Ferries to Spain from the UK

The heyday of cross Channel ferry travel was in 1997 when over 21 million passengers passed through the Port of Dover on sailings to that mystical land vaguely referred to as “the Continent”. Its decline as a means of transport began with the opening of the Channel Tunnel in 1994 which provided a rail link allowing cars to be transported through the Eurotunnel from Folkestone to Calais/Coquelles in just 40 minutes including boarding and disembarking. This proved a lot quicker than the 90 minutes it takes to sail from Dover to Calais excluding boarding and disembarking. As a result, and taking into account the additional competition from budget flights, ferry passenger numbers on the Dover-Calais ferry service have fallen to around 10 million annual passengers.

On numerous occasions I’ve driven via Calais back to Spain on the basis of it being the cheapest crossing. On one occasion we cut vouchers out of a daily newspaper to get a day return for £5 then continued on to Madrid without returning. Now I have to conclude that this journey as a way of getting directly to Spain isn’t worth it when the cost of fuel and accommodation en route together with the resulting fatigue are taken into account. Of course if it’s just the beginning of a long, leisurely touring holiday then it’s ideal. Another option is to take a ferry crossing to a different port in France which gets you closer to Spain such as St Malo, Le Havre, Cherbourg or Dieppe. Again I’d suggest that each one of them is worth considering if touring is part of your plans but none are ideal if you’re trying to get to Spain as quickly as possible.

Brittany Ferries

Brittany Ferries to Spain

Nowadays we don’t look beyond the excellent service provided by Brittany Ferries between Portsmouth and Santander or Bilbao. It can be a fairly expensive crossing but is most enjoyable with very convenient departure and arrival times.

If you are taking your own car and want to enjoy your drive to and from Spain, there are plenty of ferries operating between the UK and France:

Did you know that last year almost 40,000 dogs travelled on Brittany Ferries … Now there’s a line that got your attention :-)

On all crossings to Spain it is compulsory to book accommodation which ranges from a reclining seat to a deluxe cabin. The routes offered by Brittany Ferries are as follows:

Portsmouth to Santander: There are two weekly sailings on either the Pont-Aven or the Cap Finistère. The journey takes 24 hours departing in the late afternoon on Tuesdays and Fridays. In addition there’s an economy service leaving on a Saturday morning on the Etretat ferry which doesn’t offer the same cruise style experience as the other ships.

Santander Bay

Arriving in Santander

Portsmouth to Bilbao: There are two weekly sailings on Cap Finistère. The journey takes 24 hours if you leave at midday on a Wednesday or 32 hours if you take the 10.30pm departure on a Sunday (this is a two night crossing).

Plymouth to Santander: There’s only one weekly sailing on Pont-Aven. The journey takes just 20 hours and leaves on a Sunday afternoon.

On our most recent sailing between the UK and Spain we were on the flagship Pont-Aven ferry. This vessel is extremely well equipped with a wide selection of facilities including two restaurants, various bars, a cinema, a swimming pool and a spa. There are shopping and games areas and free WiFi is available in public areas. This ferry service is an ideal choice for travelling to Spain with dogs thanks to the kennels on the top deck.

If you travel on the Cap Finistère or the economy Etretat there are even pet-friendly cabins to accomodate our furry friends. Brittany Ferries describe their onboard kennel facilities and availability of pet-friendly cabins according to ship on their website.

Pont-Aven Ferry

The M/V Pont-Aven is Brittany Ferries’ Flagship Service to Spain from the UK

During the crossing representatives of ORCA, the dolphin and whale conservation group, were onboard to give an interesting talk on marine life in the Bay of Biscay. There was also a whisky tasting which I decided to avoid with a drive to Burgos pending on arrival in Santander.

In 2017 Brittany Ferries plan to replace the Pont-Aven on the Spanish routes with a new Gas-Powered Cruise Ferry which is currently under construction in St Nazaire.

Ferry to Santander or Bilbao?

No doubt you can work out whether Portsmouth or Plymouth is the best port for you when leaving the UK but what about making a decision on which of the Spanish ports is most convenient? These two cities lie approximately 100km apart on Spain’s Atlantic coast, they both have plenty to offer the visitor. Santander is a lovely city located right on a glorious sandy beach whilst Bilbao has become a popular short break destination thanks largely to the location of the Guggenheim Museum in the city.

By Car – If you’ve arrived in Spain with your car and you have no intention of spending any time in your arrival port then there’s not a lot to choose between them. Of course Santander is that bit nearer to Asturias and Galicia if you’re heading west whilst Bilbao is handy if you’re heading towards San Sebastian and the French Basque Country. For Madrid and beyond, Bilbao is 50km nearer the capital than Santander but I’d consider that quite negligible unless you’re in a great rush to reach your destination. There are beautiful drives on different routes from both ports for anyone heading south. If Bilbao is your destination be aware that the ferry terminal lies west of the city in a distant suburb called Zierbena. This is no inconvenience for motorists but is worth noting when planning your route.

