The major ferry companies operating international services are P&O (which also operates as P&O Stena Line on some routes) and Brittany Ferries, which dominates the routes in the western Channel (Caen, Cherbourg, Roscoff and St Malo) with around 40 per cent of the market. Hoverspeed operates a hovercraft service from Dover to Calais and catamaran (Seacat) services on the same route plus Folkestone to Boulogne and Dover to Ostend. A larger Hoverspeed superseacat service operates from Newhaven to Dieppe.
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 Dover-Calais 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. Most Channel ferry services employ large super ferries with a capacity of up to 1,800 to 2,000 passengers and 700 cars. Ferries carry all vehicles, while hovercraft take all vehicles except HGVs, large trucks and buses. All operators except Hoverspeed offer night services, which may be cheaper.
Berths, single cabins and pullman seats are usually available, and most ships have a restaurant, self-service cafeteria, a children’s play area and shops. Generally, the longer the route, the better and wider the range of facilities provided, which often makes it worthwhile considering alternative routes to the Dover-Calais crossing. Although Dover-Calais is the shortest route and offers the most crossings, longer passages are generally less crowded and more relaxing, and fares are often lower.
On longer routes, most ships provide hairdressing, fast-photo developing, pools, saunas, live entertainment, cinemas and discos. Most ferries have a range of shops, which are huge money-spinners and the reason ferry companies offer such low winter fares (ferry companies make up to 50 per cent of their profits from on-board sales). Most ferries offer day cabins with en suite facilities, which provide somewhere to leave luggage, shower and change, or just have a nap.
When travelling on a cross-Channel ferry with your car, remember to take any items required during the crossing with you, as you aren’t allowed access to the car decks during journeys. Many ships cater for children and mothers, and have play areas, baby-feeding and changing rooms. All major ferry operators offer a business class (e.g. P&O’s club class) typically costing an extra £7 to £10 per person, per trip. It includes a quieter lounge; free tea, coffee and newspapers; and fax, photocopier and other facilities. Ferry companies also provide ship-to-shore telephone, telex, fax (shore only), and photocopiers on ships and at ports.
It isn’t always necessary to make a booking, although it’s advisable 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 the large number of passengers. If possible, it’s best to avoid travelling during peak times. Check-in times depend on the particular crossing and are from 20 to 60 minutes 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 (although it’s much quicker to book direct).
Peak fares are high, e.g. a standard Dover-Calais return with P&O (www.poferries.com) for a vehicle up to 5m in length costs around £260 (£140 single), including the driver and one passenger. This drops to around £120 for a five-day return during the cheapest period. If you want a single ticket only, it may be cheaper to take advantage of a special offer and throw away the return ticket.
Ferry companies offer a range of fares, including standard single and return fares, Apex fares, and 5 and 10-day returns. Children under four years old travel free and those aged from 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.
Whenever you travel, always check for special offers. Last-minute tickets can be purchased at up to 50 per cent discount from ‘bucket’ shops. P&O shareholders who own at least £600 worth of P&O concessionary stock receive a 50 per cent discount on Dover-Calais and Felixstowe-Zeebrugge crossings, and 40 per cent off Portsmouth-Cherbourg, Portsmouth-Le Havre and Portsmouth-Bilbao crossings.
Some ferry lines have clubs for frequent travellers, e.g. the Brittany Ferries French and Spanish Property Owners Clubs (08703-665 7333, www.brittanyferries.co.uk), offering savings of up to 30 per cent on single and standard return fares. The Eurodrive Travel Club (0870-442 2440, www.eurodrive.co.uk) claims to be able to obtain the cheapest rate for any ferry company.
A huge boost to ferry companies in the low winter season in recent years has been the explosion of low-cost shopping trips to Calais and Boulogne. However, this is having a detrimental affect on summer crossings, as many people balk at paying £300 for a summer crossing when a winter trip costs as little as £25 return for a car and £1 for foot passengers! Most special offers are usually by coupon only, which are available in most daily newspapers during the winter (off-peak) season. Half of those who make return crossings from Dover to Calais are simply making day trips or one-night stays.
Within the UK there are regular ferry services to the Isle of Wight, i.e. Portsmouth to Fishbourne and Ryde, Southsea to Ryde and from Lymington to Yarmouth. Car ferry services operate from England to Douglas (Isle of Man) from Heysham, Fleetwood and Liverpool. From Douglas there are regular services to Belfast and Dublin. Regular services operate from the west of Scotland to the Western Isles and to the Orkney and Shetland Isle from the north and east of Scotland. Regular ferry services to the Channel Islands are operated from Poole, Torquay and Weymouth throughout the year. Services to Ireland operate between Stranraer-Larne, Fishguard-Rosslare, Holyhead-Dun Loghaire (for Dublin) and Swansea-Cork.
Eurotunnel (www.eurotunnel.com), previously known as Le Shuttle, started operating its shuttle car train service from Folkestone (access to the Eurotunnel terminal is via the M20 motorway, junction 11a) to Coquelles, near Calais, in 1995. The train runs at 15-minute intervals during peak periods, taking just 35 minutes. One of the advantages (in addition to the short travel time) of Eurotunnel is that you can remain in your car isolated from drunken soccer fans and screaming kids. Fares are similar to ferries, e.g. a peak (summer) club class return costs around £340 and an off-peak (January to March) return £170, for a vehicle and all passengers.
It’s advisable to book (08705-353 535, www.eurotunnel.com), although bookings are for a particular day, not a particular train or time, so you may have to wait for one or two trains to depart before being able to board. Don’t expect to get a place in summer on the ‘turn up and go’ service, particularly on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. Demand is lighter on services from France to the UK, when bookings may be unnecessary. Trains carry all ‘vehicles’, including bicycles, motorcycles, cars, trucks, buses, caravans and motorhomes. Vehicles carrying gas are banned.
This article is an extract from Living and working in Britain. Click here to get a copy now.