Travel by Cargo Ship: What You Should Know about Freighter Travel
By R.F. Ahern, “The Freighterman”
LISTEN TO OUR FREIGHTER TRAVEL PODCAST EPISODE
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. Travel by cargo ship continues to interest our most curious and intrepid readers.
Freighter Travel is Popular
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 onboard disco or gambling casino.
On the other hand, you may have more than one-night playing cards with the crew or sitting quietly on the deck watching the stars. Some freight ships have swimming pools!
Check out these FAQs 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 and transatlantic crossings. Frequently you can catch a “tramp” that has no fixed ports of call. Americans cannot travel between one U.S. port and another. From South America to Asia, the ships cross all of the world’s oceans.
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. Hong Kong China to Los Angeles USA, has an estimated average time between 18 to 20 days of transit port to port.
A westbound voyage from Los Angles, CA. to Hamburg, Germany is about 41 days.
CAN I TAKE A SEGMENTED CARGO SHIP TRIP?
Many people do not like to take a roundabout freighter travel voyage, having neither the time nor the money. Segmented trips are possible with a stopover 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.
HOW MUCH DOES IT COST TO TRAVEL ON A FREIGHTER?
Travel by freighter, the average cost 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.
Historically, German owners have had a two-tier pricing system, with euro prices lower than the prices quoted in US dollars. If you want to convert euros 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 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 A FREIGHTER TRAVEL 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 within 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 the time you are unaware of the fact that you are at sea!
So, if you like 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.
Video: What’s It Like Inside a Cabin on a Freighter Ship?
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. What is life on board a freighter trip like? What is the daily routine?
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 your Kindle filled with reading.
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.
WILL I GET SEASICK?
Could be. Unlike cruise ships, there are no stabilizers on a cargo ship voyage. Accordingly, there can be a significant amount of pitch and roll, depending on the size of the ship, the amount of cargo, and the 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 on 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 limited ability with English. Most of the Filipino crew had a decent command of the language.
WHAT ABOUT SHIPBOARD 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 for 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 on where you are going. No immunizations are required for travel between Europe, the U.S., Canada, and Australia. However, for the transit of either 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, DVDs, reading material, a camera, or whatever. A laptop 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. 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 used to them (smile)
- When booking a cabin, get one as high as possible in the superstructure, 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 officer’s mess, which is usually located on the poop deck (one deck above the main deck on ships not stowing containers aft of the superstructure) or the main deck. Usually, passenger cabins are on the fourth or fifth deck.
- Visit this great updated 2020 Freighter Travel site
- 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 your 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.
Freighter Travel in South America
- Russia: Visiting in 2023 - March 22, 2023
- 10 Must-Visit Places in Portland, Oregon: The City’s Best Attractions - March 20, 2023
- Albania, As Seen By an American Basketball Player - March 17, 2023
49 thoughts on “Freighter Travel Costs and Questions”
You post is not originally this taken directly from Cargotravel.com
Travel by cargo ship with dog with cargoholidays. 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
How may I travel between US NY-NJ Ports and Iran Ports? any experience, recommendations, or guidance?
Very doubtful you can do this on a freighter. Too many restrictions plus Covid.
thanks for this article. Very helpful. Would love information about How to get to the US (east coast) from Sweden. (Im in Stockholm). Any freighters still leaving from Gothenburg to the US that accept passengers? or we have to find another out- port going across the Atlantic? thx Ewa
do they have ship longbeach to manila
can one take a dog/pet with you on a container ship? i am trying to find an alternative to putting my dog on a 24 hour flight.
No, you can’t bring any pets on a cargo ship. NO.
I think you need to be a little more clear. Maybe something like “the one I went on does not allow it” or “Its a standard that every single cargo ship I know of does not allow it”.
When I read your answer it makes me believe that your just saying no to the cargo ship you have been on and other companies may allow it. But then again I know less than you about this industry… in fact I know nothing.
Finding a cargo ship is the last effort I have before either giving up my 2 dogs or chartering a private jet just to move them to south America from the US. No airline will take them and you can not drive it.
“No, you can’t bring any pets on a cargo ship. NO.”
How could it possibly be any clearer that pets aren’t allowed on cargo ships?
Hi I am looking for a cargo freighter to travel from South Africa to Australia with motor bike at the end of 2022?
