stena line ferry at sea
Generations of Europeans have been taking to the seas not in cruise ships, but in low-cost overnight ferries. | Photo courtesy of Stena Line
Generations of Europeans have been taking to the seas not in cruise ships, but in low-cost overnight ferries. | Photo courtesy of Stena Line

Overnight Ferries Are the Perfect Cruise Alternative—And a Great Travel Hack

Check your troubles—and your car, truck, or bike—at the door, then kick back and enjoy the ride.

It’s just after sunset somewhere in the middle of the Baltic Sea, and Stena Germanica is shockingly raucous on a murky late-spring weekday. On the main passenger level of this 11-deck behemoth, the bar is packed with unusually chatty Scandinavians and gregarious Germans. Emboldened perhaps by the bottomless wine, beer, fermented herring, and sweets served at the ship’s buffet, they’re all singing and clapping along as a glitter-clad trivia host croons a Swedish pop song karaoke-style.

Several sharply dressed couples dine on steak and wine inside the ship’s upscale restaurant, while the designated trucker’s lounge is packed with long-haulers taking a break from the road. In the onboard shop, thrifty Swedes push huge hand carts weighed down with cases of beer free from the prohibitive sin taxes back on shore. And on the expansive open-air deck, huddled chain-smoking masses brave sideways rains while hoping against all odds that the clouds might part to reveal the night sky.

This wonderful microcosm of European humanity has converged aboard the overnight Stena Line ferry running from Gothenburg, Sweden to the northern German city of Kiel. Soon, we’ll all retire to our cabins—some windowless economy closets, others outfitted with skylights and jacuzzis. And later, we’ll all begin to rise as the German docks reveal themselves through the fog, 14 hours after we departed.

But for now, we’re all together, ready to show off our skills at the hottest trivia night on the Baltic sea.

“I’m so glad we did this,” says my new friend and trivia partner Sara, kindly switching to English so I’m not lost amid the host’s bombast. She and her sister grew up watching ferries drift in and out of Gothenburg’s city center, but this is their first-ever voyage. Drawn by nostalgia and the promise of an affordable adventure, they stepped on board for a spontaneous mid-week escape… and were rewarded, thanks to me, with a last-place finish in the night’s heated trivia competition.

group of passengers onboard DFDS ferry at sea
Guests aboard a DFDS International sailing soak up the sun on the ship’s upper deck. | DFDS International

For most travelers in the landlubbing US, ferry trips are an antiquated way to get from the mainland to island destinations like Block Island and Fire Island in the Northeast, or Washington’s San Juan Archipelago. In a way, these ferries transform people into freight, hauling them and often their vehicles from point A to point B. Occasionally, you’ll find a unique sleepover experience—the Alaska Marine Highway System and Lake Michigan’s S.S. Badger offer overnights on the water. But for the most part, ferry travel in the States is a choppy means to an end.

Yet in other parts of the world—particularly Europe and Asia—overnight ferries have long served as a valuable cross-territory travel network. These massive ships are as essential to international trade as big rig trucks in the US, but they also routinely move vacationers looking for an alternative way to explore the world around them at a discount.

freight truck on ferry
Freight trucks roll into the belly of a Stena Line ferry. | Photo courtesy of Stena Line

The Stena Line—where, full disclosure, I worked as a corporate writer for a year—and P&O connect Ireland to England and mainland Europe. The Camellia Line transports passengers and cars between Busan, South Korea and Hakata, Japan. You can fall asleep on Blue Star or Sea Speed in Athens, then wake up on the Greek Isle of your choosing. In Scandinavia, ferries connect Denmark, Sweden, and Norway, while fleets like Stena and TT-Line also offer passengers easy access to Poland and Latvia’s Baltic Riviera, a key shipping location that doubles as a wallet-friendly destination for Nordic holidaymakers.

For people living in these regions, the ferries and the onboard culture they host are a way of life largely devoid of American tourists. Businessmen post up in common areas to get work done before clocking in onshore the next morning. Footballers from Dublin get rowdy on the way to Liverpool and arrive ready to hit the scrum in an Merseyside match the following evening. And truckers park their steeds within the ship’s belly for a chance to kick back and trade the perils of the road for a hot shower, a soft bed, and a little companionship.

But for Statesiders, ferries remain mysterious non-entities lurking in the shadows of Eurail. And it’s a shame—because for all kinds of travelers, it’s long been a tried and true transportation hack.

interior of ferry cabin for four
An exterior cabin for four inside one of Greece’s Superfast Ferries. | Photo courtesy of Attica Group

Yolanda Evans, an American travel writer and frequent Thrillist contributor, found herself in a unique dilemma while living in Ireland: She hates flying. For her, ferries offered a solution to the stress of air travel whenever she needed to pay a visit to mainland Europe or the UK. Looking into the area’s waterways, Evans was able to take advantage of affordable “rail & sail” deals that dropped her at the harbor via train, then whisked her away for a long, calm voyage far from the chaos of the airport.

“I could sit, have a little drink, and look out at the darkness. I would read books and watch movies… it was much calmer than flying,” she says. “It’s very slow travel, and I prefer slow travel, so for me, taking a ferry is nothing.”

