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Travelling by Cargo Ship

Article for mature and senior travellers on who to travel using the network of cargo ships to reach your destination.

2 Feb 21 · 6 mins read

Travelling by Cargo Ship

For people who don’t want to travel by air–either due to phobia, budget concerns, specific travel needs, or environmental mindfulness–travelling by sea on a ship is a viable option. Reducing carbon footprint is also a top of mind concern for many travellers due to the climate emergency. According to Emine Saner on The Guardian, flying contributes 2% to global carbon emissions, and climate and environmental activists are looking at other modes of transportation, such as travelling by train or ferry, noting the hypocrisy in calling for personal responsibility regarding the environment only to jump on a plane or a private jet. The New York Times reports that a single passenger’s share of emissions on a US cross-country flight (New York to Los Angeles) can melt 32 square feet (roughly 3 square metres) of Arctic sea ice. As we’ve written before, there has been a growing “no-fly movement” made up of people who are aiming to reduce the number of flights they take, or to shun air travel altogether.

While some travel by cruise ship for leisure and luxury, many travellers are discovering an equally carbon-saving but cheaper way of maritime travel: travelling by cargo ship. In this article, we will look closer at this unique travel experience, and how this kind of cruise travel can be a boon for the environment.

Becoming a Passenger on a Cargo Ship

Do cargo ships even carry passengers? You’d be surprised. Cargo shipping is a globalised industry, responsible for 90% of transportation of goods worldwide. Each massive ship–some bigger than an aircraft carrier–carry cargo, goods, and materials for hundreds of businesses from around the world and stop at several ports in different countries. These vessels carry anything from garments to motor vehicles, and keep them in thousands of the stacked multi-coloured freight containers we are familiar with.

cargo ship travel
A cargo ship at the Port of Hamburg, Germany
cargo ship
View of a port. Cargo shipping is a globalised industry, responsible for 90% of transportation of goods worldwide

Book Early

Tucked in between these containers are a handful of cabins for the crew, but some cargo ships host a handful of passengers. According to Will Vibert, writing for the Guardian, shipping companies sell space through travel agents, and since travelling by cargo ship is still a niche mode of travel, “ships rarely have room for more than a dozen passengers”. Travel agencies that offer this service stress the importance of booking early, as early as six months in advance even, as some ships may have as few as two cabins available for passengers.

Flexibility Is Key

Passengers are also enjoined to be near the destination of embarkation a few days before the date of departure. According to Vibert, this flexibility is important, as his own ship ended up leaving three days earlier than expected; if he had not been in the area, he would have missed his ship. On the other hand, Kajsa Fernström Nåtby, talking to Wired, said she had to stay in New York City for a few more days as her first voyage was cancelled. The port of call may also change, depending on the cargo the ship is carrying.

Passengers up to 80 years of age may travel, but check first

The ticket price include accommodation and all meals, as well as the port fees, and is about half the price of a cruise ship. Passengers up to 80 years of age may go on a cargo ship cruise, but do check with the travel agent first, as well as your healthcare provider. Travel insurance is a must, and some immunisations (such as yellow fever injection) may also be required. Passengers must also have a valid passport with at least six (6) months validity.

Cargo Ship Amenities

As you will be travelling on a working ship, during cargo ship travel you will be engaging with the ship’s captain and crew. A passenger cabin on a cargo ship may not have the same luxurious amenities as in the one you’ll find on a cruise ship, but the utilitarian space is comfortable and spacious enough, with a private toilet and shower, a desk, and a view of the ocean.

However, if you do want those hotel-like amenities, some cargo ships, such as France-based CMA CGM Amerigo Vespucci, have a library and a gym, and serves gourmet meals. A traveller, Thor Pedersen, also reports being once offered the “owners cabin”, which included a huge living room. Pedersen has visited 122 countries by cargo ship from 2013 to 2016.

Spending Time on A Cargo Ship

While you can zip from Australia to the other side of the world in a matter of hours on a plane, travelling by cargo ship is much, much slower. Travelling to Sydney to the West Coast of the United States (Oakland, California) will take 25 days, for example. What do you do with all that time? Unlike a regular cruise, your trip on a cargo ship will not include planned entertainment, such as stage shows or live music. On the plus side, you also do not need to deal with a huge crowd.

Many people who decide to go on a cargo cruise desire this slow and quiet way of travelling, allowing them plenty of time to think, read, write, listen to music, or enjoy other hobbies that do not require internet connection. The cargo ship will likely only have a satellite phone and no internet access, and if it does have internet access, it will be limited and only available on a shared computer.

As a passenger in desperate need for a digital detox puts it, “My screensaver was now the restless Pacific.” Passengers play chess or card games with the crew, walk on the deck for some ocean air, complete jigsaw puzzles, watch DVDs, or watch the sunset.

tourist on ship deck

The journey also offers valuable insight into the life of a cargo ship crew member. It goes without saying that the crew is there to work and not entertain, but they will be welcoming, and you can enjoy conversations with them while you take your meals together. You may also disembark with the crew during port calls or shore excursions. The stop at each port can be 12 hours or longer, and you can use this time to buy the supplies you need ashore. (Note that some ships do not allow alcohol on board.)

Some captains may be amiable enough to welcome you to the bridge (the platform from where a ship is commanded) or show you the engine room and other working spaces, allowing you to be a firsthand witness to how the various instruments work and how a cargo ship is run.

Reducing Your Carbon Footprint

In terms of limiting your carbon footprint, travelling by cargo ship is a carbon-responsible way to do it. While older ships may emit more carbon dioxide for every kilometre per ton of cargo (up to 15 grams), newer ones average only three (3) grams. The International Maritime Organisation, which regulates shipping, announced in April 2018 that it aims to halve emissions from by 2050, with Maersk, the world’s largest shipping company, announcing that it aims to reduce emissions to zero by that year. Despite these promises, experts are not impressed, as neither the IMO nor Maersk have released information about how exactly these goals will be achieved.

Meanwhile, a Dutch company has launched the world’s first 100-percent electric barges, which it hopes will be a viable emissions-free option for global shipping–and for passengers keen to experience this memorable mode of travel.

Aerial image of a cargo ship along the coast.

Odyssey Traveller does not offer cargo ship tours, but we regularly use public transport on Odyssey tours, and our small group size makes us nimble enough not to block local access. This eases congestion caused by large tourist buses, reduces local air pollution, and makes for authentic experiences on the ground. Furthermore, our fares contribute to local services rather than tourist companies. Odyssey Traveller also has tours with sections where we travel by railway, such as Mongolia and Russia by Train, also an excellent way to reduce your carbon footprint when travelling. We also have plenty of walking tours that you can join.

For more information on our style of adventure, you can read our previously published articles:

Odyssey Traveller has a Loyalty Program for regular travellers. Membership of the alumni starts when you choose to take your first international small group tour with us. To see the discounts and benefits of being a Bronze, Silver, Gold, and Diamond alumni member, please see this page.

For more information on Odyssey Traveller and our educational small group tours, do explore our website. Alternatively, please call or send an email. We’d love to hear from you!

seniors on boat

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