Sailing the Seven Seas: How to Travel by Container Ship

When most people think of a sea voyage, they think: cruise ship, wealthy and obnoxious retirees, bars, shops, discos … But another, far more satisfying way of sailing the seven seas exists: containers ships, or, as Americans call them, freighter ships. The problem is that if you walk into any travel agent and say, ‘I’d like to arrange a voyage by container ship’, you will get a blank stare in response. So here are a few tips to get on board.

What destinations? Each year 44,000 container ships ply the world’s major trade routes. Some of those ships take passengers and they will take you to most destinations on the globe. You can go around the world in 84 days or belt your way from Sydney to South Korea in 10 days. It is up to you, but the common destinations are on both sides of the Atlantic, along the trade route from Europe through the Suez Canal and the Far East via Singapore, and across the Pacific between North America and Asia. It is easy to sail from Australia and New Zealand to Europe, North America and Asia. Since the ships typically spend 12 hours or more in port, you can usually get a shore pass for a few hours. But make sure you are back a couple of hours earlier than advised, since ETDs vary.

How frequently do they sail? Two examples: four times a week a passenger-bearing ship leaves Bristol (UK) for North America; twice a month a CMA-CGM ship leaves Sydney for Europe via the Panama Canal. In other words, more frequently than you would expect! Remember, the purpose of such ships is to move freight: passengers must fit in with that. So you need to be prepared to board a day or two earlier or later from the initial date given. Flexibility is the key.

Is the accommodation comfortable? Forget compact cabins and bunk beds; on a container ship you will be given one of three officer cabins. Bathroom, shower, comfortable beds in a separate bedroom, living space, desk, plenty of portholes – all make for a very comfortable voyage. Plus you have access to the recreation room with spacious lounges, TV and DVD player, large desks.

How many passengers? Up to six, since the rules change beyond that number. Often there is less.

How old do you need to be? Between 6 and 80, although at the upper end you usually need a medical certificate to clear you for travel.

What is life on board like? They are working ships, so you fit in with that. 20 to 25 crew are on the ship, including officers and engineers. The crew are mostly Filipino, Korean, Kiribati and so on, and the officers often but not necessarily European. Above all, life is quiet, relaxing and simple. Unlike a passenger ship, you are allowed anywhere on the ship. The bridge is a favourite haunt, where you can talk with the officer on duty or enjoy the peace and quiet. The deck and engine room are also yours to explore, although the officer on duty likes to be told where you plan to go and – for the engine room – the engineer needs to give you the nod.

What do you do? Ponder the sea: out on the ocean you have the million different moods and shades of the sea to keep you mesmerised. Talk with people: at meal times, on the bridge, on deck, at the equator barbeque, over a drink at a party – everyone loves to talk at some time. Read: there is usually a library. Exercise: run up and down the hundreds of stairs or use the small gym. Write: about the voyage. Snooze: whenever you want. In short, you learn to entertain yourself and enjoy your own company.

What is the food like? You eat what the officers and crew eat, made by the cook. The quality varies from cook to cook, but is usually excellent. French ships (like CMA-CGM) often include wine with lunch and dinner.

How much does it cost? If you think of a container voyage as a means to get from A to B, it is more expensive than most flying. If you think of it in terms of travel, good food and accommodation for anywhere between 10 and 90 days, then it is relatively cheap. For example, on a recent voyage of 37 days from Melbourne to Tilbury (the port on the Thames), I paid $AUD 4500. That’s about $AUD 120 a day, or EURO 90 per day. You can find cheaper and more expensive fares, ranging from $85 to $180 per day.

Who do you ask? A few travel agents deal specifically with container travel, such as The Cruise People in the UK, A La Carte Freighter Travel in Canada, Freighter World Cruises in the USA, or Freighter Expeditions in Australia. However, by far the best is Hamish Jamieson’s Freighter Travel NZ – He is able to get you on a ship earlier than most, especially to and from Australia-New Zealand.

Not long ago (the 1950s) a sea voyage used to be the way most people travelled ‘overseas’. Who knows, maybe it may soon be so again.


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