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
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
Fast forward to 2011 where I began eliminating the
“problems”. I had quit my full-time job (I now had the
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
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:
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 –
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
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.
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
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
“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
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
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
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.
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.
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:
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
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
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
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
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
So there you have it,
some tips – do’s and don’ts and some information on
traveling alone. Enjoy and bon voyage !!