Crossing the Ocean on a Cargo Ship

In the summer of 1820, a group of young men from Scotland set out to cross the Atlantic Ocean on a cargo ship. The voyage would take three months and they were only allowed to bring along one small bag each. Their journey was not easy, but it was worth it in the end.

If you ever want to know what it’s like sailing across the Atlantic, you can try out one of these games. The experience is quite different from playing on your computer or gaming console.

Man giving pose while standing in the freighter ship.

Note from the editor: This is a guest post by Joseph P. Lenze. Mr. Lenze gave his foreign traveling suggestions a few weeks ago. Now, by popular demand, he provides us his tips on sailing by cargo ship, a macho excursion I’m sure every guy has fantasized about at some point.

I boarded the Punjab Senator freighter at the Port of Long Beach, California. After a winter passage of the Pacific, I disembarked in Singapore 22 days later. This journey wasn’t for everyone, but it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience that I’ll never forget.

If you’re sick of boring aircraft rides and want to take a journey on a cargo ship, here’s everything you need to know to get started.

First and foremost, there are several common misconceptions about freighter travel.

1. Freighter travel is a less expensive option than flying. The typical old-school romantic concept of arriving destitute at a pier with a bag and “earning” your passage by sweeping the decks will have to stay in Robert Louis Stevenson books. Freighter travel requires significant planning and is often more costly than flying. The cost of a fifteen-day cruise from Oakland to Shanghai is about $2,000 per person (US). When traveling by cargo ship, you are effectively paying for meals and lodging for many days and nights in addition to transportation.

2. Traveling by freighter is equivalent to taking a cruise. The goal of a cruise ship is for everyone on board to have a pleasant and pleasurable vacation. A freighter’s job is to transport goods from point A to point B as rapidly as feasible. Cruise ships troll about the calm waters, with stabilizers in place so you don’t even notice you’re moving. Freighters travel across the open ocean at rapid speed, frequently in the midst of storms. A cruise ship will have thousands of passengers, however a cargo is usually a bigger vessel with just 20 or so passengers. A freighter will have a TV with a DVD player, a radio, and, if you’re fortunate, an ancient Nautilus machine for working out, but a cruise liner would have restaurants, spas, gymnasiums, and a plethora of activities.

3. A freighter can transport you from one location to another. The majority of cargo ships travel along well-defined shipping routes, stopping at major port cities (Long Beach, Oakland, Singapore, Hong Kong, Kaohsiung, etc.). It’s not going to happen if your desire is to catch a ship from the Jersey coast to Isla Mujeres, Mexico.

Now that we’ve covered the drawbacks, let’s look at how you may get started. You may find various firms that arrange freighter cruises by searching for freighter travel on Google. I utilized and was very pleased with their service. You may get a fair notion of the time, cost, and ports that you can travel to and from by browsing the site. Their FAQ section has a lot of useful information. You’ll have to schedule your passage at least a month in advance, and evidence of insurance is also required, which is a further insult to your Jack Kerouac visions of spontaneous adventure.


Sunset view from the top of freighter ship.

Here are some pointers if you decide to try for it:

1. Bring Sea-Bands with you. I’d spent a lot of time on fishing boats, cruise ships, and sailboats and had never had seasickness. However, I felt my stomach churn as the Punjab Senator sailed out of the Port of Oakland into the open Pacific. I utilized Sea-Bands, which are little wrist bands that provide pressure on your wrist to help you feel better. I’m not sure whether the seasickness was mental or genuine — the prospect of trekking right into the Pacific in the dead of winter was disconcerting – but the Sea-Bands helped me feel much better when I wore them. During a storm, our ship had a 20-degree roll, which is a lot of movement. The good news is that towards the conclusion of the vacation, I was able to sleep despite the motion, which resulted in my stuff being strewn throughout my room.

2. Bring books with you. I’m not a quick reader, but I managed to finish some monster volumes by Dostoevsky, Ayn Rand, Solzhenitsyn, and John Steinbeck on this journey. The ship had a decent library, but since the crew was largely German, many of the books were in German. I worked out twice a day, watched a DVD or two, wrote a lot, slept twice, ate three meals, and yet had enough free time to complete four books.

3. Recognize that you must amuse yourself. The officers aboard my ship were 7 Germans and 4 Russians, while the rest of the crew was made up of 10 Kiribati. Although English being the language of the sea, no one else on the boat spoke it fluently. Moreover, despite the friendships I established on board, the sailors are there to work, and there were numerous occasions when everyone was too preoccupied to hang around. Because the whole crew was occupied monitoring the loading and unloading of goods, I went to the shore alone at the bulk of the ports we stopped at.

4. Special dietary requirements are not met. The eating was the most difficult aspect of cargo trip (for me). As a passenger, you dine with the officers, who were German and Russian on my boat. I am a vegetarian, and they ate a meat-heavy diet. On land, finding adequate food is never an issue for me, but you can’t just go someplace else to eat in the galley. For me, it meant eating cheese sandwiches for many weeks. I’m glad I brought a tub of peanut butter with me.

5. Be aware of your ship’s location. Some of the ports are massive, with containers piled four storeys high and stretching for kilometers. It is considerably simpler to get out of the port if you go ashore alone than it is to return to the port to re-board. A port’s exits are often several, and not knowing which one to use may be highly unpleasant. For a long time, I was lost at the port of Singapore, trying to find my way back to my ship.


6. Etiquette in freighter rooms. In general, the atmosphere is relaxed, and the restrictions are comparable to those found in a college dorm room. You are welcome to enter if someone’s door is open. If a person’s door is shut, it means they are either not present or want seclusion.

I tried to concentrate on some of the disadvantages of freighter travel in this post. To be best prepared, you need be aware of the challenges. You don’t need instructions on how to sip gin and tonics to commemorate the crossing of the International Date Line. Overall, I had a great time experiencing freighter travel. I have a newfound respect and understanding for the ocean that I would not have otherwise. The relaxed environment in the bridge, where you could sit while the first mate maneuvered, was unrivaled. Finally, cargo travel provides you some tough-to-get adventurous street cred. When a traveller asks where you flew into when you’re sipping a beer in Phnom Pehn, Cambodia, it feels quite masculine to look up and answer, “I didn’t.”



Crossing the ocean on a cargo ship is not easy. The last minute cargo ship travel will be the best option for you.

Frequently Asked Questions

How long does a cargo ship take to cross the ocean?

A: A cargo ship can take anywhere between 10 to 18 days.

Can you still cross the ocean on a ship?

A: Yes, please do not worry about your safety.

Can you buy passage on a cargo ship?

A: There is no ability to buy passage on cargo ships. If you want to be able to transport your items across the ocean, then check out our sister site at

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