In 2014 familiarity finally bread enough contempt with Cunard’s Queen Mary 2 that Team Mago decided to travel by freighter again across the Atlantic. We booked passage on the MV Buxcoast, a container ship crossing the Atlantic in mid-June from Le Havre, France to Charleston, South Carolina. This post tells of our adventures before, during, and after the Buxcoast sailing including a review of the freighter, hotel reviews in the ports, and a comparison of the freighter with the cruise ships we’ve taken in the past. At the end, you’ll find out the relative cost of each of these sailing options.
La Havre, France
We began our 2014 freighter journey in La Havre, France. The port of Le Havre is the second largest commercial port in France in terms of overall tonnage after Marseille and the largest container port in the country. It was a perfect place for us to catch our container ship because 1) it is not a tourist destination, 2) it tied in as the final European destination of our battlefield tour with interesting post-apocalyptic civic architecture, and 3) there is lots of Belgian beer, frites, and a great beach.
Twelve years ago we languished pleasantly for the better part of two weeks awaiting the arrival of our freighter, but La Spezia has since been ruined by cruise ships, turning a diamond in the rough into a parody of a bad Italian vacation complete with loutish tourists and grumpy locals out to soak the hordes in revenge for destroying their lives. Le Havre, despite an increasing trend in cruise ship dockings, is not a one industry town like La Spezia, but is much larger and more of a business traveler destination than that rancid gateway to the overhyped Cinque Terra.
We were in La Havre for five days and enjoyed it more than we expected to. Le Havre is essentially a cleaner and much safer version of Marseilles. The city itself is constructed almost completely of poured concrete, an artifact of being bombed to smithereens by the Allies during World War II. The least bombed area was the suburb of Sainte-Adresse, which is near the city beach. It was the seat of the Belgian government in exile during World War I, but today it is a collection of French Xiringitos each selling fish, mussels, beer, and frites. Team Mago felt compelled to hang out there a lot.
Hotel & Spa Vent d’Ouest
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Rostra rating: 3.5
While in La Havre we stayed at the Vent d’Ouest. This is a very nice small hotel in a great neighborhood near the main market, the Saint-Joseph Church, and the beach promenade. The rooms are comfortable, the free Wi-Fi good, the dinner OK, and the breakfast is real VFM. The helpful staff speaks English. In addition, four person apartments are also available for extended stays.
On board the freighter
The Buxcoast docked in Le Havre around mid-night and we boarded early in the morning.
Our taxi driver had very decent English and a great attitude. He needed them both. The directions we had from the freighter agent were a bit vague and not up to date with respect to where the ship was docked. We first had to spend about 20 minutes at the checkpoint entrance into Le Havre’s commercial port, which has 25 kilometers of loading facilities and docks. The security staff needed to verify that the ship was actually in port and where it was. Then they needed our passports. We had previously sent copies of them through the agent, but all those documents had to be called up electronically, printed out, and then compared. Next the taxi driver had to be given permission to drive us to the ship (it was both illegal and very dangerous to walk in the commercial port, as well as a good two miles to the ship). One security guard went away with the driver’s French ID card and spent more time on the computer. Then they gave him a badge to get through the security gate as well as (imperfect as it turned out) directions to the ship.
It took all three of us working as a team to navigate the roundabouts and turns until we neared the docks, at which point we could not figure out how to get onto the quai itself. The driver had to go to another checkpoint to discus the matter. A couple false starts later we finally reached the correct gate but the badge that he had been issued did not work.
Fortunately there was a button that connected him to yet another security guard, who let us through the gate and we finally reached the Buxcoast. The taxi cost us 50 Euro ($68) and the driver earned every bit of it. He also was able to pick up a fare at the ship since a fellow passenger was trying to get into town and having no luck hooking up with a shuttle bus (if there are such things in Le Havre’s commercial port) or enticing a French taxi via cell phone to drive into the port to pick her up.
