How to travel by Cargo Ship

In 2016 we travelled from Asia to Australia by cargo ship. Our freighter cruise was one of the most interesting experiences of our fourteen month journey from the UK to New Zealand (read more about our cargo ship journey), but it was also one of the most intimidating parts of the trip to consider.

Cargo ship travel is a bit of an oddity, and in the age of online flight booking and limitless access to travel information, not knowing quite how it worked, or if it would work, was kind of stressful for us.

There was definitely limited information available about cargo ship travel, and what there was seemed out of date and alarmingly vague. When I first put feelers out to find suitable freighter cruise routes a year before we hoped to sail, the agents I contacted politely but firmly told me they couldn’t possibly know so far in advance.

In the end, it was only six weeks between us trying to book onto a cargo ship voyage, and clambering up the gangplank.

It’s a fact of cargo ship travel that you can’t know in advance quite when or where you’ll be going.

This uncertainty was the most problematic aspect of arranging our freighter cruise. It meant we found ourselves very swiftly backtracking from Singapore to Hong Kong when we discovered there were no routes from anywhere in South East Asia at the time we were enquiring, in the middle of 2016. Five countries in a week is not the way we like to travel, and to top it, we ended up having to fly from Hanoi to Hong Kong anyway when we couldn’t get a visa to cross China on the train.

Frustrating, but there you are. We never got to the bottom of why there are no freighter ships carrying passengers in South East Asia, but we suspected it might be to do with the piracy risk in the area. Reading a global piracy bulletin onboard our cargo ship, it did seem like almost all of the recent incidents had happened in Indonesian waters.

So some uncertainty is inevitable, if you want to experience a cargo ship journey. But booking on to a ship is really not as mysterious as it felt to us at the beginning.

Here’s how it went down.

Contacting Freighter Travel Agents

I first sent enquiries out to Freighter Travel agents in April 2016, looking for a voyage in June or July. The reply came that there were no options from Indonesia to Australia, but there were ships from Singapore. The schedule wasn’t known yet for June though. I was politely instructed to ask again later in the year.

When it came to it we were still mooching round South East Asia in June, and we didn’t start asking again until August 2016. By this point we wanted to move on to Australia as soon as possible. We were tired, and steadily running out of money.

We spoke with three agents to try and find a suitable sailing for our journey, all via email.

Freighter Travel (NZ)

Hamish at Freighter Travel was very helpful. When we first asked he said there were no ships taking passengers from South East Asia to Australia or New Zealand, and there hadn’t been for some time. But with prompting it turned out he could offer us a voyage from Hong Kong, sailing to Sydney. The cost would have been €1970 each, but the first date he could offer was November 20th, so we declined this option.

While we were trying to arrange our voyage from Asia to Australia, we also started asking around about ships from Australia to New Zealand. Hamish sent us a handy information sheet about getting a freighter between Australia and New Zealand. In short, it’s tricky and disproportionately expensive, because companies aren’t keen on taking on passengers for such a short journey. Availability usually only opens up less than six weeks in advance. We contacted him again about four weeks before we ended up flying to New Zealand from Sydney, but he had nothing available in the period we needed to travel.

Freighter Expeditions (Australia)

Julie at Freighter Expeditions offered us a voyage from Hong Kong to Sydney on October 8th, for $2400 each Australian (about €1550 at the time of writing).

She could also offer us two options for cargo ship voyages from Australia to New Zealand in December 2016, but both would arrive after Christmas, and the cost would have been $1520 Australian each, which was a bit beyond us after already shelling out for our first cargo ship journey a couple of months earlier.

Globoship (Switzerland)

Globoship, who we ended up booking our cargo ship voyage with, were probably the most effusive emailers of the agents we talked to. Their website is in German, which neither of us speak, so we were worried communication might be difficult, but their English was perfect. Our main contact was Andrea, who kept us up to date with developments while she tried to sort us out a voyage from Singapore.

In the end it turned out that their ship from Singapore to Fremantle was being replaced by a different vessel, which didn’t accept passengers. She could, though, offer us a freighter voyage from Hong Kong to Brisbane, on September the 15th. The price was 1625 Swiss Francs (€1385 at the time of writing), for a 12 day voyage. As this was the cheapest price and the earliest departure we’d been offered, we went for it.

Booking our Cargo Ship Voyage

The booking itself was as simple as filling in a short form, taking a photo, and emailing it to Andrea at Globoship. We didn’t have to buy any additional insurance because we already had travel insurance that covered repatriation, and we weren’t required to have a medical or a doctor’s certificate because we’re under 65.

Globoship also needed a copy of our Australian visas, so we had to apply online for our eVisitor visa in advance of confirming the sailing, but this only took a few days.

We could pay by credit card or bank transfer. As the credit card fee was 1.5%, an international bank transfer worked out cheaper. This is a bonus of booking with Globoship, you can pay by transferring funds into a mysterious Swiss bank account. We felt like spies. Or possibly criminals. The fees charged for an international transfer vary widely from bank to bank, and we saved a bit by paying from our Nationwide account rather than NatWest or TSB.

A few days before our sailing, Globoship sent us the details for the local agent in Hong Kong, who we had to contact to arrange getting to the ship. There were some port fees to pay, and the agent wanted to charge us $50 US to transport us from our accommodation to the terminal. We tried to skip this fee by suggesting we walk to the terminal entrance from the nearest metro station, about 10 minutes away. At this point they mysteriously dropped the fee to $20, so we decided to have a chauffeured start to our voyage.

Further Resources on Cargo Ship Travel

Some of the best information we had before attempting our own cargo ship cruise was from a guide to the options available for flight-free ocean travel, by Anna Rice of without wings. The article is from 2012, so is a little out of date. Strand Travel, a possible agent mentioned, have now stopped offering international cargo ship booking services. Otherwise it’s a really useful article, and tallies with our experience of cargo ship travel in 2016.

I’ve also written a post about what to expect from a cargo ship voyage.

Some more recent blog posts on the cargo ship voyage experience can be found at once around the world and home.

Freighter Travel and Freighter Expeditions both have pages on the ins and outs of cargo ship travel.

Finally, I’d highly recommend reading Josie Dew’s book Saddled at Sea, about her cargo ship journey from Europe to New Zealand. It’s hilarious, and gives a good picture of what life is like on a freighter cruise.

This post was prompted by an email from a reader who’s also travelling round the world without flying, and soon to embark on a cargo ship journey from China to the US. Check out their blog to see how they get on!

8 thoughts on “How to travel by Cargo Ship

    1. Yeah it’s a really different experience! I was a bit nervous about being able to arrange it, and just generally about what it would be like, but it was so interesting. It’s a completely different perspective on the world, spending so long out at sea. The oceans are so big… sounds dumb, but it really brought it home!

  1. Wow, I didn’t know this is how you got to Australia! I was thinking that would be a cool way to do it until I saw the price, geez! I’ve travelled by cargo ship from Orkney before because the passenger services are a bit more limited in winter, but it was just overnight and I think slightly cheaper than the normal boat. Interesting way to travel, though!

    1. Yeah it’s not cheap, I’d say it’s worth it for the experience though. 🙂 And if you think about the fact you’re getting 12 days of accommodation and all your meals, it starts to seem a bit more reasonable. I think it’s a bit silly though, we were the only passengers on our ship, but they have room for about 6. The price must be too high for the market if they’re not filling the space. I think companies just can’t really be bothered to take passengers because it’s a minor hassle to arrange insurance and an agent to get you onto the boat, and any profit they make will be tiny compared to their main business.

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