The Ins and Outs of Cargo Ship Tourism

The Ins and Outs of Cargo Ship Tourism

Journeying across seas and oceans while sharing the daily life of the crew – a trip on a cargo ship can be either a thrilling and an unforgettable trip of discovery of great maritime trading routes, or the most boring experience of your life. We let you decide.

Going on a freight cruise is probably the least-known form of travel there is today. Not exactly tourism as we know it; a well-kept secret in the days of airport anxiety is that it is still possible to book a regularly scheduled sea passage to most parts of the world. Freighter travel is a less crowded, alternative way of crossing a sea or ocean, not using airplanes or commercial cruise ships or ferries. Freighter travel is also virtually the only way to travel across the Caspian Sea and is a very common way to travel across the Black Sea.

Where can you go

The short answer – anywhere goods are delivered! The global shipping industry is huge; think of how many ports welcome cargo ships every day. You can journey between continents across oceans and high seas, and share in the daily life of the crew while discovering the world’s busiest ports. Traveling aboard container ships, which are among the biggest in the world, is to experience a completely different way of cruising the oceans.


Stacked cargo containers

Stacked cargo containers – image courtesy of Håkan Dahlström –

Freight travel is not quite as precise as booking a flight with a specific time and leave date. It requires some flexibility and planning. Ships can face delays, occasionally arrive in port at night or decide to bypass a port at the last minute.

This unusual style of voyage serves travelers that aren’t on a tight schedule. Being prepared for travel a few days ahead of time is required as a ship may reach port a few days early, requiring you to leave sooner than expected.

Unlike an airline, you can’t call your travel agent on a Wednesday evening and expect to leave on Friday evening. Research on routes and ships is important and should be done several months ahead of time as should bookings. Some routes tend to be more popular than others and are therefore booked for months in advance.

Sailing routes and itineraries can range from two weeks to 120 days in duration, depending where you board. They can be a short one way trip or a round-the-world trip. If you’re a self-reliant soul, someone who enjoys self-reflecting, adventure, exploring, and the open seas, a cargo ship could be your very own giant 2,000 foot private yacht.

Port cities are generally off-the-grid locations compared to average cruises and tourist stops. Very often, you’ll discover and explore exotic and unspoiled attraction that you never knew existed a short distance away. The average port time is one day which gives a freight cruise passenger longer to explore than on a typical cruise ship, though some smaller vessels may be in port for 2-3 days.

Aboard the ship

Aboard the ship

Aboard the ship

On any cargo ship voyage, there will rarely be more than 11 other paying travelers on board because if a ship has more than 12 passengers it’s legally required to have a doctor on board. On average there might be about four or five, but often you are the only one. There are around 30,000 large oceangoing ships in the world but only about 1% of those carry both cargo and passengers. That 1% will either be a freighter or a mail/ supply ship.

Passenger cabins on a cargo ship are located on the upper decks and are large and more spacious than cabins on an average cruise ship. Beds and furnishings are functional and pleasant. You get private bathrooms, air conditioning, and possibly a small refrigerator. Window views may or may not be obstructed by the odd shipping container. Bed linen and towels are changed regularly and there are self-service launderettes for personal items. There are no elevators on most ships, so get used to many stairs.

Some freight ships have swimming pools, and although facilities vary, there’s likely to be a lounge, with TV, DVD and CD player and a selection of films and books, shared with officers and sometimes crew. There’s usually a bar and a fitness room, but there are no casinos and no evening shows on offer. In fact, there are no organised activities at all, except for mealtimes. These are working ships and the crew is hired to run the ship, not entertain passengers. Officers and crew are typically friendly and welcoming. After several months at sea, they often appreciate fresh faces and new conversations (not to say they get sick of each other).

Food and entertainment

On the food front, no two cargo ships are the same and menus can vary, often reflecting the nationality of the ship or the chef. Passengers generally have their own table, which is usually in the officer’s’ restaurant. Three meals a day plus snacks are included. Cigarettes, beer, soft drinks, toothpaste and more can be bought onboard. All items purchased on the high sea are duty free, meaning no tax and cash-only.

There is not much to do entertainment-wise on a freight ship aside from some DVD’s and books from the ship’s library. Bringing your own reading/writing material, tapes to watch or DVD’s is a good idea to have something to do during the day. Most ships do not have WiFi but ports may, so a laptop is useful if you need to check emails. Essentially, it is a perfect time to catch up on that book you’ve been meaning to read, or go get some sun, hang out on the bridge. Meals provide an opportunity for some interesting conversation with the ship’s officers.

However, the opportunities for lovers of wildlife are vast. From whales, to skittering flying fish, gangs of tiny petrels, to dolphins and albatross’. You are constantly inspired by the vivid beauty of the sea and sky, cloudscapes, sunsets and star-sprayed nights.

Open seas can be rough

Cruise ships generally avoid routes that get rough weather, but cargo ships have less luxury of choice as timely delivery of goods is a factor. As a result, a little bit of excitement in rough seas can be expected. Image courtesy of Wikimedia foundation:

Travel by freight ship is not for everyone. Day after day on the open sea can get quite monotone, and unless you are a person that enjoys endless hours of solitude, with nothing on the day’s agenda, patience is a must.

Attire is very informal, jeans, t-shirts, and shorts. Rubber soled shoes (not boat shoes) are a must. Since shoes are removed in all carpeted areas of the ship they should be easy to take on and off. This is important as often the deck is wet or has residue from the engine’s exhaust. Packing for worst case scenarios is also recommended as is packing both hot and cold weather, regardless of the destinations, as you never know when the weather might change. If you take any medication, make sure to pack enough for the entire trip and extra, just in case, as well as a refill prescription. If you wear glasses, it’s wise to have a spare pair packed as you may not have time to find an optician.

Most all ships have a 220 volt power supply. The U.S. standard is 110 volts. You should check to see if your computer, radio, etc., can run on 220-volt electricity. If not, you will need a converter. If you are from the U.S., you will also need a plug converter (square to round prongs, but those can usually be bought on the ship).

As you will be in an entirely new environment, it will take a few days to get a feeling for the ship and its crew.  A cargo ship journey is a contemplative, relaxing experience – if the weather obliges. Free from the distractions of telephones, the internet, TV and the modern world that permeate even the remotest holiday resorts. At sea your mind can wander, contemplate and truly escape.

It truly is a unique experience.

Leave a Reply