Mago Tip: Security and safety at most container ports is a big deal. In the developed world you will not be allowed entry into a port without a passport, nor will you be allowed to go anywhere on foot once you get past security. It is a very good idea to arrive at the security entrance early since it could take the better part of an hour to get through security and drive to your ship. Also, make sure your taxi driver knows that you want to go to the container (commercial) port since most of them are only familiar with the cruise port, which is rarely located anywhere near the freighter berths. It is useful to have a detailed map with the location of the port’s security gate clearly marked on it.
Accommodations on a freighter offer a lot more real estate for less money than an equivalent cabin on a cruise ship. Team Mago stayed in the owner’s cabin, which has roughly the square footage of a junior suite on a Crystal cruise ship. It consists of two separate rooms, a lounge and a bedroom, as well as a large bathroom. There is also ample closet space as well as a chest of drawers in the bedroom and lots of storage area in the lounge.
While hardly opulent, the furniture is quite comfortable. There is a large table and desk in the lounge as well as four chairs along with a refrigerator and the bed is a full queen size. There is another smaller desk in the bedroom. The only problem with our cabin was that the bed was positioned against the wall making it difficult for one of the sleepers to enter or exit.
Mago Tip: Pay attention to your plugs
Most freighters seem to have old style European sockets (fat round two prongs). Many of today’s all-in-one plug converters only transform US and UK plugs to the new style European plugs (thin round two prongs). You need to be able to convert your plugs to this older style if you want to use any electronics on your voyage. Converters for these plugs are available in the US, but they may take a bit longer to track down than the ubiquitous universal converters.
Another useful piece of equipment is a power strip that a) will handle 220 volts and b) will fit old style European sockets. Having blown many a 110 volt strip on ships, MudGuide can state with near certainty that power strips bought in the US will not function on most freighters and in fact can be dangerous fire hazards (that lovely whiff of ozone). We bought a very nice compact (as in square as opposed to rectangular) power strip in a supermarket in Le Havre that met both requirements and allowed us to plug in four devices simultaneously.
Freighter cabins, especially the owner’s cabin, are much better for writing, coding, archiving and modifying digital photographs, etc. than even the suites on cruise ships. This may not be a big deal to most cruisers, but it is a major plus for travelers who are also writers or serious photographers. You are going to spend a long time unplugged on a freighter (as in no internet, no e-mail, no phone, no broadcast or cable TV–although short messages can be sent from the bridge via satellite coms, they are only for emergencies), and it is thus conducive to creative pursuits that normally suffer from multi-tasking and other forms of electronic distraction.
The steward cleans your cabin every other day and provides a change of towels twice a week and bed linens once a week. Below is a photo of Team Mago’s male spousal unit with our steward Mark.
There are several portholes in the cabin, which can be opened, but in hot weather it is usually requested that you keep them closed so that the ship’s air conditioning can function properly. The views forward or aft can often be blocked by containers stacked on the cargo deck. Also the portholes should be kept closed in high seas or rain.
On board facilities
There are laundry facilities on board. The steward supplies soap, but you must bring your own fabric softener sheets.
Exercise venues are limited, but it is still possible to get a reasonable facsimile of a work out. The Buxcoast had a “gym” that consisted of an exercycle, free weights, a sauna, and a deep but rather narrow salt water swimming pool. During our crossing, the exercycle proved to be on its last legs, the sauna broken, and the pool dry. The captain explained that they were scheduled to buy a cross trainer and pick up the needed sauna parts in New Orleans (several stops after Charleston).
For our exercise, Team Mago walked the lowest deck (UPP) for about an hour and a half every day after breakfast. It is hardly the promenade on the QM2, but one can walk an entire circuit of the ship. It is necessary to walk single file and you have to be vigilant since the crew is down there working, but they are very good about letting you get past the work areas. The stairs for the ten floors of the tower are also an exercise option, which we did in the afternoon for up to an hour, a very decent work out. The crew was a bit bemused at the sight of Team Mago sweating and puffing up and down the stairs (they felt compelled to remind us numerous times that there was indeed an elevator on the ship). The captain in particular thought that drinking a beer would be more pleasant, but everyone eventually got used to our routine.
