Sunset from Brittany Ferries' ferry to Spain
 

Sailing to Spain, watching for dolphins as the sun sets.

  The ferry to Spain:  2-berth Club cabin on Brittany Ferries Santona
 

Club cabin on the Santoña.  At Santander, it's just a 6 minute walk to the station for a fast Alvia train to Madrid.

Sail to Spain with www.brittany-ferries.co.uk

You can take the train to Spain, or you can sail there from the UK on a luxurious ferry that's more liner than traditional Channel ferry.  Brittany Ferries now operates an unprecedented 5 sailings a week direct to Spain for much of the year on 3 routes.  Portsmouth to Santander or Bilbao takes just 2 nights, 1 day.  You can take your car, but on this page I'll explain how to travel as a foot passenger with train connections.

small bullet point  Which ferry route to choose?

small bullet point  London ► Spain

    via Portsmouth to Santander

    via Portsmouth to Bilbao

    via Plymouth to Santander

small bullet point  Spain ► London

    via Santander to Portsmouth

    via Bilbao to Portsmouth

    via Santander to Plymouth

small bullet point  How much does it cost?

small bullet point  How to buy tickets

small bullet point  What's the journey like?

small bullet point  Video:  Madrid to London via Brittany Ferries

small bullet point  On other pages:  UK to Spain by train

Which ferry route to choose?

London ► Spain

Portsmouth Santander

Portsmouth Bilbao

Plymouth Santander

Spain ► London

Santander Portsmouth

Bilbao Portsmouth

Santander Plymouth

How much does it cost

How to buy tickets

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Route map

UK to Spain ferry route map

 

Click for larger map

Highlighted = London to Madrid train-ferry-train routes.

Red = high-speed lines.

Grey = narrow gauge lines.

Green = scenic sections of line

European Rail Timetable and mapReproduced from the excellent European Rail Map with kind permission of the European Rail Timetable people.

I recommend buying a copy of the European Rail Map for your travels, www.europeanrailtimetable.eu with shipping worldwide.

Travel tips

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What's the journey like?

London to Portsmouth by train

Seats on a train from London to Portsmouth or Poole   Train from London to Portsmouth or Poole

Take the train to Portsmouth.  These 100mph air-conditioned electric trains have power sockets & free WiFi.  There's no catering so bring your own food & drink.  There are also direct trains to Portsmouth from Cardiff, Bristol, Reading, Salisbury, Southampton, Brighton.

Portsmouth & Southsea station

Transfer to the International Ferry Port.  Get off at Portsmouth & Southsea (not Portsmouth Harbour), it's a 1.1 mile 26-minute walk or 8-minute £7 taxi ride to the International Ferry Port, see walking map.

Portsmouth's Ship & Castle Inn   Portsmouth's Ship & Castle Inn

Allow plenty of time between train & ferry.  There are cafes at the International Ferry Port, but I recommend a 5 minute walk around the corner to the friendly Ship & Castle for a pint or two and perhaps some tasty pub grub, see walking map.

Boarding the ferry

At the International Ferry Port, check in at the Brittany Ferries desk to get your boarding pass which is also your cabin key.  Check-in opens 3-4 hours before sailing time, boarding foot passengers typically starts 60-75 before sailing time.  The entrance for foot passenger departures is in the far right corner of the ground floor.  Your ticket is checked at the entrance, then you put your bags through an X-ray scanner and walk through a metal detector.  A shuttle bus then collects foot passengers and takes them onto the ferry car deck, for lifts or stairs up to the passenger decks.

Portsmouth International Ferry Port

Portsmouth International Ferry Port.

Portsmouth International Ferry Port interior

Inside the ferry terminal, showing Brittany Ferries' check-in desk.  The entrance to departures is in the far corner.

Transfer bus from terminal to ferry   The ferry Santona at Portsmouth

Sister ships Salamanca, Santoña & Galicia

Sister ships Salamanca, Santoña & Galicia offer a range of restaurants, bars, sun decks & cinema, making getting to Spain as much a cruise as a ferry crossing.  All passengers get 30 minutes free WiFi for basic browsing and email, it can be paused so you can stretch those 30 minutes out over the duration of the crossing.  Paid WiFi packages are available if you need continuous or more extensive  internet access, including streaming.

