For many visitors to France travelling by car, the choice of ferry route can significantly affect the overall cost of the trip. It isn’t always easy to figure out which is the best way to go, and there are a number of variables to factor into the equation, not least, ‘How good a sailor are you?’
By far the shortest route is from Dover to Calais, the
journey time taking around 1½ hours, and with a good number of crossings
daily. Some sailings also go to Boulogne and Dunkerque, and it is these, and
the Calais route, which serves you best if you are heading for northern France.
But for other destinations in France, the services into Caen (Ouistreham) and
Le Havre, have much to commend them. While Cherbourg and St Malo are suitable
ports for anyone head into western Normandy and Brittany.
Anyone living in the North of England has the option of sailing from Hull overnight to Zeebrugge in Belgium, which is not far from Northern France and saves the long drive down to Dover. The distance from, say, Preston to Dover is 302 miles, while from Preston to Hull, the distance is 121 miles, to which needs to be added the distance from Zeebrugge to Calais (for comparison purposes), which is 79 miles, an overall saving of about 100 miles. So, you have to question whether it is worth it. The ferry leaves Hull at 6.30pm, and arrives in Zeebrugge at 8.45am (9am on Saturdays and Sundays), and that's a 14-hour crossing. So, back to an earlier question: ‘How good a sailor are you?’
In contrast, drive the extra 100 miles, and avail yourself of up to 46, 90-minute crossings daily between Dover and Calais, with the option of getting reduced fares by booking in advance.
My advice? Choose Dover-Calais if you are heading for northern or eastern France, and maybe even central France, down into the Auvergne, for example, although, from Calais, this choice is going to involve tackling the Paris périphérique, something timid drivers won’t be happy with. You can avoid this by a circuitous route around Paris, but this is very time consuming, or by sailing into Le Havre or Caen, and heading across country to Dreux, Chartres and Orléans.
Caen (Ouistreham) is certainly ideal for anyone heading down the western side of France, and, with a small amount of extra distance, for central France, too.
There are usually three ferries daily from Portsmouth to Ouistreham (pronounced Wee-stram), sailing at 8.15am (arrives 3pm), 2.45pm (arrives 9.30pm) and 10.45pm (arrives next day at 6.45am). Each of these has logistical issues. The 8.15am departure almost certainly means an overnight stay in Portsmouth (or thereabouts); the 2.45pm departure can mean overnight accommodation in Ouistreham (there are hotels near the ferry port), while the 10.45pm departure turfs you out on the other side at some unforgiving hour, especially if you have to face a long drive.
The beauty of Ouistreham, from a driver's point of view, is that there is an easy, relaxing drive out of the town, and then a quick connect into the autoroute network, which is well signed for Rennes, or Lisieux/Rouen, and so you are on the high speed roads very quickly. This is where taking time out for that relaxed breakfast in Ouistreham pays dividends, because you need to be wide awake until you are confidently travelling down the road you want.
The same holds true of sailings into Cherbourg, because you have a long and easy drive across Lower Normandy towards St Lô or Caen during which to get used to driving in France.
If you are going into Brittany, St Malo or Roscoff is certainly best. There are ferries from Plymouth to St Maol from 8.45pm (arriving 8.15am), and to Roscoff from 10pm (arriving 8am). Both of these give you extra hours of sleep in your cabin.
For south-western France, it’s worth considering the long ferry sailing to either Santander or Bilbao, offered by Brittany Ferries. This, however, is more than a day on board, and may not suit everyone.
Finally, all ferry times are subject to seasonal variation.