This article is about a Dover Calais Ferry Day Trip: My Travel Advice and Tips, and how to get the most out of a day trip from UK to France on P&O ferries
The English Channel between the UK and France is just 21 miles wide. Not surprisingly, therefore, this is the focus area for crossing between the 2 countries. It is also the busiest waterway in the world, with some 400 ships a day passing through this narrow stretch of water.
In many people’s minds the Channel Tunnel under this hectic stretch of water has come to be associated crossing between the 2 countries. The Eurostar Trains leaving and arriving from and to London (St Pancras International Station) and Paris (Gard De Nord Station), and the EuroTunnel Le Shuttle car, bus and truck shuttle train service have taken a large share of the consumer and trade business crossing the channel.
However, there is still a large Ferry Crossing business that runs between Dover in the UK and Calais in France. These 2 cities are on either sides of the narrow crossing point better known as the Dover Straits. Some of the Ferry Operators and the faster Catamaran Services did not survive the competition that Eurostar brought, while services like the Hover Craft died out completely. Eurostar has been looking at acquiring some of the bankrupt Ferry Companies to add to their services, to carry trucks that are too large for their trains to be able to carry.
P&O is the main UK based ferry company operating on this route. The P&O Cruise Ship business is not part of the company, as this was sold to Carnival, the massive cruise company that also owns brands like Cunard, Princess and Holland America. They run many sailings every day from Dover to Calais.
Who uses the Dover to Calais Ferries? There seem to be 4 main types of people using the Ferry:
Commercial Haulage Companies, moving products between the UK and the Europe.
Commercial Bus Companies, which are running day tips or bus based European or UK Holidays.
Holiday makers heading to caravan, camping or villa holidays in France, or beyond.
Day trippers from the UK heading to Calais to buy lower cost alcohol and cigarettes. These are much cheaper in France due to the very different tax structures.
Take a Day Trip to Calais.
A day trip to Calais is a fairly easy and viable thing to do, especially from London and the surrounding area. With some planning it can also be a fairly low cost day out, as the ferry prices vary a lot based on demand and timing.
These are my tips and advice if you have limited time and want to have a day trip to Calais in France.
Plan Your Day and Times. Carefully.
May sound obvious but you need to make sure you allow enough time to get to Dover, do what you want in Calais and get back on the ferry. It is much cheaper to book a fixed ferry time that cannot be changed than a flexible fare. So planning and sticking to time is key.
For example, we left home at 6.30am in London. Got to Dover around 8.15am. Were boarded the Ferry by 8.30am and Ferry left at 8.55am. On return, we got to the Ferry Terminal at 17:15, boarded by 17:30 and left at 17:55. Home by just after 8pm.
By checking on Google Maps in advance distances and times, we knew how long things we wanted to do took. Google Maps generally is very good on timings. I strongly recommend them.
Watch the Weather
The English Channel can be quite rough and have strong winds. A day trip in middle of summer is the best option as it will usually be sunny and the sea calm. In winter, especially, it can be less predictable. If there are high winds not only can the sea be rough, but also often ferry services will need to be cancelled as too hard for them to dock. So make sure you watch the weather both when booking, but also on the day.
There are so many trucks using the ferry that if they start to get cancelled they use the motorway into Dover as a “stacking area” to hold all the tracks and cars waiting for the Ferry. That will wipe out your day trip!
P&O Ferry Spirit of Britain
Book in Advance. Play Around With Dates & Times.
Prices vary a great deal based on how long you book in advance, which time of day and how busy the ferry is. There are huge differences even between ferries leaving 45 or 60 minutes apart. It is worth playing around with options on the P&O Ferry website changing dates or times. You talk £100 or more differences.
Chose Your Ferry! Get a New One, Not a Tatty Old One.
Some of the ferries are very old and tatty. There are some new ships that were introduced in 2011 (Spirit of Britain and Spirit of France) which are much more pleasant to travel on. We went out on the Spirit of Britain (see the video tour of the ship inside and out), but came back on one of the old ones (Spirit of Burgundy) which was shabby and old. It is worth making sure you get on one of the newer ones. The trip is 1.5 hours but still better to be on a pleasant ship with better facilities and decor. They also seemed to me to be more stable and smooth sailing. On board there are places to eat, play fruit machines, shop or just stand out on deck watching the world go by.
