The crossing from Plymouth to Roscoff merits explanation, because there are so many ways of approaching a crossing like this that can make a difference to the experience, and for the purpose of this review, I have categorized the different aspects of travel, so that information can be gained quickly in each area, as needed by the consumer wanting information.
WHY CHOSE THIS ROUTE ?
Before booking, a traveller needs to decide which ferry crossing will suit their needs the best, although for those living in the Devon/Cornwall/Dorset area of the UK, then the Roscoff crossing makes sense in that the port is easily accessible and that the crossing itself takes the traveller into Brittany and to the network of good quality roads that head South. You really need to weigh up the advantages and disadvantages before booking, as the alternatives available in the form of cheap flights into Brest and Dinan do offer a quicker way to travel, although car hire would be necessary, and the limitations of luggage imposed should be considered.
HOW TO BOOK
Booking a ferry to cross the channel from Plymouth to Roscoff is not as obviously simple as one would imagine it to be for the very reason that the ferry company charge according to demand, and here, within the space of half an hour or sometimes less, the price quoted on their website can differ by as much as a hundred pounds for a crossing with a vehicle. It is worthwhile also to check out both the French Brittany Ferries site as well as the English one, since price differences between the two are amazing and bargains are there to be had.
TRICKS WHEN BOOKING
I learned a long time ago how to take advantage of Brittany Ferries pricing structure, because I had no choice. Travelling was essential and sometimes, I could not be tied down to a solid date of return. There is however a very neat trick to booking. They offer a cancellation insurance very cheaply and if you take this option, it will save a lot of additional expense should you have to change your return journey. Changing the booking costs the price of a phone call, weighed up against a very pricey alternative booking, and is well worth the small fee involved.
Remember if you are travelling with a handicapped person to let the ferry company know. The reason I say this is that if you declare that you are with someone of limited mobility, Brittany Ferries queue your vehicle separately from the rest of the cars, and make sure that you get parking next to the lifts and are there to help disabled passengers up to the floors where they will pass their journey. This really is a bonus and one that many travellers are unaware of. Foot passengers that are travelling with disabled people should also let the ferry company know, because dependent upon the height of the tide at the time of crossing, the walk up to the ferry itself can be extremely steep and difficult for people carrying luggage. Here, the ferry company do provide wheelchairs and staff to push them, and I used this many times when travelling with my father, and found the staff to be helpful.
Another trick worth thinking about is that if you chose night crossings, Brittany Ferries will force you to take some kind of costly accommodation. It's a built in snag to travelling at night, and here they use the excuse that it is for the benefit of the passenger, although forcing a passenger to have an expensive cabin makes night travel rather costly. If you book daylight crossings and are travelling with children, this is a better alternative, since you can have the same accommodation during the day at really cheap prices, and can rest adequately before your travel through France.
The experience itself.
Greeted at either Plymouth or Roscoff port, you must present yourself at the enquiry desk and book in, where you will be given a boarding card. For this reason Brittany Ferries tell customers to arrive an hour before the ferry, although half an hour works well as well and I honestly believe that the hour provision is a money spinner on Britanny Ferries' part to make you part with money in the cafe waiting area, both at Roscoff and at Plymouth, and frankly the kind of snacks available and standard of coffee in both cafes is questionable. On the French side, you are greeted by staff who belittle your attempts to speak French and make coffee that is enough to put hairs on your chest, and in Plymouth the coffee actually is pricey and tastes like yesterdays' coffee warmed up. The seating areas in both ports are adequate though do get crowded.
Boarding the ferry can be a struggle or a good experience and I would advise foot travellers to always carry a 1 euro piece with them because this is the price of a trolley in France, and without it, the foot passenger struggles. At the Plymouth end, it is quite a walk to the Ferry itself and the trolleys are provided free of charge. At the Roscoff end, there is a bus available for foot passengers, although you will leave the port quicker if you use the trolley option and walk the length of a covered corridor towards customs, since the bus is often full to brimming and takes a while to load.
Cars are boarded onto decks below the areas used by clients during the crossing, and if you are an inexperienced ferry traveller, I would advise that you wait until there is a queue of vehicles, since otherwise you may be one of the first to board, and your inexperience of ferry loading impede other travellers, as well as causing you difficulty. Many cars are loaded onto narrow ramps, and do not really suit the inexperienced driver. Always be sure that you have put your handbrake on as well, as I have experienced voyages where in stormy weather cars have rolled into other cars because the owner forgot a simple thing like putting their handbrake on.
