Driving the Channel Tunnel - Why You Might Need a Plan B

Anything Can Happen so Be Prepared

Waiting for "Le Shuttle" in Coquelles near Calais. Getty Images

If you are planning to drive through Eurotunnel between France and England, having an alternative plan - and tickets for it - could be a sensible idea. In this era of BREXIT uncertainty and occasional immigration issues at the border between the UK and the rest of Europe, vacation busting delays are a risk when driving between England and France. If that happens, what can you do to keep your getaway on track?

Traveling through Eurotunnel on "Le Shuttle" to and from Europe in your own or a rented car is fast, easy, economical and fun. Making the "short crossing" between Dover and Calais by ferry is an adventure too. But either can be vulnerable to serious delays. And unlike an ordinary drive - where you can check a map or use your SATNAV to find an alternative route around a bottleneck, once you're committed to the Channel Tunnel approaches, there is no "way around".

What Might Happen

The best way to understand what might happen is to consider what has caused cross-channel delays in the past.

  • High winds and stormy weather has stopped ferry services
  • Labor disputes have caused minor instances of sabotage as well as occasional strikes. I was delayed on a trip home from Dieppe when a disgruntled employee put sugar in the fuel line of the ferry. More recently, former ferry workers set burning tires on the road leading to one of the ferries.
  • Lorry drivers disputes over fuel costs, working conditions, new road taxes and regulations have blocked the roads in both England and France in the past, causing traffic jams that continued for miles.
  • Occasional electrical faults have resulted in one of the trains blocking the tracks until repairs can be done.
  • Immigration and security issues - In summer 2015, at least 2,000 desperate asylum seekers, refugees and economic migrants fleeing wars in Syria, Iraq and North Africa, were trying to force their way into the tunnel or onto lorries (semis and tractor trailer trucks) to get into England. Several lanes of the motorways in Kent and in France leading to the tunnel entrances were being used to park commercial vehicles waiting to be searched for stowaways. Some family vacationers in private cars gave up their trips rather than spend six hours in their cars in the summer heat waiting to get through. As recently as June 2019, French authorities reported record numbers of evictions from refugee camps near the tunnels as asylum seekers looked for entry to the UK. This problem can flare up for travelers at any time.

Should you forget about using Le Shuttle across the English Channel altogether?

That depends on where your journey started out. If you live in Britain or France you might want to consider other options. But if you've come a great distance for a once in a lifetime trip - from North America, Australia or the Far East, for example - you'll probably want to try to travel through the tunnel and experience this engineering marvel of the 20th century, driving on in France and driving off in Britain about a half hour later.

Most of the time, your crossing - whether by ferry or tunnel - will be completely uneventful. Thousands of people cross back and forth this way every year. But you cannot just take a detour to a side road at the last minute if problems do crop up. Being ready for anything and having a Plan B is probably a pretty good idea.

Make alternative reservations

It may seem extravagant to spend money on extra tickets for another form of transportation when you've already bought and paid for your Channel Tunnel crossing. But this is not about economics, it is about the memorable vacation experience of the tunnel and the bragging rights that go with that when you get home. And if you are traveling with a family or a full car of friends, it probably won't be particularly expensive.

Look at it this way. You've spent thousands of pounds to bring your family - and sometimes your family pet - across the Atlantic, booked rooms or a vacation rental and rented a car. A serious delay at the bottleneck that the tunnel can occasionally become could ruin your whole trip. For less than £100, you could have an alternative means of round trip, cross-channel travel for your whole party in your pocket. Book your alternative travel at the same time as you book your trip for the best prices. As with most things, the earlier you book your travel, the cheaper it is likely to be.

These are the alternatives to driving on to Le Shuttle through the Channel Tunnel:

  1. Book a ferry crossing - Price makes the ferries the first choice Eurotunnel alternative for families with kids, parties of friends traveling together, teams and class groups. Back when the Channel Tunnel was only a dream, most people made the short crossing between Dover and Calais by car ferry. Two operators still run this route - or the alternative between Dover and Dunkirk (20 miles from Calais) - in new ships with restaurants, bars, children's games rooms, shopping and other enroute distractions. Dover to Calais or vice versa takes 90 minutes on P&O Ferries or DFDS Seaways. DFDS also runs ferries and from Dunkirk, a two hour voyage. And the best thing about it is the price. The advance purchase fare from either company, for one vehicle, nine passengers and - if Fido's coming along - the family dog will probably cost less than a fried chicken dinner with sides and soft drinks for four at a popular restaurant chain.
  2. Consider Eurostar - The express train between London and Paris or Lille is only a likely option if there are just one or two of you. Otherwise it's an expensive choice for shipping a whole family - and you cannot take a dog. But if you were planning on renting a car in France and driving it to England, ditch the car in France, hop on Eurostar and either pick up another rental in England or - if London is your ultimate destination, it's best not to drive, go car free. Buy the Eurostar tickets early enough to get the promotional prices they regularly offer and what you can save on Cross Channel car insurance could more than pay for a pair of one-way Eurostar tickets between Paris and London (at 2019 special offers and prices) or cover two thirds of the cost of two round-trip tickets.

Don't be put off The Channel Tunnel. Just be prepared

Check the news before you leave for your channel crossing so you can decide which of your tickets to use. Keep your telephone charged and carry snacks and water in your car. Then head for your tunnel - or ferry port - and expect a very European experience.

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