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How to: Travel by Cargo Ship

Travel Insider Guides
by Anna Brones Mar 1, 2008

Article updated on Sunday, September 10th, 2017.

I HAVE ALWAYS WANTED a collection of brown leather trunks with brightly colored stickers from all the world’s corners. They remind me of travelers in the early 1900s who spent days on the ocean in order to reach their destinations. Back then, arriving at the destination was as much a part of the trip as the destination itself.

So when I needed to get from Guadeloupe in the Caribbean to France I asked myself, “is it still possible to travel by boat?” There are, after all, still cargo ships that carry everything from automobiles to antiques over the ocean, so why couldn’t I just hop on one myself and enjoy an ocean voyage? A few months later I was on a CMA-CGM cargo ship headed from Pointe-à-Pitre to Dunkerque.

Note that if you are having your car shipped overseas and wonder if it were possible to travel with your vehicle and save a little money while having a fun experience, it is well worth asking the cargo line whether they offer passenger rooms on their ships.

Traveling on a cargo ship is very much possible, and while it isn’t considered a luxury cruise, it is still a great way to travel — even at a cost of roughly $100 USD daily, it is worth the time to find a spot on a ship.

My nine days on the Atlantic included gourmet French food, duty-free Porto, and hours spent mesmerized by the blinking lights of the GPS. Yes, you can still travel to many locations in the world by boat. It was by far one of the best trips I’ve ever taken.

Here are some pointers for researching and planning your own adventure on the high seas:

1. What exactly is traveling by cargo ship?

Most of the major global shipping lines including CMA-CGM offer paying passengers an opportunity to hop on one of their lines. As a paying passenger, you are accommodated in guest cabins and have access to most areas of the ship.

Cargo ships have a limited number of rooms for passengers, so be prepared to start planning your ventures, and book the trip at least 6 months in advance to ensure you have a spot on the ship. Your fare will usually include port fees as well as meals and your room.

Captains and crew spend a lot of time on the water, and they are usually happy to have a fresh face walking around their workplace, meaning that they may even invite you to eat with them, give you tours of the ship and maybe even have you over for an Officer’s happy hour.

2. Where can I go?

You can travel almost anywhere by cargo ship.

The global shipping industry is huge, and many ports like New York, Shanghai, Los Angeles, and Sydney welcome several ships daily.

Shipping companies have certain lines covering specific routes, and many of them will allow you to buy a ticket for one of these lines and disembark and board as you please if there is a ship leaving on your chosen day. Just remember to book your passage in advance because you can’t just show up at a port to jump on a ship on a whim.

A word of advice to the cargo ship traveler, be flexible. Schedules can, and very often do change and when that happens, you will need to hop on and off more than one ship during the trip.

This is often how round the world routes work: book your freighter ticket and then plan in a few weeks in every major port. With freighters, the possibilities for your adventure are almost endless. Just think: anywhere global commodities are shipped are places that you can disembark and spend time soaking up the local culture before re-boarding.

3. What will it cost?

A common misconception is that if you are willing to spend an extended amount of time on open water you can score an inexpensive mode of transportation to your next travel destination.

Traveling as a passenger on a cargo ship is, in fact, more expensive than your average airfare. But before you scoff at the price — plan on an average price of $80-140/day — consider this: your ticket pays for room, meals, and experiences that cannot be had anywhere else.

The days where a person could work for their passage are long gone. The cargo lines will not allow you to work your way across the Atlantic just so you can have a free trip overseas. You will, however, get to meet crew members and will most likely find yourself spending a great deal of time getting to know many of them when they take a break or have some time off to relax a little.

4. Life on a ship

As a passenger, you are surrounded by the everyday life of the vessel and her crew. Schedules revolve around meal times, which can be extravagant events depending on the chef.

If you are a gourmet traveler, consider traveling with one of the French companies which are known for their high-quality cuisine and table wine.

Besides meals, the rest of the day is spent as you please. Make your way up to the bridge and chat with the captain about sea navigation or schedule a tour with the head mechanic to see the vessel’s impressive technical insides. Officers on cargo ships are often willing to show you how things work to keep the ship afloat and to keep things safe.

You will quickly find that the freighter environment is a rough but enjoyable one; think lots of steel and salt water. Before the evening meal, meet for a pre-dinner drink with your co-passengers in the guest lounge area and discuss the events of the day.

You may think that a week on open water can give you a case of cabin fever, but a slower pace of life can be much welcomed and enjoyable.

There is something to note about health and fitness levels when traveling on a cargo ship. Because these ships usually do not have a doctor on board, you should be healthy and fit enough to take on such a voyage. This is a safety precaution as the ship wouldn’t want anyone being injured or in need of medical attention and be at sea without a doctor to help.

5. Planning

So you’ve decided that freighter travel is for you, what now? Do your internet research, there are several websites maintained by individuals seduced by traveling on the high seas with great tips and long lists of different routes around the world.

Go to the websites of the freighter companies and send them an email asking about passenger fares. Another option is travel agencies that specialize in freighter travel like A la Carte Freighter Travel based in Montreal.

Some helpful websites to get you started:

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