It is possible to accompany your motorcycle as RO/RO (roll-on / roll-off) via a cargo freighter between South America and Europe. After comparing costs and adding in experience/adventure of crossing the Atlantic by ship we decided to travel via a Grimaldi RO/RO cargo freighter between Montevideo, Uruguay and Antwerp, Belgium. In South America, Montevideo is the only Grimaldi port for embarkation of passenger and vehicle and in Europe there were two possible disembarking locations (Hamburg, Germany or Antwerp, Belgium).
Common questions that we had:
How much does it cost?
Our tickets were Euro 600 per motorcycle and Euro 1,825 per person for an inside cabin without a window. Our total bill was Euro 4,850. At our exchange rates it was US$5,227.55.
We compared this ticket price (US$5,200) to the cost of air freighting our motorcycles and flying ourselves from Buenos Aires, Argentina to Madrid, Spain. The estimated cost US$4,400-5,200 (US$2,800 to airfreight two motorcycles and US$800-1,200 for two one-way plane tickets) was only a negligible difference. And, in fact, it was actually cheaper to go via the freighter because the price included all room and board for 3-5 weeks. Our actual number of travel days ended up being 36 (5 weeks). On average we spend about US$40/day for food and lodging so for 36 days that equals about US$1,440.
• Brazil visa: US$160 per person
• The Gambia transit visa (bribe): US$81.50 per person
• SIM cards / data purchased in Brazil, the Gambia, and France ports: US$50.62
• Sundries and snacks including additional coffee to bring with us on board: US$105.93
• Taxis into town and food in ports: US$33.87
How do I get my tickets?
We procured our tickets directly through Grimaldi. Everyone else that we met or spoke with booked their tickets through a separate agent and paid an additional fee. When I corresponded with a booking agent and inquired about the fee and what additional assistance I would receive (help at the port, etc) I concluded that little if any extra help would be provided from a travel/booking agent. I therefore chose to go directly with Grimaldi and we found that this worked very well. Our Grimaldi contact was responsive via email (we got almost all responses same day, even with the time difference between South America and Italy. For responses that didn’t come on the same day we never waited more than 24-hours). Also, by booking directly with Grimaldi we got all of our pertinent information from the source instead of waiting for it to be passed to us from a third party travel agent.
Here is the link to the pertinent Grimaldi website including contact information:
Grimaldi Freighter Travel
What paperwork do you need?
You will need the following paperwork in order to secure your ticket. We were able to arrange our booking and pay a deposit to hold the booking while we secured all the necessary paperwork but the ticket was not issued until everything was in place and paid in full.
• Medical insurance including medevac
• Yellow fever vaccination
• Vehicle title
• Brazil visa
• Other visas required will depend on nationality and route. En-route we were required to pay for a Gambia transit visa (this was actually a bribe that ended up being required but was not expected). Grimaldi will alert you to any visas required prior to issuing the ticket. They will not issue tickets without proof of visa.
When you arrive on the ship you will be required to surrender your passport and yellow fever vaccination record to the captain or his designee. These will be returned to you when you disembark at your final destination.
Do I need a separate port agent to leave Uruguay or enter Belgium?
No. Leaving Montevideo, Uruguay was easy and straightforward. The Grimaldi port agent met us at the port and took us into the customs area where we turned in our Uruguay temporary vehicle import permit. You are provided the port agent contact information on your ticket and you just need to contact them five days prior to departure. We had a local SIM card and thus a phone number in Uruguay so that they could easily get in touch with us.
Our passports were handled by the ships first mate and kept with the captain. Immigration officials board the ship at each port, review, and stamp passports. Entering Belgium was equally easy and straightforward. We took a taxi to the immigration office and nothing was required for customs. A temporary vehicle import permit is not required; in fact, no one ever looked at our bikes and we were never required to provide proof of anything.
For detailed border crossing (leaving and arriving) see the following report: Uruguay to Belgium by Ship Border Crossing.
How was the timing? Leaving date? Arriving at destination?
You must be very flexible for this kind of travel. Our departure date changed multiple times – when we first booked our tickets we were to set sail 24 Dec then it changed to the following dates 29 Dec, 4 Jan, 18 Jan, and we actually left on 14 Jan, even the actual ship we were to board changed during this time.
