I get frequent emails from people planning holidays to the Greek islands but worry about advance booking of ferry tickets. The biggest headaches are not being able to find ferry schedules, concern about getting a seat and trying to link up ferry sailings without having to stay overnight.
Despite these concerns Greek island hopping is, for many, the best way to explore the Greek islands.
During the summer there are more than 7,000 ferry journeys every month to the Greek islands and to countries such as Italy, Turkey and Israel.
For those who want to take in several Greek Islands while on holiday there is no better way to travel.
I used to fly out to Greece on package holidays but these days I just book a flight and plan my holiday when I arrive. There is always a room for the night and usually a ferry in the morning to take me wherever I please.
The freedom you get from Greek Island hopping far outweighs the minor hassle of finding a room for the night – just remember to pack lightly, not so difficult on a sunny beach holiday on the Greek islands.
Greek Island ferry schedules
Timetables are a shy breed. Summer schedules are rarely published before April and there is no fully comprehensive printed timetable. The best site for checking ferry sailings on-line is Greek Travel Pages but note that timetables can be non-existent early in the season. This doesn't mean ferries aren't sailing it just means they don't always know when. It is mainly down to local knowledge, especially on the Greek Islands.
Getting a ticket
You can book a ticket in advance from an on-line agent such as Ferries in Greece but it is hardly worth the effort. Ferries are rarely full except on public holidays, when they are usually more frequent anyway.
Sailings may also be delayed or even cancelled in poor weather so it is better to book on the day, although you could book a couple of days in advance at busy weekends. Easter and July/August are also very busy times.
Ticket kiosks are at every port and they often post timetables and prices. Staff usually speak English and they will point out the quay where the ferry docks.
The only snag is that staff are often reluctant to tell you about other ferry lines. If they say 'no ferries until tomorrow' check at another company's kiosk and they will probably have a sailing
In the past, fares were fixed but, although still controlled, they are now much more open market forces. Companies charge different fares for the same ticket according to the speed of the boat.
Traditional slow ferries are the cheapest while faster ferries are usually 20 per cent more expensive. High speed ferries and catamarans, although twice as fast as slow ferries, usually command double the fare.
Superfast Ferry: High Speed Ferries and Flying Cats are big and fast. They take vehicles and passengers and may have cabins for longer voyages. They mostly run long routes through Cyclades and Dodecanese Islands as well as the Italian/Ionian routes. Expect comfortable seats, lounge areas, TV and premium prices.
Hellas Flying Dophins: These are hydrofoils that ply short haul routes and only carry passengers. Russian designed for river cruising they are suitable for calm seas only and sailings can be cancelled in high winds. You plonk down in an airplane seat and, if lucky, get a view of the spray through the misted-up tiny porthole. They are fast but expensive
Car Ferry: These carry vehicles and passengers but are slow and basic. The mainstay of the ferry system. Some may be faster that others and may offer extra facilities. If it says Express on the side it is probably a faster boat.
Boarding the ferry
The name of the ferry company – Minoan Lines, Blue Star Ferries – will be printed on your ticket and emblazoned on the side of the boat so you shouldn't miss it. A hooter blast usually signals its arrival.
Stand well back from the main docking area to allow the cars and passengers to disembark first. Follow the crowd onto the ferry and leave your luggage at the side of the car loading bay. Make your way to the main stairs (follow everyone else) where someone will check your ticket. If you are in a car then wait in the queue to be directed aboard.
Aboard the ferry
Most of the larger ferries are modern and have lots of facilities like bars, cafes, toilets and seats both indoors and out. Queues build up at the bars quickly. Outdoor seats look inviting but can be hard on the backside and it can be windy and chilly too. Indoors will probably be air conditioned with comfy seats. Smaller ferries won't have many facilities but these ferries only operate on short routes anyway.
Disembarking when you arrive
A tannoy announcement in Greek and English will signal arrival well before the ferry docks and give you time to gather belongings. Make your way to the lower deck (just join the queue) and find your bags. Ferry staff sometimes pull bags out ready, so yours may not be where you left it. Passengers get off first, then vehicles.
Move out of the way when you hit the quay or you risk getting mown down by traffic. At the port gates there is often a crowd of locals offering cheap rooms and there is usually a taxi rank nearby and, more usefully, several cafes and tavernas to rest up until the ferry leaves and the crowds die down.
The most important thing is to make sure I'm back for the return flight a couple of days before I return home.