One of the top tips we routinely rattle out is the importance of booking early, since the ferry companies appear to operate somewhat like a budget airline which increase the price as the ferry fills up. Early bookers get good prices, last minute travellers pay more, apparently.
We decided to put it to the test by checking ferry prices over six months for a busy crossing. We only looked at one journey, so it isn’t watertight stuff which will be published in the Lancet and peer reviewed, but it is just about interesting enough for a blog.
We looked at a visit to the Isle of Wight at October half term 2015, with crossings on Saturday lunchtimes (October 24th and 31st 2015) as close to noon as was available.
- In April 2015, Portsmouth to Fishbourne with Wightlink was £110.50, whilst Southampton to East Cowes with Red Funnel was £101.
- The prices stayed the same in May 2015.
- In August 2015, the prices had stayed the same but a Red Funnel discount code had appeared (published on our discount ferries page) meaning that the tickets were available for £110.50 with Wightlink or Red Funnel was £85.85.
- By October 15th 2015, Wightlink’s fare had jumped up to £138.50 and Red Funnel’s fare was up to £104 (the discount code was no longer available). The ferries were starting to fill up, with no availability on the noon crossing for Wightlink.
- Two days before departure date – October 22nd 2015, Wightlink’s fare was still at £138.50 but most of the ferries were booked on October 24th, with the 1530 the next available. Red Funnel’s fare was still at £104. The noon booking was full, but there was space on the 1300 crossing.
- On the day – October 24th 2015, Red Funnel had crept up to £105.50 for the next available crossing and Wightlink was still at £138.50.
I must admit, I was expecting a greater shift in the prices over six months. Red Funnel’s increased by just £4.50 whilst Wightlink’s increased by £28.
I can’t be completely sure that the April prices were the all time low prices (new batches of Isle of Wight ferry tickets aren’t released routinely at pre-announced dates, unlike train tickets) but I was expecting a bigger range over six months.
There was much more variation in the price depending on the time of day you travelled – early morning and late evening remained at a reasonable price even a few days before travelling.
Another significant factor was whether there were any discount codes available. The best time to buy would have been before the end of September, when the price on Red Funnel was £85, which is £53 cheaper than the Wightlink peak price. Wightlink didn’t have any discount codes over that period (as far as we know) but they do have them sometimes.
Another factor to consider is that popular crossings became full near to the day, meaning that we would have had to change our plans a bit.
The question for Isle of Wight visitors is whether you should book early and avoid a possible price rise, or whether it is better to hold on for a discount code and hope the price hasn’t gone up in the meantime.
This small study suggests you’d be better to wait for a discount code to appear (we put them on our discount page), but it’s a bit of a gamble really. We don’t get advance notice of discount codes, they just appear sometimes.
It is also worth bearing in mind that there are many other discounts and deals which are available and which would have brought the price down. For example:
- We could have swapped about £35 of Tesco Clubcard vouchers and booked with Wightlink
- We could have topped up a Red Funnel Travel Card for £1000 and then used the 20% discount to get the crossing for about £80 (plus get about £4 worth of loyalty points). The card can’t be used with discount codes, so you couldn’t combine it with the 15% offer.
- We could have got a 17.5% discount on Wightlink with the Camping and Caravanning Club or a 10% discount with the Isle of Wight Tourist Card.
- Isle of Wight residents and second home owners could have booked with Multilink, which would put the price at about £40 - £50 return.
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