As the wetness and darkness have mostly settled in for the long haul here in the Pacific Northwest, I find myself more and more looking at flights to Bangkok and Buenos Aires. In fact, I look up the weather in those two cities so often that Weather.com has justified prominently showcasing them right alongside my own city.
But as I dream of my toasty winter getaway, I balk at the airline price tags. A $4-500 ticket wouldn’t be bad, which is the starting rate for a roundtrip ticket to Thailand right now, during the off season (i.e. monsoon season). But then tack on another $600 or so for taxes and fees. Over 100% taxes? Yikes. (Of course, it won’t be that bad in a few months, when the ticket prices shoot up to about $2,000 minimum.)
Finding those numbers rather unsatisfying, I wondered about the possibility of travelling by sea. Not on a cruise, of course. The one transpacific cruise I found started at $5274. One way. And that’s without a view.
No, what I had in mind was more akin to the early scenes in Firefly—a rogue cargo ship picking up passengers to help cover costs and provide an air of legitimacy.
Okay, maybe without the rogue part.
Much to my delight, such a thing is possible.
Joining a crew as a workaway—that is, someone who exchanges work for free passage—is no longer possible due to union regulations. But, if you’re willing to pay for your time aboard, there are plenty of freighter crews who will be happy to have you aboard.
You must realize, like most things I get excited over, there are definitely tradeoffs. These are freighters, first and foremost. While they can get you, with relative comfort, to your destination, their primary purpose is to deliver goods from one place in the world to another. Freighter cruises are not a fast way to travel, nor are they as luxurious as their vacation cruise counterparts.
What do you get?
For 75-110€ a night, you get a place to sleep with a private bathroom, three sailor-sized meals a day, and coffee breaks. Other ammenities vary by ship, but many that I’ve seen provide A/C, saunas, swimming pools, gyms, duty-free stores, TVs, and more. Plus, you get the same great ocean views you’d get on a more expensive cruise, and a day or more in each port of call.
Expect to be gone for two weeks, minimum. Most of the roundtrips I’ve seen start at 35 days. Most ships also have age limits—depending on the ship, people 75-85 or older will be excluded. There is no doctor on board, nor any elevators in most cases. One passenger described having to climb four flights of stairs to get from their cabin to the dining area. You’re expected to be in decent shape and self-reliant.
Expect to entertain yourself for days at a time at sea. By one passenger’s account, there was a BBQ and the crew got together to sing karaoke on one particular day, but that is the exception—expect no roaring casinos or live music, like you might get a regular cruise. While the crews are generally described as friendly and easy-going, they have jobs to do, and aren’t there to chat or entertain.
This is not a cheap way to travel, in the strictest sense. How much would it take me to get to Bangkok via freighter? Well, I can’t. But, I could take one as far as Shanghai or Hong Kong, and once there, airfare goes down to $180 round trip, including fees. Much more reasonable.
But,the trip itself would take about 17 days. On the route that would take me there, I’m looking at 85€ a night. With the current exchange rates, that works out to about $2100. At least double the price. Then another $180 to get to and from either Shanghai or Hong Kong. Did I mention that this $2100 is just to get me to China? My return trip isn’t included. So, altogether, we’re looking at $4380.
But really, you do the mode of transport a disservice if you treat is as ONLY a mode of transport. In reality, you’re getting a hotel room, 3 very large square meals a day, a gym membership (in most cases), beautiful ocean views, stopovers in interesting cities along the way, and more. And best of all, you’re not stuck on a crowded plane for 20+ hours. Truly, the transportation is part of the vacation itself.
And all of this is assuming that you want to go to Thailand during monsoon season. As the weather gets nicer, the fares go up to. You can still get tickets from Delta for about $3,000, but go up to $7,500 via US Airways. Possibly higher if you choose the wrong days to fly. And did I mention that this is a 20 hour flight in economy?
The price for freighter cruises stays the same year round, so the ideal time to take one is when the weather is nice and the price for airfare to your international destination has skyrocketed.
But for me, the biggest part of it would just be the fun of adventure. I love being out on the water, and interacting with people from different cultures. I love being fed large, sailorly meals. Even if I wanted to visit Bangkok during monsoon season, it would be work considering a freighter cruise just to avoid 20 hours in economy. I’d have a couple of weeks to work on my tan before I ever arrived at my destination. This could be my ticket to international travel. You know, once I save up the money.
There’s always a creative way to the same thing that everyone else wants to do. Want to travel? Freighter cruises sound like your cup of tea? Check out the three freighter cruise services operating in the U.S.:
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