Cell Phone Access on an Alaskan Cruise

Can you use your phone on an Alaskan cruise?

Phone usage on a sailing is one of the most common questions that people have when they are ready to board the ship. These days our phones are so much more than just a way to call back home. They represent a way to keep up with our lives back in the real world, whether that be social or work.

For most cruises — like those that go to the Caribbean — the answer is pretty simple. Yes, your phone will work, but you usually have to connect to expensive networks on the ship (more on these later) or pay international roaming charges.

However, sailing on an Alaskan cruise is a different animal. Since you are traveling to the United States, that means your cell phone plan likely offers some service while in port. Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as using your phone as you would at home.

Given that you will be traveling through international waters, rugged territory, and out of range of land-based towers, when and what service you have will be constantly changing. 

Here’s more information about us cell phone on an Alaskan cruise.

Traditional Cell Service While in Alaskan & Canadian Ports

Let’s start by discussing your cell service while in port. Alaskan cruises stop in ports like Juneau, Ketchikan, and Skagway. Since these are U.S. ports, your cell phone will work just as it would anywhere else in the United States — and have the same charges for data, texts, and calls.

Where you might run into an issue is with coverage. Within the port cities themselves, you should be fine on coverage, even getting 4G LTE data in many areas. Traveling outside of the ports will likely cause you to drop signal quickly, especially if taking an excursion to the wilderness.

In addition, your coverage is going to depend on your cell service provider. According to their coverage maps, each company offers service in the Alaskan ports. You can see, however, that coverage definitely varies, with AT&T seeming to offer the widest service.

Coverage maps for major providers in Alaska

In addition, pretty much every cruise from Seattle to Alaska makes at least one stop in Canada. If you are in a Canadian port such as Vancouver or Victoria, then you will be connecting to Canadian cell towers.

Unless you have international plan or a provider who allows you to call in Canada at no additional charge, then you are going to be charged for international roaming.

The big exception is that cell phone companies seem to be adding service in Canada and Mexico to some plans. Keep in mind as well that cell providers have international plans that you can purchase for one month which will help bring your per-minute prices down.

Cell Service While on the Cruise Ship

Your coverage gets tricky when you are at sea, and it’s something you should be careful to notice before using your phone.

Since the Alaskan Passage is a relatively small area compared to the open ocean, there might be spots that you can pick up cell service while you are at sea. You’ll want to check at the top of your phone for the name of the network to make sure it’s your carrier before using.

When out of range of land-based cell towers, you can still use your phone if needed, but it will be through service provided on the cruise ship. Most cruise lines use a service from Wireless Maritime Services (WMS) called Cellular at Sea.

This service works when the ship is 12+ miles from land. When in port or close to land, it is turned off.

The important thing to know about Cellular at Sea is that your carrier bills you at special international roaming rates. We’ve looked up the rates for the big four carriers:

Cell rates for a cruise ship at sea

Don’t want to pay these high rates? Some cell providers also have cruise packages that are designed to work on the ship. By paying a set amount ahead of time, you can get service on the ship without worrying about your bill.

For instance, AT&T offers a $100 plan that gives you 200MB of data and unlimited talk and text on most cruise ships. You’ll want to get in touch with your provider for more details of their specific plan.

Using the Internet to Keep in Touch (Our Recommendation)

If you’re on an Alaskan cruise, we’d suggest using the wi-fi on the ship to keep in touch.

One big change that’s come to cruising in the past decade is the proliferation of wi-fi. What used to be a novelty on cruise ships is now a near necessity. Every major cruise line and ship will offer wi-fi service, usually costing about $15-20 per day.

With online access, there are a number of apps — such as WhatsApp — that allow you to send texts and even make phone calls through your wi-fi connection.

In other words, instead of expensive per-minute cell service or worrying about roaming, connecting to the ship’s wi-fi should give you an opportunity to keep in touch back home.

How to Avoid Surprise Charges

Unfortunately, we’ve heard horror stories of people being surprised by high bills on their cell plans after cruising. Whether it be calls made on one network that switch to another network during the call or apps sucking up data without the user knowing, there are ways that you can get a much higher bill than you expected.

For that reason, we suggest turning your phone into airplane mode while you are aboard the ship. When you are on shore in Alaskan ports, then you can use your phone as normal without having to worry about overages.

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