How to Travel by Cargo Ship Around the World (2023)

Adventure on the High Seas Aboard a Freighter

By Friedel Rother
Resources updated 2/2/2020 by Transitions Abroad

How to Travel by Cargo Ship Around the World (1)
Travel through Vancouver by cargo ship.

Imagine for a moment that you are on the deck of a ship, sipping a glass of wine. You turn your head towards the water just in time to spot a pod of dolphins swimming by. After lingering in the sunshine for a while, it's time to head inside for a 3-course evening meal and a splash in the pool before retiring to bed.

Now, what kind of vessel are you on?

No, you are not on a standard commercial cruise ship. This is no luxury liner hopping between Caribbean islands. It is a modern freighter. Hundreds of cargo ships, carrying everything from fire engines to apples, are crossing the world's oceans and many are happy to take you along for the ride.

A far more intimate and relaxed experience than you might imagine, the experience on board is a sharp contrast to the rough and industrial outward appearance a container ship tends to project. You will be one of a handful of passengers (usually a maximum of 12) among a crew that is unlikely to number more than a few dozen. There will be no evening cabaret shows as on a standard cruise, though you may have access to TV, video, and board games in a common area on the ship where passengers may meet the crew. You might be invited to karaoke with the sailors and you will almost always dine alongside the captain, who is far more likely to turn up in shorts and a t-shirt than full uniform. Some cargo ships also offer equipped exercise rooms.

Here was our first taste of the wonders of sea travel. Our introduction to freighter travel was a relatively short 5-day sailing between Australia and New Zealand. We joined the French ship CMA CGM Utrillo in the busy port of Melbourne, where our luggage—including two bicycles and bags—were quickly hauled on board and into a spacious cabin by a host of cheery Filipino deckhands.

The Costs of Cargo Ship Travel

Depending upon your destination (Transatlantic, Transpacific, South Seas, Worldwide, and other special combinations), your daily freighter travel costs will be about $100-$150 per day per person per day with a luggage allowance of approximately 30kg-100kg (66-220lbs) depending on the line you are taking. Generally, US dollars are the primary currency used on-board to buy soft drinks, snacks, beer, and toiletries. You can then use your credit cards at each of the locations you disembark.

Hospitality on Board

Our next surprise was how quickly we felt part of the family. Just moments after arriving, our fellow passenger (a French woman literally going “around the world in 80 days”) hinted that the captain was certain to throw us a welcome barbecue. “He does that for everyone new,” she said with a wink. Sure enough, the next evening was spent on the back deck of the ship, feasting on grilled fish and chatting with the seamen as the sun went down.

How to Travel by Cargo Ship Around the World (2)
Eating barbecue with the crew of the freighter ship. Photo by Friedel Rother.

One of our concerns before sailing was that we'd find the days long. It was just the opposite. There were three square meals a day (hearty plates of meat and vegetables for workers) and the time between eating was filled with strolls round the deck and trips up to the bridge to check our position and ask questions.

Had there ever been stowaways? Yes, once a harmless passenger was allowed to board. What about pirates? Not here but there were off the coast of Africa. And just how much fuel did a cargo ship need? Apparently $60,000 U.S. a day will cover it, in the current era of relatively low oil prices.

A Relaxing Way to Travel

With our curiosity temporarily curbed, we would return to our cabin for reading, journal writing, and maybe a bit of table tennis if we felt especially energetic. Far away from the hustle and bustle of life on firm land, we were truly relaxed. The experience was in complete contrast to our usual hurried airplane trips.

For Hamish Jamieson, the owner of Freighter Travel NZ and one of only a handful of travel agents in the world licensed to book tickets on cargo ships, the simplicity of being at sea is the main attraction.

“When you're sitting up the front of the bow of the ship, on your own, and all you see is the sea going past and you hear the wind and waves, you're in heaven. For me, an afternoon...sitting right on the bow, watching the world go by with my binoculars, that's my heaven,” he said.

