by Niall Doherty

In this article I’m going to tell you all about my trip across my Pacific Ocean on a cargo ship, and tell you everything you need to know about booking your own cargo ship adventure.

There shall also be videos of men dancing badly.

(You have been warned!)

The Pros & Cons Of Cargo Ship Travel

  • Off the beaten track
    Explore routes and coastlines most travelers will never see.
  • Solitude
    Lots of time alone and without distractions. Spend it reading, writing, thinking.
  • Generous
    luggage policies

    No need to pack light or measure your suitcase to make sure it fits in an overhead bin. You can usually bring two big suitcases aboard at no extra charge.
  • Experience life at sea
    You’ll often be allowed visit the engine room, the bridge, and other interesting parts of the ship. You may also be invited to dine with the captain and crew and hear tales of pirates and booty.
  • Slow
    An hour on a plane will get you as far as 24 hours on a cargo ship.
  • Expensive
    Cargo ship travel will cost you about $125-$145 per day. (Though you might be able to swing a free trip; see below.)
  • Boring
    You’ll have little entertainment or social interaction. Most ships are without internet, you might be the only passenger, and the crew will be busy at work most of the day.
  • Rougher ride
    You’re more likely to experience motion sickness on a cargo ship than a cruise ship since cargo ships don’t use stabilizers.

My Experience
Crossing The Pacific Ocean On A Cargo Ship

In early 2014 I traveled by cargo ship from Japan to Peru, with stops in Mexico and Panama along the way.

My route across the Pacific

My route across the Pacific on a cargo ship.

The entire trip took 26 days and cost me $4,526 (including all associated banking fees, travel insurance, medical check-up, etc.).

26 days from Japan to Peru
$
4526 total cost (USD)

Below is a video I made about the trip.

In it you will see:​

  • The facilities aboard the ship (cabin, lounge, gym, swimming pool, etc.).
  • The type of meals I ate.
  • Some beautiful sunsets.
  • Dolphins frolicking on the waves.
  • Me dancing like an eejit ¯_(ツ)_/¯

How To Travel For Free
On A Cargo Ship

Catching a free ride aboard a cargo ship is difficult, but not impossible.

I personally have never managed to score a freebie, so I reached out to Thor Pedersen of Once Upon A Saga for advice here.

Four things you need to know about Thor:

  • He is on a mission to visit every country in the world without flying.
  • As of this writing, he’s more than halfway there. You can follow his progress here.
  • He has enjoyed several free trips aboard cargo ships on his travels.
  • He’s also partial to the occasional dance on the high seas.

I asked Thor for his best tips for scoring free trips aboard freighters, and here’s what he advised:

1

thor-cargo-ship-01Ask The Right Person

Never ask the captain unless he is also the owner!

I find that captains find it slightly or massively annoying when travelers want to hitch a ride. It’s their “office” and they are rarely concerned with where you want to go. They just want to get “out there” and follow their routine.

The captain is much more likely to okay it when the company is asking.

So I advise to work out who owns the boat/ship and connect with them. With container carriers there is often a fleet manager. If you can’t find him on their webpage then a PR manager is also ideal.

I work out which boats go where by googling it, by calling port authorities or by going to the port. A ship’s name is often enough to find the owners online. If I’m in a small place (eg Caribbean) then people are usually willing to help and everybody knows everybody anyway.

2

thor-cargo-ship-02Give Them A Good Reason

You need to sell it!

Why should they bring you onboard?

I have quite a solid story: every country in the world without flying, returning home or spending less than 24 hours. People respond to that.

In addition I’m trying hard to advocate for the “normal” people of whom there are most. I try to prove that the world is a better place that what most people think. I try to adjust people’s perception on reality.

A lot of companies respond positively to that. They want to help. They want to take part.

3

thor-cargo-ship-03Keep Calm And Carry On

I try to stay friendly, kind, patient, polite, charming, humble and I tend to smile a lot. I’m sure that helps too.

