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Cruising ... on a Freighter?

If you like the idea of spending leisurely days or even weeks at sea without the distracting activities and "organized fun" of a conventional cruise, you might want to consider a trip on a freighter. Specialized agencies can arrange freighter trips in most areas of the world (except within the United States, where economics and laws prevent domestic freighter trips).

Some large freight ships offer accommodations for a few paying passengers. But crossing an ocean in a cabin on a big ship is about the only similarity between freighter travel and a conventional cruise. Instead, consider: 

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  • Hardly any freighters carry more than 12 passengers, the maximum allowed for ships that don't carry doctors, and many carry only three to six passengers.
  • Most freighter trips are much longer than typical mass-market cruises: Very few take less than a week, and many take 20 to 50 days, although you can sometimes buy shorter segments.
  • Typical freighters provide no special facilities just for passengers. Instead, passengers eat with the ships' officers and use whatever officers' lounges and recreational facilities the ship might carry.
  • Freighters dock at cargo-handling facilities, which can be remote from the usual destination ports and port activities. Freighter travelers don't get shore excursions.
  • Arrival and departure times are timed for cargo requirements, with some in the small hours of the night, and departure times are often uncertain up to a few hours in advance.
  • Freighters offer no onboard entertainment or amusements; at best, passenger cabins provide TV sets with DVD or VCR players.
  • Many freighters do not have elevators, so you must be able to cope with stairs.
  • Freighters don't put on formal "captain's dinners."
  • Smoking may not be allowed in cabins and even in the dining room.

A leisurely freighter cruise would seem to appeal to senior travelers who have lots of time for traveling, except not too senior. Most freighter lines do not accept travelers over 79; some have even lower limits, and may require medical certificates; most don't accept children under 6.

Clearly, freighter travel is best suited to singles and couples who can enjoy several weeks at sea with nothing to do but read books and watch DVDs, or maybe two couples who want to play bridge all day for a couple of weeks.

Freighter agencies generally group their trips by region: transatlantic, transpacific (north), South Pacific, South America, Caribbean, and round-the-world, plus regional trips in some of these areas.

  • Europe/Mediterranean is your best bet to catch a relatively short one- or two-week cruise; a few transatlantic trips come in at a bit over a week, but most are longer, and other transoceanic trips can take many weeks.
  • Transatlantic freighter trips start or end from U.S. ports on the Gulf and Atlantic coasts; transpacific trips launch from Seattle, San Francisco, or Los Angeles. One line operates seasonal cruises to/from a few Great Lakes ports.
  • Typical current prices range from $100 to $150 per person per day (more than a minimum cabin on a mass-market cruise line).

Most freighter travelers arrange their trips through specialized freighter agencies.

I know of a couple in North America:

Some overseas agencies also market to North American travelers:

And one freight company, Grimaldi, sells passenger cabins directly to the public on trips from its home base in Italy to other European ports, South America, and West Africa.

Obviously, freighter travel is a niche market. But, as far as I can tell, those who have tried it think it's great.

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 Seniors on the Go is copyright (c) 2012 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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