P&O are very efficient at the whole check-in and boarding process. It is very slick and friendly. I guess they have a lot of practice at it, but still was very impressive.
Consider the Club Lounge and Priority Boarding
P&O offer priority boarding for a fee, and also you can buy “Club Lounge” access.
Priority Boarding means not only do you get on the ship first, but also off first. The ships dock at the opposite end to whatever you board, so you always sail with your car facing the front. You can be off the ship with 1 or 2 minutes of docking. Meaning you also get ahead of the traffic coming off the ship.
The Club Lounge is very pleasant on the new ships, and looks like a typical airport business class lounge. It also has its own dedicated deck space with loungers and chairs. It is not very large and can be sold out, so again another reason for planning ahead. It costs £12 per person booked in advance (about £14 on the ship), but you get a glass of champagne and teas and coffees. There is also a menu service of food served where you are sitting (not included in the entry price). It can be sold out on popular tourist crossing times (as truck drivers have their own dedicated lounges on P&O), so another reason for planning ahead.
The public areas can be packed, busy and hectic and the places to get food busy.
There is a very large duty free shop on board. It takes up a lot of space. But better to buy from one of the large Hypermarkets like Carrefour (16 Kms from the Calais terminal) if you have time.
It is a good idea to take your Sat-Nav with you, or use Google Maps and print off directions to where you are going. The areas are fairly well signposted, but can be a bit confusing. It also helps make the most use if the day trip as it will check and confirm times between places that you have outlined using Google Maps. Plus can help make sure you find your way to and into the Calais Ferry Terminal, which you can end up driving by but not being sure where to get in.
Many Car Insurance companies in the UK will extend your full insurance for up to 3 − 5 days if you are out of the country without any cost. But you need to call them and get a certificate. If not you will find that most policies say that at best you have basic legal 3rd Party Cover. It is important to call your provider and check, and some do cover you within your policy. We were with Direct Line and they do. If you have a hire car they need to know you are taking the car to France. Do not risk it without insurance.
If you are going to be driving in the dark, you do need to (by law) make some adjustments to your headlights to allow for the fact your car lights are set for driving on the left hand side of the road. On the Ferry they sell some sticker things you need to use on your headlights to help do that. As we were in summer and did not need to, I cannot tell you more. Other than you could buy something to stick on the lights and seemed very simple as we saw people putting them on, and taking them off on the return.
Make sure you, or someone in your party is comfortable driving on the right hand side of the road too!
Calais Town Hall + Rodin’s Six Burghers Monument
Things to do in Calais
The area around Calais was centuries actually part of England for a time during the on-going war and battles between the 2 countries. It was important in generating revenues for the Crown through trading, eventually returning to be part of France. It’s strategic position meant that it had also been fought over many times. The Spanish even ruling it for a short time in the 16th Century.
Calais was flattened during the Second World War and is not an especially prosperous city or area. So the city is not hugely attractive as a destination. But there is enough of interest to do for a few hours on a day trip which is:
Shop. Most people will visit the large Carrefour Hypermarket at the huge shopping centre called Cite Europe. The first destination for many off the ferry to stock up on booze and cigarettes. They also have a large cheese and deli area. Many also fill up with petrol as it is cheaper than in the UK.
Calais Town Centre. Head for the Town Hall (again search on Google Maps and use that as what you sue for your sat-nav if you have one). This is a grand looking building, and has free parking around it. In front of it is the Six Burghers Monument (a Rodin sculpture from 1895 showing 6 men that offered themselves up to the English King Edward III in 1347 to be hanged in return for their city’s freedom. He dod not hang them). In front of both of these is a large park. Underneath the park is a bunker that the German Army occupying Calais used as the telephone and communication centre. It is now a WWII museum.
Beach. The beach has long wide sand beaches and in Summer often has games and events on it. There is usually a large fairground behind the beach in place all summer. The Ferries dock just to the side of the beach
That is all you will have time for! The Ferry Terminal is close to the beach
A fun and relatively inexpensive day out. If the weather if bright and sunny, also an enjoyable outing.
Watch my Video Tour of P&O Ferry Spirit of Britain (incl leaving Dover and Calais)