Planes, Ferries, Itineraries and Island Hopping
On my first trip to the Greek Islands, I tried to travel by ferry from the Cycladic island of Tinos to the Sporadic island of Skopelos. Because I had read on a shady blog that I could. But you can’t. Not all island groups are connected. But I didn’t figure this out until after I had made and paid for an Airbnb reservation on Skopelos. So I took a 4 hour ferry to the Athens port of Piraeus, a bus from Piraeus to the bus station in Athens, and then an 8 hour bus ride north to the port city of Volos. Then I had to stay the night in Volos because the ferries to Skopelos didn’t leave until the next morning. When I went to buy my ferry ticket the next morning, they were sold out, because it was July, it was the weekend, and the only ferry leaving that day was a “Dolphin Express,” a tiny boat that holds maybe a hundred passengers. So I stayed another night in the weird and unremarkable port town of Volos, and took another ferry in the morning. Overall cost getting from Tinos to Skopelos? Over $200. And I lost two days of travel and paid for a night in an Airbnb that I didn’t use. This all could have been avoided if there had been some reliable information out there about traveling from island to island.
So here’s how to plan your island hopping trip (without doing what I did)
1. Choose a Region or Regions
First, how much time do you have? You’ll want to spend at least three days on each island. Then choose two or three regions that look interesting to you. You can check out a brief overview of the regions on the homepage, here. The drop-down menus at the top will take you to full image galleries of every region and every island within that region with tourist facilities. There are also maps on every page to orient yourself geographically.
2. Choose Your First + Last Islands, Ideally Ones with Airports
The easiest way to start and finish your trip is to fly in and out, and take ferries in-between. (Unless you’re coming from Athens where you’ll be spending a few days exploring the city first.) If you’re flying into Athens, it’s better to stay in the airport and hop onto a plane out to the islands. Piraeus, the main port of Athens, is at least a 40 euro cab ride from the airport. You can also take a bus then metro from the airport to Piraeus. The city buses in Athens are actually really convenient. The metro is ok but there have been times when I’ve waited over half an hour for the train, and if you’ve got a ferry to catch this could be stressful. Especially if you’re in a new country and you’re hauling bags around. So I suggest flying into your first island.
Here are the islands, grouped by region, that have airports:
(click on the links to go to the individual pages with galleries and travel info)
Crete: cities of Chania, Heraklion, Sitia
The great thing about all of these islands is that they’re good starting points for exploring the Greek islands. For the most part, these are the more popular destinations, and it’s a good way to get your bearings, figure out the ferry system, figure out whether you want to rent a car or not, and hone in on what type of vibe you want for your trip. Pick one of the islands and start from there.
Navigating the Ferry System
There are several large ferry companies that operate in the Greek Islands, and then there are also local ferry companies. Skyros, for instance, has a local ferry company that runs more frequently than the big ferry companies. There are ferry booking agencies, similar to Momondo or Google Flights, where you can purchase tickets to the big ferry companies online. I typically use Open Seas, but there’s also Ferries in Greece. You can also buy a ticket in any port. The large boats rarely sell out, but the small boats, like the dreaded Dolphins, often do.
3. Choose the Other Islands You Want to Visit
For right now, we’re just going to use those ferry ticket booking websites to create your itinerary. On either Open Seas or Ferries in Greece, you can find which islands are connected to each other by using the drop-down to/from menus. The caveat to this is that the ferry schedules for the summer season aren’t usually posted until Spring, and there’s always a small chance that they will change a ferry route. But for the most part, these routes have been used for years and you can use the website to – in general – plan your trip. Once you’ve gotten to a place where you’re ready to book your accommodation, ask your host or the hotel owner if they have any insider information about getting to x, y or z. They should know.
4. Decide How Many Days You Want on Each Island, Factoring in Travel Time
You’ll save more time by traveling within one island group, but if you’re like me, you’ll want to see as much of the Greek islands as possible! Ferries to different regions tend to be long ferry rides, six to eight hours. And all flights are routed back through Athens, so give yourself one day to get from one region to another, if that’s what your plan is. Once you’ve chosen two or three destinations, give yourself at least three days on every island.
5. Finalize Your Destination Choice
In the end, I usually make my final choices based on accommodation. Having a great house or apartment to come home to can really make your trip. And there are a lot of really amazing by-owner rentals in the Greek Islands through Airbnb and HomeAway. If a hotel is more your thing, I would check out some of the reviews on Booking and TripAdvisor.
I’m starting to compile lists of really great by-owner vacation rentals, and you can check out my first one, Ten Perfect By-Owner Vacation Rentals on Crete, here. All of the properties on this list are around $100 a night!
Last Thoughts…to rent a car or not rent a car?
It’s definitely an added expense. You can negotiate on a weekly rate but a daily rental will be anywhere from 25 euro to 40 euros, depending on the island and season. There are buses on the islands, but they’re sort of on island time. Renting a scooter is a great option, but if you’re American, you’ll need a license authorizing you to drive a motorcycle. I also found that some people cared if I had an international driver’s license, and some people didn’t. On Skopelos, I had a hard time renting a car with my American license. Overall, the car rental was an added expense, but having the freedom to travel and explore was well worth it, so I would budget it in.
But that’s it! Hopefully that will get you started on planning your Greek island travels!