CA-UK via Cargo Ship

To get from San Francisco to my new home in the UK where I was studying Transport Planning at the University of the West of England in Bristol, I conducted a little experiment, seeing what it would take to avoid both automobiles and airplanes during my voyage. I left San Francisco on August 17th and it took me 3 weeks to get to London (stopping to see friends in NYC and Montreal along the way). I rode Amtrak for 4 days between San Francisco and Montreal, then the MSC Malaga (above) across the Atlantic, followed by Eurostar high speed rail to London. I blogged nearly every day during the trip and the entries begin below. Please feel free to leave a comment!!!

Hitching a Freighter to Grad School in the UK

July 26, 2006

So I am actually doing it. No more airports, turbulence or airplane food! Goodbye Southwest, Easyjet, and Virgin!! Farewell taxiing takeoff and landing! Au Revoir to jet lag! I am giving up flying finally, and it is liberating! The growth of air travel is a direct threat to our planet’s atmosphere, and I refuse to participate in it any longer. Anyway, I have always loved bicycles, trains and boats….so much more romantic…

To get from San Francisco to my new home in Bristol, England where I’ll be studying transportation planning over the next year, is a bit more interesting than the usual Heathrow drumbeat of discontent. I’m leaving San Francisco on August 19th and it will take me a month to get to Bristol (stopping to see friends in NYC and Montreal and family in London along the way). I’m riding Amtrak between San Francisco and Montreal, then I will be crossing the Atlantic aboard the MSC Malaga (above), a container ship operating between Montreal, Canada and Antwerp, Belgium. Then it’s through the Chunnel to my family in London! This week, I signed the paperwork that commits me to the ten day crossing of the Atlantic. I know that freighters aren’t exactly the pinnacle of environmental sustainability, but at least traveling by sea will give me a glimpse into the massive network of container shipping that underpins globalization.

The transatlantic crossing will take ten days, and the cabin and all meals are included in the price, which makes it more expensive than flying (but not that much more when all is said and done). There’s even a ping pong table, swimming pool with sea water, an exercise room, and a video library aboard. My friend Hitesh sent me this article about “rogue waves” that are up to 100 feet high and prowl the ocean just looking for container vessels carrying transport activists. Thanks Hitesh. You make me feel so confident about my upcoming voyage. I’ll just hope I make it across the Atlantic safely despite rogue waves, potential collapse of the Greenland Ice Sheet, pirates, or crazy hurricanes (the climate started getting rough….) I plan to write in this blog every day while at sea, then upload it all when I arrive in Europe on September 6th. So stay tuned……

Click here to read the rest of my blog entries from this trip.

15 responses to “CA-UK via Cargo Ship

  1. Bravo – Love what you did. I’m going in the opposite direction – London to San Francisco for a hopefully long stay in the US. I’ve been trying to find a freighter that goes to SF from the UK but so far haven’t found a very direct route. Amtrak is the obvious solution. Many thanks. PS – Are there any groovy/important things you can tell me about SF and CA. that I should know? Planning to live in Berkeley and doing MA at SFSU. Taking my 3 teenagers and having an adventure. Regards, Fran

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  3. I read your story in a book (incredible Journeys) and you have inspired me to make my way around Australia using only Trains and public transport,
    and cycle.
    Great work

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  5. I want to go to America from England by boat and it makes me want to kill myself. Do you know or have a good web page with all the relevant information? I’m looking for details about visas, where to get on freighters, how much it costs, how far in advance you need to plan it, if you can avoid the visa thing by going to Canada first (I’m British), if there’s a possibility of sailing in a private yacht, that sort of thing. Please help!

    • Hi Mikey- Sorry to hear you are having such problems finding passage across the ocean. Slow and responsible travel should not be so difficult in this day and age. Basically, you have three options for getting across the pond by boat:

      1) Hop on a freighter or cargo ship. As the global economy is in recession, there are fewer goods being moved about. Good news for the climate. Bad news if you want a wide choice of vessels to sail on. It’s still possible however- I know there is a regular service between Liverpool and Chester PA. Expect to pay $90-$130 per day. It’s about a nine day crossing so that works out to $800- $1200 but that does include room and board. More info here.

