Staying connected aboard ship

News from home and today's sports scores are never far away on a vacation cruise, unlike the days in decades past when passengers might rush ashore in a foreign port to find an old newspaper for delayed accounts of tragedies and ballgames.

Whether you are cruising in the Caribbean or the Mediterranean, connection is only a few computer, or cell phone, clicks away. Or so they say.

The best-equipped ships have wireless Web access in staterooms and public areas.

Many cruise passengers expect the same level of cell phone and Internet service aboard ship as they get at home. Don't count on it. You may get a good connection or a quick response while you are at sea. But you may not.

When a ship is close to the antennae on land or beneath a telecommunications satellite, signals can be strong. Otherwise, connections often fade in and out - just as you're finishing a long e-mail.

Connections are improving. Most of the newer cruise ships are wired and ready for Internet and cell phone use - at a price.

Services and prices vary by cruise line and by ship. For instance, the entire fleets of Carnival and Celebrity are wired for cell phones, but none of the ships in the Princess fleet is.

Most newer ships allow passengers to use their own cell phones - either U.S. models or the European models with SIM cards. Calls are picked up by a satellite provider. International roaming charges - usually much cheaper than telephone calls from cabins that cost $7 to $10 per minute - are billed to cell phone users on their own accounts at home. Check with your cell phone company for international roaming rates.

For Internet use, most new ships have a room with computers. The best-wired ships also have strong signals to the cabins and public areas, so you could use your own laptop in the privacy of your room or on deck.

Internet time carries a fee per minute that ranges from about 50 to 75 cents. You may buy a package of minutes. For instance, Carnival, Norwegian, Princess, Holland America and Disney charge $55 for 100 online minutes, $100 for 250 minutes. Celebrity charges $70 for 100 minutes. Those minutes tick by quickly while you wait for Web site pages to appear on your computer screen.

On ship computers, establish a user name and password - the system varies by cruise line - then click on Internet Explorer and go to your e-mail host at home, such as Yahoo or AOL or Gmail. You will need to know your user name and password for any Web sites you plan to visit. Bring them with you. Or, you may send yourself an e-mail at home that lists your user names and passwords. Just remember to bring the user name and password to your e-mail account.

Unlike your home computer, each e-mail on the ship comes up separately and will take longer to read than at home or in the office. If you use AOL at home, for instance, your experience will be different at sea because your home computer has AOL's software built in. On the ship, type in, then, when you log on, look for the small print that says "click here if you have a slow connection." Clicking on that will help speed the connection.

The strength of the signal can vary substantially from day to day, hour to hour, minute to minute.

On Alaska cruises, for instance, the farther north you get, the closer the telecommunications satellite is to the horizon, so signals tend to fade in and out as the satellite might slip behind a mountain range, says Darryl Moseley, manager of shipboard technology for Carnival Cruise Lines.

Internet use tends to rise with the length of the cruise, Moseley says. The longer passengers are away from home, the more they use the Internet. In the spring, when the new Carnival Splendor cruised from Florida to California, around the tip of South America, "demand for the Internet went through the roof" as passengers sent e-mails and pictures back home, Moseley says.

The signal on ships also is affected by the number of passengers using the Internet. Peak times are sea days and the hours just before and after dinner. The computer room usually is empty at 8 a.m.

If you need help, sometimes your best source is a fellow passenger. Most ships provide occasional technical support in the computer room, but the service and attitude vary in quality and helpfulness. Keep in mind that you must log off the computer when you are finished or your online minutes will continue to accumulate even after you leave the computer.

The trend toward cell phone use aboard ship is continuing, cruise line spokespeople say.

One goal is to improve communications between the cruise line and passengers, Moseley says. A passenger might call Carnival from a cell phone before a cruise, bring the phone onboard to keep track of schedules and shore excursions, receive a reminder from the ship about a spa appointment, and get a call at home after the cruise for feedback - and perhaps to book another cruise.