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Taking your car to Europe?

How to choose between the cross channel ferries and the channel tunnel.

Should you take one of the cross channel ferries or use the tunnel? The first thing you need to decide if you’re taking your car from the UK to anywhere in Europe is how to get across the English Channel. That’s the thing about living on an island. Fortunately, these days you have a choice. In this article, I’m going to focus on the choices for taking your car across to Europe. If you plan on travelling by train then you should check out my guide to using the Eurostar instead.

Travel by Eurostar: The easy way to get to Europe

However, if you’re taking your own car then you have a straight choice. You can either take the train through the channel tunnel or you can hop on one of many cross channel ferries. In this article, I want to explore the pros and cons of both options. We use both cross channel ferries and the tunnel. There’s no right or wrong choice. It all depends on your personal requirements for each trip.

One of the P&O cross channel ferries waiting to depart at Calais
One of the P&O cross channel ferries waiting to depart at Calais

Eurotunnel

You’ll find there are advantages and disadvantages to both Eurotunnel and the cross channel ferries. I’m a big fan of the tunnel. Eurotunnel runs an efficient organisation and when things run smoothly, which they usually do, it’s a quick and easy way to get to France.

An alternative to the cross channel ferries. Eurotunnel terminals offer great facilities to start your journey
An alternative to the cross channel ferries.
Eurotunnel terminals offer great facilities to start your journey

You’ll find new state-of-the-art terminals at both Folkestone and Calais. If you want the best prices you should book ahead but it is possible to turn up and see. Assuming you’ve booked ahead, you arrive at the terminal, drive up to the automatic check-in gate and wait while it scans your registration number. Check the details on the display, click ok and your boarding pass is printed. Hang it on your rear-view mirror and proceed to the waiting area.

You can use the terminal facilities while you wait. Just watch the screen for your departure to start boarding. You’ll be given a letter from A-Z which tells you which train you are on. When called follow the boarding directions. You drive straight onto the train which is pretty cool. We’ve done it loads of times now and it’s still quite exciting to drive on.

Boarding the Eurotunnel Shuttle
Boarding the Eurotunnel Shuttle

On board the Eurotunnel Shuttle

Once onboard you stay in your car. The journey through the tunnel takes about 30 minutes although not all of that is under the sea. We always take lunch or snacks and something to read. You can get out of your car and walk around but there really isn’t anywhere to go apart from the toilets. Obviously, you can’t see anything once you’re in the tunnel so there’s no scenery to watch.

On board the Eurotunnel shuttle
On board the Eurotunnel shuttle

When you arrive in Calais you’ll be told to return to your car and wait for instructions. You drive through the train and off the other end. And that’s it. You’re in France. You just drive up the ramp and follow signs to the exit. You’ll be on the French motorway and heading south in minutes.

What are the disadvantages?

If you think that all sounds marvellous then you’re right. It’s pretty good. We use it a lot and love it. So, are there any disadvantages? Not many to be honest. I think the main one can be cost. You’ll find that costs vary. If you book early you get the best deal. For short stays of 5 nights or less you can get a special deal which is great but no use for a long road trip. Occasionally, you’ll encounter delays but they have so many trains scheduled to run each day that they usually deal with these very quickly. In fact, the number of scheduled departures is one of the big advantages of Eurotunnel.

Another disadvantage is that they do not run overnight. So you need to time your travel for daytime. Also, you don’t get much of a rest. So if you’ve driven a long way to get to Folkestone or Calais you’re going to be driving again within 30 minutes. If you’d prefer more of a break on your cross-channel journey then you might prefer one of the cross channel ferries.

Cross Channel Ferries

You’ll find plenty of choices if you want to take the cross channel ferry to France. It’s also a great option if you don’t want to travel from Folkestone to Calais. You can travel on one of the cross channel ferries to Dunkirk in Belgium or to one of the other French ports such as Cherbourg, Le Havre, or Caen. If you want to travel further afield you can take one of the Brittany Ferries routes from Portsmouth to Spain. Choose between Santander and Bilbao. That’s another advantage of the cross channel ferries over the tunnel. You can travel from other UK ports as well. If Portsmouth or Poole is closer for you to take the ferry from there. Perhaps you live nearer Harwich. You can take a cross channel ferry to the Hook of Holland. You’ll find plenty of options to make your travel plans more flexible.

One of the DFDS cross channel ferries in Dover harbour
One of the DFDS cross channel ferries in Dover harbour

Advantages of the cross channel ferries

So, what are the other advantages of taking one of the cross channel ferries apart? Well, firstly you can save a lot of driving time. If you’re heading to Spain it will take you at least 2 days to drive from Calais. You can be in Spain in 24 hours on the ferry and no petrol costs or motorway tolls.

You get a fabulous view of the white cliffs of Dover as you leave the UK on one of the cross channel ferries
You get a fabulous view of the white cliffs of Dover as you leave the UK on one of the cross channel ferries

If you want to take a break then the ferry is a good option. Even on the shorter crossing from Dover to Dunkirk for example, which is the route we took on our Balkans road trip. You get 2 hours on the ferry so you can relax, get lunch, stretch your legs and get some sea air. Instead of being inside a train inside a tunnel you can watch the UK coastline disappear and watch eagerly for Europe to emerge. Also, consider the overnight cross channel ferries. Leave the UK late at night, get a good night’s sleep and arrive in Europe the next morning refreshed and ready to drive.

Take a break and relax. The club lounge on one of the Condor cross channel ferries.
Take a break and relax.
This shows the club lounge on one of the Condor cross channel ferries.

