Tips for Cruising on a Cargo Ship

  • 01 of 08

    Introducing the Freighter Cruise

    Container Ship Aerial Photo
    ••• Dan Barnes/Vetta/Getty Images

    Cruising on a cargo ship might seem unusual if not absurd. But travelers do tag along for the ride on working vessels that frequently are transporting cargo and stopping at sometimes mundane ports.

    Mundane might not sell cruises, but that word also could suggest an absence of gaudy tourism. Exotic, unspoiled attractions sometimes exist a short distance from an ordinary port city, and freighter cruise passengers generally have more time at a port for exploration.

    So for the more adventuresome travelers among us, freighter cruises provide opportunities the vast majority of cruise passengers never experience. Are freighter cruises cheap? Price tags can be weighty, but the daily costs often work out to be quite reasonable.

     

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  • 02 of 08

    Freighter Cruise: Europe, Africa and Middle East

    Venice is one of Europe's most famous ports.
    ••• (c)Mark D. Kahler

    The Grimaldi Line offers itineraries as short as 14 days from Southampton, U.K., but a more typical trip is of the 28- or 35-day variety. These trips can be booked through Maris Freighter Cruises starting at just more than €1,000 for the shortest trip and up to €3,600 or more for double-occupancy on the longest itinerary. The ports-of-call on these voyages are attractive. They include stops in Italy, Greece, Israel, and Turkey, as well as Dublin and Antwerp. 

    The Royal Mail Ship RMS St. Helena makes frequent runs between Cape Town, South Africa and the Canary Islands. 

    The Bergen Line has grown into a passenger/cargo combination line. The ships delivered mail in Scandinavia, mainly along Norway's gorgeous western coast. Bergen now offers 11 ships that explore fairly small segments of that region.

     

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  • 03 of 08

    Freighter Cruise: North and Central America

    ••• (c)Mark Kahler, under an arrangement with About.com

    Hamburg Süd has freighter cruises leaving from a number of European ports with itinerary lengths of up to 84 days. A recent offer at €131/day applied to a round-trip leaving Hamburg and visiting ports in China. This line usually markets these trips in terms of daily costs.

    Maris' FreighterCruises.com offers trans-Atlantic itineraries that explore a number of American ports, including Fort Lauderdale, New Orleans and Savannah. Daily charges for these trips can be quite economical. That's about the price of a discounted traditional cruise. Beware: these trips also require "port and vessel fees" that be significant on some trips.

    Note that on these trips, the itineraries sometimes begin and end in Europe, with multiple stops in North America. For those who want to start and end a freighter cruise in North America, a lengthy (think months) commitment of time usually is needed to sail to another continent and back again.

     

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  • 04 of 08

    Freighter cruise: South America

    South American beaches are popular tourist destinations.
    ••• Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

    Freighter cruises that explore South American ports typically leave from Europe: Embarkation takes place in Antwerp and Hamburg. You can also find trips leaving from Hong Kong.

    Grimaldi offers departures about every nine days for South America from Tilbury, England via West Africa. Yellow Fever inoculations are compulsory. Another shorter freighter cruise ends in Buenos Aires. Costs for an inside cabin are paid in euros.

    Hamburg Süd offers South American freighter itineraries that vary between about 1-3 months. Because the number of days is large, the costs mount quickly. But the ports-of-call would be hard to match on many conventional cruise lines. Included in the trip itinerary: Rio de Janeiro (twice), Santos, Zárate, Buenos Aires, Montevideo and Paranagua.

     

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  • 05 of 08

    Freighter cruise: Asia and Australia

    Asian ports attract budget travelers.
    ••• China Photos/Getty Images

    CMA CGN offers a Trans-Pacific itinerary connecting the Americas with China and Japan.

    Hamburg Süd has a few long-transit options between Singapore and Hamburg. Daily costs are low, but again, remember that the number of days will result in a large bill. Quite a few ports-of-call are along the Pacific Rim. These voyages are for people who are willing to leave home for months at a time. If you're planning a trip of this magnitude, please compare prices and itineraries with traditional cruises and other freighter lines.

    Hamburg Süd also offers an East Asia/Far East route, on "the largest container vessel of the world." 

