Going to Newfoundland is an amazing journey. But how do you get there? Should you take the ferry crossing to Newfoundland - or is there another option?
There are few places that can boast such stark beauty and warm hospitality as Newfoundland. It's with good reason that so many people travel there each year. But getting to Newfoundland takes a bit of foresight and travelers always debate if they should fly or take the ferry. And if they do take the ferry, which one? I'm hoping my research and personal experience will help!
The province of Newfoundland and Labrador has two distinct (and equally amazing) parts. Labrador shares a border with northern Quebec and is accessible by plane and by car. Visiting there also requires planning and preparation for transportation -a topic deserving of it's own future blog post! The more visited island of Newfoundland is traditionally accessed by commercial airlines from other Canadian provinces (plus some international flights) and by passenger ferry run by Marine Atlantic from Nova Scotia's Cape Breton Island. But which way of travel is best?
I've experienced all the ferry routes multiple times and have flown in and out of St. John's and Cornerbrook quite a bit as well. I even lived in St John's for a few years during grad school! So while I'm no means an expert, this is the information I wish I had before my first few trips and some tips and tricks I learned along the way.
Before you decide, consider how you'll get around Newfoundland once you arrive.
First things first! Newfoundland is a large island and distances between major towns are lengthy.
Your options for getting around include inter-provincial flights between major cities, private charters (in which case, you're likely reading the wrong blog!) and the DRL bus line, which covers 25 stops across the island (including the ferry terminals). And if you have plenty of time, experience, and powerful thigh muscles, you can also bike. But by far the most convenient way to get around is by car.
If your decision to fly versus taking the ferry to Newfoundland is based on finances, don't forget to include the cost of either renting a car in Newfoundland or driving your own car across Canada to catch the ferry. In other words: add up ALL your transportation costs to make an informed decision. (And, if you're super keen on budgeting - just like me! - check out our post on the most affordable ways to refill a rental car.)
If you suspect renting a car is indeed in your future, keep this in mind as you draw up your final budget for your Newfoundland trip. I'm normally a fan of renting the smallest (and usually cheapest) car in the lot. After all, why pay extra for storage and features you don't need? However, this might not be the best strategy for car rentals in Newfoundland. Remember that Newfoundland is not an ideal place for tiny cars. High winds, blustery conditions, unpaved rural roads, and plenty o' moose require a sturdy vehicle. That's not to say that you need an SUV, but you should always match your vehicle to your plans and make sure you are safe and comfortable.
The pros and cons of flying to Newfoundland
Flying is obviously the fastest way to get to Newfoundland but, like all flights, they're never quite as quick as you'd like. Getting to and from the airport and the inevitable layovers in Toronto, Montreal, or Halifax all add up to significant time in transit. Still, it's a journey you can do in less than a day, which has tremendous appeal. And if you're traveling with young children or if you have a very tight schedule, you'll likely appreciate spending as little time in transit as possible.
I think flying to Newfoundland is the better choice in late fall, winter, and early spring. I'd rather be stranded by inclement weather at an airport than be stuck at sea and face a long, slow choppy crossing - or not be able to set sail at all, stranded in the small communities by the ferry terminals. The North Sydney to Port Aux Basque ferry runs year round and I personally don't love the idea of a crossing in January! Being marooned by weather is always awful but in this case I think airports have a slight advantage. (And if your flight IS delayed, we have a list of resources and suggestions to help you out.)
If you're flying to Newfoundland, odds are that you're flying into St. John's International Airport. Keep a sharp eye for seat sales. There ARE some real bargains to be found. But if your final destination is another community, such as Deer Lake Regional Airport, those sales are few and far between. If you see a great price, jump on it. I personally use AirFare Watchdog to monitor prices on all the flights I'm interested in and the system sends me an email when prices drop below a certain number.
The pros and cons of taking the Marine Atlantic ferry to Newfoundland
All the aforementioned car rental dilemmas are solved if you take the passenger ferry from Nova Scotia to Newfoundland. There are two Newfoundland ferry routes. One goes from North Sydney, Nova Scotia, to Port Aux Basque, Newfoundland all year round and the other goes from North Sydney to Argentia, Newfoundland in June, July, August, and September.
The Marine Atlantic ferries accommodate all vehicles, from bikes to RVs. As such, you have the reassurance of a vehicle that suits your needs and which you're comfortable with. You can even bring along your pet! (PS: Are you taking the ferry with your pet and have questions about the Marine Atlantic pet policy- check out the comments below by other readers. There's some helpful info there!)
If you take the ferry, be prepared for A LOT of driving. Distances in Nova Scotia and Newfoundland are deceiving. With absolutely no traffic or stops it still takes 4.5 hours to get from Halifax to the Marine Atlantic ferry terminal in North Sydney. Realistically, you should expect a 6 hour drive. And as it's recommended to arrive at the terminal at least 2 hours before departure, you can count on an 8 hour day even before you depart.
Roadtrippers often assume their route will include a defacto tour of rural Cape Breton Island and Newfoundland. But I'll be honest with you (and please don't hate me for saying this!) there are long stretches in both provinces where there's not a whole lot to see. North Sydney, Port Aux Basques, and Argentia are not the most picturesque or engaging representatives of their respective provinces. Use your free time to explore beyond the ferry routes.
