Freighter Cruise Do’s and Don’ts

 
The Ports
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Southampton, England, Salerno, Italy (twice), Piraeus/Athens, Greece, Izmur, Turkey, Ashdod, Israel , Limassol, Cyprus, Savona, Italy, Setubal, Portugal and Bristol, England.
 
 
 Travltips.com
An other version of this article was published at www.travltips.com. Please Click here (page 8 - 11)
 
 
 

I “discovered” freighter cruising quite by accident.  In 2001, I was looking for a cheap way to get to Curacao, near Venezuela, where my wife and I had rented an ocean front house for a week.  My initial inquiry into the cost of airfare shocked me; desperate to save money, I began thinking of ANY way possible we could get there at a reasonable cost.  I googled something like “freight liner passengers” and viola – a whole new and exciting means of travel was there for the taking and I was immediately hooked.  Problem was:  I had a job, my wife did not share my enthusiasm for freighting, and then we found reasonable air fare.

I continued to be hopeful of a freighter cruise some day and after some initial research, I decided the travel company TravLtips Cruise & Freighter Travel Association was the right choice with which to align myself for further research and to take advantage of their excellent magazine. Lead consultant Mike Muldowney was a pleasure to work with.  I read the articles in TravLtips for ten years before I made my maiden journey.  The articles were mostly related to the ship itself and the traveler’s itineraries.  This article is more about what to expect and what to do and not do.  I hope you enjoy it.

Fast forward to 2011 where I began eliminating the “problems”.  I had quit my full-time job (I now had the time), talked my wife into letting me go by myself (my buddies all had jobs), and money was now not as much of a concern. Now, what cruise to take?

Finding 30-45 days in your calendar, even when you are retired is not an easy task.   I settled on the Grimaldi Lines freighter Grande Mediterraneo, an Italian registered ship with a crew of about a dozen Italian officers and a dozen Filipino “worker bees”.

Departure was from Southampton, England with a 35 day itinerary around the Mediterranean Sea and then up to the Baltic Sea.  Since my departure was to be mid-February, I decided for two reasons I would disembark at Bristol, England after about 29/30 days.  Sweden in mid-March – No thanks! - and heck, I didn’t know that maybe after 8 to 10 days at sea on my initial voyage that I would think I was the “idiot” that almost all of my “friends” said I was for taking such a trip.  I’ve always been in favor of the “road less traveled” and that the real essence of a trip is the “journey, not the destination”.

I found out later that I would be the only passenger for most of the trip, but there was one Italian on board when I boarded; he got off at the first stop in Italy.  Also, a Swiss couple boarded in Israel and was on board for about 6 days.

OK – on to the Do’s and Don’ts:

Do:

