16 May 2009

My Tips & Recommendations

It's a long post, I know, but I think it was the simplest way to share some of the "lessons learned" from my trip.

Please let me know if you have any questions

Tips & Recommendations For Freighter Travel From a First-Time Passenger

Introduction: A freighter trip is a different type of travel adventure. From December 2008 to April 2009 I was a passenger on the MV Rickmers Jakarta for a round-the-world journey. The trip was 126 days, covered over 32,000 nautical miles and we made eighteen port calls. This was my first experience with freighter travel, in fact it was my first time on a ship. The following few pages are some suggestions and recommendations based on my experience. While I take full responsibility for any errors or omissions, I need to acknowledge the insights of fellow passengers, especially Dale Stenseth, Clive Pool and Dr Dieter Walther. The reader is also reminded that these are observations based on a single trip, so your experience might vary considerably. Check with your agent or freighter company for specific requirements. For an account of my trip you can also check my blog, http://gklucsarits.blogspot.com

Visas: Allow plenty of time for your preparation, especially for any visas that might be required. I was fortunate in that as an American citizen I didn't require a US visa, which I understand can take some time. I obtained my China and Vietnam visas at the respective consulates in Singapore. Make sure your passport is not too close to its expiration date as most countries require at least six months validity. Also be sure that there are sufficient blank pages for entry and exit stamps. Check with your relevant authorities about how to go about adding extra pages.

Basic packing principles: Since the trip around the world takes about 126 days and the weather can vary considerably depending on the time of year I packed considerably more than I would for an airline trip. In my case I was fortunate in that I didn't have to worry about a flight since I was starting and finishing in Singapore, a short cab ride from my apartment. On the other hand I tried to pack with a worst-case scenario in mind so I made sure that I could manage my luggage if I had to interrupt the trip somewhere and fly back. To that end I carried a large, soft-sided, wheeled trunk; a large, hard-shell, Pelican case for cameras and fragile things; and an Eagle Creek backpack with detachable daypack. I had a bit of extra room, which was useful for packing the souvenirs I accumulated along the way.
Practice, practice, practice: I recommend that you get familiar with any gear you want to bring before you get on the ship. Instruction manuals can be dull reading but it's much better to be comfortable with all the features beforehand.

Medicine, eyeglasses, etc: If you have any prescription medicine requirements be sure to bring enough for the entire trip plus a reserve. Be sure to have valid prescriptions as well. A spare pair of eyeglasses is another good idea along with your lens prescription. A decent emergency medical kit along with a course of antibiotics is a good investment; check with your doctor for recommendations. I visited my dentist shortly before my trip and brought along a simple dental emergency kit to deal with minor issues like a lost filling. My strategy was to make sure I could manage until I got either back home or to a port where I could get treatment.

Fitness: Our ship was not equipped with an elevator but some larger container ships do have one in the accommodations. This can be important when one realizes the number of stairs that need to be negotiated in an average day. The meals were served on the A-Deck and the passenger cabins were on either the C- or D-Deck and there are fourteen steps between each deck. Going from D-Deck to A- three times a day for meals alone will mean 126 steps to be negotiated in each direction. A visit to the Bridge from the D-Deck is another roundtrip of 56 steps. Also, getting on and off the ship in port can be a physical challenge depending on how the gangway is deployed. In Hamburg at low tide I had to climb up a ladder to the hold cover and then walk across the gangway to the wharf. Climbing in and out of the lifeboat requires a modest amount of agility and flexibility, and one also needs to remember that container ports are not designed with pedestrians in mind so it can be a walk of a few hundred meters to a gate. On my trip it was an exception when taxis were allowed as far as the gangway.

Clothing: I was pleased in my clothing choices. The dress code on board the ship is very casual so there's no need to worry about any sort of formal attire. I'm sure there are a hundred different travel guides that give the same advice, but the key is to bring stuff that works well together and is reasonably easy to clean. One thing to remember is that you will be on a working ship and as such has lots of greasy and sooty things to rub up against. The crew did a great job in keeping the living quarters clean, but there is always the possibility of some stray grease or paint while on deck. I think a simple rule would be to not take anything you would hate to lose. Some other travel guides recommend enough clothes for about ten days and that should be adequate. The laundry facilities were shared with the officers but I never had to wait more than an hour to get anything into one of the machines. The weather along the route can vary considerably, from the freezing temperatures of Beijing in the winter to the tropical heat and sunshine of the Panama Canal. Inside the accommodations I found it very convenient to wear some closed-toe sandals as these allowed me to easily remove them when entering my own or other people's cabins while still affording a good deal of protection to my feet. Most of the crew wore sandals of some sort when not working for the same reasons. For general purpose shoes, I would look for something sturdy and comfortable, preferably with oil-resistant and slip-resistant soles. These will serve you well on deck and also on shore. Remember that the ship might be berthed some distance from a port gate and shuttle buses are not always available, so long walks are inevitable.

