Calais is a port town in the north west of France on the English channel. At just 34 km from the British port of Dover, Calais is the closest port to mainland Britain and one of the busiest cross-channel ports on continental Europe. Regular ferry services operate from Calais to Dover (P&O and Seafrance, each with over 20 crossings per day). The best alternative to Calais is Dunkerque. Note: Dunkerque port is not in Dunkerque but a few miles out. Also there are only a couple of ferries that leave per day from there which makes hitching difficult.
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You can cross the English Channel to Dover for free if you find your lift before you board the ferry - tickets are paid for by vehicle and not by passenger. The limit is two for a lorry (more if there's more seats) and several with a car. While looking for a lift, tell people that extra passengers are free, as many don't know about it.
The best place to start hitchhiking is probably the parking lot near the ticket office. Ask people before they buy their tickets, since they have to declare the number of passengers when buying the ticket. This is good because you can show that you're not a drug smuggler, and can explain that there's no charge for extra passengers. The drawback is that many people parked here will just be waiting to pick up foot passengers due to arrive on a boat. Also, most drivers headed to England will have bought their tickets in advance and will not come through here.
Tip: wait INSIDE the ticket office (the staff don't care) and ask people as they walk in if they are driving, and if they will take you. Most people will be foot passengers but some are drivers who are getting a last minute ticket. This is important as everyone must declare how many car passengers they have in advance, so of you hitch a car you will be adding to that number, which will end up costing £10 at the gate. Catching people before they have bought their ticket therefore is essential. Usually telling people you “just want a lift onto the ferry, that’s all” works a treat.
Experiences with waiting by the side of the road are mixed; with some people getting picked up after ten minutes, and others waiting the entire day without success. Ask around the parking lot before trying to thumb your way through. A good place to stand is next to the speed bumps that cars go over as they are approaching passport control. Stand between the two lanes and you'll be visible to cars going straight to the ferry as well as those going to the ticket office. Keep on your toes, though; this isn't the safest place to stand.
Hitchhiking with bikes across the Channel is possible! Some people reported finding a lift in vans and mobile homes after waiting about 1 hour with their bikes at the parking lot and next to the speed bumps. It could be an exceptional luck... More positive reports are needed to rely on this possibility.
Lifts: You can easily change cars in the harbour terminal, after ticket and passport control and before boarding the ferry (you will usually have 40 minutes). Find a lift before coming to Calais, and you might well have some time before the ferry leaves, especially so if you've come with a lorry. Use this time well, walk around the huge parking areas (which is perfectly fine) and talk to as many people waiting for their ferries as you can. You'll often be able to get a better lift, especially one going past London if you're going north. Changing rides after the first ticket check but before getting on the ferry comes with slight risk ask you'd be getting into a car that doesn't have you listed on their ticket.
However, Zenit followed said strategy successfully in May 2011 - P&O don't check the tickets again as you enter the ferry (only as you enter the port), Seafrance might. It might be a bad idea to let the vehicle that brought you into the port in the first place cross without you, in case somebody checks the number of passengers on the ticket while boarding the ferry. You can also switch cars while on the ferry and avoid this problem, you just won't have quite as much time to do so. Tip: the crossing takes about 1.5 hours. Walk around the ferry, go up onto the deck. Chat to people and find out where they are going. This is the best time to find a new lift.
You can also get across via the Channel Tunnel. Cars and lorries get loaded onto a train which takes them across. The price is the same for each vehicle as well, no matter how many persons there are in the car. However, it is very difficult to get a ride at the tunnel entrance itself, because the road has about 15 lanes coming directly from the motorway, the cars are going quite fast and the drivers will concentrate on finding their correct lane, so most of them won't see you. The staff is quite unfriendly and you will be sent away (remember though that this also applies if you try to hitch too far inside the ferry port). Most people are being told that hitching by the tunnel entrance is illegal (which is probably doubtful). Just in case, ask your driver not to mention that you're hitchhiking.
All in all, the ferry is definitely the much better option, but however you plan on handling things, it's best to find somebody to take you across (or at least into the ferry terminal) before you get to Calais.
If you do have to buy a foot passenger ticket, bear in mind that it costs 39 euros.
Important for Non-EU Nationals (including US citizens)
There are UK passport controls in Calais and if you do not have the proper papers (depending on your nationality even if you do have the right papers), you will encounter a lot of hassle, including being denied entry. Worse, the friendly driver who gave you a ride might also face delays and even fines. As with any border crossing, it helps a lot if you look respectable and clean, even if you travel on a EU or similarly accepted passport and have money (or better, a credit card) to support yourself. UK border control will very often ask for the address where you're staying, so have an address in mind beforehand! Any hostel, friend's house, or random address from google maps should do. Just be prepared to answer a lot of questions. "I'm gonna sleep wherever I find a nice spot to pitch my tent" is unfortunately not an acceptable answer.
