When my friends and I got tickets to the 2014 Monty Python reunion in London, we seized upon them without worrying about “details” like where else we would go and how we would get there.
When travel forces of the universe conspired to send us to Dublin first, again, we figured the details would work themselves out. Research suggested flying between Dublin and London on low-cost carriers would be sorta cheap, but really painful. Then, one of my friends found the SailRail combination of ferry and train between Ireland and the United Kingdom, and, with it, the details were all figured out.
SailRail proved to be an economical way to depart Dublin for London – via Holyhead, Wales – while getting to enjoy a bit of the Irish Sea, and the Welsh and English countrysides. It’s not fast travel, not even a little, but a delightful adventure to add on top of our already delightful adventure.
What is SailRail?
SailRail is combination ticket for a ferry between Ireland and Wales (other combinations available), offered by two ferry companies: Irish Ferries and Stena Lines. The ticket covers a ferry trip and a rail journey, on any combination of National Rail lines that go to your final destination once you hit dry land.
Before booking, I contacted Irish Ferries with dumb questions because the price was inconceivable. Yes, the ticket included the ferry crossing and the rail trip. You just look at the rail schedules and figure out your trains to London yourself. Yes, any trains that get you there. Yes, your ticket covers it. Yes, really. The patience of the Irish Ferries staff was truly commendable.
Approximately 10 days before our intended voyage, I easily booked our crossing on the slower Ulysses car-passenger ferry on the Irish Ferries site. The price – €187 for four (June 2014 – €46 each, plus a €3 booking fee) – was unbeatable, especially compared to flights at the time. I received an electronic booking confirmation with the details for check-in and ticket pick-up.
July 2015: the price for the same route is now €47+€3 for fees.
Ferry from Dublin to Holyhead, Wales
If you’re accustomed to travelling by air and/or travelling between Canada and the United States, SailRail can seem a little … casual.
The morning of our booking, we called for a taxi and rolled up at the Irish Ferries Terminal in Dublin approximately 45 minutes before sailing. I showed the booking confirmation, and the clerk pulled out an envelope with our tickets, which were “lightly detailed” to say the least:
Bag check was quick and we were soon walking up the gangplank to the Ulysses. There was no passport control, which I thought odd, even though most of the passengers would have been Irish or British. On this day, a ragtag bunch of Canadians just wandered across an international border with no one noticing or caring.
Our tickets were second class, so we quickly staked out an area for the four of us to set up shop in the lounge and headed upstairs to watch delightful Dublin disappear behind us.
A quick tour of deck revealed a bunch of distractions for the three-hour crossing, including restaurants, pubs, movie theatres (€7.50 for adult tickets), a gift shop, play areas, and First Class lounges (restricted access). For the relatively brief time we were on board, there was more than enough to keep us fed, watered, and occupied. We even had outlets to charge up our devices, so no need went unmet.As we crossed the Irish Sea, the sun gave way to cloud and, as we approached Holyhead, the skies darkened and a bit of rain started to fall. As we pulled into port, the car passengers queued up to go below deck, and the foot passengers hung around until we were loaded on a bus and taken to the main terminal to collect our bags and find the train.
Train from Holyhead, Wales to London
Despite our best efforts to find passport control and enter the United Kingdom legally – including asking a local police officer who waved us off with “We don’t stamp passports here!” – we made our way through the compact terminal and found the attached train station.
The Holyhead ferry-train station has a good-sized shop for train snacks and magazines, and the small size of the terminal makes it an easy chore to find the correct – and only – train to London.
Using the National Rail app, we figured out our route pretty easily. Of the two options, the route Holyhead-Chester-London was the easiest and got us into London late afternoon. The Arriva Wales trains are small and fill up quickly. It was full to the brim with travelers that day, but the journey was lovely – passing quickly through the Welsh countryside. Past the massive lions of the Britannia Bridge as you leave Anglesey, the challenging pronunciation of Llanfairpwllgwyngyll, the mountains of Snowdonia, and green fields galore with sheep and goats. As a bonus, I had a lovely seat companion who sold me on the virtues of visiting Wales for more than an hour.
We arrived at Chester a couple of minutes late, and hustled off the train to find our Virgin Train to London Euston. I soon fell into a dead sleep, waking up at Milton Keynes in time to watch industrial London spring up before us. We arrived at London Euston on time and were soon in a black cab, heading for our flat in record time.
Slow travel for better travel
SailRail is not for the impatient, but for those who will enjoy a leisurely day to recharge between major destinations, it cannot be beat. The price is terrific, the amenities plentiful, and the trip is far more relaxing than even the most luxurious plane trip. All aboard!