Dotting the Aegean Sea, the Cyclades Islands are the quintessential Greek island fantasy. Ferrying around the 24 inhabited islands, such as scintillating Mykonos, iconic Santorini and family-friendly Paros, lives up to the dream of azure waters and beach-lined coasts—but you’ll need to be flexible.
Depending on the season, the weather and the state of striking unions, ferries can run like clockwork or be hopelessly delayed or cancelled, but the adventure can make the trip of a lifetime.
Where do the boats depart from?
A handful of ferry companies serve the Cyclades, with a few major hubs and ever-changing routes. The mainland ports are Piraeus (it’s mammoth, with ferries to most islands), Rafina (especially for Mykonos, Andros and Tinos) and Lavrio (for Kea and Kythnos). Syros, Paros and Naxos islands are all hubs for service to other islands.
How do I work out the routes and schedules?
You’ll need to figure out which ferries connect which islands, and how often they go. Ferry schedules peak in July and August. In spring and autumn they are reduced, but you can usually get where you need to go. In winter, though, some boats don’t run at all, or only once or twice a week.
The larger ferry companies have their own websites where you can book online, but they don’t release each season’s schedule until just before they start. Your best bet is to check ahead of your trip. The Greece National Tourism Office has an online search engine, as do Greek Travel Pages, Open Seas and Greekferries.
Once you’re out in the islands, you can get current ferry information from local travel agencies (who also sell tickets), or at the limenarhio (port police).
Keep in mind, just because a ferry route goes in one direction, doesn’t mean it returns the same way.
What are some of the major companies?
- Hellenic Seaways operates summer-only high speed ferries from Piraeus to Syros, Paros and Naxos with various onward routings that include Ios, Santorini, Anafi, Amorgos, Iraklia, Schinousa, Koufonisi, Donousa and Astypalaia (in the Dodecanese). They also have a boat that goes from Piraeus to Syros, Tinos and Mykonos.
- Blue Star Ferries has routes that connect many of the islands.
- Zante Ferries goes Piraeus-Kythnos-Serifos-Sifnos-Milos-Kimolos-Folegandros-Sikinos-Ios-Santorini three times per week, and back the other way three times per week.
- Golden Star Ferries serve Rafina-Tinos-Mykonos-Paros-Naxos-Ios-Santorini.
- Sea Jets goes Piraeus-Tinos-Mykonos-Naxos-Santorini and back; Pireaus-Sifnos-Milos-Folegandros-Ios-Santorini-Ios-Folgeandros-Milos-Sifnos-Piraeus; Rafina-Santorini-Ios-Naxos-Paros-Mykonos-Tinos-Rafina-Tinos-Mykonos-Paros-Naxos-Ios-Santorini and Iraklio (Crete)-Santorini-Ios-Naxos-Mykonos-Paros-Naxos-Ios-Santorini-Iraklio.
Confused yet? Go to the online search engines listed above and punch in where you want to go.
What are some popular routes?
Piraeus to Santorini (4½–6 hours by high-speed ferry; 5½–12 hours by conventional ferry, depending on your route) is a perennial favourite, and sailing into the caldera en-route is breathtaking. Two of the all-time most popular Greek islands are Mykonos and Santorini (about a 2–3 hour ferry ride from each other) (Note: Santorini is also called Thira).
Shorter hops include Paros to Naxos (50 minutes), both family-friendly islands. More off-the-beaten-track visitors travel from Sifnos to Serifos (30 minutes by high-speed / 55 minutes by conventional ferry), two more remote and lovely islands. Walkers and foodies enjoy travelling between Andros and Tinos (1½ hours); the former is excellent for hiking and the latter is known for its local cuisine.
How much can I expect to pay?
Prices vary according to the ferry’s route and speed, and some companies offer discounts for purchasing tickets in advance. A longer-haul trip from Piraeus to Santorini can cost as little as €20 on the slow boat with advance tickets, and up to €70 for an economy seat on the high-speed catamaran. Shorter hops between islands, like a voyage between Sifnos and Serifos, will be closer to €14.
What are the best budget options?
Most large ferries have deck-only options (with no assigned seat), which can be a downright bargain. High-speed ferries are often about 30% to 90% more expensive than the traditional slower ferries, so shoot for the slow boat to save.
How far in advance do I need to book?
Book at least a month in advance in July and August, especially if you’re bringing a car, or it’s a long-haul ferry and you want a private bunk. In the off-season, there is often availability right to the last day.
How do I get a ticket?
Buy tickets online directly from the ferry company or from local travel agents. Be aware that some agents represent only some (or one) of the companies that serve their island, so check around—most post schedules on their doors or at dockside ticket kiosks. Note: there are no weekly/monthly passes or combined tickets.
Your ticket is only good for the time and destination for which you book it; if you change plans, be sure to get a refund or exchange it for a new ticket well before your scheduled departure.
How reliable are the ferries?
When they are operating smoothly, the ferries run like clockwork (don’t be late). But there are often disruptions due to strikes and weather (especially in winter), so it’s essential to check on the day that your boat is going—just holding a ticket doesn’t mean anything if your boat never leaves!
What happens if my ferry is cancelled?
You can usually exchange your ticket for the next available service with that company. But be sure to physically exchange the ticket as soon as possible; the next boat could be packed and you’ll need a re-issued ticket to get on.
What are the ferries like?
Though their speed can vary dramatically, the facilities are generally of a high standard. Most don’t have wifi, but many have snack bars and comfortable seats. Small hydrofoils, which travel between the smaller islands, often have no food or drink available and can be the quite rough around the edges. The large, high-speed catamarans are usually quite comfortable and deal better with rough seas.
What are the differences between deck-only, assigned seat and first class?
Deck-only tickets let you roam the boat, but you are not entitled to a fixed seat booking. On larger boats, in addition to the deck there are also lounges where you can sit. Assigned seat tickets are akin to airline seats. And first class often has complimentary sweets and a slightly higher calibre private-seating area. The value of first class is greatest in high season when the economy areas are pandemonium.
Can I take a car?
Most islands are served by car ferries, but they are expensive and you should buy tickets in advance. If you’re on a budget—or don’t want the hassle of taking a car—rent a car or scooter on each island: it’s often affordable, especially outside of high season.
- Be prepared for the unexpected: strikes and weather alone can cause cancellations. Meteo has local weather and wave forecasts.
- Always double check the time and place of your ferry departure – it can change or vary, especially if there’s more than one dock on the island.
- Leave a buffer day between a ferry trip and a flight; with delays you’d hate to miss your plane!
- Bring water and snacks on smaller ferries. Not all of them have snack bars.