      2) Take a cruise ship repositioning. This is pretty nauseating (I mean the overconsumption not the ocean swells). You can read about my recent trip here Generally, there is a mass migration of cruise ships from US- Europe in the Spring and back to the US in the Autumn. But if you are on a budget this might be your best bet. We got an inside cabin (which I believe you could technically split with 3 people, for £1200.

      3) Try and find a sailboat going your way. I’ve always wanted to just go down to the local marina and stick my thumb out. You never know you might get lucky. There are also a number of websites like crewseekers who match boats with willing crew.

      Good luck with your quest- let us know how it goes. You might also want to check Seat 61

  6. The first two suggestions would be wonderful if the people responsible didn’t hate customers. I wrote to the freighter people (and I presume there are others, but I can’t find them) and they said that the first space they’ve got available is in May. I need to go in January. And the cruises just don’t start until April or something, so I didn’t bother writing to them. I’ve followed the links from Seat 61 as well, but I have a suspicion that he’s never got the boat because there’s no mention of getting a visa or anything. I looked on the US embassy website and it doesn’t tell you anything about how long it’ll take for your visa to be processed and if you want to talk to a (semi-)human, you have to call a number which charges you £1,500 a minute and probably puts you on hold for the first half an hour (I haven’t tried it, for obvious reasons). As for the sailboat idea – I think that’s a great one, but it’s not totally reliable, specially since I have no experience. But I was seriously thinking about becoming a sailor just so I could get across the stupid Atlantic when I wanted to. Is that really my only option?
    I shall now breathe out. Aaaaaah.

  7. Hi Mikey- Some of the expectations we have about international travel- for example that you can just call up and book a trip whenever you want, have to be slightly readjusted when it comes to sea travel, as you’re discovering. You could try dealing with the Cruise Line- they helped me book my recent cruise ship repositioning from UK to the US. A lot of the cargo ships won’t even take passengers over the winter because the sea is so rough. You might try to book a cabin on the Queen Mary 2 also but it’s cheaper if you share a cabin w/ someone. Yeah some of those cargo ship travel companies have a real attitude! Sounds like you may have to delay your trip to the spring. I never had to deal with the visa thing as I have dual citizenship- that sounds like a pain! Good luck with everything.

  8. I want to go to Europe amd back, ideally from the Carribean but frrom US would be fine. For cardiological reasons air travel is not advised also for ecological reasons I’d like to avoid airplanes and for financial reasons The QE II is impossible. I have been searching the Internet with little luck. Can you pkease help? I tried the above links and got 404 site not found responses. Thank you for any help you may have.

    • Hi Dennis,

      It’s more difficult since the recession to book a freighter cruise since there are fewer sailings but it’s still not impossible. Don’t expect to save money though. A one way freighter passage will likely set you back $1200 at least. You can find a number of options through or simply search for freighter crossing. Better to enjoy your local area where you live though- Europe’s not that great anyway…


    We met briefly on the Larkspur Ferry yesterday and shared a few minutes together. It’s great to see that you walk the talk. I hope you survived the heavy rains yesterday. All my best.


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  11. Freighters are actually the most ecologically positive way of traveling. The energy per tonne-km is the lowest of any form of transport, nearly 20 times less than air and about 2.5 times lower than rail, and since you are adding a negligible weight to cargo that would have been going anyway, the extra fuel is hardly measurable. Given the lesser daily distance covered and the need to eat food which has a much higher carbon footprint per usable energy than ship fuel, the net impact per mile is less than bicycling – and you can’t bike across the ocean. Furthermore, the sulfate particles emitted by the ship’s exhaust provide nucleation sites for clouds, which reflect solar radiation and cause a very strong short-term cooling effect.

  12. Just came across your article. I had a wonderful experience. Just finished a trip on CMA CGM Eiffel with Sea Travel Ltd – They are agents booking cargo ship travel. I went from Charleston to Egypt and had excellend service from them and the crew. Recommend it to all. You will love that type of travel.

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