Travelling By Cargo Ship

Written By: The Planet D

The first thing I did when I walked into my cabin was tasting the water that came out the shower. That might seem a weird thing to do, but I had just boarded my first ever container ship for a month-long journey from Europe to Australia and I wanted to know if I had to shower with seawater.

This was not the case, however! The water that came out of the shower was fresh and as I discover later, even suitable for drinking.

Travelling By Cargo Ship

travelling by cargo ship dock
The ship for the journey

Now why would someone board a cargo ship to go to Australia from Europe? Wouldn’t flying be much easier? It probably would, but I had already done that once and this time I decided I wanted to see the world without flying and taking a freighter cruise seemed like the way to go.

People might not realise this, but most cargo ships have room for up to six passengers. Many shipping companies are eager to fill their excess cabins and allow passengers to book the 3-months round trip or parts of it, having them experience life on board for themselves.

What makes travelling by cargo ship such a unique experience?

  • Slow way of travelling – great for getting a feeling of how large the world is;
  • Giving the possibility to visit ports and places that are not on the beaten track;
  • Experiencing life on board – hanging out with the officers and crew, visiting the bridge and engine-room;
  • Resting and relaxing while the ship is at sea and experiencing the bustle of the ports when docked;
  • Encountering wildlife like whales, dolphins and flying fish.

It’s not even necessary to forgo luxury when travelling on a cargo ship. Cabins all have en-suite bathrooms, and the ships have a swimming pool and sauna. Meals on board are excellent – and an added bonus is that there are no restrictions on how much luggage can be taken on board.

How to Get on a Freighter Cruise

travelling by cargo ship ramp
The ramp leading to the ship

Organising a freighter cruise is easy as worldwide there are many travel agencies that specialise in cargo travel. To find an agency, just google ‘freighter cruises’ or ‘freighter travel’.

Don’t make any allusions on being able to work for a passage. Due to insurance restrictions this is not possible anymore. The costs of a freighter trip are between $90 – $150 per day, which sounds expensive, but keep in mind this includes accommodation, full board and travel!

A New Way to Travel

After my first container ship had dropped me off in Australia, I immediately booked my passed back to Europe on another cargo ship – but it didn’t stop at that. So far I have travelled on five different container ships and spent a total of nine months at sea.

I can highly recommend this mode of transport. If you’re not in a hurry to get somewhere, this is a unique way of travelling, guaranteed to give you an experience you will never forget.

This post is part of a blog tour that focuses on Maria’s book Time Zones, Containers and Three Square Meals a Day.

Visit the Travel Writers Exchange for an interview with Maria about how she wrote the book. Tomorrow, Maria’s new book More Stories of Time Zones and Containers will be launched on her blog Scribbles of an Author and Freelance Writer.

Maria Staal is an author and freelance writer, based in the Netherlands. She has written two books about her adventures on the container ships. Time Zones, Containers and Three Square Meals a Day and More Stories of Time Zones and Containers. You can find her online at www.mariastaal.com

Traveling by Cargo Ship Part 2

I’d just spent the last four months cycling across India on my dilapidated mountain bike and wanted to cross the Arabian Sea without getting on a plane – I’d been travelling for over a year without one, starting in Indonesia. 

Having organised a container cruise through a Swiss company it was now time to get my ailing and squealing bike from my hostel in town to the Nhava Sheva docks.

That day was spent waiting for hours in car parks and container fields, presumably because those were what I was supposed to be during each successive stage of the administrative process.

But suddenly, at sunset, I was clambering up the gangplank, and then I was on board. A passenger of the CMA CGM Coral.

I immediately met the disembarking group: two other cycle tourists. In the frantic minutes of our brief encounter, we exchanged maps, currency, tips, and itinerates: we were riding almost identical trips but in reverse directions.

I later discovered that the ‘small change’ UAE dirhams they handed me (they’d boarded at Dubai) were worth almost $50. I love cycle tourists.

