Unless you are exceptionally prone to claustrophobia, or cannot conveniently get to Folkestone, the Tunnel is incomparably the best way to cross the Channel: quick (35 minutes travel time, rarely worse than 2 hours from check-in to riding on the roads of France and sometimes less than an hour), free from travel sickness, easy (you just ride the bike on and put it on the side-stand or centre-stand), and far less prone to cancellation than ferries or SeaCats. It's not bad weather that cancels the trains: it's industrial action, usually on the French side. The only real drawback is that there are no seats: you have to stand beside your bike (or wander about in the vicinity) for the whole trip. We use nothing else nowadays.
The SeaCat (Dover-Calais and Newhaven-Dieppe) is quicker than a conventional ferry, and offers faster loading and unloading, but it is also very vulnerable to bad weather: seasickness in even modest seas, and cancellation in heavy seas. We have never taken a bike across in the Cat, only a car, and weren't particularly impressed.
Conventional ferries are slow, and not always very careful when they tie down your bike, but some people like them because they have bars and shops and restaurants on board. We have not used one in years. But if you live in the North of England, or the South-West, or are going to either of those from continental Europe, you may find a longer ferry journey more convenient than getting down to Dover. There is also the point that by taking the right ferry, you may be able to save quite a lot of driving at the other end. If you are going to Brittany from Cornwall, for example, Plymouth-Roscoff saves a lot of driving at both ends as compared with Dover-Calais.
Prices on the Dover-Calais route seem to be independent of speed and comfort. The train is usually the most expensive, but not always, and if it is, not always by very much. The usual offerings from all carriers are one-day returns; three- or five-day returns (depending on the carrier); and 'open' returns. An 'open' return is typically twice the price of a single, which is often the same as a three- or five-day return. With an 'open' return you usually have to stipulate a return time and date but it can be changed at any time, usually for little or no fee unless you are travelling at a more expensive time of day or time of year (see below).
Prices are normally lower if booked in advance (anything from three days to three weeks, depending on the carrier and the discount). They can also vary with the time of day, the day of the week, and the season. Late-night and early-morning crossings are cheaper than daytime; Fridays and Saturdays may be more expensive than the rest of the week; summer may well cost more than winter; and peak periods such as school holidays, Easter and so forth may cost more than usual. If you can be flexible on your travel times and dates, make this clear to the ferry company when booking your ticket.
Note that 3- or 5-day returns normally mean you have to return on the 3rd or 5th day, including both days of travel. In other words, if you leave at noon on Monday, 'five days' doesn't mean you can come back on or before noon on Saturday (5x 24 hours). No: it means you have to be back before midnight on Friday.
Don't worry unduly about missing the ferry (or shuttle) unless you miss the deadline on a restricted-period ticket. Normally, unless they are crowded solid, they will simply put you on the next ferry or train. There may be a supplement if you are travelling at a more expensive time of day, or on a more expensive day, but it is rarely much and it is frequently waived. Only if you do miss the deadline on a restricted-period ticket (such as a five-day return) are you likely to have to pay more than a few pounds or Euros. There may however be limits on how late you can turn up: typically 24 hours.
Likewise, if you turn up early, they can often fit you onto an earlier crossing. Again there may be a small extra charge, but usually there isn't.
One thing that cost us dear, though, was failing to book a return trip; being caught by a ferry strike; and then having to pay twice as much for a Shuttle crossing as it would have cost in advance. The Tunnel operates 'dynamic pricing' which means that prices can rise (or very rarely, fall) on a train-by-train basis in response to demand. Given how uncrowded the shuttle trains normally are -- we have only been on a full shuttle once or twice since they opened, and we have been using them since they opened -- we find this 'dynamic pricing' hard to follow. It is normally well worth booking both legs of the journey at the same time.
Finally, do not forget the time difference between the UK and France. France is one hour later than the UK, i.e. 13:00 in the UK is 14:00 in France. In other words, if you leave the UK on the Shuttle at 12:15 and the crossing takes 35 minutes, you will not arrive at 12:50 but at 13:50. Likewise if you leave France at 14:25, you will not arrive in the UK at 15:00 but at 14:00.
Go back to the list of articles
or to the Home Page
or support the site with a small donation.
© 2008 Roger W. Hicks