I’ve taken a lot of “sail rail” journeys, going to the UK and the continent via ferry and rail. It’s lower carbon, but it’s also very nice if you love trains and hate airports. It’s also very cheap – basically going anywhere in the UK with a rail line from Dublin for a max of €60.
The process is nowhere near as easy as it should be, and I often get asked how to go about it. So this quick guide might be useful.
UPDATE: The Irish Times have published a version of this blog, which will hopefully spread the word. I’ll try to update this blog page as things change, though.
In the main, I’ll be talking about the Dublin-London route, as that’s the one I’ve taken most, and the easiest to connect on to the Eurostar to the continent. If you want to skip the detail, the Dublin-London routes I most recommend is here.
There is also a Eurolines bus which goes from Busáras all the way to London overnight (8pm to 8am), for €39. It might suit people who want to leave one evening and arrive the next morning in London. It’s also easier to start a journey in Busáras instead of Dublin Port. Personally not a huge fan of long bus journeys, so I’ve never done it. Information on that here, if it’s your preference!
Train and ferry times change, so while this is up-to-date as of 9th August 2022, you should definitely double check times with the providers. Any thoughts or corrections? Let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org
Where can you go?
The basic idea is that you can get a single ticket to get a ferry from Dublin Port to Holyhead, and then take the train from there to anywhere in the UK. The ticket is good for as many train changes as you need.
I’ve used the “Sail Rail” ticket to go to London (at least 20 times), Oxford, Cambridge, Edinburgh, Basingstoke and Birmingham.
It also works in reverse: a Sail Rail ticket could also be a train journey from any rail station to Holyhead and then on to a ferry.
You can go to London on this ticket and then get a separate Eurostar ticket, which can take you direct to a variety of European cities (Paris and Brussels most frequently). This isn’t always that cheap and there can be tight connections.
How much does it cost?
Sail Rail tickets range from €40-€60ish. It’s a fairly fixed price, so there are no big savings to be made by booking far in advance, so it can be a good last-minute option (but be warned: it does get booked out!) You pay a bit extra (around €6) if you book a fast ferry, or if you book on the day of travel.
The maximum you’ll pay for a ticket is around €60, but it’s a little cheaper if your destination is close to Holyhead. You can see some of the zones for the UK below: zone E has London and Scotland, and is the most expensive. In practice, I’ve always just bought a Zone E Sail Rail ticket.
How long does it take?
It can vary by your route or when in the day you want to travel. The train timings work out easier coming from London, rather than going to London. Here are some example timings of recent trips:
- Leave London Euston at 9:02am, arrive Dublin Port 5:25pm. This is with a direct train and a slow ferry, but is probably the most common journey I’ve made. Very handy.
- Leave Dublin Port at 8:20am, arrive London Euston at 4:07pm.
- Leave Dublin Port at 8:20am, arrive Edinburgh at 5:30pm.
In comparison with air travel, it’s obviously a much longer journey – but it’s not quite as big a gap as you think. Coming from London, you only need to get to the train station about ten minutes before departure – or two minutes if you fancy a panicked sprint! It’s in the well-connected city centre, rather than a big journey out to an airport.
On a recent journey, it took me fifteen minutes to get to Euston station, where I waited ten minutes before departure. – where as air travel would have meant leaving 3+ hours before my flight. It’s worth judging the length of the journey door to door: not just the speed of the main section.
Getting to and from Dublin Port can be a bit of a pain. It is much bigger than you think and walking to the ferry terminal isn’t a good option. There are a few ways I’ve gone:
- Buses from Connolly (both the 53 Dublin Bus and Nolan Coaches) straight to the port – sometimes inexplicably free, but sometimes €3
- A Luas to the Point and a quick taxi from there (about a tenner)
- A taxi to the port terminal directly – it recently took twenty minutes and €17 from Inchicore to the terminal, for example
- If you’re bringing your bike (more on that later), you can just cycle there direct.
Stena or Irish Ferries?
There are two options: Stena Lines and Irish Ferries. Both offer the same Sail Rail ticket, but you have to choose which company you’re going with when you book.
They have different terminals in Dublin Port, but there is only one terminal in Holyhead, which is handily also the train station: all in one building.
They typically sail at similar times and offer a slow sailing (around 3 hours 15 minutes) and Irish Ferries offer a fast sailing (around 2 hours). In my experience, the fast sailing is often cancelled due to weather (especially in winter), but Irish Ferries have always accommodated me on the massive slow ferry instead. If the fast ferry is cancelled, they’ll usually email and text you in advance.
