Last updated on January 2, 2023
Michael Hodson traveled around the world for well over a year without a single flight. He was committed to feeling every footstep of his journey—to taking a journey that harkened back to the era of great explorers. His overland trip by land and sea gives his around the world trip itinerary an intriguing new take—he took a ship to New Zealand and has crossed into Europe. He shares his story below.
One of my primary reasons for taking a trip around the world without flying was because I wanted to get a full appreciation of the size of the world. After exactly one year on the road without leaving the ground, and still having not made it all around yet, I can say—it’s big. Really big. And it’s more amazing that I ever would have imagined.
Modern plane travel is one of the miracles of modern convenience. One can get on an airplane in the heart of Middle America one afternoon and wake up the next morning in Italy or China. These days, you can get to about anywhere in the world from a major city in the States in 24 hours—give or take a few. I love the ease of flying, but at least for me, there flying fosters a disconnect there that I wanted to eliminate at least once in my life. I wanted to feel the miles—feel the distance—know that I had actually traveled. In some sense, I wanted to earn my first journey around the world.
Most of the tips I could give you about an around-the-world trip without planes would be the same sort of tips you’d normally read about any long trip—websites with good hostel/hotel reviews, key phrases you should learn in a language before you arrive, safety issues, and so on. Instead, I’ll try to make these tips and thoughts more focused on the uniqueness of a ground level circumnavigation—when you just want to get to Europe, China, New Zealand, etc without flying.
Overland Travel Takes Longer: Plan for Perpetual Movement
You move constantly when you’re traveling overland. Assuming you’re traveling on a budget, whether one of time or money, you can’t really stay anywhere for too long. I originally wanted to finish my circumnavigation inside of a year, but it’s going to take me about sixteen months, as it turns out. The longest I’ve stayed in any one location is roughly a week, and I’ve only pulled that off a few times. My stay at most locations is usually about three or four days. The reason for this is quite simple: ground travel takes a hell of a lot more time than hopping on a plane.
As a recent example, I had to travel from Chiang Mai, Thailand to Hong Kong to catch my freighter to Australia—it took me seven days and I was moving for at least eight hours each and every one of those seven days. The same mileage could have been taken care of by a six-hour plane ride. If you take a trip similar to mine, it’s going to be primarily about traveling; that is it’s very nature.
One’s Not the Loneliest Number: You Learn About Yourself
You’re going to be traveling solo for most of your trip, unless you have a boyfriend/girlfriend/spouse that is as dedicated to your quixotic quest as you. One of the joys of traveling is meeting people on the road that you get along with, and then traveling together for a while. Unfortunately, few people will will be traveling as ‘quickly’ as you, so that backpacker tradition of traveling together for weeks becomes more difficult to manage—not impossible, but difficult. Your route around the world is also going to be pretty linear, and you obviously can’t just hop on a plane and jump over a few countries to hook up with some people you want to see.
For a time on this trip, I really wanted to meet up with a few people in Asia, but my times and locations were pretty set, given my freighter’s departure date and places I wanted to see in my limited time, and they couldn’t get away from their obligations (damn the real world) in the time and location window I had available. The bonus on this front is that you will know yourself better than you have ever imagined—a few hundred hours spent on buses, trains, and boats looking at the sights pass by while in your own company tends one toward self-reflection.
How to Book Passage on Freighters, Cargo Ships & Cruises
Traveling without flying is surprisingly expensive. People’s initial reaction to my journey is usually a combination of “you never get to see enough of a place,” and “well, at least it must be cheap to travel that way.” The former is true (though I am fine with it—this time). The latter is far from true.
The easiest way to do the oceanic crossings is by cargo freighter. To some travelers, booking passage on freighters and cargo ships seems harder than it is—you have so many options. Plus, if you catch the winds right, you might also be able to hitch a ride on a sailboat for a crossing—try Find a Crew to sort out possibilities on that front.
Of you can check repositioning cruises too, when the major cruise lines need to move a boat to a different location, you can often book a discounted fare.