When you get to within 30-days of departure you can learn about scheduled changes on the Grimaldi website by going to the main freighter cruiser page and click on “check my booking” where you put in the date and booking number. This will give you the date of expected departure.
Your ticket will also have your ship name and you can track your ship on the marine tracker website (http://www.marinetraffic.com). We signed up for alerts so we knew when it was arriving and leaving ports. This information is not always perfectly accurate. For example, we checked at one point and it said the ship left West Africa and that its next port of call would be in Italy. I freaked out and contacted Grimaldi and was assured that that was not the case and the ship was indeed on its way to Brazil. Friends/family can also track your ship this way once you are onboard.
We made sure to have a local SIM card and number when in Uruguay and provided this information to the port agent once Grimaldi provided us with this contact information. We tracked our potential leaving date through the Grimaldi website as well as through marine tracker. We also didn’t go much further than a day’s ride from Montevideo as it got closer to our departure and we spent the final four nights before departure in Montevideo simply waiting for the call to board. The agents contacted us 24-hours prior to our boarding and instructed us where and when to meet the port agent the following day.
Arrival date at destination is also estimated – the trip is estimated to take 3-5 weeks. I don’t know if it is ever completed in three weeks. Our trip was 5-weeks. So, make sure you don’t have any set dates on the other end!
What is life like on board?
This varies slightly for every ship and is dependent on ship and crew as well as the other passengers. We had an excellent chef/cook on board whereas I have heard horror stories about other chefs (bad cooks that can’t even get pasta right). On our journey the crew were friendly and helpful. It is necessary to be a bit proactive and ask about how long in port, etc as there isn’t someone assigned to come tell you everything about the ship’s current or planned activities. There is a small gym with a treadmill, stationary bicycle, rowing machine, and some weights. Passengers have their own washer and dryer for doing laundry and laundry soap is provided.
We crossed from South America to Europe and traveling in this direction is not as popular for passengers as the other direction. There was only one other passenger beside ourselves in comparison to the 12 passengers and their vehicles that disembarked in Montevideo before we boarded.
It is important to remember that this is a working cargo ship that happens to take passengers. For the most part you are left alone and undisturbed to make your own entertainment and activities.
See the article about our life on board: Five weeks on a cargo freighter across the Atlantic Ocean.
What is the food like?
As mentioned above our chef was excellent and we both put on a little weight. Meals are at set times: breakfast 7:30-8:30, lunch 11:00-12:00, and dinner at 6:00pm. We skipped breakfast but there were fresh baked rolls, coffee/tea, butter, jam, and cold cuts (meat) available. Lunch was three courses plus fruit and coffee. There was pasta at almost every meal followed by a fish course and/or a meat course. Dinner was also three courses plus fruit and coffee. A small bottle of wine is provided with dinner or lunch. Or, you can choose to have a soda. There are odd “rules” around the beverages. For example, on the sailing before ours the passengers would get the bottle of wine with lunch as well as with dinner whereas we were told only one meal a day could have the wine. You are also provided with bottled drinking water. Once at sea duty-free alcohol and cigarettes are available.
There are two separate dinning rooms, one for the officers and passengers and one for the crew. There is a ‘messman’ or ‘cabin steward’ that will serve you your meals. Outside of meal times, on our ship at least, there was pizza bread (made daily) available in the officers dinning room and in the crew dinning room there was usually rice and chicken and other items available all times of day. The passengers eat at a time separate from the officers (an hour before) though on barbeque night (every Sunday and to celebrate crossing the equator) we all ate together.
Is there internet or email?
There is no internet available on the ship. There is email provided through a Grimaldi email address. If you want to send/receive email then one of the officers can set you up with an email address and there is a computer you can use to send/receive. It is important to note that this email service is not private and can be read by other people. If the officers see an email for you they will most often print it out and bring it to you.
Before boarding the ship we didn’t realize that there was email available so we provided our family with Grimaldi office contact information in case of any emergency we needed to be aware of. While we were at sea one such instance occurred and the Grimaldi office forwarded the email from Shannon’s mother to us without delay or problem.
Are there hang out /common areas?
Yes, there is a common area just off the dinning room. Our common area had a foosball table, comfortable couches/chairs as well as regular tables/chairs. There are board games and books (most in German). There is also a TV and DVD player. We, along with the other passenger, spent a lot of time in this area mostly working on our computers (we were all reviewing GoPro footage, photographs, and making home movies), reading, and chatting while we waited for mealtime.
