If you’ve never taken your car to the Continent, you might be a little bit daunted by the thought of negotiating the watery bit between England and France. Tunnel or ferry? What’s involved with each option? Is there anything you need to do in advance? Taking to the open road on a European driving holiday is the summer break of choice for many thousands of Britons, with and without families. From older couples keen to explore quaint little French villages, to families heading for campsites and hotels on the Spanish coast, to groups taking their mountain bikes for a holiday in the Alps, a trip across the Channel can be the starting point for all manner of adventures.
But should you cross the sea in a ship or go under it using the Eurotunnel? Here, we investigate the pros and cons of both routes and look at what else you need to consider before starting your engine and heading off on your European road trip.
The cost of crossing the channel
The cheapest standard ferry tickets I have found for a Dover to Calais crossing are £19 each way. However, you may be able to find cheaper deals by shopping around the ferry companies such as Sea France and P&O. This is particularly true if you are prepared to take a slow boat leaving early in the morning or late at night. The cost of a standard Eurotunnel ticket, meanwhile, starts at £23 (per car) each way. Again, early morning and late night trains often prove cheaper than more popular departures in the middle of the day.
Pros and cons of taking the ferry
Some people prefer taking a ferry to using the Eurotunnel because they enjoy the chance to stretch their legs and get a bit of sea air while they cross the channel. This is particularly true for families with restless kids to keep entertained. The facilities on board vary from company to company and from ship to ship, but you will generally find a café, a bar, lots of seating, an outside deck and – in most cases – a ‘duty free’ shop. But be warned: the last time I took a ferry a few years ago, the only food available was a small selection of stale sandwiches.
The operator’s website should give an idea of what to expect, so you can pack some snacks if necessary (a whiff of sea air and my appetite goes into overdrive). Be warned that, if you take a very early morning or late night ferry – perhaps to avoid traffic or to bag a bargain crossing – you may well find that all the shops and restaurants are closed. When it comes to speed, the crossing time by ferry is a lot longer than on the train through the tunnel – even if you take a fast boat. Budget for a couple of hours. And it’s not just the crossing. At busy times, such as the summer holidays, many people also complain of long waits both to board and disembark from cross channel ferries.
Pros and cons of taking the Eurotunnel
The big advantage of the Eurotunnel over a ferry is that it takes just 35 minutes. The loading time is also often much shorter than the time required to board – and disembark from – a cross channel ferry. And if you arrive early, you can usually take an earlier train for no extra cost – making it a flexible option for drivers unsure exactly how much time it will take them to get to Folkestone – or to Calais on the way home. (This makes the flexible tickets fairly obsolete, as long as you give yourself plenty of time so that you are sure to arrive early rather than late.)
Anyone who suffers from seasickness is also likely to want to take the tunnel for obvious reasons – although claustrophobics will probably prefer the boat! The opportunities for stretching your legs are much more limited, though. There are toilets, but otherwise you are encouraged to stay in your car for the duration of the journey. Friends who have travelled in the summer heat have also reported finding it hot and humid in the tunnel at this time of year. Finally, don’t forget that the tunnel is only an option for anyone looking to travel between two specific points – Folkestone and Calais. Anyone wanting to leave from Portsmouth, for example, or arrive in Le Havre, which is further west than Calais, will be better off with the ferry.