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Cross Channel Ferries

Updated on September 19, 2010

The cross channel ferries play a vital part in connecting the UK to mainland Europe for millions of cars, trucks and passengers every year. Even though the Channel Tunnel and cheaper air fares have taken many of their ferry passengers, the cross channel ferries are still incredibly popular for tourists who want to break their journey with a leisurely channel ferry crossing, who dislike tunnels or simply want to cut down the driving from Calais by taking a longer western channel crossing to Brittany or Normandy. Here's my quick guide to the main passenger ferries from the UK to France.

Dover Ferries - And White Cliffs
Dover Ferries - And White Cliffs

Dover is the principal ferry port from England to France, and if you're visiting London and the south east, and heading onto Europe, it's likely you will cross from Dover to Calais, or possibly Dover to Dunkirk (Dunkerque), or Dover to Boulogne.

Sea France and P&O Ferries operate the very frequent ferry crossings to Calais, which is the main channel ferry port on the French coast. Both ports have several berths, can handle very large numbers of cars, trucks, coaches and passengers, and on all but the busiest weekends there is space on the ferries. But, if you want cheap ferry tickets to France it's probably best to book early and not just turn up.

Dover – Dunkirk ferries are operated by Norfolkline. This channel crossing is the route I've used most frequently. Dover is always busy, as is Calais, but Dunkirk is a small ferry terminal and although the facilities are limited, it rarely takes any time at all to pass through. Norfolkline run a fleet of new ships which are usually very relaxed because they only carry cars, trucks and their passengers – so there are no large groups of foot passengers. The Dover Dunkirk crossing takes about two hours, thirty minutes longer than crossing to Calais, but if you're heading east, the driving time will be less to compensate.

(As of September 2010 LD Lines have stopped their service to Boulogne - but I'll leave this information here for reference)

The Dover – Boulogne ferry crossing, operated by LD Lines is another of my favourite routes. Boulogne is a typical French town with the original ferry terminal right in the town centre, meaning that it is ideal for a day trip. But the ferry terminal is in the process of moving to a new site (summer 2009) which is not quite as convenient, but will provide modern facilities. LD Lines have just introduced a very large catamaran on the route, Norman Arrow, which takes only one hour. It's an impressive vessel, the first high speed ferry to take trucks, as well as cars and the largest catamaran to operate on the English Channel.

Moving west along the English Channel coast, the next ferry port is Newhaven, from where LD Lines-Transmanche Ferries operate the cross channel ferry to Dieppe. This route currently runs all year with two crossings a day. In just four hours, Transmanche Ferries takes you from Newhaven, a short distance from the seaside resort of Brighton, to Dieppe, in Upper Normandy with fast connections to Paris and Northern France. The crossing time is approximately four hours but you arrive in the charming port of Dieppe, saving a drive from Calais or Boulogne. Dieppe claims to France’s oldest seaside resort – with a nice beach and a historic town centre.

Portsmouth is another major port for cross channel ferries with routes to Caen, St Malo, Cherbourg and Le Havre. The routes from Portsmouth to Caen, St Malo and Cherbourg are operated by Brittany Ferries, and the route to Le Havre by LD Lines. The Brittany Ferries fleet comprises modern traditional cruise ferries designed specifically for the longer western channel crossings. They can carry more than 2,000 passengers with comfortable cabins for overnight crossings, and many on-board facilities including cinemas, live entertainment and dance floors in the bars. Normandie Express, a fast catamaran runs to Caen and Cherbourg, bringing the crossing time down to around three hours – roughly half the time of the cruise ferries, depending on the route.

Condor Ferries also operate from Portsmouth to Cherbourg, and from Poole and Weymouth to St Malo via the Channel Islands. The majority of Condor routes use fast craft meaning that routes such as Weymouth to St Malo can take as little as five hours to cross from the UK to Brittany. But some of the routes only operate in the summer months when the demand is sufficient and the weather more suited to fast catamaran ferries.

For travellers in south west England who want to cross to Western France, Brittany Ferries operate the route from Plymouth to Roscoff. This longer crossing means that tourists heading for Brittany can arrive on the beautiful pink granite coast of Northern Brittany without the long drive from the more northerly ports. Crossings generally take six to eight hours and operate once or twice a day depending on tides and season. The ships are generally very comfortable with pleasant cabins for overnight crossings and plenty to do to while away the time at sea.

This is just a quick overview of the wide range of cross channel ferries available from six English channel ports to nine French ports, giving a good choice of routes to meet most people's travel plans. The channel crossings are summarised below, but obviously, for the most current information on routes and timetables, you need to visit the ferry operators' websites. This page last updated September 09.

Cross Channel Ferries Summary

90 mins
P&O, Sea France
2 hrs
4 hrs
LD Lines
6 hrs, 4 hrs fast ferry
Brittany Ferries
6 hrs, 3hrs fast ferry
Brittany Ferries
Le Havre
6 hrs
LD Lines
St Malo
8 hrs
Brittany Ferries
St Malo
5 hrs
Condor Ferries
4 hrs, 2 hrs fast ferry
Brittany Ferries
St Malo
5 hrs
Condor Ferries
6 hrs
Brittany Ferries

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