Flight or ferry? In search of sun, sea and sustainability!
Chalkmarks: Santander, Spain, June 2023

Hello Spain, we were just thinking about you!

A full English, three pints of lager and circus skills – all in the Bay of Biscay. Never one to shy away from an authentic cultural experience, Chalkmarks is sailing from the UK to Spain. It may be slower and longer than flying but travelling by ferry is greener. There’s been a lot of coverage this year about using Europe’s sleeper trains to reduce our carbon footprint but it turns out there is a big boat to the UK’s favourite holiday destination! We never knew. Did you? So we booked it! We’re on a trip to the northern city Santander to answer the big question of the day, which is better: flight or ferry? There’s only one way to find out.

To the sea!

Sailing to net zero: Chalkmarks is aboard a Brittany Ferries… ferry, called Pont-Aven sailing from Plymouth, Devon, to Santander, Cantabria, northern Spain. It’s an overnight crossing taking around 20 hours. We’ll be covering the 480 miles (770 kms) at 27 knots (31mph or 50km) with up to 2,400 passengers and 650 cars. In short, we’re off to Spain on a French ship that keeps to British time – what could go wrong? Let’s talk you through this. Here’s what went down…

Ship shape: They might call it a ferry, but from the outside Pont-Aven is the size of a cruise ship. On the dockside at Plymouth, it’s a huge hulk of a boat. On the return leg from Santander it dominates the skyline. It’s a mega ferry. On the inside though, it is a ferry. There are no sun loungers, or waterslides. There’s no theme park. It’s nothing like being on board a Celebrity Cruise. There’s no live entertainment, Michelin-starred food or a spa. The cabins aren’t suites with mini bars and balconies – they’re small and practical. It’s no frills, built for one-night’s kip. 

Making waves: First thing’s first, we head down to deck five to drop our bags in the cabin before we set sail. The last time we were on a ship, we puked everyday, for seven days. It was so bad, we wrote about it here. That was on a nine-day crossing from the UK to the US on a Royal Caribbean cruise ship. So, not taking any chances, we booked a cabin just in case we need to be horizontal. We have also popped a travel sickness pill, put on our motion sickness bracelet and eaten a bag of ginger. Note: none of these remedies have ever worked but FYI hot cookies have stopped us feeling iffy in the past!

Vibe check: On board is an older, retired crowd, travelling with their cars and caravans heading to the continent. There’s also quite a few dog owners, all sitting together in a penned area, out on deck. Then there are groups of motorcyclists, and just a handful of foot passengers, which we are. The worst part about being a foot passenger is we are the last to step aboard which means by the time we check-in, the beer is flowing and the motoring brigade are on their second pint. It’s a booze cruise. Everyone’s beside the sea!

Seas the day: We’re off! And right on time too, at 3.45pm. We watch as we sail away from Plymouth harbour and pass Drake’s Island (which we’d never heard of before) into open water. Up here, deck nine has turned into a roof-top bar with passengers sitting on white plastic garden chairs, around trays of beer, and men with their chest hair hanging out. But who can blame them? It’s 24C, not bad for May. Many are happily chatting away sharing their travel plans and what routes they’re taking. Many seem to be heading to Bilbao in northern Spain while others are going south into Portugal. When the sun goes behind a cloud it’s gets cool so we head back inside to explore.

Pack your bags we’re taking the ferry!

Fun stuff: To keep us busy there are bars and restaurants, and in the morning breakfast will be served before we dock. In the cafe, it’s standard ferry fare. There are baguettes, salads, sandwiches, quiche, hot meals and some very impressive desserts. We’ll be back for those later. Pont-Aven boasts a pool (this would be full with three people in it), cinema and a games room. A message comes over the tannoy announcing circus skills are starting very soon! Our heart sinks. Acrobats and juggling on a boat? Why? Who’s asking for that? For us, the main attraction is the water. We never get bored of the view.

