Martin. “I think we’re years away before you see something like that streamlined across the entire industry.”

Lines do see the benefit of allow connected passengers to act a brand ambassadors. During Royal Caribbean’s launch of its new Quantum of the Seas ship in the fall, it showed off its industry-leading Wi-Fi speeds by giving it away for free on cruises for loyalty members and media guests, encouraging them to share photos, videos, and messages across social networks.

Carnival started piloting social media-only plans on its Breeze, Freedom and Sunshine ships last month which for a fee lets cruisers check Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat. Cruise lines keep getting creative with how they sell Wi-Fi, even offering email-only plans or plans meant for Skype or other bandwidth-heavy services.

Royal Caribbean and Carnival are the only brands with strong enough bandwidth to support Skype, FaceTime and other voice over Internet protocol (VOIP) calls, while Norwegian says bandwidths are strong enough for these calls on some of its ships.

Some brands now let passengers pay for the amount of data they want to use rather than the length of time they want to be online, such as Disney Cruise Lines and Norwegian Cruise Lines, with Norwegian beginning to pilot “pay by the byte” plans last year.

This week Royal Caribbean International announced the roll-out of ElevenOS, an Internet management platform that handles branded portal pages, guest authentication and billing that’s now deployed on all 22 ships. The cruise line said ElevenOS also brings increased bandwidth which allows the brand to offer unlimited Wi-Fi access based on a per-day rate and is also used by several Starwood and Denihan Hospitality Group properties. Oceania Cruises and Regent Seven Seas Cruises also offer unlimited packages, albeit connection speeds aren’t as fast.

It’s notable that Norwegian Cruise Line passengers pay the same rate per minute that Carnival Cruise Line passengers pay even though Norwegian’s passengers likely experience slower speeds. With access to O3B, Royal Caribbean International’s passengers arguably have some of the best deals in the industry given the swift connection speeds for lesser costs per minute than brands without any enhanced Wi-Fi tech.

Wi-Fi on Royal Caribbean Cruises Brands

Brand Enhanced Wi-Fi Offered Rate Per Minute Types of Packages Offered Supports VOIP Services
Royal Caribbean International Yes (O3B) 30-50 Cents Bulk Minutes, Pay as you go, Unlimited Yes, on some ships
Azamara Cruises No 51-66 Cents Bulk Minutes or $69 per day flat rate No
Celebrity Cruises No 79 Cents Bulk Minutes, Pay as you go No
Pullmantur Cruises No 79 Cents Bulk Minutes, Pay as you go No
CDF Croisieres de France No 79 Cents Bulk Minutes, Pay as you go No

Wi-Fi on Carnival Corporation Brands

Brand Enhanced Wi-Fi Offered Rate Per Minute Types of Packages Offered Supports VOIP Services
Carnival Cruise Lines Yes (WiFi@Sea) 75 Cents Bulk Minutes, Social Media, Pay as you go Yes, but limited
P&O Cruises No 76 Cents Bulk Minutes, Pay as you go No
P&O Cruises Australia No 58 Cents Bulk Minutes, Pay as you go No
Holland America Line No 75 Cents Bulk Minutes, Pay as you go No
AIDA No 44 Cents Bulk Minutes, Pay as you go No
Princess Cruises No N/A Bulk Minutes No
Seabourn Cruise Line No 40 Cents Bulk Minutes No
Costa Cruises No 50 Cents Bulk Minutes No
Cunard Line No N/A Bulk Minutes No

Wi-Fi on Norwegian Cruise Line Corporation Brands

Brand Enhanced Wi-Fi Offered Rate Per Minute Types of Packages Offered Supports VOIP Services
Norwegian Cruise Lines No 75 Cents Bulk Minutes, Pay as you go, Pay by the byte On some ships
Oceania Cruises No 99 Cents Bulk Minutes, Pay as you go, Unlimited No
Regent Seven Seas Cruises No 99 Cents Bulk Minutes, Pay as you go, Unlimited No

Source: cruise websites

Photo Credit: A passenger using her iPad on Royal Caribbean's Quantum of the Seas. Royal Caribbean