So what is Eurotunnel and why would you take the Eurotunnel as opposed to the ferry?
Eurotunnel is the passenger and freight rail service that runs from Folkstone to Calais (well, Coquelles to be precise). By ‘passenger’ we mean people in/on cars, motorbikes, vans, coaches, campervans etc. There are no ‘foot passengers’ as is the case with ferries. The service should not be confused with Eurostar which is the passenger service that carries no vehicles and runs out of London.
Pros and cons
So why would you take the Eurotunnel as opposed to the ferry? Well the biggest benefit is speed and thus time saving. In theory you drive into the terminal, check in, wait a while, drive onto a train and 35 minutes later you’re driving off the other side. I write ‘in theory’ as, in my opinion, the service has decidedly deteriorated over the last few years and delays, some lengthy, now seem all too common.
It’s easier to get to than the port if you’re coming from the London side of the M20. Pulling into the terminal is just like pulling into a motorway services. It takes out the hassle of the additional 11 miles to Dover and the sometimes slow trip through the town to the port.
The service is not (usually) disrupted by adverse weather and of course, there’s no worry about seasickness.
At busy times there can be up to five crossings an hour so, in theory, if you’re delayed you only have a short wait until the next one. In fact, Eurotunnel state you have leeway of up to 2 hours if you’re delayed. However, there’s a big caveat in that if subsequent crossings are full you’ll have to wait. I’ve heard of people waiting 6 hours after missing a crossing before being allowed on another one. In our experience travelling without a roof box or bikes etc and not going in a high-sided carriage gives more flexibility.
On the downside, travelling by Eurotunnel is about as romantic as visit to a multi-story car park. There’s nothing ‘nice’ about the trains, they are ugly grey boxes and once inside you mainly sit in your car staring at the car in front. There’s something about travelling by sea on the other hand and getting fresh air while watching the white cliffs fade away that’s a far more pleasant experience for most. If you’re the driver, the ferry trip provides a nice break from driving and allows you enough time for a meal.
The other downside is the price. Although there are some deals to be had, it is generally more expensive than the ferry.
The service is incredibly busy at peak times (school holidays) and, in my opinion, seems to be getting worse. They often blame delays on ‘capacity issues’ which to me seems a joke. They know how much capacity they have so should only allow appropriate bookings.
Booking Eurotunnel Tickets
Eurotunnel have certainly got this right. Unless you’re paying with Tesco Clubcard vouchers (more on that later) there is no need to book by phone. Their website at www.eurotunnel.com is incredibly quick and easy to use to make a booking. Don’t think you’ll be able to negotiate a discount by phoning, because you won’t.
Each booking gives you an online reference and password so you can amend it later, although there’s usually a difference in fare to pay there’s no fee for changing.
Channel Tunnel Prices
Book early. Prices only go up getting nearer your crossing and availability only goes down. If you’re in a high vehicle or carrying a roof box or bikes you’ll need to go in high sided carriage. There’s no extra fee but we’ve found these book up quickly and, on more than one occasion, have not been able to travel with our roof box.
While not compulsory, I’d highly recommend entering your car registration number at the booking. The automated check-in booths have number plate recognition which is superb as your booking appears on the screen as you drive up and you don’t have to enter your reference number. Despite this I always travel with a digital version of my booking confirmation on my phone and a printed copy just in case.
A fairly recent change (from about April 2015) is that you now have to enter the passport details of everyone who’ll be travelling in your party. I believe this is down to UK Border Agency and while it’s nothing more than a bit of an annoyance it does seem to make a mockery of EU freedom of movement.
It’s well worth using Tesco Clubcard vouchers if you have them. The process is a little long winded (but has improved dramatically from a few years ago when you had to wait for paper vouchers to be sent before booking) but well worth it as £10 in vouchers equals £30 in ticket price. Simply log on to your Clubcard account and follow the links and instructions.
You can pay all or part of your journey but you’ll not get any change from vouchers. When you’ve decided the value of vouchers to use Tesco will email you a reference code. Yes, they email it, they don’t show it there and then.You may even get a confirmation email first with a number that looks like the code but isn’t, so read it carefully.
You will find the email usually arrives between 20 minutes and and hour. Once you have the reference simply phone Eurotunnel to make the booking and tell them you are using Clubcard vouchers.
I was skeptical at first, thinking I’d be made to pay a higher fare in order to use the vouchers but that’s not the case. If you check the website, the fare for time you want to go will be the one you’re charged for using vouchers.
Outbound (UK to France)
Traveling out, most people are likely to arrive at the terminal at junction 11a of the M20. The first thing you’re greeted with is the check-in.
Queues always seem to be way shorter on the UK side and I’ve never worked out why. We tend to head for the one with the shortest queue whether manned or automatic. The automatic ones are really easy.
If you entered your car reg on booking it’ll automatically recognise you and present your booking details on screen for you to confirm. If you are early and there’s availability it may well give you the option of an earlier crossing, though this is quite unlikely at peak times. Simply select the crossing time and it’ll print out a paper hanger with a letter you attach to your rear view mirror.
Once you’ve checked in you (as in the letter you’ve been assigned) will either be directed to proceed or to wait at the terminal until called. There’s normally plenty of parking at the terminal and inside you’ll find a good selection of shops and cafes etc. Beware, if it’s early morning, school holidays and you’re busting for a cup of coffee you’ll probably find yourself in a long queue of others wanting the same.
If you stop at the terminal keep an eye on the departure boards and we always leave immediately when called. You still have to go through passport control and security and we have missed our crossing in the past because of this.
Once called just follow the signs. French passport control is on the UK side and I’ve never been checked or seen anyone else checked. You are either ignored or just waved through. Then you go through security and cars at random are pulled over for checks. Don’t worry if this happens to you, it’ll only take a few minutes and they’re doing it for your safety.
After security you then need to concentrate if you’re in a high sided vehicle or carrying a roof box or bikes. You MUST get in the correct lane as there are height restrictions. It’s too easy to forget about your roof box and to follow other cars who don’t have them. If your car is over 1.85m you must go (and have booked) in high sided.
There’s then one last check of your details before you are directed to a particular lane, exactly like waiting for the ferry. Your wait here depends on many factors and can be anything from nothing to hours if delays occur. So if you leave your car for a coffee or a quick loo stop be mindful that the light can go green and your lane start moving at any time.
Once is does just follow the car in front or the green lights if you’re the first until you’re at the train. You’ll then be directed on. Then sit back and relax.
Returning (France to UK)
Coming home is, as you’d expect, much the same but in reverse. The French terminal is at junction 43 on the A16 motorway and is clearly signposted. The actual address for online maps, sat navs etc is:
Eurotunnel Calais Terminal
Boulevard de l'Europe
For some reason, despite the fact there seem to be many more check-in booths, check-in coming back always seems to have much bigger queues. So much so that at times Eurotunnel staff (quite sensibly) have to hold cars back and then direct them as necessary.
The only thing that’s really different coming back to the UK is passport control. The UK Border Agency is based on the French side and, unlike their French counterparts on the UK side, they do check passports, each and every one.
So on the French side you proceed through passport control whether your train is ready for boarding or not. You are then either directed to board or to park at the terminal and to wait until your letter is called. While on the French side I still leave the terminal as soon as our letter is called, there’s no real panic as you’re already cleared passport control.
All in all, apart from some frustrating delays at times, using the Eurotunnel is a very simple and straightforward undertaking. Some people are nervous going through the tunnel. I can’t think why, you barely get a sense you’re even in a tunnel let alone one under the sea. It really just feels like you’re sitting in your car, that happens to be on a train you can’t see out of.
Given that we drive down to the Alps in one hit and thus have a ten hour drive ahead of us when we cross from the UK, the time saved against taking the ferry is very much worth it.
Below are some top tips if you’re taking Eurotunnel.
Book early, prices only go up. You can change your booking later.
Use Tesco Clubcard points if possible to save on the fare. You have to book by phone though.
Enter in car reg at time of booking.
Book in high sided if you have a roof box / bikes and ensure you get in the correct lane.
Look at Eurotunnel’s Twitter feed for info on delays etc - @LeShuttle
Follow the Drive-France.com Twitter feed for other hints & tips @DrivinginFrance
The author of this article is Roger Holden an experienced driver in France. Roger and his family use the tunnel on numerous occasions each year on their way to the Alps.
The video on our French Toll Roads page was also created by Roger and I'm sure you will find that very useful if you are considering using the Automatic Toll Tag system for your drive through France.