On Foot – If you’ve travelled on the ferry as a foot passenger then the decision has already been made for you as Brittany Ferries do not take bookings on their website for foot passengers or bicycle tourists on the Portsmouth-Bilbao route. This is no great problem as Santander is a better option anyway because the ferry arrives directly into the city centre. This allows you to walk to a hotel for a night or two or you can go directly to the RENFE train station which offers direct services to Madrid and from there to the rest of Spain on the country’s excellent train network. For local trains on the narrow-gauge railway system east to Bilbao or west to Oviedo the FEVE station stands next to the mainline station.

Guggenheim Museum Bilbao

Guggenheim Bilbao

Ferry in Santander

Ferry Arriving in Santander

In spite of what their brochure says, it does appear that Brittany Ferries will sometimes accept bookings from foot passengers on the Portsmouth-Bilbao route by phone provided the ship isn’t full. In that case you’ll need to get a taxi from the port to the nearest metro station at Santurtzi which is 3km away. From here you can get to Estación de Abando in the centre of Bilbao where you connect with trains to San Sebastian, Madrid and Barcelona.

LD Lines to Spain

An alternative service that you may not have heard of is provided by LD Lines who offer ferries from Poole to Santander and to Gijon in Asturias. Prices are considerably lower than Brittany Ferries but their ships aren’t so luxurious. Nevertheless this is an interesting alternative for discovering northern Spain. Crossing time from Poole to these Spanish ports is about 26 hours. This company also offers a very handy service for Irish visitors who can travel from Rosslare to Saint Nazaire then on to Gijón.

Tips on Finding a Good Deal on Cross Channel Ferries

If you’d still prefer to head to one of the French ports rather than sailing directly to Spain be aware that ferry schedules are generally published many months in advance so some good deals can be had by planning ahead and booking a long time before your departure date. When you’re looking at alternative ferry crossings bear in mind that you’ll find the best daily deals by travelling at the most unpopular times. Late night ferries will be cheaper than late morning ones (and you can usually find cheap hotels near the port so that you’re fresh for an early start the next morning). Try to avoid weekend crossings and if you’re not tied to school holidays and bank holidays try to avoid those dates as prices tend to peak at such times.

El Sardinero

El Sardinero Beach – Santander

Another potentially cost saving measure is to consider looking at alternative routes within a similar geographic area, for example, you’ll often find that ferries to Dunkirk with Norfolk Line work out a lot cheaper than the more popular Dover-Calais route yet Dunkirk is less than 25 miles up the French coast. Similarly in the UK you might find better deals by leaving Folkestone, Ramsgate or Newhaven rather than Calais. Also there’s no need to assume that you must book both legs of your journey with the same ferry company as you might find better deals by booking your outward journey with one company and your return sailing with another. This policy also allows you the flexibility to arrive and depart from different ports.

Before you leave be sure to check out whether petrol’s cheaper in the UK or in the country of your ferry arrival and fill up accordingly in both directions. The latest petrol prices in France are listed on http://www.prix-carburants.gouv.fr/index.php by ‘département’ (number 62 is Calais).

What’s Your Experience of Taking the Ferry to Spain?

If you’ve travelled to Spain by ferry then we’d love to hear from you. Any tips with regard to onboard travel or advice on getting around once you arrive in Spain? Such recommendations are always welcomed by our community of readers. Please us the comments box below.

Reader Comments:

  1. Pauline Stevens says

    We have used quite a lot of different crossings. Dover – Calais, Portsmouth – Cherbourg, Portsmouth- Le Havre, Portsmouth – St Malo, Portsmouth – Bilbao and Portsmouth – Santander. One journey we kept a very detailed record of costs on our journey to Marbella. We have definitely decided the cheapest and nicest way to reach Southern Spain is using the crossing direct to Spain. The first time we used this route we booked a two berth cabin. Big mistake , it was bunk beds.! We always now try to book the Pont Aven and have a de luxe cabin . Very comfy beds, TV, DVD player, fridge with a selection of free drinks, basket of fruit , breakfast served in cabin – great start to a holiday. We have also travelled on the Cap Finistre, cabins just as good but not quite as good a selection of restaurants on board.

  2. Sandy Jones says

    Hi, We have been doing the Plymouth to Santander ferry for some years now. For us it is a no-brainer. We live in the south west, of UK and have joined the Brit Ferrys club.. so we get 30% off our ferry cost. We arrive fresh at Santander, having had a great dinner, and a good sleep in a cabin, for a 7 hour + drive to the Costa Blanca. We have done the .. via France route, .. and really it doesn’t make sense. Unless you want mini holiday in France. If anyone wants any advice on this crossing, .. pleased to help.

    • Gerry Kerkhof says

      Hi Sandy – Good tip … If you join the Brittany Ferries frequent traveller’s club you get up to 30% discount on ferry crossings.

    • Karen Weeks says

      Hi Sandy Jones,

      We are looking at going from Plymouth to Santander with Brittany Ferries next year and then on to Costa Brava (Las Dunas).

      Wondered what route you took from Santander and whether you stopped overnight on route? Michelin online is sending me via Tolouse and saying its nearly a 9 hour journey.

      Any help would be appreciated.