    Check out an extensive description and review of a freighter cruise in the South Pacific aboard the Aranui 3. This line operates round trip cruises from Tahiti and will arrange picnic lunches and shore excursions for its passengers. Unlike many freighter cruise operations, Aranui will even make arrangements for special diets if given proper notice.

     

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  • 06 of 08

    Freighter Cruise Pros

    Kusadasi is a port city that is a gateway for visiting ancient Ephesus.
    ••• (c)Mark D. Kahler

    Let's start with the savings: fares are often under $200 USD per person per day, according to Margi Mostue, retired president of Freighter World Cruises. Many traditional cruises run that much or more per passenger, per day.

    There are no planned activities, but the trade-off is a high degree of privacy. A typical freighter only can accommodate about 20 passengers--and many take even fewer. You can spend the day on deck in a lounge chair, reading your favorite book with no disturbances. Many of us prefer that experience to a highly orchestrated shipboard experience.

    Many freighters do offer basics like an exercise room, reading room and a movie collection at your disposal. A few even have swimming pools.

    One traditional cruise activity that should be better on a freighter is the bridge tour. The ship's officers are likely to have much more time for your questions. Mostue says many freighter passengers actually forge life-long friendships with crew members. Obviously, this will vary...MORE from ship to ship and crew to crew.

    Cruise lines tend to target ports that are favored tourist destinations. While this is not a bad thing, it can mean incredible congestion. Some relatively small port cities host several large luxury liners at the same time. Freighter captains pull into ports to deliver cargo. The odds are slim that you will put into a small port congested with tourists.

     

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  • 07 of 08

    Freighter Cruise Cons

    Venice attracts budget travelers from all over the world.
    ••• (c)Mark D. Kahler

    Taking on a few paying passengers to create an added revenue stream is nice, but it is not priority one on a freighter cruise. For that reason alone, this is not a good option for many budget travelers.

    For example, if the crew decides for business reasons to bypass a port you have targeted, you'll probably get a brief explanation and perhaps an apology. That's it. The cargo comes first. You must accept that before leaving port, and many budget travelers simply won't do so.

    Passenger cruise ships are engineered for comfort, and all but a few of the oldest ships have modern stabilizers that steady the ship in rougher seas. On a cargo ship, you might need your sea legs. If you're someone who is prone to motion sickness, think carefully about booking passage on a cargo ship. Check with the freighter line for an estimate of how stable the ship will be in the conditions of seas typical during your intended season of travel.

    The odds of traveling with a qualified ship's...MORE doctor are smaller than what is found aboard a traditional cruise. Maximum and minimum ages are often part of the agreement.

    Delays can occur as shipments of freight are weighed, loaded, or unloaded. There are many more differences that are frivolous, but perhaps worth a mention: people who enjoy dressing for dinner, live for captain's cocktail parties and photograph every ice carving will be disappointed here. Special dietary might not be accommodated as readily. 

    In short, if you require a lot of attention from the staff, this option might not be a good choice. These trips are for people who have no qualms about landing in port, making their own local arrangements, and taking off for a day of exploring. Prepaid shore excursions through the line are not an option. 

    Accommodations differ from traditional luxury cruises, too. Although cabins might be bigger, beds probably will fall mostly in the twin and double categories. Furnishings will be pleasant and functional, but don't look for luxury.

    The biggest drawback of all prevents most budget travelers from booking a freighter cruise.

    The lengths of these trips often are measured in months rather than days. Even the shorter freighter cruise itineraries can require a time investment of a  month or more. That said, it is possible to book shorter segments in places like Europe or the Americas.

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  • 08 of 08

    Freighter Cruise Conclusions

    A cruise ship leaves Dubrovnik, Croatia.
    ••• (c)Mark D. Kahler

    Freighter cruises are favored by retired travelers or those who have arranged extended leaves of absence from the workplace. Families with a traditional window of vacation time (three weeks or less in most of North America) will find freighter cruise options difficult to arrange.

    But if you have that precious commodity of time on your side, these trips come with some handsome financial rewards. For those who enjoy the itinerary and the exploration more than the water slides and the organized shipboard entertainment will find freighter cruise options quite attractive. Load your mobile device with a variety of good book titles, exercise some patience and revel in the sea air.

    These trips are rare in our hurried society. If you're privileged to take one, be grateful for the money you'll save and the uncommon cruising experience you'll enjoy.