Meals and such
Food and drink are basic and plentiful. Passengers mess with the officers, who are usually German or central and eastern European (English is the lingua franca of the freighter world). The meals are even more regimented in terms of seating and times than the stuffiest cruise ship. The meal schedule is as follows: breakfast 0730 to 0830; lunch noon to 1300; supper 1730 to 1830. The senior officers ate at one table, the juniors at another table, and the passengers at one dedicated to them. It was customary to greet your fellow diners upon entering and leaving the officers mess. While the tables are segregated, it was quite permissible to converse with the officers during meals when they tended to be more relaxed and gregarious than when in performance of their duties.
Do not miss the designated meal times, or you probably will not be served. The cook and messman (steward) have other duties assigned to them and the cooking and serving windows are rigorously enforced. We found that the officers spent very little time at table, generally eating in about 15 minutes and then taking their leave. Passengers can linger for the full meal hour, but it is a hardship for the messman if you force him to stay and clean up after the meal period.
The food served to the officers is very Teutonic, as demonstrated in the weekly menu pictured here. In addition to the entrees, meals usually begin with soup made from previous meals’ leftovers and end with fruit for dessert. In addition to the menu, there is always a sideboard of bread, cheese, and cold cuts at every meal. Porridge is always available for breakfast as well. Sunday lunch is the best meal of the week, usually steak, french fries, veggies, and ice cream. Team Mago’s Sunday at sea coincided with our 33rd wedding anniversary and the captain had a bottle of wine sent to our table. Passengers can also order the crew’s meal. The crew is invariably Filipino and their meals are heavy on rice and usually Asian-themed.
The galley cannot accommodate dietary issues such as diabetes, lactose or gluten intolerance, or food allergies. This is one of the reasons for the doctor’s certificate. If you have life threatening dietary requirements, a freighter voyage may not be for you unless you are very experienced in traveling under adverse conditions. In any event, consultation with a doctor prior to purchasing your ticket is mandatory.
Water, tea, and coffee are served at meal times. You can buy either wine or beer from the ship’s store (along with cigarettes, soft drinks, and very limited selections of snacks and toiletries). Three or four types of beer are available, but only by the case (24 bottles or cans), while red or white wine can be purchased by the bottle. You settle up at the end of the voyage and must pay cash (either Euros or dollars).
Mago Tip: Bring along those little extras. Luggage is limited to 100 kg (about 220 pounds) per person (try to get that much on an airplane without paying a lot of money). This should leave you plenty of room for the little extras you do not want to do without for a week plus at sea. Team Mago, for example, brought a mixed case of wine on board, artisan balsamic vinegar, and a shit load of prunes to help move all that German food down the line.
On our previous voyage we also brought cheese and salami, but there is so much of that on a freighter that it was totally redundant. If you are very fond of high-end chocolate, cigars, a specific brand of cigarettes, exotic teas, etc. you should pack that as well.
While the passenger declaration states that you must be able to haul your luggage on and off board, we have found that the crew invariably takes your heavy bags on and off the ship (although one crew member did remark that our bags with the wine were a bit heavy). Other items to slip in your bags include DVDs, CDs, playing cards, small board games, etc.
Crew and fellow passengers
Freighter cruising has become a genuine niche in the travel market, so ships on popular routes—such as a trans-Atlantic crossing—will usually have from four to eight passengers depending on ship size and configuration. Should you have fellow passengers on your voyage, they will inevitably be travelers instead of tourists (i.e., interesting and adaptable folks with whom you can interact as much or as little as you choose). Our fellow passengers on the Buxcoast were Helga, a 79-year-old German freighter veteran making her last voyage (the current age cut off is 80) and Eric, a 34-year-old Canadian on a leisurely trip around the planet.
