SHIP OF TOMORROW: high tech on the high seas

MSC Seaside is a techie’s dream boat

Copyright 2018 by Debra Littlejohn Shinder

For a long time, cruising was an activity that remained firmly rooted in the past. It was only about three years ago thatImage result for cruise ship 1920s discussion of cruise ship Internet connectivity on popular Facebook cruise fan forums was dominated by a majority who firmly felt it was not only unnecessary but somehow offensive. As a techie by both vocation and avocation, I engaged in countless arguments with those who proclaimed that “when you’re on vacation, you should leave the computers and phones turned off.” 

Of course, they failed to understand that many of us didn’t have that luxury even if we wanted to. As a small business owner and technology security writer whose publishers expect me to address breaking news about new cyber threats on a rush basis, I can’t be out of touch with the world for a week.

Image result for internet addictionAs the “mom” of a menagerie of dogs, turtles, and fish, I have to be available for whomever is house- and pet-sitting while I’m gone. As a happily married woman who often cruises solo because my husband isn’t as into it as I am, I don’t want to be cut off from him for the duration. As an avid blogger and member of a myriad of social media travel groups, I don’t want to make my friends and fans wait until I’m home to see all the fun I’m having; many people (including aforementioned husband) like to live vicariously through the posts I make and enjoy the “food porn” and other pictures in real time.

I know other people who have even better reasons to stay in contact with the outside world. For example, I have friends imagewhose elderly parents are in precarious health, and they would never want to be unreachable if something happened. Bottom line: each of us has our own unique situation, needs, preferences, and personality. What works best for one is not necessarily what works for another.  Maybe you can’t relax unless you’re cut off completely from “real life” back home – but I can’t relax if I’m worrying and wondering where things are okay back there.

I remember how, a few years ago, when Carnival rolled out their new, faster, unlimited Internet technology, their Facebook page was full of comments from people who said “who needs Internet on a ship?” and “everybody should just unplug.” I felt like a lone voice in the wilderness, wanting/needing good connectivity at sea. Several weeks ago, when their brand ambassador announced upgrades to the Internet services on their ships, the “That’s wonderful” and “I need good Internet to be able to cruise” comments were the vast majority. Times do change.

It’s because cruise ships now offer decent connectivity that I – and many others – are able to cruise at all. Cruise lines have recognized that this is something that’s important both to their up-and-coming market (the young “digital natives” who grew up with and expect to have access to the online world whenever they want it) and to many “old folks” like me who are dependent on it for work and personal use. Thus Royal Caribbean boasts about their high-speed VOOM service. Crystal Cruises invested a lot of money in improvements to their on board connectivity. As mentioned above, Carnival is upgrading their tech again.

Image result for internet addiction

But a good, reliable, reasonably fast connection for passengers is only the first step in bringing high tech to the high seas. MSC – like some of the other cruise lines – realizes that and, with Seaside, is laying the foundation for a much more technology-enhanced cruising experience.

NOTE: Just as some people love and others hate MSC’s more European on-board ambiance, some will love and some will hate Seaside’s incorporation of today’s technology into passengers’ lives. It’s another case of “different strokes for different folks,” and another way in which the cruise lines give us all options so that we can each cruise the way we want to.

MSC for Me: there’s an app for that

Cruisers’ exposure to MSC’s on-board technology can begin even before they set foot onto the ship. The MSC for Me app, in both iOS and Android versions, can be downloaded and installed on your smart phone and set up with your profile. Its front page (home) serves as a countdown to your cruise, and it includes information about check-in (travel docs, luggage, payment methods, and the embarkation process); things to do on the ship (waterslides and similar features, bars and lounges, casino, entertainment options, pools, restaurants, shops, and more); general cruise info (procedures, FAQ, emergency contact info); and specifics about your particular sailing in your Profile (document numbers, loyalty status, itinerary, and booking details). It also supports web check-in.

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Once you’re on board and connected to the ship’s local network over wi-fi (you do not need an Internet package for this), the app takes on much more functionality.  It provides you with a daily agenda, allows you to make reservations for the shows and specialty restaurants, and helps you navigate through the ship. Parents can pay extra to have the app track their children’s location (via the wristbands that are free to kids) so you know where they are at all times. You can buy shore excursions and also check your purchases and account balance.

imageGiven the proliferation of smart phones and tablets today, it’s not surprising that cruise lines are tapping into that with apps of their own. In the past, these were pretty limited. For example, the Carnival app provides no info whatsoever prior to the cruise, except for a countdown to your cruise date. On board, it does give you an electronic version of the Fun Times daily schedule, account balance, ship maps, and food and drink info.  And Carnival’s app has one feature that MSC’s lacks: a local network chat feature for keeping in touch with others on the ship (there’s an extra charge).

