Most visitors that drive to Newfoundland will take a ferry from North Sydney, NS. In the summer months (mid-June to end of September) you can take a ferry to either Port aux Basques or Argentia. The Port aux Basques route runs year round. The Port aux Basques ferry takes about 7 hours for the crossing. The Argentia ferry is 14 hours.
If you are going to Port aux Basques, you can either leave at 11:45 AM or 11:45 PM. You need to purchase your tickets in advance on the Marine Atlantic website. The ferries fill up in the summer months, so book as far in advance as you can. Marine Atlantic is currently offering discounts if you book your June trip prior to April 3.
We've always taken the overnight ferry and booked a cabin. The cabin costs about $140 extra, so it's not a lot more than booking a room or bed & breakfast in North Sydney. The overnight ferry arrives in Port aux Basques at 7:00 AM, so we have the entire day ahead of us for our first day on the island.
The return trip from Port aux Basques to North Sydney is the same drill. We leave at 11:45 PM and sleep on the ferry. We get into North Sydney at 7:00 AM and have the entire day in front of us for the trip home.
Marine Atlantic has built two new ferry terminals in both North Sydney and Port aux Basques. The terminals are very nice. They have washrooms, a cafeteria, gift store, tourist information and large sitting areas with TV's. The North Sydney terminal has tourist information for Newfoundland and the Port aux Basques terminal has information for Cape Breton and Nova Scotia.
You are going to want to a have a bag packed before you load on the ferry. Once you load your vehicle you are not allowed to return to your car until the ferry docks on the other side. You may want to pack some Gravol and a small blanket. The ship is very large and we have found all our crossings to be fairly smooth. They don't sell Gravol on the ship, we have been told that you can usually get it from a purser on board.
They start loading the night ferry around 9:30 PM. They make announcements so you have lots of time to get back to your vehicle. The ship has three vehicle decks. If you are loaded on the first deck (just cars and light trucks), you'll be the first on and the last off. If you are driving an RV, you are likely one of the later vehicles to load.
Once you leave your vehicle you can go by stairs or elevator up to decks 7 and 8. Cabins are on deck 8. Deck 7 has reclining chairs, if you did not purchase a cabin. Deck 7 also has a bar, restaurant, gift shop and a snack/lunch counter. On the overnight ferry, the restaurant is only open for breakfast. I don't believe that the gift shop opens.
We book a two berth cabin which is perfect for a couple. You have a TV, two single beds, a private washroom with a shower and a small desk. There is a P.A. system in the cabins. They give you a one hour warning before you dock. That gives you time for a shower. You also have time to go down to the restaurant for breakfast.
There is no WiFi on the ship and your cell phone will only work when you are close to shore. You'll have to do your Facebook update while you are still in the harbour.
We always have breakfast on the ship. They have a short menu that allows them to offer a quick service. If you are heading to Port aux Basques, when you unload at 7:00 AM, the only place that's open is Horton's and it's pretty packed. You have to head quite a ways down the Trans Canada (over an hour) until you get to a highway restaurant. On your return trip, if you want to have breakfast in North Sydney there are quite a few more options.
When you are leaving Newfoundland and sailing to North Sydney, NS there is one difference. They actually inspect your vehicle. You are not allowed to take soil, or plants bearing soil off the island (that includes potatoes). If you've been on some muddy roads, they actually power wash your vehicle before they let you line up.
The sailing times from Port aux Basques are the same, 11:45 AM and 11:45 PM. We've always taken the night ferry. We'll have dinner in Port aux Basques or Margaree and get to the ferry terminal around 8:00 PM.
We book our return trip and cabins all at the same time as our trip to Newfoundland. You just need to print out and keep your email confirmation. You just show that along with your photo ID when you arrive at the ferry terminal gate. They'll give you your boarding passes and the key for your cabin.