Back in 1971 I took a cargo ship from South Africa to Australia with my BSA Bantam on which I actually ended up going round the world. i was allowed 40 cub.ft in the hold as accompanied ‘baggage’ and my bike was approx that size. It actually went in a room, never in a crate. And that was true of: Bombay to Mombasa; S. Africa to Australia; Australia to nZ; nZ to Singapore and Bangkok to Hong Kong. I was always a passenger. What the conditions are nowadays I know not. But good luck.
Are there any cargo ships taking passengers from Southern Africa to Australia?
Is it safe for a woman over age 60 for a voyager? Are most ports are safe to travel to during the day?
I have the same question and don’t see any answers
How reliable is the Satellite Hotspot? Is it safe for a woman over 60 to travel solo? How do you find out the layout of the ship before choosing the cabin?
Thank you for this article. I was especially interested in the difficulty of moving around the ship. As a former navy man I forgot just how hard it was to go up and down the stairs. At my current age, I do not believe I could do that much anymore. Too bad.
This was an interesting article. I recall a long time ago hearing about such methods of travel and must have just forgotten about it. I was just reminded in an old movie. There were a lot of good comments that answered some questions. I also watched the video of the fellow showing us his room. It looked quite adequate and not at all cramped. I’m 72 years old but I don’t look it and I’m in good physical condition. I did read that some of these companies do have age restrictions, and I can understand why. But going up and down some steep stairs isn’t an issue for me and I do swim every day in my pool. Getting a certificate for this from my doctor wouldn’t pose a problem. I have to say that taking a cruise on a regular cruise ship has had no appeal to me. I’ve watched videos and talked with family who do that and it’s just not something I want. They seem way too crowded and just not for me. I do however enjoy a nice Hindricks and tonic, smooth jazz, and interesting conversation. Those things seem to be plentiful on one of these ships. I would have to bring my own Hindricks (gin), my laptop, some reading material and maybe my Xbox. It all sounds much more interesting to me than the alternative. Going up on the bridge, conversations with the Captain and crew, that all sounds great. I’m glad I found this article.
Who or where can I get detailed info on what freighter ships offer this service from Los Angeles to Manila/Cebu Philippines? I don’t even know where to start. TIA for any info on this subject!
I’m in the same Boat, no pun intended. I want to go to the Philippines from either Portland Oregon, or Seattle Washington but can find no one who ships there. I cannot believe no vessels travel from Major US Ports such as Portland and Seattle. Any help you can give us would be greatly appreciated. Thank You, Mike
HOW OLD is this article?? Its telling people to bring videotapes to watch and talked about the cost of film. How many people use a film camera anymore, 1 out of a hundred? Who has videotapes lying around?!?!
Yes, that story was published in 2000, but we have edited the copy so it’s been updated for 2021. Thank you, dear reader.
You are so polite to some of these commenters.
Hi I am looking for a cargo freighter to travel from Vancouver to China the shortest route cause I can’t take flight due to my conditions. Thanks
Did you make it from Vancouver to China by ship? I’m trying to do the same trip. Would like to know more.
Thank you so much!
I am hoping to travel from the Seattle area to Costa Rica on a cargo ship… can anybody tell me if the ports in Costa Rica are open now (August 2020) and how can I travel in one of these ships? Thank you for your help!
I had no idea that from Europe to the US, shipments can take about 41 days. Since we just started offering an online shipping option, I wonder if we should look into a contract with a port agent to help us get our products shipped without too much delay between getting an order placed. I would imagine it would be easiest to get a warehouse in the countries we will ship to and then fulfill orders from those warehouses.
Do cargo ships have internet access? Thanks
yes they almost always do. But it might be slow and it will cost money in most cases.
Hey R.F. Ahern and fellow boaters!
Thank you for the article I really enjoyed reading it and I did not know that you can travel on a cargo ship! That’s really amazing.
Me and my husband have a world travel vlog called Dawn Hunters where we post our sailing adventures and also tips for travelers (well, currently we are fixing our 1985 steel motorsailer, so there is much more boatyard adventures for now).
I’ve just started special series for aspiring digital nomads and posted a video called Digital Nomad Series – How to Travel for Free and Get Paid – Hopscotch the Globe on a Boat about crewseekers so you might want to see the video if you are looking into boat travels – they have super cool and unexpected opportunities for cheap or even free travels on boats. They do NOT have cargo ships over there, but maybe not everyone here wants to go on one? Anyways I thought that might be useful for some people!
