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Traveling by Car Ferry - What You Need to Know

Car Ferry Travel Tips

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Traveling by Car Ferry - What You Need to Know
Photo © Steve Parode

Car ferries transport vehicles and passengers across waterways. Some car ferry trips are quite short because they take you across a river or other small body of water. Others are longer – eight to 14 hours, or more – because the car ferry transports you from one land mass to another. Before you take your first car ferry trip, take a look at our helpful tips for traveling by short- and long-haul ferry.

Preparing for Your Ferry Trip

Nearly all ferry lines take drive-up and walk-up passengers, but if you plan to travel during a busy period, you should definitely consider pre-reserving your space on the ferry. You can usually do this by telephone or online. Some ferry lines add fuel surcharges to your reservation; ask about this so that you know exactly what you're paying before you travel. If you reserve online, print out a copy of your payment receipt and bring it with you to the ferry terminal. Ask for a confirmation number if you reserve by telephone.

Many ferry lines charge extra for RVs. Ask about surcharges before you reserve your space on the ferry.

Accessibility can be an issue on some ships. Call ahead to make sure that you can get from the vehicle deck to the passenger deck by elevator. Remember to ask about accessible seating and, if needed, cabins.

Some ferry lines require that pets stay in vehicles during the trip, while others allow them on outside decks. If you're planning to bring a dog or cat along, be sure to ask about regulations and plan ahead for feeding, exercise and other pet needs.

If you are taking a long-haul ferry and plan to travel overnight with one or more companions, consider reserving a two- or four-person cabin. You will get more sleep and be able to shower or wash up before the ferry docks. Other sleeping alternatives include general seating (similar to airplane seats) or dorm-style berthing. While these options are less expensive, they may also be noisier, particularly during the spring and summer educational travel seasons.

You will enjoy your ferry experience more if you dress for shipboard life. Wear comfortable but practical shoes with closed toes so that you can climb up and down ladders (stairs) easily, even if they are wet. Skirts, particularly short skirts, can blow around on deck. Long pants or capris are a better choice for women who plan to watch the waves or photograph the shoreline. Bring a light jacket or windbreaker to wear on outside decks. If you have long hair and plan to go out on deck, bring a ponytail elastic or hair clip so your hair won't tangle.

If you think you might suffer from motion sickness, take preemptive measures. Buy over-the-counter motion sickness pills – the non-drowsy variety really works – and carry them with you. Motion sickness pills typically take over an hour to work, so you will need to plan ahead.

Most shipboard water is nonpotable. Bring a water bottle so you can take medication, brush your teeth and stay hydrated.

Pack some food or plan to buy snacks onboard. Remember that overnight ferries may not open their snack bars until breakfast time.

What to Expect at the Ferry Terminal

As you arrive at the ferry terminal, you will need to either pay for your travel or show a receipt for a prepaid booking. Ferry line personnel will direct you to a numbered lane where you must park your vehicle until boarding time. Ask about boarding times so you know when you will need to drive your car onto the ferry boat. At most terminals, you can leave your car until just before your boarding time and walk into the terminal building, which will probably have a travel information counter, restrooms and a snack bar.

When it is time to board, get into your vehicle and prepare to drive onto the ship. Ferry terminal personnel will direct you to the proper deck and lane on the ship. They will ask you to park as close as possible to the car in front of you. If you are riding a motorcycle or driving an oversized vehicle, ferry line employees may tie it down, particularly on long-haul crossings.

As you exit your vehicle, think carefully about what you want to take with you to the passenger decks. Once the ship gets under way, you will not be allowed onto the parking decks. You may wish to bring the following items with you:

  • Sunscreen, if you plan to go up on deck

  • Sunglasses

  • Motion sickness pills

  • Water (shipboard water is nonpotable)

  • Books, playing cards, puzzles and other activities to pass the time

  • Alarm clock, if traveling overnight

  • Camera

  • Money for snacks, or your own food

  • Sleepwear, change of clothing and personal items (for overnight crossings)

Overnight Ferry Travel Tips

  • Don’t go to sleep until you have watched the safety demonstration or video.

  • Shipboard announcements may be inaudible in private cabins. Pay close attention to any chimes, bells or other signals, and bring your own travel alarm clock if you reserve a cabin.

  • Allow plenty of time in the morning for washing up, packing and getting to the vehicle deck.

  • Once on the vehicle deck, wait to start up your car until it's time to pull forward and exit the ship. Fumes may rapidly build up inside the deck spaces.
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