A motoring holiday in Europe has long been part of the English psyche, conjuring up visions of classic roadsters hugging the sweeping curves of the Cote d’Azur or touring through verdant Alpine valleys. For those venturing across the Channel, or indeed to Ireland or Scandinavia, there has traditionally only been one way to go: pack your car to the brim and take it on a ferry, driving to your destination and stopping off for an overnight break on long journeys.

The advent of low-cost airlines and cheap flights to Europe’s cities and beach resorts means that it can now be just as cheap, if not cheaper, to fly direct to your final destination and rent a car while you are there. Countering that is the hassle factor of flying and security checks as well as the limited amount of luggage allowed on aircraft, particularly those of budget carriers.

Each has its advantages and its downsides, and the final choice will depend on a number of factors.

Here is how they weigh up against each other:

Driving in France © Britany Ferries

Driving your own car

Whether you are heading off to a French campsite or gite, a log cabin in Scandinavia, B&Bs in Ireland, a parador hotel in Spain or a holiday park in Holland, taking your own car gives you lots of flexibility.

One of the biggest advantages is that you can take as much luggage as you like, as there are no restrictions on ferries. Filled up the boot? No problem; just rent or buy a roofbox to give you more space. You can also put a cycle rack on the back of your car so that the whole family can explore the countryside by bike once at the holiday destination.

Then there’s the convenience of setting off from your home with everything packed in the car and no need to unpack it until you reach the other end. You can stop at a supermarket, winery or shopping mall and grab bargains to bring back, without the inconvenience of not being allowed liquids as on aircraft.

Once on the ferry, you have the freedom to roam the ship and get fresh air instead of being shoehornedCondor Ferries into cramped airline seats.

The ferry journey itself is also part of the holiday, especially on longer routes such as to Denmark, Normandy, Brittany and Northern Spain. Ferries today are a far cry from the old days of poor onboard facilities and transport café-style food. Now they are havens of comfort, with ensuite cabins, cinemas, night clubs, spas, gyms, bars and shows on longer routes. Most ferries offer a choice of dining, comfortable seating including reclining seats on some services, shopping and play areas.

Some boast club lounges to rival those of airports, yet with check-in times from just 30 minutes and no lengthy security queues. Unlike cheap flights where changes can cost more than the original ticket, check-in and travel policies are flexible.

Frequent services on short-sea routes give extra peace of mind, knowing that there is another sailing soon after if you miss your intended one. Those in a hurry can book priority loading to ensure they are first on and first off. High-speed catamaran ferries cut crossing times on some routes.

If you can’t bear to be parted from your four-legged friends, many ferry operators welcome Fido or Rover if you have got them pet passports under the Government’s Pet Travel Scheme.

Flying is not always the cheapest travel option, either. Booking ferry travel early means you can get good-value fares, with travel from as little as £1 per mile between the UK and France for a family of four with a car. National Ferry Fortnight each year brings special advance-booking promotions and last-minute offers.

Several ferry companies, among them Brittany Ferries and Irish Ferries, offer ferry inclusive holidays, with a range of accommodation close to or within easy driving range of ferry ports.

And if the thought of crossing the English Channel by sea makes you go green at the gills, you can always opt for the Eurotunnel option, with journeys taking just 35 minutes through the Channel Tunnel on its car-carrying trains.

Fly and rent

Even with the extra time it now takes at airports, with earlier check-ins and longer security procedures, flying to your destination is generally quicker – much more so if you are going further afield and not just puddle-jumping.

Pre-book a satnav with your hire car © Europcar

If you are heading somewhere that would be a long drive from a coastal port, you will arrive far more refreshed than if you had to sit behind the wheel for several hours, and you won’t have the constant cries of “Are we there yet?” from fractious children.

Car rental facilities are generally either on-airport or very close by, so you need only stroll over to the desk and your car is usually just a short walk away and ready to be driven off.

Hotels sometimes have rental locations and there are always rental facilities in cities, so you don’t have to jump straight in a car when you arrive at the airport if you don’t want to. You can also rent for just a few days instead of the whole stay, ensuring you are not wasting money with the car sitting idly in a parking lot while you are lazing on a beach.

Pre-booking cuts down on the time to process your booking, guarantees you the vehicle of your choice and generally gets you better rates than prices charged inresort.
You can also pre-book satnavs and child or baby seats with your car.

Holiday Autos sales support manager Stephanie Hills notes: “By pre-booking your car rental you know exactly what the fully inclusive price is and can be sure you won’t have to pay any extras for compulsory insurance, taxes etc. You are assured of the car you want, plus you have the full back-up service of a 24-hour helpline.”

For families with small cars, opting for a hire car means they can rent a larger vehicle just for the time they need it, knowing the vehicle is fully-maintained and covered by 24-hour road assistance. It also allows them to enjoy their holiday in more comfort than if they had taken their own, smaller car and without the wear and tear such a long journey would have put on it.

Conversely, if you are only using the hire car to drive locally and don’t need the extra comfort, you can cut down on cost by renting a much smaller vehicle than your own car. Renting allows you to be an eco-champion on holiday, too, with hybrid and electric cars now featured by several companies. Rental company National has a fleet of 250 compact, all-electric Citroen C-Zero cars in Paris and all main French cities, with rates from 35 euros per day.

Many people also use a holiday to treat themselves, renting a convertible or luxury model that they would never drive at home. While in winter, you can rent a 4x4 to cope with the snow and ice in ski resorts.

Driving in Europe facts

Useful websites

The AA has a Driving Abroad section on its website (www.theaa.com/motoring_advice/overseas) with information including general tips, driving requirements and compulsory equipment by country.

Driving Abroad (www.drivingabroad.co.uk) also lists handy information for driving in different countries.

The Passenger Shipping Association’s Discover Ferries website (www.discoverferries.com)
details ferry routes, member companies and has lots of other information, including details of National Ferry Fortnight, from March 17-30.

Car rental company National has information on driving in 50 countries on its Drive Safe website (www.nationaldrivesafe.com).

Car ferry companies

Brittany Ferries: www.brittanyferries.com

Condor Ferries: www.condorferries.com

DFDS Seaways: www.dfds.co.uk

Irish Ferries: www.irishferries.com

LD Lines: www.ldlines.com

P&O Ferries: www.poferries.com

Stena Line: www.stenaline.co.uk

Car rental companies

Alamo: www.alamo.co.uk

Avis: www.avis.co.uk

Budget: www.budget.co.uk

Europcar: www.europcar.co.uk

Hertz: www.hertz.co.uk

Holiday Autos: www.holidayautos.co.uk

National: www.nationalcar.co.uk

Sixt: www.sixt.co.uk

All prices and details were correct when published in tlm - the travel & leisure magazine, please check before you travel.