Essential Guide To Crossing The Channel
One thing’s for sure, if you want to explore Europe in a campervan from the UK, somehow you need to get both you and your van across the English Channel or La Manche to our French friends! Read on for our Essential Guide to Crossing the Channel.
Including routes; Places to stop close to ports; Brexit and what you can expect to need for travel.
Essential Guide to Crossing The Channel – Routes Available
There are several routes available. Long or short, cheap and not so cheap or of course, under water. We’ve used most options over the years’ and have to say that we do have a firm favourite, which we’ll come to later.
For now let’s begin with the basics with the essential guide to crossing the channel.
Dover to Calais
We’ve all heard of the Dover to Calais route. Dover is not only the most well known port in the UK but also the busiest international ferry port in Europe. Fascinatingly, it has origins dating back to the Romans!
For us UK vanlife community Dover offers a short, regular and economic option to get us across the Channel. Operated by both P&O Ferries and DFDS Seaways with crossings available every 30 minutes, 24 hours a day, 364 days a year.
DFDS Seaways also operate a route to Dunkerque, about 40 minutes drive up the coast from Calais with a sailing time of 2hours.
Not only is Dover to Calais a cheap option compared with other routes, but it’s also easy and ideal for first time vanlife travellers. With a chance to stretch your legs, browse duty free or get into the travel mode with a bite to eat on board the boat. The best bit though is the sailing time of just 90 minutes before you’re driving off onto French soil.
- Reasonable option
- Nice to see the French coast as you approach
- Regular crossing times
- Short crossing
- Good to break up a journey
- Check in closes 45 minutes before, not too long hanging around port
- Very accessible route to lots of Europe
- Possible choppy Seas particularly off season
- Leaving your van below deck, it can be very close to the next lane
- Can be very busy at peak times
- It’s a longer crossing than the Eurotunnel up the road
Essential Guide To Crossing The Channel – Portsmouth – Caen
Operated by Brittany Ferries up to 3 times a day with a choice of daytime or overnight sailings. Cabin or reclining seat options are available to book for the 6 to 7 hour crossing.
It docks right in the heart of Normandy surrounded by the D-Day landing beaches. So it’s ideal for direct access for a tour around this historic part of France.
- Perfect for Normandy without the 3 hours drive from Calais
- Leisurely crossing
- Boarding approx 60 minutes prior to departure
- Saves on driving times/mileage/fuel from Calais
- Pricey option
- It’s a long time on board if sea’s are rough, especially off season
Portsmouth – St.Malo
It’s Brittany Ferries that also operate this longer route to France. Sailing direct to Brittany on an overnight sailing in just under 11 hours. It’s more of a leisurely experience than some other routes, with entertainment, cinema and even a swimming pool during some crossings. Cabins or reclining seats are available to make the journey more comfortable.
It comes at a more costly price though and only one sailing a day, so it’s more restrictive than other routes.
- Great for touring Brittany or the West Coast
- Ideal for those wanting a really leisurely cruise type crossing
- Good if you want a taster of Northern France
- Saves on driving times/mileage/fuel from Calais
- More expensive than other options
- Those rough sea possibilities again, especially if off season
- It’s a long time on a boat when you could be well en-route driving through France
- You should check in 2-3 hours before, a long time before setting sail
Portsmouth – Le Harve
This Brittany Ferries route offers an overnight sailing each day in economy style. Still offering a choice of cabin but with limited on board facilities compared to other routes. It’s pricey compared to Dover crossings.
- Good for tours to Central France and Paris
- Resting on board
- Ideal for those who definitely want a longer crossing but want a cheaper option
- Saves driving times/mileage/fuel from Calais
- Long crossing compared to Dover-Calais
- More expensive
- Only a few hour drive from Calais if you are touring this part of France close to Le Havre, is it worth doing a long ferry?
- Choppy sea possibility especially if out of season
Portsmouth – Cherbourg
It’s a 3 hour sailing time but only once per day and only during the Summer months. This is operated by Brittany Ferries.
Plymouth – Roscoff
Offers a limited service out of season but one or two sailings a day. Including an overnight option with sailings taking between 6 and 8 hours and taking you right into Brittany. Ideal for touring the West Coast or Western France.
