The Ultimate Guide to Marine Travel: Trips, Hacks and Packing Tips
August 08, 2023
You’d be hard-pressed to think of an innovation that changed travel more completely and fundamentally than the airplane. We often take it for granted that a modern traveler can book a ticket on a shining metal tube that jets across the sky, hopping from one continent to the next in the time it takes to finish three or four in-flight movies.
But before the advent of the airplane, people still got around. And for thousands of years, the mode of choice for migrants, wanders, explorers and itchy-footed adventurers was the humble marine ship.
No, in the year 2023, it’s not the most economical way to travel (comparing cost per miles traveled). It certainly isn’t the fastest. But, as far as experiences go, you can’t really beat it. What marine travel lacks in convenience or cost efficiency, it more than makes up for with its spectacular vistas, tranquil surroundings, and (at least relative to airplanes) comfortable lodgings. Call it a “throwback” way of seeing the world: unhurried, scenic, and moored to the elements.
If you plan on taking a trip through one of the world's many waterways, we have an article for you. Below, we explore a few of our favourite marine trips, discuss tips for “smooth sailing,” and tackle the all-important task of packing for life on the water.
Marine Travel 101
Before we dive into specifics, we should outline our scope. Marine travel – alternately called marine tourism or nautical tourism – is a catch-all term to describe any kind of travel via a waterway.
For most people, the first thing that pops to mind is a cruise. And while we certainly welcome all the mega-cruise tourists into the fold here, we want to make clear that cruises are just one segment of what we’re discussing. Marine travel might also include multi-day river trips, transportation-style vessels between islands, strait charters, and vessels purpose-built for exploring a facet of marine life (like reefs). In other words: if it floats, it fits our topic!
How to See the World by Water: The Best Marine Trips Worldwide
The world is roughly 71% water – which means it isn’t hard to find a marine trip of one kind or another. The bigger ask is finding a nautical trip that's worth your tourist dollars. In this section, we list a few of our favorite marine trips worldwide, based on how impressive the scenery is, how comfortable the lodgings are, and how exciting the call ports can be.
Sailing Ha Long Bay in Vietnam
Ha Long Bay in Northern Vietnam is the worst-kept travel secret in all of Southeast Asia. That is to say, it has all the hallmarks of a hidden gem (achingly gorgeous scenery, very few multinational cruise companies, and a distinctly local flair). But it’s still quite a popular spot for travelers in the area. Come for the tall limestone islands dotting the landscape; stay for the hospitality and great local food served on one of its (many) liveaboard “junk ships.”
Credit: Mstandard Via Freepik
Touring the Fjords in Iceland and Norway
The Icelandic and Norwegian fjords need no introduction. We've all seen the photos and videos of steeply sloped rock faces dramatically towering over a quiet inlet – with glacial-fed turquoise waters, green-capped cliffs and waterfalls thrown in for good measure. But there's no better way to get up close and personal with the famous fjords than by touring them in a ship. Small companies and giant cruise providers alike offer options for seeing the fjords; choose whichever suits your tastes. Regardless of the vessel or time of year, pack an Unbound Merino lightweight hoodie for men to protect against the chilly temperatures.
Island Hopping in Greece
This is less of a coordinated trip and more of a ramshackle collection of inter-island ferries that you have to book separately. Still, touring the Greek Islands via boat can be a terrific way to tick multiple islands off your bucket list while taking in a gorgeous portion of the Mediterranean.
Catamarans on the Great Barrier Reef in Australia
If you find yourself in Cairns, in the Northwest of Australia, don’t pass up the opportunity to see the Great Barrier Reef. As you might’ve read, the reef faces coral bleaching and general environmental threats – in part because of unchecked, irresponsible tourism. Therefore, it’s imperative to be respectful when visiting the GBR. Embark on one of the many catamarans that run sustainable Reef tours from Cairns, marvel at the unbelievable marine life, and resist the urge to touch.
Time Travelling Down the Nile in Egypt
River tours are a fantastic subsection of marine travel, blending the experience of lodging on a boat with what is essentially a sightseeing tour. For instance, Danube River tours take you through architectural and cultural hotspots like Vienna, Budapest and Prague. And Lower Mississippi tours paddleboat you from the open countryside to the Birthplace of Rock n' Roll. But our favorite has to be the Nile River cruise, a non-stop barrage of temples, pharaohs, pyramids and other historical sights. It's a sweltering summer trip, so pack those breathable merino travel shorts for women or men, and a sweat-wicking merino t-shirt.
Riding Out the Waves: Tips for Smooth Sailing
Nautical trips aren’t always smooth sailing. Aside from the literal choppy waters and back-and-forth tilting, you might experience a few hiccups and issues during your sailing. In this section, we offer a few tips for ironing out common marine travel problems.
Turn off Your Data Roaming
You hear horror stories of people who leave their data on during a multi-week, multi-country cruise – only to return with hundreds of dollars in roaming charges. It’s an especially prevalent issue in North America, where telecom monopolies have jacked the price of mobile data. But it can happen anywhere. If your marine travel might cross international borders, it’s best to turn off data roaming, relying instead on the onboard internet or Wi-Fi at the call ports. If you're really worried about getting gouged, head into airplane mode.
