Cross channel ferries – the ultimate guide

Cross channel ferries – the ultimate guide
Driving across Europe can be a great adventure, letting you explore sun-kissed beach resorts, snow-capped mountains and everything in between. 

Many of us start these excursions with a cross channel ferry – so what are these services and what do you need to remember before you drive on-board? 

To help you prepare for your crossing, here’s our guide to everything you need to know about cross channel ferries.

Jump to:

Can I drive to France?

Yes, and there’s a bit of choice when it comes to how to do it. Some motorists will opt for the Channel Tunnel, but many see the cross-channel ferry as a cheaper and more family-friendly alternative on the open seas.  

If you’ve already decided on a ferry, read on for some helpful tips and access information.

Cross channel ferry routes

Cross-channel ferry routes run from five ports along the south coast of England, connecting the UK with France and Spain:

Ferry from Dover to Calais, France

The quickest and most direct cross-channel ferry route is Dover to Calais, taking around 1 and a half hours. There are 38 sailings to Calais every day.

Dover is the world’s busiest passenger port, and with 16 million travellers passing through every year, surrounding roads can get extremely busy so leave yourself plenty of time to get there. The port is well signposted from the A2. 

Exclusive P&O Ferries discount^

As an RAC member you get an exclusive discount on P&O Ferries standard fares and FREE Priority Boarding on either your outbound or return journey.

Ferry from Dover to Dunkirk, France

There are also 12 daily sailings leaving Dover for Dunkirk, further up the French coast. This could be a better option for drivers heading to Bruges, Ghent Antwerp, Rotterdam or Amsterdam.

Ferry from Newhaven to Dieppe, France

The only ferry connections to the fishing town of Dieppe on the Normandy coast depart from Newhaven in East Sussex, with three sailings a day and a journey time of around 4 hours. 

Located on the eastern banks of the River Ouse, Newhaven port is easily accessed from the A26. It’s significantly smaller than other, busier ports so you may want to stock up on supplies before you reach the port itself. 

Ferry from Portsmouth to Caen, France

One of the UK’s best-connected ports, Portsmouth has a wealth of ferry routes to mainland Europe, as well as services to the Isle of Wight, Guernsey and Jersey. 

The French routes are great options for those heading to Paris and the Bay of Biscay, sailing into Caen on 21 weekly sailings taking 5 hours and 45 minutes. Don’t forget to check out the Bayeux Tapestry in nearby… Bayeux.

Portsmouth’s passenger terminal is located on the city’s Portsea Island and easily accessed at the southern end of the M275. However, with so many services leaving the port, the area can get busy with passengers, so arrive early. 

Ferry from Portsmouth to Cherbourg, France

Drivers can get a ferry to Cherbourg (or Cherbourg-Octeville as it’s now known) on one of 9 weekly sailings which take 3 hours.

Now we know that the white cliffs of Dover take some beating, but just a short drive up the D901 from Cherbourg you can find the Nez de Jobourg, some of the highest and most dramatic cliffs in continental Europe. 

Ferry from Portsmouth to St Malo, France

Ferries to St Malo go 7 times a week, each taking 11 hours. 

Head East from here and you’ll find one of France’s most iconic sights: Mont Saint-Michel. Make sure the tides don’t prevent you from crossing over to this middle-ages time capsule during your trip!

Ferry from Portsmouth to Le Havre, France

Cross channel ferries run to Le Havre on 11 weekly sailings, each with a 5 and a half hour journey.

Le Havre is the second port of France after Marseille. It has a fast-growing tourist trade based on the yachting harbour and the adjacent resort of Sainte-Adresse, where Claude Monet once spent a summer painting 2 leisure scenes.

Ferry from Portsmouth to Bilbao, Spain

There are also ferry routes from Portsmouth to northern Spain, with three weekly services to Bilbao taking 23 and a half hours. Cabins are available on these longer routes.

Bilbao is the de facto capital of the Basque Country, known for its stunning architecture, lush green hills, vibrant cultural history and delicious cuisine. Don’t forget to pick up some pintxos (big tapas) while you’re in town.

Ferry from Portsmouth to Santander, Spain

A further three weekly services run from Portsmouth to Santander, also taking 23 and a half hours.

There are many beautiful golden beaches, a gorgeous palace on the Magdalena peninsula and all the freshly caught Cantabrian seafood you can eat: so make sure you have time to enjoy Santander once you drive off the boat.

Ferry from Poole to Cherbourg, France

Another connection to the Normandy port of Cherbourg runs from Poole, with 10 sailings a week leaving the Dorset port, each taking around 4 hours and 15 minutes.

The port is accessed via the A350, which can get busy at peak times as it passes through central Poole. The port itself has decent facilities, although you may wish to stock up elsewhere before boarding the ferry. 

Ferry from Plymouth to Roscoff, France

The final port offering cross-channel ferry services is Plymouth in Devon. While for some drivers Plymouth will be more convenient, do be warned that for others it’ll add a significant amount of time to your journey on the UK side of the Channel.

There are nine sailings a week to Roscoff, a port town in north west Brittany, with journeys taking 5 and a half hours. Roscoff is known for its picturesque architecture as well as for being a departure point for the iconic ‘Onion Johnnies’: cycling onion traders.

Ferry from Plymouth to Santander, Spain

Drivers in the southwest heading to Spain might want to opt for Plymouth instead. There’s one weekly service to Santander which, at 19 and a half hours, is quicker than the Portsmouth option. 