- Perfectly situated for a tour of Brittany and Western France
- Able to rest on board
- Great for first taster trips
- Ideal to save fuel/time and driving from Calais or other ports
- Price is expensive compared to shorter routes
- Possibility of choppy seas especially off season
Hull – Rotterdam
A great alternative for those living up North. This overnight crossing of the North Sea with P&O Ferries includes a cabin option and comes with a choice of eating and entertainment whilst on board.
The crossing takes around 12 hours and check in is at least 90 minutes before, so it’s a long duration all round.
It’s under a 2 hour drive to Amsterdam, ideal for a trip to the Netherlands and for a first time abroad with the van.
Hull – Zeebrugge
P&O Ferries also operate this route across the North Sea. Ideal for visits to Brugge, just 25 minutes away from the Ferry port.
It’s an overnight sailing of around 12 hours duration with check in at least 90 minutes before. On board you’ll have a choice of dining and entertainment options.
- Good for those living up North in the UK who don’t want the drive down to the South Coast
- Great for tours of Netherlands, Belgium and for driving North to Scandinavia
- Leisurely crossing
- Ideal first time abroad with the van
- It’s a long time on board
- More expensive than Dover routes
- Can be choppy seas especially off season
- Have to be at the port 90 minutes before, longer than some routes
Eurotunnel Le Shuttle at Folkestone is quick, super easy, convenient and our favourite choice to crossing.
Here’s our + Point List of why we love this route:
- Boarding Le Shuttle is easy, drive on the train, stay in your van or walk along the carriage if you want to stretch your legs
- Check in at least 45 minutes before not too much waiting at the terminal
- No need to leave your van
- Make a flask of coffee beforehand, put your feet up and enjoy a hot drink in the van
- Use your own toilet or there are facilities on the train too
- It’s only 35 minutes to France
- Up to 4 departures an hour
- Very flexible, if your early or late you can usually catch the next available train without penalty or at most a small extra charge if your are late or early
- It’s easy to reach being straight off the motorway both in the UK and France
- No choppy seas to worry about
- It’s fairly reasonable in price, more expensive than Dover but a lot less than the other routes.
- If travelling in Winter you’ll benefit from possible extra daylight hours for driving due to the short journey time on the train
For us there aren’t any really to speak about. If anything, it’s probably more exciting on the ferry and what we’d describe as more of an experience.
For discounts and offers check out The Camping and Caravanning Club and The Caravan and Motorhome Club. As well as checking out deals direct with the operators. Also look at various departure times and days, if you can be flexible you could save this way.
Aires and Campsites to Stop Near Calais
It’s about a 30 minute drive from Calais within walking distance to a small town with a beach and bar. The Aire is also a parking spot for local buses so it can be noisy early morning especially during school time but it’s handy to be away from Calais itself, there is no service point except for a waste drain in the ground, so make sure your filled up with water and the toilet is empty before arriving.
Free Aire without dump or facilities.
Fee paying – located on the Quay overlooking the water and outside a walled town. There’s plenty of shops, eating places etc. It’s about 30 minutes from Calais and it does have a service point area. However, this is not located at the Quay so you would need to drive from the Aire to use it.
There’s a really good free Aire at Gravelines inland, it’s located at the water sport lake.
This Original Aire at Calais Plage has been re-located and we haven’t stayed since it has moved. Apparently, the newly completed Camping Le Grand Gravelot now has the campsite and Aire. The Aire section is payable at the Flot Bleu, a service point and there’s also a barrier entrance system, which is payable!
Camping La Bien Assise, a handy stop for those wanting some facilities
Aires or Campsites close to the Other European Ports
There is a really good selection of Aires and campsites within easy reach of the ferry ports of Brittany and Normandy.
Where you decide to stop will depend largely on where you are heading to and what sort of tour you are planning. Sometimes we are staying local to a port for the start of a tour. Other times we are heading straight off further into France so have no need to stop overnight.
For Caen, there are lots of opportunities if you are doing the D-Day beaches. Examples are: Arromanches, Ouistreham, Villers Bocage, Luc Sur Mer and Caen to name a few. Up to date information can be found from the Normandy Tourist office, where both Aires and Campsites details are available.
