Inside travel: Ferries

Forget airport stress – this summer, ferry services offer a range of options for the foot passenger, says Simon Calder

Imagine not having to fret about undignified security searches, strict baggage limits or paying extra for everything from getting dropped off at the airport to the right to sit next to your companion. The travel tide is turning away from aviation. As the ferry firms improve standards and cut fares, sailing to Europe is now better value than ever. While some routes are strictly for motorists only, most offer foot passengers the prospect of slow and pleasurable travel.

The shutdown of northern European airspace a year ago because of volcanic ash reintroduced – not always willingly – tens of thousands of travellers to the joys of terrestrial transportation. At a time when airlines charge adult fares to anyone over the age of two, the ferry firms can offer families excellent value.

To coincide with the shipping companies' annual celebration, "National Ferry Fortnight", we have picked out some of the more appealing and unusual foot-passenger options as the antidote to air travel.

Pricing is mightily complicated, with a range of deals for day-trips on short crossings and minibreaks; ordinary fares can be high. The very best bargains are those with rail travel included.

Not all ferry links are equal in terms of how easy they make life for travellers. Top marks to one Anglo-Dutch link – from Harwich to Hook of Holland – but the Hull-to-Rotterdam ferry leaves you 25 miles short of the city. Therefore, along with a "ship rating" (out of five) for the quality of the vessel we have added a guide to the foot-friendliness of the connection.

FRANCE

While most cross-Channel links are feasible for foot passengers, over the years they have become increasingly awkward; the days when you could catch a train to Dover Western Dock and step aboard a ferry to the middle of Boulogne have long gone. With a bus link from Dover Priory station to Eastern Docks, and another from Calais port to Ville station, you tend to lose the will to travel.

Furthermore, since SeaFrance abandoned the Dover-Calais route, fares on P&O Ferries appear to have risen steeply: £29.50 for a 90-minute, one-way crossing. Fortunately, there are alternatives.

Among the most appealing links is LD Lines' Seven Sisters from Newhaven to Dieppe. Rail access is reasonable at both ends, the crossing is a pleasant four hours (despite the age of the vessel), and two lovely cities – Brighton and Rouen – are close to the British and French ports respectively.

Vessel: 2 stars

Foot-friendliness: 3 stars

Contact: 0844 576 8836, ldlines.co.uk

For the wilder, western parts of Brittany, the best link is from Plymouth to Roscoff. While you face a 20-minute walk (or £5 cab) from Plymouth rail station, the French port (barely a village) of Roscoff has an easy half-hour link with the town of Morlaix. While Armorique is not the youngest ferry on the Channel, the timings (overnight southbound, evening inbound) are time-efficient.

Vessel: 3 stars

Foot-friendliness: 2 stars

Contact: 0871 244 0744, brittanyferries.com

HOLLAND

A generation ago, great European express trains lined up at the railway station at the port of Hook of Holland, ready to take arrivals from Harwich to Scandinavia, Berlin and Austria. These days, the only destination is Rotterdam – but to compensate the quality of the vessels taking you to Hook of Holland has been transformed. The term "Superferry" is appropriate: sophisticated bars and restaurants, and an on-board cinema. In addition, the provision of dedicated railway stations at either end – and Britain's last proper Boat Train, still running from London Liverpool Street to Harwich International – make this the most alluring way to reach the Netherlands.

Stena Line offers online fares for £29 if all you want is the sea crossing, or £39 with an extraordinarily generous rail deal: London or any station in East Anglia to Amsterdam or any station in the Netherlands for just £39. That's for the day service – the overnight voyages, on which everyone is obliged to have a cabin, typically doubles the fare.

Vessel: 5 stars

Foot-friendliness: 5 stars

Contact: 08447 70 70 70; stenaline.co.uk

For travellers in the northern part of Britain, P&O North Sea Ferries offers reliable, good-quality links from Hull to Rotterdam – approximately. To reach the King George Dock in Hull, you have to pay £3.50 for a bus link from the city centre. The crossing is a joy, on a well-run overnight trip. But at the Continental end, you arrive at a dock somewhere in the depths of the Europoort complex, with a 25-mile bus connection for Rotterdam's central station.

Vessel: 5 stars

Foot-friendliness: 1 stars

Contact: 08716 64 21 21; poferries.com



DENMARK

When we asked the European rail specialist Trainseurope for its most popular crossing, the answer was a surprise: the DFDS link from Harwich to Esbjerg in Denmark. The cruise ferry Dana Sirena is a sleek and comfortable vessel that leaves either end early evening three days a week, reaching the destination port at lunchtime next day. You dock close to the centre of Esbjerg, about 15 minutes' walk from the station. There is even a two-for-one deal on mini-cruises, offering a couple a two-night trip for £94.

Vessel: 4 stars

Foot-friendliness: 4 stars

Contact: 0871 522 9955; dfdsseaways.co.uk



SPAIN

Once upon a time, ferry travel to Iberia was the order of the day. Vasco Line ran a link from Poole to the Portuguese port of Viana do Castelo, while Southern Ferries connected Southampton with San Sebastian for a while.

Today, the only links are those from Portsmouth to Santander and Bilbao on Brittany Ferries; of the two, the latter city wins on the quality of crossing and onward travel and exploration possibilities.

Vessel: 4 stars

Foot-friendliness: 4 stars

Contact: 0871 244 0744, brittanyferries.com



IRELAND

The Sail Rail deals offered by ferry companies and train operators represent phenomenal value. Travelling by rail from Penzance, Dover or Aberdeen to Holyhead and on to Dublin Ferryport by Irish Ferries costs only £33 one way on the conventional ferry, a fiver more on the high-speed option. From Leeds, Birmingham and other cities, the fares are even lower. Holyhead is well connected for foot passengers, though Dublin's ferry port – a long way east of the city centre – is not ideally located.

Vessel: 3 stars

Foot-friendliness: 3 stars

Contact: 0871 730 0400, irishferries.com

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