Several years ago I started taking trips abroad. Planning the first few trips was pretty stressful, I really had no idea what I was doing. As with most things in life, it's a learning curve.
In these travel articles I write about some of the things I've learned about planning and executing trips. In particular a mega road trip I recently took across Europe. Now I don't claim to be a travel expert, just someone that's gone through the whole holiday newbie thing.
This article is aimed at people who are travelling across the English channel on the car ferry for the first time.
I write about the preparation I did before leaving home, arriving at the port, passport control and across on the ferry. It’s mostly common sense stuff but hopefully it'll give you a better idea what to expect and make your journey a little less stressful.
There are quite a few things that I did before leaving. You'll see why later on as I describe the journey:
- Print off the ferry booking details
- Don't forget your passport/s!
- Find somewhere to put your passport/s and the booking confirmation in your car so they'll be easily reached while driving. You don't want to be searching through bags when you get to the port!
- Pre-pack a small bag for the ferry with snacks, books and anything else you might need for the crossing
- Most SatNav devices have some kind of favourite locations or “my places” feature. Figure out and practice using this feature so that you can add locations to your SatNav before you leave home. I had a lot of trouble getting my SatNav to recognise European addresses so getting some key destinations pre-set on your Sat-Nav device will save you a lot of stress later on
- Add the ferry port locations to your SatNav - both Dover and Dunkirk or Calais
- Add the location that you’re going to drive to directly after exiting the ferry to your SatNav. This one's the most important
- If you have a car alarm and don’t know how to lock your car without switching on the alarm, see if you can find out
- Figure out how to switch your SatNav to Kilometres and Kilometres per hour
- If you've got an LCD display in your car that shows speed etc... figure out if you can switch to Kilometres and Kilometres per hour
- Figure out if your car clock can be switched to European time - usually one hour different from the UK
- Figure out if you can get your Sat-Nav to show speed limits - this will be really, really useful
- Figure out how to switch off speed camera locations on your SatNav. It's illegal in some European countries. It didn't happen to me but I've heard stories of Police targeting tourists coming out of the port, checking their sat-navs and issuing on the spot fines.
Getting to the Ferry Port
Allow plenty of time to get there. Include extra time for traffic or ‘incidents’, especially if driving during the day or if you’re driving a long way. I used Google maps to time the journey.
They say that check-in closes 45 minutes before departure so I planned to arrive at the port an hour and a half before departure. This allowed plenty of time to get through passport control. Bear in mind that it’ll probably take you longer than you think to get out of your house, it did me.
How long to get through passport control?
Well that depends. When there were no queues it took me maybe 5 minutes. From what I've seen there are a couple of factors. Whether there are queues and whether you get picked out for special attention.
For one crossing it was a bit busier and there were queues. It took maybe 10 or 15 minutes. If you’re very unlucky and immigration take a special interest in you then I guess longer. I saw them searching vans and camper vans and they pulled over the occasional random car.
But of course you won’t know until you get there. You're better off allowing extra time, even if you don't need it.
For what it's worth, I’ve been through passport control four times and not had any problems at all. It's been a pretty good experience all round and the passport guys seemed to be pretty chilled out.
Driving to Dover
If you're tempted to push the speed limit, especially if you’re driving very early or late in the day on empty roads, just bear in mind that I saw a lot of Police around Dover. My personal advice would be stick to the speed limit and drive sensibly. Not just around Dover but throughout your road trip. And dare I say it, all the time? Driving like an idiot and getting stopped by the Police for any reason is the fastest way to spoil a road trip.
Dover port and Dover town are distinctly different places. Dover port is directly next to Dover town - to the East, below Dover castle. You’ll probably drive through the town to get to the port.
As you drive through the town you’ll see signs for the car ferry. There’s only one entrance into the ferry port for all ferry lines so don’t worry about looking for signs to a specific ferry company yet.
The entrance to the port is pretty unremarkable - there isn't a big sign saying "Welcome to Dover port". From what I remember, the entrance is just one of the exits from a round-a-about. There are overhead signs that should make it pretty obvious. The road winds around and splits off into separate lanes for cars, lorries, motorbikes, buses etc… This is where your SatNav may misdirect you. Ignore it and follow the signs for cars (or whatever kind of vehicle you’re driving).
