You’ve researched the perfect river cruise and, while leafing through the brochure, you discover your ship has free Wi-Fi internet access. What could be better? Now you can keep in touch with the kids back home, check your emails, maybe even participate in that conference call the boss was bugging you about – all while on your river cruise.
There’s just one problem: internet connectivity on the rivers of the world is very hit and miss. While oceangoing cruise ships continue to improve their onboard connections in terms of both speed and reliability, connecting to the internet on a river cruise ship can be an exercise in futility.
There are many reasons for this. River cruise ships are a moving target, connecting to the internet largely through the same cellular signal you’d get on your phone. Environmental conditions can knock it out. Your personal computer firewall settings can prevent a connection from being made. In short: it’s free – but it’s finicky.
While we’d recommend you just don’t use the internet at all on your voyage if you can avoid it, here’s a few things that we’ve come to learn – usually the hard way – on our river cruises around the world.
The sooner you accept that the internet on river cruise ships is lethargic at best, the happier you’ll be. It’s not stuck in the stone-ages of the old 28.8 modem, but expect graphics-heavy websites to crawl onto your screen.
For most of us, a quick look at our webmail account and a peek into Facebook or Twitter aren’t impossible. You can even upload the odd photo or two, teasing your friends virtually with images of cocktail parties and medieval castles. But, just when your connection seems great, it can go out – for almost any reason at all.
Bridges, Locks, Stiff Breezes Will Knock It Out
Press cruises are quite interesting, because journalists have deadlines around the clock. That means a lot of writers sitting in the Lounge with their laptops open – and nothing strikes fear into the hearts of telecommuting journalists like the approach into a lock.
You see, once you’re in the lock, your internet signal disappears. Unable to clear the steep lock walls, it cannot make a connection with the outside world. That email you were just about to press send on? It’s going to have to wait until your ship emerges from the lock.
Bridges can mess with connectivity as well, and in our personal experience we’ve found that sailing the Rhine can be very finicky when it comes to internet connections. Since it borders both France and Germany for much of its length, your cell phone – and the ship’s internet signal – seems to be on the verge of constantly reassessing which country it wants to favor. On one Rhine river cruise, my iPhone sent me 22 messages, each saying “Welcome to France” or “Welcome to Germany” as the phone struggled to maintain a solid connection.
Some Areas Are Better Than Others
Dead zones – or areas where the internet just plain old doesn’t work – are common. Typically, the closer you are to a city or town, the better your shipboard internet will function.
Interestingly, the one area we expected it to not work at all – Myanmar – was the best.Viking River Cruises had dramatically upgraded its internet capabilities aboard Viking Mandalay, and we were even able to use FaceTime to get in touch with loved ones. On most Danube river cruises, that’s almost a fantasy.
Some Times Are Better Than Others
If you’re really keen to post photos to Facebook or respond to emails, connectivity – barring bridges, locks or stiff breezes – seems to work best during the early morning hours, or late at night. The reason: most of your fellow guests will be asleep and, naturally, not using the ship’s bandwidth to get online.
Of course, the most important consideration with shipboard Wi-Fi on the rivers of the world is to understand that this is relatively new technology, and that installing a bevy of radar domes like the ones you see aboard oceangoing cruise ships simply isn’t an option on size-sensitive river cruise ships.
But, some good news, at least for European river cruisers: if your internet onboard doesn’t work well enough for you, nearly every café, Starbucks, McDonalds and hotel lobby in Europe offers complimentary Wi-Fi that you can use to get in touch with the outside world.
Our ultimate recommendation, though? If we didn’t need the shipboard internet to do our jobs; we’d never touch it. After all, you’re river cruising through some of the world’s most amazing places; take them in. Enjoy. And go online when you’re home.
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