Freighters: the cruise alternative


If you're an avid cruiser, you've probably heard rumblings about freighter travel. But information on this specialized form of cruising is not readily available-- you won't see ads in your Sunday paper, and your travel agent won't have a clue. So what's the deal?

Taking a freighter trip is nothing like a weeklong sail on the QE2, though it might be just the thing for that three-month passage to the South Pacific. Some 35 of the world's shipping lines offer passenger space. Freighter travel has grown substantially in the past decade because of strides in technology-- ships no longer need to be fully staffed, so empty officers' cabins are used to accommodate passengers (usually no more than 12). Here's what to consider when deciding whether this kind of travel is for you.

Go with the Flow
Freighter journeys last anywhere from two weeks to four months; the average trip is six weeks. The ship's itinerary is dictated by how long it takes to load and unload the cargo at designated ports. Dates may shift, ports may change, and shore time may be longer or shorter than expected, so it's important to be flexible.

Relax, Stay Awhile
Since so many days are spent at sea, freighter cabins are quite spacious. Each has its own bathroom and some are equipped with a TV and VCR. In addition, most cabins are on the outside and have large windows rather than portholes. Common areas include a dining room, lounge, and bar; some ships have a library and a small pool or fitness area. The Ivaran Line's 88-passenger Americana (which sails from the United States to Central America, the Caribbean, Venezuela, and Colombia) is the most luxurious ship.

Economical, Yes--Cheap, No
Daily rates run about $100 per person, double occupancy; singles are charged a supplement. That's approximately half what you'd pay on a cruise ship, but considering the duration of most trips, it does add up. You must also pay for-- and arrange-- your own shore excursions.

Amuse Thyself
You won't find any late-night discos or bingo on the Lido deck aboard a freighter. "Freighter travelers are independent-minded people who don't need anyone to entertain them," says Margi Mostue, president of Freighter World Cruises. "The three meals provide the only structure on board." The atmosphere is informal; activities consist of reading, relaxing, and socializing with the crew and fellow passengers.

Passenger Profile
It's not surprising that most freighter passengers are retirees, but you'll also get your share of students, nautical buffs, adventurers, and writers (Alex Haley, a freighter fan, wrote most of Roots aboard one). Most lines don't accept children, and the maximum age is 80.

Caveat Sailor
There is no doctor on board (travel insurance is required). On most ships, smoking is allowed. No special diets are accommodated-- you eat what the crew eats. It may not be gourmet, but you can usually expect varied, balanced meals.