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Vaughan & Ellison's guide to ferry hopping

This blog is about our experiences of Greek island ferry hopping, so if you've ever thought that might be something you'd like to do then read on. Without question there is more faff with this kind of trip, there’s a fair amount of research that needs to be done and unlike a package holiday the responsibility for everything is yours and yours alone. If you want someone else to be responsible and deal with anything that goes wrong then ferry hopping isn’t for you.

We started this trip from Athens, or more accurately Piraeus, the main port in Athens. This is the first element of faff. Where ferries start and finish isn’t always convenient, for example Piraeus isn’t actually anywhere near Athens, the Chora in Folegandros isn’t actually at the port where the ferry drops you off. You need to work out the detail of getting between the two. In the case of getting from Athens airport to Piraeus we chose the train, changing at Monistraki and walking from the train station in Piraeus to our overnight Hotel. The train worked well, it was cheap, no problem to get tickets for or to change trains at Monistraki. There are also buses (also cheap) or Taxi (very expensive). Not everything works though, the walk to the Hotel from Piraeus train station, dragging cases, was long, hot and a bad idea. A taxi would have been less than 10 Euros.

It's also become apparent to us that with ferries, and this may be obvious, Piraeus may not be the best place to start from if the island of your dreams is too long a ferry journey away. Our particular tolerance is probably around the 4 hour mark, so a 9 hour ferry journey on an uncomfortable plodder ferry (I’ll come onto what I mean by that) is a no no. So if your island group of choice is the Cyclades then Piraeus will probably work, for the Dodecanese it won’t.

There are lots of other starting points you could choose that are served by reasonably priced airlines such as Mykonos, Santorini, Kos, and Rhodes. As an example our last island on this trip, Folegandros, is poorly served from Piraeus, we would probably have been better to start the trip flying from Athens and ending with a flight home from Santorini which is less than an hour by ferry from Folegandros.

Planning the ferry journeys isn’t trivial, but there are web sites and apps to help. I used and more recently nisea (an app), both allow you to plan for multiple hops. But none of these tell you the whole story so here’s some rules of thumbs which we’ll be using in the future and might help:

1. Check the weather forecast for wind, I use an app called Windy.

If the wind is likely to be 20 knots+ then consider sea sickness drugs. If it’s a nice day and you’re outside on a Blue Star ferry you’ll probably be OK. If you’re inside on a Hydrofoil where you might well not be able to see the horizon then take drugs. In our experience the best sea sickness drug is Dramamine, it’s not licensed in Europe/UK but is in the US so you can get it on ebay. We didn’t have Dramanine this trip so bought Travelgum20 in a pharmacy which contains Dimenhydrinate, also in Dramamine. It certainly worked on one of the journeys when many other people were sick and we weren’t.

2. We will always use one of the bigger Blue Star ferries if we can (Naxos, Delos, Chios, Patmos or Mykonos). They are very comfortable, reasonable priced, fairly quick (21 knots ish) and because of their size generally reliable (big enough not to be much affected by weather/sea conditions).

3. Try to limit the use of ‘plodders’ (generally 15 knots ish) to short legs, however don’t rule them out because they are cheap. We used Hellenic Seaways Artemis from Naxos to Paros, which is just an hour. The Artemis won’t win any prizes for speed or comfort but the tickets were 5 Euros.

4. Avoid Hydrofoils unless you’ve got deep pockets, they’re significantly more expensive because they’re quicker however we don’t like the experience which is more akin to being on a plane. With traditional ferries you can enjoy the weather outside and watch the islands slip by.

5. Avoid small Hydrofoils if at all possible or at least limit the time you’re going to be on one. They are much more affected by adverse weather which will slow them down. In our experience all ferries tend to be late but the small Hydrofoils seem to be much more susceptible to delays. Even on short legs this can be a real problem, for example on a small Hydrofoil from Santorini to Folegandros the sea was a bit rough, but not really that bad. Nonetheless the boat was slowed from the ‘usual’ 35 knots to 19 knots and was very bouncy. It was pretty unpleasant, lots and lots of people were sick and we were almost 2 hours late.

