Ahoy there. How to travel by cargo ship

Ahoy there. How to travel by cargo ship

27 July 2011

This article was written by Kate Andrews, co-founder of Loco2 which was rebranded to Rail Europe in November 2019.

Before embarking on a career as a professional travel geek, Loco2's co-founder Kate Andrews crossed the Atlantic Ocean on board a cargo ship as part of a 2-year adventure around the world by land and sea. These explorations of sustainable travel helped to shape Loco2's founding mission - to make it easier for travellers to ditch planes and opt for a lower carbon journey by train. Though not part of our day to day, many people still read this post. However, we don't keep it up to date. This post was written by Kate Andrews. 

Crossing the pond by cargo ship brings new meaning to slow travel. It's a little known fact that you get almost anywhere in the world as a passenger on a cargo ship, without having to be a) an inanimate object or b) stowed away in a shipping container. What's more, it's one of the most sustainable ways to travel. Since you only account for a small percentage of "goods" on board, your presence will have no discernible impact on the efficiency of the vessel so you can sail away with a low-carbon conscience.

It's a common misconception that you can get a $10 passage to Australia if you're willing to take the slow travel option. Sadly, a round-the-world trips in return for doing the dishes isn't on the cards either. However, if you're looking for adventure, then travelling by cargo ship is an experience that money can't buy. And no doubt you'll return with a unique and unconventional perspective on global travel.

How much does travelling by cargo ship cost?

A typical trans-Atlantic crossing takes between 10 and 22 days, and will cost in the region of £1200 (one-way). Before you're put off by the price tag, take into account that this includes meals for the duration of your trip (often more than you can eat), a private cabin, complete with en-suite and access to all the ship’s facilities. Above all what you pay for is the experience of a lifetime.

What's it like travelling on a freighter?

The level of luxury is dependent on the carrier. Some have DVD players and state-of-the-art entertainment facilities, others have VHS and a ping pong table, but if it’s an experience you’re after then you couldn’t ask for more. Food varies from ship to ship (often depending on the nationality of the crew), and you will probably eat in the officer’s mess along with the more senior crew onboard.

Freighter ship travel can at times be an emotional rollercoaster as it's quite unlike anything you've done before. Everyone's experience will be different but you're certainly in for the adventure of a lifetime. Loco2 co-founder Kate Andrews travelled on a freighter from Dover to Costa Rica so we've first-hand experience of this alternative way to travel. It can be lonely if you travel alone (as I discovered in the early days of my adventure), and sometimes deadly boring, but with a stash of good books and a willingness to engage with the crew the time will soon be slipping away.

Image titleTravelling by cargo ship: the crew

What’s the carbon impact?

There are lots of reports about the environmental impact of shipping, and discussions about whether it's ethical to ship goods by sea. But not much has been said about the carbon impact of passengers on board freight ships.

It’s true that overall, shipping contributes more than aviation to global carbon emissions. However, if the equivalent volume of freight were transported by air it would be a very different picture. As a mode of passenger transport cargo-ship travel has a very low carbon footprint since the weight of a few passengers has a negligible effect on the efficiency of the engine, but that doesn't make it a sustainable mode of travel. Put simply, these boats use a lot of fuel and can carry very few passengers, so in spite of the romance associated with stowing away to sea, travelling on a freighter is not a sustainable, nor scalable, alternative to airlines.  

Image titletravelling on a cargo ship

Logistical issues and really slow travel

Because the whole purpose of the journey is to deliver or pick up goods from around the world, timetables are often subject to change. This could mean that you receive a call a week before you expected to leave saying it’s time to pack your bags! Or of course you could be delayed. You really need to embrace the slow travel mindset when undertaking a cargo ship adventure. Take lots of books, a dictionary so you can communicate with your crew and a diary so you can document your days for posterity!

Booking Cargo ship travel

There are several agencies who can help you to research and book cargo ship travel all over the world. I used Strand Voyages to plan my trip on the Alicante Carrier in 2009. They've since closed, and are now pointing travellers to one of the agencies below. Bear in mind that the number of ships and passengers is limited so all the agents have access to the same ones. With that in mind it's probably best to choose one agent and stick with them. 

Generally, while there is some flexibility, ships prefer to reserve berths for those travelling over long distances, so undertaking only part of a voyage might not be possible. 

Resources for booking cargo ship travel include:

Seaplus.com which has lots of information and points to other resources

RMS-Helena somewhere between cargo and cruise, specialises in travel around Southern Africa coastal regions

CMS-CGA Boasts worldwide passage, but limited info on site. Contact via email for more info

Seatravel Recommended elsewhere but haven't come across personally

Cargo Ship Voyages  Comes recommended by recent travellers

Cruise People Not a nicely designed site, but does include itineraries and agents will help you to book

Image Credits: ©Kate Andrews

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