How to travel from South West England to Europe without flying

Updated: Jun 18

There are lots of ways to travel from south west England to Europe without flying. It is possible by rail, coach or ferry (in a car or as a foot passenger) or a combination of all three, from Cornwall, Devon, Exeter, Bristol, and the rest of the west country. For instance, in under six hours you could reach Paris from Bristol by train or if you live on the south coast, you could reach Cherbourg in northern France by ferry in about the same time.

If you want to take your own car or plan to holiday in Brittany, Normandy or northern Spain without a car, there are numerous options from the various ferry ports along the south coast. You can catch a ferry with Brittany Ferries from Poole to Cherbourg and Plymouth to Roscoff or Santander, but the greatest choice of destinations is from Portsmouth, with services to Le Harve, Caen, Cherbourg, St Malo, Bilbao and Santander. Newhaven is connected to Dieppe with DFDS, but Dover has the greatest choice of sailings to France with 50 departures a day in peak season across the Channel. For Calais you can choose P&O Ferries or sail with DFDS, which also runs a route to Dunkirk.


If you’d rather go by road or rail, coaches and trains heading to the continent both use the Channel Tunnel, so you have to factor in the time it takes to travel east to London. If you take the train, once on the other side of the tunnel, you’re then connected to the European high-speed rail network, which can whizz you to many European capitals and beyond within hours.


Our team has tried and tested many of the routes and so we have tried to summarise all the available options in this post based on our experience.


From South West England to Europe by Ferry

You can hop across the English Channel direct from two of the West Country’s major ferry ports - Plymouth and Poole. The routes to Santander, Roscoff and Cherbourg are operated by Brittany Ferries and take between 4.5 and 18.5 hours depending on the route and departure time. The fastest crossing is the day crossing from Poole to Cherbourg, in France, while the longest distance travelled is aboard the overnight ferry from Plymouth to Santander in Spain.


Examples of total journey times including allowance for check-in and transfers where relevant:

Exeter to Calais: 7 hours to go by car or train and then ferry from Dover

Exeter to Cherbourg: 7/10 hours to go by car/train and ferry from Poole

Exeter to Santander: 22.5 hours to go by car or train and then ferry from Plymouth


You have an option to take the train to the ferry port in Portsmouth, which takes around 2.5 hours from Bristol or 4 hours from Exeter, for example. Departing Portsmouth gives you a wider choice of routes with Brittany Ferries, opening up Le Harve, Caen, St Malo and Bilbao by day or overnight ferry. Newhaven is the departure point for ferries to Dieppe, but it takes longer on the train - 4 hours from Bristol and 6 hours from Exeter, taking the total journey times to 9 and 11 hours respectively to Dieppe. In this case, driving to Newhaven or going by car through the Eurotunnel to Dieppe would be significantly more time efficient.


If you want to travel from the West Country to Calais without flying, it’s as quick to take the train all the way via London as it is to drive to Dover and take the ferry across - both routes take from about 6.5 hours including transfers and check-in times.


Here is a summary of the ferry routes from the south coast ports that are accessible from the West Country:


Poole to Cherbourg with Brittany Ferries

Journey time: 4.5 hours (9 hours for overnight return crossing)

Timings: up to two return crossings per day in peak summer season. Leaves Poole at around 08:30 and arrives at 14:00, depending on the day and season

Facilities on board: restaurant, bar, cafe, shop, children’s play area Sleeper cabins: 2-4 berth cabins

Luggage: there’s no limit on luggage. Foot passengers can travel with a bicycle for a small charge each way. Other info: from Cherbourg it is three hours to Paris by train but most people take a car as you can drive onto Normandy in just over an hour.

Book a ferry from Poole to Cherbourg >>


Plymouth to Santander with Brittany Ferries

Journey time: 18.5 hours

Timings: one sailing per week departing on Sundays at 16:45, arriving in Santander at 12:15, returning Wednesdays

Facilities on board: restaurants, bars, cafe, shops, pool, live entertainment, cinemas, spa, children’s play area Sleeper cabins: 2-4 berth cabins

Luggage: there’s no limit on luggage. Foot passengers can travel with a bicycle for a small charge each way. Other info: Brittany Ferries’ mini cruise package offers two nights on board the ship, Pont Aven on the journey out and back, plus two nights in Santander. For journeys on from Santander, the rail network works best if you want to head south, with Madrid a four-hour journey away and Leon 3.5 hours, but for east-west journeys, it’s best to travel by car or by bus with Alsa the leading coach company in the region.