Also, few travel agents specialize in booking passages on freighters. I’ve primarily used Hamish Jamison at FreighterTravel.co.nz, but a google search quickly reveals a few others who do the same thing. I understand that you can also book directly with the shipping company, but I haven’t researched the logistics since I had already booked my passages for this trip.
In any case, expect to pay approximately 130-150 Euros a day for passage on a freighter—plus port taxes. Crossing the Atlantic without flying is about a ten-day trip and crossing the Pacific is about double that. I added Australia and New Zealand to my trip, so I had four total passages covering about forty days total. Do the math and you quickly realize that you can buy an entire round-the-world airline ticket with a dozen stops for just the freighter expense alone.
You then have to add the expense of traveling overland everywhere verses just hopping on a plane and getting there quickly. I have made plenty of legs on this trip via multiple buses or trains that would have cost a fraction of the price, if I’d flown on one of the many low-cost air carriers out there.
Reduce Your Carbon Footprint: Skip the Flights
I’ve talked about overland travel sometimes costing more, but that’s not to say that it is all negative—I’m unbelievably happy with my journey. For one thing, air travel is incredibly damaging to the environment. As a general rule, a plane emits about as much CO2 as would every passenger if they drove the same distance in their individual cars.
Additionally, since the airplane emits it’s CO2 (and some other pollutants) into the upper atmosphere, there is an additional negative effect. There is a reward, at least in my eyes, for seeing this much of the world with such a relatively small carbon footprint. I’m not saving the world or anything of the like, but I get some satisfaction from not using the worst environmental mode of travel out there—the jet plane.
Feel Each Footstep Round the World & Soak in the Unique Rewards
This trip has been incredibly rewarding. I’ve enjoyed talking with hundreds of travelers about their own journeys and can only try to explain why my particular route and method satisfies me. I would never claim my trip is any ‘better’ than anyone else’s out there—everyone should plan the trip that is right for them (and there ought to be a lot less judgment on the various forums and blogs out there on others’ choices!).
That being said, for me, the reward for me in my current ground level view is in getting a complete feel for the enormity of our planet. Travel books from decades gone by amaze me—the stories of those who traveled before ATMs, before the internet, before the hostel circuit, before guidebooks, before cell phones and so on and so forth. Reading books about what they experienced on the road has always fascinated me. They were the first westerner sometimes in off-the-beaten-path places. Getting from place to place meant more than just braving the touts and hawkers at a bus station. The obstacles they had to overcome in their journeys inspired me to plan my around the world trip without flying.
In comparison to those adventurers, my journey has been relatively easy. But at least part of the reward for me has been the challenge—I can’t go back in time to The Great Railway Bazaar, or some of the other great journeys from years ago, but I experienced at least some of those challenges in my own journey.
I’m sure there are many people who can say they experienced every mile around our great planet on the ground in recent times, and I’m simply happy to be a part of the club.
Additional Tips Details on Traveling the World Without Flying
How to Book Passage on a Cargo Ship
In addition to the tips Hodson shared, here are a few different ways to book passage on a cargo ship:
- Contact a shipping company directly: Many shipping companies offer passenger services on their cargo ships and freighters, and you can contact them directly to inquire about availability and booking. You can find a list of shipping companies by doing an online search or by checking with a local port or shipping industry association.
- Use a booking agency: There are also agencies that specialize in booking passage on cargo ships for travelers. These agencies can help you find a suitable ship and itinerary, and handle all the booking and travel arrangements on your behalf.
- Check with a cruise line: Some cruise lines offer cargo ship cruises, which combine traditional cruise amenities with the experience of traveling on a cargo ship. You can book a cargo ship cruise through a cruise line or through a travel agent.
Regardless of which method you choose, it’s important to carefully research the shipping company or agency and the specific voyage you’re considering, and make sure that the voyage is safe and suitable for travelers. It’s also a good idea to purchase travel insurance to protect against any unexpected issues that may arise during your trip.