How to Organize Travel on a Cargo Ship

grande amburgo.jpg
The Grande Amburgo (or Great Hamburger) that will take us to South America.

A number of people have asked me how I went about organizing our trip (scheduled to depart from London next Monday) from London to Montevideo aboard the Grimaldi Lines ship the Grande Amburgo (or Great Hamburger as we have christened it).

First off, its not as simple as ringing your local travel agent and booking a place.

Secondly, its not a cheap way of getting from A to B. Its far cheaper to fly.

Thirdly, most cargo ships don’t take passengers, so you have to be willing to go where those that do happen to be sailing.

Finally, it has been made abundantly clear that the cargo is the priority and not passengers – if the cargo dictates leaving early or late, missing a port, adding a port or arriving in port at midnight and leaving at 6am, then that is what they do. You fit in around that.

So, it’s fair to say it’s not for everyone, and certainly wouldn’t fit neatly into a 2-week holiday.

Ports, boats, the sea all fascinate me, it feels like a different world that most of us know little about, and I am incredibly excited to do this.  Given the unpredictability of sailing, this is probably one of the few times we have the flexibility to do it.

One night while in the ‘dreaming’ stage of this trip I was idly googling various things I’d rather be doing than being stuck in Maputo beating my head against a brick wall.

It was a long list, to be fair.

I had read about repositioning cruises (when cruise ships move from one part of the world to another at the end of a season and offer heavily discounted one-way fares) but cruise ships with all the attendant entertainment and excessive food (I have no self-control, if it were there I’d eat it) and other people didn’t appeal. I then wondered if it was ever possible to go on a working vessel, and google had the answers, in the form of some blogs from people who had done it. These wetted my appetite and were all about how amazing this form of travel is, but had remarkably little in the way of actual practical detail.

I realized that I wouldn’t be able to organize this online, and would have to go old school and actually contact people directly.

I tried a number of agents who were, frankly, rubbish, taking ages to respond and then providing incorrect information. In one instance, we got all the way through the process and it was only when I sent payment that they turned round and said that the information on their website was wrong and in fact the shipping company we’d booked with didn’t accept children, even though that had been my very first concern and they had confirmed children over 7 were accepted.

By this point I had filled in a number of forms, provided copies of passports and vaccination cards, and had endless to and fro about the route and dates. It was an awesome route, including passage through the Panama canal, and when this fell through I almost gave up.

However, as I keep telling Lauren that perseverance is an important quality and one she should work on, I decided to give it one more go, and I contacted one more agent, this time in London. They turned out to be pretty good, and actually provided correct information, responded to emails, and reminded me when I needed to send payment or documents. I have been pleased with them and am happy to recommend them – they are called The Cruise People and have a website here – mainly directed at cruises, but also some interesting seagoing options as well as cargo ships (click on the freighter travel tab). I don’t have any kind of agreement with them or anything, I just think it might be helpful for others interested in this option. There’s not much info on their website, so best off is to email them.

To make a booking I needed to provide documentation such as copies of passports, copies of vaccinations cards (yellow fever was obligatory in our case as we would stop in South America), copies of insurance cover (showing we were covered for health and evacuation in all possible countries along the route), and sign a contract which effectively stated I understood that things could change (ports, dates, etc) and the Captain is the boss.

The price includes an inside cabin with an ensuite shower/toilet, bunk beds and a small desk (you can pay more for an outside cabin with a window,  which would have been an extra 1000 euros for us, or even if you are feeling flush, a suite). We went for the cheapest option, and it cost, 2,070 euros for me and 1,035 for Lauren. As far as I could tell, Grimaldi were one of the very few who actually take children and the only one who gives a discount. While this is a lot, it’s around 32 days at sea, and so the cost covers transport from London to Montevideo, three meals a day and accommodation. It would still be far cheaper to fly and pay for accommodation and food there for a month, but this is about the experience, not efficiency or cost-effectiveness. Its just something I want to do so we are doing it. Isn’t that what travel should be about?!

You do have to be flexible – our original sailing date was the 12th December, and now it’s the 18th. We have been told to ‘stay in touch with the port agent’ to find out details like confirmed date and time for sailing, when we have to be on board etc. He has responded quickly to emails, which is reassuring. It all feels very casual, all I have is an electronic copy of a ticket.

Today we are going shopping for ‘supplies’ as once we are on board that’s if for a good while. We have stocked up our kindles and backed them up onto other devices, as the thought of all that time without books is enough to make me wake in the middle of the night unable to breath. We have jigsaws, activity books and films downloaded onto my laptop. Lauren also has her next module for her schooling to do.

We will have both Christmas and Lauren’s 9th birthday on board, so I have secreted a bag of tiny presents somewhere she can’t find it and we will decorate the cabin with Christmas stuff and take some presents for the crew.

Oh, and there is no wifi or cell phone signal on board, apart from a satellite connection used by the captain for emergencies. So this blog will be updated only sporadically when we find wifi in port. While the thought of a total digital detox is quite attractive, it does raise all sorts of issues such as how to enroll Lauren in school for next year (has to be done online in mid-January) or how to book accommodation for when we arrive in Montevideo ……

We have been told that shore leave is ‘at the discretion of the captain’ and that if we don’t make it back on time the ship will leave without us. Stops that have been confirmed are Hamburg, Dakar, and various on the Brazilian coast including Rio and Santos. Others may come up.

In the end though, this is not about the places we stop at, but the time at sea, and I will update this blog to let people know how we get on.



Author: choosingourownpath

Mother and daughter, travelling the world.

3 thoughts on “How to Organize Travel on a Cargo Ship”

  1. Sounds like an amazing journey, Caroline. If you do stop and have time in Dakar, I highly recommend a visit to the Island of Goree: It was the processing centre for the slave trade, and gate for boats heading off to the new world full of human cargo. You can wander around on your own, but the tours are worthwhile. It’s tough, but very moving, and an interesting island village in its own right.

    Happy sails, happy Christmas, and happy birthday to Lauren!!!


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