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Is Freighter Travel an Option?

AskEd & AnswerEd
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Editor's Note: This story was originally published on August 11, 2008. To see the most recent SmarterTravel articles on related topics, please click on any of the following links: AskEd & AnswerEd, cruise, Ed Perkins.

Traveling on a seagoing freighter has long been an intriguing but mysterious option. One reader recently asked:

"I would like to travel from the Eastern U.S. to Europe on a freighter. How can I arrange that?"

The short answer is to arrange a trip through one of the several agencies that specialize in freighter travel, including Maris Freighter Cruises, Freighter World Cruises, and TravLtips. Available trips include Houston, New Orleans, Savannah, and Port Everglades to several ports in Spain and Italy; and New York and Savannah to ports in Spain and Italy. The cost of the shortest transatlantic crossing I could find, at 13 days from Savannah to Valencia, is about $1,700 per person plus about $400 in fees.

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But this question raises the broader issue of freighter travel, generally, that might be of interest to a wide range of potential customers.

The Basics

A few large freight ships include accommodations for small numbers of paying passengers. Some hold as few as four—two cabins—although many accommodate up to 12, and a few accommodate more. Individual travelers can book those accommodations through agencies I cite above. As far as I know, no freighter line sells directly to the public and I've never seen freighter accommodations posted on the large conventional cruise agency websites.

Freighter travelers generally have meals with the ships' officers and they have access to any officers' lounges and any other recreational facilities the ship might carry. Some have swimming pools for crew use. As far as I know, none of the passenger-carrying ships provides any special facilities just for passengers.

Most freighter cabin accommodations have twin beds, but some ships carry one or two single cabins. Freighter cabins are typically considerably larger than typical cruise cabins. Most include separate bedroom and sitting areas and private bath and shower; most have either forward or side views. Deluxe "owners' cabins" on some ships, when available, are the best onboard accommodations.

The Ultimate "Un-Cruise"

"Freighter cruise" is really an oxymoron: About the only similarity between a conventional cruise and a freighter trip is that both involve being on the ocean. Beyond that, they're entirely different.

  • Freighter itineraries are determined by freight requirements, not appeal to passengers.
  • Freighters dock at cargo-handling facilities—not cruise ports—often some distance from any interesting destination highlights. You won't find any convenient "shore excursions."
  • Sailing and arrival times are not timed for the convenience of passengers; they may be in the small hours of the night.
  • Freighters offer no onboard entertainment or amusements; at best, a few ships offer limited convenience-store shopping. Most ships now provide TV sets with DVD or VCR players.
  • Freighters may not have elevators; even on those that do, getting around the ship can require navigating lots of stairs and companionways.
  • Freighters do not carry doctors—some crew members are trained in solving minor medical problems, but in general, you shouldn't get sick.
  • Dress is casual at all times—no formal "gala" banquets, which is either a plus or a minus, depending on your view.
  • Smoking may be allowed—even in the dining room.

Most freighter lines establish minimum and maximum ages of travelers they'll accommodate. Typically that means no children under 13, and the senior cutoff ages range from 75 to 85. In addition, senior travelers may need doctors' certificates of health.

All in all, freighter travel is for healthy individuals and couples who would enjoy several weeks at sea with almost no distractions—and maybe a large stack of books. It's ideal for two couples that would like nothing better than two or three solid weeks of nonstop bridge, with no distractions.

Arranging a Freighter Trip

Freighter trips are generally arranged through specialized freighter agencies. The three main U.S.-based agencies, as noted above, are Maris, Freighter World Travel, and TravLtips.

In addition, the U.K.-based site The Cruise People Ltd arranges freighter travel along with other specialty trips, geared to a European audience. It's especially good for regularly scheduled passenger/cargo runs that serve the U.K.

Routes and Prices

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

  • Transatlantic freighter trips depart from several U.S. ports, on the Gulf and Atlantic; transpacific trips generally depart from Seattle, San Francisco, or Los Angeles. One line with regular trips departs from Great Lakes ports, passing through the Welland Canal and St. Lawrence Seaway.
  • Freighter trips are generally longer than the most popular conventional cruises. From originating port to final destination, a one-way freighter trip usually takes several weeks and many take longer than a month, and a round-trip can take two or more months. Ditto for round-the-world trips.
  • Most freighter trips sell individual segments of the total voyage. The shortest available segments typically start at around two weeks.
  • Prices on most freighter trips these days are set in euros. Typical prices for double cabins are in the range of €90 to €100 (about $138 to $153; see XE.com for current exchange rates) per person per day, plus some extra fees and taxes.

There is some overlap among the various freighter travel agencies, but not total. If you're interested, you should check out all four for the widest range of choices.

 
 
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