Is a freighter cruise for you?

By Bill McGee, special for USA TODAY

More and more travelers are fed up with flying long distances, but for those looking to cross an ocean, full-service cruise lines are not the only other option. Sailing the seas on a freighter ship could be a viable alternativeand for much less than a passenger cruise.

No, you don't need to be a stevedore or pack your longshoreman's hook to work your way across the ocean. Modern cargo ships provide yet another travel choice, one that even many seasoned travelers haven't considered.

This isn't Cunard

Let's be clear. Don't look for parasailing, rock-climbing walls, casinos and revues featuring Broadway show tunes. But if you're interested in an onboard experience consisting primarily of sunning poolside, reading in a deck chair or dining leisurely and playing board games with fellow travelers, a freighter cruise may provide an intriguing alternative. You'll get plenty of sun and sea air, as well as solitude if you wish. And the emphasis is on the casual, with no black-tie dinners, and frequent visits to the bridge.

Many ships are equipped with a (small) swimming pool, and some have exercise rooms and even saunas. They usually offer a small library, nightly games and surprisingly good meal service. (I toured one vessel several years ago and was quite impressed by both the public areas and individual cabins.) Accommodations usually include a private room and shower.

Many of the most common FAQs are answered online by Sea Travel Ltd., a British company that books freighter cruises. Maris Freighters also provides a comprehensive overview, as does Freighter World Cruises.

Comparing the costs

One of the most attractive aspects of freighter cruising is the savings it can generate, particularly on long-haul voyages. As the AARP points out: "Pricing is usually around $100 a day, which generally adds up to be more expensive than flying but much less than [traditional passenger ship] cruising."

Another piece of good news: Solo travelers are unlikely to be hit with those exorbitant single supplement fees. What's more, fares can be even lower during off seasons. However, port charges and mandatory insurance may add another $300 or so to the total, so make sure you add up all the costs.

Consider some recent freighter sailings and how such fares compare with more traditional travel modes. A recent 13-day sailing from Amsterdam to Cleveland could be booked for $1,560 per person for single or double cabins. The lowest comparable airfares on that route were in the $1,100 range, but no passenger cruise line offered a similar itinerary, at any price.

For those truly seeking to see the world, a recent 84-day sailing departed from England, with stops in Europe, the East Coast of the U.S., Jamaica, the Panama Canal and throughout the Pacific Ocean, including Tahiti, Fiji and Australia. The pricewhich included French wine with lunch and dinner, plus access to a gymnasium, library, indoor pool and lounge with TV, video and DVDwas $12,307, including port charges. The only comparable passenger cruise experiences are three-month around-the-world sailings that can range from $19,000 to $23,000 to $51,000 and higher.

Before setting sail

Is a freighter cruise for you? First consider the following:

The most important aspect of freighter cruising is FLEXIBILITY. That means the times and even the dates you embark and disembark are subject to change, based on the vagaries of the cargo being carried. In some cases, even the destinations can vary slightly; a few years ago I set out to pick up relatives scheduled to come ashore from a freighter cruise in Baltimore, only to learn that the ship had been rerouted at the eleventh hour to Philadelphia.

Usually there are no doctors onboard, so consider this if your health is an issue. Crewmembers are trained in first aid, and basic dispensary items are available, but more serious situations will require you to leave the ship. A medical certificate, particularly for those over 65, may be required.

As for travel insurance, evacuation coverage is not only recommended, in many cases it is required. In addition, some operators may include the cost of "deviation insurance" in your fare, so the freighter line is reimbursed for emergency itinerary changes.

Since many freighter cruises are offered by companies based outside the United States, pricing is not always calculated in dollars, so make sure you factor the correct exchange rates into your budgeting. And always include ALL charges.

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