Most cruise lines now offer some form of WiFi service on their ships. There are a couple of problems, however. Since the cruise ship uses a satellite connection for Internet service, it can be extremely slow and reliability is scant at best. The next problem is the cost. Depending on the cruise line, you could easily spend $250 or more for unlimited Internet access during a 7-night cruise. On river cruises in Europe, WiFi is typically free, but speeds are usually very slow and when the boat goes under bridges or is in a lock, connections are frequently dropped.
On a recent three-week assignment in Europe with two different river cruise companies, we tested the Skyroam™ portable WiFi hotspot device. I wanted to compare the speed and reliability of Skyroam™ to what is offered by the cruise lines.
UPDATE DECEMBER 2016! We just completed an additional test of Skyroam in the Caribbean and are pleased to announce that the system works throughout most of the Caribbean islands. Read more below.
How It Works
Skyroam connects to cell phone towers then creates a local WiFi hotspot that you can connect to with your computer, tablet or other WiFi-enabled device. Up to five devices can connect simultaneously to the Skyroam hotspot. Skyroam charges for "daypasses" which give users unlimited data for 24 hours. You can purchase as many of these daypasses as you need. Once you activate a daypass, it will be available for 24 hours from the time it was activated. There is no way to pause a daypass. At the time of this article, the cost for a Skyroam daypass was about $8. Note: That is a fraction of what a cruise line would charge for unlimited data for 24 hours.
As for the unit itself, you can purchase the Skyroam for $99 (check their website for current pricing) or, you can rent a Skyroam for $9.95 per day, which includes the cost of the unit and the daypasses. So, if you are taking a seven-night river cruise, you could rent the Skyroam for about $70 for the entire week.
The Skyroam unit is about the size of a pack of cigarettes. It can easily fit in your shirt pocket. It comes in a very nice travel case with a USB cable (for charging) and a removable battery. There is a user guide included that is very well written and easy to follow.
After installing the battery, you "boot up" the SkyRoam by pressing a small button on the side for three seconds. Skyroam claims the battery life is eight hours, and during my time with the unit, that seems about right. The screen will illuminate and you will see the Skyroam logo and a few other messages while the unit loads its software and attempts to gain a connection. The Skyroam basically works like a cell phone in that it uses cell technology to access the Internet.The unit has a crude on-screen menu system where you can find the WiFi password which you will need to connect to the Skyroam hotspot. Next, you select 'Skyroam_fxs' in your computer, tablet or cell phone WiFi setup and enter the password. That's all there is to it.
Choosing the Skyroam hotspot
Like a cell phone, the screen on the Skyroam will display bars to indicate the strength of the signal it has obtained with the closest cell tower. It also shows whether you are connected at 3G, 2G, or H+. Next to the WiFi signal strength icon, you can see how many devices are currently connected to the Skyroam hotspot. Once you are connected to the hotspot, you can activate a daypass to begin using the Internet.
Activating a daypass on Skyroam
As mentioned previously, once you activate service, your daypass account balance will be reduced by one. You can connect to the Skyroam web portal using a web browser to check your daypass balance, or purchase additional daypasses. I was unable to get logged into the web portal to check my balance, but that could be because we were using a loaner unit for testing purposes. I did notice that occasionally the website would jump into Chinese characters, which was a little strange.
We were testing the Skyroam under extreme conditions. We were on a river cruise, sailing up and down the Rhine River in Germany, Switzerland, and the Netherlands. The continual changing location of the boat along the river would cause the Skyroam to lose the cell connection from time to time, just as you would experience with a cell phone. There were times when I could not get a connection with Skyroam, but was able to connect using the ship's satellite WiFi system. However, the opposite was also true. There were many more times when I could not connect using the ship's WiFi, but could connect using Skyroam. And then there were times when I could not connect with either system. On my first attempt to use Skyroam, I was in our stateroom and was unable to get a reliable connection. We were docked with another river boat parked right next to us. The "2G" would display occasionally, then disappear. I thought perhaps the boat parked next to us might be blocking the signal, so I placed the Skyroam outside on our balcony, and it immediately obtained a 3G connection.
Placing Skyroam on our balcony resulted in a better connection
When the Skyroam was indicating a 3G or H+ connection, the speed and performance blew the doors off of the ship's satellite WiFi. In fact, there were times with Skyroam where I felt like I was at home using my high-speed fiber optic Internet connection. Yeah, it's that good. I was even able to video chat using FaceTime (Mac) with my brother in Texas and there was no video delay or lag. You could never do that with a cruise ship's satellite WiFi.
Skyroam displays connection, WiFi signal, and battery life
Skyroam (or any portable WiFi) is not the panacea I had hoped for when it comes to river cruise Internet access. However, it was so far superior to the ship's Internet service when it did connect that, in my opinion, it is well worth the cost. And, if you are traveling to Europe, Asia or the Middle East (see their website for worldwide coverage) on land, where cell towers are readily available, Skyroam is definitely the way to go. I would even like to have the Skyroam with me on my motorcycle road trips in the USA.
Caribbean Service NEW
Skyroam recently began offering service in the Caribbean, so we decided to do some more testing on our 9-day Windstar Star Pride cruise. With the exception of Bonaire and Grenada, we were able to get connections on every island we visited, and the connections were good to excellent in most cases. Remember, we are connecting from inside the ship, and in some cases, the ship was anchored off the coast of the island! Or results were similar to what we experience in our Europe tests. When the connection is good, Skyroam is much, much faster than the cruise ship Internet. Even with a moderate connection, the speed is comparable to what the ship offers. But, there were times when we could not get connected through the ship's WiFi, but Skyroam came through!
The Skyroam's only limitations I could detect were with cell phone tower availability. While this is a problem when on a moving cruise ship, it would not be an issue when stationary in most populated areas of the world today. And, of course, this would not be an issue on a cruise ship docked in a major port with cell access. With 3G and H+ connections, the Skyroam delivers excellent speed and performance, even allowing YouTube video downloads or FaceTime video chat sessions. The performance is impressive. The Skyroam is cost-effective for world travelers and I can highly recommend it. The Skyroam is one of the best travel "gadgets" I have tested in quite some time.
For more information, check their website at Skyroam.com