Both companies are fine, but I find Irish Ferries have a nicer terminal and are easier to book with. Irish Ferries are also the only one to offer the fast ferry, and their terminal in Dublin lets you can walk directly onto the boat, whereas Stena drive you on via a bus.
Update: Stena have since been in touch to say they have got a new ferry, the Estrid, which is apparently very nice and much more fuel efficient. I’ll definitely try it on my next journey.
When do the ferries go?
Sail Rail passengers aren’t really a big moneymaker for the ferry companies. The boats are timed around people who are bringing their cars and for truck cargo. There are sailings from Dublin roughly at 2am, 2pm, 8pm etc – but in practice for Sail Rail you’ll likely be going for a Dublin to Holyhead sailings at 8am/8:15am.
Coming to Ireland, it will depend on the train you take, but you would usually aim for the Holyhead to Dublin 2:15pm or 2:45pm sailing, depending on the ferry company.
They ask that you check in around 40 minutes before the sailing, but I once arrived ten minutes beforehand and just about got on. I wouldn’t risk it that tightly, but it’s much more relaxed than an airport, though!
The faster ferries can be worth booking, but are often cancelled due to weather: so I would usually bear the slow ferry sailing time in mind, as you may end up having to get that instead.
How do you book?
There are loads of ways to book, but I’ve found the easiest ways by far are:
Dublin to UK: Book via Irish Ferries or Stena Lines direct. Irish Ferries let you can book on their website, while Stena still – bizarrely – ask you to phone them up. You then just pick up your ticket in the ferry terminal at the check in desk. This is fairly handy. If you want, you can book a return ticket here too.
UK to Dublin: If you haven’t booked a return ticket, I recommend booking via the Trainline. It’s a handy, UK-based rail ticket site. Booking this way also allows you to book a seat on your rail journey.
Much like Irish Rail, you book online and they give you a reference code, and you can collect your ticket from a machine in any UK rail station. That’s also the reason you shouldn’t use this site to book journeys from Dublin, as you’ll have to pay for the tickets to be posted to you, as you can’t collect them in the terminal.
If booking via the Trainline, you effectively choose the ferry company by your choice of destination port: “Dublin Ferryport” is Irish Ferries, “Dublin Port – Stena” is for Stena Lines.
There are loads of destinations you might want to go to in the UK, and the TheTrainline website is a good way to plan out the simplest routes.
But if you’re going to London, my favourite option is the 8:05am Irish Ferries sailing from Dublin Port, arriving Holyhead at 11:30. You then grab a coffee/lunch in Holyhead and get the 12:53 direct train to London, arriving at 16:37. No train changes, nice and simple.
There are faster ferries and earlier trains (you could leave Dublin at 7am-ish and be in London by 3:30pm, I think), but I find this route is quite reliable, taking the more reliable slow ferry and allowing plenty of time to get the train. It’s a nice, direct train, so you can really get comfortable and enjoy the lovely views along Colwyn Bay.
For coming from London, I recommend getting the 9:02am train from London Euston direct to Holyhead. It arrives at 12:50pm, with a ferry at 2:10pm. That gets you to Dublin Port at 5:25pm. This route is as good as Sail Rail gets, I think, and I’ve done it many times. I know some people who fly to London and get this route back, as a way to relax and read/do some work on the train.
Again, there are faster ways of doing it, but this is a nice, direct train, with plenty of time for transfers, so there’s no stress if delayed.
Luggage, bikes and pets
You can carry bags onto the ferry – they’re not fussy. There is the option to check in larger bags, but really the limit is whatever you can reasonably carry/wheel onto a train. Fairly flexible.
I took my bike on the Sail Rail a few years ago. They charged me an extra €10 and put it on the car deck of the ferry. Was very easy, and I just brought it on the train. Very handy, but I’d definitely minimise transfers on routes, as that can add to hassle.
I’ve never taken a pet on board, but have heard it’s fairly simple from those who have. Trains in the UK are fairly tolerant of well-behaved pets, but no harm to double check in advance. They can usually just be on a lead, as far as I can see. On the ferry, they need to travel in a suitable crate, and will spend the journey on the car deck. More on that here.
(Update: I’ve since been told that, in practice, they often just let you bring your dog with you on board. Ferries can be a bit more flexibile than planes like that. No harm to give the ferry company a call to ask!)
