For five years in a row, we took the ferry to France, then last year, for the first time since having kids, we braved getting on a plane, and we did it again this year. Throughout the journey, I couldn’t help comparing flight and ferry in my head, so in case you’ve only done one or the other and want to know how they compare, I decided to write it all down.
1. The packing
With the ferry, we had the luxury of packing everything we could possibly need for the holiday, and lots of things we didn’t need at all. “Sure just throw it in the car” was the standard answer to any question about what to bring. Bed-rails in case kids fell out of beds, bed linen, tea towels, teabags, a tonne of toys, and more books than you could ever hope to read while holidaying with small kids. We used to bring our own coffee percolator, corkscrew, crackers, granola, olive oil, and even wine glasses – because I didn’t like the tiny ones you get in mobile homes.
Oh how things changed when we first booked a flight. The FEAR of being over the limit and having to pay, or being forced to open up suitcases at the top of the queue to frantically move things around. We weighed the suitcases, took things out, moved things around, and wondered if we stuck to vanilla ice-cream, would we get away with four dresses each for the girls. (We didn’t – but they got used to wearing clothes that weren’t quite clean.)
I’d love to say I found capsule packing revelatory and freeing, but I didn’t – I like having lots of clothes for all of us on holiday and miss that side of ferry travel. So for packing, ferry wins. (Though when it comes to unpacking after the holiday, flying definitely wins.)
2. The lead-up
The fear going to sleep the night before a flight was much greater for me than ferry-fear, which isn’t even a thing because we never had to leave till mid-morning, and we always arrived in Rosslare with lots of time to go for lunch in Lily’s Café just outside the ferry port. With the ferry, there was never really that sense that we might miss it. We just drove into the queue, drove onto the boat, and that was it – often we didn’t even notice when an hour or so later, the ferry started to move.
Setting the alarm clock for a flight with three kids was a whole different experience – knowing we could get delayed at any point and arrive to a closed gate (we’ve all been there) was scary with a capital SCARY.
So for the fear factor or lack thereof, the ferry wins – even though it’s of course all in my head.
3. The boarding
Boarding the ferry isn’t stressful, but it can be time-consuming queuing. The flights we’ve taken this year and last year, contrary to my expectations, involved only very short queues and lines that moved quickly. There was no struggle to entertain bored kids during long waits for security or check-in, and I found Ryanair to be completely different from what I remember of disastrous journeys of the past.
So for boarding – with extra points for the gorgeous shopping in The Loop and lovely Butlers coffee – I’d have to give the points to flying.
4. On board
Ooh this one is tough. The ferry has loads to do, but you’re on it for a long time. When the kids were smaller, we found the ferry amazing – they loved the soft-play area (on the Oscar Wilde), they loved pretending to drive cars in the arcade area, they loved getting dinner in the restaurant and looking out at the sea. There was a treasure hunt, a kids’ disco in the bar, and even the cabin was a novelty. As they got older, they were a little harder to entertain, and 18 hours is a long time to fill if they’re bored. If we got the ferry again, I’d bring electronic devices, books, games and colouring – exactly like we do now for the plane.
So on the other hand, the plane has very little to offer in terms of entertainment, but of course, there’s a much shorter time to fill. And whereas with the ferry, we trusted that the on-board facilities would take care of everything, with flying, we were taking no chances. So the small boy got his dad’s iPad for the whole journey, and was so absorbed, he thought we were still in Ireland when we landed (true story). The girls had old smart phones that have a few games on them but ran out of power quickly, so there was a bit of muttering and complaining towards the end of the flight, but I gave them biscuits and everything was OK.
On balance, just because there’s less time to fill, the flight wins this one.
Getting off the ferry often means sitting in the car for a bit while other cars disembark and if you have a long journey ahead, this is a pain. The kids would eat half the snacks, use up most of the power in the electronics, and all of their patience. So by the time we finally drove off the ferry, they were already completely fed up being in the car. Not great if you’re driving to say, La Rochelle, which is six hours from the ferry.
With flights, although there’s the queue at passport control and the wait for bags, it’s usually much quicker than the ferry, so again, flight wins here.
6. The final journey
This is a little bit “how long is a piece of string”, but generally when we took the ferry, we were facing into a four to six-hour car journey. With our two flying holidays, we had only an hour to two hours to go after getting off the plane. Obviously any given holiday could be near a ferry port or far from an airport but generally it tends to be the opposite, meaning flying wins.
7. Overall duration
Yup, flying again. And this is the real advantage of flying of course – yes, there’s the weight restrictions and the fear of missing the flight and the putting liquids in plastic bags, but if you can get from home to holiday within a day, that’s pretty amazing compared to the two days of travel the ferry takes. And of course, the ferry eats into annual leave too.
Having said all that, the ferry suited us when the kids were small and we just weren’t brave enough to get on a plane with them. It meant we could get over to France and find some sun, without worrying about mid-air meltdowns. And fond memories of the Oscar Wilde are strong in this house – it really was part of the holiday.
So perhaps there’s no answer to the “which is better” question – it depends on where you’re going, what stage your kids are at, and how brave you’re feeling. And either way, there’s a holiday at the end of the journey, so actually, it’s a win-win.
For detailed tips on taking the ferry to France, see this post