Some ferry services operate during the summer months only, e.g. May to September, and the frequency of services varies from dozens a day on the busiest (Calais-Dover) route during the summer peak period, to one a week on longer routes. Services are less frequent during the winter months, when bad weather can also cause cancellations. On the longer routes (i.e. from Portsmouth/Le Havre westward) there are overnight services.
Most ferries also have day cabins with en suite facilities that provide somewhere to leave luggage, shower and change, or just have a nap. Berths, single cabins and pullman seats are usually available, and most ships have a restaurant, self-service cafeteria and a children’s play area. Many ships cater for children and mothers and have play areas, baby-feeding and changing rooms. On longer routes, most ships provide hairdressing, fast-photo developing, pools, saunas, live entertainment, cinemas and discos.
All major ferry operators offer ‘business class’ tickets, typically costing an extra €15 to €20 per person, per trip. For this, you may enjoy a quieter lounge, free tea, coffee (sometimes even champagne!) and newspapers, and fax, photocopier and other facilities. Generally the longer the route, the better and wider the range of facilities provided, which often makes it worthwhile considering alternative routes to the Calais-Dover crossing, on which ferries are often crowded.
When travelling, take any items you require during the crossing with you, as you aren’t allowed access to the car decks during journeys. One of the first things you should do after boarding a ferry is to study the safety procedures. Announcements are usually made in various languages.
Since Speed Ferries began operating between Dover and Boulogne in 2003, undercutting the Dover/Calais operators, there has been an intense price war (and not a few unsavoury practices, such as preventing boats from docking) and fares have generally come down, although they remain notoriously unpredictable and can vary by hundreds of pounds (according to the operator, time of year, time of day, duration of return ticket and, it would appear, sheer luck), peak rates still being outrageously high, e.g. a standard Calais/Dover return with P&O for a vehicle up to 5m (16ft) in length costs around €540 including only the driver and one passenger, which works out at over €10 per mile! It isn’t necessarily an advantage to book early, although P&O offer an ‘airline-style’ system, whereby the earlier you book, the cheaper the fare.
It’s worth ringing the ferry operators to ask about special offers, but otherwise finding the cheapest fare is best done online, as staff won’t be able to tell you the cheapest times to travel but will merely give you a price for each of the criteria you give, exactly as will their websites. An alternative to checking the sites of each operator separately is to use a comparative site, such as Channelcrossings.net, Cross-Channel Ferry Tickets, and Direct Ferries, although finding the best fare is still a laborious matter of inputting endless permutations of dates and times. Brochures rarely include the range of fares and never indicate all the variations.
Children under four years old usually travel free and those aged 4 to 14 travel for half fare. Students may be entitled to a small discount during off-peak periods. Bicycles are transported free on most services.
Some operators offer discounts to regular travellers. For example, Brittany Ferries runs Club Voyage (tel: 0330 159 7000), offering savings of up to 30 per cent on single and standard return fares, and P&O offers a ‘season ticket’ for three or more crossings per year. Most operators offer travel and accommodation packages, and in some cases these work out cheaper than the crossing alone!
It isn’t always necessary to make a booking, although it’s wise when travelling during the summer peak period, particularly on a Friday or Saturday (and when you require a berth on an overnight service). Like air travel, ferry services are sometimes subject to delays due to strikes, out-of-service ferries or simply ‘volume’ (a euphemism for deliberate overbooking!).
Check-in times vary from 20 to 60 minutes in advance of sailing for motorists and from 20 to 45 minutes for foot passengers. Comprehensive free timetables and guides are published by shipping companies and are available from travel agents. Bookings can be made by telephone or online.
There are a number of ferry (navette or ferry) services operating within France, including daily car ferry services between Marseille, Nice and Toulon and the Corsican ports of Ajaccio, Bastia, Calvi, Ile Rousse, Porto-Vecchio and Propriano (crossing times are from 5 to 12 hours). Car ferry services also operate between Royan and Le Verdon (in the Gironde estuary) and between Blaye and Lamarque (also in Gironde); services operate during daylight hours throughout the year and crossings take around 30 and 25 minutes respectively.
A hydrofoil operates in summer from Nice to Cannes and Monaco, and there’s a regular ferry service from Cannes to the Ile Sainte-Marguerite, where the ‘Man in the Iron Mask’ was imprisoned. Several ferries operate in the Golfe du Morbihan in Brittany. In some areas there are river ferry ( bac) services, such as those across the Seine between Rouen and Le Havre. There are also ferry services between Saint-Malo (and Granville and other small ports on the west coast of Manche) and the Channel Islands of Jersey, Guernsey and Alderney (foot passengers only).
This article is an extract from Living and working in France. Click here to get a copy now.