In all there were six officers and fifteen crew. The officers on the Buxcoast hailed from Sweden, Poland, Germany, and Romania. Captain Magnil and First Officer Proczkowski were professional, friendly, and exuded competence. Second Officer Krecicki was young, enthusiastic, and flat out hilarious at times. The engineers tended to a silent and dour group compared to the bridge officers, but they were unfailingly polite and helpful.
The backbone of the freighter industry, just like the cruise industry, is composed of Filipino sailors. To pursue wages and a career that are very difficult to find in their native land, these men usually sign on for voyages of at least six months with a break of one to four months before they ship out again, often leaving a wife and children behind. The Buxcoast crew was great. Standouts were the Bosun Onate, Cook Coloma, and Messman Caseres, but all of them were resolutely cheerful and anxious to help throughout the crossing.
In terms of entertainment we were pretty much on our own. Our cabin was equipped with a stereo sound system and a flat pannel TV with a DVD player. There was a collection of DVDs in either German or English in the officer’s recreation room/bar as well as a bunch of paperbacks all of which were in German. Visiting the bridge and the engine room was always interesting. Check with the captain or the first officer concerning times and procedures, which can vary from ship to ship.
We hung out with the crew one night in their bar. They were watching a movie in the dark when we came in, but they sprang up, turned on the lights, brought in fish balls with sweet dipping sauce, and engaged us in animated conversation.
The crew emphasized that the key to a good voyage was a good captain and a good first officer and they made it clear that this was a happy ship with very good officers, especially the captain. The boson came into the bar and talked with us for quite awhile. He was older but in great physical condition and clearly more mature and thoughtful than the rest of the crew. He was also very religious as was most of the crew.
The bars are the only places where you can smoke on the ship, although no one did while we were there. The guys plied us with beers until Team Mago was fairly squiffy and we toddled off to bed. In general, however, this crew and the officers were far less rowdy and hard drinking than the crew of twelve years ago, but their morale and professionalism were markedly better.
Mago Tip: On the first day out from port, order a couple cases of beer and a couple cases of soft drinks for the crew. This is a great icebreaker. Each and every one of them thanked us for the gift the next day when we encountered them about the ship. Also upon leaving the ship, it is customary to tip the steward and the cook. We gave them each about $25.
The crew made the most of their free time while on board. On Sunday, the crew engaged in an enthusiastic game of basketball on the aft deck. We couldn’t figure out how they kept the ball from bouncing overboard, but they managed.
Safety on a freighter is simultaneously more serious and far funnier than on a cruise ship. On our second day at sea we were told that we needed to attend an orientation and safety briefing by the third officer at 1300. The four of us showed up and received a fairly cursory briefing from a preoccupied young Filipino. He quickly showed us the port side lifeboat and the collocated life raft. He glossed over exactly how we were supposed to enter the enclosed lifeboat, which is mounted above the deck, and then told us that the life rafts deploy automatically after the ship sinks 3 meters from its standard buoyancy. He said we also needed to know how to deploy the life rafts manually, and gestured vaguely to a cotter pin-type arrangement attaching the raft’s circular container to the ship.
At what was obviously the end of our briefing, he alluded to a safety and fire drill “for the crew” at 1600. I asked if we were expected to attend. He said no, but that we might want to go to the bridge to observe the captain orchestrating the drill. Since Team Mago boasts a prudent engineer with a nautical bent (although her knowledge relates mainly to the age of fighting sail), we remained at the life raft until she had figured out and memorized the procedures for manually launching the device.
At 1600 when the ear splitting alarm commenced for the next ten minutes, we climbed leisurely up two decks to the bridge. We found a very agitated captain, who was berating Eric for coming to the bridge instead of following the instructions he received at the orientation briefing. We arrived, much to his displeasure, and bolstered Eric’s assertion that the third officer had told us to do precisely what we were doing. Based on this evidence, the captain started yelling into his walky talky to the first officer who was overseeing the drill eight decks below us.
