For all the advances in technology seen on cruise ships in the past decade — everything from robotic bartenders to in-room video displays showing what’s going on outside — there is one place where things are still lagging: communication.
Take Internet connectivity, for example. Wi-fi is everywhere these days on land, and it’s usually free of charge, even in out-of-the-way cruise ports like Costa Maya or Progreso. And yes, Internet is available on cruise ships, but you’ll pay dearly for it. Royal Caribbean, for example, charges about $20 per day just to get online with one device.
Meanwhile, cell service is a similar story. Even as many cell plans now offer calls in Mexico (a popular cruise destinations) as part of your plan, the charges to use your phone on a cruise ship are expensive.
Of course, with expensive Internet and cell service, many people opt to disengage entirely — leaving their phones in their room while they enjoy their trip. That begs the question: How can you stay in touch with the rest of your party on the ship if you don’t have your phone?
For that, many passengers have looked to an older method of communication: Walkie-talkies. Available for purchase at any price range (including many for less than $50), and claiming ranges of 20 miles or more, they seem perfect for a cruise. Simply pack a couple of walkie-talkie handsets and use them to talk while you are out and about on the ship, right?
However, we’ve seen mixed reviews of using these devices on a cruise ship. That’s why we recently purchased a set to take on a cruise and perform a real-world test as to whether you can use walkie-talkies to keep in touch on a ship.
The Walkie-Talkie Handset Tested
We had a good idea that a high-end walkie-talkie would produce the best results, but also know that a casual cruiser isn’t going to spend hundreds of dollars to buy a couple of handsets. That’s why we looked for an affordable option that is available to most people.
The set we tested was the Midland X-Talker, Model T51A. We found it at a local sporting goods store, but the sets are also available online for about $40. We liked that the model had rechargeable batteries, along with a charging base. We didn’t want to have to bring a bunch of batteries with us on a cruise. With this set, we just bring the handsets and the charging base.
Our model said it had a range of 28 miles, but did say that the range is reduced when used near obstructions. Because of that, we anticipated a range of much less on our cruise, but still figured it would be plenty to cover the length of the ship.
Testing the Walkie-Talkies on the Ship (Inside the Cabin)
For our test, we took our handsets aboard the Liberty of the Seas. This Royal Caribbean ship is among the largest cruise ships in the world, ranking just outside the top 10 in terms of size. At over 1,000 feet in length and 15 decks, if the walkie-talkies worked here, they were likely to work on any ship on the planet.
To give you an idea of the conditions, we had an interior cabin on the 10th deck of the ship, located at the very back of the ship. The main pool deck was on the 11th deck, just one floor above our cabin. The casino area was on the fourth deck, and the ship’s promenade was on the fifth. In other words, the walkie-talkies would need to work not only the length of the ship, but also through multiple decks in many cases.
With one person staying behind the in the cabin, we set out around the ship testing reception. Unfortunately, it became apparent quickly that the handsets would not be an effective solution on the ship.
Walking down our hallway toward the main elevator — just a few hundred feet away — the handsets worked very well. However, the first stop in our test was the 11th deck (remember, just one deck above our cabin), where the reception faded nearly as soon as we stepped outside. Walking around the pool deck, we were unable to hear anything on either handset when one person was inside the cabin.
In other words, it took only a few hundred feet, one deck, and the cabin walls between us before the walkie-talkies on the ship didn’t work. Returning back toward the cabin, we again were able to talk once we got back on our deck.
Testing Outside of the Cabin
In our testing, there were two very different ways we tried — testing with one person in the cabin and testing with both people out of the cabin.
As mentioned above, the range for this particular set of walkie-talkies was limited when one person was inside of the cabin. When both people were outside of the room, however, the functionality improved dramatically.
For instance, we traveled to opposite ends of the ship, but with both handsets outdoors near the top deck. At this point, we continually tested the reception of the walkie-talkies as we walked farther apart, to a distance of roughly 1,000 feet.