  3. Emlyn says

    Yet another great article. Thanks a lot.
    We live in Murcia and drive back to the UK once a year as well as flying back to see the family. We have always used Brittany Ferries and used to drive to Roscoff for the sailing to Plymouth … as we have family in Bristol and Cornwall it was convenient. However the additional strain of such a long drive through France, and the cost of extra hotels and diesel made it a long, hard journey.

    Since then we have travelled on the Santander ferry … usually to Plymouth to see the family, but also to Portsmouth if we need to. The Pont Aven is our favourite ferry … upgrading our cabin to outside ones. This is a lovely ship with good food available in both the restaurant (book early!) or the cafeteria. Yes it’s expensive but compared to the cost of driving through France it’s worth it. We usually stay at a hotel just outside Santander which offers a suite of rooms, dinner and breakfast for a fraction of the cost of Santander hotels … not luxury but cheap and cheerful. Also Santander is a lovely city to explore whilst waiting for the ferry.

    Having said all this it is not cheap! We considered returning via ferry this month in May and worked out it would cost about £1500-1600 … ferry, hotel, diesel, meals etc. So we opted to fly back in 2.5hrs and hire a car in the UK … cost £300 … no contest really. Only choose ferries if you want to make a holiday of your journey … it’s well worth going to Santander and driving to Galicia the South through Portugal or Extremadura to explore if you have the time and money.

  4. says

    We live in Huesca, northern Spain and we’ve been using the Bilbao and Santander routes for a few years now and we generally use it on one leg of the journey and go through France on the other. As you said in the article, there’s not much difference in price when you take into account the cost of hotels in France. There are also lots of activities to keep children occupied while on board and the Brittany Ferries ships seem to be getting better and better.

    At the beginning we thought the same as Pauline (above) and chose the deluxe cabin on the old P&O Pride of Bilbao, right at the front, wonderful views, very comfy. It was lovely … until one journey we hit a massive storm in the Bay of Biscay … and then we suffered. Thanks to the lovely crew member (chambermaid) who gave us the key to a cabin in the middle of the ship we were able to dash ourselves and our vomity children to a calmer spot where we gradually felt better. But ever since then I’ve made sure to reserve cabins in the centre of the ship!

  5. Bob and Cristina Clare says

    Hi, we live in Portugal in the Alentejo and use the Santander ferry 2 or 3 times a year to visit family in the UK.
    We’ve been in the property owner’s club for a long time and the 30% discount makes the costs reasonable if you value your time and the wear and tear on the vehicle. This year we are thinking of using the Grimaldi LD ferry from Gijon to St.Nazaire. We are then going to leave the car in Dinard and fly to East Midlands Airport. Even with car hire it is much cheaper and quicker than crossing the channel and driving to the Midlands. We will then spend some time in Normandy to visit the D-Day landing sites before driving back down France and Spain and back home to Portugal.

    Thanks for your interesting articles.

    • Gerry Kerkhof says

      Thanks Bob, you seem to be very well organised in terms of finding all the best modes of transport :-)

  6. Tricia Gabbitas says

    Brittany ferries now do a no-frills ferry “economie” on the ETRETAT. If you are more interested in cost this can be a saving for you. If you have friends who are members, they can give you a Guest Membership that will save you something as well. We drive from Bilbao to Costa del Sol and have found a great hotel just south of Madrid – Las Estrellas in Ciempozuelos (booked via Booking.com). Going by ferry is more expensive but it is more leisurely and allows us to take our car for use in each country – and fill it up with various things each way!

  7. Brian says

    Hi Gerry

    Wonderful narrative as usual, like Catherine, we used to travel Bilbao – Portsmouth and return on P&O and found the trip was better than Brittany, although P&O rattled a lot more. There was more for passengers to do, more shops, more restaurants and cabarets every evening which we did not see on the Brittany Ferry to Bilbao. Pride of Bilbao was also a ro-ro which made loading and unloading easy, not so the Brittany.

    In fact we were so disappointed we have decided to drive from Valencia to Calais this year.
    Hope this hasn´t put anybody off who was going to use Brittany but this is what we found.

    Brian Biggs.

  8. Jose Luis Valdez says

    In 1974 I took what I suppose was a ferry – the tour left from south Hampton and arrived at Piscaderos. I walked and hitch hiked from that town to Pamplona to run the bulls. I was badly prepared for this tour. I booked the tour one hour before it departed port and left my car parked near the port. I realized after I was on the ship that people had their vehicles on the journey.

    So unprepared that I camped on the small stream running through Pamplona with the rest of the Americans that had their knapsacks and that their intention was to camp at the river edge. I bought some gear in town for a two day stay and joined los fermines en celebrando las fiesta de San Fermin. I still after 40 years wear a cap I picked in Pamplona advertising a business there. The cap reads Urzu with Pamplona on either side .

    Thank you for listening to my woes. Jose Luis Valdez

  9. vanessa clapes says

    My parents used to use the ferry at Newhaven to cross to Dieppe in France and travel through France onto Spain via the country roads but it would take them about 3-4 days as they had the time to spare being pensioners. I did the route a couple of times with them and its quite a nice route. The ferry across to Bilbao or Santander is good too as you can see a lot of northern Spain that you wouldnt visit otherwise.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *