The situation is being described as a 'phoney war'. Eurotunnel and the ferry companies are eyeing each other carefully as they wait for battle to break out over the Channel.

The phrase was famously used in the early months of 1940, when Britain awaited an attack by Hitler. That particular phoney war ended in disaster - albeit glorious disaster - on the beaches of Dunkirk. The ferry operators are clearly nervous about a similar debacle being visited upon them somewhere nearby - the beaches of Dunkirk are uncomfortably close to the ferries' busiest routes.

Although they may be making the occasional and metaphorical Churchillian gesture in the direction of the enemy, the ferry companies know that, when the battle starts in earnest, there will be no thoughts of victory. Their only wish will be to survive in one piece.

The ferry companies' strategy for survival is complicated by the fact that, not only must they take on the might of Eurotunnel, but they must also do battle with each other. This complex challenge helps to explain why they have been so cagey about revealing their summer plans.

Of the major operators, only Stena Sealink has revealed its revised intentions. Earlier this month it announced that it was replacing the traditional price bands, which were linked to sailing times, with a 'radical new pricing initiative'. In effect this means that, instead of offering a cheaper deal for sailings leaving at 3am, Stena is switching to a 'one price per day' tariff - a system which Eurotunnel had long said that it would adopt (and which it announced last week).

While it makes some sense for Eurotunnel's Le Shuttle service to do this, it makes no sense at all for Stena Sealink. Before the change, the Stena Sealink fare from Dover to Calais at 5.30am on a Sunday in August was pounds 76 for a car and five passengers. With its new Eurotunnel-style tariff, the all-day Sunday fare becomes pounds 124 - an effective price increase of almost 75 per cent for anybody who had been contemplating the 5.30am sailing. As a battle plan, this seems more in the nature of a kamikaze mission than a surgical strike.

Not surprisingly, P & O European Ferries has said that it has no intention of following the Stena Sealink 'one price per day' plan. If you are happy to catch the 3am or 4am ferries from Dover (Sunday to Thursday), P & O is still offering a one-way fare of pounds 77 for a car and as many passengers as you can squeeze in.

It is also worth noting that this P & O pounds 77 deal compares with Eurotunnel's all-day-Sunday price of pounds 155. Even if Eurotunnel knocks an hour or more off the journey time, it is a fair bet that a considerable number of bargain-minded travellers will be keener to knock 78 quid off their fare by taking the ferry.

It is surprising that the ferries are so nervous about the tunnel at the moment, because their business appears to be booming. Total passenger traffic on all Channel routes in 1993 grew by 4.5 per cent, and the number of passengers travelling through Dover reached 18 million for the first time.

These simple statistics hide the fact that the market has been inflated by two factors. At the beginning of last year, there was a change in the duty-free regulations to allow travellers to bring in apparently unlimited boxes of bargain French beer and wine. Secondly, the major ferry companies embarked on a special offer war in the tabloid press, offering return fares that ranged from pounds 1 to pounds 20, depending on the newspaper. For these cheap deals, the ferry companies were subsidising the crossings in the hope of making their money back in the bars, restaurants and duty-free shops on board.

It has been estimated that around a third of all Dover-to-Calais passengers last year were on smash-and-grab runs to the Calais hypermarkets. If this estimate is true, it means that the holiday market to France declined - an analysis confirmed last week by the French government, which said that the number of British tourists travelling to France dropped by 3 per cent in 1993 to 7.5 million, the first fall since 1988.

The decline in holidaymaking to France last year can be largely explained by the weakness of the pound against the franc. Operators are reporting healthier bookings for 1994, but the ferry companies remain anxious. .

Olau Line, which operates from Sheerness to Vlissingen, has announced plans to bring in smaller ferries on the route this year. Sally Line, which services Dunkirk from Ramsgate, is hoping to consolidate its position by taking over the UK end of the Ostend route and moving it to Ramsgate: it was previously in Dover and in the care of P & O.

Hoverspeed, which runs hovercraft and SeaCat services from Dover to Calais and Folkestone to Boulogne, is said to be the operator likely to suffer most from competition with the tunnel. Hoverspeed's principal sales point is speed, for which it has been able to charge a premium fare.

Hoverspeed had its best year in 1993 for car and passenger business. If the tunnel is selling itself on speed, Hoverspeed is claiming to be even speedier. 'Even after the tunnel opens, Hoverspeed will continue to provide the fastest Channel crossing: 35 minutes, by hovercraft. And we are well placed to build on this success in 1994,' said David Stafford, sales and marketing manager.

Certainly the hovercraft and SeaCat can be quick; but when the weather on the Channel is bad, they go nowhere fast. Eurotunnel will no doubt make great play of its ability to run the service in any weather.

For anybody planning a cross-Channel trip this summer, a couple of words of advice. Despite the claims that there will be no fare war this summer, some sort of discounting by the ferries is inevitable. Whether Eurotunnel has to respond depends on what its business is like in June. But if you can delay your reservation, do so.

As always, when you are choosing a ferry crossing, pick the ferry service that fits in best with your whole journey. Choosing the shortest crossing simply because it may be the cheapest is a false economy. On a pence-per-mile basis, the longer crossings offer much better value for money. Using them for overnight sailings can save you the cost of a night's accommodation, and on your arrival on the Continent first thing in the morning you will have a full day's drive towards your destination.

If you live in Cornwall and you are travelling to western Brittany, it makes little sense to go from Dover to Calais. This is an extreme example - but do look at a large map of Europe when planning your trip, to enable you to pick the ferry route that takes you most directly to your destination. And remember that by using the A26 motorway in France you can reach the A6 to the south without having to venture anywhere near the terrifying peripherique around Paris.


North Sea Ferries. . . . . .0482 77177

Olau Line. . . . . . . . . . . . . .0795 666666

P&O Ferries. . . . . . . . . . . .0304 203388

Sally Line. . . . . . . . . . . . .0843 595522

Sealink Stena Line. . . . .0233 647047

Hoverspeed. . . . . . . . . . . . .0304 240241

(Photograph and table omitted)

Next week: the longer ferry routes