Ferries are ships of various size, which carry passengers, and in some cases vehicles, between ports on a schedule. They are typically motor ships, though some heritage routes can be run by steam ships, or even sailboats.
While some ferries are open-deck vessels which cross a narrow strait for daily commuting, others have cabins and other amenities, similar to cruise ships or ocean liners, and might be tourist attractions in their own right.
Ferries may be cancelled or delayed due to bad weather. It may be best to plan you trip so that you are not scheduled to take a ferry immediately before an important commitment, or a long haul flight.
Great views from ferries
- Manhattan from the Staten Island ferry.
- The cliffs of Dover from the channel ferries.
- Castles and vineyards from the Middle Rhine Valley car and foot ferries.
- The skyline of the Old City of Istanbul from the ferries crossing the Bosphorus.
- Stockholm Archipelago and Finnish Archipelago Sea from the Baltic Sea ferries.
Getting aboard on a ferry with a car can be complicated. Be sure to read instructions before reaching the terminal. Sometimes vehicles must arrive an hour or more before departure. Note that not all car rental companies allow their vehicles on ferries – be sure to check conditions in advance. Also, your insurance may not apply, as you are not on the road (regulations are often very different at sea). On some routes a place for your vehicle has to be reserved much beforehand in high season, especially if you have anything but a normal car (such as a camping trailer or a recreational vehicle).
Usually foot passengers board the ferry separately from vehicles, which might be by a covered walkway, a gangway or simply climbing aboard. In other ferries foot passengers board by walking on the vehicle ramp (beware the traffic) or in a shuttle bus.
Many ferries allow bicycles as well, and almost all car ferries do. Be aware, that the risk of theft exists, as well as the risk of your bike getting loose and falling off the ship. On short trips you might wish to stay close to your bike, on long ones fasten it so that it is not turned over by rough seas.
Some ferries have a luggage room for things that you do not want to carry around. They are usually locked during the passage, but as nobody keeps tracks on what luggage belongs to whom, you should not leave any valuables there. Some ferries have lockers, sometimes of different sizes, sometimes even some with cooling (for perishable food, primarily on some ferries with food shops making use of price differences across the passage). Have suitable cash for coin operated lockers.
Historically ferries also carried trains. This has decreased for numerous reasons, among them the construction of fixed links across many straits and sounds, the competition with air travel and the increase in travel speed. Most of the remaining train ferries carry freight wagons only. Where passenger trains are still loaded on ferries, passengers will often simply stay in the train until the crossing is done.
Buy, Eat, DrinkEdit
Facilities aboard can differ a lot; while you will be lucky to find a toilet on a small ferry, a larger ferry can have a whole shopping mall aboard. International ferries might have duty-free shopping.
Many ferries on longer passages have restaurants. Beside the food itself, they are a good pastime, but also an income for the shipowner – sometimes the budget options are no good value. Try to check the offerings and consider whether having packed food (and water!) is worthwhile.
Having your own pastime (books, playing cards, whatever) is worthwhile if the alternative is spending money in a bar or just sitting in a crowded lounge. On the other hand there may be nice seascapes, playing rooms and other diversions.
Some ferries on longer routes have cabins and other facilities that are close to those on a cruise ship. On some routes cabins will be provided for all passengers and may be included in the ticket price, but it is more usual to have to buy a cabin as an add-on. There are often not enough cabins to meet the demand at busy times of year, and it may be necessary to book a cabin several months in advance. Cabins may be available also on day passages, often for a cheaper price.
Overnight ferries often also offer cheaper basic accommodation. This might be dormitory beds, or reclining seats.
You may also be able to travel overnight without booking accommodation. In this case there may be a rush when boarding starts to get the best sleeping places, such as bench seats in quieter parts of the ship.
Once a couple of kilometres off the coast mobile phone connections will not work. Ferries with crossing larger than an hour usually provide Wi-Fi connections. These are often provided for a fee via purchasing a scratch card with a one-off access code. If you book a business class ticket or a cabin these are usually included in the price.
Avoid the open deck in harsh weather.
Check the emergency instructions and check how to get to the lifeboats or life rafts and how to find life jackets (also the children's size ones, if relevant).
In some regions with low safety standards or lacking inspections you should, if possible, check the ferry and loading procedures before deciding to use it. Some (or all) ferries may be in bad repair, made for sheltered waters but used on more demanding routes, or simply overloaded. If you cannot avoid such a vessel, at least plan for a catastrophe.