All in all, I think the MSC app gives you a lot more than Carnival’s, but the chat capability is a killer feature that they really need to add in order to claim the title of “high tech cruise line.” This is especially true since many of their new U.S. clientele are coming from Carnival and are used to having that.

Kiosks, kiosks, everywhere

But what, you might ask, if you don’t have a smart phone?  After all, there are still such “dinosaurs” in the world and many of them cruise. There are also people who, as discussed above, just prefer to leave their phones in the cabin safe and stay “unplugged” for all or most of the cruise. MSC hasn’t forgotten them. image

There are big screen kiosks all over the ship, running a version of the application that you can sign onto and do most of the same things you would do on the phone app. These interactive displays are big touchscreens that are easy for even the fattest fingers to use. So if  you’re out and about on the ship and didn’t bring your phone along, and have a sudden urge to reserve a seat at that evening’s show or find out how much you’ve spent on drinks and gelato (if you don’t have an all-inclusive package), just log onto one of the many kiosks located on the public decks.

NOTE: Don’t confuse these kiosks with a different kind of kiosk that you’ll see here and there around the ship. These little machines are used to link your cruise card to a credit card. Instead of the staff at the cruise terminal doing this when you check in, you do it yourself on board. You have 48 hours after boarding to do it, and it’s a simple process. If you prefer to put up a cash deposit instead of using a credit card, you’ll need to go to the Guest Services desk or, if you’re in the Yacht Club, the concierge.

Meanwhile, back in  your high-tech cabin

Another option for those who don’t have or don’t want to use the app on their phones is to use the cabin TVs. The MSC for Me app is also installed there. From the “home page” when you turn on the TV, you have the choice to watch live TV, watch video on demand (for which there is an extra charge), or to open the app and do the same things that you can do on your phone or at a kiosk.

seaside cabin tv (2)

For example, to make reservations for a show, select “Entertainment” in the left pane and then pick “Theatre Shows.” The app already knows who you are and your logon credentials are linked to your cabin, so you don’t have to worry about entering them. Select the show you want to reserve. You’ll be shown the location, a description, and the date and available times. The app also shows  you how many seats are still empty.

Select the time you want to go and a seat will be reserved for you. It’s that easy.  Now when you show up at the theater, the staff member at the door will scan your card or wristband with a tablet. It will show your reservation and you’ll seaside cabin tv (1)be allowed inside. If you don’t show up at least five minutes before show time (ten is safer), your seat may be given away since they open it up to people without reservations if the theater isn’t full at that time.

In addition to booking shows, you can check the app for information about the cruise and itinerary, check your billing charges, on a daily basis, see the daily program, highlighted activities and daily specials, get the weather forecast, see your agenda of selected activities,

 seaside cabin tv (5) seaside cabin tv (9) seaside cabin tv (8)

With a flick of the wrist

If you’ve booked an Aurea or Yacht Club cabin, you’ll automatically get a wristband that substitutes for the key card in most (but not all) situations. If not, you can buy one for $5.  seaside wristband (1)

The wristband is good for a few reasons:

  1. It’s easier to keep up with and use than the card, as you don’t have to worry about where to carry it, or dig it out of your pocket or purse when you need it, and you’re less likely to lose it.
  2. Because it’s always right there on your wrist, scanning it is faster than waiting for you to produce the card, which speeds up lines and transactions.
  3. There is no printed personal information on it; the data is all embedded in the chip, so you don’t have to worry about someone getting a look at your card and seeing your name or ID number, or knowing your loyalty level or which deck your cabin is on – all things that someone could find out by looking at your card.
  4. You can leave the card in the door slot to keep the power in the cabin activated if you want to charge your phone or otherwise have the electricity on when you leave the cabin to go out and about on the ship.

I found it especially handy to be able to just pay for my specialty restaurant tab, or get into a reserved show, or open my cabin door with a simple flick of the wrist. In fact, I used the wristband for everything – I never used the card at all on board the ship. It is very important to note, though, that there is one situation in which the wristband does not substitute for the card, and that’s when you leave the ship. You need the card to get back on board. So on port days, you can wear the wristband if you want but remember it won’t suffice to get you back through security, so take your card (and your government photo ID), too.

Communicating from the cabin

As mentioned above, one way in which the MSC for Me app is lacking is in the capability for person-to-person communications with fellow passengers. This was traditionally an issue on cruise ships; when you’re traveling with friends, you need a way to contact one another to make plans to meet up for dining, shows, etc.  Because I often sail solo, I get to know other people on the cruise through Facebook groups, and by the time I sail, I often have a number of “friends I haven’t met yet” with whom I want to get together on board. The groups also plan events such as meet & greets, cabin crawls, and slot pulls, and if times or venues need imageto be adjusted after embarkation, need a way to communicate that to everyone.

Of course, the cabins all have phones – fairly sophisticated ones – and you can call and leave messages if your friends are out and about on the ship. However, often you want to get in touch immediately, to make plans or let someone know where you’re going to be, and often you want to get in touch when you are away from your cabin.

In that case, your best solution is for both parties to have Internet packages and carry their smart phones or tablets with them. Then you can contact others on board via email, Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, Skype, or other standard applications. An Internet package also enables you to post to Facebook groups and reach large numbers of people simultaneously.

Unfortunately, this incurs extra cost. At the time of this writing, a 6GB 4 device premium connection on Seaside costs $127 and a 3GB 2 device standard package costs $79 (price for the duration of the cruise). While some folks (I’m one) are already going to buy an Internet package anyway – I need it for keeping in touch with work and with the people back home – others don’t want to spend money to get connected. To some, totally unplugging from the Internet is part of what they enjoy about vacation.

There aimagere other solutions. Some people bring along small walkie-talkies, but the range for the cheaper ones may not be long enough given the size of the ship, and because ships’ walls are made of metal, the signal may not be strong enough to penetrate to all areas. Of course, there is always the very low-tech method of leaving notes in the cabin mailboxes or sliding them under the door. Image result for writing a note

I envision that someday in the not-too-distant future, such a high percentage of cruisers will use the Internet that cruise lines will provide it as part of the deal, adding their cost to the fare and making at least a standard package “free” to all passengers. Something I could see happening a few years farther out is new ships with touch sc20180607_143338reens at the door of each cabin for leaving messages – and beyond that, perhaps wristbands that communicate with the ship’s internal network in a way such that passengers can send messages to one another over the wearables in the same way I can get my email or texts or Facebook PMs on my Samsung Gear Fit smart watch. In fact, it would be great if I could download a version of the MSC for Me app for the Gear.

In addition to keeping in touch with fellow passengers, we need to be able to communicate with the ship’s crew and staff – especially with those who service our rooms (cabin steward and, in the case of Yacht Club, butler).

Venturing out onto the Internet

MSC offers a choice of Internet plans on Seaside. These offerings have changed in the six months plus since she launched, and could always change again. When I sailed in February 2018, there were three options: a social networks only plan that could be used for only one device, an intermediate plan that included 3 GB of data and allowed 2 devices to use it simultaneously, and a premium plan that provided 6 GB that could be shared by 4 devices. 

The intermediate plan came with my booking promo so that’s what I had. The connectivity worked well for me, with a Galaxy Note 8 phone and a Surface Pro computer. I was online a lot, posting photos and blogging about the cruise, and keeping in touch with family and friends via Facebook and email, as well as writing a couple of articles for work that required web research.

I cruised again on Seaside in September 2018 and some changes had occurred. There were now only two plans available to pre-book online:

  • Standard package: 3 GB of data, 2 devices
  • Premium package: 6 GB of data, 4 devices

The social plan was gone completely, but on board, it was now possible to buy an unlimited data plan. The catch? It could only be used with one device logged on at a time, although you could register multiple devices and switch out (for example, between your phone and laptop).  This time, my husband was with me so as much as we would have liked to have the unlimited data, that one-device limit didn’t work for us.

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NOTE: These prices and specs are only for the Seaside, at the times notes. I have a cruise booked on the Meraviglia in the Baltic in April 2019, and the Internet packages offered online for that cruise are different: $57.50 for 2 GB with 2 devices, or $86.50 for 4 GB with 4 devices.  And of course prices can and do change (go up), so you might want to lock in the price by pre-booking the Internet package.

If you have any plan other than the unlimited, the most important thing to remember is to turn off background apps (on your phone) and unnecessary running services (on your computer) to avoid eating up your data allocation. That includes automatic updates, automatic backups (including the setting to back up your phone photos to OneDrive, Google Cloud, Samsung, or other cloud services), automatic download and playing of videos on social media, etc.  I did this and was surprised at how well the data lasted. A friend didn’t, and used up her entire 3 GB in two days.