For road trippers, ferries offer a unique opportunity to keep moving while giving your transmission a break: You simply drive onboard, park your car, and enjoy the ride. Since cabins are included in the fare, these ships essentially become floating hotels where no one has to worry about figuring out how to navigate roundabouts or doing quick-time metric conversions from behind the wheel.

And because many ferry companies tend to be mired in a bit of an identity crisis (more on that below), they’re always offering deals to lure in different types of travelers—especially people with a little flexibility. Hikers, walkers, and cyclists can find themselves on an overnight trip for less than $50—inclusive of cabins—if they’re booking during the off season, allowing them to arrive at a foreign port ready to hop a train or bus to their next scenic byway.

ferry crew posing on ferry at stena danica naming ceremony
Overnight ferries, like the one shown in this archival Stena Line crew photo, were once frequented by Europe’s wealthier classes. | Photo courtesy of Stena Line

There’s a wonderfully odd Swedish idiom: “Segla in på en räkmacka,” or “Sail in on a
shrimp sandwich.” The phrase essentially refers to a person who’s cruising through life with ease, but some linguists believe it got its start in the ‘60s and ‘70s when wealthy Europeans frequently traveled to Gothenburg—famous for its shrimp sandwiches—via Stena Line’s then-luxurious fleet. The Swedish line proudly served the city’s signature dish onboard, alongside bottomless bubbly.

Today, however, ferries have a reputation of being a bit old fashioned. As soon as enterprising operators realized that diverting these huge vessels to major shipping thoroughfares was much more profitable than hosting Champagne-fueled soirees between Oslo and Copehnagen (still a great trip you can take via DFDS Ferries), the perception of ferry travel went from a fabulous nautical party to truck stop at sea. And as jetsetting became increasingly more convenient and affordable, ferries eventually became the territory of silver-haired passengers who grew up viewing the open ocean as a legitimate highway system.

But during the pandemic, a curious shift started to develop: We began to travel more like our parents. And with this transition came a renewed interest in ferries, whose broad decks offer plenty of space and fresh air and private cabins provide a welcome alternative to a plane’s sardine-like crowding.

friends enjoying poker on ferry
Gaming tables are one of many entertainment offerings onboard modern overnight ferries. | DFDS International

Make no mistake—these are not cruise ships. And many serve as extremely bare-bone affairs for bargain travelers. But despite the lack of waterslides and nightly concerts by Coconut Pete and the Barnacles, many ships have become low-key bougie in their own way. Some offer full-service spas and sit-down restaurants with sleek modernist designs. Many are equipped with kids’ play areas or open-air putt putt courses. The Duty Free shops onboard come packed with everything you’d find at an airport—booze, candy, toys, and perfume. You’ll find arcades and electronic slot machines, busy dance floors and small movie theaters.

And as sustainability-minded travel continues to gain interest, ferry companies are racing to find ways to offset their own emissions as well as the carbon footprint produced by the hundreds of semi-trucks they regularly shuttle back and forth. Stena Germanica, for example, recently made waves as the first methanol-burning ferry in the world.

If you squint hard—really hard—you might just be able to mistake today’s ferries for modest cruise liners. But in reality, these voyages are the antithesis of holiday cruises in that they’re relatively quick, utilitarian, and inexpensive. Not to mention free from guided excursions—once you arrive on shore, you’re left to your own devices, free to walk or drive away to your next adventure.

stena line crew member stocks the shelves inside duty free shop on ferry
A Stena Line crew member stocks the shelves inside an onboard Duty Free shop. | Photo courtesy of Stena Line

One thing they ships do have in common with cruises, however? As long as no one gets too seasick—the nausea bracelets (and bottles of Jagermeister) sold onboard definitely help—the vibes on deck are pretty great. “Everyone was Irish and I was a little Black girl with an American accent, so everyone wanted to talk to me,” recalls Evans with a laugh.

As for me, after living in famously introverted Sweden for two years, taking ferries provided me with rare examples of shy Scandinavians slipping into full-blown revelry. Somebody even bought me a beer, something that never happened on land. It seems that the crisp ocean air really does bring out a special spirit of camaraderie.

blue star ferry with european town in background
A Blue Star Ferry cruises past a scenic waterfront European town. | Photo courtesy of Attica Group

It’s just after dawn in Kiel, and Stena Germanica is coasting past a mix of steepled churches, decommissioned battleships, and construction cranes on its way to port. Soon, we’ll all disembark and go our separate ways.

My trivia teammates plan to take the bus to the nearest shopping center to score some tax-free deals. An older couple I chatted with is headed to the fairytale UNESCO city of Lübeck, about an hour’s drive southeast. A friendly Eastern European trucker gears up to continue his route south toward Hamburg.

Me? I’m off to simply walk around the city for the day, indulging in smoked fish and cheese-laden pretzels before returning to the ship. After all, trivia starts shortly after dinner, which gives me precious little time to down a few Danish beers at the buffet before it’s time to redeem myself after the previous night’s less-than-stellar performance.

Spoiler alert: We come last again. But by the time the DJ sets up his turntables and I stealthily sneak off to my windowless room to log onto the wonky Wi-Fi, I still feel like I’ve come out on top.

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Andy Kryza is a former travel editor at Thrillist.