Book a ferry from Plymouth to Santander >>


Plymouth to Roscoff with Brittany Ferries

Journey time: 6-8 hours

Timings: up to two return crossings per day in peak summer season with day and overnight options. Leaves Plymouth at around 08:00 and/or 22:00, depending on the day and season

Facilities on board: restaurants, bars, cafe, shops, live entertainment, cinemas, children’s play area, pool and spa (on some crossings) Sleeper cabins: 2-4 berth cabins

Luggage: there’s no limit on luggage. Foot passengers can travel with a bicycle for a small charge each way. Other info: Roscoff is well placed for holidays in Brittany, Normandy and the Loire

Book a ferry from Plymouth to Roscoff >>


Newhaven to Dieppe with DFDS

Journey time: 4 hours

Timings: 3 daily sailings in both directions May-September (2 daily sailings at other times)

Facilities on board: restaurant, bar, shop, children’s play area

Sleeper cabins: 2-4 berth cabins

Luggage: there’s no limit on luggage. F oot passengers can travel with a bicycle free of charge. Other info: you can travel by coach from Dieppe to Paris in 2.5 hours or connect to the intercity French rail network via Rouen

Book a ferry from Newhaven to Dieppe >>


Portsmouth to Le Harve with Brittany Ferries

Journey time: day and overnight ferries take between 5.5 and 10 hours

Timings: at least one daily departure, with up to two a day in the peak summer season. Departs Portsmouth 23:00 or 23:30, arrives Le Harve 8:00 or 08:30, with an extra seasonal departures - see website for details

Facilities on board: small bar, self service restaurant, cinema, small shop and kids play area

Sleeper Cabins: take from 2-4 people (6 berth on some ferries), including cabins suitable for a dog to travel alongside its owner

Luggage: there’s no limit on luggage. Foot passengers can travel with a bicycle for a small charge each way. Other info: Le Harve is the closest port to Paris by car.

Book a ferry from Portsmouth to Le Havre >>


Portsmouth to Caen with Brittany Ferries

Journey time: 6-7 hours

Timings: daily departures in the peak summer season. Greatest choice of sailing times at 08:15, 14.45, 22:00 and 22:45 depending on the day and season

Facilities on board: bar, restaurants, cinema, entertainment for adults and children, shops and kids play area

Sleeper Cabins: take from 2-4 people and some ferries have cabins suitable for a dog to travel alongside its owner

Luggage: there’s no limit on luggage. Foot passengers can travel with a bicycle for a small charge each way. Other info: from Caen you can connect to the high speed rail network in France via Le Mans or get to Paris by rail in two hours.

Book a ferry from Portsmouth to Caen >>


Portsmouth to Cherbourg with Brittany Ferries

Journey time: 3 hours

Timings: daily departures in the peak summer season. Leaves Portsmouth at 09:00, arriving in Cherbourg at 13:00, with extra departures depending on the season

Facilities on board: lounge with reclining seats, shop, cafe and bar

Luggage: there’s no limit on luggage. Foot passengers can travel with a bicycle for a small charge each way. Other info: from Cherbourg it is three hours to Paris by train but most people take a car as you can drive onto Normandy in just over an hour.

Book a ferry from Portsmouth to Cherbourg >>


Portsmouth to St Malo with Brittany Ferries

Journey time: 7-11 hours

Timings: sailings every day during the peak summer season. Leaves Portsmouth at 20:15, arriving in Cherbourg at 08:15, with slight changes to timings depending on the season and some day crossings from St Malo

Facilities on board: cinemas, cabaret and live entertainment, restaurants, bar, cafe, shopping Sleeper cabins: 2-4 berth cabins

Luggage: there’s no limit on luggage. Foot passengers can travel with a bicycle for a small charge each way. Other info: one of the boats on the route (Pont Aven) has a pool and leisure area. From St Malo you can drive to Brittany in 1.5 hours and the Dordogne in 6 hours. Otherwise by train you can get to Rennes in under an hour and Paris in three hours.

