Our previous article on ferry travel was written in 2019 and is now somewhat dated and in need of an update, so here it is!
When it comes to ferry travel in Greece, several questions get asked most frequently:
1. (How) Can I get from island X to island Y?
Understanding ferry routes can be a challenge even for experienced Greek travellers. Although routes generally persist from one year to the next, ferry companies have to bid to run these routes annually, with operators and routes often not being confirmed until well into the first quarter of the year (i.e., March). This makes planning a trip to Greece that involves one or more ferry crossings quite tricky, as you’ll often have to base your itinerary on last year’s timetables and hope they don’t vary too much.
Depending on the island group you’re visiting, ferries will either leave and return to the mainland after each service – usually to the main port of Piraeus – or run in a loop or out and back between neighbouring islands, returning to their home port overnight. As a result, the busiest part of a ferry route is the first and last leg, when the ship will be filled with passengers for every leg of its journey.
In terms of planning, one of the best websites we recommend is FerryHopper. Not only does it cover the vast majority of Greek ferry operators, but it’s one of the few sites showing indirect routes, that is, routes requiring multiple ferries. For example:
This is especially useful when planning itineraries as it gives you a sense of which routes are available directly and which require multiple ferries. Better still, if you click on the green ‘i’ icon, it will show you the route the chosen ferry takes, allowing you to see which other islands it stops at on the way:
We’ve often used this to plan island-hopping trips, knowing that the islands are part of an established ferry route.
2. Should I book my tickets in advance?
The advice in our previous article, written before the Covid-19 pandemic, was to avoid booking tickets in advance in all but a few exceptional circumstances. While there are still many reasons (see below) why you’d want to get your tickets as close to departure as possible, the increased acceptance of e-tickets means this is no longer as clear-cut as it used to be.
In the past, booking a ferry in advance required you to obtain a physical paper ticket before boarding the ship. To do this, you had to visit a ticket office, present your booking details, and, often, pay a small fee (€1 or €1.50) to get the tickets printed. This negated any convenience of booking online and made it marginally more expensive. If you must visit a ticket office, you might as well wait and buy the tickets in person, right?
Let’s consider the trade-offs between booking in advance and buying a ticket the day (or the day before) you travel:
- Buying in advance guarantees you a spot on the boat but limits your flexibility to change plans before you travel.
- If ferries are cancelled in bad weather, the operator you’ve booked with will put you on their next scheduled service. However, suppose other operators have boats departing sooner to the same destination. In that case, you won’t be able to get a refund and would need to buy a separate ticket to travel on another vessel.
- Ticket prices are fixed, so there is no financial benefit to buying them in advance, unlike flights or hotels with demand-driven and seasonal pricing models.
Many operators now accept e-tickets when boarding by scanning a QR code on your phone or from a printed booking confirmation, as you can do with most airlines.
We recommend booking in advance around Greek national holiday dates when many locals travel to and from the islands to celebrate with family and friends. Wikipedia has a list of Public holidays in Greece. If you plan to travel around any of these dates (mainly the weekends before, during or after), it’s probably worth buying your ticket well in advance to avoid missing out.
Lastly, many Greek islands are becoming increasingly popular during the peak season, mainly July and August, particularly in the Cyclades. If you’re travelling between any of these islands: Mykonos, Naxos, Paros, Ios and Santorini during the height of summer, you might want to reserve a space on the ferry you’re planning to use – There are usually multiple daily services, so it’s unlikely you wouldn’t find any availability, but some services are more popular than others, generally ones that travel between late morning and mid-afternoon, as these are the times most tourists want to switch islands.
3. How early do I need to get to the port?
If you’re used to travelling by plane, the idea of arriving at the airport in plenty of time is probably ingrained into your routine. However, when it comes to ferries (certainly Greek ones), providing you can set foot on the boat before it departs, there’s no need to arrive early.
Assuming you’re travelling in the summer season, Greek ports aren’t the most pleasant places to wait around. Shade is always at a premium – a small covered area is the best you can hope for, but it’s rarely large enough to accommodate even 25% of the passengers in peak season – and it’s generally crowded with cars, mopeds and passengers coming off recently arrived boats.
To minimize the time spent waiting for the ferry, I like to use MarineTraffic to track the progress of the boat I will be taking. This website shows, in near real-time, the position of all boats. At the top, you can search for a ship by its name – which you can find on your ferry ticket or booking confirmation, and it will then show you the boat’s current location if you click the circle icon on the right:
To be on the safe side, I still arrive at the port 10-15 minutes before the published departure time of my ferry (just in case MarineTraffic has stopped working), but, using this website, you can sit comfortably in a nearby cafe/taverna, enjoying a cold beer or coffee as you watch the progress of the ferry. When it gets close to the port, grab your bags (not forgetting to pay your bill, of course!) and stroll over just in time to step on board!
One final word of caution: ferries depart quickly! I’ve seen several people caught out when a boat sets off just a few minutes after arriving, leaving some unwary passengers stranded on the dock. Greeks are often stereotyped as lazy and inefficient, but you wouldn’t think that if you’ve ever seen a ferry arriving on a Greek island!
Also, be sure to check the name of your boat – larger ports can accommodate multiple ships simultaneously. They will often have similar-looking vessels from the same operator docked simultaneously, and it’s your responsibility to get on the right one. Port Authority police and ferry staff will usually help if you ask, but knowing the ship’s name will make getting into the proper queue and on the correct boat much more straightforward.