Some people love cruise ships. They relish the endless list of scheduled activities and see the throngs of people as an opportunity to make new friends. Some don’t even mind living in a cabin that is the size of a matchbox. For others, cruise ships are a hellacious experience, conjuring up feelings of terror as they think about the loud noises, overwhelming selection of things to do with not a moment’s rest, and people. People. Everywhere.
A secret of the tourism industry
If you fall into the latter category, you may be a bit disappointed that there is no way for you to experience the benefits of cruising the world. Namely, time spent at sea and a cheap way to see several countries on one journey. But a little known secret of the tourism industry is that these introverts and laid-back types can actually get the best of both worlds by travelling via cargo ship. Yes, you heard us right.
If you sign up to tour the world on an ocean liner, you’ll likely be one of only a dozen or so passengers aboard. There will be no bingo nights, no overly priced souvenirs, and probably not even a swimming pool. Instead, you’ll find a friendly crew, delicious meals prepared in the style of whatever chef is on board, and lots of free time to roam the deck and question the crew members about their experiences on the high seas.
An authentic experience
What’s more, your experience at the ports will differ greatly a from what you’d find with Royal Caribbean or, dare we say it, Disney Cruises. Most of the big cruise ships dock at popular spots for tourists, which means your few hours on dry land will consist mostly of opportunities to buy merchandise. Or at least, you won’t get a truly “local” experience.
Cargo ships, by contrast, tend to dock at lesser-known ports where the tourism industry isn’t quite as hustling. Of course sometimes you’ll end up in major cities, but these vessels also visit distant islands and isolated communities. For the true adventurer, this is a dream come true. With no agenda or tour guides, you’ll get the chance explore the area on your own time and really see how the residents live. Because cargo ships tend to stay at ports longer than cruise ships, you’ll also get a day or more to really immerse yourself in the local culture rather than rush through a regimented agenda of activities in just a few hours.
Flexibility is a must
While such a trip sounds perfect for the adventurous type, it’s also practically mandatory that you can adopt a “go with the flow” attitude. You’ll have to throw planning out the window, as crews on cargo vessels sometimes have to make unscheduled stops or skip over certain ports altogether. By the end of the trip they may have veered from their scheduled route significantly, and the whole trip could be over sooner or somewhat later than you anticipated.
However, if you can handle a certain degree of unpredictability, your payoff will be living arrangements that far exceed what you could expect on a cruise liner. While you might not feel like you’re living at the Ritz, you also won’t feel crammed into a can of sardines. Rooms are typically sparse yet comfortable, with a private bathroom and air conditioning, plus potentially a TV and small refrigerator. When you’re not building camaraderie with the crew members or enjoying hearty meals of meat and vegetables meant for burly men, your cabin can be a great place to read, journal, have a drink, or just kick back and relax.
Benefit from endless options and serious savings
The other great feature of cargo cruising is that the possibilities are practically endless. Due to the size of the shipping industry, you can book a ticket on any number of vessels going any number of places for almost any length of time. Especially if you’re retired or just have several weeks to kill, this type of trip could be a great option.
It’s also a great option for the budget-conscious. Many people choose to go on cruises because you really do get a lot of “bang for your buck” when you factor in free meals and transportation to a number of cities. But on a cargo ship, the savings are even greater: $135 per day will be more than enough to get you around the world. When you consider that there are no extra costs for luggage, taxes and fees, food, or alcohol with a significant up-charge, it turns out to be a pretty great deal.
A few tips and tricks
If we’ve piqued your interest, there are a couple tips you’ll want to keep in mind before jumping on board the next cargo ship you see.
- American citizens can’t actually travel within their own country. This means that U.S. residents will need to book a ticket on a ship going straight to another country (and not, for example, from New York to Baltimore).
- Depending on where you’re going, you might need to get vaccinations and a certificate of medical health before departure, so budget your time and money accordingly!
- Be as flexible with your time as possible. You might even want to arrive at the departure port a few days early, as trip schedules can change suddenly and you don’t want to miss your sail date.
- Speaking of booking, a good motto is “the earlier the better.” Because cargo ships usually only have a few guest cabins on board, you may need to make a reservation as much as 6 months in advance to get the trip and departure time you want.
- There are a lot of options for your journey, so discuss before booking whether you want a one-way, round-trip, or segmented mode of travel.
- In addition to bringing your passport, you’ll also need travel insurance with evacuation cover.
- Bring a host of books and DVDs, and if you don’t want them when you exit the ship, leave them for the next traveler. This starts a great tradition of guests passing along their belongings, which means you might arrive on board with a stash of novels, magazines, and movies already there for your enjoyment.
- No senior citizens allowed – sorry, but you must be under 80 years old to ride this ride.
- If you are worried about seasickness, plan ahead and bring the appropriate medications. Rough weather is just a part of the experience, and sometimes it’s bad enough to send tables flying!
Ultimately, the message is this: if you are adventure-seeking, laid back and flexible, and can make your own fun, cargo cruising is the ideal trip for you. You can avoid huge crowds and unnecessary touristy frills while making memories that will surely last a lifetime.