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Pet-friendly breaks, self-drive holidays, daytrips and duty-free sprees: a golden age for ferry travel ahead

15 July 2021, Discover Ferries reports current ferry market activity and travellers’ priorities when booking trips for the next 6-12 months. The industry body, which represents 13 UK ferry operators, has analysed current booking data and trends to reveal what holidaymakers are doing now and what lies ahead.

European holidays are back

Since guidance for fully-vaccinated travellers changed, some European operators have seen bookings increase by more than 70% in the last week1. The majority of these bookings are for travel in the summer and autumn of 2021 and have been made by both couples and families.

Self-drive bubbles of key importance

More than a third (38%) of people surveyed consider travelling with their own vehicle2 important3, and ferry travel lends itself to this post-Covid trend. 81% of ferry passengers who travelled in 2020 chose to travel by ferry so they could take their own car, an increase of 11% on the year before4.

Some of the reasons include the freedom to explore at their own pace and carrying unlimited baggage, something 43% of consumers said was an important factor when booking a holiday2. Without baggage fees or restrictions, passengers are free to transport large items including sports and camping equipment.

Lockdown puppies drive demand for pet travel

Almost a quarter (24%) of respondents1 see being able to travel with their pets as important2. 2020 saw a 3% increase in the number of passengers choosing to travel by ferry because they wanted to take their pet4. The sector believes this is due to 3.2 million pets finding new homes during lockdown5. This travel trend looks set to continue, as Brittany Ferries, for example, says it is already near capacity for pet-friendly cabins in summer 2022.

Island life – staycation summer

While uncertainty regarding foreign travel continues, staycations are up and domestic ferry companies are taking advantage.  In May half term, for example, Isles of Scilly Travel reported its busiest travel day for almost two years1. Meanwhile services across the Solent to the Isle of Wight reached capacity over May bank holiday weekend and Discover Ferries’ accommodation partners say many popular UK destinations are close to capacity. 

London calling

In tourist hot spots, ferry daytrips promise the joy of travel by water, without the concerns of organising accommodation. Ferry trips in London, run by Uber Boat by Thames Clippers, saw a substantial increase in the number of trips made during May half-term when compared with the same period in 20196. As well as being the best way to explore London, the good news also reinforces Discover Ferries’ findings that more consumers would feel safe from Coronavirus travelling by ferry than by train, coach, or plane7.

Common Travel Area lights up Autumn and Winter

Domestic operators are also expecting the holiday season to extend into the autumn and winter months as travellers make up for missed trips from earlier in the year. Ferry companies serving the Common Travel Area (CTA), which includes the Isle of Man, Channel Islands and Republic of Ireland, forecast a surge later in the year, as more Brits benefit from full vaccination and are able to avoid travel restrictions in destinations. Indeed, some Irish Sea services are reporting higher booking levels than 20191.

Hunger for the great outdoors

Lockdowns have fuelled an appetite for the great outdoors. The Isle of Wight, accessible with Hovertravel, Red Funnel and Wightlink, has seen record bookings for camping accommodation into the autumn. There has been an increase in wild camping across the UK, which has led ferry operators to work closely with tourist boards to remind visitors to respect surroundings and local communities, and act responsibly when travelling.

And it’s not just in rural locations. Ferry journeys in London reflect consumers’ search for nature, with more people travelling between London’s green spaces, demonstrated by an increase in popularity of Uber Boat by Thames Clippers’ Battersea Park to Greenwich Park routes6

Duty-free “shipping” sprees fuel European trips

Brits are desperate to visit favourite holiday destinations including France, Spain and the Netherlands again and the return of duty-free shopping is further incentive for a trip to the EU. 36% of people surveyed identify the ability to purchase duty-free goods as an important3 consideration when choosing a holiday destination2.

Authorities are also confident in the revival of the “booze cruise”, with cross-channel operator DFDS’ new ship Côte d’Opale set to sail with the largest duty-free retail space on the channel, and two new shore-based duty-free shops due to open this year. Also run by DFDS, the first store opens in Dunkirk port this month and a second 1,000m2 shop in the Port of Calais will start trading in October. As part of the ship refurbishment for its new Dover-Calais service, Irish Ferries has invested in the onboard shop to offer passengers a wide range of goods to browse and buy during the crossing. Passengers travelling to the continent in their own vehicle will be able to quite literally “fill their boots” and take advantage of generous tax-free allowances.

Flexibility reigns supreme

Flexibility with travel plans has been of key importance during the pandemic, particularly as consumers monitor government guidance and weather forecasts ahead of travel. As well as a marked shift in favour of purchasing flexible tickets, this has led to more passengers booking sailings last minute. So far this summer, 71% of day trips to the Isle of Wight were booked a day in advance, compared to the usual three-week lead time seen in previous years1. In the peak summer season services will be busy so ferry operators recommend opting for off-peak sailings and taking advantage of flexible booking options.

Abby Penlington, Director at Discover Ferries, comments on the findings: “It is interesting to learn just how the pandemic has affected holidaymakers’ priorities when it comes to planning their next getaway. The good news is that there could be a golden age for ferry travel ahead.  The space, value and flexibility ferry trips offer aligns exactly with what consumers are looking for in a holiday.

“While we await the return of unhindered international travel, domestic ferry routes will benefit from the popularity of staycations and daytrips. People yet to book a break in the British Isles should not be discouraged as there is still availability but it is worth looking at mid-week and off-peak crossings, which are a little quieter.

“European ferry companies are still affected by government guidelines as their destinations remain on the Amber list. However, trade from fully-vaccinated Brits, who no longer need to quarantine when visiting Amber list countries, second homeowners and expats is starting to come through. As the international vaccine rollout continues at pace, we are starting to see green shoots.

“To prepare for a surge in demand for modern ferry travel, in recent years operators have invested to upgrade their fleets. New vessels have recently joined or are soon to join Stena Line, DFDS, P&O Ferries, Isle of Man Steam Packet Company and Brittany Ferries, with other companies commissioning new ships. The new Irish Ferries Dover-Calais service also reflects growth opportunities for the cross-Channel market.” For further information, please visit: www.discoverferries.com/ready-ferry-go


1Data supplied by Discover Ferries’ members w/c 12 July 2021, sales data increase is compared with the previous week

2Research for Discover Ferries was carried out online by Censuswide on 11th to 13th November 2020 amongst a panel resulting in 2,005 responses from general consumers in the UK. All the research conducted adheres to the MRS Codes of Conduct (2010) in the UK and ICC/ESOMAR World Research Guidelines.

3Statistic combines ‘Very important’ and ‘somewhat important’ answer options.

4IRN Research Annual Ferry Passenger Survey 2020

5Data from Pet Food Manufacturers Association, March 2021

6Indicated by data collected by Uber Boat by Thames Clippers in May 2021, comparing data with the same period in 2019.

7Research for Discover Ferries was carried out online by Censuswide on 3rd to 6th September 2020 amongst a panel resulting in 2,001 responses from general consumers in the UK.All the research conducted adheres to the MRS Codes of Conduct (2010) in the UK and ICC/ESOMAR World Research Guidelines. Combination of ‘Very safe’ and ‘Somewhat safe’ responses when asked how safe or unsafe from Coronavirus infection people felt about travelling on a list different forms of transport including: Train, Ferry, Aeroplane, Car, Motorhome / Campervan, Coach, Motorbike / Moped / Scooter, Cycle.