Five Things to Pack If You're Cruising on a Container Ship

There's nothing to see but sea, so be prepared to while away the hours.

Photographer: Tim Rue/Bloomberg

One way to see the world without spending a fortune on a luxury cruise is to take a berth on a working container ship. Just be ready to make a few allowances once you step on the slow boat to China. Here's what you need to bring:

1. Satellite Modem 

Striking terror into the heart of every teenager, Internet access is often slow or non-existent. You may be able to pay for a temporary account via the ship's satellite communications system, but if you really must update your blog frequently (Day 93 and the last Hershey bar is gone) you should probably bring your own portable satellite data link. Of course, one reason to come on board in the first place may be to escape the grid.

2. War and Peace

Load up your tablet—it's going to be a long ride. There's no casino, cabaret or cocktail lounge here. Entertainment facilities tend to be limited on a working vessel, so unless you plan to become an Olympic table-tennis player, download plenty of books and movies to while away the days and nights when there's nothing to see but sea.

Your best bet for transport when the ship docks.

Photographer: Kathy Lo for Bloomberg Businessweek

3. A Bicycle

When you do get to port, you're not going to arrive in the city center. Most container terminals are miles from town and you'll need to hitch a ride or find a taxi unless you want to spend precious shore time looking at more boxes. One solution is to bring your own bicycle. Just make sure you know how to get back to the ship on time. It probably isn't going to wait for you.

4. Tagalog for Dummies 

The world's merchant vessels employ staff from dozens of nationalities and with passengers mixing with crew for meals and leisure, it's a chance to learn about other cultures. While most speak at least some English, bring a pocket translator to swap phrases with your Bulgarian cook or Indian engineer. Or maybe learn Tagalog, the main language of the Philippines. Filipinos make up about a third of officers in the global merchant fleet and around three quarters of ratings, according to a 2011 Deloitte report. The nation that's actually running global trade turns out to be an archipelago in Southeast Asia. 

5. Running Shoes 

There's nothing like an early morning run by the ocean watching the sunrise. All the better if you're in the ocean. Most vessels will allow you to access working parts of the ship with proper shoes and that means a lot of track. The biggest container vessels are as long as four football fields and have enough decks for you to run up or down more than 100 steps. Remember to stick to the safety rules though. This probably isn't the place to practice your parkour.