All cabins have a toilet & shower, a small dressing table, 3-pin UK-type & 2-pin European-type power sockets for recharging laptops, cameras or mobiles.  Don't worry if an inside cabin is all that's available, see my tip on checking for cancellations in the travel tips section.  Incidentally, the carpet in corridors & cabins is colour-coded:  Blue for deck 7, red for deck 8, green for deck 9.

Standard inside cabin

For 1-4 people with 2 lower & 2 upper berths, unused beds can be folded away.  Shower & toilet with towels, soap, shampoo provided, dressing table & stool, TV with video-on-demand, UK-style, European-style & USB power outlets.  2-berth inside wheelchair-accessible cabins are also available.

Club cabin on the ferry to Spain   Standard cabin shower/toilet on the ferry to Spain

Standard outside cabin

Identical to inside cabins, but with a window.  2-berth wheelchair-accessible outside cabins are also available.

Standard cabin shower/toilet on the ferry to Spain   Club cabin on the ferry to Spain

2-berth Club cabin

For 1 or 2 people, the same size and layout as standard cabins, but with extra features and complimentary access to the C-Club lounge:  Two lower berths with superior mattress & bedding, shower & toilet, quality toiletries range, dressing table & stool, larger TV with video-on-demand, USB ports, UK-style and European-style power outlets, tea/coffee making facilities, hairdryer.  Club cabins often sell out, so book ahead.

Club cabin on the ferry to Spain   Club cabin shower/toilet on the ferry to Spain

Commodore suite with double bed

There are just 3 of these suites, all aft on deck 9 and they sell out as soon as booking opens.  Double bed with superior mattress & bedding, table & chairs, shower & toilet, quality toiletries range, dressing table & stool, larger TV with video-on-demand, USB ports, UK-style and European-style power outlets, tea/coffee making facilities, hairdryer, complimentary access to the C-Club lounge.  Each suite has a door opening directly onto open deck at the rear of deck 9 for some sea air.

C-Club lounge, deck 9

The C-Club lounge is a premium lounge with a panoramic forward view and complimentary tea, coffee, soft drinks, hot & cold food, including breakfast.  There are taps dispending complimentary red & white wine at meal times.  Passengers in Club & Commodore cabins have complimentary access to the C-Club lounge, a limited number of passengers in standard cabins can add premium lounge access to their booking for a fee.  Highly recommended, but places sell out fast!  You're given a card key to operate the lounge entrance door, you're also given a disposable wristband.  In theory, the complimentary food means you don't need to pay for meals in the self-service or à la carte restaurants, but the paid-for food in the Azul restaurant is much better, with a much wider choice, so choose wisely.

C-Club lounge on the ferry to Spain

The C-Club lounge on the Santoña.  Below right, the complimentary goodies at breakfast, including scrambled eggs & bacon.

C-Club lounge on the ferry to Spain   C-Club lounge on the ferry to Spain

Restaurant Azul, deck 8

The à la carte Azul restaurant serves breakfast, lunch & dinner, it's on deck 8 with a great forward view.  You can make a table reservation, which is a good idea for dinner it gets busy.  Staff greet you at the entrance and show you to a table.  The starter and dessert are self-service from an excellent buffet.  The main course is selected from a menu and brought to your table.  You pay when you leave.  The food is excellent, dining in the Azul is highly recommended even if you've paid for the C-Club lounge.

C-Club lounge on the ferry to Spain

Azul restaurant.  There are casual seating areas like this and more formal areas.

C-Club lounge on the ferry to Spain

Starter buffet at dinner, with smoked salmon & prawns.

Azul restaurant on the ferry to Spain   Azul restaurant on the ferry to Spain

Lunch in the Restaurant Azul.

Taberna de Tapas, deck 9

This is the self-service restaurant for light meals or snacks.

C-Club lounge on the ferry to Spain

Plaza Mayor bar, deck 8

This is the main bar, with a double-height section.  Quiet in the morning, but a vibrant social hub in the evening.

Plaza Mayor bar on the ferry to Spain

Other lounges, cinema, shop, information desk

If you don't have C-Club access, there are plenty of other lounge seating areas around the ship.  There are shops selling newspapers, magazines, souvenirs, drinks and snacks on deck 7.  There's a children's play area for those under 10, and a cinema showing recent releases.  There's an information deck on deck 7, opposite an area with public computers for browsing.