  • Important note
    You absolutely cannot work aboard a cargo ship in exchange for passage. This may have been possible decades ago, but not anymore. Becoming a crew member on a modern cargo ship requires years of study and training.

How To Book
Cargo Ship Travel

If you’re happy to pay for your trip aboard a cargo ship, follow these steps to make a booking.

  • First, a tip...
    It’s best to book far in advance since passenger cabins are limited on cargo ships and the most popular routes sell out quickly. Plan six months ahead to have a good shot at securing the trip you want when you want it.
1

Think about the experience you’d like to have

You can go pretty much anywhere by cargo ship nowadays. To narrow down all the available options, first think about what’s most important to you.

For example:

  • Do you want to travel by cargo ship just for the hell of it and don’t really care where you go?
  • Are you trying to get to/from a specific port?
  • Do you want to travel a particular route?
2

Explore options on these agency websites

It’s best to book cargo ship travel through a specialist travel agency. There are quite a few out there, but I recommend these six:

It’s also worth checking for additional agencies in your home country or in the country you want to travel to/from.

For example, googling “Freighter Travel New Zealand” leads you to an agency or two based in that part of the world.

Browse each website and you’ll find tons of options available for cargo ship travel. Make note of those you like best.

3

Call/email to receive specific dates and prices

By now you should have a good idea of where you want to go and when.

The fastest way to proceed is to call/email each of the aforementioned agencies, tell them your requirements, and see what dates and prices they come back with.

Here are the contact details for each:

+61 2 8270 4899 (Australia) enquiries@freighterexpeditions.com.au

+44 (0) 1983 30 33 14 (UK)
info@cargoshipvoyages.com

+44 (0)20-7723 2450 (UK)
PassageEnquiry@aol.com

+44 (0) 203 371 9484 (UK)
mail@seatravelltd.co.uk

800-872-8584 (USA)
cruises@travltips.com

For example, I emailed The Cruise People to ask if they could help me get from Hong Kong to Australia, and they replied back with the following:

You can download the PDF that was attached to that email here. But please note that the information in that PDF may be outdated by the time you read this. Best contact an agent yourself to make sure you’re getting the latest info.

4

4. Confirm the details and make the booking

Once you find a trip you like the sound of, check the following before sending the deposit and securing the booking:

  • You have a valid passport or can get one in time for the trip.
  • You can acquire all the necessary visas for the foreign countries you’ll be visiting on the trip.
  • You have all the required immunizations and medical certificates, or can get them in time for the trip. (Ask your agent what's required here.)
  • You can acquire proof of onward travel if necessary for the country you’ll be disembarking to (assuming you’re not a citizen of that country).

Once you have all that checked and you’ve sent your deposit, you’ll need to...

5

Get all your documentation in order

The exact documentation you’ll be required to submit will depend on which travel agency you book through and which shipping company you’ll be hitching a ride with.

CMA-CGMTo give you an idea of what’s involved, here’s a list of all the documentation I had to submit for my trip across the Pacific with Sea Travel Ltd. (the travel agent) and CMA-CGM (the shipping company).

All of these documents were transferred via email. I often had to print, fill out, scan, and email back.

You’ll usually be required to submit all of this stuff at least three weeks before your trip.

  • General Sales Conditions / Passenger Declaration

This was a list of CMA-CGM’s terms and conditions that I had to sign and date.

  • Indemnity Agreement

This was a legal document to cover CMA-CGM’s ass in case something went wrong while at sea.

You know, like Life of Pi.

Signed and dated.

  • Insurance Declaration

world-nomadsI had to provide details of my international travel insurance. I was insured with World Nomads at the time and that worked fine.

You may also be required to provide your Certificate of Insurance from your insurance company.

  • Medical Certificate

Must be filled in by a doctor no more than 30 days before sailing date, to prove that you’re fit and able to travel.