Book a ferry from Portsmouth to St Malo >>


Portsmouth to Bilbao with Brittany Ferries

Journey time: 24-32 hours

Timings: up to three return crossings each week. Leaves Portsmouth at 08:45, 12:00 or 22:30, depending on the day and season. Sundays sailings offer two nights onboard

Facilities on board: restaurants, bar, cafe, shopping, pool, spa, cinema, children’s play area Sleeper cabins: 2-4 berth cabins including a cabin that accommodates a pet alongside its owners

Luggage: there’s no limit on luggage. Foot passengers can travel with a bicycle for a small charge each way. Other info: opt for a Tuesday daytime crossing aboard the ‘no-frills’ ships, Baie de Seine or Connemara, for a more affordable crossing. Some crossings offer whale and dolphin spotting with the ‘ORCA wildlife officers’. As with Santander, the Alsa coach service is best for onward journeys by public transport unless you are heading south by train towards Madrid.

Book a ferry from Portsmouth to Bilbao >>


Portsmouth to Santander with Brittany Ferries

Journey time: 24-32 hours

Timings: two return crossings each week. Leaves Portsmouth at around 08:45 or 17:00 depending on the day and season

Facilities on board: restaurants, bar, cafe, shopping, pool, spa, cinema, children’s play area Sleeper cabins: 2-4 berth cabins including a cabin that accommodates a pet alongside its owners

Luggage: there’s no limit on luggage. Foot passengers can travel with a bicycle for a small charge each way. Other info: opt for a ‘no-frills’ ship for a more affordable crossing, which operates during peak season - check the Brittany Ferries website for details. Some crossings offer whale and dolphin spotting with the ‘ORCA wildlife officers’. For journeys on from Santander, the rail network works best if you want to head south, with Madrid a four-hour journey away and Leon 3.5 hours, but for east-west journeys, it’s best to travel by car or by bus with Alsa the leading coach company in the region.

Book a ferry from Portsmouth to Santander >>


Dover to Calais with P&O Ferries

Journey time: 1.5 hours

Timings: up to 23 daily sailings in both directions, depending on the time of year

Facilities on board: food court, restaurant, cafe, bar, shop, kid’s club

Luggage: there’s no limit on luggage. Foot passengers can travel with a bicycle free of charge but must book the bicycle in advance with one bicycle per booking so groups with multiple bicycles need to make separate bookings. Other info: there are four ticket types from Saver to Premier, which give you varying flexibility, wifi access and lounge access. Only passengers travelling with a car can bring their pet.


Dover to Calais with DFDS

Journey time: 1.5 hours

Timings: up to 30 daily sailings in both directions, depending on the time of year

Facilities on board: restaurant, cafe, bar, shop, kid’s play area, free wi-fi

Luggage: there’s no limit on luggage and no extra cost to bring bicycles with a vehicle Other info: DFDS does not accept foot passengers on its Dover-Calais route - only those travelling with a vehicle. A ‘Flexi ticket’ allows you to travel up to 72 hours either side of your original booking, subject to availability. Passengers can bring their pet at a cost of £15 each way. For onwards travel, Calais is on the Intercity rail network with the option to connect to towns including Boulogne, Lille, Amiens and Arras on the TER network.

Book a ferry from Dover to Calais >>


Dover to Dunkirk with DFDS

Journey time: 2 hours

Timings: up to 24 daily sailings in both directions, depending on the time of year

Facilities on board: restaurant, cafe, bar, shop, kid’s play area, free wi-fi

Luggage: there’s no limit on luggage and no extra cost to bring bicycles with a vehicle Other info: DFDS does not accept foot passengers on its Dover-Dunkirk route - only those travelling with a vehicle. A ‘Flexi ticket’ allows you to travel up to 72 hours either side of your original booking, subject to availability. Passengers can bring their pet at a cost of £15 each way. Dunkirk is well served by public transport - buses around the town are free and the train station is on the Intercity network with trains to Paris taking 2.5 hours.