SEA SICKNESS PILLS
You need never worry if you forget to buy sea sickness tablets, because the reception desks on the boat carry a supply and are happy to give these to customers free of charge.
FOOD GLORIOUS FOOD
The Ferries have a choice of food, and there are areas to suit everyone. The huge restaurant for the posher travellers is expensive though does offer good quality food. Here, I think that those travellers that use their travel club discounts get the best deal, although those travellers using the ferry for a one off trip don't. The meals are expensive and certainly not viable for a family unless they have an unlimited budget. There seems to be an atmosphere of snobbery as well in this restaurant, and an ambiance of loud Hurray Henry Bum bag Brigade mentality that I personally find depressingly reminiscent of why I left England in the first place. The wines offered are poor choices and rather overpriced.
For the traveller with children there are better alternatives, such as the self service areas which offer good food at reasonable prices. Snack food such as crisps and smaller items are extremely expensive and here, I would advise mums to stock up with snacks before travelling, because the prices of snacks to keep kids content during the six hour crossing will make a huge hole in your pocket. There are cafe style tea shops and here the cakes are delicious and of good fresh quality although again, at high prices.
For those who are travelling on a budget, one way around the expense of six hours worth of coffee and tea is to take your own tea bags and coffee sachets or jar and your own milk, and merely get cups of hot water. This may seem a mean approach, but believe me there are families travelling with many friends and many travel through necessity, either visiting family in the UK or in France, not so much as a holiday, but through family responsibilities. The Ferry staff do not mind you having hot water and cups and have become accustomed to those travellers who wish to travel on a budget. There are also microwaves available, and I have even been known to bake my own potatoes when money did not allow me the luxury of buying food on board.
BARS AND LIVE MUSIC
The bars on the Ferries are usually busy, offer drinks at reasonable prices, and sometimes have on board live entertainment, although I found this area dislikeable in that it is usually where all the smokers congregate and also where people tend to get drunk and offensive. Seating in these areas is barely adequate and more seating is available in the places that serve food. The odd packet of cigarettes can be bought here, if you do not want the expense of a whole carton.
There are areas that are designated smoking areas and these are the bars, areas of the cafes, and on decks. You are not, however, permitted to smoke elsewhere, and in accommodation. Here, Brittany Ferries make the same error over and over again which irritates me. They place school parties in the smoking area of the self service restaurant, making places for people that actually do smoke, unavailable to those that require them.
NEWSPAPERS/MAGAZINES AND GIFTS
The newspaper shop on board is always well stocked with both French and English magazines and newspapers and small packets of sweets, though the sweet prices are excessive.
The duty free shop offers a good range of cigarettes and booze at reasonable prices, although here I would advise passengers travelling to France not to bother, since the prices are akin to those on shore in France, where the choice is better and indeed where more competitive prices can be found.
DUTY FREE PERFUMES AND LUXURY GOODS
Here there is a good range of perfumes at good prices, although again, if travelling to France, I would advise that you check the prices in France and compare, thus buying on the way back to the UK if the range available in the area of France that you are visiting is limited and more expensive. Items such as luxury pens for example are cheaper in France, and certainly the watches and expensive items such as this are there to trap the fashion conscious, and I feel overpriced.
In the last few years, the cinema on the ferry has become expensive. Usually they run two films, in two small cinemas, one in French and one in English, although I can see the pressures that families have put on them by children who are bored, and do not think that charging expensive prices has done Brittany ferries any favours.
TOILET AND SHOWER FACILITIES
On board, there are adequate toilets and even shower areas for customers that do not have a cabin, although the shower facilities are very basic, and the toilets in the general public areas invariably smell and get blocked by people's seeming inability to use the flush.
Here, dependent upon the amount of money you have to spend, there is a wide range of accommodation. If you want comfortable cabins, then do not chose the ones on the lower inner decks, since these are the noisiest and the most cramped. Reasonably priced accommodation is above the water line, with portholes, and it really does make a difference and for the few pounds extra that an outside cabin costs is worth it, as the internal cabins are cramped and claustrophobic. Cleanliness is not always good on the ferries, and I would advise that you check your cabin because often toilets have not been cleaned, sinks can stink, and I have even been offered linen that has not been changed (although this is rare). If you find anything wrong with your cabin, complain there and then, because your complaint will be registered and if an alternative is not offered, you have the right to ask for a refund of an appropriate amount for the accommodation.