I was happy with the reliability and speed of the Internet connection on both Seaside cruises. But please recognize that your bandwidth will be affected by many factors, including:

  • Geographic location (I’ve found connectivity in the eastern Caribbean is often better than in the western islands)
  • Location on the ship (proximity to routers and repeaters; metal walls and equipment in between that can block signal)
  • Weather (clear skies make for more reliable connections)
  • Local network congestion (the number of people on board who are using the ship’s network at the moment)
  • Your device’ hardware and software configuration (its network adapter and wi-fi antenna, the applications you’re running, malware, CPU and memory’s ability to handle the system workload, etc.

Cruise ships use satellite technology to provide Internet connectivity in the middle of the ocean. Satellite connections always (and always will) suffer from latency – the time lag caused by the distance the signal has to travel from earth up to geosynchronous orbit and back down again (over 22,000 miles each way).  This doesn’t matter much for things like email or posting pictures to Facebook but it can cause problems with real time communications such as wi-fi phone calling, video conferencing, and gaming.

Note, too, that none of the Internet packages are really designed for continuous streaming of music or movies/TV.  First, those files are big and will quickly cause you to reach your data limit, and the buffering caused by the connection speed may result in stops and starts.  I’m not sure whether MSC blocks streaming apps; some cruise lines do. The best way to take your media with you is to download it to your device or to an external USB drive and play it directly on your device, using zero megabits of your precious data and doing others on the ship a favor by not hogging the bandwidth.

All in all, the Internet worked well for me on Seaside in February and in September on the eastern Caribbean itineraries, in mostly clear weather. Your mileage, of course, may vary.

About that web site …

It would be remiss of me to write about MSC’s efforts to establish Seaside as a high tech ship of tomorrow without mentioning the elephant in the room: their web site. It’s not that it looks bad. It doesn’t; it has a nice, shiny front end – the problem is that half the time (I’m being generous here) it doesn’t work correctly.

One of the most frequent complaints on the forums is that people are unable to log into the web site, or that their bookings have disappeared (this seems to be especially prevalent if you have more than three cruises booked). Cruises that were there one day don’t show up the next. Enhancements you’ve purchased and pre-paid come and go. Cancelling an excursion for two via the web site gets you back a refund for only one.  The web site is infamous for its ability to frustrate and infuriate.

NOTE: To be fair, MSC isn’t alone in this. I’ve had problems with the web sites of many cruise lines and other travel vendors. Most of them need to hire a good HID/UX designer and get more competent IT people running the back end and/or give them the funding and equipment they need to make it work.

For now, it seems the quirks of the web site are something we just have to accept. One solution is to get a good travel agent and let him/her deal with it (from what I’ve heard, the TA site – although it, too, has its problems – is at least a little better than the public-facing site).  There are some “tricks” that can help you in navigating the site and accessing your bookings. For example, if you log in with your username/email address and password, and your booking isn’t showing up, try going back to the login screen and putting in just your booking number instead.  To do this, leave the log-in credentials field blank and click “I have an existing booking,” which will bring up the booking details screen.

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When you’re struggling with the web site, keep in mind that the many loyal fans of MSC (including me) will tell you that as bad as the pre-cruise experience with MSC can be (and that also includes the “low tech” method of calling the MSC reps, the majority of whom don’t seem to know the company’s own policies and offerings), the on-board experience is the exact opposite. If you’re booked in the Yacht Club, that goes triple.

Think of the booking process as the obstacle course that you have to run in order to get to the prize – and that prize is (or at least has been for me) more than worth it.

Summary

MSC has put a lot of effort into bringing today’s technology to the Seaside and her sister ship, Seaview.  Meraviglia and undoubtedly all MSC ships going forward will incorporate high tech features to enhance the cruise experience and appeal to the new generations of digital natives. If you’re one of those folks who cruises to get away from technology, that doesn’t mean you can’t have a wonderful, relaxing, unplugged voyage on these ships. It just means the tech is there for you to use if you choose to.

About debshinder

Technology analyst and author, specializing in enterprise security. Author of or contributor to over 25 books, including "Scene of the Cybercrime." Fourteen-year Microsoft MVP, married to Microsoft FTE Tom Shinder, and proud mom of two wonderful grown-up human children and three amazing Japanese Chin pups. In my spare time, I love to travel - especially on cruise ships - and write about my grand adventures.
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