History of Freighter Travel

Mention to someone today that you are taking a freighter voyage and chances are you will receive some strange reactions, but not so long ago, crossing the worlds oceans onboard a ship designed to carry cargo and passengers was a routine journey.

Air travel started to win over passengers from the shipping lines in the 1920's and 30's - but right up until the late 1950's, when the first non stop transatlantic flights to Europe were introduced, travel by passenger liner or cargo ship was commonplace.

The Golden Age

There was a time when anyone looking for adventure could hop onboard a 'banana boat' or a tramp steamer, with the same ease that modern travellers book an airline ticket.

Regular passenger services were available to any destination you wished - and if you didn't have enough money for the fare, you could probably persuade the captain to sign you up as a deck hand for the voyage and let you work your passage instead!

This was the golden age of freighter travel, before the concept of mass tourism had been invented. Romance and intrigue lurked in exotic foreign ports and for many shipping lines, the passengers were just as important as the cargo.

There is still plenty of adventure to be found on a modern container ship, but today the cargo definately comes first - and you certainly can't work a passage anymore!


In the 1950's, containerisation started to be introduced, which massively increased the efficiency of the whole transport industry. Most cargo was now shipped in standard 20' or 40' containers, which ports all over the world could unload quickly.

Prior to this, cargo was literally manhandled off the ship and onto pallets using cranes and then transported to warehouses using forklifts. A ship could sit in port for weeks.

A modern container ship is designed to be a fast and efficient money making machine, with much less time spent in port - although there are still a few general cargo ships and tramp vessels sailing today which load and unload cargo in the traditional way.

The Decline of Passenger Numbers

As air travel caused rapidly declining passenger numbers in the 1960's, the shipping lines had to make drastic changes to survive - and the modern cruise industry was born.

Since passengers no longer needed to travel by ship purely as a way of reaching their destination, cruise lines offered people entertainment and a vacation experience instead - the voyage itself was now the most important thing.

Freighter ships continued to operate all over the world, but now they concentrated on the cargo side of the business - the only cabin space available was for ships officers and crew, with perhaps an owners cabin for when a member of the shipping line was onboard.

The Present Day

In recent years, thanks to advances in technology starting in the 1980's, freighter ships have become increasingly automated. This means that fewer crew members are now needed on board, leaving shipping lines with vacant cabin space.

This has led to something of a revival of interest in freighter travel, as specialist travel agencies persuaded the shipping lines to let them market these cabins for them.

Also, there is an increasing demand today for unusual vacation ideas - anything that is a bit different is suddenly fashionable. A lengthy journey of several months in no longer seen as a drawback, it has become the whole point - the longer the better for many people!

Combine these factors with a rising numbers of active, wealthy seniors who are 'spending the kids inheritance' and the scene is set for a boom in freighter cruising - indeed, some modern freighters are now even being designed with passenger accommodation in mind again!