A number of years ago, Jacqueline Brodie and her husband sailed around the world on a very big ship. They departed from Le Havre in the northwest of France and over 86 days visited Malta, Corsica, Singapore, Hong Kong, Shanghai and more. They had a cabin with ensuite bath and mingled with the ship’s officers over foie gras and smoked salmon. But the Brodies weren’t on a commercial cruise; they were travelling by cargo ship. For most of the trip, they were the only vacationers aboard their CMA-CGM ocean liner. They strolled the decks, swam in the saltwater pool and watched the flying fish at sunrise, surrounded by massive shipping containers.
Hopping aboard a cargo ship is a no-frills option for people who hate buffets but love the open seas. If you’re looking for cheap cruises, they’re almost as cheap as the least-expensive commercial cruise deal: at around US$150 per day cargo cruises are very affordable. There are fewer amenities than typical cruises (no butlers, no evening tributes to ABBA), but many travellers romanticize cargo cruising as a more authentic way to experience life on a ship—without all of the crowd-pleasing embellishments. Moreover, there has never been a better time to embark on such a bold adventure, as many cargo ships have been warming to taking on passengers to offset falling freight revenues.
“There is nothing artificial about the experience,” says Brodie. “We didn’t want entertainment and hundreds of people in dining halls.” The crew onboard particularly charmed Brodie, who works for the National Film Board in Montreal. “It’s like visiting a village,” she says.
Sailing on a cargo ship is one of the few places left in the world where you can truly isolate yourself and that holds a certain romance for many passengers. “It’s important not to count minutes,” says Efraim Podoksik, a lecturer at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, who uses cargo ships from the Grimaldi Group to travel from Israel to Cyprus (one day) and Italy (four nights). On these ships, the crew’s priority is transporting cargo and ensuring smooth sailing, not entertaining passengers. Podoksik’s four-day trip to Italy can sometimes take seven, and Brodie’s world cruise ran into technical problems and had to reroute to Singapore for several days to wait for parts. “Maybe you arrive today or maybe you arrive tomorrow, says Podoksik. “You just relax and enjoy it.”
While most people conceive of container cruising as an epic intercontinental journey, it’s worth noting there are also opportunities to sail on smaller ships closer to home. Natasha Mekhail took a four-day cruise around the Gulf Islands in British Columbia on a Marine Link Tours ship hauling materials for logging camps. “You would look out the window and see a tractor and cases of dynamite,” says Mekhail, a magazine editor in Montreal. Time in port depended not on the attraction of the destination but rather what cargo needed to be loaded or unloaded.
Cargo cruising isn’t for everyone. When writer Mitch Moxley took a Hanjin ship from Pusan, Korea, to Seattle in 2013, he quickly tired of being the sole passenger. “For large chunks of the day, I was just by myself,” he says. He ran out of conversation with the crew after a few days. “I started going to dinner 20 minutes late so I could be alone with my book.”
Still, Moxley wasn’t immune to cargo cruising’s charms; he reminisces fondly about northern Canada’s sunset-lit rugged coast. Though he suggests first-timers should stick with shorter itineraries “Fifteen days was too long” he says. “But I would recommend it to someone else. It’s such a unique experience.”
Cargo Cruising: A beginner’s guide
Where to go: Cargo ships sail all over the world. Consider the number of days at sea, as well as the local weather, before booking. Who wants to spend time on deck in a sleet storm?
What to pack: Food is typically provided, but many passengers bring extra snacks and alcohol, since onboard options are limited. Load up on books and TV shows for sea days.
What to expect: Some ships have swimming pools, libraries and gyms or, like CMA-CGM, a reputation for great food. Keep in mind that ships with very few passengers (four to 12 is standard) might enforce age limits due to the absence of medical care.