  • whole heartedly believe that the three most important aspects of freighter travel are – FLEXIBILITY, FLEXIBILITY AND FLEXIBILITY. My embarkation date was set for February 18, but ended up being February 28, 2012. I had planned on spending five days in London before boarding, but being flexible, I spent the additional five days running around in a rented car (driving on the wrong side of the road!) in the southern half of England as well as a day in Wales.
  • lots of research on what line, the destinations and the type of ship. The TravLtips magazines and their website were immensely helpful.  Also, I discovered a great website during my research – www.marinetraffic.com  This is an amazing website !!  I was able to track the movement of the Grande Mediterraneo for two months prior to my departure, so I was able to see the port times, where it was when, etc.  As I write this article, the website is tracking 48,347 vessels.  These include passenger, cargo, tankers, yachts and more.
  • determine what type of freighter you might want.  Here are the main three types:  Roll-on Roll-off, also called RoRo’s, are ships carrying vehicles – they have the shortest port times. Container ships carry the box car type self contained metal shipping crates – better port times.  Bulk freighters which carry grain or liquids – they have the longest port times.
  • take an appropriate electrical converter for the ship’s electrical current which is based on its registry.  In addition, I would suggest an extension cord as plug quantity and location are usually not very good.
  • consider downloading the free long distance phone app “Viber” if you have an iPhone.  There may be similar apps for other systems.  I used this a lot to talk to my wife and family.
  • some type of seasickness medicine and patches.  I was never close to being sick even in some pretty rough seas.
  • take duct tape.  My lovely wife asked me why I was packing duct tape for the trip; “I don’t know” was my answer.  On day two of the trip, I dropped my camera and sprung the battery door.  Duct tape to the rescue !!  Six months later the duct tape is still holding the batteries in place !!
  • take what I call a “pocket camera” (shown to the right).  While I also took an expensive camera, I didn’t want to be lugging it constantly.  A small $100 camera that can easily fit into a pocket or purse is the answer.  Further, my recommendation is that the camera use AA batteries as opposed to dedicated or proprietary batteries.  You can get AA batteries anywhere in the world, including Izmur, Turkey – I know this for a fact !!  Oh yeah, take a small tripod for the camera (especially if you’re traveling alone, this came in handy many times).
  • take a Kindle or something similar.  Entertainment is up to YOU.  I read eleven books while at sea including Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and War and Peace – OK, for those two books I read only the Cliff’s notes, but heck, they were about 150 pages apiece !!!
  • spend time on the top deck watching the ship pull in and out of port.  There is plenty of activity on ship and on the docks to take in.
  • feel safe in the port cities.  I was never once concerned for my safety (well, except for the time as noted in the next bullet point).
  • “do as the locals do”.  I enjoyed some great food in several of the ports.  The twice a day pasta on the Italian ship was great but a break from it was perfect.  Go to the local sites, walk around the towns, get a drink at the local watering hole.  Always, always - nice people with whom to converse.  Now for the safety issues as noted above.  Do as the locals do was never more appropriate than when in Ashdod, Israel on March 10, 2012 - the day our ship was docked there.  The city was being bombed by the Palestinians, so the captain would not allow us to leave the terminal (like I wanted to for some crazy reason !!), but did arrange for us to get vans to take us to the duty free stores inside the port.  A half dozen Italians and a half dozen Filipino workers and I loaded into two vans for the one mile trip.  While in the store, the Italians were buying perfume, cigars and whiskey; the Filipinos were at a counter with a bank of computers probably arranging to send money back home.  All of a sudden the ear-piercing bomb alert sirens went off – I’m talking LOUD !!!  I looked around quickly – the Italians hesitated for a second then kept shopping.  The Filipinos stayed married to the computers.  The Israelis who were working in the store, without hesitation RAN for the door.  When in Israel, do as the locals do.  I instantly decided the locals knew what was going on, so I ran after them to the bomb shelter some 50 yards away, leaving my travel companions to their own destruction.  That particular bomb was intercepted by the Israeli “Iron Dome” – anti-rocket defense system.  Oh my !!
  • turn around as you exit the terminal gate and take a photo. Didn’t need it, but thought that if I got lost I could show the photo to a cabbie or the police or someone to help get me back.
  • pay attention to the time the captain says be back on board.  These are working ships with millions of dollars of cargo – and while the crew will most likely treat you with respect and be very cordial to you – they will leave you in port without a second thought.
  • get to know the head steward and the chief cook.  Fernando the steward (maybe 30 years old) was a very engaging and delightful person who was the waiter, mopper upper and room cleaner.  Giuseppe (about 40 years old) was our cook – man, did he know his pasta! - not too good on the cakes though. He was the life of the party during meal time, commanding the most attention from the fairly young Italian cadets.   Giuseppe had a Filipino cook helping and cooking for the Filipino crew. In the photo - Fernando on the left, me and Giuseppe. Also get to know the captain/master.  On my voyage, Captain Rosario Lucchese was very  engaging and allowed me in the bridge anytime.  I enjoyed talking with him about many different subjects.  After the emergency drill (noted below), the captain mentioned how serious freighter personnel are about safety and that his ship was “no Costa Concordia” !!  I had been avoiding the subject since the Grande Mediterraneo was an Italian registered ship like the passenger ship Costa Concordia that had partially sunk just less than two months earlier resulting in several deaths.
  • use Wi-Fi when at all possible. I did and it worked out great.  Except: See note below about data packages.
  • feel safe on the seas.  The emergency drills on these ships are serious business.  Traditional cruise ships have the obligatory “put the vest on and be at this muster station….”.  The emergency drill on the Grande Mediterraneo consisted of bringing out the fire hoses, having one personnel in a flame retardant suit with a CO2 tank, having the Swiss couple and me get into the enclosed life boat - and having several “injured bodies” laying on the deck.  Wow, a REAL emergency drill!  The best part of it all was when the medic carrying the typical black bag came out on deck to attend to the “injured”. I had given no thought to whom the medic might be, though I was well aware that unless there are more than 12 passengers, freighters need only have a “medic”.  To my shock it was -Giuseppe the Cook !!!  The Swiss couple and I looked at each other in surprise, and I stated that, “well, if one of us has an appendicitis attack, Giuseppe might not know where it is, but he’ll make a clean incision with a sharp knife !!”   I’m sure he was properly trained.
  • if you get to Athens, call Panos the cabbie.  After exiting the gate and taking the cursory exit gate photo, I waited about 20 minutes and was passed up by about a dozen taxis before Panos stopped for me.  What a stroke of luck!  This guy spoke great English and was very accommodating.
    I told him I wanted to go to the Acropolis which was about 20 minute ride.  When he learned I was on a freighter and had limited time in port (about 6 hours), he suggested I hire him for the entire time.  After some friendly haggling over the pricing, we agreed he would be my driver and guide. 
    Panos was quite informative about the Acropolis and the Parthenon and is a very proud Greek.  He was engaging and funny. 
    I spoke with him recently and told him I was writing this article and would put his cell number in it – call Panos at (011-30) - 6980-532112; you’ll be glad you did !!
     

