Moving To South America: Flightless Travel By Cargo Ship

Tressa Sanders @ Travel Star Magazine

Picture it... Florida. 2016. An adventurous, web developer, chick begins her journey toward a new life in South America. She could have easily bought a plane ticket for less than $400 and would have been there within 4 hours. Yet, she stands among thousands of shipping containers waiting to board a cargo ship....

In May 2016, my new life begins aboard a German freighter headed to ports along the shores of South America. If I'm quitting my job, selling almost everything I own and moving to another country, I might as well make it an adventure. This level of freedom takes some getting used to. ...does this mean I can do "the robot" 24 hours a day 7 days a week now? ... Wow, that's pretty free!

1. I'm in no rush.
2. It's affordable.
3. High baggage allowance. 
4. Significantly fewer passengers aboard.

Time is something you can never get back. I cherish it and have made many adjustments in recent years to slow down and enjoy the ride. On a freighter cruise there is no internet, television or regularly scheduled entertainment. This may be off putting for some but for someone who seriously needs to unplug, this sounds like heaven.

It is cheaper to hop on a plane than it is to cruise aboard a freighter but I believe these two transportation types each have a unique purpose. When flying, you are simply going from point A to point B as quickly as possible. Whereas a cruise is more about the journey even if the end result is getting from point A to point B. 

When I contacted booking agents for freighter cruises, I received quotes ranging from 120 Euros a day at the highest to 77 Euros a day at the lowest. I chose the one with the best route which also happened to be the cheapest (yaaay!). It's 77 Euros a day for a single cabin with all meals included and best of all, it leaves from Florida where I currently live. The others were leaving from Houston and would take 15 days which would have cost me over $2000 USD.

The route from Florida to my destination port in South America is a sweet 8 days and will cost only 616 Euros (not including additional fees). Additional fees for booking, Embarkment/Disembarkment and the required Deviation insurance brings the total to 826 Euros.

The cost breakdown for my cargo ship cruise was as follows:
Voyage Fee 616 Euros
Port Fee 85 Euros
Deviation Insurance 95 Euros
Booking Fee 30 Euros
Total: 826 Euros

I booked my trip on December 30, 2015 and had until January 22, 2016 to pay it.

I also needed an additional $75 in cash for transportation from my hotel to the ship which would be arranged by the port agent. This fee would be paid directly to the driver when I arrived at the ship. You can’t just take a taxi or your own transportation to the port, special clearance is needed to get to the ship. 

Nothing causes me more inner turmoil when traveling than what to bring and how to bring it. I started looking for a way to make this move without flying because I didn't want to have to worry about how many bags I had or how much they weigh. While I completely understand why airlines have baggage limits, it does make moving to another country very painful if you have to do it by air. I've read many stories from expats who have moved to other countries, all by plane, and while they were able to do it successfully they took several blows to the pocket and/or did so with a lot of stress.

I even thought about trying to drive it but learned all about the Darien Gap instead. So my only other option was a cargo ship. Traveling by freighter allows me to bring as much baggage as I can safely stow in my cabin. The general guideline is about 250lbs but they don't weigh it. Basically, you just can't show up with your stuff in moving boxes.

I still have to haul all of my baggage around once I arrive so I shutter at the thought of hauling around 300+ lbs of luggage by myself. But it's a double edge sword isn't it? I'm not just going for vacation, I'm moving there. I'm leaving a ton behind already and I'm ok with that but there are many things I need to bring with me on this first trip. To ease my pain and suffering I did invest in this sweet 8-way travel dolly: Rock N Roller Multicart Model R2 Micro

The thought of traveling with hundreds, even thousands of people on your standard run-of-the-mill cruise ship simply gives me the heebie geebies. What in the hell are heebie geebies? Anyway, I get them when I think of that. A cargo ship is limited to a maximum of 12 passengers in addition to the crew. Any amount higher than this requires a doctor on board. So it will be wonderful to take a relaxing cruise on a large, freighter with only the crew and up to 12 additional people. If it were a long trip, you could actually bond during the journey. Imagine that!

