How to drive to Europe without the chaos and queues (2023)

Thousands of British holidaymakers have endured lengthy queues at the Port of Dover, which declared a “critical incident” over the first weekend of the Easter holidays.

Coach-loads of schoolchildren were caught up in the chaos, with some students reporting queues of up to 24 hours with no access to food or water.

The Port of Dover has put the gridlock down to “a mix of lengthy immigration processes at the border and sheer volume of traffic”, although the Home Secretary Suella Braverman has rejected suggestions that Brexit could be the cause.

Regardless of why the delays are happening, some industry commentators have suggested the Port of Dover may end up imposing a limit on peak-time passenger numbers, as has been the case on Eurostar services during busier periods, as well as at Heathrow last year.

The reason the Dover to Calais crossing is so popular is that it is the shortest and usually cheapest way to drive to the Continent (Dover to Dunkirk is a touch longer). But there are seven other major exit points to reach Europe, where your chances of facing a queue are far slimmer and in some instances, such as Dieppe or St Malo, the point of arrival is a destination in its own right.

From Hull to Holland or Plymouth to Santander, these are the alternative ferry routes to Europe that you may never have considered until now.



Who sails there? DFDS (

Crossing time: 4hrs 5m

Price check (August 5-12, 2023; two adults and one car): from £259.50.

Dieppe is one of the most attractive of the north-coast ports, and makes a good weekend destination in its own right – especially if you enjoy seafood. There is a great beach, and the castle on the headland has a good art collection, including works by Courbet, Renoir, Pissarro and Sickert.

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It gives easy access to the northern stretches of the Normandy coast, especially Etretat and Pourville, two favourite resorts of the Impressionist painters, as well as the cities of Rouen and Amiens. It is also only a couple of hours’ drive from Paris, and fares are good value, so it is well worth considering as an alternative to Calais.

Where to stay: Villa des Capucins, housed in a former convent in the old fisherman's quarter, le Pollet.

Portsmouth–Le Havre, previously run by Brittany Ferries (, is not currently operating.


Who sails there? Brittany Ferries (

Crossing time: 6hrs

Price check (August 5–12, 2023; two adults and one car): from £450

The crossing to Caen offers a good balance between speed, cost and direct access into Normandy and routes throughout France. It’s actually quicker to get from Caen to Aix-en-Provence than from Calais, and not much more than a couple of hours to reach the Loire.

Anyone exploring the D-Day beaches will find this a good option, and for a weekend break, there are few more attractive towns than Bayeux, which is only around a 40-minute drive from the port.

Where to stay: Le Clos Saint-Martin, a small four-bedroom bijou hotel in a former 17th-century mansion, is a haven of quietness in the middle of Caen old town.

Portsmouth or Poole–Cherbourg

Who sails there? Brittany Ferries (

Crossing time: 5hrs 45m from Portsmouth, 4hrs 30m from Poole.

Price check (August 4–11, 2023; two adults and one car): from £405 (Portsmouth) or £395 (Poole; Aug 4–11).

Cherbourg isn’t the most beautiful of ports, and at the top of the Cotentin Peninsula it is rather out on a limb and a long haul to the motorway. However, the crossing is relatively quick, and there are some lovely villages, ports (such as Barfleur) and beaches to explore.

Where to stay: The Landemer is a superbly renovated 150-year-old hotel in the far north of the Cotentin Peninsula.

Portsmouth or Poole–St Malo

Who sails there? Brittany Ferries from Portsmouth (, Condor Ferries from Poole (

Crossing time: 11hrs (Portsmouth) or 6hrs 20m (Poole)

Price check (August 5-12, 2023; two adults and one car): from £609 (Portsmouth) or £460 (August 4–11 Poole).

St Malo is one of the most attractive decent-sized ports in Europe; a walled city with its own chateau, and a weekend destination in its own right. If you do take the car, the lovely resort of Dinard is just across the bay, the hilltop town of Dinan just up the estuary, Mont Saint-Michel is less than an hour away, and the beautiful pink-granite coastline stretches away to the west.

Where to stay: Get a taste of belle époque glamour at Le Grand Hôtel Barrière.


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Who sails there? Brittany Ferries (

Crossing time: 6hrs 10m

Price check (August 4-11, 2023; two adults and one car): from £564

Roscoff is as disarming a granite-built little port as any in Brittany, open to the sea but drawn tight round the community. Shipping and freebooting wealth equipped it with a framework of fine, solid 16th and 17th-century houses. Proper fishing continues and good beaches have a generous coating of pleasure-seekers.

These days, the storybook harbour contains nothing that could realistically plunder English shipping (let alone attack Bristol, as Roscovites once did) – the port buildings are trimmed with flowers and there are bars and restaurants sufficient for the needs of locals – and visitors, most of whom are pausing pre- or post-ferry.

Doubtless they believe that staying in the spot where the ferry docks for any length of time lacks adventure. A re-think is required, not least because, secondly, Roscoff is wonderfully placed for some of the most stirring stretches of the north Brittany coastline – west towards the Pays-des-Abers, east across the Bay of Morlaix to the Pink Granite coast.

