Travelling by ferry in Greece
As Greece has some 200 inhabitant islands, ferries are a necessary mean for inter-island transport for both the locals and the tourist/traveller.
Always keep in mind that a lot of ferryroutes are designed for the needs of the local inhabitants. Be it for administrative, medical or other reasons, for them a ferry (big or small) is often the only way to get to the administrative capital of their region, to a hospital or visit family. Ferry routes that connect to smaller islands are often/mainly dependant on the PSO (Public Service Obligation) regulation. It means that they only exist because the ferry company receives a financial compensation/subsidy from the government because routes to the smaller islands are mostly not profitable. So the government opens public tenders for the companies and decides how much subsidy a company can get per trip they make to a small island. Needless to say that there are fewer ferries to small islands than there are tot he mainstream islands.
Understanding the ferry routes
The Greek islands are divided in groups (“Archipelagos”). The Ionian islands (between Greece and Italy), the Cyclades, the Sporades, the Dodecanese (the string of islands along the Turkish coast from Rhodes up to Samos), the North Aegean islands (from Chios to Samothraki), the Saronic islands. Besides that, there are a few that don’t belong to a specific group, Crete and Evia (Euboia).
Many ferry routes mainly start from the 3 major ports (Piraeus, Lavrio and Rafina) around Athens and serve in general 1 specific group of islands. Ferry routes tot he NE Aegean and the Dodecanese has often a stop at 1 of the Cyclades islands so it’s possible to switch there to another route. And as usual there isn’t a general rule without exceptions. The Ionian and Sporades islands have no ferry connection to one of Athens’ ports. Note also that you probably won’t find a ferry route that serves all of the Cyclades as this islandgroup is devided in 4 parts.
All major companies publish mostly schedules for a longer term. The publishing of the schedules for Spring, Summer and Autumn mainly starts around New Year. Smaller and local ferry companies have the tendancy to publish their schedules at a later time and sometimes only a few weeks or even days beforehand.
There are also a few websides that combine all schedules from the different companies what makes them very usefull search engines to see what different ferries there are between destinations.
The main 3 websites are:
Each of these 3 have their advantages. On GTP you can find a listing of departures/arrivals on a certain day on a specific island or from a specific port. Openseas allows to backtrack in time and see what ferries there were on a specific date in the past. On Ferryhopper you will also find indirect routes.
Ticket prices are set for a year and don’t change. Unless a new government tax comes into operation during the year. And even then, the ferry companies are mostly not applying it but deduct it from their gain on every single ticket. There are different ticket categories depending on the type of vessel (highspeed <-> conventional ferry). Tickets for highspeed ferry’s can cost double the price than those for a conventional ferry.
On highspeed ferries there are mainly 3 categories, from economy to business. Mind you that, except for only a few, you cannot sit/go outside on highspeed ferries.
On conventional ferries there is economy (also called ‘Deck’), numbered airseat, business, cabin. A Deck/Economy ticket gives acces to (of course) the outside decks and the common lounges. Numbered airseats are in separate lounges, businessclass is often (mostly) in the front of the ferry with a panoramic view and a waiter/steward that serves your drinks at your table.
Cabins are divided in outside or outside (with a window) and by number of berths.
Buying/booking a ticket
One of the most asked questions is: “Do I need to book in advance?”. Well, that’s something that’s up to everyones personal comfort level.
For instance, 99% of Greeks using the ferry never book in advance. Neither do experienced island hoppers. But there are a few periods in the year that it can be wise to book in advance: Greek Easter & the days before/after 15 August. A day it’s not wise to book a ferry for is 1st of May. In many countries, this day is known as “Labour Day”. In Greece it’s usual “Strike Day”.
A common advise is to book through the website of the company you will be travelling with. In case of any mishaps (stike, mechanical problem, extreme bad weather, …), it will be easier to communicate directly with the company than through a 3rd party or a broker.
With a lot companies you will still have to obtain the “paper ticket” in a local travel agency. Only a few companies offer e-ticketing with a boarding pass for your tablet or smartphone. When you need to obtain the paper ticket in a local travel office, all you need is the confirmation mail with the booking reference you received after booking.
Remember that there are no tickets for multiple destinations. When on an island hopping tour, you need a separate ticket for every leg of your journey.
Boarding a ferry
Boarding starts roughly 1 hour before departure in the ports where the ferry starts his route. In ports along the route it depends how long the ‘turnaround time’ is. That can be 10 minutes but also 20 minutes. It’s fairly easy, just queue up at the designated spot in the port and once one of the ship officers gives the go-ahead, go on board presenting your boarding card.
When boarding there is absolutely no need to drag your heavy suitcases all the way up on the ship. On every ferry there is a designated space for luggage on the (car)deck where you board the ship. Crewmembers are standing by to direct you to the luggagerack of your destination. On some ferry’s this luggage space is in a closed area, on others not. But passengers are not allowed onto the cardecks during the voyage.
When boarding or disembarking just join “the controlled chaos” that starts wherever a ferry is mooring.
Problems (Strike – Extreme bad weather - Seasickness)
As in every transport sector, a problem can always arise. Be it a strike, a mechanical problem with a ferry or extreme bad weather to name a few. And some people feel seasick more quicly than others.
In general, ferries that start their journey in one of the main ports of Athens are most affected by a strike. Smaller interisland ferries are very rarely affected.
The port authorities can order ferries to stay in the port when the weather is (very) bad. Mostly they take the measure when the wind reaches gale forces (above 10 Bft). This is also one of the reasons that highspeed ferries are only performing between April and the end of October.
For people that are prone to seasickness: Try to avoid small highspeed ferries and look instead for big (slower) conventional ferries. The fact that you can walk or sit on the open air deck(s) helps a lot.
Finally, remember that between November and April, there are (much) less ferries available. As said, highspeed ferries don’t go in that period and also the conventional ferries go fors ome days (or weeks) into drydock for maintenance and annual inspection.