There is also outdoor deck space to sit and relax. Our ship did have a handful of outside deck chairs but we heard that not all ships have these.
What are the rooms like?
We experienced two different types of room – an inside cabin (no window and bunk bed set up) and an outside cabin (window and two separate beds). We paid for the inside cabin (substantially less expensive per person than the outside cabin) but due to a leak in our ceiling and some issues with the toilet we were moved to a different cabin (and happily they upgraded us to a outside cabin with window).
Both types of room had air conditioning, TV that has a DVD player, small refrigerator, storage drawers under the bed, dressing table with four drawers and a pull out computer table, two closets with mirrors on the inside of the doors, shelves above the dressing table and refrigerator, and nightstand. Both rooms were carpeted. Bathrooms have medicine cabinet, toilet, and shower. There were plenty of hooks and the shower had a folding stool built-in (maybe for rough seas?). Towels and sheets are provided.
Surprisingly the cheaper inside cabin (with the bunk beds and no window) actually had slightly more floor space so it was easier to store all our kit. We took everything off the bikes except the hard luggage that we could lock. Inside and outside cabins are the same size overall, it is the furniture configuration that gives the inside cabins slightly more storage area. But, we also made everything fit in the outside cabin and having the window more than made up for a little less storage.
Yes, the outside cabin with a window (natural light) was nicer than the inside cabin but would it have been worth paying the additional money (about US$1,000 more)? No, not in our opinion.
We spent the first 10-days in the inside cabin and the rest in the outside. Because we spent most of our time in the common room it didn’t overly affect us not having a window. That being said we both enjoyed having the natural light and being able to look outside to see the weather and get fresh air in our room. The windows do open.
Ports of call – where did we stop?
We had many ports of call, some that were scheduled and we knew about ahead of time and others that were added on as we sailed. Shore leave in port is dependent on permission from immigration (an immigration officer boards the ship in every port, compares the ship crew and passenger lists to the passports, and gives permission or not). The crew/passengers do not meet with the immigration official and the captain controls the passports throughout the voyage. You must also have permission from the captain or his designee and this permission is generally dependent on the disposition of the captain (we have heard of some captains that refuse to let passengers off the ship for shore leave). How long the ship will be in port can also be a factor as to whether or not a shore pass is allowed to passengers.
We were allowed off the ship in just about every port if we wanted. The Gambia did not allow anyone off the ship and out of the port (though a crew member was able to purchase multiple SIM cards from some folks hanging around the dock and one passenger went out to get an additional SIM card so didn’t actually leave the port).
Our ship stopped in: Santos, Brazil; Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (for three hours); Vitoria, Brazil; Dakar, Senegal; Banjul, The Gambia; Le Havre, France; Hamburg, Germany; Antwerp, Belgium.
We actually got off in:
• Vitoria, Brazil. We went to the center of town to look around, have lunch, and purchase SIM cards. It was a short taxi ride into the center of town though there were shops and things just outside the port as well. We were provided photocopies of our passports to use to leave and enter the port.
• Dakar, Senegal. We only had a few hours so we just walked to outside the port where there is a croissant/sandwich shop next to a gas station that has good internet and chocolate croissants. We were provided photocopies of our passports as well as a shore leave pass to exit and enter the port.
• Le Havre, France. We went into the center of town to look around and purchase SIM cards. It was a short (Euro 18) taxi ride to the center. There aren’t any shops outside the port. We were provided photocopies of our passports to use for leaving and entering the port. We were also required to bring our ID cards (driver’s license).
Would we do it again?
Yes. Not only was this a cost effective means of getting the bikes and us to Europe, but also the overall experience was good and we really enjoyed this trip. From the beginning we liked the idea of traveling slowly from one segment of our trip to the next, a time to reflect on what we have done and to prepare for the next leg of the journey. We also valued the down time – for the five weeks on board we didn’t have to do much of anything to get our daily needs met. We were able to take full advantage of having huge blocks of quality time without distraction to review all our GoPro and camera footage, make home movies, and complete website articles. We also just read books, watched movies, took naps, worked out, and got to know the crew and other passenger. It was never boring and in the end we found the trip quite refreshing and enjoyable.