The truth, as we all secretly know, is that low cost air travel is never quite as low cost as it pretends. Just add the cost of getting to and from airports, tax, parking, and decadent luxuries such as baggage and checking in. Not to mention the undercurrent of stress that comes with the whole dehumanising experience.
In fact, it has been scientifically proven that everybody hates Ryanair, from the passengers who are herded like cattle, to the underpaid Latvian cabin crews forced to try and sell lottery tickets. Deep down, even Michael O’Leary, the chief executive, has an air of self-loathing about him.
But what are the alternatives?
There are other airlines flying from Sweden, as well as connections from Copenhagen. Or the train, which everyone knows is the most civilised form of transport known to man; until you get to the UK, that is, where prices and reliability are anything but civilised.
And then there is the coach, with Eurolines going from Gothenburg to London Victoria for just under 1,500 kronor. However, with two small kids who need to be kept happy, do wee wees and who, despite how small their clothes are, have bags twice as big as mine, a 26 hour coach journey was less than appealing.
So the ferry it was…
I sat down with pen and paper and worked out that the total cost (considering that plane travel would involve hiring a car on top of all the other extras) was pretty competitive by ferry. Of course, it would take longer… but then, isn’t that what travelling is all about: The open road, views disappearing slowly into the horizon and a sense of freedom? Try getting those in the departure lounge of Stansted airport.
Unfortunately, DFDS no longer have a passenger service from Sweden, so we had to go from Esbjerg in Denmark. The travelling added a couple of days to either end of the trip but we had decided to make this a part of the holiday. We had time for a swim in Småland and a night on the Danish coast, hopefully making the journey rich with experiences for the kids, rather than a chore to be endured.
It was liberating to travel without deadlines. Boarding the ferry was the only time we had to be at a certain place at a certain time. Even then it was all very relaxed, simply waiting in the car until being waved through passport control and onto the ship. Unlike air travel, there was no stress over parking, weighing of bags, queuing up to remove shoes, or rushing to the gate to be pushed and shoved onto a wipe clean seat.
Travelling by ferry is pleasant, but don’t be fooled by DFDS’ publicity material, which attempts to delude you that 18 hours on a North Sea car ferry can be compared to a cruise in the Caribbean. The beautiful people from their brochure are sadly absent and at no point did I share a romantic moment staring at the sunset with a Daiquiri in hand. In fact, and strangely for a ship, it’s quite hard to get a decent sea view. The windows in the café and bar areas don’t lend themselves to sitting and watching the big blue (or, as it’s the North Sea, the murky green). The public deck areas overlook the lorries and coaches and there is no access to the bows of the ship (or the pointy bit, as Kenneth Williams called it in Carry On Cruising).
However, if you really hunt, there are a couple of decent vantage points and the view was an ever-changing canvas of land, sea and sky, at times full of birds and boats, at other times empty.
Unless you travel during the British school holidays there is little entertainment on board, suggesting that British kids need more entertaining. Off season, the claustrophobic ‘Playroom’, with a small climbing frame and a video screen, can be found, in true Danish style, next to one of the smoking areas.
If you do travel in July or August, the kids’ show is worth watching if only to see an embittered old-school entertainer attempt English patter to kids from a variety of different countries. I found the show a bit tacky, but my four year old is less discerning and I was slightly disappointed that he found the jokes hysterical and the magic fantastic.
In the evening, there’s live music in the bar and the kids’ entertainer does a comic turn as Manuel from Fawlty Towers. However, despite the obvious lure of such delights and with a big drive the next day, I opted for bed. Sleeping on board ship is one of the most relaxing places in the world and I was soon deep in the land of nod, rocked gently by the pitch and roll of the North Sea.
The timing of the voyage was perfect. After boarding in the early evening, there’s enough time in the morning to take it easy with a long breakfast before arrival at around midday.
The return trip was just as relaxed, and on the way back, we took advantage of the freedom of having our own car with no restrictions on baggage. Nobody weighed our bags disapprovingly or asked officious questions like ‘Did you pack this family size pack of Marmite yourself, sir?’
Budget airlines are hard to compete against on cost, but when it comes to having a sense of travel and freedom, I would take the ferry over Ryanair every time.
Ben Kersley (www.speakup.se) is a writer and performer who has lived in Sweden since 2006. He is also Sweden’s only Swenglish stand up comedian.
Ben travelled between Esbjerg and Harwich with DFDS Seaways.