Rivalry benefits travelling public

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It has never been easier or cheaper to get to France. This summer the customer really will be king, as ferries, hovercraft and Le Shuttle fight it out for market share.

Fare prices depend on the time of travel, the number of passengers and the length of the stay abroad. Working out which fare is cheapest on the most popular Dover to Calais route is almost as confusing as deciding which method of transport to take.

For instance, a family of four travelling by car will pay between £220 and £270 for a standard return by P&O ferry. To escape by Le Shuttle will cost the same family £107 each way off peak, and £130 each way at peak times. To travel by Hoverspeed on the same Dover to Calais route with a car, driver and four passengers costs £229-£279 for a standard return.

Le Shuttle and Hoverspeed will get you there more quickly: 35 minutes compared with 75 minutes by ferry. But the ferries are banking on holidaymakers opting to shop, eat and be entertained rather than arrive more quickly.

P&O has invested heavily in new facilities. There are 11,000 VAT-free products on board both the Pride of Dover and Pride of Calais while children can wonder at the drive-in Wheely Whizz cinema or Kiddies Kingdom. Older children can play on the latest arcade and electronic games in the Game Zone.

P&O claims that its investment in the leisure side of the travel experience has paid off, with bookings for the Easter holidays up by 3 per cent on 1994. It claims forward bookings of 200,000 for the period.

Le Shuttle offers a cheaper, more utilitarian option. No shops, no duty free: just turn up and go. The downside of the four-month-old service is reliability and frequency. Passengers have sometimes turned up only to discover the trains fully booked. Le Shuttle runs two departures an hour, which goes up to three at the start of July and possibly four for the busiest days in August. Last week it carried a record 18,700 cars. P&O runs 25 sailings a day on the Dover-Calais route with one every 45 minutes at peak times.

Le Shuttle says it is eager to avoid a price war. "What we are seeking to do is to grow the overall size of the cake," Dominic Fry of Le Shuttle said.

The travel agent Thomas Cook predicts that in the long term Le Shuttle could take a large slice of the market - 40-50 per cent eventually.