Red Dwarf

cabin interior on cargo ship
Cabin On Board Cargo Ship

For the next six days, life on board was like living in the hotel from ‘The Shining’ (halls of blood not-withstanding), or on the mining ship Red Dwarf.

The few people on board weren’t enough to even half-fill the massive floating office-block and they were pretty much always working on far-flung regions of the 280 metre long ship anyway.

In fact, at times I worried that I was actually on board the spaceship from ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ and that some computer was about to switch off the life-support system.

In other respects it was like living in a Soviet submarine. While the crew was mostly Filipino, the officers were all Croatian and Ukrainian and they spent most of the rare periods in which they succumbed to my polite attempts to engage them in conversation reminiscing about the good ol’ days under the Communists when the crews were large and the workloads small – plenty of scope for games, music and vodka.

Today, sadly, these cargo ships slide silently through the sea like ghosts. My entire floor, ‘E Deck’, was empty. I was the ship’s ‘Spare Officer (A)’ according to the sign on my door, and fit somewhere in the hierarchical limbo between superfluous officer and steam-pipe mould.

Doing My Laundry

In one telling encounter I’d just finished putting on a wash when I turned and saw the captain standing in the laundry doorway. He looked at me, then at the washing machine.

“Err… do you want to go first?” I asked. He stared at me blankly.

“I’ll get my stuff out. You go first.”

Spooky Vibes

exterior cargo ship on deck

The ship could also be quite spooky at times. The constant movement and vibrations of the vessel at sea seemed almost human.

I often got the sense that someone had just sat down next to me or even gotten into bed with me. Objects placed on tables would march slowly but resolutely towards the edge, finally hitting the floor with a bang that invariably ejected me from my skin.

Another concern, only slightly more legitimate, was of pirates.

The first mate took me on a guided tour of the rest of the ship one day and pointed out all the anti-piracy apparati: riot hoses, rope ladder axes and even dummy security men equipped with fake rifles.

The mate even related some stories of work colleagues who’d been taken hostage in these waters, sometimes for months.

Otherwise I spent my time reading, listening to podcasts, stuffing my face full of the excellent food prepared especially for me and watching movies from the ‘Ship’s Library’.

They had the rather pointless but somewhat interesting ‘Darjeeling Limited’ about a train journey in a fictional country bearing no resemblance to India, and the much more excellent film ‘Chopper’, which toyed with my Australian homesickness.

I filled in the gaps gazing at the hypnotic immensity of the ocean – a desert in flux. One night I saw swirling bioluminescent fireworks being churned up in our wake, mirroring the brilliant starfield above.

I often watched leaping schools of fish shadowing our slow progress but I never saw the dolphins diving in the waves that the preceding passengers reported.

The Cost of the Voyage

Well, I hear you ask, how much did this crazy sea voyage end up costing me? First, think of the carbon footprint: a back-of-the-envelope calculation puts my personal CO2 contribution at an additional 500 mils of fuel for the whole journey (although that’s enough for over 2,000 kilometres of chain cleaning).

For the six days I was on board the trip cost $1200. If I’d chosen instead to fly it would have required one fifth the money and one fiftieth the time. But stuff that. This was totally worth it.

After six days at sea I was at last disembarked at an Omani port half-way up the end of the Arabian Peninsula. It was 4:30 in the morning and I was thirty kilometres out of town. Miraculously, my ailing bike got me into the city.

This was not helped by multiple shells of port security refusing to believe either that passengers could travel on cargo ships or that I could just ride on my bike into the country – but that’s fine, by now I’m used to people not believing that what I’m doing is possible.

Shortly after arriving in the delightfully named city of Salalah my bottom bracket actually disintegrated on me, flinging my left crank to the ground and grounding me where I stood.  A new adventure had begun…

Felix Dance

I was born in Melbourne, Australia, in 1983 where I also studied Arts and Civil Engineering at University.  After three years working on various freeway construction projects I felt the pull of the rest of the world and so began a 20 month trip around the Indian Ocean.

After backpacking through South East Asia, I began cycle touring in Vietnam, which then continued in Nepal after a mechanical failure forced me back to backpacking during China.

