Ferry sailings can be a scenic and money-saving alternative to high-cost flights for consumers traveling in Europe.
Plying major routes throughout the European seas, these ferries make short runs that usually amount to overnight passages, thus saving the cost of a night's lodging. The downside, of course, is the extra time it takes to travel by boat.
For example, a one-way sailing between Harwich, England, and Hamburg, Germany, on Scandinavian Seaways costs $92 single, or from $106 to $160 per person in a four-berth cabin. If a couple wanted an inside cabin for themselves, rates range from $150 to $240 per person. Outside cabins cost extra; so do dinner and breakfast. The sailing takes about 22 hours. By comparison, British Airways quotes a regular economy one-way fare of $269 for the 1 1/2-hour flight from London to Hamburg.
Among the most popular routes are between Stockholm and Helsinki, Copenhagen-Oslo, London-Hamburg, Amsterdam-Goteborg, Naples-Palermo, Venice-Pireaus/Athens, and Cork, Ireland, to Roscoff, France. Other possibilities include ferries from mainland Spain to Majorca; Marseilles and Nice to Corsica, and Helsinki to Tallinn, capital of newly independent Estonia.
Although ferries are used primarily for point-to-point, no-frills transportation, some of the larger ones resemble cruise ships with their restaurants, cocktail lounges, live entertainment, discotheques, duty-free shops, gyms and evencasinos.
"The word \o7 ferry\f7 suggests a small boat without many facilities, so we call our ships 'overnight cruise liners,' " said Michael Zacchilli, president of Scandinavian Seaways, which offers service between several Northern European points. Zacchilli reports that travel by Americans on Scandinavian Seaways' ferry sailings increased about 25% each year between 1988 and 1990. However, largely because of the Persian Gulf War, he says, business is down about 7% this year.
Seldom far from coastlines, ferry sailings can provide vistas of islands, coves, shoreline villages and a variety of fishing craft. Travelers may also be treated to views of major cities from rivers--such as the Elbe River on the approach to Hamburg, and the Neva River near St. Petersburg.
Just as on regular cruise ships, overnight ferry sailings offer a choice of cabins, including inside and outside. Two- to four-berth cabins are generally available. Travelers have to pay extra for solo cabins.
Ferries also offer some sleeping options that American travelers may not be familiar with: dormitory-style accommodations, also called couchettes, that are less expensive than cabins. The couchettes, which usually amount to a steel spring underneath a mattress, are normally located in a large room, containing anywhere from four to 30 berths, and include a toilet but no showers.
In addition, some ferries offer reclining chairs/sleeperettes similar to airline seats, usually set up either on a special deck or in a large salon. They, too, represent a savings over standard cabin prices.
Another distinction of ferries from cruise ships is food. The price of a ferry crossing may not include meals on board, whereas the price of a cabin on a regular cruise covers all shipboard meals. On some ferries serving the Baltic region, breakfast may be included, but dinner is not. Service charges, however, are included in the price of most ferry crossings, thus travelers don't need to tip.
Here's a rundown of some European ferry offerings:
--Scandinavian Seaways offers year-round overnight crossings from Harwich, England (the line sells a $25 rail ticket from London to Harwich, a distance of about 73 miles) to Hamburg, Germany; Goteborg, Sweden, and Esbjerg, Denmark; Copenhagen-Oslo, and Amsterdam-Goteborg. Among the vessels used are the 2,000-passenger Queen of Scandinavia and 1,300-passenger King of Scandinavia, both featuring swimming pools, cinemas and other shipboard amenities. In addition to inside and outside cabins, the vessels have dormitory-style couchettes.
--Viking Line offers year-round service between Stockholm and Helsinki, Turku and Naantali, in Finland, and Kaptellskar, Sweden. Both ships used in those sailings, the Cinderella and the Mariella, carry 2,500 passengers. Price of the Stockholm-Helsinki sailing is $78 for a single inside cabin, $39 per person for two in a cabin. Couchettes are available. Those prices contrast sharply with the cost of a one-way economy air ticket from Stockholm to Helsinki on SAS: $245.
--Brittany Ferries offers day-trip service from Plymouth, England, to Roscoff (six hours), and from Portsmouth, England, to St. Malo, France (nine hours). From Plymouth, you can also take a 24-hour overnight journey to Santander, Spain. There is also 16-hour overnight service from Cork, Ireland, to Roscoff. Ferries on these excursions carry about 400 passengers, with cafeteria meals available. While there are lounges and a game room, don't expect live entertainment. Less-expensive passage is on dormitory-style reclining seats.