SailRail – a logistical love affair?

Irish Ferries' Ulysses coming into Dublin Port Photo: Irish Ferries
Irish Ferries’ Ulysses coming into Dublin Port Photo: Irish Ferries

I have long been a fan of SailRail deals and wish there were a lot more of them. I have lost count of the amount of times I have travelled this way between London and Dublin, my two home towns, hopping on the 9.10 Virgin train at Euston and travelling direct to Holyhead, one of the most gorgeous routes which clings to the shores of North Wales, arriving at 12.50 in time to catch a variety of afternoon ferries. I am always in Dublin in time for tea and all for £38 single. A price that doesn’t go up during school holidays either. What’s not to love? For more information on how to book and what it costs, your absolute best and most up to date port of call is the inimitable Man in Seat 61.

So, I am forever trying to persuade my pals who are crossing the Irish Sea to do so using SailRail. It takes a bit of work, but they get there in the end and usually love it. The extra time to work of have family time together, no airport apprehension, no Ryanair rage and,of course, it’s cost. It’s a win win. At least, most of the time – until delays kick in and then the happy marriage of Sail and Rail starts to show a little need of counselling. The logistical love affair hangs by a thread when a third party is introduced. The car passenger. Because car drivers are always given precedence when it comes to ferry travel. They board first, they disembark first and they have access to better infrastructure in the ports. As a foot passenger I was always in the minority on these ferry crossings for years, struggling to find a bus to transport me from a ferry port to the city centre, or a car hire company which will deliver to the port without charging a huge supplement.

Catherine and family coming into Dublin Port by ferry
Catherine and family coming into Dublin Port by ferry

But things are changing. When I travel by train and ferry now, the numbers have increased ten fold at least. People have cottoned on for various reasons and fair play to the ferry and rail companies for keeping these deals going. But when you arrive into Holyhead with an hour to spare before the London train leaves the platform, and you are instructed to wait  for an hour watching car after car disembark, and your train leave the station (despite informing the crew that you have a SailRail ticket and would very much like to catch your train) this could be considered terms for divorce in my opinion. However, with a little mediation, and recognition of the needs of all parties involved, we could surely feel the Sail Rail love again? Stenaline, Irish Ferries, Virgin Trains, Arriva and the rest. Please take note and help put the Rail back into Sail so that we can all make this the marriage made in heaven that it deserves to be.

Fastnet ferry from Swansea, Wales to Cork, Ireland

Fastnet ferry coming into Cork Credit: Fastnet Ferries

I was one of ten foot passengers on Fastnet Line’s new Swansea to Cork ferry three weeks ago. And three of those were my family members. Then a volcano erupted and, with it, thousands of travel plans. On our return journey we were among five hundred foot passengers, most of them wearing suits. The ferry staff were in shock, but patient, smiling, and helpful throughout.

As fellow passengers swapped ‘get me home’ stories, many were astounded at us travelling on the ferry by choice, rather than by circumstance. But I am used to that reaction now, as I reduced flying to a minimum a while back. But now everyone was getting a taster session, and experiencing a little of what it is to be a ‘green’ and ‘slow’ traveller.

Reactions were mixed, with the suits marching up and down ship corridors, as if to create a mass mantra of ‘faster, faster’. The ‘go with the flow’ types went on deck to enjoy the views of Cobh and Cork’s fine coastline, played cards with their kids, relaxed with a pint, or took out maps to see where the journey was taking them. A Clonakilty man, who had been meaning to try out the new ferry, told me that he probably would never have got round to it. He, like many I chatted with, loved his cabin, with its comfy beds, crisp white sheets, telly, and bathroom, and said he wished his kids had been there to share it with him. He was already contemplating later holiday plans to Devon and Cornwall, unaware until now how accessible they are.

There is no doubt that this period of flight-free reflection has been a positive experience for many. We have all heard stories of people embracing the ‘adventure’, and coming together to help each other get home. The website which I contribute to,, has had a ten fold increase in traffic during the last week, with people needing urgent information on how to cross Europe overland, something we specialise in. It has been a great opportunity for us to show people the alternatives, providing all the information they need in a one-stop shop. The only downside is that many are not experiencing the real thing, with ferries and trains having to cope with exceptional circumstances. When we arrived into Swansea, for example, the suits sulked about the lack of taxis, or about the station bus waiting for all

Sleeping sound on the waves

passengers to disembark before heading to the station. Faster, faster, faster, they still chanted.

