P&O Ferries says it 'minimises environmental impact' but has a fares policy that discriminates against anyone who wants to come on board on foot rather than in a car
guardian.co.uk, Thursday 16 April 2009 10.48 BST
P&O Ferries' prices don't live up to its green claims. Photograph: Mychele Daniau/AFP
Do you know anyone who will take a tonne of metal across the English Channel this summer for you, and not charge you a penny? It's not a trick question. There are a couple of companies who will not only take that metal for free but will pay you good money for the privilege – as long as the metal has four wheels and can drive on to the ferry.
One of them is P&O Ferries. The company is big on the environment. Its website says it has "taken a leading role in adopting practices that minimise environmental impact".
Except that it operates a fares policy that discriminates against anyone who wants to come on board on foot rather than in a car.
Last weekend, before the blockade of ferry ports by French fishermen began, I checked the company's website for the cheapest price to take four adults from Dover to Calais next week.
It turns out I could take all four across the channel for £25 provided we entered and left the ship in a car. But if we have the temerity to turn up without a car the price is £40. If we want to go to France on Wednesday evening, P&O will still take four in a car for £25 but it wants £56 to take four without a car. So the car will cost minus £31.
No, I can't work it out either. Do foot passengers smell? Don't we buy enough in the on-board shops?
P&O is not alone in its love of carrying cars. Its French rival Sea France will take my four-adult party from Dover to Calais on Tuesday morning for £9 less if we turn up with a car. LD Lines will also take four people cheaper in a car than without between Newhaven and Dieppe and between Portsmouth and Le Havre.
Worst of all, Norfolkline, which won the Guardian's best ferry company award in 2008, won't take foot passengers at any price, saying this means "fewer crowds in the lounges, bars and restaurants". Norfolkline claims to protect the environment by, among other things, "actively suggesting new transportation solutions to our customers" – such as always driving, presumably.
To avoid being ripped off or banned entirely, maybe my party of four could go by train. Surely train companies have the foot passenger's welfare at heart? I fear not. Our party can take a car on to the Eurotunnel train from Folkestone to Calais next week for as little as £67.
Eurotunnel doesn't take foot passengers, which is fair enough given you stay in the car on the journey. But if we hop up the road to the Eurostar passenger service from Ashford to Calais, the four of us will have to fork out at least £220. Different service, I know. But same tunnel. And more than three times as much. For not taking a car.
I first stumbled on this scandalous cross-channel discrimination a few years ago when I took my family on a camping holiday to Normandy. We booked with Canvas Holidays, and paid the combined ferry, tent and camp-site fees. Then they asked me for a car registration number for the ferry.
I must admit when they told me that without a car I couldn't go, because foot passengers did not qualify for the package-deal ferry fare, I blew a fuse. After ranting for about 10 minutes they made me a sensible offer.
Canvas Holidays has changed the rules a bit since. Checking the price for a similar holiday with the company this week, I see it will now take £50 off the price for anyone who wants to make their own travel arrangements. It's a step in the right direction.
But what if you go for the £50 off and make your own way across as foot passengers on the same ferry? That will set you back £96, so you are still £46 worse off than the family of four who drove on to the ferry. All for the privilege of not taking a vehicle.
Not every ferry company contributes to this madness. Sailing to the Isle of Man costs about a third as much without a car. Caledonaian MacBrayne, which runs the ferries to the Scottish islands, charges per person and then per vehicle on top.
But the ferries to Ireland generally make a surcharge for a fully laden car that is less than the price of a round of drinks in the bar. Likewise Brittany Ferries at quiet times.
SeaFrance is so keen to protect the oceans that, unless you opt out, they will take £2 off you for the Marine Conservation Society. "At SeaFrance, we care about the environment," the company says, "we continually seek to reduce the negative impacts upon the environment that may be caused by ourselves, our partners and our passengers."
Sorry, mes amis, you don't. You are ripping off green-minded foot passengers in order to bribe the one-tonne warriors to bring their cars with them to France and contribute to those very same negative impacts.
P&O takes the PR biscuit though. Its website boasts that, apart from paying for dolphin research and such things, it sponsors walking buses in Kent to ensure "fewer cars on the school run".
You couldn't make it up. It pays for kids to walk to school while at the same time paying adults to drive cars on to its cross-channel ferries. Bon voyage.
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