Dixie the Fiat Ducato has driven us on and off umpteen ferries in the last 10 months, from the little 4 vehicle roll-on-roll-off type across a tiny inlet in County Waterford to the bigger car ferries from the Ards Peninsula in Northern Ireland and she has even thrice sailed across the Irish Sea onboard massive passenger ships. Now, after two weeks of island hopping in Scotland’s Western Isles, we have so much experience of life, with a van, onboard a ferry and we have all learned a thing or two we’d like to share. That’s right, we’ve made these journeys so you don’t have to 😉
Some people are immediately put off by the often astronomical costs and the perceived ‘hassle’ associated with taking their campers across the sea. But these very same people are full of wanderlust like us, they can’t help it, its why they own the van in the first place! They want to see what lies beyond and we know a seemingly outrageous price won’t stop them exploring whole new islands and countries in their well equipped, pride-and-joy homes on wheels. Every motorhomer wants to cross another country off their bucket list and have that experience with them for life. So, if and when you decide to take your van (or camper or moho or caravan or house!) across the seas to an unexplored land, we have compiled a list of DOs and DON’T DOs for you to consider, to help you along your way.
The first DO is a DON’T.
•DON’T get upset looking at prices of ferry crossings online. We once paid €45 for Dixie to sail only 3.1 miles off the coast of Ireland, from Donegal to the tiny isle of Arranmore ☹ Lets hope that’s the most expensive sailing we will ever take for the rest of our lives! Unfortunately we have to accept that it is what it is, prices are generally extortion and the best way to deal with that is to save up for it, include it into your overall holiday budget and look to cut the costs elsewhere on your trip. Remember your accomdation costs are immediately mitigated as you have brought your own bed abroad! DO try to get as many days as you can to spend when you arrive wherever it is you’re going to help absorb the overall cost as the longer you’re on the road overall the cheaper it becomes. DO view the ferry journey as a fun part of your holiday, not just part of getting there. Somebody else is doing the driving now, hopefully a qualified captain, so relax and enjoy the ride!
•DO get excited! Hopefully you’ve read all about your destination by the time you get to the ferry but if not, now is the time! Join lots of Facebook groups local to the places you plan to visit (using the free onboard wifi) and get a taste for the place before you arrive. Motorhoming groups are notoriously friendly so introduce yourself (and your van of course) to the local online club, ask for tips and information and start a conversation, you never know when you might need their help during your holiday 😉
•DON’T book a ferry crossing ahead of time if you can avoid it. Of course this tip is not for everyone and the shorter your vehicle in length, the easier this hack is, it also might not suit a traveller with prearranged, prepaid bookings on the otherside (you may have noticed we are plan-adverse, we prearrange next to NOTHING in life) According to the lovely people at the various terminals we have visited the cheapest price is usually available on the day at the desk anyway. Sometimes it’s worth letting the next couple of ferries sail off into the distance without you to get a significantly cheaper price, sometimes not, a four hour wait to us is not worth £20. Either way we suggest you roll up there and ask, we’ve found they are happy to chat and go out of their way to help. DO challenge them to get you there as cheaply as they can, in our experience they’ll try their very best 😉
•DO join the ferry queue as early as possible, cut the engine and use the hour or so to cook up your leftovers and clean the house! (That’s another DO, DO use one of the many ferry terminal bins for all your messy cab rubbish, you wouldn’t want to arrive on a new landmass looking scruffy 🤣) There is always plenty of time to put the kettle on, fry up some eggs and pack a decent picnic.
•This next one may seem obvious, but clearly not to everyone: When you are in the static ferry queue, and everyone has cut their car engines and are sat waiting patiently (except the two Irish who are busy cleaning, sweeping and frying eggs!) DON’T reverse into the vehicle behind you like the careless driver two white vans in front of us did. DO avoid starting your sailing with an inspection of the damage you’ve just caused and the complicated exchange of insurance information. Whatever you are driving, DO drive it safely!
•DO look around when you get on board the ferry for a seat near some 3 pin plugs so you can charge your devices en route but please, DON’T be disappointed when you find there are none. DO try to get a seat with a decent view instead, no matter how grey and Irish looking the day it is bound to be photogenic, you might even see dolphin or some other cool wildlife out there, and one of us swears that looking out at the horizon helps immensely with her seasickness. DO have a hundred or so nautical puns and bad boat jokes in your arsenal to annoy your companions with the entire journey, start your holiday as you mean to go on 🤣
•DO lay claim your table and chairs by spreading out your belongings and then go for a look around the ship! Some of these floating hotels are massive with 4 or 5 viewing decks so stroll around and enjoy the scene from all the windows, not just one.
•DO go outside during the sailing, carefully, like a nervous baby deer on ice or else you will fall over and start your holiday with a painfully bruised coccyx and like I said, we did these things so you don’t have to, we don’t recommend that. DO wear your rainjacket and your woolly hat regardless of how nice a day it appears to be from inside the warm boat! DO marvel at the pure size of the ship, DO wonder how the hell these huge things even float, DO wish your kitchen floor was as wonderful as the shiny navy blue deck and DO make as many references to the Titanic as you feel you need to, it’s not every day you are sailing the high seas so indulge yourself as you please. Both Rose AND Jack totally would have fit lying down on that floating door and you know it. DO think about all your past ferry journeys and share stories with your travel companions, remember the first time you travelled on a big boat as a small child? Everything seemed so huge back then, especially the sea, the horizon went on forever.