I found the port area a bit confusing the first time as I was looking for signs to my ferry company and there were none. It sounds obvious now but this is because everyone has to go through passport control first - doesn’t matter which ferry company you’re travelling with. To start with just keep an eye out for the lanes for your vehicle type. The overhead signs for the different lanes have little pictures of cars and lorries on them ;)
You’ll hit passport control first. And of course, because you're fully prepared you’ll have your passport/s within easy reach.
The road splits off into multiple lanes, each with a barrier blocking the lane, a little booth where the passport guy sits and a red or green light above the lane indicating if the lane is open. Drive to one of the green lanes and join the queue of cars or if there is no queue, stop alongside the booth, in front of the barrier.
My experience of going through passport control, and from what I could tell most other peoples (in cars) went a bit like this:
- The booths have a window where the passport guy sits. You drive up alongside the window
- You lower your drivers side window
- The passport guy in the booth says good morning, you say good morning back
- He asks for your passport/s
- You hand them over
- He spends a minute or two checking them, hands them back and says thank you
- You say thanks
- The barrier opens and you’ll be on your way
The whole process takes a couple of minutes.
Exactly the same process coming back from France except I think there were two sets of passport control booths, one French and one UK.
It may sound obvious but it’s good to say bonjour to the French passport guys. I did this and the serious looking passport guy smiled, no doubt at my crappy attempt at speaking French. But they like it when you at least try and speak the language.
Keep an eye out for officials standing in or around the road throughout the port but especially as you exit passport control. They may use hand signals to direct you down a different lane. Ignoring them might become problematic :)
If in doubt, stop and ask them the way to go or use (polite) hand gestures. As I mentioned, I did see a fair few vans and camper vans getting searched on their way back to the UK in Calais and Dunkirk directly after passport control.
Of the four crossings, I only got stopped once after coming out of passport control in France by some very bored looking French soldiers who asked me to open my boot. They just wanted to check that there was no-one hiding inside. I was on my way literally 30 seconds later.
When you get off the ferry at the other end, there is no passport control. It felt a bit strange - you literally just drive off the ferry and are on your way into France.
I know it goes without saying but I'm going to say it anyway, always go out of your way to be friendly and helpful to everyone at the port, even if you’re having a bad day or they’re having a bad day. Ultimately, these guys are just doing their jobs.
Checking in at the ferry company
Once you’ve cleared passport control, the lanes split off for individual ferry companies. You need to move into the lane for the ferry company you’re travelling with and you’ll arrive at the ferry companies check in booths, much like the passport control booths.
You’ll need to hand over your passport and booking reference to the booth operator. Although, when returning from France they only wanted my passport.
Assuming everything is in order, they’ll give you your passport back along with a printed paper hanger and tell you which boarding lane number to go to.
The lane number is also printed on the paper hanger. You'll need to attach it to your rear view mirror. Kind of like a coat hanger. The important thing here is to remember the boarding lane number. You can attach the hanger later.
If you manage to get to the port and through passport control mega early then the ferry company may let you travel on an earlier crossing even if you’re not booked on it, rather than make you wait.
Boarding the Ferry
After leaving the ferry company booth, you need to find the correct boarding lane. The road will start splitting off again. Keep a look out for the signs with blocks of boarding lane numbers.
Finally, the road splits off into what looks like a big car park - these are the boarding lanes.
Each boarding lane is numbered so make sure you go to the correct one. The boarding lanes are queues so drive to the end of the lane or up the cars already in the lane and park up. You’ll wait here until boarding.
You’ll need to attach the paper hanger to your rear view mirror so the details are visible from the outside of your car.
There will be a couple of helpful port guys wandering around in hi-vis jackets. They’ll check your paper hanger and can give you advice about headlight deflectors and other equipment required for driving in Europe. They’ll also be able to tell you when the ferry will start boarding.
Assuming the ferry isn’t already about to start boarding you can get out of your car and stretch your legs. There should be toilets and a cafe nearby.