During this episode we learned that we should have been told to show up at the general muster station when the alarm sounded with life jackets and hard hats from our cabin. The captain asked us where the third officer had told us our muster station was located. Eric replied that he had not really talked about a muster station per se, but that our orientation had taken place on the port side of A deck. The captain then spent a few more minutes in one-way communication with the first officer and explained to us that the muster station was always the starboard side of A deck.
He recovered his sense of humor as he explained why it was necessary to have one and only one muster station and well understood and practiced procedures for evacuating the ship. He stressed “human factors, because you see when you get in an emergency it’s always the guy who you are sure is going to save the whole ship that goes completely crazy.” It was very important, he concluded, that we do not come to the bridge in an emergency “because it will be very dark since the power will have failed and the ship will probably be on fire. The captain may not be on the bridge at all. I might be looking for you, or more likely drifting away in the lifeboat.” He made sure that we knew this last remark was a joke, and then he assured us in a most sincere fashion that such an event would “absolutely never happen.”
Based on the captain’s instructions, we obediently returned to our cabin, donned our life jackets, but found only one hard hat in the closet. As soon as we arrived at the muster station, the first officer skewered Team Mago with a malevolent gaze and barked “Where is your hard hat?” We explained that there was only one in our cabin, which had been donned by the female spousal unit since chivalry is not dead at MudGuide. The first officer turned his basilisk stare onto the third officer and ordered him to find me a hard hat forthwith, prompting a query from me to Team Mago’s nautical expert as to whether keelhauling was practiced in the merchant marine. “I think we are going to find out before this drill is over,” was her reply.
The first officer then took direct charge of passenger emergency ship abandonment training. We climbed a ladder to the lifeboat with eight other crewmen and the first and second officers. The lifeboat is completely enclosed and reminded me of nothing so much as the CSS Hunley, a US Civil War-era submarine that sank with all hands aboard in Charleston harbor on its first mission. We struggled in through the smallish hatch, sat down, and strapped in. I required the assistance of the friendly and eager second officer to master the awkward double shoulder harness. Team Mago’s nautical expert, of course, got her’s right on the first try.
The first officer then delivered a lecture on the procedures and contents associated with the lifeboat. He declared that we would now test the engine and rudder for the craft. As the second officer climbed into the elevated driver’s seat, Team Mago’s female spousal unit, whose view of the procedures was blocked by an interior dividing wall, charged me sotto voce with observing and memorizing the engine starting procedure. The diesel engine fired up on the first try, making it impossible to hear the first officer, who continued his lecture throughout the test using effusive body language to make his points.
After the engine was tested, the second officer interjected with “an interesting statistic.” It seems that more lives are lost annually in evacuation drills on freighters than in actual ship accidents and sinkings. Given this cheery news, we were all eager to disembark the lifeboat, but the second officer was having way too much fun showing off the stuff in the boat. He had the crew open the storage bins and show us the stores of purified drinking water, emergency rations, first aid kit, signaling pyrotechnics, etc.
Finally, when we had exhausted all that the claustrophobic space had to offer, we decamped and watched the crew simulate a response to a fire in the laundry area. Team Mago’s female spousal unit blanched as the crew donned breathing apparatus, full-body fire suits, deployed a wicked looking fire hose, and headed into the laundry. She had recalled that one of the dryers contained the bulk of our clothes. The second officer assured her that there was no water in the hose, and then regaled us with statistics concerning the amount of air provided by the breathing apparatus and how long it would last, the water pressure of the hose if it were actually employed, and the comparative horrors of death by burns as opposed to smoke inhalation (“the real killer”). While we watched the fire fighters struggle into their equipment, other crewmembers attempted to fetch a stretcher down from an upper deck, but the chains used to sling it overboard during an evacuation fell out and became snarled in the stairs between decks, both when they were descending as well as ascending, much to the discomfiture of the first officer.
After the fire drill, we gathered with the crew for a debriefing in the A Deck conference room. The first officer took the opportunity to complete the orientation briefing the we pretty obviously did not get from the third officer, who did his best to melt into the bulkhead while the first officer leapt out his chair gesticulating grandiosely to make his points about not leaning over the deck railings, trying to walk on top of them tightrope-style, fiddling with just about anything we encountered inside or outside, prudent use of fresh water, smoking anywhere other than in the rec rooms (bars), and being prompt for meals. At some point during this very entertaining lecture someone brought me a hard hat.