Lounges on the ferry to Spain

Sun deck, deck 10

Deck 10 has open deck with wind screens for lapping up the sun.  There are also areas without screens, ideal for watching the departure from Portsmouth or the arrival into Bilbao or Santander.  Or indeed, watching for whales or dolphins.  The forward deck is not open to passengers so no forward view is possible, but the aft decks on decks 10, 9, 8 & 7 are all open and accessible.  There is also a small section of open deck either side of the ship on deck 7.

Sun deck on the ferry to Spain

The crossing

Portsmouth harbour, seen as the ferry sails for Spain

The ferry sails out of Portsmouth, past warships in the naval dockyard with Nelson's historic HMS Victory visible.  Above, the ferry sails past iron-clad HMS Warrior and Portsmouth's distinctive Spinnaker Tower.  On this occasion the Santoña sailed at midnight, her decks crowded with passengers watching the departure.

Dolphins seen from the ferry to Spain

Dolphins were sighted several times in the Bay of Biscay on this crossing, from open deck, from the Azul restaurant and even looking out of my cabin window.  Common and striped dolphins are the most usual sightings, followed by the common bottlenose dolphin.  This was taken at sunset from the open deck on deck 7.

Sunset from the ferry to Spain

Sunset in the Bay of Biscay.

The ferry arrives in Santander

Arrival in Santander.  Look out for the Palacio de la Magdalena on the Magdalena Peninsula to starboard, built 1909-1911 in the English style.

Brittany Ferries' Santona at Santander

Brittany Ferries' m/v Santoña arrived in Santander.

Disembarkation at Santander

The ships dock a little way along the quayside from the Estación Maritima.  Foot passengers wait next to the information desk on deck 7, a staff member takes them down to the car deck to board a transfer bus to the terminal.  In the terminal there is a very quick passport control and (for some reason X-ray baggage scan.

Santander ferry terminal

Walking to the station, see walking map

In Santander it's just a 6 minute (450m) walk from the ferry terminal to the Renfe mainline station and narrow-gauge station, see walking mapMap of Santander showing ferry terminal & stations.  In the photo below, the arrows show the mainline Renfe station for trains to Palencia, Valladolid & Madrid, and the (formerly FEVE) narrow-gauge station for trains to Bilbao and Oviedo for Gijon.  FEVE is now part of Renfe, but still widely known as FEVE.  Both stations have cafes, the one in the Renfe station is a good place to wait for your train, I can recommend the coffee.

Santander railway stations

The train from Santander to Madrid

Alvia train from Santander to Madrid

The afternoon Alvia train to Madrid at Santander station.  This S130 Alvia is built by the Talgo company, for obvious reasons Renfe staff call them Patito, little duck.

Comfort class seats on the Santander-Madrid Alvia train   Cafe-bar on the Santander-Madrid Alvia train

Comfort (1st) class seats on the afternoon Alvia train to Madrid.  Above right, a menu Iberico meal deal from the cafe-bar.

Cafe-bar on the Santander-Madrid Alvia train   Standard class seats on the Santander-Madrid Alvia train

The cafe-bar and standard (2nd) class seats on the Alvia train to Madrid.

Scenery between Santander & Madrid

The train meanders sedately through the hills south of Santander, on Iberian-gauge track with rails 5' 6" apart.  Near Palencia, the train passes slowly through a gauge-changing shed and emerges with its wheels set to standard gauge (4' 8½").  The train joins the standard-gauge high-speed line to Madrid, running at up to 250 km/h.

Video guide:  Madrid to London with Brittany Ferries

This shows a northbound trip from Madrid Atocha to London Waterloo, on Brittany ferries Pont-Aven from Santander to Portsmouth.  Some things have changed since the video was made, this route is now operated by the Galicia, Salamanca & Santoña.

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Hotels in Spain

If you need to stay overnight in Santander, I recommend the Hotel Bahia, a modern hotel across the road from the ferry terminal and a 6-minute walk from the railway station.

Find hotels at Booking.comMy favourite hotel search: www.booking.com

Booking.com is my favourite hotel booking site and I generally use it to book all my hotels in one place.  I've come to trust booking.com's review scores, you won't be disappointed with any hotel that scores 8.0 or more.  Crucially, booking.com usually lets you book with free cancellation, which means you can confirm accommodation risk-free before train booking opens and/or you can hold accommodation while you finalise your itinerary and alter your plans as they evolve - a feature I use all the time when planning a trip.  I never book hotels non-refundably!