What's the ferry crossing to Newfoundland really like?
The best thing about taking the ferry are the friendly staff at Marine Atlantic. My friend Jessie, who blogs at Wandering Educators, was hugely impressed by how wonderful they were and you can read about her family friendly experience here.
But I know friendliness isn't the first thing on your mind. It's seasickness! (Okay, that's probably not true at all. But I get seasick all the time and I know this would be my top question!) As someone who is plagued with horrific motion sickness, I was thrilled that I never got seriously sea sick on the massive Marine Atlantic ferries - but at times it was close! And I never once experienced truly stormy waters so I can't weigh in on what that was like. Fortunately the large size of these vessels makes them more stable in the open waters than many other boats. (Regardless of my experiences, be prepared. I always travel with ginger capsules like these -it's not a perfect solution but I feel better even just knowing I have them with me).
On board, there are a few restaurants, pubs, and cafes as well as some seasonal entertainment. There are gift shops, arcade areas, and plenty of seats to watch movies. You'll also find a gift shop, board games you can borrow, and a children's play area. That being said, the charms of the ferry wear off pretty quickly. These are LONG trips - bring a good book!
One thing I didn't know until I took my first trip: There's some serious competition to get a "good" seat on the ferry. What makes a "good" seat, you ask? I have no idea! If it was me, I'd want something forward facing, in some magical position where it was both quiet and also in the thick of things so I'd be distracted and the time would pass more quickly. My best advice is to research the layout of the ship, arrive at the North Sydney ferry terminal early, so you board the Newfoundland ferry early, and walk with purpose to the zone of your choice. When you find a good chair -claim it!
Alternatively, you can spend a little extra money to reserve a seat on the Port Aux Basque crossing. It might not be the perfect spot but at least it will be all yours!
If you suspect you'll be bored while you're on board (<--- see what I did there?) this is a great time to read some books by Newfoundland authors. Some to consider are Sweetland by Michael Crummey (Buy it on Chapters, Amazon, or Bookshop, which supports indie booksellers) Annabel by Kathleen Winter (Chapters, Amazon, or Bookshop) and The Birthday Lunch by Joan Clark (Chapters, Amazon, or Bookshop).
Taking the ferry to Argentia versus taking the ferry Port Aux Basques
Examining the pros and cons of Newfoundland ferry routes is difficult. The Marine Atlantic ferry from North Sydney to Port Aux Basques takes 6-8 hours and the drive to St. John's takes a further 9 hours. Meanwhile, the ferry from North Sydney to Argentia takes 16-18 hours and it's a further 90 minutes to St. John's. (For the purposes of simplicity, I'm assuming St John's is everyone's final destination). Taking into account the many unpredictable variations of travel (and that you will likely want a few bathroom breaks on the drive from Port Aux Basques to St John's), it's hard to guarantee which route is the fastest option to St John's. On paper, Port Aux Basques wins by a small margin. So which route is best?
If you are one of those rare creatures who can sleep anywhere, under any conditions, the overnight ferry to Argentia might feel like the shortest trip. The private cabins are basic but clean and comfortable. Make your reservations well in advance - in peak season things book up quickly. And bring earplugs. There are many a "spirited soul" traveling the ship. Of course, this ferry only runs in the summer so if you're travelling at another time, Port Aux Basques wins automatically!
It's also a challenge to state which Newfoundland ferry cost is the most economical in the long run. On the surface, the crossing to Port Aux Basques is cheaper, but if St. John's is indeed your final destination, you will have to potentially budget for spending a night on the road plus, of course, the cost of gas. The prices between the two routes can vary so much it's impossible to say which offers better value.
Frequently asked questions about Marine Atlantic and Taking The Ferry To Newfoundland
What is the Marine Atlantic schedule?
You can find the full Marine Atlantic schedule here. In general, there are two ferry crossing a day between North Sydney and Port Aux Basque (and vice versa) all year round and three ferry crossings a week between Argentia and North Sydney (and vice versa) between June and September.
What are the Marine Atlantic rates?
From North Sydney to Argentia, the 2021 rates are as follows and, as always, may be subject to change after publication.
You can see the special rates, including discounts for seniors and groups like military members here.
From North Sydney to Port Aux Basque, the 2021 rates including taxes and fees are as follows and, as always, may be subject to change after publication.
Full rates, including different cabin options and costs, are found on this chart.
How can I make a Marine Atlantic reservation?
You can make your Newfoundland ferry reservation by phone or online. You can find all the forms and info here!
Ferry versus Flight? Either way, Newfoundland is great!
So what should you chose - ferry or plane? Only you can answer that! Your best choice to travel to Newfoundland will be a combination of timing, budget, travel style, and desired itinerary and each option has its pros and cons. But one thing is for sure - you're in for an amazing travel experience!
If this article helped you plan your trip, you can say thanks with a coffee. I'm always happy to accept words of thanks and virtual lattes at Buy Me A Coffee. Thank you for supporting independent travel writing!
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