Thursday, December 3, 2009

Riding the waves to England (or France)

DSC09190 As my teaching and research work in Cambridge starts to gather speed, I’m finding that I need to be in the UK much more regularly.  I don’t plan to leave the Netherlands, so I needed to figure out how to deal more effectively with the travel.  The customary approach was to book a Ryanair (Eindhoven) or EasyJet (Amsterdam) flight to Stansted, take the train up to Cambridge and in to London, and walk or take taxi’s around town.

Costs add up quickly: at least 100 euro for air fare, 35 euro for the Dutch train and bus, 50 euro per day for the UK trains, 15 euro for each taxi ride, not to mention the time spent in airports.  So I’ve started scouting for alternatives, and, while the Chunnel is prohibitively expensive, the car ferries are looking pretty nice.

I can rent a little car for 32 euro per day, hop on the ferry for around 50 euro round trip, pay 35 euro every couple of days to refill the car, and have a lot more flexibility at the other end of the trip.  Sure, it’s a Fiat Panda (or equivalent) but it goes anywhere I want, when I need to.

There are two main ferry routes from the Continent to the UK: one set leaving Dunkerque every two hours, the other leaving Calais every hour and a half.  Both dock in Dover, about two hours from Cambridge and a bit less to central London.  The drive from Maastricht is pretty similar: a couple of hours to Dunkerque and a half-hour further to Calais.  On a good day, I can make the run in six hours, which compares favorably to the airline alternative.

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The ferries themselves are very nice (and, coming from Seattle, I’m used to the superb Washington State Ferry system) and have kept reliable schedules.  I book on-line, which speeds up boarding somewhat and gives you some grace on timing: if I miss the boat or show up early, I get priority for an alternative.  It’s worth doing a quick search for promotional codes that can save about 20% on standard fares.

The P&O ships seem marginally newer and nicer than the NorfolkLine ferries: I haven’t tried the StenaLine, SeaFrance,  or high-speed hovercraft alternatives.  Direct Ferries is a good booking source if you don’t have a preference, as it clears all of the lines, but I would still try a direct booking on the line’s site to assure the best price (just like with a hotel booking).

Passport screening entering the docks is slow and difficult (isn’t it everywhere?) but things get comfortable once on-board.  The lounge spaces are comfortable and the duty-free shop is nice, although I wish they had a WiFi connection and some windows at both ends of the ship.  Outside and upper deck access is pretty limited, but given the gale winds and rain recently, I don’t miss it.

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