Book a ferry from Dover to Dunkirk >>


From South West England to Europe by Coach

Although travelling by coach is typically the most economical way to get to Europe without flying, it can be a challenge from parts of the West Country due to the distances involved - from Penzance in the far west of Cornwall to London alone is an 8.5 hour journey with National Express. However, the coach network has good coverage along the north and south coasts of the West Country and journeys that begin east of Exeter are significantly faster owing to the M5 and M4 motorway connection to London.


Here are a few sample journey times including a change in London:

Bristol to Paris: from 13.5 hours

Bristol to Amsterdam: from 15 hours

Exeter to Paris: from 14.5 hours

Exeter to Amsterdam: from 17 hours

Penzance to Paris: from 18 hours

Penzance to Amsterdam: from 21 hours


National Express services terminate in London Victoria from where you can change to its international coach services which go to many European cities, including Calais, Paris, Lille, Amsterdam, Rotterdam, The Hague, Utrecht, Brussels, Antwerp and Bruges.


Luggage: You can take a hand luggage bag and medium-sized bag for the hold weighing no more than 20kg. Only folding bicycles are accepted.

Facilities: coaches are air conditioned and have wi-fi and USB charging points as well as toilets and while no refreshments are sold onboard, you can pack your own food and drink for the journey and stops are made at service stations to stock up on supplies.


Another European coach operator is Flixbus, which now incorporates the Eurolines and Isilines bus companies, with services out of London Victoria. It offers more destinations than National Express and beyond - such as Vienna from London in 26 hours, Frankfurt in 13.5 hours and Prague in 24 hours. You can even travel as far as Bucharest - a 44-hour journey across six countries. The same luggage restrictions apply with one piece of hand luggage and one hold luggage up to 20kg, and bikes can be taken on the bike rack from E9 per journey. Buses have free wifi, charging sockets, toilets, and on some journeys food and drink is sold onboard in addition to the refreshment stops. 

The cost varies depending on the route, time of year and so on, so check the coach operator’s website for fares.


From South West England to Europe by Train

To travel from the West Country to Europe by rail, you need to go via London to connect to Eurostar’s international rail network out of London St Pancras International Railway Station.


Here are a few journey times (times show the total duration of the trip, including allowing for sufficient time to transfer from Paddington or Waterloo to the Eurostar check-in and for the 45-minute check-in time at Eurostar, based on appropriate times of connecting trains in to and out of London):

Train from Bristol to Paris: 5.5 hours

Bristol to Amsterdam: 6.5 hours

Train from Exeter to Paris: 6.5 hours

Exeter to Amsterdam: 8 hours

Train from Penzance to Paris: 10 hours

Penzance to Amsterdam: 11.5 hours


The journey time from Penzance to London by train is around 5.5 hours. Despite its position on the western tip of England’s rail network, it can take longer to reach London from parts of north Devon or Somerset, because they are served by branch lines with less frequent trains.

Most of the London-bound rail services that start in the West Country pass through Reading and terminate in London Paddington. However, from places such as Bournemouth, Poole and Weymouth in the south of Dorset, and in the case of some Exeter services, trains terminate at London Waterloo. From Paddington or Waterloo it’s about a 20 minute journey on the London Underground to St Pancras.


Eurostar runs direct services to Paris, Brussels, Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Lyon, Lille and Disneyland Paris (and during the summer a direct train to Avignon and Marseille and the winter there’s a direct ‘ski train’ service to Moûtiers, Aime-la-Plagne and Bourg-St-Maurice). You can buy through-tickets that start outside of London and go beyond Eurostar’s destinations travelling with local operators. If you are travelling with a bike, check which routes accept bikes. The fee is around £30. Dogs are not permitted on Eurostar except guide dogs.

Book train travel to Europe >>




Written and researched by Ginny Light.


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Please note: the information on this page aims to give you a reasonable idea of ferry, train and coach routes, times, fares, and how to buy tickets in order that (hopefully) there’s enough detail to know what's available, how to plan a journey and where to book tickets. The information was up to date at time of publication, and although we will make every effort to update services provided, we cannot take responsibility for any errors or inaccuracies we provide. Always confirm details when you book.

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