Rounding off my trip I cycled for four months through India and another two across the Arabian Peninsula and Iran.  Finally, I flew to Eastern Africa before returning home to begin a job back near Melbourne as a desalination plant construction engineer.

Follow Felix at Felix in the World on facebook and Flickr

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About The Planet D

Dave Bouskill and Debra Corbeil are the owners and founders of The Planet D. After traveling to 115 countries, on all 7 continents over the past 13 years they have become one of the foremost experts in travel. Being recognized as top travel bloggers and influencers by the likes of Forbes Magazine, the Society of American Travel Writers and USA Today has allowed them to become leaders in their field.

Leave a Comment

43 thoughts on “Travelling By Cargo Ship”

  1. Hi, I am a retired Master of Ocean going ships, I have tried cruises with Holland America, but really I would like to take my
    wife and myself on a voyage to the Far East [ Thailand preferably} on a cargo vessel.
    I am 83 and fit, travel from the port of Vancouver to Bangkok in the months of January and returning in March is what I wish .
    I would really appreciate any contact information ,
    Thanks for any advice you can give etc.

    Reply
  2. Maria… How can you ensure your safety? My thoughts go kinda dark I guess… but couldn’t someone hurt you (or worse) and no one ever know?

    Reply
  3. I didn’t realize this was a regular way of travel. It would be great to experience life at sea. However, I would not be able to handle the length of travel due to sea sickness. Thanks for sharing. Good luck with future travels! 🙂

    Reply
  4. To those who are not fully familiar with the travel industry, cruising on a cargo ship might seem like a rather odd idea. Some people might feel as if they would be stowaways on a working vessel. Great resource !

    Reply
  5. I’m with Deb & Dave……it sounds like a grand adventure, and one I would definitely pursue, but only if I can still enjoy a nice glass or two of red wine in the evenings! 🙂

    Reply
    • That wouldn’t be a problem at all, Trisha! 🙂 I have also heard that the food on board the French ships is extremely good. So if you choose to travel with a French shipping company, you can even make it a culinary experience…

      Reply
      • Ooh, I’m definitely going to look for a French Ship. This is sounding more and more enticing every time I come back to visit the comments. Thanks so much for inspiring us all and letting us know about this unique and exciting way to see the world.

      • You’re welcome, guys! 🙂 I love this way of travelling so much, so it’s great to see people being enthusiastic about it!

  6. Okay Maria, It’s time for me to ask the serious questions…someone’s gotta do it and be the hard hitting journalist here…
    Can we take wine on board or if not do they keep any in the gallie for you to buy? 🙂

    Reply
    • LOL, that’s indeed a very serious question. 🙂 The ships I was on people brought their own wine, beer and spirits on board, no problem at all. Also most ships have a small duty free shop, where the captain sells alcohol, chocolate etc for the crew (and passengers). Of course if you want to take the booze off the ship the custom laws of that country dictate how much you can take off. But for you own personal use on board, it shouldn’t be a problem to take wine on board.

      Reply
  7. Sounds like an amazing adventure!!! Did the ship had other passengers, besides you?
    Thanks!
    Kate from Blog from EX-Singaporeans

    Reply
    • Hi Kate, it was indeed an amazing adventure! Yes, on all the ships I travelled there were other passengers besides me. But never more than 5 in one go.
      And I did two 3-month round trips, so in those cases passengers came and went, as most of them only do part of a trip. For instance, my brother was a passenger with me on the last ship. He went from Europe to New York (which took about 12 days with 4 ports), from where he flew back to Europe.