This is a good time to switch your SatNav (and if possible your car) to Kilometres and Kilometres per hour and if needed, adjust the time on your car clock.
Driving on to the Ferry
When boarding starts, the port guys will start directing cars to the ferry boarding ramp, one lane at a time. Just follow their hand signals and the other cars.
You may need to drive up some steep ramps to get in to the ferry and some of the corridors inside the ferry can be narrow. So stay in first gear and drive fairly slowly.
Inside the ferry, you’ll be directed to where to park up. Switch the engine off and engage the hand break. Leave your car in first gear. You don’t want it rolling about inside the ferry :)
On the Ferry
You’re not allowed to stay on the car deck when the ferry departs. You’ll need to exit your car and walk upstairs to the passenger decks.
After everyone's gone to the passenger decks, the doors to the car deck will be locked. If you need anything from your car you'll have to wait until the ferry arrives in France. Before leaving home, I’d recommend packing a little bag with stuff like food and books that you can grab and take with you to the passenger deck.
If you have a car alarm you’ll want to lock your car but not engage the alarm. Sometimes the motion of the ferry can set off the alarm. Not a big problem but maybe a little embarrassing.
As you head for the stairs up to the passenger deck make a note of the car deck number written on the wall. Also, the location of your car. When you exit the stairs at the top, to the passenger deck, make a note of the location of that door. I took a couple of photos on my phone.
The ferries aren’t exactly huge. You aren't going to get lost, but it might get you back to your car faster.
I’m not sure how true this is but I read that the ferry has its own mobile phone mast connected up to the mobile phone network via a satellite link. When your phone can no-longer talk to the mobile phone masts on shore, it can use the ferry phone mast, but at a cost.
Your mobile provider is supposed to warn about the extra charges before connecting to the ferry network but I heard stories of people returning home from holiday with a big bill waiting for them. Claiming that they didn’t get any notification about extra charges. This may or may not be true. Just to be safe, I switched my phone to flight mode when the ferry departed.
During the crossing you can sit pretty much anywhere and eat your own food - including the restaurant areas. The restaurant food is pretty good.
Leaving the Ferry
Just before the ferry arrives there’ll be an announcement and they’ll unlock the car deck doors. Find your way back to your car. It’s a good idea to get back to your car fairly quickly. After you exit the ferry it might be more difficult to find somewhere to park up if you need to sort out your sat-nav.
There’ll be a short wait while you sit in your car on the car deck as the ferry docks. You can use this opportunity to ditch the paper hanger and set your sat-nav destination to wherever you are going. You pre-programmed the destination, right?
After you leave the ferry you’ll drive straight out of the port so now is the best time to sort yourself out ready for your journey. Don’t worry if the sat-nav can't get a satellite fix at this point, just set the destination and it’ll sort itself out when you exit the ferry.
Once the ferry docks, the ferry guys will guide you out. After you’ve gone down the exit ramp, you’ll drive down a series of roads and exit the port. There’s no immigration control. You’re essentially ejected straight out into the road network.
Goes without saying that this is the point that you need to switch to driving on the right hand side of the road. Also, the other thing to worry about is that the speed limit signs switch to Kilometres per hour so don’t get caught out speeding by accident. 50 mph is a lot faster than 50 kph :)
Driving on the right
If you’ve never driven on the right before then it’ll feel really weird and maybe a little scary at first but don’t worry, you soon get used to it.
By far the easiest thing to do is just relax and follow the other cars. You’ll probably hit a roundabout pretty quickly. Just remember that you need to go the wrong way round the roundabout (anticlockwise), just like all the other cars.
One kind of silly thing I did the very first time I drove on the right was to kind of raise my right arm every now and then and repeated say “stay on the right”. I kept it up for the first few miles. Difficult to know if it made any difference but between that and following the other cars I had absolutely no problems.
Several people have uploaded dash cam videos of the journey through Dover port and the ferry to YouTube. Here's one:Dover to Calais dash cam
If you have any of your own tips, suggestions or just have an opinion about something I’ve written whether it's good, bad or ugly, please get in touch using the form below. It’d be great to keep adding and updating these articles.