Air travel is speedy. Road trips are scenic. Train travel is easy.
But there’s nothing quite as magical as traveling on the water.
Feeling the wind on your face as soon as you step out of your room. Nothing but ocean as far as the eye can see. I have a soft spot for traveling internationally by boat.
But did you know the cruise ship isn’t the only game in town?
Contrary to popular belief, the ships you see parked in the industrial section of the harbor do take private passengers. This mode of transportation is called freighter travel, and it’s my new favorite way to see the world.
I was lucky enough to enjoy a voyage on a small freighter that had been modified somewhat for tourism. The trip was a slow one, giving the passengers plenty of time to relax, mingle and watch the ocean go by as the crew worked.
Before I jump into the best freighter travel companies, there’s one crucial question I should address: Why choose freighter travel over any other mode of transportation… especially cruise ships?
Why Choose Freighter Travel?
Freighter travel is a lot like a cruise… but without all the glitz and glamor.
A lot of people have criticized cruises for cheesy entertainment that belongs in Las Vegas. Or for food buffets that cater to people’s gluttony. Freighters don’t have any of that. Instead of watching shows or binge eating, you have time to enjoy the view and get to know the other people on the ship.
My favorite part of freighter travel is talking with workers on the ship. They’re typically from different places all over the world and more than willing to share their stories with you. I’ve never had that experience on a cruise ship!
The cuisine is prepared by a professional chef. You can’t choose your menu, but you can choose your freighter line, and several of the European companies have perks like authentic French cuisine in the galley.
Freighter schedules are extremely flexible. If you have a few months, you can sail around the world instead of buying a round-trip plane ticket. There are shorter trips that only take a few weeks, so don’t let a time constraint keep you from discovering the advantages of freighter travel.
A huge bonus is that most freighter companies let you customize your own route. This is a game changer!
You’ll probably pay more for freighter travel than for an airline ticket. Freighter tickets usually hover around 125 USD per day. This may put you off initially, but remember that the fare includes accommodation, meals and access to almost all parts of the ship. You don’t pay extra to stop at any of the ports, either. All things considered, freighter travel might end up being cheaper than flying!
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How to Prepare for Freighter Travel
The following tips will help you pack your suitcase right.
- Clothing. You’ll need a selection of warm clothes for those breezy nights at sea and sturdy shoes for moving about the deck. This isn’t a cruise ship, so don’t use conventional wisdom when it comes to packing for a luxury ocean liner. You might need something dressy for a special dinner or event, but it’s more likely that you can make do with a cocktail dress and leave the evening gown at home.
- Documentation. Before you depart, you have to make sure that you have the proper paperwork to legally enter every country on your route. That could include passports, visas or other forms of identification. Some booking companies offer this service, but most recommend that you contact the consulate of each country personally to determine your exact status. Most ships require each passenger to have medical insurance.
- Health and Safety. Freighter travel requires more stringent health requirements than airline travel. Make sure you can easily navigate at least two flights of stairs if you’re traveling on a larger freighter. Depending on their exact routes, certain companies require that all passengers get vaccinated for yellow fever.
- Entertainment. Make room for books, journals and other activities, as a freighter doesn’t have the same entertainment facilities as cruise ships. Freighters often don’t have an internet connection, so make sure your travel apps work offline. This is the perfect time to study the language of your final destination with FluentU’s offline capabilities!
Looking for Something Cooler Than a Cruise? Try Freighter Travel!
Types of Freighters
There are three main types of freighters that make up the global fleet, although sizes and exact designs vary. The biggest are the container ships. Next are the smaller general cargo ships that carry anything a container cannot. The smallest vessels in the fleet are mail and supply ships.
The general rule is that the bigger the ship, the longer the route. Trans-ocean and worldwide routes are usually associated with the big ships. Some of the smaller cargo ships that operate in places like French Polynesia have been modified to make passengers more comfortable.
Freighter Travel Companies and Routes
Your seafaring voyage can be a means to get somewhere or be the actual trip itself. Virtually all the departure points are also tourist attractions in their own right. Some are off the beaten path and can’t be reached via air.
Most of the following companies will organize your itinerary for you while others will ask you to create an ideal itinerary on your own before you contact them.
Start to plan your route by asking where you want to go. Are you thinking about crossing an ocean or exploring an archipelago? Options for both exist in the world of freighter travel.
Freighter Travel (NZ)
The ocean is an integral part of life and culture in New Zealand, so it’s not surprising that one of the world’s dominant global freighter companies is based in the country’s port city of Napier.
You can book a trip with this line through the official Tourism New Zealand website.
Travel options range from a two-week voyage to a round-the-world trip lasting several months. Freighter Travel (NZ) doesn’t offer any set packages. Your route is entirely up to you!
Freighter Travel (NZ) even offers to help arrange any connecting flights or ground transportation included in your trip. Take advantage of extended time ashore to explore the ports!
Maris is one of the largest and oldest companies that specialize in freighter travel. It’s based in the United States and has been organizing voyages and bookings for a variety of trip types since 1993. Because they’re so well-established, their website is probably the easiest to use and navigate of all the companies on this list.
Maris has numerous freighter options. For example, a coastal trip can start in Halifax, Canada, and move south along to Atlantic coastline. Or you can take a smaller supply ship to several smaller ports of call in Greece.
There are several suggested routes on their website that cover every kind of freighter transportation virtually anywhere in the world, but they also encourage potential travelers to create their own adventures.
The Cruise People Ltd.
This company is based in a classic seaport, London, and books trips that include freighter travel along with several other forms of sea-based transportation. The options on their website are organized by the level of luxury, type of ship and route taken. The Cruise People Ltd. is a great company to use if you want to book a round-the-world excursion!
A lot of routes are transatlantic and start from Halifax or other points along the East Coast of the United States. Rendezvous points include cities throughout Oceania, Europe and Asia with connections to French and Italian freighters located throughout the Mediterranean.
The Cruise People Ltd. also books trips for special expeditions, smaller luxury cruise lines and old-fashioned tall ships.
Sea Travel Limited
Travelers can book modern cruises or freighter trips on the Sea Travel Limited website, another company based in London, England. They have an impressive catalog of routes under the freighter category.
Experience a classic route, such as London to New York. Or leave from America’s West Coast and take a boat to China or an exotic port in the South Pacific.
The descriptions of routes and lists of arrival and departure points is listed on the website, organized by location and total duration of the route. Remember that you don’t have to stay for the whole route—you can choose a certain section or time frame.
Sea Travel Limited books freighter trips all around the world. Some of the companies on this list focus on one-way trips, but this is a great option if you want a round-trip experience.
You don’t have to row these boats gently down a stream. Let the crew take care of that.
But when you see the views and experience the thrill of freighter travel, you’ll still conclude that life is a dream.
Kristy Ambrose has been writing professionally since 2010. She dabbles in various genres, including everything from short blog posts to serialized novels. Her inspiration comes from gamers, beachcombers, foodies and of course her fellow travelers. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in English literature from the University of Victoria.