Last week I made a bold speculation that the airlines may very well be screwed over for the next 2 years – if, as it did the last time it erupted, the Icelandic volcano continues on for that length of time. What that means, until such time as the respective European aviation authorities manage to gather around one table and sort out a unified response and guidelines on what exactly constitutes ‘dangerous levels’ of ash and what just qualifies as ‘a bit of ash’, is that realistically no European flight anyone books any time this summer is guaranteed to ever leave the ground – until you’re actually sitting on the aircraft taxiing to the runway. Obviously, for someone who likes to spend so much time out of the country as I do, such a situation simply isn’t acceptable so I’ve been racking my brains to come up with the best ways out of the country this summer and the plus’ and minus’ of them. First up, it looks like Europe’s going to be the boundary of travel this summer – either that or an Aer Lingus flight to the US, which is mostly out of my price league for summer sun this year. The reason I include only Aer Lingus flights to the US is simple – they’re the only long-distance routes they fly, and for some unknown reason they mostly seem to be allowed take-off and land, regardless of the plume of volcanic ash smothering runways across Europe. Also, any other long-distance travel unfortunately necessitates making a connection in a European hub like London Heathrow (unwanted at the best of times owing to congestion both above and on the ground, and the generally disgraceful state of repair Heathrow is in) or Frankfurt, which leaves you back at the ‘weakest link’ of the first intra-European flight to get to the hub in the first place. So, like I say, it’s either some travelling by land/sea in Europe, or a direct, non-stop flight to the US from Dublin/Shannon.
Following on from that, the most obvious escape is to take the ferry to either the UK or France, or the UK and do the ‘landbridge’ thing. Now, like I said before, I’m not entirely sure what the ferry companies are up to, but they don’t really seem to have copped on to the very real opportunity of robbing the airlines’ business this summer. So, taking the boat remains a pretty expensive option – no offense to Stena Line, but even though there’s no ‘baggage charge’ by taking a car on the boat to Wales, I could have paid for myself and multiple bags on a flight for the prices themselves and Irish Ferries charge. Also, I don’t know what’s supposed to be relaxing about ferry travel but I’ve never noticed it particularly. To begin with, it’s slow and I get quite impatient. Secondly, last time I took the ferry, the staff were particularly unfriendly and one actually shouted at me when he gestured me onto the ferry (I was on a bike so had to go to the car deck) and then I’d no idea where to ‘park’ my two-wheeled vehicle. It turns out you actually just prop it up beside whatever you happen to find. Then, and I speak on behalf of Stena Line only, they only really like taking Sterling Â£ and tend to let out primitive grunts when you try to pay in a currency other than that. You can of course always take your Euro currency and get it exchanged at the information desk for a considerable commission. Not an option for me I’m afraid. So that basically leaves you with the guts of 3 hours (2 on a fast ferry) and not much to do other than use the free internet. A friend of mine, @Kev_d was recently forced to do the whole ‘sailrail’ thing between London and Dublin and it’d be safe to say that enjoyment wasn’t a term he used frequently in his blog post of the event.
Either way, just taking the ferry doesn’t really do much for you – most ports are exceptional kips located in the middle of nowhere, with nothing to do only get out of the place as quick as possible. Holyhead is a superb example of this – there’s a huge ferry port, an Iceland (or at least there was, back in the day) and a few disgusting houses that you wouldn’t put your dog in. And that sums things up nicely. So from there, you can do the ‘sailrail’ option, which involves then vying for a place on a train that takes a good couple of hours down to London. What I find absolutely incredible is how the whole thing costs a small fortune as well – you’d actually be genuinely better off with most airlines’ fares compared to paying the straight up sailrail fare. It’s billed as a genuine ‘turn up and go’ option, but ‘turn up and go…to the ATM for money’ would seem to be a more accurate representation. The other option to get across the sea and to London or some other English city worthy of a visit is the Eurolines coach. The concept is this – you pay a pretty low-fare (around â‚¬35 to London one-way…which actually isn’t really that low of a fare considering it’s about the same as most one-ways by aircraft to London and takes a damn sight longer), hop on a coach for a drive down to Dublin Port, sail across the Irish Sea (see the section on ferry travel, above) and then get back on the coach and prepare for a long drive. If you leave Dublin around 7 or 8pm, you literally don’t arrive to London until around 7 or 8 the next morning. It seems a pretty cool option – I like the idea of having basically a bus to sleep on all night until you reach your destination early the next morning. But then I keep coming back to sense and realising; it’s just a normal Bus Eireann coach packed in with other like-minded cheapskates for the best part of 9 hours. Either you’d need to go and get absolutely legless the night before or else not sleep for about two nights prior, to guarantee that you’d be able to get some sort of sleep during the journey. It sounds great arriving in the morning, in time for the day ahead, but in truth you’d probably just want a shower and bed.
Failing the whole going to London thing to connect on to Europe, you can try and put up with driving straight across England and taking another ferry, if you can put up with another ferry journey and the whole thing in repeat when you need to get back. To get to France there’s an Irish Ferries car ferry (and possibly one or two others), all of which take a minimum of 18 hours and up to 24 hours. I know these ones are more ‘cabin’ affairs where you have your own little cabin to sit in for the duration of the experience but again, I can’t imagine they’re packed with excitement for the journey. I envisage that more likely, there’s a few bars, a couple of eateries, shops and maybe a little token cinema about the size of my living room somewhere – and that’s supposed to last you the 24 hours. So, presuming we’ve got to London either by sailrail or by the Eurolines night owl express, what next? The channel tunnel, I imagine, will be making megabucks this summer, although not if it keeps having to be closed and its reliability slowly goes out the window. The rail system, once you finally manage to make it as far as continental Europe really is very good – the only problem is, it’s also very expensive. I have been known in the past to strike it extremely lucky on the German railway, Deutsche Bahn, getting fares on the high-speed ICE for as little as â‚¬20 – one-way of course – but those times have been very sporadic at best. Either way, it’s looking likely that any trip to Europe won’t be taking the usual 2 hours; more like 22 hours, minimum.
Finally, it seems, Tourism Ireland have a captive audience…literally…