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How to beat Operation Stack

Published: 03 August 2015

Operation Stack, which closes the coastbound M20 to all traffic other than lorries, is an on-off affair that can leave you worried about whether you'll make it to Folkestone or Dover in time for your train or ferry to France.

Operation Stack isn't in place at the time of writing, but it could be re-activated at any time and it's worth knowing what to do before you set off on your riding tour.

Eurotunnel is the most popular option for bikers, because you can usually ride onto a carriage with no hassle and if you miss a train there’s always another along in the next 30 minutes.

The Tunnel’s trains weren’t initially affected too badly by the wildcat strikes by disaffected workers who have been laid off following the collapse of My Ferry Link (MFL) with the loss of 200 jobs. Although an added complication was that MFL was owned by Eurotunnel so the strike action did occasionally affect Eurotunnel as well.

But recently the refugee/migrant situation has switched the focus to Eurotunnel. The decision to imminently install two rows of fencing with razorwire has made the refugee/migrants more determined in the short term.

Experienced bike tour operator Alistair McFarlane from MCi Tours suggests, to get the holiday you have paid for, that you hedge your bets and get refundable tickets for both ferry and Eurounnel.

P&O’s Standard Flexi tickets and Eurotunnel’s Flexiplus offerings will give you the peace of mind you need.

Eurotunnel gives you one calendar year from date of purchase to claim a refund, but there are terms and conditions with P&O (see the bottom of this story). 

For the journey down to the ferry or tunnel, don’t underestimate the time it’s going to take to get to Folkestone and Dover.

Operation Stack on the M20 works well, but it can have 6000 lorries parked on it. The diversion through towns and villages is awkward, but far quicker on a bike than it is in a car. Get filtering and the diversion should add only 20-30 minutes to your original journey time.

The alternative route to Folkestone or Dover is on the M2, which is only two lanes so filtering is not for the faint-hearted, especially in stationary traffic with the risk of a lorry driver opening his cab door in your face.

If you are taking the ferry option, P&O’s loading policy is to get the bikes on first, so if you turn up with 15 minutes to spare before boarding cut-off time you may not get onto your chosen sailing. P&O policy is to load bikes later if there is room and there are straps available, but as you have a two-hour window on your booked ferry time you may be bumped to the next sailing.

McFarlane told us: "If the queues are long at the ferry terminal, don’t be afraid to queue jump and follow the instructions of the guys with the hi-viz. Another biker up ahead will often make space for you if you are worried about missing your ferry slot.

"At Dover you may be ushered into the security hut for a random Q and A session. Questions are usually about firearms, explosives, knives and large sums of money…"

Coming back into the UK the French authorities keep the trucks separate from the regular tourist traffic so you are relatively unaffected approaching Calais.

However, there are enhanced security provisions at Calais and you could be asked to remove your helmet to verify your identity at passport control. You need to have your ferry reference and passport to hand, as all passports are now run through the computer on the way back into the UK. Increased vehicle searches soak up time getting through Passport Control at busy times, so allow more time for check-in.

Those P&O ferry terms and conditions...

Clause 4.VI says:

“In no circumstance can we make a refund in respect of:

a) cancellations or amendments made after the intended departure date of your outward journey;

b) unused portions of bookings, where the booking is of limited duration;

c) part-paid bookings.

d) cancellations made on the intended day of departure if such cancellations are made online. Refunds for such bookings may only be processed via our Contact Centre.”

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