The slower the better has always been my chant when travelling. But it will take more than one cloud of ash to start a genuine sea change, I’m afraid. One woman, for example, a self-professed ‘package person’,  booked trains and ferry back to UK from Marrakech when her flight was cancelled, but chickened out at the last minute, as the idea of two and a half days travel was just too terrifying. She gave her tickets to charity and waited for the next flight, beginning May. Another person I know couldn’t get back to work in London a few days into the crisis as she was ‘stuck’ in Ireland. And yet, on that very day, every single ferry company had availability. Are the Irish still in such denial that there is sea space, and not just polluted air space between the land masses?

However, like most people, I have enjoyed the cleaner blue skies, the slower pace, and grateful that I wasn’t dependent on a flight for an emergency situation. It has been fun sharing overland travel experiences via our website with people who hadn’t contemplated it before. If there is to be one silver lining to this cloud in the long term, I hope the powers that be wake up to a much needed, and long demanded by many, improvement in the infrastructure around ferry ports and trains.  Such as regular buses to ports, bike spaces on trains, car hire at ferry ports, gangplanks for foot passengers as well as easy, centralised access to transport information online. And perhaps those people who always laugh when I suggest a tunnel under the sea between Ireland and UK might just start thinking about the possibilities. Or is that still blue skies thinking?






Train and ferry between Ireland and London

Catherine and family coming into Dublin Port with Irish Ferries

I had a call from a friend who was stuck in London during the worst of the snow, “You must know how to get me home without flying”, she said. “I need to be back in Dublin tomorrow and every airport in Europe seems to be closed”. Within minutes she was sorted. “ Catch the 9am train from London Euston direct to Holyhead with Virgin Trains, arrives four hours later, then onto 2pm Irish Ferries crossing to Dublin port, arriving just after 5pm. Hop in a cab or shuttle bus, and home and dry in time for tea” I said.

She booked it immediately online via Virgin Trains and Irish Ferries, with last minute rates of £55 sterling for the single train journey and £25 sterling for the one way crossing. She had a lot of work to do on the way, so upgraded to first class on the train, (£97 sterling). This is the best train upgrade around, in my view, with free food and drink the whole way. Enjoy smoked salmon and scrambled eggs as you lash through the Shires, bagels on the border and a glass of something lovely to strengthen the sea legs as you follow the North Wales coastline. With free WI-Fi and generous reclining seats, you won’t want to get off at all. Although to be honest, Virgin’s latest speedy trains are so comfortable, economy feels like first class compared to any of my memories of what was the journey from hell all those years ago when ‘budget’ meant the ‘bus’.

I got a text at 5.15pm from my friend – “just drifting past the South Wall. Best trip home ever. Will never fly again”. This I doubt, but every snow cloud has a silver lining. It’s hard to convince people about the joys of greener, slower travel, unless they actually experience it. You can bring as much luggage as you want, including bikes. You check it all in now, so no lugging it round the ship anymore. You don’t have to hide your make-up bottles either. Even Holyhead terminal is better these days. On a recent trip, a Donegal man who makes the trip six times a year told me, “It breaks my heart.In the old days we begged them for a new terminal and now it’s here, but it’s empty. It used to be a cattle market, dirty and full of drunks”. Sounds like a bad budget airline, I thought.

If you aren’t making a last minute booking, book a Sail and Rail package. This is possible using various methods. If you are travelling out of the UK, go through booking agency Raileasy, and remember to put your home station first, not just Euston, as you can get a through ticket from any station in UK.  Do check if you are travelling direct to Dublin Port or Dun Laoghaire, as some services mean you have to change at Crewe or Chester stations. You can’t get a first class ticket on this package, but book well in advance with Virgin Trains (, and you can get a First Class Single for approx. £50 sterling, with great food and drink served all the way through Wales and England. Note, however, that this is a mid-week deal, and there is no food at weekend, so you are just paying for a bigger seat if travelling Saturdays or Sundays.

If you are travelling from Ireland to UK and want to get a good SailRail package, do this at Irish Rail, either by phone

On our way home

+ 353 1 8366222 ( Mon to Fri 9-5),  email, or call in to one of the following Irish Rail stations: Athlone, Ballina, Cork, Drogheda, Claremorris, Dublin Connolly, Dundalk, Ennis, Galway, Killarney, Limerick, Limerick Junction, Longford, Mallow, Mullingar, Sligo, Thurles, Tralee, Tullamore, Waterford, Westport or Wexford.

Or you can do just as my friend did, and book online the night before, roll on, roll off, no bother. I’m not sure she really cares that her carbon footprint was at least half of flying, to be honest. But if she can see that travelling the greener way is a much better experience all round, then it’s a win win. Any other converts can check out all European rail routes with details of journey lengths, transits, and overnight accommodation, as well as green places to stay nearby, at the newly launched

An edited version of this article was fist published in The Irish Times, 16 January 2010