Now for the Don’ts:

Don’t:

  • even think you are going to be entertained on a working freighter !!  The entertainment will come from the serenity you enjoy – the reading of books, watching movies, watching the crew work at port, dining with the officers, walking the deck knowing that you have chosen the “road less traveled” and that you are on an adventure !!
  • expect the cost to be cheaper than traditional cruises.  When I first started researching freighter travel, it was cheaper than traditional cruising.  I believe two phenomenon have taken place; 1) freighter cruises have become more popular so the supply/demand theory has kicked in.  Very few cargo type ships carry passengers, so the demand is outstripping the supply – the prices have risen. 2) traditional cruise lines are under immense competition and have had to hold prices relatively level.  My standard measurement of value continues to be $100 per night per passenger.  You can still find traditional travel in this price range.  Freighter travel is a little more expensive.  However, having said that, I still prefer freighters for the sheer adventure and the excitement of the terminals NOT being in the “tourist trap” districts.
  • feel intimidated by the flexible scheduling and the uncertainty of ports. While there is an itinerary, you don’t always follow it – the Grand Mediterraneo was scheduled to stop in Alexandria, Egypt but did not.  Heck, a recent trip in the Caribbean and one on the St. Lawrence Seaway both missed ports of call due to weather.
  • try to learn the harmonica while on board ship.  While I had intentions of learning to play, I discovered the walls were quite thin. 
  • buy a data package for your iPhone.  I wanted to stay in touch with my wife so I went to the local Verizon store to show them my itinerary of ports of call. Since I was not going to be in most ports very long, I didn’t want to spend time looking for the free hot spots. I bought a 150MB gobal data package from Verizon for $75 thinking this would be more than adequate.  Of my itinerary, I was told the country of Cyprus did not participate in the data plan. When in all countries except Cyprus this worked out just fine.  However, when in Cyprus, I wanted to check email and thought how much could it cost –  20 or 30 bucks, that would be outrageous, but worth it.  I didn’t surf the net or google or download anything. Well, when I got home and got the billing, the 50 minutes that I was on the net in Cyprus cost me $372!  Also, when we passed through the Straights of Gibraltar the phone pinged against the Morocco tower, not on the plan, instead of Spain - which was on the plan.  I had not indicated I was going to Morocco as I wasn’t going there !!! Ugh!  Another $46 !!!  Bottom line - don’t take a chance unless you are very, very savvy. p.s. – after several hours of hassling with Verizon, they were nice enough to reduce the overage charges by 50%.  I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry about spending $209 (half of the total) for 60 minutes of “data” (checking e-mail)! 
  • miss out on a great adventure of a life time. Everyone I talked to during the trip and then back home was fascinated to hear about the trip and see the photos.  Of the people back home, with whom I spoke, most had never heard of freighter cruises.

Now a quick side note about “single” travel.  Single in this context would include married but traveling alone as I did.  While I would have loved for my wife to have gone, she didn’t want to go in 2001 or in 2012.  She never wants to go !!!  I was OK with that as I have no problem traveling by myself.

Traveling to a foreign country by myself brought unexpected friendly encounters, particularly when I mentioned I was traveling on a freighter.  This intrigued people and helped to engage them in conversation more readily than if I was traveling with another person or a group.  I think that if you are traveling with others you are in “your own little world” with the group, but if you are traveling alone you are “in their world” - and they are so willing to assist you with your adventure.  I met an incredible number of people while waiting to board ship, on the ship, in the various ports, and upon disembarkation.  Everyone I met was so friendly and helpful. Bonding was easy.  Briefly I was:

  • given a free hotel room night’s stay in Eastbourne, England after engaging the owner in conversation and staying one night longer than I had planned.
  • given the phone number of a fellow visitor at a B&B in St. Ives, England when he stated he was from Cyprus and I mentioned I’d be going there in a few weeks – he drove me all around the island while I was there!!
  • encouraged to come visit the husband and wife passengers from Switzerland at their "Sound of Music" home in the Swiss Alps, and given their phone number, email and address.
  • shown a great time in Athens by my cabbie/tour guide Panos (see note above) who was intrigued about freighter travel.
  • given a lift back into town in Setubal, Portugal after walking about four miles up a hill to see a castle.  The nice couple was from England and gave me their phone number in case I needed any assistance when I disembarked in Bristol, England.  See the ship in the distance (above).
  • given advice by my cabbie in Bristol to take the bus which would go directly to London Heathrow as opposed to the train which would require transfers and cost more.  Great advice!

So there you have it, some tips – do’s and don’ts and some information on traveling alone.  Enjoy and bon voyage !!