In these conditions, the walkie-talkies worked perfectly. Even with the length of the ship between us and no line of sight, the reception and clarity was strong. So if one person wanted to sunbathe at one end of the ship and another wished to swim in the pool at the other end, there’s no doubt they would be able to keep in touch through the handsets.
We also tested with one person at the extreme front of the ship on a top deck (deck 12 in this case). Then, the other person walked down around the ship’s promenade, and even down to deck 2 and the back of the ship. Despite being separated by ten decks and one person being inside and another being outside, the walkie-talkies worked decently well. At the bottom of the ship we did encounter some static, but could still hear the other person talking. The higher we walked back up, the better the performance, the handsets worked perfectly.
In other words, if someone is in the cabin, the walkie-talkies had a tough time working. But with two people outside the room and walking around the ship, they worked quite well.
Why Don’t Walkie-Talkies Work Well in Cabins?
According to the instructions that were included with our set, to get maximum range from the handsets, it helps to be out in the open with no obstructions. For instance, two boats at sea (where there are no trees or buildings to block signals) would likely see a range for miles.
On a cruise ship, you don’t have this advantage. Cabins are essentially metal boxes that seem to kill reception, and combined with the steel decks of the cruise ship — not to mention all the other walls, ceilings, and other barriers like furniture — all combine to reduce the effectiveness of the signal. When both handsets were used out on the open deck or an open area of the ship, the reception was great. But using one in a cabin, the reception quickly dropped.
What About Using Higher-End Handsets?
We agree that the handsets we purchased for use on the cruise are not high-end commercial models. Instead, they are a widely available model at an affordable price — which means they are a type more likely to be purchased by cruise passengers.
During our cruise, we did see some passengers using walkie-talkies to communicate (though not many), as well as staff. In particular, the staff had what appeared to be higher-end models with longer antenna and more settings. This leads us to believe that if you use a higher-end (and more expensive) walkie-talkie, then you might have success using it throughout the ship — even in the cabin. However, this might cost more than it’s worth unless you already have the handsets.
What About Using in Port?
Since our party was traveling together while in port, we didn’t bring the walkie-talkies to test off the ship. A test at home (with one person inside a house and the other driving down the street), gave us an estimated range of about a quarter-mile in a suburban setting.
If you are headed out on an excursion and both people plan to be outdoors (where the handsets work better), then we would think they would work well. For instance, keeping in touch while exploring a park like Chankanaab in Cozumel, Mexico, should be possible.
Should You Bring Walkie-Talkies on a Cruise?
We were extremely hopeful that having a pair of affordable walkie-talkies would end the hassle of trying to keep in touch while on a cruise ship. In many cases they can work well, but it requires both people being outside of the cabin or other closed-in areas. When one person is inside a cabin, the reception appears to drop dramatically. With both people outside of the cabin we were able to talk around all areas of the ship.
If you are looking to keep in touch while on the ship, walkie-talkies are a decent way to do it, but don’t think they are perfect. You may still want to stick to tried and true methods like check-in times. Some cruise lines like Carnival also have messaging services available for your phone for a small fee.
If you have a high-end commercial walkie-talkie, then your results might be better than what was seen in our test.
One final note: If you do decide to purchase walkie-talkies — look for those with “privacy codes” on them. During our use, we mixed signals with other passengers and crew who were using the same channel. Using a privacy code keeps your use from interfering with anyone else.
I have a pair of Uniden UHF 820s. (2watts) It does have the repeater facility, so would it work better if I just switched it on or not on a large cruise ship?
Good article, realistic and honest test, not like the radio manufacturer claiming 35 miles range.
The best results I have accomplished is using DIGITAL radios, they are expensive, but they work much better than analog radios using less power. I recommend digital radios for people that cruise regularly. The ship’s crew uses repeaters through out the ship, that’s how they can communicate.