There are many ways to travel to Spain from the UK without flying thanks to a variety of train and ferry services from the south of England. Our team has tried and tested many of them and so we have tried to summarise all the available options in this post based on our experience. On arrival in Spain, there are plenty of options at rail and ferry terminals for onward travel by rail and bus.
Important Covid update: please note the information given below was compiled before the Covid pandemic. Travel times and journeys may now be different so you are advised to check before you book and travel with the relevant travel operators.
Photos: Eurostar and Brittany Ferries
By Ferry from the UK to Spain
Brittany Ferries runs overnight ferry services from Portsmouth to Santander in northern Spain and (from March 2021) from Plymouth to Santander as well as from Portsmouth to Bilbao (also in northern Spain). These luxurious ferries are like going on a mini-cruise, the dining is first-class, there are lots of facilities to keep the kids happy, extremely comfortable sleeping cabins. And you may see whales and dolphin on the crossing - the Bay of Biscay is one of the best places in Europe to spot these magnificent marine animals.
Route: Portsmouth or Plymouth to Santander
Journey Time: 20-24 hours (can vary by up to an hour due to tidal conditions)
Sample timetable: Depart Portsmouth 5pm, arrives Santander the following day at 5.30pm. From March 2021: Depart Plymouth 3.45pm, arrive Santander the following day at 1.15pm. From March 2021: Depart Portsmouth 5pm, arrives Bilbao the following day at 5.30pm.
Changes: Train to Portsmouth or Plymouth then transfer to ferry terminal for overnight ferry to Santander
Frequency of Departures: Portsmouth-Santander 2 per week (journey time is 24 hours); Plymouth-Santander 1 per week (this is the fastest service - takes 20 hours)
Carbon emissions (as foot passenger): 15kg (flight would be 311.1kg)*
Car hire at Santander: Yes
How to travel to Portsmouth ferry terminal
By Bus: The easiest way for foot passengers to reach the harbour is to take a National Express coach (e.g. from London Victoria), which stops right outside the ferry departure building. The closest train station to Portsmouth ferry terminal is 'Portsmouth Harbour' (it's a 20-minute walk from here to the ferry check-in or a 10-minute taxi ride (costs about £5). There are also local bus services to Portsmouth ferry terminal operated by Stagecoach (bus 20) and First Bus (buses 8, X4 and X9).
By train: Train services London Waterloo to Portsmouth Harbour take 85 minutes and there are also services from London Victoria and Cardiff. NB between May and September, there is a shuttle bus from 'Portsmouth & Southsea' railway station to the ferry terminal.
Book a train to Portsmouth >> (train tickets provided by Trainline)
Portsmouth Harbour facilities: Bar, café, shop, bureau de change, internet access point.
How to travel to Plymouth ferry terminal
By Bus: National Express runs coach services from London's Victoria coach station to Plymouth coach station.
By Train: There is a good rail service from major railway stations in the UK to Plymouth train station. It takes 3-4 hours from London Paddington to Plymouth.
It takes about 20 minutes to walk from both Plymouth bus station and Plymouth train station to the Plymouth ferry terminal.
Book a train to Plymouth >> (train tickets provided by Trainline)
Plymouth Port facilities: Baby changing, bureau de change, café, disabled access.
(Ferry tickets provided by Brittany Ferries)
NB. To book as a foot passenger, choose the 'on foot' option from the vehicle selection drop-down selection on step 1 of the ferry booking process with Brittany Ferries.
On arrival at Santander ferry terminal: Bienvenido a Santander! The ferry terminal lies just one block along Avenida Castilla to Santander's main train station - if you have too much to carry, it's just a minute in a taxi. Santander's train station is well connected to the Spanish rail network, with trains running to major centres in the region and the rest of the country. Santander is the capital of Spain's verdant Cantabria region (part of the wider 'Green Spain' region, along with the Basque Country, Asturias and Galicia), with rugged mountain ranges and a beautiful stretch of coastline including the stunning Picos de Europa mountains.
For ideas of where to stay, great locally run restaurants, heritage attractions and activities: Green Traveller's Guide to Green Spain
By train from the UK to Spain
It is possible to travel by train to Spain in a day from the UK. The fastest route is to take the Eurostar from London St Pancras International Railway Station then change in Paris to catch a high speed train to Figueres, Girona and Barcelona. From Barcelona there are trains throughout Spain, including to Madrid and south to destinations such as Cordoba, Seville and Malaga. En route to Spain, you have to change stations in Paris from Gare du Nord to Gare de Lyon, which can take about half an hour on the Paris RER line (it's only two stops, though we recommend you leave at least 50 minutes for the entire transfer - you have about an hour and a half to get the connection, though you could get an earlier train and spent a bit more time in Paris, e.g. have lunch at the wonderful Train Bleu Restaurant in Gare de Lyon). See our guide to How to transfer between train stations across Paris. At Gare de Lyon, you board a TGV high speed train to 'Barcelona Sants' station.
By train from London to Barcelona
Journey Time: from 10 hours 10 minutes
Sample timetable: Depart London 10.24am, arrive Barcelona 9.46pm
Transfer: Paris Gare du Nord to Paris Gare de Lyon
Frequency of Departures: 15/day
Carbon emissions: 7kg (flight would be 180kg)*
Car hire at Barcelona Sants Railway Station: Yes
For more information about the journey and arriving in Barcelone, see our guide to How to travel by train from London to Barcelona
Stopover hotels to break the journey in Paris
If you want to break the journey and stay overnight to see a bit more of Paris while you're travelling through (and catch the day time train the following day down to Barcelona), there are lots of lovely places to stay in Paris conveniently near both Gare du Nord and Gare de Lyon. Here are some examples of hotels that are conveniently near these stations: