Ever thought about crossing the English Channel? It's not just a stretch of water; it's a slice of history. Imagine standing at the Strait of Dover, where Britain and France are a mere 21 miles apart – closer than you might think.
Let's take a quick trip down memory lane. Picture this: it's 1785, and two bold adventurers are floating from Dover to Calais in a hydrogen balloon, making the journey in just two and a half hours. Then there's Captain Matthew Webb in 1875, a real daredevil, swimming the whole 39 miles in 21 hours and 45 minutes.
But today, crossing the Channel is a different story. We're not all about balloons and marathon swims anymore. If you're looking to hop across, you've got options that are far more comfortable. Let's put the Eurostar aside for a moment. We're talking about ferries with stunning views and flights that whisk you away in no time. We'll walk you through some of the coolest, most convenient ways to cross these legendary waters – and no swimming is required!
The Channel Tunnel, also known as the Eurotunnel or the Chunnel, is the 31-mile underwater rail tunnel that runs between England and France. It's a true engineering wonder. Construction on the tunnel began in 1988, and it opened in 1994. The tunnel is 147 feet wide and is the only permanent link between Great Britain and the continent. You can travel by train, or on a bus or car loaded onto a railcar. Before the Eurotunnel, modern travelers relied on planes and ferries to get across.
Eurostar is a high-speed rail line known for traveling through the Channel Tunnel. It began running in 1994, the same year the Eurotunnel opened, conveniently connecting major European city centers. Its underwater time is 13 minutes. The Eurostar takes less than two hours to get to Brussels from London. In 2023, following a merger with Thalys, the Eurostar brand no longer applies exclusively to trains traveling between the UK and Europe.
Eurostar is a reliable service, with 86% of trains arriving within 15 minutes of scheduled times. Recently, however, Eurostar has been affected by disruptions caused by heat waves and strikes. Overly hot weather has forced evacuations and repairs. And strikes caused dozens of trains to be canceled in 2022. Strikes are often related to working conditions and pay. You can get live service updates about traffic incidents, delays, strikes, and seating changes on the Eurostar website.
Crossing the English Channel by boat is popular, especially if your final destination is near the coast and far from an airport. The views are vastly superior to the Eurotunnel, you can carry much more baggage, and the busiest route between Dover and Calais takes only an hour and a half. Many ferries offer substantial amenities that make them attractive, from cinemas and spas to pools, live entertainment, and WiFi.
When traveling by ferry, you have a lot more flexibility. The routes between various ports are more diverse, such as between Newcastle and Amsterdam and Hull and Zeebrugge. Less traveled routes can offer better service. For example, the ferry between Plymouth and Santander in Spain can last up to 36 hours, but services like Brittany Ferries make up for this with cruise vibes.
Traveling by bus is one of the cheapest methods to cross the Channel. A London to Paris bus involves a nine-hour one-way journey, but overnight buses eliminate some of the pain. The fastest London to Brussels bus takes just under seven hours. Most buses cross the Channel using the Shuttle, a Eurotunnel railway service for freight and vehicles.
There's surf and turf, and then there's rail and sail. A train-ferry combination allows you to pass by the White Cliffs of Dover by rail and stretch your legs on a boat while avoiding the claustrophobia of the Eurotunnel. In addition, if you're booking at the last minute, it can be a cheaper option than traveling via Eurostar—sometimes as much as half price, even though using a train and ferry is usually more expensive than early-bird Eurostar tickets. But the duration of a train-ferry-train journey between London and Paris is 11 hours, whereas it takes just over two hours by Eurostar. Talk about a longer journey, but it's fine if you don't mind the opportunity to rest. Comparison sites like Direct Ferries can help you get good deals.
The appeal of flying remains in an environment where lawmakers haven't enforced stricter rules. Promotional prices on budget airlines like Ryanair and easyJet can take you between the British Isles and Europe for a pittance, but travel times to and from airports and early baggage cut-off times can mean that flying takes longer to get to your destination.
You can use a Eurail or InterRail pass to travel on Eurostar. These passes allow you to travel as much as you want on participating rail networks for a chosen duration. The Eurail pass is for people living outside Europe, and the InterRail pass is for individuals who reside in Europe. To get a seat on Eurostar with a Eurail pass, you'll need to reserve a seat as soon as possible.
Air travel is stressful for pets, but Eurostar only permits guide dogs. If you want to travel across the Channel with your pet, you can go via the Shuttle or by ferry. You'll have to procure costly health documentation before you travel, so call your vet for advice. Very few ferry operators let foot passengers aboard with dogs, but it's possible from the cities of Hull, Newhaven, Harwich, and Newcastle. You can opt for pet-friendly cabins or kennels. There are limits on the kind of food you can carry. Large groups tend to enjoy ferry travel where it's possible to dine together.
Book your tickets in advance for the best rate. Avoid busy times like the holidays and weekends, if possible, and you'll save considerably. When booking a ferry from Dover to France, an overnight boat can often score you a better deal, as can an afternoon journey. You want to go against the flow of traffic. Calais to Dover tickets are cheaper in the morning.
Flights are the most polluting means of public transport on the planet. Flying increases your carbon footprint dramatically. Other than walking and biking, which take forever and not everyone is fit enough to do, traveling large distances by train is the most sustainable way to get around Europe. Greenhouse gas emissions are overheating our planet, and we'll likely see a push for more low-carbon travel in the next decade.
The future of travel across the English Channel looks... interesting. From solar and wind-powered catamaran start-ups whisking cyclists and walkers between Dover and Boulogne-sur-Mer to speedy zero-emission flying ferries planned by Brittany Ferries, travelers have lots to look forward to in this space. The grass appears to be decidedly greener, too, which is good news for the planet.
There's no "best way" to cross the English Channel. It depends entirely on your needs. Knowing the available options can help you plan for a satisfactory journey. Stay informed by checking relevant updates related to your trip, and stay flexible. There are alternatives to get you where you need to be, even if that means hitchhiking as an extra passenger on a car.