How to Hitch a ride on a cargo ship
By R.F. Ahern, “The Freighterman”
Remember the old stories of adventurers who would hop a cargo ship to get to an exotic port of call, traveling like a sailor or Merchant Marine? Well, the good news is that it’s still possible to do.
Now you can travel from one port to another or around the world by freighter. It’s relatively inexpensive (compared to other cruise ships) and easy to do as more and more freighter companies come on board to offer passenger service.
Most freighters only have room for a limited number of passengers, and, while you won’t be bunking with the crew anymore, traveling by freighter is still enough of an alternative mode of transportation to keep regular cruise tourists standing in the buffet line.
Your accommodations will be quite adequate–sometimes even a reconfigured Captain’s berth! – and all your meals while at sea will be provided. But unlike a regular cruise ship, you won’t find an on-board disco or gambling casino. On the other hand, you may have more than one night playing cards with the crew or sitting quietly on deck watching the stars.
Check out these FAQ’s on freighter travel, provided by R.F. Ahern, “The Freighterman,” who has traveled around the world and then some by freighter ship. Then hop a freighter and sail the seven seas like a real voyager!
WHERE CAN I GO BY FREIGHTER?
You can travel from just about any major port in the world to any other port. Some freighters also go to places you’ve never even heard of. Most lines have regular routes. Frequently you can catch a “tramp” that has no fixed ports of call. Americans cannot travel between one U.S. port and another.
CAN ANYONE TRAVEL ON A FREIGHTER?
No. Usually the upper age limit is 79, the lower is about 5 years. These upper and lower limits may vary from one shipping company to another. If you are over 65, you will generally be required to get a medical certificate from your physician certifying you are fit to travel. Pregnant women are usually not permitted. If you have difficulty negotiating stairs, this will also preclude you from travel on a freighter. Since all of the passenger-carrying containerships are sailing under a foreign flag they are not subject to American laws requiring accommodation of disabled individuals
HOW LONG IS A FREIGHTER VOYAGE?
The average length of a freighter voyage is 40 to 50 days, though there are some shorter trips available last a couple of weeks. A roundtrip from the U.S. West Coast to Australia/New Zealand and return takes about 46 days. An around the world voyage lasts generally 80 to 100 days, or more. A westbound voyage from Los Angles, CA. to Hamburg, Germany is about 41 days.
CAN I TAKE A SEGMENTED TRIP?
Many people do not like to take a round about voyage, having neither the time nor the money. Segmented trips are possible with a stop over in port for as long as you want. You can resume your voyage or fly home by plane. These kinds of voyages are popular with people who only have a couple of weeks to travel, and only want to spend some it at sea.
Travel by freighter usually runs between $65-$125 U.S. per day. The average of a voyage is just about $100.00 US per day, for a single person traveling in a single cabin. It is always more expensive for a single to book a double cabin and always cheaper per person for double occupancy of a double cabin. There is an additional charge of about $262.00 for deviation insurance and a $12.50 customs charge per person departing or entering the country. Keep in mind that more than one owner/charter may have vessels on a given route. The fare charged by different owners on the same route can vary considerably. Shop around.
Some agents, Freighter World Cruises, for example, will quote prices in US dollars and German Marks (DM) for some voyages. Their web site explains how they handle prices quoted in DM. With The Cruise People, Ltd., an agent in the UK., it is common for prices to be quoted in DM, though you may have to ask for a DM Invoice if you are American. Historically, German owners have had a two tier pricing system, with DM prices lower than the prices quoted in US dollars. If you want to convert DM’s to dollars, you can use a currency converter. I have been advised that American agents are striving for a single pricing system so that the cost of a voyage is exactly the same for a given ship, regardless of where the traveler calls home, or currency of payment.
HOW DO I BOOK A FREIGHTER VOYAGE?
Most travel agents do not book freighter voyages. You will have to book through an agent that specializes in freighter cruises or directly through the ship’s agent/manager. Remember that there may be voyages available that the travel agent is not advertising on the Internet or elsewhere. If you want to go on a particular voyage, ask the agent what they have available. Remember also that not all agents offer the same voyages.
WHEN SHOULD I MAKE MY TRAVEL ARRANGEMENTS?
