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I plan to drive from Central Europe to the UK this summer, taking a ferry across the Strait of Dover (not the Eurotunnel - that's boring for children). Since it's more than 1000 km drive from my place to Calais, I really don't want to buy a ferry ticket for a fixed time, because I can't commit to arriving in a fixed time. I just want to show up in the Calais port and get on the next available ship, even if it means paying more for the ferry than in case of an advance booking.

Is it a good idea? I have no experience with ferries to the UK; I've only travelled there and back by air so far. Upon arriving there, do I have to choose the ferry company (I know there are 3 companies) in the very beginning, by moving to the respective lane? Or is it possible to check what ship sails first (and how much would it cost) and only then decide?

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    Been years since I've done it so not answering, but there's an inbetween option of when you are X hours away, checking via mobile internet (or phone call) which sailings have spaces.
    – CMaster
    Jun 15, 2023 at 13:33
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    you don't need to book the ferry. You can just walk to the terminal and get a ticket right away.
    – njzk2
    Jun 15, 2023 at 20:41
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    If you're driving home after visiting England, consider tunnel there and ferry back when you may have a better idea about your timing. Jun 16, 2023 at 0:04
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    @EthanBolker, I would caution against suggesting using the ferry to return from Dover over the summer period. The queues getting (a) to Dover, (b) through Dover, and (c) through the ferry terminal can be truly a sight to behold. In the instances that I've travelled Dover<->Calais I've always found the FR->UK crossing much nicer than the UK->FR one for just that reason
    – Rob
    Jun 16, 2023 at 12:43
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    @Rob Good for the OP to know. I was just imagining an alternative itinerary - not recommending it since I have no experience here at all. Jun 16, 2023 at 15:32

4 Answers 4

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Cross channel ferry traffic peaks in the summer months, and some crossings can certainly be full. Given how many crossings there are it is likely that there will be space on some crossing or other during a given day. However if several are full you might end up waiting for quite a few hours at Calais ferry port. You might also end up on a very inconvenient sailing, like the 0135 departure.

As CMaster says, one solution is to attempt to book ahead by phone when you get close enough to Calais to know when you want to travel. That will at least let you know when you can sail and if you can't get a space immediately it allows you to do your waiting somewhere more attractive than Calais ferry port.

A slightly safer alternative is to make a flexible booking, like the "Flexi Ticket" that P&O sells. You can book a guaranteed spot on a convenient ferry towards the end of the time you might arrive, but if it looks like you are going to arrive early you can try to move the booking to an earlier sailing if space is available. This restricts you to only one company, but does mean you are guaranteed a place.

Which option you choose may depend on how much you want to pay and how prepared you are to either sail on an unpopular crossing time or wait for a long time at the terminal

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    Given the possibility of a 01:35 crossing, the train looks attractive, with tired childen and only 35 minutes crossing time. But the one time I used it with a car, my supposed "booking" wasn't a booking after all, and I simply had to wait until the next available space. "Booking" only meant they had my money. Jun 15, 2023 at 19:53
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You should consider the alternative crossing from Dunkirk to Dover in the 'peak' season. In Dunkirk, there are better organized (simply less traffic, easier to plan ahead) passport controls, and the queues are much shorter.

You can pre-book a Flex ticket which is 50% more expensive. Which is in my eyes way to much and also doesn't answer the core of your question:

Flexibility to amend your booking on arrival at port to travel up to 72 hours either side of your booked crossing time for free, subject to availability. £10pp (€12,50 p.p) supplement will be charged for each extra passenger when more than 4 in a vehicle. Charge does not apply to infants between 0-3 years old. No administration fees – only pay the difference in the fare to travel more than 72 hours on either side of your booked crossing. Full refund up to 48 hours before travel.

Buying your tickets at the ferry terminals in Calais or Dunkirk (a few minutes away) is just 'another lane' you have to go to and wait for. It would take about 30 minutes to a few hours extra. (peak-season) And the price will be €5 (DFDS) to €6 (P&O Ferries) more.

When booking by phone or in person, you must pay a service fee of; £5 / 5€ on the Dover-Dunkirk and Calais routes.

Another option is to book a ticket and then 'modify' it, this is +/- €12 to 15 per crossing. (DFDS for example) You'll be 100% sure of a crossing, though.

If you want to avoid queues for 100%, try the Newhaven-Dieppe connection or further away: Le Havre to Portsmouth. I found these connections on this map with all the routes.

I have traveled to Dover a lot, and my personal decision on what crossing to make would base on the time I would travel (peak season, super peak season with queues, or normal season). A queue of 3 hours is way worse than €5 to €12 extra costs! Dunkirk is in that case, the best move for now. (Until everyone starts doing that..)

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  • Dunkirk sails every two hours, so less flexibel.
    – Willeke
    Jun 20, 2023 at 8:12
  • @Jochem not a bad idea, I was also considering Dunkirk. 30 more minutes of sailing time to Dover for the same price! :-D (I really won't be in a hurry) But as Willeke says, only every two hours. In the end, I'll probably make an "semi-advance" booking while somewhere in Belgium. Jun 20, 2023 at 10:52
  • I would personally do everything to avoid those queues in Peak-season, that's by far the most critical thing atm on this crossing.
    – Jochem
    Jun 22, 2023 at 8:11
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Now that my UK trip is over, I can post an anecdotal answer to my own question.

I decided early on to sail from Dunkirk instead of Calais, because Dunkirk is a much smaller port, easier to navigate, shorter queues. This implied sailing with DFDS only. While in a hotel in Germany, I tried to book the ticket by phone. Long story short, I couldn't. First card (Mastercard) failed twice. So I tried a second card (another bank, also Mastercard). Failed again twice, but both times money was blocked on my account! (It took more than two weeks and several emails to both my bank and DFDS until the money was released.) And I still had no ticket! So I had to buy the ticket in person in Dunkirk two days later, but OMG it was almost double the internet price (€204 instead of €122 for one car with 6 people)!

Alright, so for the return journey I decided not to risk DFDS again and booked a ticket on a P&O ferry to Calais 4 days in advance for €70. This time the internet transaction worked flawlessly.

Moral of the story: do everything you can to buy ferry tickets in advance. It's just too expensive to buy on the spot for the current day. I probably won't sail with DFDS on my next trip to the UK, at least I'm not going to use the same payment methods. However, YMMV. I've read everywhere that DFDS is a decent company offering good services. No idea why the online payments didn't work in my case.

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  • Which crossing was more pleasant? I've heard of people getting much more seasick on longer crossings than on the short one. Did you notice a difference?
    – minseong
    Aug 21, 2023 at 16:27
  • @theonlygusti The Dover - Dunkirk crossing is only marginally longer than the Dover - Calais one, and it doesn't enter any deeper seas. Weather plays a huge part: waves were higher on my return journey, even though that was the shorter one, so the ferry was rolling a bit more, enough to make my wife somewhat unwell. She had to look on the horizon to overcome it. I'd say, if you often get motion sickness, take the tunnel. Provided you don't have claustrophobia! :-) Aug 22, 2023 at 7:37
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I do think the ferry is much better than the tunnel, good plan.

I've always booked ahead for the ferry, for a time based on best-estimation of the driving time + leeway for surprises. In the (frequent) cases where I turned up early, the staff have almost always just let me on an earlier crossing. So there's no sacrifice by booking ahead, because if you get there early you can probably cross early too.

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    And I heard that if you arrive late you will be allowed in the next available spot.
    – Willeke
    Jun 17, 2023 at 17:04

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