I went to a health clinic in South Korea and it was fine, just a simple check-up. I also sent them my receipt from the hospital just to be safe.

Note that if you are over 70 years of age some freighters will refuse to take you no matter how good your health is.

  • An onward ticket from country of disembarkment

If you’ll be disembarking in a foreign country, you may be asked to provide proof of onward travel, just like at an airport. I was required to provide such proof for Peru, so I went online and bought a cheap bus ticket from Peru to Ecuador. The email receipt was my proof, though I never ended up taking that bus.

  • Proof of required vaccinations

yellow-bookUsually this will be a copy of your yellow book.

I had to show that I had the yellow fever vaccination. Many cargo ship voyages will require that you at least have that one and it can cost $150 or more to get it in the Western World so be sure to factor that into your costs.

  • Your actual cargo ship ticket

The agent sends this to you with some details you need to fill in.

  • A copy of your passport

Which must be valid at least six months beyond your anticipated return date.

passports

  • Copies of any required visas

Use this handy widget to check what visas you might need:

Note: You may only require a visa for the country you embark from, and the country you disembark to. For any short stops in between, you may be allowed off the ship for a few hours to go explore, even without a visa, just like the crew are usually allowed do. It’s best to check with your agent though to see if this will be true for you.

  • Emergency contact information

Name, address and telephone number of a friend or family member who should be contacted in case you hit an iceberg or something.

Video credit: What’s it like to travel on a cargo ship to South America by Jason Spafford, Two Wheeled Nomad 2016 © twowheelednomad.com

Frequently Asked Questions

“Why is it so expensive to travel by cargo ship?”

Best I can figure, it’s because the freighter companies don’t care. They’re carrying multimillion dollar cargoes, and they only have room for a handful of passengers on each ship.

It’s not exactly big business for them, so they probably charge a high price to make it worth their while.

“Are there cheaper alternatives for traveling by sea?”

Yes.

Regular cargo ship travel will usually cost you $125/day or more.

Cheaper options:

  • Check CruiseSheet.com for really great deals on cruise ships, some as low as $47 per day.

Here’s a nice repositioning cruise I found from Spain to Florida later this year…

cruise-sheet-example

  • Register on FindaCrew.net and try find yachts and sailboats on the routes you’re looking for.

Many boats will take on newbies as part of the crew, so you can scrub decks and peel potatoes in exchange for passage.

You can find paying positions on there, too – and thereby make a little money on the high seas – though you’ll usually need some solid experience to swing that.

Here’s a listing I found on Find a Crew just now for a sailboat heading from Panama to the Pacific Islands and looking for crew…

findacrew-example

And here’s a little promo video for Find a Crew:

Two things to be aware of with sailboats:

  • Getting from A to B by sailboat will usually take a while. Panama to French Polynesia, for example, can take 54 days by sailboat (according to this report), whereas your average cargo ship would cover that distance in about two weeks.
  • Smaller boats tend to feel the motion of the ocean a lot more, so there’s a much higher chance of seasickness.
Bring along some Dramamine and avoid this fate!

Bring along some Dramamine and avoid this fate!

“Can I work aboard a cargo ship in exchange for passage?”

No. Modern union rules don’t allow it. You need to be trained and qualified nowadays to work aboard a cargo ship.

“What is there to do aboard a cargo ship?”

Not a lot, to be honest.

I mostly kept busy with the following activities:

  • The Cargo Ship DiariesReading
  • Writing (I wrote an entire book while crossing the Pacific)
  • Exercise
  • Studying Spanish
  • Exploring the ship and chatting with the crew
  • Watching the occasional movie

If the weather is good, you can also find yourself a nice spot out on deck and work on your tan.

“What are the meals like?”

I was on a French ship with a French chef, so the meals were quite good. Lunch and dinner were both three courses and served by the chief steward on a white table cloth.

Breakfast was a help-yourself affair with cereal, bread, eggs… that kind of thing.

That said, you should expect the quality of the cuisine to vary greatly from ship to ship.

