Cruising the South China Sea


A First Visit to Southeast Asia

We spent all of February cruising with Celebrity’s Constellation in the South China Sea on back-to-back itineraries. We visited twelve ports with only one repeat (Ho Chi Min City). If you are going to fly twelve thousand miles you probably should make the most of the trip. We flew into Singapore and with the return for the second cruise and the extra day in port at the end we had five days to explore the city and all we could say was wow! The ship also spent two days in the port for Bangkok and we spent that night in a Bangkok hotel and booked a private tour (more about that at another time ;-).

Beyond the usual reasons for cruising there was an additional advantage on this trip. If you are not into a diet of noodles with dried fish flakes or hot curries, the ship gives you the opportunity to return to a Western style menu. The ship also takes care of visas and immigration ahead of each port.

Besides our time in Singapore our trip included four stops in Vietnam, Hong Kong, two stops in the Philippines which included Manila, two stops in Borneo, Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia, Brunei and two stops in Thailand. We had an opportunity to see a lot as well as try a number of cuisines. Many of the destinations were studies in extreme contrasts but it was also obvious that things are greatly improving economically. It is also interesting to switch from Muslim to Buddhist to Western cultures as we went from one port to the next. On board there were a number of excellent in-depth lectures on the history and culture of the various countries which provided a good perspective on the ways the region developed.

Over the last number of years we have found cruising gives us an opportunity to sample a number of places and than we decide where we want to come back to for extended stays. Southeast Asia is no exception to this and we certainly have a few we will add to our return list.

Phone Service: We were traveling on this trip with an iPhone 5 on Verizon service ($80 for 250 international minutes)and with a Blu 5.5 phone with a prepaid international plan from One Sim Card service. Vietnam and Brunei were not part of the Verizon international service so we switched use to OneSimCard. Phone calls with Verizon worked well everywhere else but there were problems getting text messages out on a few days. The only reliable data that we found on the Verizon service was in Singapore (didn’t attempt in Hong Kong) most other places indicated “Data Service Failed”. The One Sim Card service worked as expected except in Vietnam. There we connected with the recommended service provider (Viettel) but instead of text messages costing the expected 25¢ they were charged at a couple of dollars. One Sim Card did send a text message warning of high costs on this service recommending we switch networks, even though Viettel was their recommended provider.

In the near future look for posts covering each of these countries with pointers on must do things, food, transportation and hotels.



Staying In Touch

Cell Phones & Cruise Ship Communications

If you are a frequent cruiser or are just planning a vacation you need to know your cell phone and internet options and costs. First, using the onboard phone service to place a call home can cost $4 to $6 per minute. Next, as of 2015 there is only one U.S. cellular provider that offers an onboard cruise calling package, while before that there were several. That provider is AT&T and the current situation is the result of AT&T being the owner of Cellular At Sea, the major cell service provider to the cruise industry.

Short of being an AT&T customer and buying the AT&T cruise package (currently $30 for 50 minutes as of Feb 2017) your only option for cellular calling on a cruise ship at sea is to pay a couple of dollars per minute on average. That doesn’t mean that you are completely without options but it has certainly increased costs recently.

You also need to be aware that the at-sea service on a cruise ship switches on and off as the ship gets to within range of a shore based service. This can work to your advantage at times but can also cost you if your are not paying attention.

Generally text messaging is a relatively low cost option. Depending on your service (check with your provider) received messages will cost between 5¢ and 25¢ each with outgoing texts costing 25¢ to 50¢ each. We use texting mostly at sea now and have family and friends notify us by text if they have sent e-mails so we can recover them on a timely basis. In my case even my OneSimCard service, while it cannot send and receive calls while at sea will send and receive text messages (no large MMS though).

There are basically two options for staying in touch with home while cruising. First is to wait until you are in a port and use international roaming if outside of the U.S. or Canada (see our article on International Cell Service) or call home directly if in the U.S. (Alaska & Hawaii) Canada (many plans include Canada & Mexico, Puerto Rico or U.S. Virgin Islands as well). Be careful of Caribbean island services as they can be pretty expensive though. The second is to use internet on the ship for Skype or other VOIP service. There are a number of smart phone apps that allow you to make calls using wifi like MagicApp which is available if you are a Magic Jack customer and additionally there are wifi calling apps from One Sim Card and other service providers. It should also be noted that many cruise ships will provide free phone service for family emergencies.

FYI, Verizon has a program called TravelPass that works in about 65 countries. It must be activated and when you use your phone overseas you get 24 hours of service for $10 and you use the service allowance on your account as if you were in the U.S. with no additional costs.  Before you use check that the country you are in is on the list. Be careful how you use it, as a single text message can activate the 24 hours and if you don’t do anything else that text will have cost you $10. You can also call Verizon internationally to switch this off and on though. Verizon also offers a package of international minutes ($40 for 100 minutes or $80 for 250 for 30 days) that work in a larger number of countries. It did work originally on cruise ships but that stopped a year or two ago.

Internet service on cruise ships has generally improved a lot over the past few years but that has come at a cost. Probably to offset their increased costs there has been a number of new internet packages popping up that require buying bigger segments of time with increased costs. If the internet and staying in touch is really important to you, one recommendation is to check with your cruise line before the cruise to see if there are discounts for buying before boarding the ship (Royal Caribbean is one doing this). Additionally most cruise lines offer service that can be either purchased for a number of minutes or a day at a time.