Remember: Safety First
Especially on smaller charters, the risk of something going wrong is – if not high, at least not zero percent. The sea is a force to be reckoned with, friends. All that said, pay attention to the safety announcements at disembarkation and clock the nearest life jackets and flotation devices.
Check The Weather Forecast
Again, this applies primarily to smaller charters: the ones you don't necessarily book months in advance. If you're touring Ha Long Bay for a couple of nights or planning a ferry from Mykonos to Santorini, check the weather. The difference between a stormy night and a calm one can spell the difference between a sleepless night and a restful one.
Kick Sea Sickness
“If it was not for sea-sickness, the whole world would be sailors,” wrote Charles Darwin, a long-time sufferer of the malady. Caused by a not-well-understood mechanism in the inner ear, sea sickness can be a lousy, all-encompassing damper on a trip. And if you haven’t done much marine traveling, you won’t really know in advance if you’re one of the unlucky ones whose inner ear just doesn’t jive with the waves. Therefore, it’s best practice on multi-day journeys to bring OTC motion sickness medications like Dimenhydrinate pills, Meclizine or Scopolamine patches. (Just look up side effects and drug interactions in advance).
Sail Cheaply with Off-Season Travel
Like air travel, marine travel has peak seasons and relatively low periods of demand that affect pricing. If you’re sailing the seas on a budget, consider booking a trip in the April to early June window or September to November. These tend to be the cheapest months for marine travel, but seasons vary around the world.
Figure out the BYOB Rules in Advance
Some major cruise companies are very strict about outside alcohol, going to great lengths to stamp out the practice. Other companies, typically running local and smaller passenger vessels, couldn’t care less if you board with booze. To avoid an issue at disembarkation, research the rules in advance. And if you're a known sea sickness sufferer, consider skipping the drinks altogether.
How to Pack for a Marine Voyage
If you’re a long-time Unbound Merino blog reader, chances are you’re already primed for marine travel, which demands that passengers pack economically and thoughtfully. Still, packing for a nautical trip requires some additional forethought and a few extra items. Below, we cover our top tips to pack for a marine voyage.
Credit: jcomp Via Freepik
Maybe this is an obvious one, but it bears repeating. Space on a vessel – whether it’s a berth on a massive cruise ship or a seat on a commuter tugboat – is limited. And oftentimes, ship companies encourage a weight cap for carry-on bags. Packing light is, therefore, a necessity.
An effective way to start whittling the contents of your carry-on is by packing travel clothing from Unbound Merino. Our versatile, antibacterial and sweat-wicking clothing lasts a very long time between washes, so you really only need one or two of each item for a weekslong trip – maybe more in the case of underwear. Choose muted, neutral colors to create a mix-and-match capsule wardrobe. And roll your clothes to minimize surface area.
Beyond that, check out our guide on things you shouldn't pack. By following these steps, you can roll up to disembarkation day with a svelte carry-on that’ll fit neatly in the narrow cabin storage.
Choose Fast-Drying, Moisture-Wicking Material
Another reason to pack merino wool for a marine voyage is its moisture-wicking, fast-drying characteristics. Maritime voyages can get wet – whether it's the ocean mist, splashing waves, rain at the call ports, or evening dips when the ship is moored. For all those wet occasions, you’ll be thankful you brought your fast-drying women's t-shirts or men’s merino travel shorts; it’s no fun hanging out on the windy outdoor deck of a ship in sopping wet clothes.
Choose Waterproof Exterior and Interior Storage
This tip applies mostly to smaller vessels, where the risk of ocean mist or waves crashing is high. To protect your belongings against the elements, opt for a waterproof bag. You can follow this link to learn more about the best waterproof travel bags currently on the market.
Likewise, it’s best practice to protect important electronics and documents with interior storage bags. There’s no need to spend a lot of money here. Simply pop your phone in a zip-top plastic bag, or your passport in a plastic pouch. That way, if you’re on the outer deck of a ship when a wave splashes aboard, you’re protected from heartbreak.
Find a (Surge Protected) Power Strip
Outlets aboard a ship are scarce. You might only get a single outlet for an entire cabin. Therefore, if you plan on charging your phone, working on your laptop, charging your camera and heating the curling iron all at once, you’ll need a power strip. Ensure that you find a surge-protected power strip (ideally one rated for ship travel) so you don't blow a fuse aboard the vessel.
Include Wind and Sun Protection
Out on the open ocean, there’s no shade from the sun or shelter from the wind. You exist squarely among the elements. To protect yourself and stay fresh while traveling, pack a few protective items. For sun protection, pack a pair of polarized sunglasses, a brimmed hat and high-SPF sunscreen (even in the winter; surface glare is no joke). And to protect against the wind, pack lip balm and moisturizer. (Better yet, find a moisturizing sunscreen to cut down on packed items).
Whether you're planning a two-week trip on a massive cruise bound for the Caribbean or a three-day voyage down the Mekong River, we hope you've found something helpful in this article. If you pick your trips wisely, follow a few tips and pack like a pro, your marine trip should be smooth sailing.