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.