The long-haul: When it gets dark there’s nothing more to see outside so we rock inside for an evening stroll around the cafe. Ooh desserts! For dinner we opt for lemon meringue and Champagne. Just kidding, it was a bottle of fizzy water. With the booze cruise in full swing, we head back down to deck 5 passing a glass of red here and a glass of white there. We’re in a two-person cabin with single bunk beds. It’s not glossy, it’s not glamorous (see below) and it has no window – that would have cost extra. There’ll be no daylight in the morning but that’s okay for one night. There’s also no phone signal down here and the wifi isn’t great – sob! But effectively this is our hotel room. The bed is as long as the room, fitting wall to wall. It’s pretty bare with a sheet, thin duvet and a flat pillow. There’s one European socket. There’s also heat control and the shower is powerful and hot. All is well. Zzzzz.

Rock the boat: The bed was comfortable but we could feel the boat rocking throughout the night. We slept badly if at all. By morning, we’re sailing in the deep blue Atlantic Ocean. We step outside to breathe in the sea air then head up to the cafe where there’s a long queue for the full English. If we’d flown over the waves, we’d have arrived by now. But, there is no need for speed. The view is spectacular. It’s the best thing on board… 

Ferry expensive: The costs have been calculated… by us! The price is off-putting. We paid £433 for a return trip from Plymouth to Santander (2023 price). A return flight would have been around £100 and taken two hours. A seven-day cruise can cost around £800, so £216 one-way, for one night, is a hefty price-tag, and there’s not even a free bottle of water in the cabin, or a film to watch. To break this down further: The sailing cost £122 and the cabin was £95. It would have been more affordable if we had opted for a £9 seat in a lounge – airplane style – and used a shared bathroom. That would have cost £131 each way (£262 for the return). Whether you opt for a cabin or the lounge, every passenger has to pay for a seat, not just the sailing.

The damage: The stats are in and showing that airplanes are one of the biggest polluters, especially short-haul flights. Boffins at Ferrygogo calculated that the 480 mile (770 km) trip from London to Santander by plane uses 244 grams per km but just 19 grams per km for a ferry foot passenger – more if you’d taken a car.

Heaven or hell? The ferry service may not be new but it’s time it was rediscovered. As soon as you’re on board it’s part of the holiday – it’s more than a crossing – and it’s perfect for summer travel, when the sea is calm and the sun beats down. But it doesn’t work for a weekend away as you’d lose two days sailing. We didn’t miss the airport or the flight. There’s wifi on board – free for an hour-and-a-half each day – and you can bring as much luggage as you like including lots of little liquids. We did like being able to move around. And we had our own space. Paying for a cabin is like going first class – you get more room and not much else. But Brittany Ferries is not in the hotel business like cruise ships, they are in the ferry business, getting you from A to B. The views are magnificent. Question is: are they, and the circus skills, enough for the price?

From drizzle to sizzle: Ay chicos we made it – we’re under the Spanish sol. Yep, we speak the lingo. Now we’ve arrived it’ll be dos cervezas por favor and a siesta. Set watches one hour forward, we can take it from here. It’s 1.15pm exactly – Brittany Ferries runs like clockwork. We have to wait for the cars to roll off and then we wheel our suitcase across the street and we’re in the centre of Santander. For now, we gotta fly. We’re off to the beach (see above, look below). Our next stop is Bilbao then Benidorm, and we’ll be back next week for the return ferry home. Hasta la vista muchachos.

THE FAST AND THE FERRY!

Chalkmarks paid our own way. We sailed from Plymouth to Santander and stayed in AirBnbs.

Chalkmarks: El Sardinero, Santander, Spain
Clear waters: El Sardinero, Santander, Spain
Chalkmarks: El Sardinero, Santander, Spain
The beach is calling: El Sardinero
Chalkmarks: Brittany Ferries, Plymouth, England, May 2023
Away with the ferries: Brittany Ferries’ Pont-Aven docked in Plymouth, England
Chalkmarks: Our cabin aboard Brittany Ferries
Costa-lot: Our cabin aboard Brittany Ferries
Chalkmarks: Cinema aboard Brittany Ferries
Ports and all: The cinema aboard Brittany Ferries
Chalkmarks: On the menu aboard Brittany Ferries
A feast: On the menu aboard Brittany Ferries
Chalkmarks: Brittany Ferries ferry in Santander
Turning the tide: Brittany Ferries’ Pont-Aven in Santander

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