When the first officer asked if there were any questions, I queried him as to the large orange plastic pack in our closet stored amongst the life jackets. The second officer’s eyes lit up with the fire of a zealot and he grabbed one of the bags that all the crew had shown up with for the drill. It contained a survival suit designed “to extend your life up to three times the normal before you die of hypothermia” he told us as he donned the monster. Once suited up like a maritime character on Sesame Street, he informed us that while some versions of this suit were buoyant, that this one wasn’t and that you would sink like a rock if you did not don your life vest once you were in it and basically unable to move. He then demonstrated not only this procedure but also how to jump off the ship with all this crap on. The first officer then got in on the act with a general demonstration of the proper way to jump off the ship. Evidently you do not get any style points for a swan dive, or a dive of any kind for that matter. He then barked at the third officer to make sure that a second suit was delivered to our cabin (it never showed up).
At dinner that evening the passenger table assured the captain, who was exiting after his usual ten-minute meal, that all four of us were ready and looking forward to the next safety drill. He smiled and replied, “oh that’s not for at least two hours.”
We were on the bridge on a foggy day and asked the captain about the seemingly random use of the foghorn during periods of low visibility. Did it have to do with radar returns, specific weather conditions, etc.? He looked forward, grinned, and replied “Well actually, we should be using it right now.” A few minutes later during our morning walk, the horn began blasting away and continued to do so for the rest of the time we were in fog throughout the voyage.
In general, compared to twelve years ago, rules on the ship were stricter. You cannot buy or drink hard liquor on the ship. They are adamant about not throwing anything overboard, while that was a common practice on the other freighter. They also separate their trash. There was also a great deal more ongoing maintenance on the Buxcoast.
Finally, there actually is a freighter dress code. It seems that the officers are required to wear uniforms in port. During the voyage, shorts and t-shirts are what the officers wear, while the crew sports orange jump suits. Passengers are required to wear sturdy shoes with anti-slip soles when outside on the ship. Flip-flops in particular are banned on deck.
We entered Charleston harbor on a hot June afternoon sailing past Ft. Sumter and the grave of the CSS Hunley. Charleston’s container port is farther outside the city than Le Havre’s and significantly smaller. The crew brought all of our baggage off the ship, and the port agent called us a taxi that was waiting for us after we cleared customs. The process is carried out by a team of customs agents and other DHS personnel. They chatted with us in a pleasant southern drawl about our trip, asked the usual perfunctory questions about bringing food or plants into the country, and let us debark. During the process, we overheard many compliments about the Buxcoast by the DHS team concerning the port security inspection that they had just performed. In general port security in Charleston was far more lax and the taxi drivers not nearly on the ball as their counterparts in Le Havre.
Restoration on King
Telephone: (843) 518-5100
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Rostra rating: 4.5
While in Charleston, we stayed at The Restoration on King. These are more of a collection of luxury apartments than a traditional hotel. Restoration on King is in a fantastic location in the heart of downtown Charleston. The apartments have fully equipped kitchens as well as washers and dryers. Breakfast is delivered to the rooms every morning in the form of a picnic basket containing goodies that you ordered the evening before. There is a very nice happy hour in the lobby and a great roof lounge. In addition, Wi-Fi is both free and excellent. The staff is superb and always ready to help (thanks Nicola). Best of all, guests have free access to a great little gym one block away. Restoration on King is going through a renovation for the next year during which they will be adding 36 additional rooms/apartments as well as a bar and restaurant, so you might want to wait to book until after that is finished.
Some things you need to know about traveling by freighter
We last took a freighter in 2002, and while we had a great time, the peculiarities of freighter travel had made us reluctant to undertake another voyage.