•DO walk as far around the deck as you are allowed to, DO make note of the various emergency assembly points (and the ashtrays) and DO check out the bright orange lifeboats! Very high tech. Ferries feel quite safe to us.
This one is important so listen up:
•DO pack a picnic for the occasion. Even a short 1.5 hour crossing like Larne (Northern Ireland) to Cairnryan (Scotland) makes us hungry and the worst trap to fall into is the floating canteen where a standard meal of burger and chips costs £8 and £2.50 extra for a drink. DON’T act like you won’t be hungry onboard because you will be, guaranteed, and everyone around you will be eating, it appears to be some kind of agreed-upon ferry ettiquette. DO start your holiday rather smugly with your hard-earned money safely stowed away in your pocket instead. We brought sandwiches, a flask of coffee and fruit for a fraction of the price of an onboard meal. We also shared some leftover easter eggs, it seemed like a reason to celebrate, and of course some biscuits. One of us swears also that eating a big meal helps her seasickness immensely too, it gives her stomach something else to think about for a while.
•If you are travelling at night (as we tend to do, the cheapest sailings are always in the dark 😉) DO bring a warm blanket, these big ships are draughty! Swap the flask of coffee for hot chocolate, find a quiet corner to cozy up in and if you really want to cross the sea in comfort, wear your pjs and slippers too. You won’t be the only one choosing function over fashion, the ferry is no catwalk. DO stay warm!
•DO, if on one of the bigger ships like the extraordinary Ulysses (which serves the Dublin – Holyhead, Wales route, it’s the biggest car ferry in Europe with 12 decks and a 1,342 car capacity!) stroll around and check out the usually impressive facilities on board. We found a games room with arcade machines, a big duty-free shop, a busy bar, a casino style slot machine area, a cinema room and a separate place for children to play. All well and good to have these distractions if you need them but we didn’t board a ship to watch a movie or spend money in a shop, there’s so much more to see outside on the sea. On our 5 hour trip from Oban to Barra in the Outer Hebrides, which felt more like a cruise that a crossing, there was a young man playing the violin beautifully outside on the deck, how’s that for your Titanic references?
•When the ship is nearing port, when the waves subside and calm returns to the water and you descend the stairs to rejoin your vehicle in the hold, DO try to remember which floor you were parked on and which aisle too, this should save you the 10 minutes of wandering we endured looking for a large white needle in a haystack. DO notice the very clumsy driver ahead in the queue STILL exchanging details nervously with the guy he reversed into earlier and remember, again, whatever you are driving, DO drive it safely!
This point is important too. DO have a suitable park up spot chosen on the other side in advance of your sailing. You might need to rest, possibly even sleep for a few hours, after you disembark. DON’T underestimate how tired you are and DON’T drive sleepy (especially in a different country!) Depending on how strong the coffee in your flask was (or many biscuits you put away during the trip) you may need to park up close to the port and at least get your bearings for a while before any onwards travel. Every port we have travelled through has ample free parking around the terminal, DON’T put unnecessary pressure on yourself to reach your destination. It’s a holiday, not a race!
The biggest DO of all is of course DO have a great time, both onboard the ferry and when you have arrived at your destination. DON’T forget that the beauty of travelling with your van is having your every convenience with you and flexibility should come easily with such comforts on hand. Delay at the port? Have a cup of tea and a biscuit while you wait. Stuck in limbo at the very back of the “There MIGHT be room onboard for you” queue? Same. Tea time.
Incidentally, we did run into that same careless van driver again, and almost literally this time too. After the ferry downed its huge metal hinge door and burped us and the other vehicles out of the dark hold and into Scotland, (and as Dixie is learning, last on usually means first off) we pulled over and paused for a few minutes to let the other drivers in a hurry zip past on their way to whatever emergency must await them. We are always very conscious of our dawdling and try to avoid causing any obstruction. About 10 minutes outside the port, in the little town of Girvan, there in front of us was the same white van, no indicators on yet attempting to take a left turn into busy main street traffic much to the fury of the other drivers. Cue the blaring of car horns and plenty of muttered expletives as no left turn even exists there but that didn’t seem to matter to this guy as he made the manoeuvre he wanted to make regardless of the rules of the road. Luckily nobody was hurt, not this time, but some people don’t learn from their mistakes (of that very day!) and you just can’t fix stupid, the best you can do is try to keep a safe stopping distance away from it.
Looking back on our 10 months on the road and all the various sized boats and different routes we have sailed on, we think taking our van on any ferry trip is a lot of fun and always memorable. It’s about spending the time together sitting, relaxing and waiting. Have you packed enough biscuits?
Thats the last DO. DO pack enough biscuits to last until you arrive at your destination. You never know when you might need to put the kettle on 😉⛾🚐