Time spent on the water is never wasted in my book.  If you’ve ever contemplated more time at sea, I have an alternative to cruise ships or flotilla sailing for you.  Freighter travel – or travel by cargo ship – is a less common way of crossing the oceans.  With most ships having only 6 cabins carrying a maximum of 12 passengers, this is an entirely different way of spending your time at sea.  It’s also an opportunity to visit very different ports of call.

Why Choose Freighter Travel?

If you have a sense of adventure, not too many time constraints, are self-sufficient and want to see the world from a different perspective, cargo ship travel may be for you.  With just a small crew and an even smaller group of passengers on board, cargo ships allow you to explore the world’s oceans at your own pace.  As the days stretch by, you can watch the marine life, learn about the ship’s workings or take on personal challenges such as writing and other creative pursuits.  Ports of call have a rather different flavour to passenger ports, giving you a new understanding of the world through your voyage.

Differences between Freighter Travel and Cruise Ship Travel

A cargo ship is a place of business, that business being moving goods around the world.  Freighters accommodate passengers in decent quality cabins, and provide three daily meals of a good standard.  Passengers are left to make their own arrangements in ports of call.  The ports of call for cruise ships can be distinct (although ports such as Antwerp take both cruise ships and cargo), being situated closer to preferred travel destinations such as Livorno for Florence.

Cruise ships run a full programme of entertainment and have a myriad of dining options, bars, production shows, craft workshops and dance classes.  Shore excursions can be booked via the ship, although passengers are able to make their own arrangements too.  In bad weather, cruise ships may alter their itinerary to make the ride more comfortable, employ stabilizers or skip ports of call.  Cargo ships have a payload onboard, and will press on to their destinations through more challenging sea conditions.

Where Does A Cargo Ship Travel?

Freighter Travel - How To Run Away To Sea On A Cargo Ship

Cargo ships go to many places you can imagine, and quite a few that you wouldn’t consider.  Of the world’s 30 busiest cargo ports identified by the World Shipping Council, 7 of the top 10 are in China, giving you some idea of the role of shipping in the Chinese economy.

Main Container Ship Ports

The busiest ports in the world are:

1-10: Shanghai, Singapore, Shenzhen, Ningbo, Busan (South Korea), Hong Kong, Guangzhau, Quingdao, Jebel Ali (Dubai), Tianjin

11-20 Port Klang (Malaysia), Rotterdam (Netherlands), Kaohsiung (Taiwan), Antwerp (Belgium), Dalian (China), Xiamen (China), Hamburg (Germany), Los Angeles (USA), Tanjung Pelepas (Malaysia)

21-30 Laem Chabang (Thailand), Long Beach (USA), New York, New Jersey (USA), Yingkou (China), Ho Chi Minh City (Vietnam), Colombo (Sri Lanka), Bremen/Bremerhaven (Germany), Suzhou (China), Hanshun (Japan) and Tanjung Priak (Jakarta, Indonesia)

The biggest ports in Europe are Rotterdam, Antwerp, Bremen/Bremerhaven, Algeciras, Valencia, Felixtowe, Gioia Tauro, Pireas, and Ambarli.

It’s worth remembering that busy ports don’t always mean busy cities.  The UK’s busiest port is Felixtowe in Suffolk, but the town has a population of around 23,000 inhabitants.

Sample Itineraries

Freighter Travel - How To Run Away To Sea On A Cargo Ship

Freighter voyages can be of varying lengths, or you can choose to take just a segment of the full voyage.

If you have a fairly short time window available – allowing some flexibility of dates for delays or diversions – you could take a transatlantic trip.  I spotted a 7 night voyage segment from around 825 Euros (September 2018) sailing from Hamburg to Antwerp, Liverpool, Halifax, Newark, Baltimore, Portsmouth, Halifax, Liverpool and Antwerp.

If you’ve got more time and deeper pockets, then I’ve found an itinerary that takes in some of the world’s busiest ports.  Over a 27 night voyage costing around 3630 Euros, you can take in Southampton, Le Havre, Khor Al-Fakkan, Port Kelang, Xiamen, Tianjinxingang, Pusan, Ningbo, Shanghai, Yanhan, Singapore, Algeciras, Southampton, Dunkirk, Hamburg, Rotterdam and Southampton.

Interested in a freighter trip?  Why not pin this for later!

Freighter Travel - How To Run Away To Sea On A Cargo Ship

What’s Life Like On A Cargo Ship?

Freighter Travel - How To Run Away To Sea On A Cargo Ship

Aside from mealtimes, life is what you make it onboard.  I’ve heard accounts of ships with an open bridge policy, and crew willing to help you learn to navigate.  People have written novels (or read 22 of them), spotted sealife, learned new languages, and created music.  If you’ve got a special skill, you might find a use for it at sea, whether it’s in the galley or engine room.  Do be aware that individual ships will vary in what you are able to do.  The captain’s word is final.

