Getting to France’s endless car free cycle routes – to ferry or to fly?

The Pink Onions of RoscoffWhy do we Brits love France so much? The cuisine? The unspoilt small villages? A chance to practise what little French we know? Je ne sais quoi – but for cyclists, it’s a mixture of all of those, and their rather well developed cycle network.

Take for example the 773 mile long, Vélodyssée cycle route. It’s part of the EuroVelo 1 route and 80% of it is on cycle path and greenways, so you can ride as fast, or as slow as you wish, without having to contend with traffic. Expect to see beaches with clear blue seas, tall sand dunes and fishing villages.

The Tour de Manche is another popular seaside route. The route has parts in England and in France. This is a route that follows the coastline of Brittany along the Pink Granite Coast and towards Normandy. In the UK it covers Dorset and Devon. One of the highlights of the route is to gaze upon Le Mont St-Michel in Normandy. 

Set on a rocky tidal island, this fortified island, has been around since the eighth century AD. Nowadays, it is a Unesco World Heritage site an Abbey stands at the centre of the island.

There’s a good overview of both the routes in the cycling guides section on the Brittany Ferries website.

Mont Saint-Michel 

Anyway, it shouldn’t take much convincing that either route is a great destination for cyclists. The question I’m here to answer in this post is how to get there.

In the past, when visiting Germany, I’ve favoured flying. However, as anyone who has followed this blog for long enough will know, it’s not without its difficulties. Carrying bikes up flights of stairs, extra charges for luggage and small damages to our badly packed bikes. It takes a little foresight and planning to get it right and I’ve learnt mistakes I won’t be repeating.

Brittany Ferries offer another option. Ferry travel is generally a lot easier for cyclists. Quick to load and unload, no need to remove your wheels and pack your bag in a bike bag. For short routes such as to the North and West of France, they are an attractive choice. They also provide easy links if you wish to ride part the route in France and then link up with the route in England, which adds a interesting element of contrast, going from one country to the other.

For anyone weighing up their options between flying or going by Ferry, then I’ve included a useful resource at the end of this post. It’s a huge infographic on the two options

I’d be interested to hear from any readers who’ve visited these parts of France, so if you’ve ridden there during The annual Fête de l’Oignon Rosé or dipped your toes in the waters of Saint-Malo then leave a comment below with your experiences. For now, I can only read about them and keep them near the top of my bucket list!

Ferry to France vs Plane

Image source: Brittany Ferries – Ferry VS Plane to France

Picture credit:

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14 Responses to Getting to France’s endless car free cycle routes – to ferry or to fly?

  1. Vincent 12/02/2014 at 10:37 pm #

    You can also…
    1. take the Eurostar from London to Calais,
    2. change train Calais to Rouen (nice city center from the Middle-Ages; Looks like you’ll have to change trains at Amiens),
    3. go on to Caen and Normandy by train/bike, and then
    4. from Saint-Malo, take the ferry to Portsmouth.

  2. Liz 13/02/2014 at 5:11 pm #

    It’s a shame that Eurostar isn’t more accomodating to passengers with bikes. Unless your bike fits into an 85cm bag (i.e. a Brompton or other folding bike), you have to pay a £30 fee to have it carried in the guard’s van or via their luggage service, which is almost as much as a standard advance fare!

    We’re planning to do London to Paris this year, and getting the ferry from Newhaven to Dieppe seems like the easiest option – no need to dismantle the bikes, just roll up and check in. It also means not needing to worry about storing a bike bag on arrival, or working out how you’re going to pack a fully loaded touring bike.

  3. George 13/02/2014 at 5:11 pm #

    For the adventurous, the European Bike Express bus service is an excellent way to reach most of southern France with any type of bike and no loading hassles:

  4. RobbieC 13/02/2014 at 6:11 pm #

    Ferry is so cheap. I have also cycled to Paris from Sussex using the Newhaven ferry, links with a really good long cycle path along an old railway on the French side and with national cycle routes on this side. Its timings are a bit rubbish though and the late boat gets into Dieppe at 04h00 – I would recommend that you use this route in June when its light unless you want to linger in Dieppe.

    I have also gone to Normandie from Portsmouth several times. Like these boats, arrive at a good time and have really good recliing seats. Great cycle path to Caen from the ferry port. Lots of quiet roads in the Seine valley when you have cleared Le Havre. Lots of free ferries on the river in various places and you can cycle across the big bridges (view from Pont Normandie impressive).

    Usually go out on one of these routes and return via Dover – I live in Kent.

  5. RobbieC 13/02/2014 at 6:12 pm #

    There is a service that takes bikes thru Eurotunnel too, once a day in each direction.

