Why the Shuttle is no flexible friend

When it comes to family holidays, Eurotunnel is, sadly, no longer the best option, writes Mary Dejevsky

Eurotunnel is advertising "day-trips" across the Channel for £9, so long as you leave after 3pm and return before 1am the next morning. If you live within reach of the Tunnel and fancy bulk-buying wine and beer and enjoying a decent meal before coming back again, it is an excellent deal. Almost as good as those "free" - ie, taxes-only - plane tickets.

Eurotunnel is advertising "day-trips" across the Channel for £9, so long as you leave after 3pm and return before 1am the next morning. If you live within reach of the Tunnel and fancy bulk-buying wine and beer and enjoying a decent meal before coming back again, it is an excellent deal. Almost as good as those "free" - ie, taxes-only - plane tickets.

Of course, none of these splendid deals solves the typical family- holiday problem. And I, for one, am getting just a little tired of all these companies that are trying to tempt us into "extra" travel, when ordinary holiday journeys remain so comparatively expensive. If we want to take a real holiday in France, for a week or two, the fare suddenly rises above £300. The disparity is almost as wide on the ferries.

But it is the special deals on Eurotunnel that annoy the most. The whole concept of Le Shuttle, as it is called on the French side, was to provide flexible travel. The original selling-point, and the great advantage of this service when it was set up, was that you could just turn up, pay at the checkpoint, and drive your car on to the train. You could travel on a whim; you could go for a few hours, a few days, or a few weeks. It was the next best thing to a tunnel you could drive through.

That flexibility has now pretty much gone by the board. Or at least, it comes at a premium. The current one-way, no advance booking, fare is £182.50. In peak season, all the cross-Channel operators ramp up fares to cash in on the high demand from families constrained to travel during the summer holidays. The last time we crossed one-way without advance notice (because the ferry we had pre-booked was snarled up), the turn-up-and-go fare, Calais-Folkestone, was more than £150, even in the lowest of winter low-peak periods, nowhere near a school holiday.

In terms of flexibility, the Eurotunnel experience is now little different from going by ferry. You are expected to turn up for the particular time you have booked. If you are late, you may be indulged with a condescending "just this time" from the attendant. If you are seriously late, you may have to pay a "change" fee. To avoid being late, you inevitably arrive early. This means that you are encouraged to spend time in the terminal, shopping, snacking and generally spending money, just as you would before boarding a ferry. The signposted route at both ends passes through the terminal car park. Avoiding it is not easy. Our small act of resistance is to have reverted to the high-speed ferries, which have generally smartened up their act and now take only 15 minutes or so longer than the Shuttle to cross the water, and cost up to £100 less than the tunnel for the return trip. It looks as though others may be doing the same. Eurotunnel reported that, while lorry traffic rose by 4 per cent in 2002 compared with the previous year, car traffic was down by 8 per cent. The group reported "modest" revenue growth in car and coach business during the year.

It is revealing that the £9 deals are available even through the peak school-holiday season. But for two-week trips, I fear that fares are unlikely to fall much below present levels. However you calculate it, wanting the use of a car on the other side of the Channel for two weeks will cost you. The alternative, of course, is to rent one at your destination. You can take a cheap flight to one of two dozen French destinations, or book a discounted fare on Eurostar via Lille or Paris to dozens more. But even with flight or rail tie-in discounts, car rental is likely to cost a minimum of £300.

For two people, the sums to the south of France work out like this:

1. Cheap flights: £150 minimum; taxis to bus station and bus travel to and from airport: £50; car hire: £350. Total: £550.

2. Train: £240, taxis to/from station: £20; car hire - £350. Total: £610.

3. Car ferry/two nights hotel (1 night either way) booked as a package with a company such as Drive-Alive: £250, petrol and motorway tolls: £300. Total: £550.

When you add children to the mix, taking your own car has the edge; the marginal cost of taking extra people by car is virtually zero, but substantial by train or plane. The other advantages of taking your own car hardly need to be spelt out: you go door-to-door, you do not need to trudge across stations with children or luggage, and you can bring back as much wine as your car boot will accommodate.

Anything less than two weeks, and the calculations look different: car hire costs less; saving time is more important. For your main holiday, though, even with air fares as low as they are, the ferry companies have no need to cut their prices. At around £100 more expensive than the ferries, however, Eurotunnel probably has some way to go before it will recoup its lost car traffic. Restoring the flexible, original Shuttle concept, would be a start.

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