Taking the Ferry to Ireland

"Ulysses" - a civilised way to reach Ireland
© Bernd Biege

Ferry travel to Ireland? Isn't that something old folks with a fear of flying and buckets of time do? Yes and no. Let's face it - ferry travel to Ireland is outdated if it can be avoided. You'll queue in an uninviting harbor, spend hours on an old steamer, you get seasick and ... all this driving and wasted hours. Isn't it much quicker, cheaper and more convenient to fly?

Well, true in part, but not the whole picture.

Ferry travel still has its advantages. Here is a closer look and compare the pro and con arguments.

Ferry Travel to Ireland - the Disadvantages

  • Seasickness
  • Long Travel Times on the Ferry
    Fact: even the fastest ferry on the shortest route between the UK and Ireland will take about as long as a plane ride from Central Europe to Dublin. If you are traveling from the continent, you are at a huge disadvantage time-wise.
  • Port Locations and Driving Times
    By their very definition, ports are rarely located centrally but at the bottom of a dead-end road. That inevitably means driving to and from the port to reach your destination. An airport might be much nearer to you.
  • Waiting and Queuing for the Ferry
    You'll have to be at the port well in advance of the ferry actually leaving, waiting, queuing and the drive into the ship's hold will take anything from 45 minutes upwards. Add another 15 minutes from docking to actually leaving the port area.
  • Risking Touring Ireland in Your Own Car
    If you fly in, you'll normally get a rental car. If you drive in, the risk is to your own car, maybe even one with the driver sitting "on the wrong side".
  • The High Cost of a Ferry Crossing
    If you are looking at the cost of the ferry ticket alone, even without including the petrol you need to get there, air travel will almost always work out cheaper.
  • Stopover Necessary
  • If you are heading to Ireland from the continent, you can go non-stop. I've done it - Hamburg to Dublin in about 23 hours, via the Netherlands, Belgium, France, England, and Wales, with two ferry crossings, and several dozen coffees. For your own safety, however, it is recommended to include a night's rest halfway.

Ferry Travel to Ireland - the Disadvantages in Perspective

All the above is true. But ... let's get some perspective:

  • Travel Times on the Ferry
    While travel on a ferry always takes longer, it might work out to be time well spent - modern ferries have cinemas, shopping malls, restaurants, allow for a bracing walk, and provide seating far superior to anything in a plane. So time will fly. Also, in the overall timeline, the actual crossing might be a minor factor.
  • Port Locations and Driving Times
    Unless you are living near an airport with a direct Irish connection, you will always experience long driving times as well. Not as long, admitted, but still ...
  • Waiting and Queuing
    These days air passengers are advised to arrive several hours before the flight, then they are made to queue several times, in an environment where you can't even sit down. Plus modern security checks in airports almost amount to strip searches. Suddenly queueing in your car with a hot coffee and nobody asking you to take off your shoes becomes a viable alternative.
  • Risking it in Your Own Car
    Yes, but you save on car rental and you know the car. The perceived disadvantage of a left-hand drive car is huge, but only when you want to overtake there is a definite problem (you will hit oncoming traffic before seeing it). Get proper insurance and drive slow.
  • Cost of a Ferry Crossing
    These days a ferry crossing from the continent to Ireland might well set you back € 600 or more. But remember that this has to split between all passengers in a car. And that you usually will have to cough up for airport transfers and/or parking as well.
  • Seasickness
    It's all in the mind - motion sickness can be as bad on a flight. Most modern ferries are huge and have automatic stabilization, reducing the risk of seasickness considerably. If you are coming from the continent you may also reduce ferry times to a minimum by using the Channel Tunnel.
  • Stopover Necessary
    Yes - but if cunningly planned, this might be an added extra, visiting some sights on the way. Or you take at least one-night ferry and sleep the crossing away. Or you take the ferry from France, a non-stop overnight service.
  • Taking as Much Luggage as You Like
    Here the ferry comes into its own ... while airlines will demand an arm and a leg plus one kidney for baggage these days, ferry operators simply don't care as long as you make it in and out of the car deck without a tow truck. In short: you can bring all the kids' toys, extra clothing for any weather, two cases of wine, a large library, your surfboard, your golf and angling gear, more clothing, some DVDs, plush toys, and the kitchen sink. Plus grandma.
  • No Restrictions Regarding Luggage Contents
    With today's security hysteria, you can't bring anything on board of a plane that may even remotely resemble a threat. Like a can of coke bought at a supermarket outside the security zone. Or your nail clippers. Ferry companies are easy.

The Bottom Line - Comparing Prices

If you start to compare prices, don't go for the old "a flight is € 650 cheaper" self-deception. Compare, taking all factors into account. Like here, in a sample for four persons:

Ferry:

  • Ferry Ticket Price € 800 (car with four passengers)
  • Car Travel to Ferry Port € 150 (1,000 km)
  • Car Travel back from Ferry Port € 150 (1,000 km)

Air Travel:

  • Airline Ticket Price € 600 (€ 150 per person)
  • Car Travel to Airport € 30 (200 km)
  • Car Park at Airport € 160 (two weeks)
  • Rental Car € 450 (two weeks)
  • Car Travel back from Airport € 30 (200 km)

Bottom line - a family pays € 1,200 when taking the ferry in their own car, € 1,270 when taking the plane and renting a car. But note that the fewer people go, the more attractive air travel usually becomes.

Time Is of Essence

Unless you start in Great Britain, your first vacation night on a ferry arrangement will not be spent in Ireland but in a wayside hotel, on the ferry or simply driving. So you will lose time in Ireland - but with a little planning gain an exciting road trip.

Who Is the Ideal Ferry Passenger?

Here comes the crunch: ferries are a godsend for those of us who want to travel in a (small) group and/or with loads of luggage. Think Clark Griswold going on a(nother) vacation. Think families.

It also, however, depends on the distance you travel to the ferry and the time you want to spend in Ireland. If you are traveling from Great Britain you will find ferry travel very convenient. If you are traveling from continental Europe it depends on where you start - anywhere south of the Baltic, west of the former "Iron Curtain" and north of the Alps and Pyrenees is fine, beyond that it gets progressively more inconvenient. If you are a single traveler heading for a city trip into Dublin, you should definitely fly instead.