Also, to be clear, you don’t pay anything extra to eat while aboard the ship. All your meals are included as part of the $120/day or whatever you pay up front.

Somewhere in the middle of the Pacific Ocean: a typical dinner aboard the CMA-CGM La Traviata.

Somewhere in the middle of the Pacific Ocean: a typical dinner aboard the CMA-CGM La Traviata.

“What is the accommodation like?”

Again, this will vary from ship to ship, but you can expect most passenger cabins to be quite nice, akin to a decent hotel room.

My cabin aboard the CMA-CGM ship was quite spacious, with a double bed, a sofa, a private bathroom, and a big desk.

Here’s a 30-second video tour of it:

“What other facilities and services can I expect?”

Don’t expect Internet access.

Most ships have satellite internet access nowadays but usage is heavily restricted. I could only send and receive email via a custom address CMA-CGM set up for me. The system would save all the emails and send/receive in batches twice a day.

Aside from that, it’ll depend on the ship you’re on.

My cabin was cleaned once per day and I had access to washer and dryer to do my own laundry.

There was also a little fitness room on board for exercise, a small swimming pool for splashing around in, and they had a big closet full of DVDs that I could watch in the private passenger lounge.

Many ships will have a “slop chest” where passengers and crew can buy cigarettes, beer, toiletries, etc. Payment is usually only accepted in cash USD.

The fitness room aboard the CMA-CGM La Traviata

The fitness room aboard the CMA-CGM La Traviata. Table tennis was tough when the waves got rough.

“Will I have much interaction with the crew and other passengers?”

You won’t have a ton of interaction with the crew as they are essentially working full-time jobs while aboard the ship. If there are other passengers, you can of course befriend them and wile away the hours together.

On my trip across the Pacific, I was the only passenger and so had several hours a day to myself.

Depending on the ship, you may get to dine with the crew and interact with them regularly that way. I was invited to dine at the captain’s table for dinner on Sundays, but other than that I was eating alone at my own table.

I was allowed to visit the bridge anytime I wanted – the captain gave me the code to the door – so I was able to wander up there and chat with whichever two guys were on duty. (Two people always had to be present on the bridge when the ship was in motion.)

The view from the bridge as we approached the Panama Canal.

The view from the bridge as we approached the Panama Canal.

“Is a cargo ship a good place to pick up chicks?”

Uh, no.

Female crew is a rarity.

All 33 crew on the ship that took me across the Pacific were male.

Twas just me and a boatload of seamen :-/

The lunch and dinner menus were presented like this every day aboard the ship, always with a saucy pic.

The lunch and dinner menus were presented like this every day aboard the ship, always with a saucy pic.

“Will I be allowed to explore the ship freely?”

Probably not.

I wasn’t allowed out on deck alone for the first few days at sea because conditions were a bit rough. Later I was allowed go out for a wander but had to notify the bridge before and after.

As mentioned, I was given the code for the door to the bridge so I was allowed go up there whenever I wanted and chat with whoever was on duty.

To see the engine room and other interesting parts of the ship I had to be accompanied by a crew member. Which was actually better, because they were able to show me some cool stuff and explain how it all worked.

All the engine power aboard the CMA-CGM La Traviata goes into turning this propeller shaft. The propeller weighs 98 tonnes and can move the vessel along at a top speed of 25 knots. Our average speed was about 19 knots though. We covered 800+ kilometers per day, approximately 10,000 kilometers overall from Japan to Peru.

All the engine power aboard the CMA-CGM La Traviata goes into turning this propeller shaft. The propeller weighs 98 tonnes and can move the vessel along at a top speed of 25 knots. Our average speed was about 19 knots though. We covered 800+ kilometers per day, approximately 10,000 kilometers overall from Japan to Peru.

“What should I bring with me aboard a cargo ship?”