Upon arrival in Dover, UK customs also have a tendency to check far more cars than any other EU country. The UK is not part of the Schengen Agreement, so you might consider leaving the ferry as a foot-passenger to save your driver a potentially substantial delay! (This is not possible if you arrived using Norfolklines.)
Personal experience: I tried in August 2011 to hitch a ride onto the P&O ferry to Dover, and I had no problem getting a ride. I checked the US Dept. of State webpage beforehand to see what was required for entry into the UK, and it says only a valid passport. However, the Home Office agents denied me (a US citizen with a valid passport) because I didn't have set travel plans with addresses/reservations where I would be staying (including for that very night), a ticket out of the country, proof of employment, or bank statements. I'm not sure what of that would have sufficed, but having none of it and being a hitchhiker definitely did me in.
South towards Paris
If you're coming from the ferries and you don't manage to get a ride to Paris then get ANY ride from the boat and get off at the first service station to change there.
Option 1 A1 highway
Train to Audruicq walk 5 km to La Montoire there is SMALL Aire de Zutkerque rest stop
Option 2 A16 highway
Hitchike to Escalles town and walk 7 km to Hauteville there is Total fuel station on A16 highway (walking there from Calais is 15 km)
South, East towards everywhere
To get out of the ferry terminal, the best trick is to follow the signs for the motorway to Lille and eventually you'll get to a big roundabout with the road leading uphill with a bay where vehicles can stop next to the "no pedestrians" signs that all the other hitchers have written all about :) stand by the signs and you'll get a brave trucker to stop for you. Almost all car traffic heads south Paris way, and it's a nightmare getting back onto the motorway if you come off there, so try to flag down someone with a sign saying D or PL. Standing at the roundabout itself is quite tragic as you will be watching migrants trying to get into England constantly running up and down trying to sneak into a truck.
If you're going far and/or don't care about speed so much, there's a huge lorry park on the motorway a few kilometres from Calais from where you can easily get direct lifts to many places all over Europe (Belgium, Netherlands, England, Germany, Poland, Spain, Czech Republic, Austria and Turkey should easily be possible). Be aware that a truck is legally only allowed to have one driver and one passenger (except if there's more seats), so it's a lot harder to find a ride for two people hitching together. If you are just hitching into Belgium you're probably better off finding a ride while on the ferry, to a petrol station in Belgium.
Turkish lorry drivers are often very kind and help you searching for a lift. You often ask one of them and he talks to all his fellow countrymen – you often ask all of them by asking one and end up having dinner with them. Their German is often better than their English but they really try to do their best to communicate.
There is also a service station with free showers.
You can also get out of the city centre towards the highway N°16 next to the McDonalds at Rue Gutenberg (bus stop Galerie Saint Pierre, bus #02). Don't stay directly at the McD, but go through the tunnel under the highway and stand right in the bend that leads the cars directly onto the highway. Cars are not too fast here and can stop easily - most of them will go to Dunkerque (Dunkirk), if you want to cross the border to Belgium, it could be better to wait for a car that goes straight until De Panne or Ostende.
- When on the ferry try to find the Commercial Drivers Restaurant on one of the floors. If you can get in, you'll get a free drink (hot chocolate, tea, coffee, soft drink), however if you wish to buy food it will cost you.
- Whilst waiting in the queue for your time to board the ferry, after the passport check, you can try to change rides in order to get onto an earlier boat or to a better destination. Just walk around asking people that have an earlier leaving time than yours. Since you've passed the passport check, they should not be afraid to take you. You can see the departure time on the paper that is usually on their car or truck windows. This can save you a lot of time.
-> I did this a few times and it was fine. But once I had two overly ambitious workers who asked me what I'm doing when I walked around. Told them I'm just heading to my car, but when we borded they checked our paperthing in the window to see if it had the right number of passengers on it (which it luckely had). Never happened to me before, but then again, I walked around with a big backpack. So maybe leave your stuff in the car to ask around. Just make sure to be back in time. The bording sometimes beginns way earlier than the actuall leaving time of the ferry.
- You can also change rides inside the ferry, especially when it has arrived in the port and people are getting to their cars and waiting to exit. Just go around looking at number plates and asking around. Hurry, though, you don't want to be left on foot when all the cars are leaving.
-> Wouldn't recommend. There is very little time between going down to the cars and the cars leaving. Rather ask around during the crossing while on deck.