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. Also, keep in mind that you might need visas for some of the countries you stop at in the event you plan to disembark.
Freighter Cruise: Europe, Africa and Middle East
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 euros for the shortest trip and up to 3,600 euros 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 British island Ascension.
The Bergen Line has grown into a passenger/cargo combination line. The ships delivered mail in Scandinavia, mainly along Norway's gorgeous western coast with trips to Iceland and Antarctica. Bergen now offers 11 ships that explore fairly small segments of that region.
Freighter Cruise: North and Central America
Hamburg Süd has freighter cruises leaving from a number of European ports with itinerary lengths of up to 84 days. It can cost from 600 euros to 1,300 euros to go to ports cities in Norway, Sweden, Germany, and the Netherlands.
Maris' FreighterCruises.com offers trans-Atlantic itineraries that explore a number of American ports, including Miami, New Orleans, and Savannah. Daily charges for these trips can be quite economical. It is about the price of a discounted traditional cruise. However, a hidden cost on these trips may also be "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.
Freighter cruise: South America
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 one to three 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, Santos, Zárate, Buenos Aires, Montevideo, and Paranagua.
Freighter cruise: Asia and Australia
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 at sea can 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, you should 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."
The Aranui 3 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.
Freighter Cruise Pros
So, why should you even consider a freighter cruise? Take a look at the savings: fares are often under $200 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 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.
Freighter Cruise Cons
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 will probably get a brief explanation and perhaps an apology. That's it. The cargo comes first. You must accept that before leaving port, and for many budget travelers, this is not acceptable.
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. So, if you are 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 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. Also, if you want to dress up for dinner with the captain, attend lavish cocktail parties, and experience culinary pleasures like ice carvings, you will not get that and may be disappointed. Special dietary needs may not also be accommodated.
In short, if you require a lot of attention from the staff, freight cruising 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 do not 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.
The Bottom Line
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 are privileged to take one, be grateful for the money you will save and the uncommon cruising experience you will have.