Laptop: If you are computer literate a laptop is a handy tool to have during the trip. Mine was fairly large and I took it mainly to work on photos but one of the smaller ones now available might be a better general choice. The ability to check email or make travel plans while in port is a good reason to bring one. Internet caf├ęs are not always available nor convenient but lots of coffee shop chains offer wireless access either for free or for a nominal fee. A good investment is a decent digital reference like the Encyclopedia Britannica Deluxe on DVD; it was very handy for looking up information on all the places we visited and also as a general reference.

Camera gear: I probably went a bit overboard in this area and brought a lot of additional kit that is not absolutely necessary. On the other hand, I've had some great photographic opportunities and have been glad for the odd lens to help me get the shot. At a minimum I would recommend taking a decent pocket camera that can shoot high-quality JPEG or better yet, RAW images. Most cameras can support 8GB memory cards and those will hold about 900+ high quality JPEG images, so get several cards and shoot a lot. Shoot at the highest quality and size setting that the camera will allow. I've been downloading the images from my compact flash memory cards to an external hard drive and backing up the RAW images on DVDs. Even if you're like me and take a trunkful of DSLR gear, a good pocket camera is very handy for those times when a large camera is impractical or inappropriate. With respect to the photos themselves, be sure to edit ruthlessly. It's very easy to take thousands of photos but that doesn't mean all of them are suitable for public display. Take advantage of the uninterrupted hours on the ship to select the best to share. I burned souvenir DVDs of my favorite shots for anyone who asked.

Binoculars: A nice thing to have along in order to take in some of the many interesting sights along the way is a decent pair of binoculars. Something small enough to comfortably carry or stick in a pocket and good low-light capability would be a suitable choice; water resistance is another good feature.

Small backpack: Another useful item for shore excursions is a small backpack. The great advantage over other bags is that it keeps your hands free which can be very important when clambering on or off the ship while at anchorage or even in port.

Maps: Bring along a good quality world map to track your progress. Try to get one that doesn't tear too easily. For the various destinations I think it would be a good idea to try to acquire some decent street maps in order to save time on arrival. The problem here is the variability of each ship's itinerary, so a compromise might be buying good paper maps of the most probable destinations and printing digital maps from Google of all the others, or those for which good quality paper maps are hard to come by. Also, be sure to check the accumulated maps in the lounge since earlier travelers might have left theirs. In most cities you can get a tourist map from the local hotels.

Guidebooks: generally a good idea, but a bit challenging for the same reason it's hard to figure out which maps to bring. I bought a copy of Lonely Planet's China guidebook in Hong Kong and Dale had some guidebooks for some of the other stops, but they tend to be large and thin on detail of some of the ports we visited. One ends up paying for and carrying a lot of extra material that's not helpful. Here again I think an online solution would be best and the traveler would benefit from downloading as much information as possible from official tourism websites, Wikipedia, etc and either storing them digitally or printing them out before the trip. Even if destinations are dropped it's no great loss, and if other ports are added it's usually easy enough to get the updated information while in one of the earlier ports. Another excellent source of practical and up-to-date information is other passenger blogs from earlier trips with the great advantage of directly addressing the needs of the cargo ship passenger.

Books, DVDs, music: Despite the many interesting things to see on the ship and the numerous port calls there are long stretches when it helps to have something to do. I mentioned in my blog how much I enjoyed the opportunity to read without interruption or distraction, which is a pleasure we seldom allow ourselves these days. I brought a few weighty tomes with me from Singapore and since then I've added to my collection in Japan and the US. It's a great advantage to read English since most of the major international cities have some sort of English language bookstore. Another option is to download e-books and read them on the laptop or iPod or other device, like the Amazon Kindle. One of our other passengers, Clive, kindly allowed me to play with a Kindle 2 that his daughter had bought for him for the trip. I was very impressed with a lot of the features and it certainly saves a lot of space; Clive had about 35 books on his. There is a modest collection of books and DVDs on the ship, mostly donations from previous passengers. I brought a couple of DVDs with me and purchased a few more on the way.

