Frequent questions about freighter ship travel
Ever since posting information on Vagabonding.net about hitching rides on freighter ships, I’ve been getting lots of follow-up questions. Rather than try to attend to them all separately, I’ll just answer them here in one FAQ sheet.
How much does it cost?
I’ve heard that the average cost for a freighter is $100 a day, though it is easier to find cheaper fares. $60 a day is probably as cheap as it gets. For independent travelers, this might sound expensive, but it is actually a good value, given the quality of the food and cabins (see below) and the experience of being at sea on a working ship. When I booked my Suez-Bombay freighter in 2000, the initial cost was $80 a day — though the trip took longer than expected (and the captain let me sleep onboard when the ship was in Bombay), so it ended up being closer to $65 a day. Either way, it was a great value and experience. There are often additional charges in the way of customs fees and insurance, so be sure to ask your booking agent about this.
Where do freighters go?
Almost anywhere in the world where there’s a seaport — though finding a freighter trip that fits your exact needs can be difficult. Be sure to shop around for itineraries with several shipping agents. Popular routes include round-the-world (which can take upwards of 100 days), North America to Australia, North America to the Mediterranean, and North America to South America. Most freighters have standard circuit-routes (not always RTW), but it’s usually easy to travel along for a shorter segment of that circuit (as I did from Egypt to India). Your ship will often call in exotic ports along the way — but only for a short time (usually 8 hours to two days), so land-sightseeing is not usually a big option.
What are the facilities like?
Though some may imagine freighter accommodations to involve iron bunks and gruel dinners, the cabins are actually comparable to those of cruise ships. Most have a private bathroom, a view of the sea, bunk beds, couches, tables, a desk, and (because you get the same treatment as the ship’s officers) a steward to clean up after you. My freighter cabin was far nicer than most of the budget hotel rooms I stayed in when I was vagabonding on land! I was also the only non-crew passenger on the ship, though there can be as many as 12 passenger slots on a typical freighter. The mess hall food is usually abundant and excellent, and passengers dine with the ship’s officers (who are always game for good conversation). If you befriend the cook, you should be able to drop down to the kitchen for a snack at any time of the day. Alcohol, soft drinks, cigarettes, and toiletries are available for sale when the ship is at sea. All ships will have a common room where you can read books and watch videos with the crew. My freighter had a small gym (I was the only one who used it), as well as a frumpy swimming pool that the boatswain filled with seawater for me each day.
What is there to do onboard?
To be sure, there are no casinos, cabaret shows, or midnight buffets. I had a blast nonetheless: I read books, swam, lifted weights, talked philosophy with the captain, did whiskey shots with the boatswain, sang karaoke with the deckhands, gave English lessons to Maldivian and Ukrainian crew members, hung out on the bridge, took part in the S.O.S. drills, watched DVDs, and spent lots on time staring out at the sea from various points on the deck. In short, you’re only limited by your imagination and introversion. Bring lots of books, a camera, a short-wave radio and a Walkman to fill spare moments.
How do you book a freighter trip?
Simply hanging around at the docks looking for a friendly captain doesn’t work these days, due to insurance reasons. Plus, most travel agents don’t deal with freighter travel, so you’ll need to find a specialized booking agent. A Google list of freighter agents can be found here. Inquire with more than one booking agency to find an itinerary that suits your needs (and be sure to ask about your specific destinations, since the latest schedules are not always listed online). Keep in mind that freighter travel is not a customer-oriented affair, so make your plans far in advance, allow for a flexible itinerary, and don’t expect the glowing customer service you might get from a cruise line. Full payment in advance is standard.