Kevin K, one of our members from Dublin, very kindly offered to share his experiences of travelling with his dogs from Ireland to Spain / Portugal.
Kevin is also very happy to answer any questions you may have regarding this.
Travelling by ferry with dogs – to Spain/Portugal
Every year, my family and I travel with our two dogs to southern Portugal. We could not find any airline that takes dogs, so we have to travel by ferry. We have done this for several years and have quite a bit of experience of it now. The first time we travelled this way, we found it very difficult to find information about how to arrange the travel and the options available. We have now tried most of the options and would like to share what we think is the best way to travel to Portugal/Spain by ferry with dogs.
There are other articles settting out the details of pet passport, what to bring etc., so I will not cover these areas.
Ferry route options
There are two main route options.
The first one is to travel by ferry from Dublin or Rosslare to Cherbourg and then to drive down through France, Spain and Portugal. We travelled with Irish Ferries (Rosslare to Cherbourg), but there are other options (Stena, Celtic Link etc from Dublin and Rosslare). This ferry (Oscar Wilde) is very comfortable for people with very good amenities (restaurants, entertainment etc.), but we found the pet facilities a bit basic.
The dogs are in kennels on the car deck. You can access the kennels only at defined times during the journey. You are accompanied to the area by crew and have a very short time to let your dog our and let him/her do their business. There is a small area filled with cat litter for this purpose. Our dogs rarely if ever used the litter trays as they have no experience of litter trays. There is a very narrow path to walk them on – probably maximum 50 feet long. The space is extremely limited, the time with the pets is extremely limited and the accommodation is generally quite cramped.
Once you land in Cherbourg, it is a very long drive to Spain/Portugal. We took about 3 days to travel down. This means that you have to book pet friendly hotels along the way. The IBIS chain of hotels accepts pets (with a small charge – less than €10 per pet) and they have hotels of basic but decent standard in lots of locations. We no longer travel by this route due to the longer driving time and the very limited pet facilities on board.
The second option (our preferred one) is to travel first to the UK and then take a ferry from the south of England (Portsmouth or Plymouth) to the north of Spain (Bilbao or Santander). We have travelled this way several times and found it the best. We take a morning ferry from Dublin to Holyhead, arriving before mid-day. It is approximately a 5 hour drive to Portsmouth. The ferry from Portsmouth only departs on certain days. We usually take Brittany Ferries Sunday service, departing Portsmouth at 10.30pm. This service takes two nights and arrives early morning on Tuesday in Bilbao.
There are two big advantages to this ferry service. The pet facilities are excellent and you arrive in the north of Spain after two nights sleeping on the ferry. This reduces the driving time considerably. It is very possible to drive from Bilbao to the south of Portugal in one day, so there is no need for overnight stopovers on the way. The drive takes about 9 hours plus stop-offs, but you are on the road by 7am, so you can arrive in the Algarve by about 6pm.
This ferry has a limited number of pet friendly cabins, as well as regular kennels. We book a pet friendly cabin, meaning our 2 dogs can stay in the cabin with us. They are much more comfortable and less stressed. You are provided with a bag containing dog treats and poop bags as well. There is a pet exercise area adjacent to the cabins and you can bring them for a walk as often as you wish. The exercise area is on deck so is out in the fresh air. The area is quite large. There are even some tables and chairs in the exercise area and on one trip several dog owners brought drinks from the bar and sat at these tables enjoying the sun (with happy dogs sitting beside us). This is a much better trip for the dogs, because they are with their family all the time and they can get exercise as often as you like in the open air. The kennels are also on an outside deck with an outside exercise area, so generally much better than the Irish Ferries option. The kennel area is of course under cover and there is card access controls to enter the area, so it is restricted to pet owners. The pet friendly cabins are booked up very early and there are always lots of dogs on this ferry. Not all of the Brittany Ferries have pet friendly cabins – the Cap Finistre Portsmouth to Bilbao has them.
The only negative that we found with Brittany Ferries is that when you drive on board you have to leave your dogs in the car and go on board with all the other passengers. Dog owners are then called after about half an hour to go collect their dogs and bring them to the cabin or kennel. I’m not sure why they do this, but it is probably to make sure that loading/unloading dogs does not slow down the overall boarding process. There is a similar process on docking – you are called to bring your pets to the car about an hour before docking and then you return to the main ferry decks. This means that the dogs are left in the car for a while at the start and end of the journey (which is not ideal).