Lots of steps in the booking process
Booking a freighter can be a little complicated. There are several additional steps involved than is the case with a cruise ship. The first and most important is a document from a doctor certifying that you are healthy enough to make the voyage. There is no doctor on a freighter and it is a working vessel with very little of the many concessions to health and disability issues found on all cruise ships. Your doctor’s certificate must be signed and a copy delivered to the booking agent two to four weeks before you sail or you will not be allowed to board.
There are other mandatory forms associated with freighter travel. Travel insurance (to include medical as well as cancellation coverage) is not optional as it is on cruise ships and a copy of your policy must be on file with the booking agent in order to board.
My favorite document, however, is the passenger declaration form, which basically absolves the booking agent and the shipping company from just about anything that could happen. Here is one of the better excerpts:
“Due to heightened security conditions in some countries, an intensive personal and/or luggage check of the passengers including bodily cavity searches by security authorities or an authorized agent, e.g., the ship security officer, can take place. This may result in encroachment of my private space, for which the carrier and the NSB Reiseburo GMBH are not responsible.”
Fortunately for us, on this voyage there were no cavity searches.
Team Mago was very pleased to find that there have been significant improvements in the booking process in the last dozen years. Back in the day, you had to find a travel agent who knew how to work with freighter agents (i.e., two middlemen=double the costs) and the process was completely manual involving a lot of snail mail. Today everything is done over the internet. Team Mago went with Maris Freighter and Specialty Cruises (www.freightercruises.com). Based on our experience with this booking, we can highly recommend Maris. In particular we would like to commend Maja Zunic, who was extremely helpful throughout the booking and boarding process. Thanks Maja!
One quirk of the system to be aware of is that you cannot pay by credit card. It is very easy to pay by check, however. Just take a picture of the made out and signed check and e-mail it to the agent as an attachment. All of the mandatory forms are handled via e-mail as well. If you’re worried about the security of sending all this personal and financial information through email, at least make certain that you’re not on a public network like at Starbucks.
Manage those expectations
Other than the booking process, the key factor to keep in mind when contemplating a freighter voyage is that the term freighter cruising is a genuine oxymoron. A freighter voyage is the farthest you can get from a cruise and still be on a ship. You are not really a passenger. Technically you are a supernumerary, which means the non-human stuff that the ship is hauling comes first.
The future is open
A freighter’s schedule and itinerary are, at any given time, only probabilistic estimates. In 2002, for example, Team Mago was caught up in a dock strike that rolled across the Mediterranean from east to west. We eventually reached the US two weeks after our scheduled arrival. Needless to say, the freighter company was under no obligation to reimburse us for any financial losses associated with this delay
A good rule of thumb for minimizing the impact of freighter delays is to purchase a voyage between the freighter’s last port of call and your ultimate destination. For example, in 2002 we wanted to make a trans-Atlantic crossing, but we boarded the ship in Italy where we were caught up in the previously mentioned dock strike that impacted the ship’s schedule at every subsequent port until we got through the Straights of Gibraltar. If we had booked a freighter leaving from an Atlantic European port directly for the US, we would have avoided the dock strike entirely, paid less for our tickets, and circumvented the bulk of the delays. Of course, getting to the Atlantic European port might involve spending more money and there is the danger of transportation strikes, so there are always tradeoffs.
Another good rule of thumb is to get to your port of embarkation at least two days prior to its nominal departure date. Freighters can be early as well as late and the exact arrival and departure times tend to fluctuate significantly during the final 48 hours. In any event, your booking agent will give you a phone number for the port agent, who will assist with the boarding process. One of the reasons MudGuide endorses Maris is that their associated port agents in both Le Havre and Charleston were very helpful and professional.
It is important to contact the port agent one week before the expected sailing date to obtain information on the vessel’s arrival, berth location in port, and your boarding date and time. In fact, if our experiences are any guide, this will only be the first of several interactions with the port agent as they receive updates concerning the progress of the freighter. MudGuide found M.S.C. France SA to be a far better agent than the ones we dealt with twelve years ago, and in particular we would like to single out Antoine Lebourg who kept us apprised of slippages in the Buxcoast’s arrival time and made sure that port security had copies of our passports as well as e-mailing us a map of the Le Havre container port (the largest in France) that allowed our taxi driver to find the ship. No small feat.