  6. Hugh 13/02/2014 at 7:50 pm #

    Four of us took the overnight ferry from Portsmouth to St Malo a number of years back to watch the Tour de France. We left our cars in the multi storey at Portsmouth harbour for not much money; the crossing costs peanuts as a foot passenger and a four berth cabin was not too expensive either. A few beers and a quick kip later and we were cycling off and straight into cycling nirvana: perfect tarmac, light traffic and considerate drivers. Vive la difference!

    We did a three day tour of Normandie and took the last ferry back to Portsmouth from Caen. I would thoroughly recommend ferry over flying: there might not be much in it when it comes to cost, but the convenience and overall pleasure of the experience wins hands down.

    • Wade 26/04/2016 at 12:44 pm #

      Hi Hugh,
      A friend and I have just booked our ferries and out trip looks remarkably similar to yours (P’mth>st Malo, Caen>P’mth with 3 days in between). Have you any advice that spirits to mind including tips on route/overnight stays (x2) between st Malo and Caen?

      • Wade 26/04/2016 at 12:44 pm #

        Excuse the typos!

  7. Rick 14/02/2014 at 10:30 am #

    We have roof mounted rails and frames for our bikes. Do you know if we can still drive on a ferry with bikes on the roof? It does add a significant height restriction

    • Rob McIvor 14/02/2014 at 10:48 am #

      Yes you can so long as you have booked them in when buying your ticket. You go in with the lorries and coaches. If you turn up without having booked you will usually still be able to get on, for a bit extra, but don’t chance this at peak times such as Easter or the end of the school holidays when crossings are often fully booked.

  8. Rob McIvor 14/02/2014 at 10:46 am #

    I’ve used almost all of the ferry routes to France at some time in the past 15 years or so. Aside from Le Havre, the approach to most of the ports is pleasant and the officials tend to wave bikes to the front of the queue. My favourite departure port is Ouistreham (Caen) which is a small town with lots of restaurants for a last meal before picking up the overnight ferry back to Portsmouth. It’s possible to put together a great weekend by taking the ferry from Portsmouth to Cherbourg, cycling the peninsula and returning from Ouistreham.

    Newhaven-Dieppe is also a good route but don’t make the mistake I did once and take a train to Brighton assuming that it’s an easy ride to the port. It’s only about 10 miles but they are exceedingly lumpy – I only just made the crossing. And on the other side, ignore the road signs for Dieppe itself as they take you up a long and unnecessary hilly diversion – on a bike there is a short cut to the town centre that has no hills.

    Another route worth considering if you’re interested in touring in Southern France is Portsmouth-Bilbao. It’s a 30 hour crossing and Bilbao is a pig to get out of, but from there it’s a day’s ride to the French border or you can head a little more eastward and pick up the roads to the Pyrenees. On my last trip, I took that route and enjoyed a very pleasant couple of weeks meandering my way back to Calais.

    Not all of them allow you to do it these days, but to my mind there is no greater feeling than actually cycling (as opposed to wheeling the bike) out of the car deck, down the ramp and off on a fresh adventure.

  9. Corin 14/02/2014 at 12:04 pm #

    Train, everytime. Even with the £30 bike charge it is by far the most comfortable way to get to the continent – not to mention the most environmentally reasonable.

  10. Chris R 16/02/2014 at 10:22 pm #

    In July I cycled from London to Wiesbaden (stopping at Dunkirk, Mechlin, Cologne and Koblenz) and took the ferry from Dover to Calais. Entered Dover via the Alkham Valley Road, which was ok. Before that I had been along Danton Lane, which with loaded bags felt extremely steep (although the view over Folkstone is fabulous. Getting the ferry was fine and there are special bike routes in the actual port to keep us away from lorries. The are front wheel bike racks onboard and the best perk is being allowed off first at the other end. During my trip I was told about the Sustrans route 2 out of Dover so coming back I decided to follow it. Firstly it gets you out of Dover without risking your neck in the lorries, but although the trip up to the top of the cliffs is very scenic ,and not particulary leg breaking, the quality of the path (badly maintained tarmac with added obsticles) was nowhere near the continental standards I had become accustomed to. Despite the fact it hadn’t rained for 3 weeks I still found myself riding through a small pond in the middle of the path because drainage wasn’t adaquate. In terms of getting back to London I should have left the Sustrans route at Folkstone, but continues on to Hythe, which was a mistake. It became very slow and is fine if you have all the time in the world and are happy to trundle along, but I wanted to get going. No criticism of Sustrans mind you – they are completely underfunded and are trying their best I’m sure. It’s just such a pity that any visitors to our shores arriving by bike have to tolerate such terrible cycling facilities!

  11. Wesley of Trusted Car Buyers 04/03/2014 at 2:21 pm #

    I sailed from Dover to Calais last summer and never looked back. Beautiful journey. Yeah it takes longer to get there but you don’t mind when the weather is clear and you can see the shores of France ahead. Another good thing is you can roll your bike on and offer easily and go somewhere for a long weekend.

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