Modern ferries have fabulous facilities with comfortable lounges and multiple food outlets. You’ll find duty free shopping and you can even rent a cabin if you want to sleep for a few hours. Top tip – they’re really cheap on daytime crossings as not so many people book them. So, it’s worth it even if you just want somewhere peaceful to read your book and make a cup of tea.

Modern cross channel ferries have great facilities. This shows the duty free shopping options onboard Condor Ferries.
Modern cross channel ferries have great facilities.
This shows the duty free shopping options onboard Condor Ferries.

What are the disadvantages?

Sounds great. So, are there any disadvantages? Well, firstly they take longer than the tunnel but as I’ve already pointed out that could also be an advantage. For me, the biggest disadvantage is the potential for bad weather. Before the tunnel, yes I’m that old, we always travelled by ferry. I’ve been in some choppy seas and I didn’t like it. It’s scary when huge waves are crashing in front of you. However, the only time I’ve ever been seasick was on a fast ferry from Jersey in the Channel Islands though, never on the normal cross channel ferries.

It would be easy to say, just travel on the cross channel ferries in good weather but that’s not easy to plan. The worst crossing I’ve been on was in August. We’ve travelled in October and had a lovely smooth crossing. Nowadays, I don’t let that worry me too much and tend to book on the convenience of timings and locations. However, if it worries you then you should bear it in mind.

The other negative for the channel ferries is that they have limited crossings. unlike Eurotunnel which runs trains every 20-30 minutes, more in peak times, the ferries will run each service a limited number of times a day. You may not be able to find one that’s convenient for you although with the various cross channel ferries this doesn’t tend to be a huge problem.

Passing the smaller Isle of Wight ferry on the way out of Portsmouth Harbour
Passing the smaller Isle of Wight ferry on the way out of Portsmouth Harbour

Where to book your channel crossing

Eurotunnel

If you choose to cross the channel using Eurotunnel then head directly to their website. It’s easy and straightforward to book there and you’ll get the best prices. When you put your crossing date and time in you’ll also be able to see if you can get a better deal by changing the day or time. They’ll also show you if you can get a special offer fare for those dates.

Ticket types and fares on Eurotunnel

They offer a number of different fares. Firstly, there is the day or overnight saver fare. If you’re on a very short break you might find this perfect for you. You need to buy a return ticket and you can come back anytime up to midnight on the 2nd day. For a slightly longer stay choose the Short Stay Saver. This offers a discounted price for stays of 5 days or less.

For trips of more than 5 days, you’ll most likely want the Single or Long Stay fare. With this fare, you don’t have to buy a return ticket when you buy your outbound one. We find this really handy as we don’t bother to book the return journey. We set off on our road trip and then when we’re on our way back we book our return ticket then. You can book online or by phone so it’s very easy.

Frequent travellers

If you’re a frequent traveller then you can join one of the frequent traveller schemes. You need to buy at least 10 single tickets to be eligible but if you are travelling a lot you can get a discount this way. A more expensive option is to buy a fully flexible fare. However, I find these very expensive in comparison to the standard tickets. Also, Eurotunnel is very flexible anyway. You can turn up early for your train and they will get you on the next available one. If you purchase the fully flexible ticket you do get priority to just jump on the next train but it comes at a price. We once turned up 48 hours early for our train back from Calais and they put us on within 2 hours. That was on a standard ticket.

Cross Channel Ferries

There are several options for booking your cross channel ferry tickets. You can book directly with the ferry company or you can use one of the ferry comparison websites. The two main ones are Aferry and Direct Ferries. If you visit one, or both, of their websites you can search the various cross channel ferry routes and find the best deal for you. They’re an excellent resource for comparing what’s on offer and making sure you know all the different cross channel ferry options.

I use them to find all the information and then book my ferry on the ferry company website. You can book through these comparison sites as well though. Just be careful that you check the ferry company website too as they often give extra deals if you book direct. I got £10 off our crossing from Dover to Dunkirk with DFDS cross channel ferries just by booking via their website.

Reserved seats and cabins

When you take one of the cross channel ferries you’ll have the option of reserving a seat in the lounge or booking a cabin. On daytime crossings, this will be optional but you’ll probably have to reserve at least a seat on an overnight crossing. Consider booking a cabin even on a daytime crossing though especially if it’s one of the longer ones over 2 hours.

Cabins are cheap on daytime crossings as they’re not so popular. You can often get a cabin for under £50 and it’s your own private space to relax, read your book in peace or just make a cup of tea. You’ll usually get an ensuite so you can freshen up with a shower if you want to. On overnight crossings, I’d advise upgrading to a cabin if your budget allows. The price shown will be per cabin not per person so it can be quite affordable. Choose an inside cabin if you’re on a budget. You can’t see anything in the dark anyway and they have air conditioning so they’re very comfortable.

Book a cabin for extra comfort

You may have a long way to drive when you arrive in the morning or you might have already driven some distance to get to the port. You’ll feel so much more relaxed if you’ve had a good night’s sleep before you arrive at your destination. You can get a 2 berth cabin if you’re a couple or there are 4 berth cabins available for families.

Don’t worry if you have to book a 4 berth and there are only 2 or you. You book the entire cabin so you won’t have to share. The cheaper 2 berth cabins tend to be bunk beds while you can pay extra for one with 2 lower beds. 4 berth cabins will always be two sets of bunk beds. We’ve found them very comfortable though and the upper berths have bars on them to stop you falling out.

Whichever way you choose to start your trip to Europe you should have all the information you need now to get started.

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