Money: Obviously the major currencies to carry are US Dollars and Euros; shipboard expenses are all settled in dollars. If possible, get a bunch of smaller denomination US bills, like 20s, 10s and 5s. These are handy for settling small expenses on board the ship and also for some payments on shore. One option I would recommend would be to try to get a small amount converted into the major currencies one is likely to encounter along the way. As I've mentioned in other posts, the cargo ports are usually quite a distance away from the city center and the usual tourist facilities; ATMs and exchange bureaus are usually not immediately available. I was lucky in that I had a collection of bills from Hong Kong, China and Japan left over from earlier trips and this proved to be a big help in paying the initial taxi or metro fares. I wouldn't change too much, perhaps the equivalent of US$20 to US$50. Singapore is a good choice for getting money for Vietnam, China, Japan and Korea; foreign exchange bureaus are readily available and with competitive rates, but more important if you are traveling eastward is that you will know by Singapore which other countries you will be visiting. If there's any left over it makes a handy souvenir or a gratuity for the steward. ATMs are available in most countries and are tied in with the major networks like Cirrus or Plus. In Japan one needs to use the ATMs at the Post Offices or in some of the major hotels as the rest are on a different system. Major expenses like hotels were easily handled by credit card.

Electrical stuff: The current on the ship is 220v and the outlets require the German style, two-prong plugs. Most devices today will automatically handle input currents from 100v to 240v automatically so a converter isn't necessary, but it's wise to double check. A good, universal travel adapter is a must for using the different outlets one will encounter on shore. Rechargeable AA and AAA batteries were much more practical and convenient than disposable ones and more environmentally friendly. Dale brought along a multiple-outlet extension cord, which was a good idea as the number of outlets in the cabins are limited.

Shortwave radio: Originally I didn't bring my shortwave radio as it's a larger model and not really convenient. However while I was in Antwerp I purchased a Sony ICF-SW7600GR model. It has a lot of nice features normally found in more expensive radios and it's proved to be a nice addition to my gear. I'd recommend that if you opt to bring a radio look for one with digital tuning and a scanning capability. The Sony also comes with a handy compact antenna that rolls up when not needed plus a frequency guide with broadcast schedules.

Mobile phone: I highly recommend bringing a mobile phone that will work in most of the countries on the itinerary. Look for descriptions like "quadband", or "world phone" and confirm with the retailer that it will work in Japan, Europe and the US. Most mobile phone calling plans have options for international roaming and the cost, though more expensive than regular calls, is reasonable when one factors in the convenience and security. It's very helpful to have a ready means to contact the ship or the local agent in order to stay abreast of any schedule changes.

Email: If you don't already have an email account, set up a free one with one of the major providers like MSN, Yahoo! or Google. If you have a laptop with wireless capability you might be able to check email while in port. Other options for checking email include seafarers' missions and internet cafes. Make sure you know how to log on and be sure to log off and clear the cache of any public machines.

Passport photos: Bring along a couple of extra passport-size photos for visas. On my trip I only needed one for the UAE but that can always change. Nice to have as it's not always possible to find a photo booth on short notice. Another very good idea from Clive was to have a laminated color copy of your passport's information page. This is a great alternative to actually carrying your passport while on shore.

Miscellaneous stuff: Some small magnets are handy for attaching maps, photos, etc to the walls of the cabin.

Ports and Agents: Each port presents its own challenges from a passenger perspective. For the most part the agents and the ship's officers did an excellent job of making our stays enjoyable, but one needs to remember that taking care of passengers is not their primary job. On arrival it might take some time before immigration and customs formalities are completed so passengers need to be patient; it might be several hours, or in our case in Nagoya, a couple of days before one is allowed on shore. Make sure that you have the detailed information on the ship's berth; some ports are huge so you will need to know the right gate, too. Get the phone number of the local agent; you should already have the Captain's mobile number for emergencies. Be sure to confirm with the Captain when you have to be back! Remember, the ship will not wait for you.

Other information sources: Take advantage of the crew and local port captains for recommendations and suggestions on where to go or how to best get around. We were pleasantly surprised to learn about the high-speed rail link from Tianjin to Beijing from the First Officer's wife; the trip took less than an hour and cost about USD10. The supercargo in Germany recommended that we take a taxi from the port to the nearby city of Harburg and then go by S-Bahn to Hamburg; much cheaper than taking a taxi all the way into the city.