Brittany Ferries do a budget thing for poor travellers, and I have used it several times, although never been really happy with it. Either male or female passengers can have a shared cabin with strangers of the same sex. You pay for your berth in the cabin which is usually a four bedded cabin with two bunk beds. It is cheap as chips but you cannot chose with whom you travel and my experiences have been varied from having the cabin to myself to having to share with a fat lady that snored all night.
You also have the choice of having cabins with shower and toilet or without, and here I would chose the cabins that do have toilet and shower facilities, since the toilets on board are appalling and at least you can be sure that they are exclusive to you and the people sharing your cabin.
If you want luxury, there are Commodore Suites available although not very many. Here, you get a comfortable space with en suite shower and toilet facilities, loads of extra bits thrown in like shampoos and sachets of all kinds of descriptions, a television with a choice of films available at the reception desk, a stocked fridge and breakfast in bed. I chose this when travelling with my mother in law, and it did feel rather good and comfortable, although on the ferry I found that the snobbery factor came into play. I was a foot passenger, and was greeted with the usual disdain afforded to foot passengers, although when showing my reservation for the Commodore Suite, the attitude changed straight away which sickened me, as I believe that all customers on the ferries should be treated equally.
At the bottom end of the scale, reclining seats are available but these have limited space for putting your hand luggage, and invariably you find that you have to climb over other people's bags to get to your seat. These are quite roomy but don't quite get it right, as even if you recline the seat (and incidentally squash the person behind you), they really are not comfortable and you cannot sleep in a prone position.
MEDICAL CARE ABOARD
I have had occasion to use the services of the medical staff on board, and found that a qualified doctor was on board, and that the facilities that he had were good enough to give me confidence that passengers would be well cared for.
During all my voyages with this Ferry Company I have doubted the efficiency of their safety in that passengers are never advised what to do in the case of an emergency in such a way that it would be easily understood. I have heard announcements, but can honestly say that amidst the noise of passengers, the information given was stifled at best and never completely clear.
If travelling with a car, I would say that the security is pretty good, as the car decks are locked during the voyage and no one is allowed below deck without being accompanied by a member of staff, and that the staff will take you down to your car for important things, such as medicine, or to tend to your pets. I don't actually like the idea of travelling with pets, since for the majority of the voyage, they are closed into your vehicle and although you can be taken down to your car to give them a drink of water, there was no encouragement to exercise the poor creatures. Pet passports must be shown when boarding, since the rules on pet transportation are strictly adhered to.
The voyage is a long one. Six hours of monotony for some, although I have learned that it doesn't have to be if people are well prepared. After the initial excitement of leaving port, standing perhaps on the deck to watch either the city of Plymouth or the town of Roscoff slowly disappear into the horizon, all that is left to see from the boat is sea, interspersed occasionally with a little wild life such as gulls, although mostly grey-green waves that remind you that you are on the move.
I found that the atmosphere on board is rather wearisome. I sometimes take playing cards or dominoes and there is always someone that will have a game with you. A good book passes time, or crosswords and newspapers. Due to the noise factor of travelling in a confined space with other peoples' children or riotous school parties, I tend to travel with my Walkman, because it gives me a means of switching off. I find that the initial atmosphere on board is usually congenial although when people become tired, they also become irritable and that the journey's monotony does play a big part in a trip like this, and those ill prepared for it are the losers of what could be a relatively painless experience.
There are children's areas, and sometimes the staff put on shows for the kids, although they are only a short break in the monotony and invariably end up with kids screaming or crying.
I believe that Brittany Ferries are expensive, and that their prices have escalated over the past ten years and do not reflect quality of service, but rather the fact that they have the monopoly for this particular voyage. What used to cost me Fifteen Pounds now costs me over a hundred, and those travelling with caravans or trailers really are charged too much and should seek out the best price available using both the French and English websites as a guide, booking well in advance to procure the best price that they can. Brittany Ferries do have a club for regular travellers, although the discounts that they give are a pittance when you consider the price of air fares, and I feel that travellers that need vehicles and are carrying heavy luggage that would make a flight not possible are being penalised unfairly by the Ferry company.
I think that approached correctly, and taking your needs and those of your children into consideration in your planning of the voyage can make a world of difference, and add to your enjoyment of the trip, making it pleasurable instead of a grind. Personally, I have found the right balance to suit me, and hope that my review helps you, the potential customer, to make the most of your trips to and from France, via the Roscoff/Plymouth link.