Backpacker hostels

www.hostelworld.com:  If you're on a tight budget, don't forget about backpacker hostels.  Hostelworld offers online booking of cheap private rooms or dorm beds in backpacker hostels in most cities at rock-bottom prices.

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Travel insurance & VPN

 

Staysure travel insurance

 

Columbus Direct logo

Always take out travel insurance

You should take out travel insurance with at least £1m or preferably £5m medical cover from a reliable insurer.  It should cover trip cancellation and loss of cash & belongings up to a reasonable limit.  These days, check you're covered for covid-19-related issues, and use an insurer whose cover isn't invalidated by well-meant but excessive Foreign Office travel advice against non-essential travel. An annual policy is usually cheapest even for just 2 or 3 trips a year, I have an annual policy with Staysure.co.uk myself.  Don't expect travel insurance to bail you out of every missed connection, see the advice on missed connections here.  Here are some suggested insurers, I get a little commission if you buy through these links, feedback always welcome.

UK flag  www.staysure.co.uk offers enhanced Covid-19 protection and gets 4.7 out of 5 on Trustpilot.

UK flag  www.columbusdirect.com is also a well-know brand.

US flag  If you live in the USA try Travel Guard USA.

 

Maya.net logo

Get an eSIM with mobile data package

Don't rely on WiFi, download an eSIM with a European mobile data package and stay connected.  Most newer mobile phones can download a virtual SIM including iPhone 11 & later, see device compatibility list.  There's no need to buy a physical SIM card!  Maya.net is a reliable eSIM data retailer with a 4.5 out of 5 Trustpilot rating and a range of packages including unlimited data.

 

Curve card

Curve card

Get a Curve card for foreign travel

Most banks give you a poor exchange rate then add a foreign transaction fee on top.  A Curve MasterCard means no foreign transaction fees and gives you the mid-market exchange rate, at least up to a certain limit, £500 per month as I write this.  The money you spend on your Curve card goes straight onto one of your existing debit or credit cards.  And you can get a Curve card for free.

How it works:  1. Download the Curve app for iPhone or Android.  2. Enter your details & they'll send you a Curve MasterCard - they send to the UK and most European addresses.  3. Link your existing credit & debit cards to the app, you can link up to two cards with the free version of Curve, I link my normal debit card and my normal credit card.  4. Now use the Curve MasterCard to buy things online or in person or take cash from ATMs, exactly like a normal MasterCard. Curve does the currency conversion and puts the balance in your own currency onto whichever debit or credit card is currently selected in the Curve app.  You can even change your mind about which card it goes onto, within 14 days of the transaction.

I have a Curve Blue card myself, it means I can buy a coffee on a foreign station on a card without being stung by fees and lousy exchange rates, just by tapping the Curve card on their card reader.  The money goes through Curve to my normal debit card and is taken directly from my account (in fact I have the Curve card set up as payment card on Apple Pay on my iPhone, so can double-click my phone, let it do Face ID then tap the reader with the phone - even easier than getting a card out).  I get a little commission if you sign up to Curve, but I recommend it here because I think it's great.  See details, download the app and get a Curve card, they'll give you £5 cashback through that link.

 

Express VPN

Get a VPN for safe browsing.  Why you need a VPN

When travelling you may use free public WiFi which is often insecure.  A VPN encrypts your connection so it's always secure, even on unsecured WiFi.  It also means you can select the geographic location of the IP address you browse with, to get around geoblocking which a surprising number of websites apply.  See VPNs & why you need one explainedExpressVPN is a best buy with a 4.7 out of 5 Trustpilot ranking which I use myself - I've signed up as an ExpressVPN affiliate, and if you go with expressvpn.com using this link you should see a special deal, 3 months free with an annual subscription.  I also get some commission to help support this site.

 

Anker Powerrbank

Carry an Anker powerbank

Tickets, reservations, hotel bookings and Interrail or Eurail passes are often now held on your mobile phone.  You daren't let it run out of power, and you can't always rely on the phone's internal battery or on being near a power outlet.  I always carry an Anker powerbank which can recharge my phone several times over.  Buy from Amazon.co.uk or Buy from Amazon.com.

Touring cities?  Use hill walking shoes!

One of the best things I've done is swap my normal shoes for hill-walking shoes, in my case from Scarpa.  They're intended for hiking across the Pennines not wandering around Florence, but the support and cushioning for hiking works equally well when you're on your feet all day exploring foreign cities.  My feet used to give out first and limit my day, now the rest of me gives up before they do!

 


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