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Getting away from it all is so 20th century.

It was only ten years ago that your best bet for getting a message home from a cruise ship was to use your cabin's satellite phone -- at a rate of $8 to $15 per minute. Then, cruise lines began installing internet centers, and the cost went down to between 50 cents and $1 per minute -- still not cheap, but it made keeping in touch just a little easier. Then they started installing internet dataports in some of their cabins, and later Wi-Fi hotspots all around the ship. Then came the apocalypse: that day in late 2003 when Costa Cruises announced it would introduce cell phone service aboard its new Costa Fortuna.

That ringing you hear? It tolls for thee, and there's no getting away.

Today, nearly every line has made it possible to have your vacation and your elevated stress levels too, wiring up their ships so you can bring your cell phones, PDAs, and laptops down to the pool deck with you. You can check your office messages and junior can keep text- and photo-messaging with his friends, just as if you'd never left home. That raises the question of why you need to go on a cruise at all if you're going to do that, but we'll leave that to the psychologists.

Cellular Service

The majority of cell-enabled lines -- Carnival, Celebrity, Holland America, NCL, Regent Seven Seas, and Royal Caribbean -- are hooked up through Wireless Maritime Services, a joint venture of AT&T Wireless and Maritime Telecommunications Network (MTN). Crystal, Oceania, and Silversea Cruises all use a system developed by SeaMobile, MTN's new parent company. Costa is hooked up through Italy's Telecom Italia Group (TIM), while MSC Cruises is wired through French company Geolink.

All work with phones operating on the GSM standard, which is widely used in the USA as well as in all European nations and most Asian and African nations. Wireless Maritime and SeaMobile's services also handle the less common CDMA standard. Calls are routed though antennae spaced around the ship, relayed though a base station that beams them to a satellite, them beamed back to your cellular network on land.

The service is turned on once a ship sails beyond the range of shoreside towers, typically at about 12 miles. For that reason, NCL's three Hawaii-based ships didn't have to be wired at all, since they never pass beyond the range of land-based antennae.

Calls are billed through your regular carrier according to its usual roaming rates, which can vary depending on your provider and sometimes on where in the world you're calling from. Rates typically range between $2 and $3 per minute, with some going as high as $5. Text messages from cell phones and e-mails sent from PDAs are more affordable, sometimes costing only a few cents -- making them a great idea for couples and families trying to find each other aboard very large megaships.

Holdouts against the cell-phone tide include Cunard, Disney, Princess, Seabourn, and most of the specialized small-ship lines. Windstar, which operates three romantic, partially sail-powered ships, is planning to install service on its largest, the 308-passenger Wind Surf when she goes into dry dock later this year.

Wi-Fi

The other major technology that's made a major dent in travelers' peace and quiet lately is wireless internet (Wi-Fi) access, through which laptop users can connect to the web while sitting anywhere within designated onboard hotspots, usually in the atrium and various lounges, and sometimes on the pool deck and in suites and/or staterooms.

At this point, virtually every large and midsize ship at sea either has hotspots or will be wired before the end of the year, including all the Carnival, Celebrity, Crystal, Disney, HAL, NCL, Oceania, Princess, Regent, Royal Caribbean, Seabourn, Silversea, and Windstar ships, plus Cunard's QM2 and MSC's Opera and Lirica (and soon its other vessels).

Carnival's huge, 2,974-passenger Liberty and Valor and Royal Caribbean's 3,634-passenger Freedom of the Seas go them all one better, offering wireless access virtually everywhere onboard. Ditto for luxe line Seabourn's much smaller, 208-passenger megayachts.

Exploratory, learning-oriented Lindblad Expeditions stands out as the only one of the small niche lines offering Wi-Fi, with service available aboard the 110-passenger National Geographic Endeavour and the 70-passenger twins Sea Bird and Sea Lion. The rest of the line's fleet is due to be wired by fall 2006.

Guests are charged by the minute or can purchase various bulk-minute plans, as in the ships' internet centers. Most ships have a small supply of laptops available for rent, if you haven't brought your own.

Telecommunications Breakdown

Line Cellular Service Wi-Fi Access
Carnival Currently on Carnival Triumph only; going fleetwide by early 2007 Currently on majority of fleet, and going fleetwide by late 2006; Carnival Valor and Carnival Liberty offer 100% bow-to-stern wireless access
Celebrity Currently on Summit only; going fleetwide at the rate of one ship per month, beginning Aug 1 Yes, fleetwide; aboard Century, Wi-Fi is available in the staterooms as well
Costa Yes, fleetwide None
Crystal Crystal Serenity and Crystal Symphony are scheduled to be wired up later this year Crystal Serenity and Crystal Symphony will be hooked up later this year, with service available virtually everywhere on both ships
Cunard None Yes (Queen Mary 2 only)
Disney None Yes, fleetwide
HAL Currently aboard Volendam only; plans call for fleetwide deployment, but no timetable is yet available Yes, fleetwide
Lindblad None Yes, aboard National Geographic Endeavour, Sea Bird, and Sea Lion only; other ships scheduled to be wired fall 2006
MSC Yes, aboard Musica, Opera, and Lirica only Yes, aboard Opera and Lirica; service being phased in on the line's other ships
NCL Yes, fleetwide Yes, fleetwide
Oceania Yes, aboard Insignia only; Regatta and Nautica will be cell-enabled at the start of their winter season deployments Yes, fleetwide
Princess None Yes, fleetwide
Regent Yes, fleetwide except aboard Paul Gauguin in French Polynesia Yes, fleetwide
Royal Caribbean Yes, aboard Voyager, Explorer, Mariner, Adventure, Sovereign, Brilliance, Splendour, Navigator, Majesty, and Freedom Yes, fleetwide; Freedom has Wi-Fi service throughout the ship, including the staterooms
Seabourn None Yes, including all suites and virtually all public areas
SeaDream None currently; may be installed in late 2006 None
Silversea Yes, aboard Silver Shadow and Silver Whisper; service will be expanded to Silver Cloud and Silver Wind in the coming months Yes, fleetwide
Windstar Will be installed aboard Wind Surf only during her fall dry-dock Yes, fleetwide

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