Slow travel - ferry

Slow travel: Spain <> UK as a ferry foot passenger

It was only a couple of years ago that I realised my (mostly) vegan existence didn’t justify or offset my flying habit. Since then, I’ve been making an effort to reduce the amount of flying I do.

I started off well, taking my first rail and ferry trip from Granada to Cornwall back in autumn 2019. But then that tiny thing called the pandemic got in the way. So it was back to flying to the UK for me for a while.

Ferries weren’t running for ages, and what with the logistics of quarantining, tests and general uncertainty, it didn’t feel like the time to experiment with train travel through France (which I fully intend to try out at Christmas, all being well, as it’s much more planet-friendly than the ferry – which only runs March-October).

I was bloody lucky to be able to get back to see my family at all, but my eco-conscience was nagging me.

With relaxing restrictions, my trip in September/October was the perfect time to take to the waves again, this time travelling from Zaragoza to Cornwall by bus and ferry.

Is ferry travel really better for the planet than flying?

As with most things in life, this doesn’t seem to be very black and white.

I can’t give you solid facts and figures for this, unfortunately, but according to the trawling of the web I’ve done so far, ferry travel from Spain to the UK (especially as a foot passenger) is preferable to flying in terms of carbon footprint.

If you’ve found any good pieces or specific numbers on this, please do send them my way.

  • This blog is the closest I’ve got to a close look at whether the ferry is a better option (if taking a car). From 2018.
  • All UK-Spain routes are covered by Brittany Ferries. They have LNG powered ferries covering the Bilbao/Santander-Portsmouth routes. As pointed out in the blog above, they don’t seem to be keen to share too much information about exact emissions.
  • A look at flying vs. cruise ships. Spoiler – jaunts on big cruise ships are generally not eco-friendly options. From 2021.
  • A look at ferry travel in general, from 2020.
  • Comparisons of emissions of different forms of transport from 2019.

I should because I can

A lot of people can’t take the (more) eco option. Maybe they can only get limited time off work, so can’t spend multiple days travelling. Maybe they have dependents to consider.

Maybe they can’t afford more expensive ferry or train travel (next to often laughably cheap airfares).

But I only have a lovely boyfriend and a dog to consider, and they’re very good at looking after each other. I can work as I travel (in theory – although often I’m too busy dolphin watching to get all that much work done). And I can work when I’m in the UK, too, so I’m not missing out on income.

I’m hugely privileged in so many ways – so, if I don’t take the slower, more eco-friendly option, who will?

Ahoy there

Anyway, this bit is for those of you curious about what the trip is actually like.

Plymouth<>Santander on the Pont Aven takes about 20 hours, and would be similar for the Portsmouth and Bilbao routes.

The weather

I’ve been pretty lucky with the conditions on both my return voyages, but then I’m lucky to never have really suffered from seasickness.

On my first trip, the seas were pretty rough, but as long as I didn’t move around too much it was fine.

On my most recent trip it was wonderfully calm, with incredibly glassy seas (making dolphin spotting incredibly easy). I was even sunbathing out on deck for a while.

But if you don’t have good sea legs, then you might want to stick to the trains, as it’s always a lottery in the Bay of Biscay.

Chair on the deck on the Plymouth-Santander ferry

The food

There is perfectly good food on board, but it’s not particularly cheap. So if you’re on a budget (or vegan, GF, etc – this will come as no surprise to you!) take your own meals and snacks.

There’s a microwave in the main restaurant.

I find I’m always hungry onboard, but can’t bear the idea of alcohol. If you’ve got a stronger constitution (and perhaps a drinking buddy) then there’s a bar with entertainment in the evenings.

Working and WiFi

The WiFi included with your ticket is pretty patchy depending on where you are on the boat and only for basics like email, so make sure you come prepared with anything you’re going to need pre-downloaded.

I always make sure I can work on my Google docs offline (and download a film or two to watch in the evening) and I tend to get a surprising amount done, as there are zero distractions.

There’s also paid-for premium WiFi if you need to stay properly connected.

Sleeping arrangements

There are various different options on board, and they vary from ship to ship. But on the Pont Aven, the cheapest option is a reserved lounge seat.

That’s what I’ve done for each of my trips, as a cabin for one would be fairly expensive (far better value for money if you’ve got a travel mate). One day!

Anyway, you’re assigned a reclining seat in a room resembling a cinema without the screen. You can try and kip in the chairs, but I tend to take things with me to fashion a make-shift bed on the floor between two rows of seats, where I feel nice and protected. There’s a bathroom right outside.

I don’t sleep particularly well on the floor, but hey, it’s only a night.

I’ve always travelled alone and it’s mostly men in the lounge, but I’ve never felt uncomfortable, thankfully!

Occasionally big groups of men in the bar areas have put me slightly on edge (sound familiar?), but overall I’d say it’s totally safe (touch wood) for a female solo traveller.

Katie on the ferry

The drawbacks

The dolphin spotting is wonderful and when it’s calm it really does feel like you could be on a Meditteranean cruise. The sunset I saw last time was to die for.

But it’s not all sunshine and performing whales (not that I’ve seen any of these, but I live in hope).

Unsurprisingly, the main drawback is that it’s a really long way, and it really takes it out of you (although I imagine not so much so if you got a cabin).

But hey, for the sake of doing your bit for the planet I reckon it’s worth it. And the feeling of achievement once you’ve got yourself to your destination is brilliant.

The price

Taking a vehicle on these ferries is pretty steep, especially for one person.

But travelling as a foot passenger with a reserved seat isn’t too bad at all – I’ve paid about 170GBP return on both my trips.

Planning your own slow adventures

If you’re interested in how you might be able to travel more sustainably, have a read of my interview with Dan Hodd. He’s been around the block by train countless times and is a total mine of information.

He’s also lovely and very keen to get more people into slow travel, so he’d be happy to answer any questions you have.

Sites like Green Traveller are great for figuring out how you can get where you want to go without flying (chances are it’s easier and cheaper than you think – in Europe at least).

And Seat 61 is unbelievably crammed full of information about how to get practically anywhere in the world by train.

Is there anything else you’d like to know? Just leave a comment or send me a message.

I’ll keep you updated on future trips. Train trips to the UK and Austria are on the horizon, so watch this space!

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