SHIP TO SHORE | A view from the RMS St Helena, which travels between Cape Town, St. Helena and Ascension Island in the South Atlantic Ocean. Alamy
WHEN THE CARGO liner CMA CGM Figaro comes into New York Bay, she does so with shipping containers stacked high on her deck, like enormous Lego bricks. From shore, one can only guess at what she's carrying. Electronics from Yokohama? Maybe. Clothing from Hong Kong? Possibly. A swimming pool and a few paying passengers? Very likely.
The pool is pretty much where the similarities with a traditional cruise begin and end. A mega-liner like Royal Caribbean's RCL +2.49% Oasis of the Seas can carry more than 6,000 passengers; most freighters (if they take guests) top out at about 12. There is no rock wall. No spa. Cabins, though they tend to be spacious, are utilitarian (imagine yourself on the SS IKEA). Instead of a dozen restaurants operating around the clock, cargo ships have officers' dining rooms that serve meals at appointed times.
For some, the appeal of freighter travel is the prospect for a "Fantastic Voyage"-like journey through the arteries of global commerce. Others like the idea of seeing little-known destinations, like Pago Pago in American Samoa, or relish the opportunity to read and write in near isolation. (Internet connectivity, via satellite, is limited at best.) And unlike with a traditional cruise, it is often possible to arrange passage over just a segment of a ship's route—for instance, if you wanted to get to Europe without flying.
Even the shortest leg, however, requires both time and flexibility. A 20-day voyage might come in at 19 or 22, as commerce and weather dictate. Rates start at about $130 a day. Working with a specialist travel agent is not just advised, it's pretty much mandatory.
Cargo ships travel the world without consideration of tourist season or how sandy nearby beaches are; if there is a deep port there is probably a ship to get you there. Click the mapto view a few of the more compelling trips available.
Illustration by Michael Byers for The Wall Street Journal