Essential Guide to Crossing the Channel

Part 2 Of Our Vanlife Essential Guides

Getting Across the Channel in Your Van

One thing’s for sure, if you want to explore Europe in your van from the UK  then you will need to somehow get both you and your van across the English Channel or La Manche to our French friends!

There are several routes available, long, short, cheap, not so cheap, across water or 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 but for now let’s begin with the basics.

Routes Available

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 and 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 which is 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 your driving off onto French soil.

+ Points

  • Reasonable option around £100 return at time of checking for mid March 2018
  • 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

– Points

  • 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
vanlife4x4 on dover to Calais Ferry
Here we are parked up on the Dover to Calais Ferry

Portsmouth – Caen

Operated by Brittany Ferries up to 3 times a day with a choice of daytime or overnight sailings and cabin or reclining seat options 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.

+ Points

  • 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

– Points

  • Pricey can be around £400 return (checked for Mid March 2018)
  • 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 and cabins or reclining seats available to make the journey more comfortable.

It comes at a more costly price though, with return fares when checked for mid March 2018 costing around £470, there’s also only one sailing a day so it’s more restrictive than other routes.

+ Points

  • 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 still pricey compared to Dover crossings, being £340 return for the same mid-March dates selected for our comparisons.

+ Points

  • 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 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. Prices of around £456 return when checked for mid March 2018.

+ Points

  • 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. Pricing for mid march 2018 around £475 return.  It’s under a 2 hour drive to Amsterdam so it’s 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 and on board you’ll have a choice of dining and entertainment options.  Pricing when checked for mid March 2018 came out around £430 return.

+ Points

  • 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 best of all if you’re a Tesco club card shopper you can exchange your club card points in for vouchers on the Eurotunnel crossing.

This has to be our own favourite method of crossing to Europe, it’s just so fuss-free and being Tesco shoppers’ it enables us to exchange £10 worth of Tesco Clubcard vouchers for £30 of Eurotunnel vouchers which usually gives us two or 3 crossings a year from our accumulated vouchers.  It’s only about a 20 minute distance between Folkestone and Dover so it’s little difference when choosing between the two.

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 at all
  • 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 should you prefer
  • 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.  A return crossing mid March 2018 would be around £185
  • If you use Tesco it’s a great way of utilising the clubcard points – £10 = £30 on Eurotunnel
  • If travelling in Winter you’l 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 but 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 and look at various departure times and days if you can be flexible as prices vary considerably.

Aires and Campsites to Stop Near Calais

  • Wissant – Free Aire – 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.
  • Gravelines – Fee paying – located on the Quay overlooking the water outside a walled town which has plenty of shops, eating places etc. It’s about 30 minutes from Calais and it does have a service point area but this is not located at the Quay so you would need to drive from the Aire to use it.
  • Calais Plage – This Original Aire at Calais Plage has been re-located and we haven’t stayed since it has moved but apparently the newly completed Camping Le Grand Gravelot now has the campsite and Aire with the Aire section payable at the Flot Bleu service point and barrier entrance system, payable!
  • Guines – Camping La Bien Assise, handy stop for those wanting some facilities outside of.




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, for example, Arromanches, Ouistreham, Villers Bocage, Luc Sur Mer and Caen to name a few, for up to date information check out the Normandy Tourist office where up to date information on both Aires and Campsites is available Normandy tourist information Aires and Campsites.

Brittany has plenty of options of Aires and campsites Roscoff tourist information have lots of places listed on their website as does St.Malo tourist office.

The Netherlands and Belgium also have a mix of private and local authority Aires and of course campsites, Brugge for example has an excellent Aire located just a short walk from the centre and 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 your 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!

Almost finished so here’s a few added facts!!

All prices listed are approximate based on searching dates for mid March 18′ for 2 adults and a van of an average size of up to length 7.3m and under 3m high, no trailer, no pets and have included a basic 2 person cabin where applicable.

Don’t forget vanlifer people…you’ll need to pack the safety stuff in your van, check each country your visiting as legal requirements vary, this is things like reflective vests, warning triangle, breathalizer kit, headlight beam reflectors, spare bulbs, GB sticker (if your UK based of course!).  Also check things like your van insurance, licence etc that your properly covered when you get there.

If we’ve missed any ferry routes off its 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.

 Part 1 of our essential vanlife guides was Aires in France and Europe

Coming soon…….Part 3 of our essential vanlife guides Tolls 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 sources.




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