Going by sea to your holiday destination? Here are a few tips on how to travel by sea to help smooth your journey, before, during and after the trip.
You will find information below on travelling by ferry, planning you trip, vehicles on ferries, boarding the ferry, the best time to travel, packing, passing the time on board, cabins, passenger rights for delayed or cancelled ferries, disabled passengers on ferries, taking pets on ferries and lots of other tips on how to travel by sea.
Please feel free to add your own tips for travel by sea.
Travel by Ferry
As someone based in the UK, which is an nation of islands, travelling by ferry is the only way to get to the other UK islands, mainland Europe or Ireland if you don’t like flying, want to take your car with you or you just prefer the relaxed travel that travelling by ferry offers. Ferry companies operate throughout the world, wherever there is a need for people to cross water within their own country or to another country.
Travelling by ferry to the port nearest to your destination can save you a lot of driving time, taking some of the stress out of the journey. Ferry journeys allow you to relax, sleep on overnight crossings and can generally be thought of as moving accommodation with the added advantage of not having to face airport crowds and there are no weight limits on your luggage.
Using ferries as part of your holiday travel plans can also be a lot of fun and an inexpensive way to travel. Taking an impromptu side trip to that island you decided to go to from your holiday location, taking a mini cruise for a few days break to a European city, hopping between islands in Greece or for the more adventurous island hopping in Indonesia, an archipelago country with many islands to choose from. All made possible by using a ferry for all or part of the journey.
Booking and planning your trip
The best prices for ferries are to be found if you book as early as possible so plan ahead. Prices are demand driven so book early and avoid peak sailing times. Most ferry companies have online booking systems so it is easy to book.
In order to book you will need the following information:
- The number of passengers travelling with a vehicle including the driver
- The dates and times you want to travel
- Have the make, model, length and height of your vehicle to hand before booking
- If you are not taking a vehicle the number of foot passengers.
- Overnight crossings usually require you to book a cabin
- Some ferry operators offer day cabins you can book.
For trips from the UK to other EU countries all passengers will require a valid passport or ID card before boarding. See the Do I renew my passport before it expires section on our Air Travel How to Guide for more information on passports and visas.
Vehicles on ferries
Various size vehicles from a motorcycle to a motor home can be taken on board a ferry. Know the make, model and size (length, width, height) of your vehicle in metres. Check your vehicle meets requirements for the country you are travelling to and that you have the required vehicle documentation or other equipment with you before boarding the ferry. The following document from The AA covers compulsory equipment requirements for taking your vehicle from UK to various EU countries. You can check compulsory equipment requirements for driving your vehicle in other European countries here.
There are no compulsory equipment requirements in the US, other than it is recommended you have an International Driving Permit (IDP) and most states require you wear seat belts in the front seats.
Getting to the terminal early and boarding the ferry
Your precise check in time will be detailed in your booking confirmation, but as a general guideline you will need to arrive at least one hour before departure.
Loading of a ferry with various size vehicles and other cargo is a complex process that is usually the responsibility of the ship’s first officer (second in command to the captain). The weight distribution has to be just right so that the ship is balanced when setting sail in potentially rough seas. The ferry may have parking bays set aside for commercial trucks, cars with caravans, motorhomes, motorcycles, disabled parking near lifts in addition to parking bays for cars of various heights and widths. This means that sometimes you can get to the terminal early to be one of the first in the queue, only to find that you are waiting to load until near the end. Loading can appear very haphazard but vehicles have to be loaded in a particular order to make the ship safe to set sail. The best way is just go with the flow and wait to be directed by the port or ship staff while you sit comfortably in your vehicle.
Park as directed and make a note of where you parked, i.e. the car deck and nearest exit number so you can find your way back to your car easily when you disembark.
When is the best time to travel
Ferry prices are generally demand driven so it is best to book as early as possible and try to avoid travelling at peak times. This is not always easy if you are restricted to travelling during school holidays. The cheapest fares are usually available online. You could check regularly with one of the ferry price comparison sites for their latest offers or sign up for their newsletter which will deliver their latest offers to your inbox. Try one of these companies for cheap ferry travel – www.aferry.co.uk or www.ferrysavers.com.
What to pack
There are no baggage restrictions for luggage in vehicles, so if you can fit it in the car or in a roof top box that’s fine. Some ferry companies have weight limits on luggage carried by foot passengers or if you check your luggage in similar to airlines. Check the terms and conditions when you book.