Research where you are going, and you’ll have a better time in port.  If your experience of ports is as a cruise passenger using a passenger terminal, remember that working ports are different.  You’re normally not allowed to walk around because of the heavy machinery in use.  You may have to wear a high vis jacket and wait at a designated spot to be picked up by the port bus which will take you to the gates.  Leave your mobile number with the captain when you go ashore in case the ship’s departure time is changed.  And be willing and ready to take charge of your travel arrangements from the port gates and back again.

Can Anyone Choose Freighter Travel?

Freighter Travel - How To Run Away To Sea On A Cargo Ship

Within certain boundaries, yes.  Most cargo carriers will take passengers between the ages of 5 and 75, although some accept older passengers.  You may have to produce a GP certificate of your fitness to travel.  If you have ongoing medical needs, unlike a cruise ship, there is no medic onboard, although there is an infirmary and a pharmacy.

Not all ships have lifts, and accommodation may be in a high tower behind the cargo containers.  As you can imagine, this could mean a lot of steps.  Gangways can be steep and lengthy in port, with the angle of ascent or descent changing with the tides during the day.  So you’ll need a fair amount of mobility to cope with conditions on the ship and in port.

I made some (admittedly selfish) enquiries about managing food allergies aboard.  Although there is no formal provision, a ship may be able to manage to accommodate some variations for you.  This is not guaranteed, and you won’t be eating from an allergen-friendly galley.  So take this into account when booking.

How Long Do Voyages Last?

Freighter Travel - How To Run Away To Sea On A Cargo Ship

If you looked at the sample itineraries, you’ll have seen that passages can last from just over a week to a month and beyond.  It depends entirely on how much time you have available and how much you want to spend.

Be aware that the duration of voyages can change for circumstances out of anyone’s control.  I read of a ship diverting to Hawaii due to crew illness, adding several days to the passage.  It’s wise to be prepared for changes, and not to book anything you can’t work around if needed.

Why You Should Book A Freighter Trip

Cargo ship travel is for you if you:

  • like to make your own entertainment, and have a range of pursuits to keep you occupied
  • are fascinated by the workings of a ship on the move and the activities of ports, and are prepared to work around the needs of the ship and its crew
  • can be flexible in your departure and arrival dates
  • are fit and mobile to manage steep gangways and stairs
  • are captivated by the ocean, sealife, and the skies and seas around you
  • want a new and different experience
  • are intrigued by visiting some very different ports of call

And Why You Shouldn’t

Cargo ship travel is not for you if you:

  • fall outside the age ranges permitted by individual shipping companies
  • have fixed time commitments close to the voyage dates, meaning that a ship’s flexible schedule cannot be accommodated
  • enjoy a full range of entertainment and would be bored without diversion and distraction
  • have mobility issues which would make steep gangways and the possible absence of lifts onboard ship an issue

What to Pack For A Freighter Voyage

Freighter Travel - How To Run Away To Sea On A Cargo Ship

You are allowed between 20-100kg of luggage depending on the shipping line.  I have seen contradictory advice as to whether you are expected to carry your own luggage on board.  It is therefore advisable to check on booking, and make sure you can get your baggage up a steep gangway if that is needed on your voyage.

Day to day living on a cargo vessel calls for comfortable clothing and shoes suitable for a lot of stair climbing and deck walking.  You might want a separate pair of shoes suitable for the deck, as these can become sooty.  More important to my way of thinking is to pack the essentials for the period of your voyage, as it can be difficult to acquire them once you are on board.  In particular, make sure you pack:

  • Power adaptors for the ships supply
  • Any prescription medications you need for the journey, plus some spares, and a range of over the counter needs.  Consider seasickness remedies even if you’ve not suffered before; cargo ships move into waters normally skirted by passenger vessels.
  • Snacks and treats you don’t want to live without, whether that’s pampering toiletries, sweets, or a treasured jar of Marmite.
  • Entertainment.  That can vary from a well-stuffed Kindle to paperbacks, your travel journal, cards, art materials, downloaded films and music plus mini speakers for your laptop, photography gear, language tuition materials, a blank notepad to write your novel, identification guides for sea creatures or whatever floats your boat while on the boat.
  • Any notes you want for future port calls.
  • Basic translation information in the language of the crew.  An ability to communicate a little goes a long way.

Take some time to think carefully about your packing list.  You’ll have a lot of time to fill, and it’s good to have plans for how you might spend it.

Visas and Immunisations

Always check with your booking agent to see you have all the necessary visas arranged well in advance.  You may have many ports of call, so I’d recommend you keep a small plastic folder with details of the requirements for each stop.

Remember that it doesn’t matter if you leave the vessel.  Non-US citizens will require a visa to enter the country by cargo ship, and the same holds true for visitors to Australia and China.

In most cases, the captain will retain your passport and deal directly with immigration officials.  You may be invited to attend the captain’s cabin for interview by immigration officers if needed, although this is uncommon in larger ports.

