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Trans-Oceanic Slow Travel: Booking Aboard Cargo Ships

  • Anna Rice
  • 6 March 2012

In July of last year, my boyfriend and I set out on a slow travel adventure around the world. We had one rule – no flying. Overland, we had many options – walking, cycling, riding buses, taking a train – but what about crossing the oceans?

Sea Travel Options

At present, nearly all long-distance sea travel is more expensive than flying to your destination. But for us the journey is just as important as the getting there. Fed up with flying from place to place and feeling removed from the land and people we zoomed over without even noticing, we wanted to travel in a way that would let us appreciate the distance we would cover.

slow travel - cargo ships - as carelia

For a more authentic trans-oceanic alternative than a passenger cruise ship, board with the cargo on the A.S. Carelia. Photo courtesy of Anna Rice

We decided that we wanted to travel westward from the United Kingdom with the loose aim of reaching Singapore via Australia or New Zealand. Reaching Southeast Asia would therefore mean finding passage across the Atlantic Ocean and then later the Pacific Ocean, the Coral Sea and the Great Barrier Reef. We began to research our options and drew up a shortlist, which included: signing up as crew on a yacht, taking a passenger liner or trying to book ourselves onto a cargo ship.

Join the Crew

Joining a small boat crew would undoubtedly have been the slowest and most environmentally friendly way to travel. If you are interested in this, there are several fantastic websites that can help you. Find a Crew is one example, where travellers in need of a boat or crew can tailor their search in terms of skill, destination and budget. We consulted this at several points in our journey, without much luck. Nothing matched our journey requirements and timeframe.

slow travel - cargo ships - find a crew

When opting out of airplane travel, one option for crossing major bodies of water is to look for work as the crew of a sailboat. Photo courtesy of Anna Rice

Passenger Ships

Passenger liner travel is perhaps the most well-documented form of trans-oceanic transport and one we ended up taking twice – once to cross the Atlantic and a second time to cross the Pacific. We used an agent to book both of these routes, as they were able to offer us heavily discounted fares, which really helps when trying to stick to a budget. Among the many cruise deal sites around, we found that CruiseDeals offered us the most competitive prices.

Fares on passenger liners can be very reasonable – often much more so than on cargo ships – particularly if you book early or late and can travel during off-peak periods. Passenger liners are also generally considered more luxurious than cargo ships, but this of course depends on your definition of luxury. Is it entertainment and endless food buffets you are after? Or cabin space and access to the behind-the-scenes operations of a ship? If you think the latter, then a cargo ship journey might be for you.

slow travel - cargo ships - sitting pool

Few people realize that cargo ships have amenities for passengers, such as cabins and sometimes even scenic sitting pools. Photo courtesy of Anna Rice

Go Cargo

Many people are simply not aware that numerous cargo ships offer passenger cabins. Or if they are, they often have the preconception that booking one is a difficult business. While it is no longer possible to obtain a ticket by turning up at a port, there are a number of agents who can make things easy by arranging it all for you. Here are a few:

* Hamish Jamieson at Freighter Travel is based in New Zealand. He is an expert on all things cargo and will answer all realistic questions quickly.

* Globoship, a Swiss company, are fantastic agents and will answer questions in English if your German is as bad as ours. They advertise last-minute passages (usually due to passenger cancellation) on their website and, most importantly, they seem to add the least amount of booking charges/agent fees onto travel costs, which always helps.

* Strand Travel deal with passenger bookings on container vessels and are very quick to answer any queries.

* The slightly higher-end Maris Freighter Cruises are also helpful but more of a travel club (and have the slightly higher prices to match).

slow travel - cargo ships - storm clouds

On a cargo ship, the on-board entertainment consists of things like dramatic storm clouds and real behind-the-scenes life at sea. Photo courtesy of Anna Rice

Planning

When planning for cargo travel, get in touch with one or more agents as soon as you know what your ideal embarkation and destination points are, especially if wishing to travel between Australia and New Zealand, Australia and South East Asia or other popular routes. Even if an agent has nothing available at the time of first contact, as was the case for us, let them know that you are interested to hear if a new route opens or there is a cancellation.

Patience

We sent a number of initial inquiries that didn’t return any joy, but about six weeks later, we had an email from Globoship telling us that a new route had opened up from Adelaide to Singapore with sailings once a month. The price for a private, en suite cabin for the 10-day sailing was around £1000 per person (the average-price guideline for freighter travel currently stands at €90-110 per day per person), so we decided to book a late-December sailing.

slow travel - cargo ships - transatlantic dolphins

When travelling across the Atlantic by boat, you open your eyes to the details of ocean life - like leaping dolphins, for example. Photo courtesy of Anna Rice

About a month before we were due to sail, we received an email from Globoship to say that the route had suddenly been cancelled but a sister ship, the AS Carelia, could offer us a cabin instead. The Carelia would sail from Brisbane to Port Klang in Malaysia via New Zealand and would take 10 days longer, therefore costing a couple of hundred pounds extra too. Globoship were very good and offered us a small discount on the new sailing “due to the inconvenience” but also added “that’s freighter travel for you.”

Payoff

After much discussion, we decided to go for it and are very glad we did. The experience is one we will remember for a long time. We ended up spending both Christmas and New Year with the Bulgarian, Russian and Filipino crew, all of whom made us feel very much at home. We were treated more like house guests than passengers and felt privileged to be invited into their fascinating world of navigation systems, route mapping, piracy warnings, engine rooms, crew table-tennis tournaments, home-style cooking, tropical storms, makeshift swimming pools, hard work and celebrations.

slow travel - cargo ships - sunset clouds

The sunset views from a cargo ship are just as awe-inspiring as views from the deck of a passenger cruise liner. Photo courtesy of Anna Rice

Michael Palin famously described his experience at sea as a sort of sensory deprivation. I liken it more to spending time somewhere remote where your surroundings become familiar but your eyes and senses become keener. They hone in to notice even the smallest change, such as a fish skimming the waves or a swallow nesting in a container. Nothing was ever predictable and no day on board could ever be described as boring. Our ‘slow travel’ circumnavigation of the globe is off to a great flight-free start.

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Anna Rice

For the last five years, Anna has worked in the editorial department of several London-based independent publishers, most recently, the environmental publisher Earthscan. She is currently embracing slow travel by trying to journey around the world without getting on a plane. Twelve countries, three large boats, two ferries, one long-tail boat and many more buses and trains later, she has now reached China and is looking forward to the onward journey via the Trans-Mongolian Express.
Anna Rice
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6 Responses to “Trans-Oceanic Slow Travel: Booking Aboard Cargo Ships”

  1. Sheikh says:

    Hi I liked travel by ship from Malaysia to Australia, I have got maritime crew visa so please guide me if possible then send me details of cargo ship journey with per day charges !

    Thanks

  2. karamjit singh says:

    HI, I wana travel by ship from malaysia to australia i have mari time visa so please guide me and if possible please send me detail of cargo ship journey with per day charges thanks

    from karamjit singh

  3. silva says:

    i need an urgent reply to travel frm port klang malaysia to australia before the 17th of this month pls reply i need to travel there by sea as my visa is all done tq

  4. lenny says:

    @Richard, there are not likely to be working voyages on freighters. This is because you must have
    seaman certifications/licenses to work on board. The cheapest way is to fly. Cheers.

  5. Richard says:

    Hi, I’m attempting to get myself and my belongings from San Fransisco to Fiji on the cheep, to engage in a resilient that is forming there. I have a lot of skills and would like to work off as much of the expense as possible. Any suggestions you have would be most appreciated.

    Blessings,
    Richard Channing

  6. Really informative and exciting

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