Ferries operate all year round in the Greek Islands, although the more remote might get only one ferry a week. The high season for frequent ferry sailings is June to September, with the tourist peak period in July and August, so many Greek ships set sail over a relatively short period each year and lay idle for the rest.
Summer ferry schedules never used to be issued before May, but ferry firms now release timetables earlier. Each ferry company still releases only its list, but there are websites such as Greek Travel Pages that publish comprehensive details of routes and Greek Island ferry connections. Most operators keep the same ferry schedules year on year, but it is not uncommon for companies to 'trade' routes, change boats, or alter schedules.
Low season ferry schedules used to be notoriously difficult to come by, but ferry firms are now looking to increase tourism beyond the usual summer months. Greek Island hopping in the winter however usually means catching ferries on main island routes. Ferry firms must get a licence to operate a primary ferry route, and that usually means providing a service all year round, even to the less attractive islands. Bad weather will be a much bigger problem over winter and sailings will often be cancelled at short notice.
There are four basic kinds of Greek ferry – hydrofoils, catamarans, ferries and caiques.
HYDROFOILS: These are fastest but cost much more. A quick but pretty dull way to travel. Passengers sit inside in aircraft-type seats with small porthole windows. The only facility is a tiny toilet. Hydrofoils – often called 'Flying Dolphins' are an old Russian-designed craft that cannot sail in bad weather, so they only sail in summer and stay in port in high winds. There is a small outside deck at the rear where you can get fresh air and usually get drenched in sea spray.
CATAMARANS: These are super-sleek, super-fast and super-expensive ferries that ply the longer, more commercial routes. It's a sleek way to travel if you have the cash. They are fast and comfortable, with aeroplane seating, TV lounges, snack bars and other facilities. They usually take a small number of cars.
FERRIES: These can come in all shapes and sizes and are the workhorses of the Greeks islands, ferrying passengers, supplies and vehicles. There are 'high speed' ferries on the more popular inter-island routes that offer comfortable seats, TV, sun decks, toilets, cafes and so on.
The standard inter-island ferries are slower and more basic. Those used on shorter island routes are geared more towards shipping vehicles than passengers, so expect basic seating and just a small snack bar (if any). Every island will have a ferry service of some kind, but winter services to smaller islands can be few. Statistically, you are very safe travelling on a Greek ferry but beware older boats, check the exits and life jacket points if you are concerned.
CAIQUES: These are found in every port, lined up on the quayside touting island trips and visits to small offshore islets. There are usually no facilities on board so take your own food and drink. No toilets either, and be prepared for hard wooden seating – a small blow-up cushion in the rucksack can be a godsend. Boats can also sway about, even in a small swell, so beware of seasickness.
Map of Piraeus
E1 – BLUE STAR to Crete, Dodecanese
E2 – MINOAN to Crete. NEL to Chios, Lesvos
E3 – ANEK to Crete
E4 – Crete, Cyclades (East)
E5 – Samos, Ikaria
E6 – Cyclades (West)
E7 – Cyclades (East)
E8 – Saronic, Cyclades (East)
E9 – Cyclades (West)
E10 – BLUE STAR to Mykonos, Syros, Tinos
R – Railway station M – Metro station
Athens has three main ferry ports, Piraeus, Rafina and Lavrion, that connect the mainland to the Greek islands.
Piraeus is the biggest and busiest port in Greece, located about 10 kilometres south of Athens city centre and is now the third most active port in the world carrying approximately 20 million passengers a year. Piraeus has sailings to the most popular Greek islands, including the Cyclades, Dodecanese, Eastern Aegean and Crete. The port of Piraeus is served by many Greek ferry operators, including Blue Star Ferries, Minoan Lines, Anek Lines, Aegean Speed Lines and LANE Sea Lines. As well as standard ferries, there are also catamarans, high-speed boats and flying dolphins to the Saronic islands.
How to get to Piraeus from Athens
Metro: The easiest and quickest transport runs from 5 am to midnight (2 am Fri and Sat). Athens City: Line 1 (Green Line) every five minutes, journey time is 30-60 minutes (depending on where you get on). Athens Airport: Line 3 (Blue Line) to Monastiraki, change to Line 1 (as above). Every 30 minutes, trip time 75 minutes.
Bus: Athens City: 049 from Omonia Square and 040 from Syntagma Square until midnight. Port is a 15-minute walk. Athens Airport: X96 has a 24-hour service every 20 minutes, 40 minutes after midnight, journey time about 90 minutes, longer in heavy traffic.
Rafina is a small town about 30 kilometres north of Athens and 10 kilometres from Athens airport. Rafina has regular sailings to the Cyclades islands of Andros, Tinos and Mykonos.
How to get to Rafina from Athens
Bus: Services leave from Pedion Areos every hour, trip time about 60 minutes. There are KTEl #2 buses from Athens Airport every hour from 5.45 am to 8.45 pm, journey time is about 30 minutes.
Lavrio is a small resort on the tip of the Attica peninsula about 60 kilometres from Athens and 25 kilometres from Athens Airport. It serves islands such Kea and Kythnos. From Kea, there are ferries to Anafi, Ios, Folegandros, Kimilos, Milos, Naxos, Paros, Santorini, Sikinos, Syros and Thirassia. Ferries leave here for Aegean islands, notably Lemnos, Thassos and Samothraki.
How to get to Lavrio from Athens
Bus: KTEL runs from Pedion Areos every hour, trip time about 90 minutes. KTEL buses #10 and #11 from Athens Airport every hour 6.30 am to 10 pm and the journey time is 30 minutes.
Ports at Agios Konstantinos, on the east coast, serve the Sporades islands of Skiathos and Skopelos. Igoumenitsa, on the west coast, has services to the Ionian islands of Corfu and Kefalonia.
In any Greek port visitors will usually find a few 'caiques' offering round island trips. These are generally good value for money. Visitors get to visit more remote beaches and offshore islets, and there is often a barbecue thrown in, either on board or some secluded beach.
Caiques are brightly painted Greek boats, usually former fishing boats that have been converted to take passengers. This often means some planking added for passengers to sit on. The wise tripper will take along a cushion, or something soft to sit on, as the solid planks can prove uncomfortable for long rides on choppy waters.
Caiques are traditionally made of wood and often have some rigging, although many are now diesel powered. Each caique is unique, with most of them built without any particular plan and each relying on the skills of the boatbuilder. The art of boatbuilding in wood is a dying trade, and modern glass fibre craft is becoming more prevalent. Although some are still used for fishing, many have now been converted to become excursion vessels with former fishermen making a living from the summer tourist trade.
The EU offered cash incentives to Greek fishermen to retire early. Part of the deal required owners to destroy their boats. It's thought about 5,000 traditional Greek fishing boats have been broken up in recent years, prompting alarm at this sad loss of Greek cultural heritage.