Unlike an airline, you cannot call your travel agent on a Friday evening and expect to leave on Monday (except for hopping a Tramp Voyage–covered later). Allow several months to plan your trip. I usually start early in January to arrange for a mid-April departure. However, some routes are very popular and you may have to arrange for your voyage many months ahead of your desired departure date. While some freighters depart on an exact date and time, others have a window for departure. Be flexible.
New offerings are becoming available every month, so it is possible you can schedule a trip on short notice, but it is better to plan far in advance. Remain flexible with your travel plans. I recently booked a voyage only to be notified the ship I was to board in Los Angeles had grounded and would be unavailable for more than a month after my planned departure date. Luckily, I was able to hop another ship leaving a few days earlier than I had planned.
WHAT IS AN OPTION?
An option is a period of time within which the pre-payment of a portion of the cost of a voyage must be made. Once your travel agent tenders your voyage, your agent will ask for payment of $500.00, to be paid with in a couple of weeks, if you live in the US, to secure your cabin. Full payment is due usually 60 days before the ship’s departure. If you live in Europe it is customary to be required to make a deposit equivalent to 25% of the cost of the voyage. One agent told me that it is customary in some European countries for the agent to expect payment in full once you have contracted for a voyage, even if you are required to cancel the trip.
WHAT IS A TRAMP VOYAGE?
Tramps are cargo ships that have no fixed schedule or ports of call; they go where the cargo is and drop it off where it’s supposed to go. Often, tramp voyages have passenger rooms and travelers can book them. The advantage is that you can get a cheaper voyage to a remote destination at the last minute. The downside is that you might not be able to get away from that port until another tramp comes along. Tramp voyages are often listed in booking agency’s “Last Minute Specials.”
WHAT SIZE OF SHIP IS BEST?
Having traveled on small container ships (those carrying 1,000 or fewer containers, under 15,000 d.w.t. and about 485 feet) and large ones (4,500 containers or more, over 63,000 d.w.t. and 950 feet in length) I much prefer the former. Traveling on large ships is like being on a cruise ship. By this, I mean it is very stable. The majority of time you are unaware of the fact that you are at sea!
So, if you like to the feel of the sea, think small. Another potential disadvantage of a larger ship is the possibility that it may berth at a newer pier and thus, it may be inconvenient or far away to get from the ship to the port city (for example, the Port of Kaohsiung, Taiwan).
Large ships obviously have larger engines. Accordingly, the engine air intakes, usually on the “A” deck, generate a lot of noise outside of the vessel. These large engines produce a lot of carbon discharge, making decks D and E, where passenger cabins are usually located, quite dirty.
CAN I WORK ON A FREIGHTER FOR ALL OR PART OF MY PASSAGE?
The answer is simple. NO! Sit back and enjoy the ride.
SO WHAT CAN I DO ON A FREIGHTER?
Remember, that a freighter is a working ship and passengers are secondary. Thus, there is no such thing as a cruise director or any planned activities other than watching a VCR or doing your laundry. But there’s plenty of time to read, get some sun, hang out on the bridge. Meals are something I looked forward to as they provided an opportunity for some interesting conversation with the ship’s officers. Some ships have pools, often below the main deck. One smaller container ship that I was on was only able to fill the pool half full to prevent the water from sloshing out in rough weather. Bring plenty of books or tapes.
You can buy all the beer and hard liquor you want to mellow out, tax free. But, don’t expect to find your favorite Scotch or Rye whiskey on board. Selections are limited, but there is enough booze on board to keep any hardcore alcoholic happy. A carton of Marlboro’s is about $10.85.
WILL I GET SEASICK?
Could be. Unlike cruiseships, there are no stabilizers on freighters. Accordingly, there can be a significant amount of pitch and roll, depending on the size of the ship, amount of cargo, and weather. Most of the time, waves do not exceed 15 feet (about 3 meters), usually less. There are two things to remember about being seasick: You feel like you are going to die and then you realize that you won’t! As a general rule, the bigger the ship and the more cargo aboard, the smoother the “ride”. I recently sailed on the Cho Yang Atlas, a 965-foot, and 4,500 T.E.U. container ship and was not even aware of the fact that I was at sea.
CAN I BRING ELECTRICAL APPLIANCES?
All ships have a 220 volt power supply. The U.S. standard is 110 volts. Accordingly, you should check to see if your computer, razor, radio, etc., have a 110-220V-option switch. If not, you will need a converter. If you are from the U.S., you will need a plug converter (square to round prongs, but you can usually find one on the ship). A small, portable, AM/FM/SW radio is nice to have along, so you can stay in touch with what’s going on in the world.
