CruiseOne franchise owner Steve Faber isn’t an authority on freighter cruises, but he plans to become one.
Faber, who operates CruiseOne Mill Valley, a stone’s throw north of San Francisco, said he believes that the demographic of Marin County is likely to embrace the idea of a coastal cruise on a cargo ship and, in some cases, a slow boat to China.
“This particular location, Marin County, has an anti-conventional-cruise kind of mentality,” said Faber, who opened his CruiseOne agency just over a year ago after a long career as a travel journalist and photographer. “People here consider themselves highly sophisticated travelers, so I’ve always looked for things that would appeal to a Marin County ethos.”
What differentiates his market from other upscale communities, Faber said, is that “clients around here generally are very eco-conscious, off-the-beaten-track, more immersive travel fans.”
Faber said he started looking into freighter and cargo voyages after two client couples inquired about them independently. One couple wanted to cruise to Hawaii on a freighter, “but Hawaii is a dead zone because one cargo company has it all locked up, and they don’t carry passengers,” he said.
Another couple also wanted to do a cargo trip to Hawaii on their honeymoon.
“So this all piqued my interest, and I started doing research and found it’s a much broader niche than I expected,” Faber said.
He is now in the process of forming relationships with some of the freighter lines he’d like to work with. In some cases, he said, he’ll work through another agency, Westport, Conn.-based Maris USA, which is an established seller of voyages on ships owned by CMA CGM, the global shipping group headquartered in Marseille.
Faber and Maris will split commissions in those instances.
He will, of course, continue to sell traditional cruises, but he expects that eventually, freighter voyages will comprise a small percentage of his bookings.
Another check mark in the plus column, he said, is that freighter cruising is a product that the big online cruise marketers don’t typically sell.
“In an aggressively cost-cutting, Internet-driven marketplace, agents like me often do a substantial portion of the legwork and homework only to lose the sales to other establishments based not on value-added services but on minor price differences,” he said. “That is the attraction of finding niche markets where our insights and research efforts present prospective clients with exciting vacation options they were totally unaware existed.”
Contrary to popular assumptions, freighter cruises aren’t necessarily a cheap alternative to traditional cruising.
“They’re usually priced in euros, at around 100 euros per person per day [about $127],” Faber said. “It doesn’t sound like a lot, but if you’re booking a long-haul cruise it’s going to really add up.”
Faber has been on one coastal cruise line, Hurtigruten, which sails the Norwegian coast and other areas of Northern Europe. Along the fjords, ships operated by Hurtigruten, which markets itself as an expedition line, deliver mail and other goods, often stopping at multiple ports per day on a weeklong, northbound or southbound trek.
Most freighters can accommodate only a handful of paying passengers, some as few as two or four, others eight or 12.
According to Maris USA, of the 29,000 oceangoing cargo ships, just 1% will carry paying passengers.
Cabins are comfortable but not filled with amenities that traditional lines provide, said Faber, who added that freighters that work with the trade pay 10% commission.
A sample, long-haul itinerary on the Medea, a CMA CGM ship that carries 10 passengers, is a 70-day voyage roundtrip from Le Havre, France. The vessel calls in the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany before transiting the Suez Canal and heading to Malaysia, Singapore and three cities in China. With five double cabins, the per person rate is $127 per day.
Faber will be happy to sell that cruise to a client, but said he is “particularly enchanted” with the cargo ship Aranui III, which sails the South Pacific.
Operated by Tahiti-based Compagnie Polynesienne de Transport Maritime, the ship can accommodate 200 passengers and sails to the Marquesas, in French Polynesia.
“You actually get a lot of bang for the buck,” Faber said. “It’s 13 nights, all inclusive: wine with meals, shore excursions, lunches ashore and activities like snorkeling and horseback riding.”
Rates for a standard cabin start at about $4,100 per person, he said. There are less expensive cabins that begin at $2,500, though he said he won’t recommend them.
Faber has a local marketing plan in mind; he hopes to partner with a French restaurant in Marin County and hold cruise presentations for potential clients who might be interested in the Aranui III.
“This is about finding something unique and special that resonates with my community that I can present in person and generate interest in,” he said, adding, “a freighter cruise is something that isn’t out there in vast numbers on the Internet. It’s something that people might not have thought about.”