Flexibility Needed in Freighter Travel

Of course, nothing in life is all smooth sailing. While we didn't encounter any problems during our trip, we did struggle with the uncertain nature of freighter travel before we boarded. Our initial departure date jumped forward first by three days and then seemed to bounce around by 12-24 hours every time we called to check the latest news. Ours was not an uncommon experience and you must prepare yourself for flexibility.

Even ports of call are not guaranteed because on a cargo ship, freight comes first, not the passengers. If the demand is not there for a certain stop, the ship will go where the business is.

“Our trip from the USA to Europe changed three times after initial booking,” said Rebecca Hogue and Scott Drennan, then on a journey around the world without using airplanes. Their initial trip from South Carolina to Belgium ended up being from Florida to Italy. “Had we not been flexible with our departure times and locations, things would not have worked out.”

As Mr. Jamieson is fond of telling his passengers, when you go to sea, there are two things you must pack: a sense of humor and a sense of patience.

Practical Issues

Your trip may also involve some red tape, particularly where U.S. stops are concerned. American citizens are not permitted, for example, to travel within their country by cargo ship, although they can make international journeys. Meanwhile, travelers to the United States must have a visa, even if they would not need one to arrive by air. Only Canadians are exempt from this rule.

Be sure to budget time and money to get vaccinations like Yellow Fever if you are going through the Suez and Panama canals. A medical certificate declaring you to be in generally good health is another common requirement.

Where in the World Do You Want to Go?

But perhaps the hardest part of booking your cargo ship voyage is deciding where to go. Will it be to South America and around Cape Horn? How about a 55-day round trip from California to Australia and New Zealand via Tahiti and Mexico? Mr. Jamieson offers a few more ideas and favorite voyages based upon years of experience.

“For me the ultimate voyage is from Auckland, in New Zealand, to Singapore. It takes 40-45 days to sail what you can fly in just under 12 hours but it visits nearly every island in the Pacific on the way and it stops for 2-3 days. The second choice for me would be from Singapore through to Houston in Texas. It goes up through Thailand, Vietnam, half a dozen ports in China, into Japan, then straight across the Pacific and through the Panama Canal.”

With enough time and money at your disposal, there are few places in the world a cargo ship can't reach. Voyage destinations on cargo ships can change, so the many options available will often surprise you. You just need to be adventurous enough to do your research (see resources below) and then get on board.

How to Travel by Cargo Ship Around the World (3)
Cargo ship cruising towards New Zealand. Photo by Friedel Rother.

The Golden Rules of Cargo Ship Travel

  • Be prepared to make your own fun. There are no programmed activities, aside from the odd safety drill.
  • Go before you're too old. An upper age limit of 70-77 years is common, as there is no doctor on board and often plenty of stairs.
  • Check that your travel insurance covers freighter travel.
  • Be flexible. Schedules can and do change frequently. You may need 2-3 ships to reach your destination.
  • Book in advance. Cabins are limited and the most popular routes can be sold out months ahead of time.
  • Forget about working in exchange for your passage. Modern union rules mean this is no longer permitted.
  • Take a good supply of seasickness pills. While not very common, rough weather can occur, sending tables, chairs, and your stomach flying across the room.
  • Wifi and other modern electronics are now often available on cargo ships for travelers. If connectivity is important to you, ask in advance whether those options are available for free.
How to Travel by Cargo Ship Around the World (4)
Sunset view from a cargo ship. Photo by Friedel Rother.

Freighter Travel Resources

Maris Freighter and Specialty Cruises and Maris Freighter Club Int'l offers a variety of voyages to many destinations. You can go from island to island. You may cross the ocean 1-way. You can take coastal routes stopping at major ports. You may even choose from around-the-world cargo ship cruise options.

Freighter Travel provides a general overview of freighter travel including extensive resources.

Cargo Ship Voyages works as an agent for shipping companies and offers many possible packages worldwide. Their ships offer room for no more than 12 passengers at once, including people from all walks of life, ranging from single travelers to families. is the agency we used where bookings are done by Hamish Jamieson. They are specialists in cargo ship travel, providing background, Q&A, pricing examples, and assistance on planning a trip.