The Netherlands and Belgium also have a mix of private and local authority Aires and of course campsites. Brugge has an excellent Aire, located just a short walk from the centre. Holland has some great Aires at boating Marina’s, along with a good selection of private run stopovers.
Campercontact is a great way of finding stopovers in Europe. It has an easy to use app too, which is great for checking out locations in country.
Campsites are not very often open all year in Europe. So you would need to check if you’re travelling anytime out of High season and wanting to use campsites instead of your own van facilities.
The period they are open can also be short so double check, some are only open April/May-September!
Essential Guide to Crossing the Channel
Brexit – January 1st 2020
From January 1st 2021 the UK will be leaving the EU. This will bring changes to travelling requirements including the new rule of staying 90 days within any 180 day period.
Longer stays will possibly need a Visa from the relevant country or countries people wish to visit. This will need to come from the country we wish to stay longer in. For example, if we want to spend 4 months in France, we’d have to apply to the French Embassy for a visa.
This all seems a little daunting now, but it’s only what we’ve done when visiting Australia and New Zealand over the last few years.
Other changes may include changes to Data Roaming charges from our mobile phone providers.
Each company will be different, for example, we use Three Mobile, so will await notification on their fees if any. Again this happens when we travel outside the EU, so for us it will not be too different to get used to.
Here’s a link to the official UK Government website to check the official guidelines for up to date information.
Travel Insurance – Essential
Regardless of Brexit, we always buy Travel Insurance despite having also had the E111 card system.
In addition we ensure the insurance we buy covers us for each country we plan to visit – for the relevant period of time we are travelling.
This usually involves buying a “backpacker” style Travel insurance policy, as most standard policies only cover for around 30 days to one specific destination.
For example, if we think we may travel through France, Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany, Austria and Slovenia to reach Croatia – then we ensure our travel insurance knows this and covers us! Sometimes we may have to list upwards of ten countries but at least we know we’ve got the right insurance.
There are plenty of choice from Insurance companies for this, but they do cost more to buy.
For us it’s worth paying, as it’s peace of mind in the case of any accidents or illnesses occurring. Over the past 4 years on trips between 3 and 6 months duration, the cost per trip has averaged £120 for us as a couple.
We must point out that despite having used our E111 in the EU on 3 separate occasions. Each time we have had to pay for treatment and prescriptions upfront before being seen.
Avoiding nasty medical bills
This may come as a shock to some who presume the system covers everything. In our experience it doesn’t, although we were able to claim back some of the costs on our return to the UK after keeping receipts.
We have spoken to two separate couples who also experienced the same but in worse circumstances. One where a sledging accident and subsequent operations and hospital stay, would have resulted in thousands of pounds in bills only for the couple having travel insurance.
The other incident involved an appendicitis, which resulted in a £5000 bill for hospital treatment. Fortunately the couple who hadn’t taken out insurance, remembered that their bank account may have travel insurance included.
They were fortunate that indeed it did and it covered them as they were only abroad for a couple of weeks. If it had been a long stay trip, it may have been different.
This will have to travel with us after Brexit and will be obtained through our motorhome insurance company before leaving the UK.
Check with your own insurance provider for advice.
Don’t forget vanlifer people…you’ll need to pack the safety stuff in your van.
Check each country you’re visiting as legal requirements vary. Items such as reflective vests, warning triangle, breathalizer kit, headlight beam reflectors, spare bulbs, GB sticker (if your UK based of course!).
Also double check motorhome insurance and driving licence to ensure you’re properly covered for each country you plan to visit.
If we’ve missed any ferry routes off it’s because we either haven’t used them or don’t know much about them – so do excuse us!!
We haven’t mentioned pets as we don’t have any! So have no experience of travelling with them!
Whichever way you take to explore Europe, we completely love it and we’re sure you will too, just enjoy every minute!
Read all about Motorhome Aires in France and Europe:
Note: All information provided is based on our own knowledge and experiences on an informal basis, for further up to date information and advice on any travel arrangements or any items in this article then the reader should seek their own advice and guidance from appropriate official sources.
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