Pack a bag to take to the cabin with you containing all you will need during the crossing as return to the vehicle decks is not allowed during the journey. This is particularly important for families travelling with children.
Passing the time on board
All ferries have a cafe bar and/or restaurant so you can get drinks, snacks or a hot meal. Many ferry companies have on board cinemas and free WiFi so you can watch a film or access the internet on your mobile devices. For children many have kids play areas or games rooms. Some routes have on board live entertainment. and even swimming pools. Ferries have outside sun decks where you can pass the time watching the sea go by while taking in some fresh sea air.
On one ferry crossing I was travelling on, I had the pleasure of watching the local coast guard practice an air-sea rescue drill by lowering a guy on a wire from a helicopter onto the rear deck of the ship and then winching him off again. It was a windy day and it took several attempts for the guy to land on the deck safely. I have only seen this once but it was interesting to watch with many passengers looking on fascinated by the event.
Cabins are available on ferries that do overnight crossings and on some routes it is compulsory to book a cabin if you are travelling overnight. Day cabins are also available, usually at a reduced rate. Cabins are available with various levels of accommodation from a standard single birth up to a luxury class suite. Most cabins these days have en-suite facilities although not all. Also available are reserved sleeper seats in quiet areas. All cabins and sleeper seats cost extra depending on the level of accommodation you choose. Check prices when you are booking.
Has your sailing been delayed or cancelled?
Passenger travelling on ferries from the UK to another EU country or between countries within the EU have certain passenger rights. A summary of those rights is as follows:
- If the departure is cancelled or delayed the ferry operator must inform passengers as soon as possible and if on the day of travel, no more than 30 minutes after the departure time.
- If the departure is cancelled or delayed more than 90 minutes after the departure time passengers should be provided with free meals, snacks and refreshments relating to waiting time
- If the departure is cancelled or delayed more than 90 minutes after the departure time passengers should be offered the choice of an alternative sailing or reimbursement of the ticket price within 7 days.
- When a sailing is cancelled or delayed and overnight stay is necessary the ferry operator should offer the passenger free of charge accommodation where possible. this can be on board ship or shore. This does not apply where the delay is caused by weather conditions endangering the safe operation of the ship.
- A percentage of the ticket price in compensation is available depending on the length of delay. Again bad weather exclusion apply.
- For more details on passenger rights on ferries in the EU see this page on the European Commission website.
Disabled passengers on ferries
For travellers with disabilities see the following links for further information on assistance and what to expect when travelling on ferries:
Duty free shopping
Travellers returning to the UK from another EU country can bring back some goods without having to pay UK tax or duty on the goods on condition they are for your own personal use. If a customs officer suspects that you are bringing back goods to sell they may stop you to check. General guidelines are that you can bring back the following amounts for your own personal use:
- Cigarettes – 800
- Cigars – 200
- Cigarillos – 400
- Tobacco – 1Kg
- Beer – 110 Litres
- Wine – 90 Litres
- Spirits – 10 Litres
- Fortified wine – 20 Litres
See the following UK government pages for further information on duty free.
Taking family pets on ferries
Some ferry companies allow you to take your family pets on board, but not all routes allow this. Please check with the ferry company when booking. You can bring your dog, cat or ferret back to the UK from another EU contry as long as they comply with the Pet Travel Scheme (PETS).
See the following UK government pages for further information on Pet Travel Scheme
Dealing with seasickness
Many of the ferries these days are fitted with the latest in stabilisation systems so the occurrence of seasickness is less. However, you can take some precautions to avoid getting seasick. For more information see the article on Tips to give you motion sickness relief.
Disembarking the ferry
Disembarking the ship can also take some time depending on the size of the ferry and whether it is full. The big ferries can hold several hundred vehicles and a couple of thousand passengers. When the ferry docks at the destination port an announcement is made on the ship’s public address system to return to your vehicles. There is usually a rush with everyone trying to get down to the parking decks at once. You then sit in your car waiting for all the cars nearer to the exits door to move off first before you can begin you exit. The same applies to disembarking the ship as for loading, wait patiently to be directed by the port or ship staff until your turn to move comes.
If you are arriving in another country or back in the UK, once you have left the ship you will need to go through border control and show/swipe your passport which all takes time when you are looking at a ship load of vehicles. It’s best to be patient, not get flustered and just plan the time it takes to embark and disembark the ferry into your day.
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