Friedel Rother gave up her job as a journalist for Reuters to ride a bicycle around the world with her husband. They have published two books in addition to cycling.

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How to Travel by Cargo Ship Around the World? ›

Cargo ships can carry regular passengers around the world and you can book your ticket on one if you'd like to experience the seven seas in a slow-travel kind of way! Here's all you need to know.

Can you travel the world on a cargo ship? ›

Cargo ships can carry regular passengers around the world and you can book your ticket on one if you'd like to experience the seven seas in a slow-travel kind of way! Here's all you need to know.

How much does it cost to travel on a cargo ship? ›

Cargo ship travel will cost you about $125-$145 per day. (Though you might be able to swing a free trip; see below.) You'll have little entertainment or social interaction. Most ships are without internet, you might be the only passenger, and the crew will be busy at work most of the day.

Can I ride on a cargo ship for free? ›

That being said, it can be well worth asking the cargo line if they can offer their passenger rooms in their cargo ships for free. It is possible to travel for free but one will need to become qualified. If this is something one is interested in, then see what qualifications are required.

How do you get a tour ride on a cargo ship? ›

Most travel agents do not book freighter voyages. You will have to book through an agent that specializes in freighter cruises or directly through the ship's agent/manager. Remember that there may be voyages available that the travel agent is not advertising on the Internet or elsewhere.

Where do you sleep on a cargo ship? ›

The cabins of a cargo ship are generally spacious and fitted with an en-suite bathroom with toilet, a double bed or two single beds, a sofa, a desk, and one or two portholes. To wash your clothes, most container-ships provide laundry facilities including washing machine, dryer, iron, and ironing board.

Can you travel from USA to Europe by ship? ›

Can you travel from the USA to Europe by boat? Yes, traveling from the United States to Europe by boat is possible, athough the reverse journey is more common. Also, direct boat travel from the United States to Europe is less prevalent. Starting your voyage from or making a stop in Bermuda is more typical.

Is it cheaper to travel by cargo ship? ›

It's cheaper (and cooler) than flying.

Cargo cruises cost between $65 and $125 per day, which includes lodging and three meals a day. Voyages usually last between 40 and 50 days, but some people opt for segmented trips that last a few weeks, leaving on a boat, disembarking at a port, and returning home by plane.

Can you pay for passage on a cargo ship? ›

Shipping companies have certain lines covering specific routes, and many of them will allow you to buy a ticket for one of these lines and disembark and board as you please if there is a ship leaving on your chosen day.

Is it cheaper to ship or fly? ›

It is sometimes cheaper to ship luggage than to travel with it. Ultimately, it depends on which carrier you are looking to ship with. LugLess, for example, is often cheaper than standard airline baggage fees, but other carriers such as ShipSticks, USPS, and parcel carriers will be more expensive.

Can you stow away on a cargo ship? ›

The FAL Convention defines a stowaway as "A person who is secreted on a ship, or in cargo which is subsequently loaded on the ship, without the consent of the shipowner or the Master or any other responsible person and who is detected on board the ship after it has departed from a port, or in the cargo while unloading ...

Do cargo ships ever take passengers? ›

The cargo ships occasionally also transport a few passengers. A passenger-cum-freight liner is any ship carrying 12 or more passengers in addition to the cargo. So to answer the question, yes. You can travel on a cargo ship.

Can you get a room on a cargo ship? ›

Cargo ships have a limited number of rooms for passengers, so be prepared to start planning your ventures, and book the trip at least 6 months in advance to ensure you have a spot on the ship. Your fare will usually include port fees as well as meals and your room.

How long does it take a cargo ship to travel from China to the USA? ›

Sea freight transit times from China to the US vary depending upon the respective ports and shipping lanes used. Typical transit times are from 15-25 days, but can take longer if the ship is sailing to the East Coast.

