satellite view of Channel

The market for car ferries to the Continent is alive and kicking. By far the densest services are the short crossings from Dover, along with Eurotunnel from Folkestone: strong competition here, and the underlying subsidy from freight traffic all year through means you can get some bargain fares off-peak.

The situation on the longer routes - both the half-day crossings from ports such as Newhaven and Portsmouth, and the even less heavily trafficked overnight sailings further west in the Channel and on the North Sea - is less stable, and the service offering varies from year to year. See
longer crossings for an attempt to summarise the current service pattern - but also check with one of the industry consolidators to find out what's currently available and the best fares. Ferrysavers have been around for a while, but Aferry are good as well, and have an impressive app for mobiles and tablets.

Ever since Seafrance went into administration at the end of 2011, the mix of operators across the Straits of Dover has been fluid. DFDS Seaways now serves Calais as well as Dunkerque, competing with the dominant operator P&O; until recently, we also had the Eurotunnel-owned MyFerryLink, having resumed operations with SeaFrance's two ships. But those have now been picked up by DFDS, making for two evenly matched strong competitors on the short crossing.

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Some 60 miles - motorway standard road all the way - from the M25 at Swanley, or 80 miles from central London. Allow around 75 minutes from the M25, (or 2 hours or so depending on time of day from the centre). Your ferry operator will specify a minimum check-in time - probably 30 minutes - but it's wise to aim to get to the port an hour early. There are worse places to have time on your hands, if all goes to plan, as the sense of anticipation builds up.
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A decent alternative it you're impatient to get started on the Continent is Le Shuttle. It's 10 minutes closer to the rest of England, and is generally very efficient - if, too be honest, a little boring.