Kids and accessibility
I’ve never travelled with kids, but you see quite a few large families on board. If your kids are happy on a train, then the ferry should be much easier and I think it would be reasonably workable. Plenty of space and kids around on the ferry, certainly.
In terms of accessibility, there can be a few steps on the ferry, but if you contact them in advance, you can take lifts etc easily enough. I don’t have personal experience of travelling with disabled friends on the services, but from what I can see, the ferry is reasonably good in that regard. I don’t have much knowledge on this, so don’t want to offer advice that might not be reliable. If you have travelled this route with a disability, please let me know and I can add in your advice. Irish Ferries have a page on this here.
What’s it like on board?
The ferries are a bit dated, but essentially it feels like you’re waiting for a few hours in a hotel lobby. There’s a decent bar, some ok-if-overpriced carvery-like food, and a premium lounge (for €19) which offers free food and drink and WiFi. I’ve never tried the lounge, but will definitely book it next time to see what it’s like. There is also some kind of cinema for kids on board.
You can also go out on deck, which is beautiful on a sunny day, and can always be relied on to windily blow out any sea sickness you have.
The WiFi on the ferry has never worked for me. They also operate a mobile network “At Sea”, but I would strongly recommend not connecting to it or putting your phone on airplane mode. Data roaming on the “At Sea” network is incredibly expensive – best just to wait until you arrive in the UK and you can roam reasonably.
The WiFi and phone signal is usually excellent on the train. The direct London train is a “Pendolino”, which is fairly comfy, even when full.
Choosing the direct London-Holyhead train means you get a good-quality train with tables, plugs and working WiFi – similar to the InterCity trains in Ireland. The routes with more changes and transfers sometimes mean you’re on less comfy trains – closer to the DART. This can have a big impact if you want to work, for example.
I haven’t had great experiences in Holyhead as a town. The ferry terminal and train station is the same building, so you don’t need to venture out unless you want to. If you want to stay in Holyhead, the Hut is a cheap, clean, and friendly hostel.
Going to the continent
I used Sail Rail a lot when living in Brussels and later in London. It’s fairly straightforward from London, but Brussels is a little trickier. Eurostars didn’t always go sufficiently early – or when they do, they can be prohibitively expensive. This may have changed since I lived there, though!
It can be done in one day (I’ve done it twice, both ways!), but it takes a bit of research. If you have a friend in London, you can visit them and crash on their couch, breaking up the journey nicely. Or be a tourist and spend the night in London.
Eurostars mainly go to Brussels and Paris, and the price varies a lot. I recommend a site like the Man in Seat 61 to work out travel options.
Does it actually save much carbon?
I personally dislike air travel and love trains, so I’m not totally motivated by climate concerns. The view from the train along Colwyn Bay, or the feeling of cruising by the Pigeon House into Dublin Port out on the open deck of the ferry…I just prefer this as a way to travel.
It’s also tricky to calculate exactly how much carbon is involved in the ferry aspect. Most of the ferry is a combination of cars and cargo: foot passengers barely make a dent in it. Hard to work out.
The Grantham Institute at Imperial College London found that Sail Rail from Dublin to London emitted about 4kg of carbon emissions, versus 74kg for a flight. That’s a saving of about 95%.
The excellent rail travel website, The Man in Seat 61, calculated a saving of about 73%.
I have no expertise to judge the exact figures: it no doubt depends on how you count it. But I think it’s fairly clearly a big environmental saving.
Would I recommend it?
Yes. It’s less polished than air travel, can be prone to delays, and is much less flexible. It could be so much better, but suffers from there being a relatively small number of people who use it.
If unsure, I’d recommend doing the London to Dublin route I recommended as a trial run. It often goes easiest. Sometimes people fly to London and take that route back – whatever works for you.
A bunch of us living in London used to Sail Rail home for Christmas and – despite some stiff hangovers – generally had a good time. The pub on board is nice and you can really take your time.
Sail Rail can be messy. But I like it, think that it’s criminally underused, and I suspect it’s for more people than you’d expect. Worth a go!
I asked some friends who did Sail Rail recently what they thought, and they said:
“Other advantages include enough time for naps and just overall less stressy than airports.”
“No anxiety stomach or pre airport jitters the night before an early flight”
“Such a good way to go. Ferry was followed out of Dublin bay by a bunch of seals last time I did it, which was absurdly pleasant”
Some other people are adding their thoughts on the Twitter post for this guide too.
If you are thinking of doing it, I’m very happy to answer any questions. Just drop me an email on email@example.com