Is Ship Travel Cheaper Than Flying? The Surprising Answer


In a world full of ways to get a good deal on travel, deciding which mode of transportation will be best for your wallet can be tricky. I usually assumed flying would always win out, with all the budget airlines out there. However, maybe flying is just the most common mode of transportation.

Ship travel is generally cheaper than commercial flying. When comparing trips to and from the same place, traveling by sea often comes out to be the cheaper option. However, the type of airline and type of boat travel would impact this cost, with cargo and freight boats being the cheapest options.

In this article, I’ll be explaining more in detail why ship travel is cheaper than flying. I will also clarify the different categories of both types of travel and the pros and cons of picking the most affordable option.  

Different Types of Flying

There are different types of flying, but not all of them are available for public use. 

While budget and traditional commercial airlines are available to anyone with a valid ID and airfare, private or charter flights are a bit more expensive and available on a limited basis. Most charter flights give you more flexibility and take you to places that commercial airlines don’t go.

Let’s talk more about these types of flying.

Low-Cost or Budget Airlines

These airlines are the ones you hear about most often when it comes to getting good deals on flights. Budget flights are typically much cheaper than those of other commercial airlines. This is usually because they fly out of smaller and less central airports. 

Southwest airlines are one example of a budget airline. 

They also tend to have more restrictions on the amenities included in the cost of a ticket and are less flexible as far as cancellations are concerned.

Traditional Commercial Airlines

Traditional commercial airlines are the airlines you hear of most often, such as American or Delta Airlines. They tend to be more expensive than budget airlines but often offer more services and options than their cheaper competitors. 

Traditional airlines are typically the airlines you’ll be able to earn loyalty points or airline miles with.

Private or Charter Flights

Private flights are the most expensive of the flight options I’ll mention. They can also be further classified into two other categories:

Both of these options are much less widely available due to their costs but allow passengers the widest amount of flexibility. That is because passengers are given much more freedom to choose their desired flight time and airport. 

Freight passengers are also usually allowed the freedom to roam around the flight cabin and don’t have to worry about sharing their plane with strangers.

Different Types of Ship Travel

While it’s been shown that ship travel is cheaper than flying, that isn’t the case for all types of sea travel. So, it’s important to know the difference between some of the most common ways you can travel by boat.

Private or Charter Yachts

Traveling via a private yacht is similar to traveling via a private plane in that it can be subdivided into two categories: 

  • Privately owned yacht
  • Chartered yacht

This method of boat travel is much more expensive than its counterparts, but it is the most comfortable. Private yacht travel allows more travel freedom, privacy, and customization than other boat travel forms.

Cruise Ships

Traveling on a cruise ship is the most common mode of boat travel. While cruises were considered a luxury form of vacation at one time, they have become much more accessible in price over recent decades. 

In fact, when planning a trip, it is possible to find a cheaper cruise compared to other types of vacations. 

This is because, while not entirely all-inclusive, your essential amenities are covered by your cruise cost.  Thus, you save money on food and lodging, and you don’t have to plan those items in advance.

These two things are often where you spend the most money during a vacation when you take out travel costs. 

However, while cruise ships are technically a mode of transportation, you are limited in where you can go. 

Often cruises will travel in a “loop” that will begin and end in the same port. So, if you need to go somewhere specifically in a one-way capacity, or you’d like the freedom to decide when your return trip will be, cruise ships likely won’t be for you.  

Freight or Cargo Ship

While perhaps not the most glamorous type of travel, traveling by freight or cargo ship is most often a cheaper travel option than flying. 

Most people may be unaware that traveling this way is even an option due to its name. It’s true that freight and cargo ships often transport goods, but you can purchase a ticket to travel that way as well. 

Even though this type of boat travel is less expensive than the previous two types mentioned, passengers don’t have to give up all the flexibility they do with budget flight options. For example, you can choose to travel by freight ship on a one-way voyage, which is different from many cruise ships. 

Since we’ve found our winner on what is, most often, the cheaper method of travel, the rest of this article will look at the ins and outs of freight ship travel specifically. 

What Makes Ship Travel Cheaper

If you have ever looked into shipping items internationally, you might have compared air and sea shipping prices. When it comes to shipping items, sending packages by sea is often much more affordable than sending them by air. 

The same rationale for this price difference also explains why ship travel is cheaper than air travel. 

Ship Travel Takes Longer

Perhaps the biggest reason why ship travel is cheaper than air travel is often one of the reasons why it’s often the less opted-for option. 

Air travel is much faster than ship travel, and a voyage that could be 9 hours by plane can easily be multiple weeks by ship, even without delays. This might be a neutral point for people who intend to make their trip a one-way voyage. 