How long does a cargo ship take from USA to UK? ›

Sea freight can take anywhere between 20-45 days, depending on the destination and the route taken. Below are popular sea freight routes and the typical transport time to get from port to port: USA to the UK – 30 to 40 days.

Do cargo ships have showers? ›

Cargo ships usually offer single, twin or double bed cabins. Most of the vessels have exterior cabins with sitting areas, desk, shower and WC all fitted to a good standard of comfort.

How long do people stay on cargo ships for? ›

Voyages usually last between 40 and 50 days, but some people opt for segmented trips that last a few weeks, leaving on a boat, disembarking at a port, and returning home by plane.

How long does it take for a cargo ship to go from the US to Europe? ›

It usually takes around 10-20 days to cross the Atlantic Ocean on a cargo ship. The length of the journey depends on the route and the speed of the container ship.

How long does it take to ship from the US to Europe? ›

How long is standard shipping from the US to Europe? Shipping may take anywhere from 10 to 16 business days for standard shipping. Why is shipping to Europe so expensive? Your shipping cost may be impacted by fuel surcharges, duties and taxes, and other factors like such.

What is the cheapest way to ship to Europe from USA? ›

USPS Priority Mail is an excellent option for both local and international shipping. The typical cost of delivering an item to Europe using this service is about $80, with a 5-day delivery period. However, it should be noted that the price varies depending on the weight of the parcel.

How long does it take for a cargo ship to cross the Atlantic? ›

Typical freighter ships take 10 -20 days to cross the Atlantic and can encounter monstrous weather conditions. While the ship's captain is updated with weather reports hourly and adjusts the ship's course accordingly, the unavoidable weather is not uncommon.

How fast does a cargo ship travel? ›

The optimum speed of a cargo ship ranges between 17 to 24 knots. How fast a cargo ship travels depends primarily on the size of the ship. Larger ships travel slower. For instance, a container ship can go up to 24 knots while the larger bulk carrier ship travels at about 15 knots.

Can I travel with my dog on a cargo ship? ›

Your pet will travel in a kennel supervised by a full time pet attendant. You can visit your pet frequently and take them to the exercise area adjacent to the kennels. These are the only areas the pets are allowed on the ship.

Can you cross the ocean on a cargo ship? ›

You may cross the ocean 1-way. You can take coastal routes stopping at major ports. You may even choose from around-the-world cargo ship cruise options. Freighter Travel provides a general overview of freighter travel including extensive resources.

How much must cargo ships pay to go through the Panama Canal? ›

$2 Billion in Tolls are Collected Annually

Every ship that passes through the canal pays a toll based on its size, type and volume of cargo. Tolls are set by the Panama Canal Authority. Tolls for the largest cargo ships can run about $450,000. Cruise ships pay by berths (number of passengers in beds).

Do cargo ships have casinos? ›

Some freight ships have swimming pools, but there are no casinos aboard and no glitzy evening shows on offer. In fact, there's not supposed to be any organised activities at all, except for mealtimes. This is a working ship and you're along for the ride.

What is the cheapest way to ship luggage internationally? ›

ShipGo offers the cheapest luggage shipping with prices starting at $34.99. Prices may increase based on how far your luggage will be traveling and the overall weight of your items. Get a FREE quote for cheap luggage shipping today!

Which method of transportation is the cheapest when sending goods overseas? ›

Sea freight is highly cost-effective for any size of cargo. Large volumes of packaged goods or bulk shipments can move long distances across oceans or short distances by barge at a price often unmatched by other transport modes.

Can you ship your luggage to your destination? ›

Whether you're traveling for business, for fun, or with the family, shipping your luggage is the easiest way to travel to your destination. Send your carry-on, checked baggage, and sporting equipment ahead of your arrival and avoid excess fees at the airport.

Do cargo ships ever capsize? ›

When larger ships such as cargo ships and tankers capsize or sink not only is recovery not possible but great environment damage can occur from spillage of cargo.

