Be prepared to make your own fun. There are no programmed activities, aside from the odd safety drill.
Go before you're too old. An upper age limit of 70-80 years is common as there is no doctor on board and plenty of stairs.
Check that your travel insurance covers freighter travel.
Be flexible. Schedules can and do change frequently. You may need 2-3 ships to reach your destination.
Book in advance. Cabins are limited and the most popular routes can be sold out months ahead of time.
Forget about working in exchange for your passage. Modern union rules mean this is no longer permitted.
Take a good supply of seasickness pills. While not very common, rough weather can occur, sending tables, chairs, and your stomach flying across the room.
Imagine for a moment that you are on the deck of a ship, sipping a glass of wine. You turn your head towards the water just in time to spot a pod of dolphins swimming by. After lingering in the sunshine for a while, it's time to head inside for a 3-course evening meal and a splash in the pool before retiring to bed.
Now, what kind of vessel are you on?
No, you are not on a standard commercial cruise ship. This is no luxury liner hopping between Caribbean islands. It is a modern freighter. Hundreds of cargo ships, carrying everything from fire engines to apples, are crossing the world's oceans and many are happy to take you along for the ride.
A far more intimate and relaxed experience than you might imagine, the experience on board is a sharp contrast to the rough and industrial outward appearance a container ship tends to project. You will be one of a handful of passengers amongst a crew that is unlikely to number more than a few dozen. There will be no organized games of bingo or evening cabaret show. You might, however, be invited to karaoke with the sailors and you will almost always dine alongside the captain, who is far more likely to turn up in shorts and a t-shirt than full uniform.
Our introduction to freighter travel was a relatively short 5-day sailing between Australia and New Zealand. We joined the French ship CMA-CGM Utrillo in the busy port of Melbourne, where our mounds of luggage including two bicycles and 11 bags were quickly hauled on board and into a spacious cabin by a host of cheery Filipino deckhands.
The Costs of Cargo Ship Travel
Here was our first taste of the wonders of sea travel — plenty of luggage allowance. Not an eye was blinked at our 100kg (220lbs) of possessions. We were entitled to bring double that. In this case, we felt the €500 (~US$550) per person cost for our trip was worth it as the excess luggage fees on the equivalent short flight would have been considerable, not to mention the stress of showing up at the airport to a bill of unknown proportions. About €100 (~US$110) per day is the average fare to budget for a freighter trip, with €80 (~US$90) the minimum and certain coastal trips on the higher range.
Hospitality on Board
Our next surprise was how quickly we felt part of the family. Just moments after arriving, our fellow passenger (a French woman literally going “around the world in 80 days”) hinted that the captain was certain to throw us a welcome barbecue. “He does that for everyone new,” she said with a wink. Sure enough, the next evening was spent on the back deck of the ship, feasting on grilled fish and chatting with the seamen as the sun went down.
One of our concerns before sailing was that we'd find the days long. It was just the opposite. There were three square meals a day (hearty plates of meat and vegetables for working men) and the time between eating was filled with strolls round the deck and trips up to the bridge to check our position and ask questions.
Had there ever been stowaways? Yes, once, a man from Iraq. What about pirates? Not here but there were off the coast of Africa. And just how much fuel did a cargo ship need? Apparently $60,000 U.S. a day will cover it, in the current era of relatively low oil prices.
A Relaxing Way to Travel
With our curiosity temporarily curbed, we would return to our cabin for reading, journal writing, and maybe a bit of table tennis if we felt especially energetic. Far away from the hustle and bustle of life on firm land, we were truly relaxed. It was a complete contrast to the hurried airplane trips we were used to.
For Hamish Jamieson, the owner of Freighter Travel NZ and one of only a handful of travel agents in the world licensed to book tickets on cargo ships, the simplicity of being at sea is the main attraction.
“When you're sitting up the front of the bow of the ship, on your own, and all you see is the sea going past and you hear the wind and waves, you're in heaven. For me, an afternoon with a thermos of Chardonnay, sitting right on the bow, watching the world go by with my binoculars, that's my heaven,”
Flexibility Required When Traveling by Cargo Ships
Of course nothing in life is all smooth sailing and while we didn't encounter any problems during our trip, we did struggle with the uncertain nature of freighter travel before we boarded. Our initial departure date jumped forward first by three days and then seemed to bounce around by 12-24 hours every time we called to check the latest news. It is not an uncommon experience and one you must be prepared for.
Even ports of call are not guaranteed because on a cargo ship, freight comes first, not the passengers. If the demand is not there for a certain stop, the ship will go where the business is.
“Our trip from the USA to Europe changed three times after initial booking,” say Rebecca Hogue and Scott Drennan, currently on a journey around the world without using airplanes. Their initial trip from South Carolina to Belgium ended up being from Florida to Italy. “Had we not been flexible with our departure times and locations, things would not have worked out.”
As Mr. Jamieson is fond of telling his passengers, when you go to sea, there are two things you must pack: a sense of humor and a sense of patien
Your trip may also involve some red tape, particularly where U.S. stops are concerned. American citizens are not permitted, for example, to travel within their country by cargo ship, although they can make international journeys. Meanwhile, travelers to the United States must have a visa, even if they would not need one to arrive by air. Only Canadians are exempt from this rule.
Bet sure to budget time and money to get vaccinations like Yellow Fever if you are going through the Suez and Panama canals. A medical certificate declaring you to be in generally good health is another common requirement.
Where in the World Do You Want to Go?
But perhaps the hardest part of booking your cargo ship voyage is deciding where to go. Will it be to South America and around Cape Horn? How about a 55-day round trip from California to Australia and New Zealand via Tahiti and Mexico? Mr. Jamieson offers a few more ideas.
“For me the ultimate voyage is the Bank Line voyage from Auckland, in New Zealand, to Singapore. It takes 40-45 days to sail what you can fly in just under 12 hours but it visits nearly every island in the Pacific on the way and it stops for 2-3 days. The second choice for me would be from Singapore through to Houston in Texas. It goes up through Thailand, Vietnam, half a dozen ports in China, into Japan, then straight across the Pacific and through the Panama Canal.”
With enough time and money at your disposal, there are few places in the world a cargo ship can't reach. You just need to be adventurous enough to get on board.