It seems like it's becoming quite popular to take one of these little 'mini cruise' ferries to Europe from Britain - as more and more often I hear about someone who's just taken one. And why not?
The prices are pretty good - yeah, it's another budget way to travel and is a long way from the glories of the luxury cruises you get around the Med and from Florida which lavish you with shows and buffets and things to do and nice staterooms. But as a way to get to a destination that's more than just the incredible faff involved in flying to and from the place you want to get to. The cruise is a more leisurely way of getting there and you get to soak up the atmosphere of pure, unadulterated 'travel' in a way that it becoming hard to find amidst lines and checkpoints and baggage scans and little tiny plastic bags filled with tiny bottles of liquids.
I'd taken one of these types of cruises (they're ferries - they call them 'cruises' but they are ferries.) when I was in Finland, and again in Sweden and so I had some idea of what to expect, but had never taken one from the UK before.
The drive down to the port was the biggest inconvenience by a long stretch - I unfortunately now live so far north that to take one of these cruises (from Hull, in this instance) was practically a two day journey in and of itself. But we made that part of the trip - driving south to visit friends for the night in the Scottish borders then heading down in the morning to catch our evening boat from Hull.
The biggest drag about this was how dull most of that drive is - once you leave the area around Durham it's a pretty dreary drive the rest of the way. But even so, I just kept telling myself that I would easily have spent that much time arriving at the airport 2 hours early, going through security, waiting for the flight and eventually landing on the other side and following a similar process. I was up for the change of pace.
The cruise itself I found to be surprisingly pleasant. We took a P&O cruise for our trip to Bruges for our anniversary (you can get really amazing deals if you book in advance - I believe our tickets were buy one get one free for £89) The price was very cheap so I went expecting very little. I highly recommend that you have some dinner before getting on the ship - the options are limited and outrageously priced (and though I didn't eat at any of the restaurants on board - I have my suspicions that they were not of the highest caliber) But it's not a plane - so you can bring your own food and snacks if you want (exactly what we did - we stopped at an M&S on the motorway and got some snacks for the evening, some drinks and even some stuff for breakfast the next morning.)
It was all very straightforward. The parking was very reasonable (It was £10 for us to park while we were gone or £5 per 24 hours) and it was in a secured area - we felt very safe leaving our car there. The lines were pretty quiet and not rushed - we did seem to be the only ones on the boat under the age of 50. There was a bit of security and ticket checking - but compared to what you put up with on airplanes it was a breeze.
The whole place was a bit dated and ragged - the terminal as well as the boat. It wasn't bad - and the room we had was clean and neat - just dated. You can pay a bit more for the slightly better rooms and I highly recommend that you do. We booked a cheap room but lucked out and were upgraded both legs of the journey. The rooms were surprisingly spacious with plenty of room, bunk beds a little table and in one room a closet for our stuff and a desk. The bathrooms (en suite) were small but ample and we revelled in our little shower option we got to have in the midst of travelling. It was a very pleasant novelty.
A lot of folk were drinking on the boat on the way back - so it did get a little bit noisy and the rooms are anything but sound proof - but we took it as part of the experience and enjoyed the ride (if you want to avoid this, don't travel at the weekend, the place was actually pretty quiet on the ride over)
The staff were fine - not extremely helpful but not unhelpful either. At one point we wandered about and stopped at the cafe and had some warm soup (a great thing, I discovered to keep the sloshing seasickness from taking hold)
We arrived at the port at 9 am and were immediately picked up by the transfer bus after a cursory run though customs. The bus was very good and it only took about half an hour to get into Bruges. The bus was waiting for us when we returned the evening of the following day - very easy walking distance from town. (I do recommend that you get back to the bus early - we did so and still got on just as it was heading out.)
My only concern about doing this again was that on the way back we were put in a tiny, very very dated cabin at the very rear of the boat right next to the generator and the entire room stunk so profoundly of oil that I had a headache within minutes. The air conditioning went out and the room was so small we could barely move. There was also a crack so large in the bottom of the door we could see people walking past.
Luckily because of the air-con problem they moved us to a better, bigger cabin, without which the trip back would have been miserable.
To avoid this I will always book a higher class cabin if I do travel this way again. They were accommodating, though - so I can't fault them for that.
All in all - an interesting experience, and I at least returned home feeling smug that I'd made my trip across without contributing money to an airline.