Cell Phone Tricks for Cruise Lines

Watch out for this unexpected data charge by cell-phone providers even if you have data-roaming turned off.


It's probably no surprise to you that cruise lines make some money offering you cell-phone service. We have written several articles suggesting you should have a data plan in place when you go on a cruise, or turn off your phone's "data roaming" option so your email will not be downloaded automatically.

This means you can still get phone calls if there is an emergency – but not your email. Use the ship's internet access for that.

But the news to me is how high your cell phone bill can go if you forget to turn off data roaming. I learned this the hard way when I came off a Seabourn Sojourn cruise and found a $470 charge on my bill just for receiving data during the cruise (over $600 in total on the bill). The amount of data they said I received was a mere 22 megabytes, the size of a few digital camera images.

My carrier is Verizon, a company slightly new to international roaming since their network is based on CDMA – a cell phone standard only used in the U.S.

(Technical note: Europe standardized all cell networks on the digital GSM protocol in the 1990s. A European cell will work anywhere from Britain to Bulgaria. But the Telecommunication Act of 1996 allowed U.S. cell companies to choose any protocol they wanted. Verizon used the efficient – but analog – CDMA. This allowed Verizon to grow much faster than other cell companies, but CDMA is not compatible with any network except Verizon's. Only recently did Verizon start making "world phones" that also can access European networks.)

When I saw my bill and called Verizon, they could not tell me what data had been downloaded to my phone. They said FTC privacy law would require me to get a subpoena to find out that information for my own phone – for which I am being billed. I know digital technology, so I was skeptical about that. A lot of what Verizon told me made no sense.

The first Verizon customer service tech told me a data download could have happened if I had Wi-Fi turned on. I told her she was wrong, because no cruise ship has a Wi-Fi network a phone can log into without authentication. Plus, if I was on the ship's Wi-Fi network, I would get the data at no cost.

So I asked to speak with a tech support specialist. He said, "Well, technically a cruise ship is not roaming. We have agreements with them to provide them with service." I said, "I am sorry, but you are just plain wrong. If that was true, I would have been getting email all along, even though I had "data roaming" turned off." I asked to be transferred to his supervisor.

The supervisor reminded me that Verizon does sell packages allowing prepayment for roaming data, starting at $30/month for 50 megabytes. I knew that but had declined because 50 MB is nothing to me. So then I asked how much Verizon charges for data roaming without a pre-paid data package. The answer: $25 per megabyte! Unbelievable!

Here is what I think happened. I received one text message from my sister-in-law that contained a photo of our dogs. I opened it on the day they recorded my first data usage (18 megabytes). Two other times when I supposedly received 4 megabytes in "data," I assume it was for various unsolicited text messages.

This means cell phone companies do not consider texting to be "data." It goes through, even if you have data-roaming turned off – but they CHARGE you for texts as "data." That's double dipping – not ethical.

I said, "You are billing me $470 for data you can't even identify. I will take this to small claims court and say that I obviously had data roaming turned off (I did not get any email during that cruise) and so it was sent to my phone without my permission."

At this point, he made me an offer I could not refuse in the interest of saving time and aggravation. He offered to "backdate a data plan." If I agreed to pay $30 for the basic 50 megabyte data plan for October, he would only charge me $30 instead of the $470 they billed me. I agreed.

So – here is the lesson. Even if you have data roaming turned off, do NOT open any text messages you receive. I honestly don't know if that was the culprit, but it seemed to be. I don't think it is ethical to charge text messages as "data" when a person has "data roaming turned off," but that is what they do.

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