Immunisations are not needed for travel between the US, Canada, Australia and Europe.  There are requirements if you transit either the Panama or Suez Canal, so check out what is needed and make arrangement to have your jabs in good time before your departure.  Make sure you keep all your certificates of immunisation together.

Hints And Tips To Enjoy A Freighter Trip

Freighter Travel - How To Run Away To Sea On A Cargo Ship

I’ve heard first hand and read many accounts of freighter life.  Crews are welcoming, and one of the big benefits of cargo ship travel is being able to become absorbed in ship life.  The level of engagement and learning is really dependent on the crew, and the particular demands of that voyage for ship maintenance and the impact of sea conditions.

If you want a good view over the containers, book a cabin higher up in the superstructure.  You might want to check if there is a lift first.  Even if you are normally fine with the motion of the ocean, you might need to consider seasickness remedies on a freighter.  The loading is different, and container ships move in different sea conditions to passenger ships.  But if you love to feel the movement of the sea, a smaller ship will make you very happy.

Being well prepared seems to make a great difference to how much enjoyment travelers get from the experience.  You need to be ready to have many hours of free time each day, and some idea of what to do to keep yourself entertained.  So be sure to bring along the items to make that happen, whether it’s notebooks and journals, your laptop, photography equipment, books and e-readers, cards, learning materials, your fitness gear and equipment for any other pastime that is feasible on board.

How And When To Book A Freighter Trip

Freighter Travel - How To Run Away To Sea On A Cargo Ship

Cargo ship travel is not something you can easily book at the last minute.  Aside from tramp steamers, passages should normally be booked around six months in advance.  You can choose to book a full voyage or a segment.  Average costs per day are around 150 Euros, or less if you are sharing a double cabin.  Those prices include your accommodation, all meals and port fees.

As trade is plied year round, there are no cheaper seasons for freighter travel costs.  It is my understanding – although if you have found this not to be the case, I’d be delighted to know – that there is little price variation between freighter agents.  You are best booking with the one you prefer for reasons other than price.  It is also possible to book direct with some shipping companies.

A Word On Tramp Steamers

Tramp steamers are the flexible workhorses of the freighter fleet, traveling where they are needed to move cargo.  As such, it may be possible to book a voyage at last minute on a tramp steamer.  But you should be aware that your passage could also be diverted or altered.  This is not the voyage to book if you don’t have flexibility in your schedule.  You might find a tramp voyage as a last minute special.  But unless you’re prepared to leave via land, be prepared for it to be a while for a ship with a free cabin to pass your way again.

Watching Ships At Sea

Freighter Travel - How To Run Away To Sea On A Cargo Ship

If you want to check out the movements of shipping at sea, I can highly recommend Marine Traffic .  The maritime equivalent of Flight Radar, this shows you shipping on the move across the world.  A click on the icon will give you more information about the type of ship and some details on its size and function.  If you book a freighter voyage, you can keep tabs on the movements of your ship as it heads into port.  Be warned that this can be highly addictive, and you can take plenty of fantasy voyages and flights on these sites!

Marine Traffic will tell you which ships are in port at any time.  You are also able to check out ship movement by looking at Vessel Finder.  As an example, you can see the ships in port at Antwerp here.

More Maritime Adventures

If you’ve been tempted by time at sea, you can also check out our time afloat in the Baltics for the White Nights, and cruising to Antwerp and Amsterdam.


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Freighter Travel - How To Run Away To Sea On A Cargo Ship

Freighter Travel - How To Run Away To Sea On A Cargo Ship


Author: Bernie

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8 thoughts on “Travel By Freighter: How To Run Away To Sea

  1. This is fascinating – I had no idea you could travel like this on a freighter. Sounds like something I’d like to try one day for a different perspective. Seems there is everything I’d need to know about it here – thank you!

    Posted on September 5, 2018 at 7:20 pm
    1. Family friends were the first people we knew to travel on a cargo ship. Their fabulous experience has encouraged us all to try it out.

      Posted on September 6, 2018 at 2:31 pm
  2. I’ve always wondered about travelling like this so thank you for such a thorough guide. I don’t get sea sick but my partner does so he might take more persuading! Great post 😊

    Posted on September 5, 2018 at 7:33 pm
    1. A bigger ship would probably be better for your partner, along with a good stash of meds. I’m one of those people who loves a bit of movement at sea, even if I need to hang on tight! 🙂

      Posted on September 6, 2018 at 2:29 pm
  3. Wow this is something new to me. Very informative and unique type of travelling by sea

    Posted on September 5, 2018 at 9:13 pm
    1. It’s certainly a different kind of adventure, and a real chance to think what you can do with all that time available.

      Posted on September 6, 2018 at 2:28 pm
  4. Sounds adventurous…. Especially reflected in its firm course even in storms… Very interesting topic.

    Posted on September 6, 2018 at 4:09 am
    1. I’ve long been fascinated by the sea and coastal traffic. This really is an epic adventure.

      Posted on September 6, 2018 at 2:27 pm