During the early years of emigration, passengers traveled in cargo ships that were poorly suited for the passenger trade, and little had improved by the 1830s. Most berths had to be shared with up to three other people, which gave each passenger approximately two square feet of personal space, and many adults were too tall to stand upright below decks. Ventilation was normally poor, but during inclement weather, the hatches were closed and passengers had to ride out the storms in the suffocating darkness.
Although the journey was not pleasant, historian Kerby Miller puts the emigrants' suffering in perspective, claiming: "Many peasant emigrants probably found the food, filth, and suffocating atmosphere of the steerage little worse than what they had been accustomed to in one- and two-room cabins back home...in fact, the word which pre-Famine emigrants most commonly used to describe their entire passages was merely 'tedious'."
The Famine caused conditions to worsen. Ships became more crowded and disease became rampant. Seasickness was an almost universal plaque aboard the ships. More worrisome were the contagious diseases such as cholera, smallpox, and typhus that spread easily on crowded ships. Surprisingly, in non-epidemic years, the death rate aboard passenger ships was only two percent, with infants, young children, and the elderly disproportionately affected.