Much of the fun of commercial cruises — the overabundant food, the goofy nightly shows, the shipboard games — is designed to keep travelers happy and entertained during long days at sea before, after or between ports of call. But what if your idea of fun is time to yourself to read, write, catch up on sleep, or watch movies — even though you love sailing to new destinations?
Looking around at the conventional cruise options, you're out of luck. You'll be paying for those afternoon teas and Bingo games whether you like them or not. And speaking from experience, it can be hard to find a quiet place on the decks of a cruise ship to read or watch the ocean go by. Between kids screaming as they play, adults conducting loud conversations, and many people blaring music or their favorite TV shows, it can feel like being on a crowded plane.
Cargo ship cruises are a solution to all of the above. Your fellow passengers are giant containers full of consumer goods, some crew members and that's about it. There's plenty of deck space for the small number of people who aren't at work on a cargo ship, but there are regular mealtimes, decently appointed staterooms to sleep in, and even interior areas where you can relax during inclement weather. (Most container ships have libraries and workout rooms, as well as dining areas.)
Get a taste of what it's like in this cargo ship passenger's video diary:
How can you take a 'cruise' on a container ship?
There are online sites for many of the cruises; you may have to go through a travel agent or directly through the company itself. In Europe, South America and even Asia/Australia Hamburg Sud offers plenty of choices: "You can choose the destination or route you want from more than 50 shipping lines with more than 100 ships en route around the globe. In addition to this, we offer a tailor-made program with prestigious airlines, hotels, rental cars or local tour guides," according to their site. These voyages tend to include long transits at sea, though you can choose to stay on board for multiple cities too.
Want to cruise a smaller area that might be hard to see otherwise? French Polynesia has the Aranui. (In 2016, it was upgraded, but the routes are similar to this description: "The Aranui 3 embarks from Papeete, Tahiti,16 times a year, sailing for 16 days each voyage to the remote, northernmost islands in French Polynesia, the Marquesas," according to Tripsavvy.com.) With 118 islands spread over an area the size of the eastern half of the United States, you can see much more of these islands than you would almost any other way. "The Aranui often delivers supplies to more than one village or town on each island, so passengers get an opportunity to easily see more of the Marquesas than with any other ship or on an independent tour of the archipelago."
You can find lots more resources and links for different continents on this page. What are prices like? They vary, but this is generally a less-expensive way to travel — though I would hesitate to call it "cheap." Remember, the per-night prices you see are going to include food and other amenities as detailed, and you are unlikely to be spending much on the ship itself.
What can you expect on a cargo ship voyage?
It's important to remember that this voyage is not about you, it's about the cargo and keeping the ship, well, shipshape. Cargo ships need regular maintenance and there's usually some kind of cleaning/painting/repair work being done by crew. These boats are so big that by the time they finish repainting all the areas that are exposed to weather they have to start all over again.
These ships also move slowly — Europe to a North American port takes over two weeks — and you will probably be out of contact that entire time. Pacific voyages can be longer. That means no Wi-Fi and no phone calls, though many boats do have the ability to send some messages via email during your time at sea. When you do stop though, you'll likely be in ports a bit longer than a passenger ship would (they have to load and unload cargo).
The flip side of (almost) no contact is that if you are working on a personal project, like writing, practicing the guitar, drawing or another creative pursuit, you will have plenty of time to get it done without distractions.
You will be very free to fill your days however you like as there won't be planned entertainment. You can catch up on sleep, work out, read, watch movies — whatever. And while you will be able to use many areas on the ship, your own quarters will tend to have more space and more amenities than a typical cruise-ship room (skip to 8:00 on the video above to take a look).
Most reports say the food is good to very good — though you could get stuck on a boat with a crummy chef (it happens). You'll be eating with the officers on the ship (captain included) and since meal times are an important break for all the crew, who work long hours, good-tasting food is a priority.
Cargo-ship travel isn't for everyone, and most who do it consider it an adventure. Schedules may be adjusted en route, and there may be a few other passengers on board — or none — so you need to be self-sufficient (or travel with a friend). Port cities where container ships stop to unload cargo aren't always the same destinations you might travel to as a tourist. But as the editor of Messy Nessy Chic writes, "If you’re a self-reliant soul that likes to explore, a cargo ship could be your own giant 2,000 foot private yacht."