      Reply
      • ohhh that sounds like a very good option b/c 3 months is actually a lot of time for a vacation (at least for me). anyway, thanks for sharing… now I have an interesting idea for my next trip 🙂
        Kate from Blog from EX-Singaporeans

    • Hi Fran, mostly the water was not rough. But there was the occasional storm. It totally depends on which route you take and in what season. Crossing the north Atlantic in Feb-Mar-Apr usually will give you a storm or two. Same goes for the monsoon season in the Indian Ocean. But on the whole most of my days at sea were nice and quiet. 🙂

      Reply
  8. Maria,
    Love your story and the journeys you have been on. This book sounds great and something we would love to read and see how life on a cargo ship compares. In addition to the wonderful experiences, having all that free time is a true delight for any writer (assuming sea sickness is not a problem). Several weeks of open seas, beautiful sunsets, and star-filled skies are a perfect combination for inspired writing. Thank you for sharing your stories.

    Reply
    • You’re welcome, Warren. You are right that the days at sea can be very inspiring for a writer. I never had much problems with seasickness, as the ships are in general very large and don’t move as quickly on the waves as smaller ships.
      I enjoyed my days in the ports just as much as I enjoyed being at sea. Specially as the sea is never the same from one day to the next. Every day it looks different again and that was fascinating. I also loved seeing the stars change, specially on a north-south route. That gave a real sense of moving around the earth!

      Reply
  9. I was interested in looking into taking a cargo ship for our S. America to Africa leg but didn’t realise it’s so expensive. And after being seasick every day on our recent trip to the Galapagos I think I might have to put this idea on the backburner for awhile 🙂

    It definitely sounds like a very unique experience though.

    Reply
    • Sorry to hear that you were seasick on your trip to the Galapagos. Did you go there by ship from the mainland?
      Most of the container ships are really big, so they move much less on the waves than smaller boats do. Therefore you are less likely to get seasick on a container ship. 🙂

      Reply
  10. Sounds interesting … but not particularly cheap, even if it does include food, accomodation and travel.

    Reply
  11. Believe it or not, this has always been on my to do list. I fear I’d grow restless however, so I’ve never pursued it fully…

    Reply
    • If you’re afraid that long hours at sea will be boring, you can always book a passage on a container ship that does three or four ports in one week. That way you spend less time at sea and see a lot. For instance, a ship that goes from mainland Europe to Dublin in Ireland with one or two ports in the United Kingdom. Or a ship that travels up or down the East/West coast of the United States. Or from Singapore to Hong Kong with some ports in Indonesia. The choice is endless, really. 🙂

      Reply
      • Excellent suggestions, thanks! I think that I would like to try one of the shorter ones with more stops in the future. I think it would be a fascinating way to travel. Thanks for sharing the article Maria. I think I can speak for all of us that we are definitely intrigued and interested in giving it a try.

      • Hey Dave & Deb, I can definitely recommend a trip on a container ship! It’s such a unique way of seeing the world and I am sure you guys would enjoy it! 🙂

      • Thanks Maria, I think it would be the ultimate adventure. We are always making lists of what will be our next adventure and what will put us in that category of true traveler (at least our version of what one is) and I think we won’t be a true traveler until we take a trip on a container ship. You have inspired us. :D

  12. this sounds fantastic, but at 90$ a day? Wow, i’m surprised it’s so much. I guess you do have the added advantage of not having to share the ship with loads of tourists. And of course no cabaret – Now i come to think of it, it sounds like a steal… 🙂

    Reply
  13. I do not care if it’s 3 meals a day, pools, sauna’s, etc. for $3,000 per month – I think I will pass…………….

    Reply
    • Hi Dean, I have only learned about the cargo ships recently. We were talking with Michael of Go See Write in Jordan and heard that he had taken one. He agreed it was more expensive than flying, but what an experience.

      Reply
  14. Hmm…”$90 – $150 per day”…It sounds like cruise ship would be cheaper. Of course it is different experience, but still..

    Reply
    • Hi Vi,
      Yes, travelling on a container ship is a totally different experience than being on a cruise ship. Each their own, of course, but if you’re looking for something unique, a cargo ship is the way to go. 🙂

      Reply
    • I don’t know if a cruise ship is cheaper than $90 per day. Most go for at least $750 per week or more. We went on a 4 day cruise to the Bahamas and it cost us about $500. But maybe you can find some cheap deals out there. You are right, it is definitely a different experience.

      Reply