European Cover from just £6 per day^

​The RAC provide you with up to £1,250 worth of roadside assistance in Europe, starting from just £6^ per day.

How long before departure time should I arrive at the ferry port?

Aim to arrive at the ferry port around an hour before departure to make sure you have enough time to check-in and pick up any last-minute essentials.

However, during peak season you can expect ports to be busier, so always check your route to the port beforehand to avoid queues and any other delays you might encounter on your way there. 

How much is a cross channel ferry?

That depends on which ferry you’re planning to take – the longer the route the greater the cost – so always check with operators for up-to-the-minute prices. 

Keep an eye out for special offers on certain routes and be aware that sailings outside peak hours (such as in the middle of the night) are often a lot cheaper.

How long does a cross channel ferry take?

A Dover to Calais crossing takes around 1 and a half hours whereas the Portsmouth to Santander ferry will take almost 24 hours, so bear this in mind when planning your trip. 

What facilities are on board a cross channel ferry?

cross-channel-ferries-guide-family

Ferries on shorter routes will have restaurants, shops and bars as well as toilet and changing facilities and rest areas. On longer routes, some ferries even have cinemas and swimming pools to keep passengers entertained.  

On these longer routes, you may prefer to book a cabin so that you can get privacy and some decent kip on your journey. These cabins include beds and en-suite bathrooms, with family and pet-friendly versions available. Ideal for keeping everyone happy on the high seas. 

Can I take food and drink on a ferry?

Yes, you can. Although food and drink is readily available on board, passengers are able to bring their own food on the ferry and enjoy a picnic on the waves. 

Be aware that most ferry operators don’t allow passengers to bring alcohol on board so check ahead if you’re planning on buying alcohol on mainland Europe. You will be able to buy alcohol at the on-board bar. 

Can I take a caravan on a ferry? 

Most ferries will allow you to bring your caravan on board, but always check with the operator beforehand to prevent disappointment when you arrive at the port. There are usually some limitations when it comes to size and weight.

Is a cross channel ferry suitable for kids?

cross-channel-ferries-guide-kids

Yes. Many parents actually prefer to take a ferry because they see it as more child-friendly than the Channel Tunnel, with some ferry operators running children’s activities and entertainment, particularly on the longer routes. 

Even without these added extras, ferries are great at breaking up long car journeys, giving kids the chance to burn some energy. You can also fill up on food and drink easily, and some ferries will have soft play areas or cinemas if the kids get bored of the novelty of being at sea. 

What should I take on the ferry?

All ferries, even the shorter Dover-Calais routes, have shops on board where you’ll be able to pick up essentials and they all have restaurants and cafes should you want to enjoy a meal.

Be aware that shops and restaurants on board will be more expensive than those on dry land and may not stock everything, so take precautions and take any must-haves with you, including medication and sea sickness pills. 

Buy a European Driving Kit from £20.99

Don’t get stung with fines abroad for not having a European Driving Kit

What do I need to remember before driving in Europe?

Driving on the other side of the Channel is different from in the UK, so before setting off make sure you prepare yourself (and your car) for the laws and requirements in every country you pass through. 

These range from carrying Crit’Air clean air stickers in France to warning triangles when driving through Spain so make sure you do your research and stay on the right side of the law. 

The RAC Driving in France kit will help you meet some of these laws in France, but you should always research the specific requirements for you and your car if driving in another country.

What do I need to remember before I start my road trip?

Before heading off on any long journey, it’s always important to carry out some essential maintenance checks at home to make sure your car is in tip-top condition and you’ll get to your destination and back safely. 

The RAC encourages drivers to remember the acronym ‘FORCES’ when carrying out car checks: Fuel, Oil, Rubber, Coolant, Electrics, and Screenwash. Check our tips for avoiding a breakdown for more information on FORCES.

You should also remember to take along a few road trip essentials for the journey; including a first aid kit, additional engine oil/water, mobile phone charger, snacks and games, especially if you’re travelling with children.

Do I need European breakdown cover to drive in Europe?

Nobody wants a breakdown to ruin their day, much less their whole holiday. Wherever you’re heading across Europe, RAC has great value European breakdown cover options that give you comprehensive cover if you break down on your way, offering roadside assistance and a 24/7 English-speaking helpline.

What happens if I break down abroad?

Depending on the level of your European breakdown cover, the RAC will pay towards any garage labour costs, onward travel expenses and accommodation fees – something to consider if you’ve got a booking to make. 

To find out everything you need to know about breaking down on the continent, and to get the right quote that meets your needs, check out our complete guide to RAC European breakdown cover.

Is it illegal to drive without shoes?

Get the answer and more useful driving content sent straight to your inbox.

^Ts&Cs apply. See P&O offer page for details.

^Price for 1 day cover for up to 9 people travelling in a vehicle up to 1 year in zone 1.

*Comparison based on top standalone cover levels from other major providers. Visit www.rac.co.uk/eurocompare for full details.

RAC European Breakdown cover arranged and administered by RAC Financial Services Limited (Registered No 05171817) and provided by RAC Insurance Ltd (Registered No 2355834). Registered in England; Registered Offices: RAC House, Brockhurst Crescent, Walsall WS5 4AW. RAC Financial Services Limited is authorised and regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority in respect of insurance mediation activities. RAC Insurance Ltd is authorised by the Prudential Regulation Authority and regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority and the Prudential Regulation Authority.