Readers often ask about the possibilities for ship travel beyond the usual big-line cruise options. One reader asked about domestic travel:
"Is it possible to book passage on a commercial ship from Los Angeles to Portland, Oregon? Who would you contact?"
The short answer is that it isn't possible. But if you like the idea of travel on a commercial ship, several agencies specialize in freighter travel in other areas of the world.
The Domestic Problem
As far as I know, no freighter line carries passengers between two U.S. ports. American law prohibits foreign-flag shipping lines from carrying passengers between ports in the U.S. without an intervening stop in a foreign country. That law applies to cruise ships as well as to freighters, and it's the prime reason that the mass market cruise lines -- which generally operate under foreign flags -- don't offer cruises linking various U.S. ports.
That law, designed to "protect" domestic passenger shipping and shipbuilding, has virtually eliminated both -- a prime example of unintended consequences.
I know of no domestic shipping companies that provide for passenger services on coastal shipping or shipping to or from Alaska or Hawaii. The only way you're likely to get a ship from Los Angeles to Portland is if one of the inland waterways cruise lines has to send a ship to or from Los Angeles for some reason.
If you like the idea of freighter travel, you'll have to leave the U.S.
Freighter Travel Basics
Some large freight ships -- especially modern container ships -- offer cabins for a few paying passengers. But crossing an ocean in a cabin on a big ship is about the only similarity between freighter travel and a conventional cruise:
Typically, freighters carry no more than 12 passengers -- that's the limit for ships without full-time onboard doctors -- with up to six double cabins or maybe a few singles. Some ships offer only double beds. Others have twins as well. Cabins are often quite a bit larger than on typical cruise ships. Many are two-room suites.
Freighter trips generally take at least a week, and most of them take several weeks to several months. Because of stops at multiple ports, transatlantic trips typically take at least two weeks. Other routes are even longer.
As far as I know, no passenger-carrying ships provide any special facilities just for passengers. Freighter travelers generally have meals with the ships' officers and they have access to any officers' lounges and any other recreational facilities the ship might carry, sometimes including a swimming pool.
Freighter itineraries are determined by freight requirements, not for passenger appeal. But many operate on popular travel routes, such as transatlantic, transpacific, to South America or the South Pacific.
Freighters dock at cargo-handling facilities, not cruise ports, and those cargo ports are often some distance from any interesting destination highlights. You won't find any convenient "shore excursions" and you may not even find convenient public transportation.
Sailing and arrival times are timed for cargo requirements. Arrivals and departures may be in the small hours of the night.
Freighters offer no onboard entertainment or amusements. At best, a few ships offer limited convenience-store shopping. Most ships now provide TV sets with DVD or VCR players. A few may have satellite Internet.
Many freighters do not have elevators, so you must be able to cope with stairs.
Dress is casual at all times -- no formal banquets or "captain's dinners," which is either a plus or a minus, depending on your outlook.
Smoking may be allowed in cabins and even in the dining room.
Most freighter lines have minimum and maximum ages for passengers. The senior cutoff age ranges from 70 to 85 years, depending on the shipping line, and seniors over 65 may need a doctor's clearance. Most lines won't take children under 13.
Clearly, freighter travel is most attractive for travelers who would enjoy several weeks at sea with almost no distractions -- and maybe a large stack of books. It's ideal for two couples that would like nothing better than two or three solid weeks of nonstop bridge.
Routes and Prices
Freighter agencies generally group their trips by region: transatlantic, transpacific (north), South Pacific, South America, Caribbean, and round-the-world, plus regional trips in some of these areas.
Transatlantic freighter trips depart from U.S. ports on the Gulf and Atlantic coasts. Transpacific trips generally depart from Seattle, San Francisco, or Los Angeles. One line operates during the summer between Amsterdam and Chicago or Cleveland.
Although most freighter trips are posted as round-trips, many sell one-way sailings and individual segments of the total itinerary. The shortest available segments typically start at around two weeks.
Prices on freighter trips are set in either euros or dollars, with euros predominating. Typical prices for double cabins are in the range of 90 to 100 euros per person per day, plus some extra fees and taxes.
Arranging a Freighter Trip
As far as I know, Grimaldi is the only freight line that sells passenger cabins directly to the public. It operates typical freighters from its home base in Italy to other European ports, South America, and West Africa. It also operates large passenger/car ferries between Italy and Spain.
Most freighter travelers arrange their trips through specialized freighter agencies. I know of four agencies based in North America that cater to North Americans:
In addition, several agencies based in Europe or Australia market to North American Travelers:
You'll find considerable overlap among the trips offered by these agencies, but the overlap is not total. I suggest you check with several to make sure you see all the possibilities.
Obviously, freighter travel is a niche market. But, as far as I can tell, those who have tried it think it's great.
Ed Perkins is a SmarterTravel contributing editor and a respected commentator on all aspects of the travel industry, including passenger comfort and rights, travel insurance, the best credit cards for travelers, and car rental. This article originally appeared on SmarterTravel.