Although there are potentially looming problems of overcapacity and concerns about subsidies, it’s hard to deny that the emergence of budget airlines over the last decade has revolutionised travel among European countries, not only through cheap fares but also by allowing more flexible travelling arrangements, with a greater choice of flight departures and destinations. Furthermore the competition from them has had a positive knock-on effect on previously stuffy national airline companies, such as Lufthansa and British Airways.
If you want to travel from Britain to and from continental Europe with your own car, however, things have been rather different. Particularly on the short distance routes, i.e from South-East England to North-East France, competition has been patchy, despite there being two main ferry companies and the Eurotunnel train service.
For day-trippers, or those who want to spend only a weekend across the channel, things were pretty good, with the cost of taking a car for a day trip ranging from about 45 euros to 90 euros (or even cheaper if you got a special offer), and a weekend perhaps up to 150 euros, depending on duration of stay and season.
If however you wanted to spend more than three days suddenly things weren’t so good, particularly if you want to go in peak season. For example a trip from Dover to Calais on P&O, leaving July 4th and returning July 15th is around 375 euros. On the Eurotunnel it usually is even more expensive. Trips further afield are proportionately more expensive.
What’s even stranger is that these are fixed prices, dependent on length of stay and day of travel (and month). Often the ferries, and tunnel, would travel only half full, rather than reducing prices. The reasons for this have never been quite clear, though one is obviously Eurotunnel’s precarious debt situation is not conducive to a price war.
That’s why I am optimistic for the prospects for a new Danish company that started sailing across the channel last month, called Speed Ferries. This company hopes to bring budget-airline style travel to cross-channel ferries, with internet-only booking, prices that reflect supply & demand, and prices that do no depend on the length of stay. The trip is ‘no frills’ with only a cafe (though you can pay more for a better lounge), but only last 55 minutes, and sales not to and from Calais to Dover, but Boulogne , which is a much nicer town.
Prices therefore, much like the budget airlines, can be bargains. For the dates I quoted above with P&O, Speedferries are offering a trip for 143 euros (83 euros out, 60 euros back), or less than half the ferry price.
It won’t be to everyone’s taste. Lots of people see the ferry trip, with duty-free shops, restaurants, etc as part of the holiday. Speedferries’ catamaran doesn’t have those. For your “booze-cruisers” (or the French equivalent) day-trips are not, usually, such good value, as there are no special offers. Therefore to go on a Saturday and come back the same day costs the same amount as to go on that Saturday and come back a week later. And of course the company has only been sailing for a few weeks and might encounter teething problems; its launch was delayed for months.
In the meantime though I’ve booked to go with a car on July 18th for 12 days for just 100 euros. I’ll tell you what it’s like. Or maybe some readers have already been?