Another reason to get to your embarkation port a couple days early is that you do not want to leave long distance transport to the last minute. The day before we boarded the Buxcoast in Le Havre French railway workers struck, protesting efforts to allow private companies to compete with the state owned and operated railroad system. Roughly three quarters of French passenger rolling stock was idled.
The same day the French taxi drivers struck all over the country to protest the Uber app that circumvents their licensing stranglehold over the taxi industry. Not only did taxis vanish from all French airports, they launched operation l’escargot, which involved turning all the major French highways into parking lots utilizing large formations of slow moving taxis. Fortunately, Team Mago was already in Le Havre where the comedian at the front desk of our hotel informed us that “the taxi drivers here are too lazy to strike.” If we had decided on sampling the joys of Paris up to the last minute, however, it could have been a very different story.
Port agents will also book a hotel room for you if your freighter is late on either end of the voyage. The Buxcoast, for example, was 48 hours late getting to Le Havre, but made up about 24 hours of the delay during the crossing. The port agent comes aboard the freighter when it docks at a port along with customs agents. The Charleston agent called us a taxi that picked us up as soon as we cleared customs, which just like twelve years ago was proforma (for US citizens that is, foreign nationals get a great deal more scrutiny in our experience).
In addition to arriving at your port of embarkation a couple days in advance, it is useful to pad the time you plan to spend in your port of debarkation for similar reasons. We planned to spend seven nights in Charleston and ended up staying six.
How does the freighter stack up against other ships?
Here are the MudGuide ratings for travelers who are interested in crossing the Frog Pond without the agony of modern air travel.
1st Place goes to Seabourn: best in terms of crew-to-passenger ratio, staff professionalism, ship appointments, and cabin size. For more information about the Seabourn options, see our review of the Seabourn Odyssey and the Seabourn Quest.
2nd Place goes to Crystal: best in terms of food, wine, and enrichment, but their older larger ships and smaller cabins detract from their strengths. For more information, see our review about the Crystal Serenity.
3rd Place is a tie between Cunard and a freighter crossing. The QM2 is too much like traveling on a huge slow airplane where you have to dress up to eat mediocre food, but its schedule of crossings is unrivaled in the cruise ship industry. A freighter offers much better value for money in terms of ticket price and cabin size as compared to any cruise ship crossing as well as a year-round schedule of crossings. The food is nothing special, but predictable and compares favorably with a lot of the disasters inflicted on QM2 passengers, especially in the Britannia restaurant. The hassles of booking passage on a freighter and the vagaries of any particular schedule, however, make departure and arrival uncertain to the point of requiring two to seven days of padding built into a travel plan. For more information, see our review about the QM2.
So how about cost comparison? We decided to compare the four ships listed above on a price per night basis, because most cruises are priced by the number of nights on board. Our calculations are also based on the the total paid for each voyage per person (to include additional costs such as spa visits, alcohol, etc.). Costs would be more for single travelers since they face a supplemental fee on both cruise ships and freighters. It is important to stress that this cost comparison is relative as opposed to actual, because cruise ship and freighter ticket pricing have far too many variables for our costs to be anything other than a series of historical data points for comparison. Per night costs are summarized below:
- Seabourn $310 per night.
- Crystal $235 per night.
- QM 2 $290 per night.
- Buxcoast $190 per night.
Team Mago finds two big takeaways from our cost calculations: 1) cost is a key tie breaker when considering a voyage on the QM 2 vs. a freighter and 2) Crystal delivers significant VFM in the 6 star cruise ship category, providing a far more enjoyable crossing than Cunard for much less money per night.
MudGuide will continue to review trans-Atlantic crossings in the future. We hope to add additional cruise lines to our repertoire as well as make updates to the ones we have already reviewed.