It's a rare person who hasn't daydreamed about getting away from everyday routine by hopping a freighter to some distant port and gazing across the rail like Somerset Maugham or Jack London at Dakar or Calcutta.
A few years ago it looked as if freighter travel was fading into the sunset. San Francisco-based Delta Lines, whose four cargo liners carried 100 passengers and assorted cargo around South America, closed its passenger service more than a year ago, and other familiar lines began closing their doors to passengers as well. ("Cargo doesn't eat and doesn't complain," one employee was quoted as saying.)
Now, freighters seem to be coming back again, perhaps in the wake of the fast-growing cruise industry. As more new passengers learn to enjoy life aboard a cruise ship, the old-timers and veterans look around for something different, perhaps more exotic or a little quieter. Ergo, freighter cruises.
"It's definitely on the way back up again," says George Henck of Freighter World Cruises Inc., whose Pasadena "Freighter Space Advisory" lists availabilities, dates for sailing, ports of call and accommodations descriptions. "There's more surplus cargo space now, and a lot of competition."
More New Ships
The biggest misconception about freighter travel, according to Henck, is that people expect the accommodations to be like something out of an old Humphrey Bogart movie, whereas some lines are adding new ships and improving public areas for passengers.
U.S.-registry Lykes Lines, for example, has six new ships for its San Francisco-Orient service, each with six outside suites (bedroom, sitting room and bath) that are priced lower than many inside double cabins on regular cruise ships.
And German-based Columbus Lines is refurbishing passenger cabins and offering swimming pools (rare on freighters) and attractively-decorated lounges and bars on its Australia and New Zealand service, which sails from several East Coast, Gulf and West Coast ports.
But before you run out to book a bargain-priced slow boat to China, there's a lot you need to know, not only about traveling by freighter, but also about yourself.
For instance, how fussy are you about food and service? Your meals will be the same as served to the officers and staff, which means on a foreign-flag carrier that you should be prepared to enjoy the cuisine of that country.
You'll usually be sharing the officers' cabin steward, so don't expect breakfast in bed or lots of extra pampering.
How flexible are you? If the itinerary lists a particular port you've always wanted to see, but the ship cancels that call at the last minute; if you're expecting to spend three days in Rio but end up getting only eight hours; if you plan to be home on the 58th day but don't get there until the 67th--can you handle it?
How self-reliant are you? You won't have a cruise director to cajole you into fun and games, nor a shore excursions manager selling guided bus tours of Yokohama, nor an orchestra playing for after-dinner dancing.
Bring Your Own
You may have to take your own reading materials and games (although most freighters have small libraries), even--in the case of Lykes Lines--your own dinner wine and liquor.
Amiable loners and couples whose world is complete within themselves make good freighter passengers, as do creative people with a portable project they need to work on free of interference or telephone calls. (Novelist Alex Haley takes several freighter cruises a year to work on his books; several well-known ex-mayors of big cities find it the perfect escape from people and pressures.)
"The biggest attraction," Henck says, "is the informality. No parties, no dressing up or frequent changing of clothes. It's a laid-back atmosphere; you make your own entertainment."
Pay a Flat Rate
The per-diem cost of freighter cruises is lower than other cruises, usually around $75 to $100 per person a day. You'll pay a flat rate, say $3,800, for a cruise that lasts about 38 days. If it goes on longer, you pay no more, but if it ends earlier than anticipated, you must not expect a refund.
Because freighter trips last from 30 days to five months or more and schedules are frequently altered, passengers are usually retired or self-employed persons, most of them over 60.
Freighters that carry 12 or fewer passengers are not required to have a doctor on board; therefore, expect to be asked for a medical health certificate before boarding.
Almost all freighters have a top age limit for passengers, anywhere from 75 to 82; most discourage or refuse to take children or pregnant women.
No special dietary requests can be filled, and handicapped persons dependent on canes, walkers or wheelchairs would do better to book regular cruise ships than freighters, where deck space is often limited.