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 to Spain
Nowadays we don’t look beyond the excellent service provided by Brittany Ferries between Portsmouth and Santander or Bilbao. This is the best way to travel to Spain without flying. It can be a fairly expensive crossing but is most enjoyable with very convenient departure and arrival times. 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:
Ferries from 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.
In December 2020 a new ferry called Galicia was introduced on this route. By 2023 two new ships called Salamanca and Santoña will have joined the fleet.
Ferries from 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).
Ferries from Plymouth to Santander
There’s only one weekly sailing on Pont-Aven. The journey takes just 20 hours and leaves on a Sunday afternoon.
Ferries to Spain with a Dog
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.
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.
Brittany Ferries’ plan to replace the Pont-Aven on the Spanish routes with a new Gas-Powered Cruise Ferry has been suspended.
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.
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.
Cheap Ferries to Spain via France
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. 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.
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.
Compare Fuel Prices between the UK and France/Spain
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).