Where to stay: The four-star Hôtel Mercure Roscoff Bord de Mer, right at the water’s edge.



Who sails there? Brittany Ferries (

Crossing time: approx 33hrs

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Price check (August 6–12, 2023; two adults and one car, including cabin): from £1,101.

The arrival of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao helped reinvent the city as a cultural capital. There are impressive buildings to visit, with the Azkuna Zentroa (an arts centre designed by Philippe Starck) and the Estación de Abando (a train station with a staggering stained-glass window) among the highlights.

Bilbao is also a food hub, with hundreds of pintxos bars – serving the Basque version of tapas – from which to choose.

Beyond Bilbao lies the Basque Country, with its own language, dramatic beaches lashed by Atlantic swells, and, inland, beautiful mountainscapes. Travel east to San Sebastián for more sublime food and one of Europe’s great city beaches, La Concha.

Wine lovers should head down the coast to sample sweet, slightly sparkling Txakoli, or drive to Rioja Alavesa to find a winery designed by Frank Gehry, the same architect behind the Guggenheim.

Where to stay: Caravan Cinema, a boutique hotel in Bilbao, is an example of the city’s quirky taste in design. Foodies will love San Sebastián’s Akelarre, a three-Michelin-starred restaurant with a five-star boutique hotel attached.

Portsmouth or Plymouth–Santander

Who sails there? Brittany Ferries (

Crossing time: 28hrs (Portsmouth), 20hrs (Plymouth)

Price check (August 3-14, 2023; two adults and one car, including cabin): from £1,076 (Portsmouth) or £1085 (Plymouth; Aug 6–15).

With its terrific pincho bars, sandy golden beaches, heaving surf scene, lively fiestas and belle époque architecture, Cantabria’s elegantly understated capital is a much-loved summer escape for Spaniards, and the ambitious Centro Botín arts centre designed by Renzo Piano and opened in 2017 has really put it on the map.

Where to stay: Jardín Secreto, a creatively converted 19th-century townhouse with six rustic-modern rooms.



Who sails there? DFDS (

Crossing time: 16hrs 45m

Price check (August 5–13, 2023; two adults and one car, including cabin): from £1,258

Amsterdam is a city that celebrates individuality, encourages quirkiness and delights in difference. It has a long history of riches and rebelliousness. The glory-days of the 17th century, the über-cosy 1800s, the counter-culture explosion of the 1960s – they’ve all left tidelines along Amsterdam’s canals: opulent gables, Rembrandt and Van Gogh, barrel-lined cafés, gardens of rare blooms, marijuana-selling coffeeshops, and Miss Marple bicycles.

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Now Amsterdam is sweeping into a new Golden Age, making a fresh mark with galleries, sharp shops, award-winning restaurants and hipster cafés. Bristles of audacious architecture have shot up round the city edges but the cobweb of gable-lined canals is still at its heart, with funky stores in the criss-crossing alleys of Negen Straatjes, new galleries to the west in the Jordaan, world-class museums and chic boutiques south around Museumplein, a market and further foodie paradise in De Pijp, and hot new quarters opening up all the time.

Where to stay: Sofitel Legend The Grand Amsterdam has a garden courtyard full of secluded nooks. It is a quiet retreat in a hectic part of town.


Who sails there? P&O (

Crossing time: 10hrs

Price check (August 5-12, 2023; two adults and one car, including cabin): from £1,030

Rotterdam may not be quite as beautiful as the Dutch capital (indeed, some bits are gobsmackingly ugly), but it’s energetic and eclectic, with a gusto a lot of prettier cities lack. A metropolis built on trade, Rotterdam has always had a can-do attitude. Its no-nonsense inhabitants have never been sentimental about the past. Rather than trying to patch up their devastated hometown, they decided to start again, from scratch.

The old street plan was swept away, and a brave new world of tower blocks rose out of the ashes. The results of this high-rise experiment have been variable, to say the least. For every modernist masterpiece there are several eyesores, but some of the most recent skyscrapers are spectacular. Cranes crowd the skyline. This is a city on the rise.

Where to stay: Room Mate Bruno’s explosive use of colour and geometric shapes, while sitting cheek-by-jowl with industrial heritage, has made it a favourite with young travellers.

Harwich–Hook of Holland

Who sails there? Stena Line (

Crossing time: 7hrs

Price check (August 5-12, 2023; two adults and one car, including cabin): from £396

Hook of Holland serves both Rotterdam and another overlooked Dutch city: The Hague. As the seat of the Dutch government, home to the royals, and host to embassies and powerful international courts, The Hague oozes elegance and gleams with polished prosperity.

The rich and illustrious history means superb museums – such as the magnificent Mauritshuis, and the city has corners of quiet charm, too – its swathes of green and nearby beach make it great for a summer break.

Where to stay: Hotel des Indes offers appropriate old-style grandeur.

Hull–Zeebrugge, previously operated by P&O Ferries, is no longer in service.

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