Berlitz Cruising & Cruise Ships 2017 (Berlitz Cruise Guide) (2016)
Cargo Ship Cruising
These slow freighter voyages appeal to independent travelers who don’t require constant entertainment but want comfortable accommodation and the joy of days at sea.
More than 3,000 passengers a year travel on about 300 cargo ships (freighters), and the number is growing as passengers become disenchanted with the large resort ships that dominate the cruise industry. Traveling by freighter is also the ultimate way to travel for anyone seeking a totally unstructured voyage - far from the world of mass tourism - without entertainment or other diversions. It is a very flexible way to travel independently - to experience complete relaxation and tranquility.
Freighters are either: containerships (the most common and modern passenger-carrying freighters at sea today); general cargo ships; or refrigerated cargo ships, plus a variety of mail and coastal freighters. Fares range from about $90 to $180 per day. While schedules do exist, dates of departure and arrival are always given as ‘on or about.’
The experience has particular appeal for retirees, relocating executives, those with far-flung family connections, graduates returning home from an overseas college, or professors on sabbatical leave. Freighters travel the busiest trade routes; you can even take one around the world aboard the vessels of Bank Line - a complete circumnavigation takes about four months.
You can travel as a passenger aboard the three largest passenger-carrying ships in the world, Alexander von Humboldt, Jacques Cartier, and Marco Polo. The ships are 1,296ft (395m) long; by comparison, Allure of the Seas is 1,181ft (360m), and Queen Mary 2 is 1,132ft (345m). The ships operated by France’s CMA CGM have space for 16,020 TEUs (container-carrying capacity), and there are five double-bed cabins measuring 215 sq ft (20 sq m) for passengers on the ship’s Europe-Asia route.
Also, the following lines, among others, offer regular passenger voyages year-round: Christian F. Ahrenkiel, Alpha Ship, Andrew Weir Shipping, Bank Line, Herman Buss, CMA CGM The French Line, Compagnie Polynésienne de Transport Maritime (CPTM), Coopérative de Transport Maritime & Aérien (CTMA), Contship Container Lines, Deutsche-Afrika Line, Egon Oldendorf, French Asia Line, French West Indies Line, Grimaldi Lines, Hamburg-Süd, Hansa Shipmanagement, Horn Line, Independent Container Line, Interorient Navigation, Reederei F Laeisz, Leonhardt & Blumberg, Mare Schifffahrtsgesellschaft, Martime Gesellschaft, Maruba Lines, MCC Passage, Mediterranean Club Express, Melfi Lines, MSC Mediterranean Shipping Company, NSB Freighter Cruises, NSB Niederelbe Schifffahrtsgesellschaft Buxtehude, OPDR, Oldendorff Carriers, Oltmann Shipping, PZM Polish Steamship Company, Pearl String Service, Peter Doehle, St Helena Line, Reederei Hermann Wulff, Reederei Heinrich Schepers, Reederei Karl Schlüter, Reederei Nord, Rickmers Reederei, H Schuldt, Swire Shipping, Transeste Shipping, Tom Wörden, Zim Integrated Shipping, Kapitän Peter Zylmann Freighter Cruises. Remember that, due to the changing economic climate, ships may be cancelled or laid up at short notice.
Booking and Information
About 300 freighters and cargo ships offer berths, with German operators accounting for more than half of them. True freighters - the general breakbulk carrier ships and feeder container vessels - carry up to 12 passengers; the only exception is the Royal Mail Ship RMS St Helena, which carries up to 128 passengers, together with animals such as goats and sheep, and goods from the UK to the Ascension Island. While RMS St Helena carries a doctor, freighters do not, and remember that they are working vessels, not cruise ships.
Freighter schedules change constantly, depending on the whim of the owner and the cargo to be carried, whereas container ships travel on regular schedules. For the sake of simplicity, they are all termed freighters. But cargo ships have changed dramatically as cost management and efficiency have become vital. Container ships are operated as passenger liners used to be: running line voyages on set schedules. You can also make a one-way voyage.
Most freighter companies don’t allow children or pregnant women to travel, and won’t accept anyone younger than five or older than 80. You’ll need to be fully mobile - there are no elevators to connect the various decks. Because there are no medical facilities (unless the ship carries over 12 passengers), anyone over 65 is usually required to produce a medical certificate of good health - by any doctor; it doesn’t have to be your own GP. Note that if your ship visits a US port at any point, non-Americans will need a full US visa, because freighters aren’t part of the visa-waiver program.
Cabins on most cargo ships are surprisingly comfortable.
Compagnie Polynésienne de Transport Maritime/The Cruise People
Cargo ship facilities
What do you get when you book a cargo ship voyage? You get a cabin with double or twin beds, a small writing table, and a private bathroom. You also get good company, cocktails with conversation, hearty food (you’ll eat in one seating with the ship’s officers), an interesting voyage, a lot of water (and great stargazing opportunities), and the allure of days at sea.
What don’t you get? Organized entertainment. You will certainly have time to relax and read books (some freighters have a small library), play cards, spend time on the navigation bridge, as well as observe the crew as they help with loading, unloading, and constant upkeep, rust control, and maintenance.
Accommodation consists of a spacious, well-equipped outside-view cabin high above the water line, with a large window rather than a porthole, comfortable lounge/sitting area, and private facilities - far larger than most standard cruise ship cabins are.
How much does it cost?
On a per-day basis, cargo ship travel costs between $90 and $180. The fares are mostly estimated, with final fares provided prior to sailing. If you book with a US specialist and the cargo ship line is based in euros, there may be an additional cost, depending on the rate of conversion when final payment is due.
A 28-day round-trip sailing aboard one of four CMA-CGM container vessels (Le Havre, France, to Guadeloupe and Martinique), for example, costs just over $120 (€83) per person, per day in a twin-bedded cabin, and slightly more in a single-occupancy cabin, plus any expenses incurred in getting to/from the embarkation and disembarkation ports.
Remember that voyages last much longer - typically 30 days or more - so the cost can be considerable. Many are sold out more than a year ahead - two years for some routes - and the cargo-carrying fleet has been reduced as a result of the credit crunch, so plan wisely, and remember to purchase trip cancellation insurance.
What to bring
What to take with you? Casual clothing (check with the shipping line, as some require a jacket and tie for dinner), all medications, cosmetics, and toiletry items, hairdryer, multi-voltage converter plug, washing powder, and other sundry items such as soap, sun protection, insect repellent, and small flashlight. There may be a small ‘shop’ on board (for the crew) carrying bare essentials such as toothpaste.
Bring along your medical certificate, travel insurance details, money in cash, and some extra photos of yourself in case the ship makes unannounced port stops and visas are required. The only gratuities needed are for the waiter and cabin steward, which are generally set at about $1-2 per day, per person.
New international security regulations mean that if you book a one-way voyage, you must have all onward travel documents with you. Check with embassies and consulates of the countries you will visit. Note that freighters visit cargo ports, so private transportation such as taxis will need to be arranged in advance.
Cargo ships sometimes have to cancel port calls for commercial reasons at short notice. Bear this in mind if you’re attracted by a particular itinerary or port.