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.