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Huge Royal Caribbean Move Puts Carnival, Norwegian on Notice

The cruise line has a solution for a major passenger pain point and its biggest rivals have to follow.
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Being on vacation used to mean disconnecting from the world. Back in the 1980s into the 90s, that happened because travelers had very limited options when it came to keeping in touch. Domestic phone calls came with a hefty fee and international calling was even more price prohibitive.

In those days, texting wasn't a thing, social media hadn't been created yet, and the idea of taking a photo on your cellphone -- if you even had one of those -- didn't really exist yet. Now, however, expectations have changed. Everyone has a smartphone and, at least in the United States, connectivity issues are relatively rare, and many phone plans work around the world (albeit with an extra charge).

Some people, of course, may still choose to disconnect while on vacation, but many want to take pictures, share them on social media, or via text, while also keeping in touch with people back home. And, in this new "work anywhere" environment many people find themselves in, some of us mix vacation and travel -- something which requires decent internet connectivity.

That has created a conundrum for people who cruise. Internet service on Royal Caribbean International (RCL) - Get Free Report, Carnival Cruise Line (CCL) - Get Free Report, and Norwegian Cruise Line (NCLH) - Get Free Report range from passable to completely unusable. It's a frustrating situation because some passengers simply like having connectivity while others actually need it for work, parenting, or other reasons.

With its deal to put Elon Musk's Starlink on all Royal Caribbean International, Celebrity Cruises, and Silversea Cruises ships, the cruise line has set a new standard Norwegian and Carnival must find a way to follow.

Royal Caribbean Lead JS

Royal Caribbean Makes Connectivity Table Stakes

On the three major cruise lines, passengers generally pay for internet connectivity unless there's a promotion or loyalty program benefit where they get it for free. When you pay for something that creates an expectation that it will work, which is often not the case.

Royal Caribbean describes its internet as follows:

Royal Caribbean VOOM, the fastest internet at sea, is now available on every Royal Caribbean ship. With six times faster onboard WiFi speed than you’ll find on any other cruise ships in the world, the internet connectivity is unlike anything you’re ever experienced on a cruise ship.

Carnival bills its Premium internet offering in a similar way:

From e-mail to video calls, our Premium plan promises the fastest possible connection, at speeds up to 3 times faster than our Value Plan. Supports Skype, Zoom and Teams video calling, where coverage allows.

The reality is that those things may all be possible, but they're not the norm. Ship internet -- and I've sailed Royal Caribbean much more than Carnival, but have been on both -- varies even on sailings where it's strong. It's impacted by the weather, the location of the ship, and how many passengers are using it.

It's possible to work on a cruise ship -- the newest Royal Caribbean ships offer the best experience -- but it's a frustrating process. And, while working on a ship may be not all that common, people wanting to use the internet that they paid for for everything from keeping in touch to social media, and streaming video is.

Royal Caribbean tested Starlink on Freedom of the Seas, which sails 3 and 4-day itineraries out of Miami. The cruise line did not share specifics as to how the test went, but social media and other anecdotal reports, some of which included speed test screenshots, suggest it will be a dramatic improvement.

Royal Caribbean CEO Jason Liberty certainly set a high bar in his comments on the deal with the Elon Musk-led company

“This technology will provide game-changing internet connectivity onboard our ships, enhancing the cruise experience for guests and crew alike. It will improve and enable more high-bandwidth activities like video streaming as well as activities like video calls," he said.

It's hard to see how Carnival -- which has been working on addressing its internet shortcomings -- and Norwegian won't lose bookings if they don't follow Royal Caribbean's lead here. That could mean making their own Starlink deal (if the Royal Caribbean agreement does not include some form of exclusivity) or finding another option.

Travelers expect reliable internet and put up with cruise lines not offering it when it seemed like it wasn't a service they could reliably provide. Once Royal Caribbean establishes that decent, maybe even good internet can be delivered at sea, it sets a new standard and Carnival and Norwegian will have to try to follow.