6. Track your ferry so you know when you need to be at the port, you only need to be there 30 mins before it leaves and the ‘holding pens’ at ports aren’t usually especially comfortable. I use an app called Marine Traffic with which you can check where your ferry is and where it’s going to next. The you can then track it’s ETA and how delayed it is using nisea. In the example below you can see Seat Jet 2 (how we’re getting back to Piraeus on Saturday) is on it’s way to Santorini, doing 34 knots (so the conditions can’t be bad), but is still 30 minutes late.

7. If you’re not sure whether the ferry you’re being offered is a plodder or a gazelle or how comfortable it’s likely to be then check out the ferry companies web site. They all have information about their fleet which will give you a pretty good idea.

Enough about ferries other than to say make sure you do your research. There aren’t that many ferry companies and you soon got to know the names of ferries and which are a good idea and which aren’t

Accommodation was interesting to do the research for, it’s fair to say there’s a lot of choice, even on the smaller islands. This trip we’ve booked all of our accommodation through Airbnb, but we generally look at as well as whether there’s anything that could be booked direct (that isn’t on any of the accommodation web sites). Google maps is also a useful tool and very often there are island specific web sites that can be useful.

It’s worth thinking about what's important to you for your accommodation, for us it’s all about location and cost. We’ve had 4 very nice apartments, one in the heart of Naxos town and the other 3 within easy walking distance of where we want to be. The last 3 have had the bonus of balcony views to die for as well. All apartments have been between £500 and £680 for a week just outside of peak season. Here’s the balcony views we’ve had to put up with.

All of the apartments have been clean and as described, the hosts have all been lovely.

The thing is with accommodation that you book on the Internet it’s very easy to de-risk things because of the abundance of reviews, either on the booking platforms themselves, Tripadvisor or Google. There isn’t anywhere people offering accommodation can hide, if they’re selling something that isn’t as described they’ll very quickly get found out. We only book accommodation that’s got lots of good reviews and so far, touching lots of wood, we’ve never had a problem.

I mentioned de-risking travel earlier and by that I mean how to deal with issues such as ferry delays. It's worth building in some time to allow for delays or problems if you can. For example we didn’t try to leave Piraeus the same day as we arrived in Athens, we stayed overnight in Piraeus, and the same going back. Also the time of year makes a difference, if you’re travelling out of season you wouldn’t have a problem finding accommodation for an extra night if your ferry gets cancelled because of bad weather.

So that leaves one last thing, which islands should you go to? The list is long and in our experience there’s no such thing as a bad Greek island, but there are some we wouldn’t go back to. It’s personal choice but we would rather avoid the crowds and would avoid any island in the top 5 of a ‘top Greek islands’ google search. We would also generally avoid any islands visited by cruise ships, not that we’ve got anything against cruises (they’re just not for us) but it means there will be A LOT of people that descend on an island from those ships. And don’t think the most beautiful islands will be the in the top 10 islands lists on google, lots and lots will be excluded from those lists. Here’s the islands we've been to and would happily go back to again and again.

In the Cyclades – Kithnos, Tinos, Serifos, Sifnos, Syros (probably just to see Ermoupoli which we missed out on), Folegandros, Paros, Naxos, Schinousa, Iraklia, Koufonisia and Amorgos. We would miss out Mykonos, Santorini because of the crowds and IOS because of the nightclubs.

In the Dodecanese – Arki, Lipsi, Leros, Kalymnos, Pserimos, Astipalea, Nisyros, Tilos, Chalki, Symi and Kastellorizo (or Mieze as it is in Turkiye). We would miss out Kos (other than to start or finish). We haven’t been to Patmos, which might be excluded because of the crowds, Rhodes or Karpathos (which is very definitely on the list).

Then there's a whole bunch of islands in the northern Agean also well served by ferries we haven't been to yet such as Chios, Samos, Lesvos and Icaria. Your choice is huge and as I said before there is no such thing as a bad Greek island, it's just down to what you're looking for.

Hope this helps, and if Greek islands are on your bucket list, don’t miss out!


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