I thought booking a cruise on a cargo ship would be easy until I started and then I thought it was going to be impossible. In the end, it was pretty darn easy. I made two mistakes. The first was contacting shipping companies directly and the second was contacting US shipping companies directly. I had one shipping company in Miami tell me that no shipping company on earth will allow anyone other than the crew on their ships. On earth? Really? ...scratching my dome. :)

It turns out that the majority of the shipping companies that offer freighter cruises are German or French and you book the cruises through agents and usually not directly with the shipping company. That makes sense.

Cruise Ship Portal: This link contains a list of most of the companies and agents booking freighter cruises. 
Internationale Frachtschiffreisen Pfeiffer GmbH: This company returned my request quickly and they returned a route based on my specifications. Although they clearly have another more expensive route going where I need to go, they still only offered the cheaper one with the shortest trip time. That's an A+ in my book.
Hamburg Süd Reiseagentur: Hamburg Sud was the first company to get back to me with an actual route. It was one of the routes starting from Houston but it was too early in the year for me and I wanted to look for something leaving Florida. But they were very fast and courteous.
Freighter Expeditions: The agent took some time to search for a route but came up empty. A week later, she got back to me with the same route offered by Hamburg Sud. So they do keep looking for your even if they don't have anything when you ask.

*NOTE: It appears particularly difficult finding a cruise going from the US to South America in comparison to other destinations. I'm not sure why but if you look around, there are simply tons of freighter cruises going all over the world. So it seems if you are going to Asia, Europe, Australia, etc. you will have a ton of choices.

Booking a cruise on a freighter is not like going on Kayak or Expedia and picking the dates and times from point A to point B. This is some real adventure stuff right here. It's more like hitching a ride. Think "Going my way?". You have to find a ship that is stopping near or at where you are leaving from and near or at where you would like to go. You can get on at one of their stops and stay on for the entire trip if you like. You can even go around the world if that's what the ship is doing. However, expect to pay the daily rate quoted for every day you are on the ship.

If you only need to go one way and it's a short leg, the agent may need to clear the short trip with the shipping company. This had to be done for my 8 day booking. The route for the cruise I'm taking starts in New York, stops at several ports, including the one I'm boarding at in Florida, all the way to Chile, then goes back to those same ports until it arrives back in New York where it started. Fun huh?! 

You will also be required to get travel insurance and sometimes need to have your doctor fill out a medical form stating that you are fit to travel on a doctor-less cargo ship. There are limitations as well. Most ships won't allow children under 6 or adults over 71 and none will allow pets.

Here is what I needed to book my cargo ship cruise:

1. I had to fill out a booking form for the route I wanted to book. It included general booking conditions for the company which included baggage limits, cancellation terms, insurance requirements, terms of payment, etc.

2. I needed a valid passport that wasn’t about to expire.

3. I needed a Yellow fever vaccination because the ship was going to Central and South America. 

4. I needed deviation insurance in case they had to change their route because of me. This was handled by the booking company and the fee was included in the total price during booking.

5. I needed personal liability insurance (this was not easy to find for US citizens). 

6. I needed International health insurance with return transport included for the duration of my trip aboard the ship. There are no doctors aboard a cargo ship.

7. I had to sign a “Contract of Carriage” which was just a simple contract between me and the shipping company like a boarding ticket.

So if you are feeling like a slow travel adventure and have the time and money ... flightless travel by cargo ship is just for you!

Also Check out:
My Amazingly Unforgettable Cargo Ship Cruise 1: Sailing Away 
My Amazingly Unforgettable Cargo Ship Cruise 2: First Stop Cartagena
My Amazingly Unforgettable Cargo Ship Cruise 3: The Panama Canal 
My Amazingly Unforgettable Cargo Ship Cruise 4: The Journey To Freedom 

Do you want to join the Flightless Travel Movement?

Reviews & Comments

  • Travel Star Magazine Comment

    Mary Gaboury

    June, 13 2018

    I spoke with you on southern cooking. You piqued my interest in wanting more from you. So I stumbled upon this and I must say it's a great read! Where exactly are you living at now? Are there pictures of where you live if you don't mind it would be wonderful to see. Thank you Tressa!

Share Your Thoughts