However, people looking for vacation travel options may want to avoid eating up so much vacation time on travel time. 

The idea of being on a boat for days or weeks at a time might make other travelers anxious. Passengers who suffer from seasickness, in particular, will likely want to avoid this way of traveling at all costs. 

While there are definitely drawbacks to being stuck on a boat for an extended period of time, this factor significantly contributes to ship travel being the cheaper option. 

Ships Aren’t Very Reliable

This factor might sound scary, but if you’re worried that ships might not be reliable about getting you to your final port, then don’t fear. You’ll get to your destination. 

However, you know how I just mentioned that a ship could potentially take weeks to get to a destination even if there aren’t any delays?  You might not be surprised to find out that delays are widespread when it comes to sea travel.

While it’s true that flights are often delayed or canceled due to bad weather, these delays usually don’t extend for too long.  Unless there are severe weather conditions like a blizzard or a hurricane, flights will usually be able to pick up again within a few hours. 

This isn’t the case with ship travel. 

Bad weather can delay ships by days, weeks, or even months. That’s because, since boats are slower than flights, they can’t “outrun” an oncoming storm as easily.

They also can’t be sure they’ll be able to pass through a part of the sea or ocean before stormy weather starts to form as a plane can. 

This means your ship might be delayed for a few reasons:

  • Your captain has slowed down to be more careful through a storm.
  • Your captain has completely stopped at times to let a storm pass.
  • Your captain has decided to take a longer route to go around any bad weather.

However, not only can these delays cause problems once you’re already on board, but they can cause your trip to be delayed from the start. If a captain feels like bad weather might be about to form nearby the port, your departure can be postponed until the weather has cleared up. 

This sort of unreliability can be another potential drawback for some travelers. 

You might avoid this travel method despite the lower cost if you have a very tight schedule you have to or would like to keep to. However, since schedule reliability can’t be guaranteed, ship travel is usually more cost-effective, assuming you don’t mind a longer journey ahead of you.

Feight Ships Lack Luxury

While freight ship travel isn’t quite as bare-boned as it used to be, it’s still not the most comfortable way to travel. Since the priority for freight ships is cargo transportation, they’re meant to be utilitarian. 

That means no pretty decorations, no comforts like a spa or a restaurant, and no “fancy” cabins with a balcony and a view. However, you don’t have to pay for all of those luxuries, which can save you a lot of money.

You don’t have to worry about staying in a cabin the size of a tin can. You’ll still usually be given plenty of room with a full-sized bed, a private bathroom, and even a television. 

Sure, the ship itself won’t be much to look at, but you shouldn’t have to worry about feeling the waves too much if you aren’t prone to motion sickness. You also won’t have as many crowds as you might on a cruise ship, so it’s a trade-off that can be worth it. 

If you don’t mind being in slightly less than ideal conditions for a few weeks while still having all your needs met as far as basic comfort, food, and lodging, then it might be worth traveling this way.

No Tourist Itinerary

I’ve already mentioned that freight ships don’t have many amenities because they’re meant to be first and foremost shipping vessels. That means that, as a passenger, you have to keep yourself from getting bored. 

While every so often you might run into a member of the crew in a rec room or onboard gym, when they’re there, they’re off the clock and not meant to entertain you. 

Since you’re stuck on a boat, you can’t just go out to find a method of entertainment. You also likely won’t have a great internet connection, if any, and you won’t have scheduled activities you can participate in.  

That means you’ll have a lot of time when you will have to keep yourself entertained, which can be daunting. 

However, the fact that you’re going to be your own source of fun and entertainment is part of why you’ll save money traveling this way.  When you buy your ticket to be a cargo ship passenger, you’re purchasing the basic comforts we’ve already talked about. 

You also get the freedom to walk around the ship, but try not to get in anyone’s way, as this is a work ship, and people are working rather than relaxing. Since you aren’t paying for any activities or shows, you can save a lot of money. 

If you think you and your travel party can keep yourselves entertained for extended amounts of time when you can’t travel too far, then traveling by freight ship might be the way to go. 

Conclusion

Some people may be surprised to know just how inexpensive ship travel can be. Cruises and yacht travel can be more comparable to flying, but freight travel is the clear winner in most cases regarding cost. 

When you book a trip on a freight ship, you’re accepting the fact that, in exchange for a cheaper cost, you’re choosing a slower and less reliable way of transportation compared to flying.

Ship travel may not be for everyone, but it might be the travel method for you if you can handle the potential drawbacks and are on a budget.

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