Some suggestions:

  • Lots of reading material
  • A laptop with some movies and TV shows loaded up and ready to watch
  • Seasickness tablets
  • Toiletries
  • Sunscreen
  • A power converter 1

“What are some other things I should be aware of?”

  • Age

If you’re over 70 years old, some companies will refuse to take you as a passenger. Many companies will also refuse to take young children.

  • Luggage

luggageAccording to The Cruise People you’re allowed 100 kilos (or 205 lbs) per person.

Keep in mind though that there is no porterage service, the gangways can be very steep and you have to be able to stow everything safely in your cabin as there is no baggage room.

If you want to bring your car or motorcycle along for the ride, that’s also doable but likely to cost you an extra $500 or more, plus customs charges.

  • Pets

Sorry, no cargo ship company I know of will let you bring pets aboard. Try Pet Movers instead.

  • Americans

If you’re a US citizen you’re not allowed travel by cargo ship between one US port and another.

  • Proper Attire

This gentleman will see you right…

  • Getting Off The Ship

Often your ship will stop at many other ports along the way to your destination. You may not be allowed get off the ship at these ports. And even if you are allowed, you won’t have much time to go explore, usually a few hours at the most. Check in advance with your agent how much freedom you’ll have here.

  • No Fixed Schedule

Cargo ships can get held up in port by bad weather or other factors. In Japan I had to wait a couple of days longer than expected before embarking, and arrived in Peru later than expected.

Sunset crossing the equator, somewhere off the coast of Ecuador.

Sunset crossing the equator, somewhere off the coast of Ecuador.

“Is it more environmentally friendly to travel by cargo ship?”

I’d have to say no.

It took me 26 days to get from Japan to Peru on a ship that burned about 6 tonnes of fuel per hour. That’s 3,744 tonnes of fuel total.

Alternatively, I could have spent 19 hours on a plane to move between the same locations. A 747 burns about 10 tonnes of fuel per hour, so that works out to only 190 tonnes of fuel total.

Of course, both the cargo ship and the plane are going to make those journeys whether you’re on them or not, so your choice doesn’t make much difference either way.

In general though, according to a Defra study noted in The Guardian, transporting goods by by sea is 44 times more efficient than transporting them by air.

Unloading La Traviata in Peru.

Unloading La Traviata in Peru.

“Am I likely to encounter rough seas aboard a cargo ship?”

It depends on two things: the weather and the size of the ship.

The bigger the ship, the less you’ll feel the rolling. And you’re unlikely to encounter any bad storms since they see them coming and steer around them. (For example, we shifted course across the Pacific to avoid a storm near the Hawaiian islands.)

That said, there were nights where it was difficult to sleep because of the rolling.

I found that the “soldier’s crawl” position was the best to adopt to get some shut-eye.

Soldier's crawl: the best sleeping position for rough seas.

Soldier’s crawl: the best sleeping position for rough seas.

“Is it possible to travel to remote Pacific islands on a cargo ship?”

It is indeed. A fine seafaring dentist by the name of Thomas Booth wrote about his experience cargo shipping to:

  • French Polynesia
  • The Tuamotus
  • The Marquesas
  • The Cook Islands
  • Western Samoa
  • Tonga
  • Vavau
  • Fiji
  • Vanuatu
  • The Solomon Islands
  • Papua New Guinea
  • Micronesia

Read his full report here: How to Take Cargo Ships to Remote Pacific Islands

What Else Would You Like To Know About Cargo Ship Travel?

Is there anything you want to know about cargo ship travel that I didn’t cover in this article?

Drop a comment below with any additional questions you have and I’ll reply ASAP.

You can also ask me a question privately via this page or check out my book to read lots more about my experience circumnavigating the globe without flying.

Footnotes

  1. Most cargo ships use a 220 volt power supply. If you have electronics bought anywhere in the Americas, you’re going to need a converter since many such electronics run on 110 volts or thereabouts (though some are designed to run on a higher voltage so check that first). Here’s a handy list of voltage standards by country.