Budget airlines haven't put an end to sea crossings to France - far from it. Ian White finds out what you need to know for 2005

1 I see new ships

1 I see new ships

Despite being in the middle of a vicious price war, four ferry operators have added new ships to their cross-Channel fleets for this summer. SeaFrance brought a gleaming new 11-deck superferry, Berlioz, into service on its Dover-to-Calais route at the beginning of this month. Like its sister ship, Rodin, Berlioz can carry 1,900 passengers and 700 cars at a service speed of 25 knots. The ships have a crossing time of 70 minutes. Similarly, Hoverspeed has boosted its capacity for the route with the aptly named Rapide, a second "jumbo" Seacat, which has joined its sister, Diamant, to roar across the Channel at 38 knots, making the crossing from berth to berth in an hour. The twin-hulled craft carry 150 vehicles and 650 passengers. Coming soon from Norfolkline are three new ships, each built to ferry 780 passengers and 200 cars as well as freight between Dover and Dunkirk. The first should be in service by September. Meanwhile, Brittany Ferries' high-speed ferry, Normandie Express (900 passengers, 267 cars), went into operation on the Portsmouth-Cherbourg and Portsmouth-Caen routes last month.

2 Hot competition at Dover

Just as in the airline business, competition is at its most cut-throat for the shorter routes. If you count Eurotunnel, seven companies are now fighting it out along the Kent and Sussex coastline for a slice of the market. Dover is the main battlefield. P&O Ferries, SeaFrance and Hoverspeed are locked in combat on Europe's busiest international ferry route - the crossing to Calais - while Norfolkline operates between Dover and Dunkirk. Meanwhile, SpeedFerries has created waves by reviving the Dover-to-Boulogne route, a crossing that it can make in 50 minutes, charging as little as £50.

Further west along the British coast in the relative tranquility of Newhaven, Transmanche Ferries sails to Dieppe. In aesthetic terms at least, Dunkirk, Boulogne and Dieppe are good alternatives to Calais. For anyone heading for Belgium, Germany or Holland, Dunkirk is 20 minutes closer. Boulogne is handy for the beaches and countryside of Picardy.

3 All quiet on the western front

P&O is soon to close its Portsmouth-Le Havre route and there are no takers for it, Brittany Ferries having eventually decided against that option. That leaves the Breton company as king of the western Channel with routes from Portsmouth to St Malo, Caen and Cherbourg as well as Pool to Cherbourg and Plymouth to Roscoff. Its only competitor (when P&O leaves) will be Condor Ferries, whose main service from Poole to St Malo runs from 23 May to 2 October.

Prices on these routes can seem steep next to the bargains to be had on the shorter crossings, but many are willing to pay extra to arrive at a port that is nearer to their destination. In any case, the price war at Dover has had a knock-on effect. Brittany Ferries' lead-in prices are lower than they have been for years.

4 Catamarans vs ferries

On short crossings, catamarans have a lot to offer. They are quicker than conventional ferries and generally cheaper, too. Hoverspeed's two Seacats offer the fastest sea crossing between Dover and Calais, with prices starting at £49 for a standard return booked online. Hoverspeed offers nine return crossings a day in peak season. However conventional ferries and superferries offer more amenities, such as entertainment and cabins, and a smoother ride, making them more family-friendly.

Fans of ships the size of tower blocks should investigate Brittany Ferries' new Mont St Michel, which cost £80m and sails from Portsmouth to Caen, and the £100m Pont-Aven which sails from Plymouth to Roscoff.

5 Click for the best deal

Internet booking is, or should be, quick and easy but there are drawbacks. Web sites are not designed for haggling and, with ferry operators offering so many discounts, there's never been a better time to haggle. If there's a phone number to ring that eventually connects with a live human being, query the prices but be aware that booking by phone can be more expensive. For the best bargains, be flexible.

6 Take the underground

Eurotunnel can get you and your car from Folkestone to France in just 35 minutes. And it offers up to four departures per hour, 24 hours a day, all year round. It's an impressive feat for which, in previous years, we've been expected to pay dearly. Cut-price air fares and the goings-on at Dover have changed all that. Eurotunnel is now aggressively promoting fares under £100. It's possible to buy a return ticket for £98 (amendable for a £30 fee), though you must book at least a day in advance and be prepared to make the outward journey after 5pm.

The company is also running a frequent-traveller scheme under which rates from £39 per car and passengers are on offer - but be prepared to pay for 10 single crossings in advance and make the return journeys in the small hours of the morning. The ride is an oddly clinical experience: exit at Junction 11a on the M20 and drive to check-in where you'll be handed a letter of the alphabet which corresponds to your train. Drive through English and French passport controls, on to the shuttle and 35 minutes later you head straight on to the autoroute.

7 Hunt the bargain

With operators adopting an airline-style "fluid pricing" system, it can be hard to deduce who is offering the cheapest fares at any moment. The following quotes are based on a car with two adults and two children. As we go to press, SpeedFerries has the edge with amendable (at a price) return fares to Boulogne from £38 for a standard car with up to six passengers, but tickets at this price are limited. Hoverspeed's lowest return fare to Calais is £49. For western crossings Condor's summer prices from Poole to St Malo (via the Channel Islands) start at £250 and go up to £550 return (and Condor calls at the Channel Islands, which means it offers true duty-free shopping). Brittany Ferries' lowest prices for Portsmouth to Caen are £168 return for a five-day stay or £210 (unlimited stay) up to 6 July. From 7 July to 11 September the fares are £210 (five days) and £260 (unlimited stay) return. Prices from Portsmouth and Poole to Cherbourg begin at £160 return until 6 July and £200 return from July to September. P&O quoted £150 return for a non-refundable but amendable (for £5) ticket for its Portsmouth-Le Havre route departing 7 July, returning 11 July).

8 Comfort, at a price

Luxury is not a word associated with crossing the Channel, but those who have had a long drive with restless children will see the crossing as a chance to unwind. Hoverspeed's refitted Seacats now boast "plush leather seating" for every passenger and dedicated terminals either side of the Channel (a legacy from the Hovercraft years) which can mean less queueing. The larger ferries can offer something for everyone - bigger play areas for children, more restaurants and bars and sometimes live entertainment. Anyone willing to pay for a quieter crossing should inquire about a club class reservation. Condor, for example, charges £18.50 extra each way for its club-class service: a quiet room, leather recliners, stewards, laptop connections, newspapers and refreshments. P&O charges £10 extra each way.

9 Plan your route

The AA believes motorists squander £370m of fuel every year trying to find their way around Europe by choosing wrong roads or losing their way. Both the AA and the RAC ( www.theaa.com; www.rac.co.uk) have online route planners which are simple to use.

10 None of the above

For a refreshingly different, and cost-free, crossing, try swimming. The Channel Swimming Association ( www.channelswimmingassociation.com) tells you how to follow in the wake of pioneer Captain Matthew Webb. Beware of the propellors.

Crossing contacts

Brittany Ferries (0870- 536 0360; www.brittany-ferries.co.uk); Condor Ferries (0845-124 2002; www.condorferries.com); Eurotunnel (0870-535 3535; www.eurotunnel.com); Hoverspeed (0870-524 0241; www.hoverspeed.co.uk); Norfolkline (0870-870 1020; www.norfolkline.com);

P&O Ferries (0870-520 2020; www.poferries.com); SeaFrance (0870-571 1711; www.seafrance.com); SpeedFerries (0871-222 7456; www.speedferries.com); Transmanche Ferries (0800-917 1201; www.transmancheferries.com)