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 ferries set sail over a relatively short periods each year and lay idle for the rest.
Summer ferry schedules never used to be issued before May but ferry firms have already released their 2014 schedules. Each ferry company still publishes only its own schedule but there are now websites such at Greek Travel Pages where you can find comprehensive details of routes and Greek Island ferry connections. Most operators keep to 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 licence to operate a main ferry route and that means providing a service all year round, even to the less popular islands. Bad weather will be a much bigger problem over winter and sailings will often be cancelled at short notice in bad weather.
There are four basic kinds of Greek ferry - hydrofoils, catamarans, ferries and caiques.
HYDROFOILS: These are fastest but cost much more. A fast but pretty boring way to travel. Passengers sit inside in aircraft-type seats with small porthole windows. The only facility is a small toilet. Hydrofoils - often called 'Flying Dolphins' are 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 airplane 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 usual 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.
Athens has three main ferry ports, Piraeus, Rafina and Lavrion, that connect the mainland to the Greek islands.Piraeus port
This is the biggest and busiest port in Greece, located about 10 km south of Athens city centre and today the third busiest port in the world carrying about 20 million passengers a year. Piraeus has sailings to the most popular Greek islands, including the Cyclades, Dodecanese, Eastern Aegean and Crete. The ferry 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 normal 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 runs 5am to midnight (2am Fri and Sat). Athens City: Line 1 (Green Line) every five minutes, journey time is 30-60 minutes (depends 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.
A small town about 30km the north of Athens and 10km 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 5.45am to 8.45pm, journey timr about 30 minutes.
A small resort on the tip of the Attica peninsula about 60km from Athens and 25km 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 6.30am to 10pm, journey time is 30 minutes.
Ports at Agios Konstantinos, on the east coast, serve the Sporades islands of Skiathos and Skopelos. Igoumentisa, on the west coast, has services to the Ionian islands of Corfu and Kefalonia.
Check out timetables at the nearest ticket agents (there are usually several in each port and each has its own schedules - they tend not to tell you about sailing offered by rivals). Sailing times are usually prompt but they can change daily, according to the weather and to forecast sailing conditions. There's not much point in booking in advance, except in August and public holidays when boats can be packed with mainland Greeks visiting island relatives.
Buy tickets and hand them to the official standing on the gangway when the ferry arrives. Dump your luggage at the side of the vehicle deck (you will usually be shown where) and climb up the steps to the passenger decks. There is no rush to get aboard - there is usually plenty of seating for everyone and, although it may seem like bedlam it's just the Greek way in these things.
If you use the sundeck make sure you are well creamed up. Sea breezes give a false impression of just how hot it is out there. Don't sit behind a funnel or you'll gag on the fumes.
It's best to buy snacks before you get aboard. Ferry food is very basic and often expensive - unless you have a passion for microwaved mini-pizzas, bags of crisps and cans of cola.
Check on your route as you go along and make sure you get off on the right island - harbours can look very much alike when you arrive. Announcements are usually made in Greek, English, German and French when approaching islands but many ferry PA systems are even worse than UK railway stations.
In any Greek port visitors will usually find a few 'caiques' offering round island trips. These are usually 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 on some remote beach.
Caiques are brightly painted Greek boats, usually former fishing boats that have been converted to take passengers. This usually 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 sort of rigging, although many are now diesel powered. Each caque 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 are becoming more prevalent.
Although some are still used for fishing, many have now been converted to become short excursion vessels with former fishermen making a living from the summer tourist trade.
The EU has offered cash incentives to Greek fishermen to retire early. Part of the deal requires former fishermen to destroy their boats. It's thought about 5,000 fishing boats have been broken up in recent years, prompting alarm at this sad loss of Greek cultural heritage.