Car Ferry Travel Tips

Car ferry leaving port, Gialos, Symi, Greece

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Car ferries transport vehicles and passengers across waterways. Some ferry trips last only a few minutes because you are traveling across a small body of water. Others are longer – eight to 14 hours or more – because the car ferry transports you from one land mass to another. If you are visiting Washington State's islands, the Greek islands, the Toronto Islands, or islands and beaches near New York City, a ferry trip might be in your future.

Preparing for Your Trip

Nearly all ferry lines take drive-up and walk-up passengers, but if you plan to travel during a busy period, you should consider reserving your space on the ferry. You can usually do this by telephone or online. Some ferry lines add fuel surcharges to your reservation; ask about this so that you know exactly what you are paying. Many ferry lines charge extra for RVs. If you reserve online, print out a copy of your payment receipt and bring it with you to the ferry terminal. Ask for a confirmation number if you reserve by telephone.

Accessibility can be an issue on some ships. Call ahead to make sure that you can get from the vehicle deck to the passenger deck by elevator. Ask about accessible seating and, if needed, cabins.

Some ferry lines require that pets stay in vehicles during the trip, while others allow them on outside decks. If you are bringing a pet along, plan ahead for feeding, exercise, and other pet needs.

If you are taking an overnight ferry, consider reserving a two- or four-person cabin. You will get more sleep and be able to shower or wash up before the ferry docks. Other sleeping alternatives include general seating (similar to airplane seats) or dorm-style berthing. While these options are less expensive, they may also be noisier, particularly during busy travel seasons.

You will enjoy your ferry experience more if you dress appropriately. Wear comfortable shoes with closed toes so that you can climb up and down ladders (stairs) easily, even if the steps are wet. Skirts, particularly short skirts, can blow around on deck. Long pants or capris are a better choice if you plan to watch the waves or take photos. Bring a light jacket to wear outside. If you have long hair and plan to go out on deck, bring a ponytail elastic or hair clip so your hair won't tangle.

If you think you might suffer from motion sickness, take preemptive measures. Bring over-the-counter motion sickness pills with you. Motion sickness pills typically take over an hour to work, so you will need to take them while you are waiting to board.

Most shipboard water is not safe to drink. Bring a water bottle so you can take medication, brush your teeth, and stay hydrated.

Pack some food or plan to buy snacks on board. Some overnight ferries do not open their snack bars until breakfast time.

What to Expect at the Terminal

As you arrive at the ferry terminal, you will need to either pay for your travel or show a receipt for a prepaid booking. Ferry line personnel will direct you to a numbered lane, where you will park your vehicle until boarding time. Ask about boarding times so you know when you will need to drive your car onto the ferry. At most terminals, you can leave your car until just before your boarding time and wait inside the terminal building, which will probably have an information counter, restrooms, and a snack bar.

When it is time to board, get into your vehicle. Ferry terminal personnel will direct you to the proper deck and lane on the ship. They will ask you to park as close as possible to the car in front of you. If you are riding a motorcycle or driving an oversized vehicle, ferry line employees may tie it down, particularly on long-haul crossings.

As you exit your vehicle, think carefully about what you want to take with you to the passenger decks. Once the ship gets underway, you will not be allowed onto the parking deck. You may wish to bring the following items with you:

  • Sunscreen
  • Sunglasses
  • Motion sickness pills
  • Water
  • Books, playing cards, and other activities
  • Alarm clock, if traveling overnight
  • Camera
  • Money for snacks, or your own food
  • Sleepwear, change of clothing, and personal items (for overnight crossings)

Overnight Tips

  • Do not go to sleep until you have watched the safety demonstration or video.
  • Shipboard announcements may be hard to hear in private cabins. Pay close attention to any chimes, bells, or other signals, and bring your own travel alarm clock.
  • Allow plenty of time in the morning for washing up, packing, and getting to the vehicle deck.
  • Once on the vehicle deck, wait to start up your car until it is time to pull forward and exit the ship. 
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