What happens to containers that fall off cargo ships? ›

Most containers sink quite rapidly to the ocean floor once they hit the water. But depending on their contents, they may stay afloat for days or even weeks before sliding beneath the surface. This process can take even longer for refrigerated containers on account of their buoyant insulation.

How do cargo ships not capsize in a storm? ›

Steering-way means that the ship is moving forward with enough power to steer rather than just getting pushed around by waves and wind. The ship must keep its bow (the front end) pointing into the waves to plow through them safely, since a massive wave striking the ship's side could roll the vessel over and sink it.

Can you travel transatlantic on a cargo ship? ›

Discover cargo ship travel in North America. Choose the transatlantic crossing that will allow you to discover the USA, Canada or Mexico aboard a container ship.

Why do people travel on cargo ships? ›

Being aboard a cargo ship is a once-in-a-lifetime experience for people who adore the sea, are worried about their carbon footprint, or simply prefer to cruise in a more tranquil atmosphere away from crowds for a more relaxed environment.

How much do cargo ship captains make? ›

Avg Salary

Ship captains earn an average yearly salary of $81,640. Wages typically start from $37,240 and go up to $159,690.

How much do cargo ship crew members make? ›

$36,000 is the 25th percentile. Salaries below this are outliers. $48,000 is the 75th percentile.

How many people are on a cargo ship? ›

The crew on a bulk carrier typically consists of 20 to 30 people, though smaller ships can be handled by 8. The crew includes the captain or master, the deck department, the engine department, and the steward's department.

What is a bedroom on a ship called? ›

Cabin – A room inside the boat, which can refer to the entire interior or just one room designed for sleeping.

How much does it cost for a container ship to go from China to the US? ›

Container shipping rates from China to USA
Port of loading:Container size:Shipping price:
Ship a container from China to Providence40FT Containerfrom: $6500
Ship a container from China to Seattle40FT Containerfrom: $4800
Ship a container from China to Chicago40FT Containerfrom: $8800
12 more rows

What is the longest cargo ship journey in the world? ›

The longest shipping route in the world is the route between Asia and the East Coast of South America with approximately 19,000 nautical miles (35,000 kilometers) and about 45 days to complete.

How much does it cost to bring a 40 foot container from China? ›

How much does it cost to ship a 40ft container from China to USA? How much does it cost to ship a 40ft container from China to USA, the average price to ship a 40ft container from China to USA is from $2150 to $4850. The shipping timeline to ship a 40 foot container from China to USA ranges depending on the route.

How much does it cost to charter a cargo vessel? ›

Chartering a vessel can cost in the range of $40,000 per day for a vessel carrying 3,000 20-foot containers, according to the Port of Los Angeles.

How much does 1 cargo ship cost? ›

Vessel purchases

In March 2010, the average price for a geared 500-TEU container ship was $10 million, while gearless ships of 6,500 and 12,000 TEU averaged prices of $74 million and $105 million respectively.

Is sea cargo cheaper than air freight? ›

Less than container loads (LCL) are billed by cubic meter. For large, heavy shipments, shipping via ocean is often much less expensive. But as shipment sizes decrease, the margin between air and ocean prices also decreases.

How expensive is it to ship from US to UK? ›

Carriers who ship from the US to the UK
USPSPriority Mail International$83.95
USPSFirst-Class International ServiceDepends on postage pricing
UPSWorldwide Expedited$48.67
UPSWorldwide Saver$54.44
4 more rows

How much does it cost to ship a 20ft container from USA to UK? ›

Container shipping rates from the US
Destination Port20ft Container Cost40ft Container Cost
London, UK$2,083 (USD)$2,627 (USD)
Sydney, AUS$2,894 (USD)$3,910 (USD)
Melbourne, AUS$3,474 (USD)$4,174 (USD)
Auckland, NZ$2,894 (USD)$3,910 (USD)
6 more rows
Jan 11, 2023

How long does a cargo ship take from USA to South Africa? ›

Average Ocean freight transit time to South Africa is 33 days from USA.