WHAT CAN I BUY ON-BOARD?
Cigarettes, beer, soft drinks, toothpaste and the like. All transactions are in U.S. dollars, no checks, or credit cards; often the price of these items is quoted in the currency of the country of registry or vessel ownership, but there may be exceptions. There is no tax on items purchased on the high sea, however the ship’s “slop chest” is locked while the ship is in port.
WHAT SHOULD I PACK TO WEAR?
It depends upon where you are going and the time of year. Attire is very informal. Jeans, T-shirts, and shorts will work. Leave your coats and ties at home as well as any fancy dresses, unless you want to wear them ashore. Rubber soled shoes (not boat shoes) are a must. Leather soled shoes should be left at home. 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.
IS A FREIGHTER NOISY?
Not really, unless you like to hang out in the engine room. There is a much higher noise level than on a cruise ship, but, like vibration, it is minimal. One exception is the noise generated by the engine intake fans located on the main deck or first deck. Engine exhaust noise is felt and heard on large ships, though not to the extent that it is annoying.
WHAT LANGUAGES ARE SPOKEN ABOARD SHIP?
English, but not necessarily American English. On my last cruise, the Belgian Captain spoke excellent English, but the Ukrainian officers had a limited ability with English. Most of the Filipino crew had a decent command of the language.
WHAT ABOUT SHIP-BOARD ETIQUETTE?
All members of the ship’s crew are addressed as “Mister”, unless they tell you to call them by their first name. Do not go on the bridge without asking permission. Usually passengers have access to the bridge at all times. The only exception may be during the period the harbor pilot is aboard. 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. It is a good idea to learn the name of all officers and crew (there are only 17-20) as soon as possible. It is also recommended that you learn a few words or phrases in the native language or languages of the crew members.
CAN I BRING MY PET?
No. However, you can ship your four or five favorite polo ponies from here to there in a container! Of course, the owner is required to have them accompanied by a trainer/keeper, and they will be subject to quarantine regulations.
WHAT ABOUT VISAS?
Check with your travel agent to be sure of the visa requirements of the various countries. Non-US citizens must have a visa to enter the United States by cargo ship. Australia requires a visa for all foreign nationals arriving by ship. Ditto for China, but not Hong Kong. The fact that you never leave the vessel is of no consequence. Most countries do not even bother to stamp your passport, though they do check it. It has been my experience that the Captain will ask for your passport after you board and you may be invited to his cabin for a “chat” with immigration officials after docking, though in this is not the case in most large ports, such as Hong Kong.
Again, it depends upon where you are going. No immunizations are required for travel between Europe, the U.S., Canada and Australia. However, for transit of either the Panama or Suez Canal you will need an inoculation for yellow fever and cholera. In the U.S., these will cost $50 to $60 each. To find physicians or clinics in your area, call your local Public Health Department. Your travel agent can advise you as to the inoculations you will require.
- Plan what you are going to need on your voyage; bring a short wave radio, videotapes, reading material, a camera, or whatever. A portable computer makes for a handy companion. The ship might have one available for your use, but don’t count on it. Once your ship leaves port, that’s it; there is no going back. Remember that items such as film are going to cost more than in the U.S, so bring a few rolls with you.Ships have many stairs and they are steep, so hold on at all times. A few have elevators. After a couple of days (weeks) you will get use to them (smile).When booking a cabin, get one as high as possible in the super structure, assuming you have available options. If you do not, containers will block your forward view. Almost always cabins are outside with a view forward, port, or starboard; some have two views. Of course, the downside to higher cabins is that you will have to go down several flights of stairs to get to the officers mess, which is usually located on the poop deck (one deck above the main deck on ships not stowing containers aft of the super structure) or the main deck. Usually passenger’s cabins are on the fourth or fifth deck.
- Tipping is optional. Other than the mess steward, there is no one to tip other than the cook, and then only if the food is exceptional. The steward may make up your bed and empty your wastebasket daily; then again, it might be only on a weekly basis, so tip accordingly, if at all.
- If you need information about shipping cargo, such as you car (in a container), household goods, etc., here is the place to start to get information. Cargo can be transported on the same vessel you travel on, however, you are probably better off shipping with the line usually used by the freighter forwarding company.
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