Also would love to collaborate on the blog/vlog to make an interview or a podcast for some interesting “boaters” stories if you are interested – shoot us an email.
Thank you for sharing!
Wow, I never knew this! I wish I were not so prone to seasickness, this sounds incredible. I would definitely go for the experience, the opportunity to visit other countries and take in the sights and sounds, plus the operations of a cargo ship are seriously impressive.
I am trying to get to Southeast Asia from Saudi Arabia. I am trying to leave in May. Because of COVID the airlines are grounded. Is there anyway I can book on a cargo ship?
great site thanks for all the info. I am looking to go from Barcelona to USA May of 2021, thanks in advance for any help
I have read that one can’t go to Hawai’i, Alaska, or any of the US insular terretories (Guam, Northern Marianas, American Samoa, Puerto Rico, USVI), by freighter because US-flagged freighters don’t take passengers, and foreign-flagged freighters (try saying that three times fast!) are not allowed to take passengers (or cargo, for that matter) between US ports.
However, would it be possible to take a freighter to these places from a Mexican or Canadian port?
Not that I’m a professional traveler, but why pay over $4k to travel in less luxury, and for over a month? You could go an an actual cruise for that money, or if you’re purely looking to travel, fly for a whole lot less. Is it just for the experience?
JR, I think the appeal of freighter travel is that you don’t have to deal with the huge crowds on a regular cruise ship, if you just want time to write, think, look at the ocean and chill totally, that’s the attraction. Yes it’s costly because the cruises are longer!
Some of us hate to fly.
Outside of the mental/health appeal of slow travel, it is much more environmentally friendly (as freighters carry cargo regardless of passenger, so your journey is essentially carbon neutral). Additionally, it is more expensive than a flight, but you’re also paying for several days of lodging and food.
I think some people are “simple” and don’t want luxury or to be pampered. I learned a lot about myself and personality over the years. I hold multiple college degrees—including a post-graduate degree in business. However, I learned and realized that I am happiest and most satisfied working on blue collar skilled trade industries. I learned that I don’t like suits and ties. I don’t like snooty people. I don’t like all the pomp and circumstance of luxury. I enjoy being around everyday working people. I think it will always be that way no matter how much money I have. I feel out of place in luxury places, but I feel right at home around everyday people. I love quiet and having lots of reflection time. I wear working man’s jeans and work boots everywhere I go. I think that living with humility and humbleness makes me feel comfortable.
Are there often any medicines not allowed on freighters?
lookin to travel from Miami to Portsmouth any ideas of cost and travel time
What about wifi?
Forget about wifi!
If one must, one can always bring a satellite phone or a satellite modem. With a satellite phone you pay per minute. With a satellite modem you pay for data. Both can be expensive so I highly suggest you not use, say, a satellite modem to watch YouTube videos or Netflix, but you can do email or chat or even place a phone call via GooglePhone or free VoIP Calls top actual phone numbers via TextNow.com and you can link your laptop to it!! So, you don’t have to be fully off-line. Or you could, if you must, here’s a “low-cost” option: https://satellitephonestore.com/catalog/sale/details/iridium-go-252 No, I don’t work for them. lol -but it’s the type of thing I’ve seen. Good for emails and chat or iMessaging. Just don’t do big Powder Puff attachments. lol Enjoy!
Did the Satellite modem or phone work out as you expected? Is it reliable? Which part of the world did you travel to? Does the cargo ship has wifi for their staff or captain?
I’m planning on a move to Japan and would like to know what freight ship companies handle transit between the U.S. (Port of Seattle Washington) and Japan. Unlike people doing really early planning for a trip later in the year, I’m aiming to make my move in a very short period of time (1-2 weeks). My last concern is if there are any direct shipping routes between the U.S. and Japan. I’d prefer as direct as possible for the quickest trip. I’m certainly not worried about finances.
How can i travel from Toronto to india by frieght
Put your car on the ship. Then you get on. There you go.
I traveled from Japan to southern California in summer 1985. From the above article now in the age of Internet, it looks like you have to (1) find what cargo companies travel your routes, (2) contact each one to get availability/price/procedure, (3) take the trip!
How can I travel one way from the US on a cargo ship, and take my own car on the same ship? I’d like to travel from the north-east US coast (possibly New York,…) to a northern port in France, Belgium, Netherlands, or Germany.