How long does it take a cargo ship to sail around the world? ›

If there is a ship sailing north at 10 knots, it will travel one degree of latitude (equivalent to 60 miles) in 6 hours, and it will go around the earth in 2,160 hours (90 days) theoretically.

How long does it take a cargo ship to cross the world? ›

Most crossings of the Pacific Ocean take between 15 and 30 days. The duration of the crossing naturally depends on the starting point and the destination. Below are the estimated lengths of popular Transpacific cargo ship routes.

Can you still travel overseas by ship? ›

Traveling on a cargo ship is very much possible, and while it isn't considered a luxury cruise, it is still a great way to travel — even at a cost of roughly $100 USD daily, it is worth the time to find a spot on a ship.

Does anyone still travel by ship? ›

Ocean Liners. Today, there aren't many ocean liners still in service. The only one still in operation is the Queen Mary 2, which is owned by Cunard Line. Queen Mary 2 frequently makes trans-atlantic cruises, along with smaller travels from South Hampton and New York.

How much experience do you need to sail around the world? ›

If you're interested in sailing nonstop around the world, it will most likely take you around 100 days. However, if you actually want to stop and explore your surroundings, replenish your provisions, and relax a bit, you'll probably want to plan for around 3 to 10 years of sailing.

What are the longest cargo ship routes? ›

What are the important routes along major world trade lanes?
  • The English Channel.
  • Strait of Malacca.
  • Panama Canal.
  • Suez Canal.
  • The South and East China Seas.
  • Strait of Hormuz.
  • Strait of Gibraltar.
  • The Danish Straits.

How long does a cargo ship take from China to USA? ›

How Long Does Sea Freight Take from China to the US? Sea freight transit times from China to the US vary depending upon the respective ports and shipping lanes used. Typical transit times are from 15-25 days, but can take longer if the ship is sailing to the East Coast.

What is the longest cargo trip? ›

The Longest voyages listed on Cargo Ship Voyages are for a whopping 97 nights - spend a quarter of the year at sea! These are return trips from Europe to Australasia.

Is cargo ship travel cheaper? ›

It's cheaper (and cooler) than flying.

Cargo cruises cost between $65 and $125 per day, which includes lodging and three meals a day. Voyages usually last between 40 and 50 days, but some people opt for segmented trips that last a few weeks, leaving on a boat, disembarking at a port, and returning home by plane.

Can you hitchhike a cargo ship? ›

Boat Hitchhiking: like hitchhiking, it means boarding a ship (cargo, sailboat, ferry, etc.) for free. There are two cases: either the captain did not initially plan to take on board another crew member, or either he needs help on board and is willing to take on a crew member without any financial contribution.

Do container ships take paying passengers? ›

Health and Age Restrictions Only passengers of good physical and mental health can be accepted for carriage on container ships. You must be under 77 or 80 and pay the passenger fares (depending on the shipping line) to do a cargo ship cruise. We cannot accept passengers once they turn 80 years of age.

What am I not allowed to ship overseas? ›

Other Items Restricted from International Mail

Stem cell treatments, human growth cells, or steroids, including synthetic versions. Pesticides and fungicides. Self-balancing boards (hoverboards) or other self-propelled vehicles. Damaged batteries.

What countries can you not ship to from the US? ›

Countries not accepting packages from USPS:
  • Afghanistan.
  • Belarus.
  • Bhutan.
  • Brunei Darussalam.
  • Lao People's Democratic Republic.
  • Myanmar.
  • Russian Federation (due to conflict in the region)
  • Syrian Arab Republic.

Can I travel by ship instead of plane? ›

You can travel almost anywhere in the world by cargo ship. The immense size of the global shipping industry means that most large ports welcome numerous ships every day. Shipping lines will also let you book for a certain segment of their trip, or one way and round trips. Just be flexible about schedules.

What is Travelling by ship called? ›

A voyage is a long journey on a ship or in a spacecraft.


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