After a number of European trips, specifically covering 7 years of ferry travel I think I can distill some common practices to trip organization with ferries involved.
Routes and Schedules
There are a number of good resources on the web but one I have used the most extensively now is this one, Ferries.gr. It covers many of the ferries that travel to Greece and within Greece. But one thing you should know, Greek routes and schedules change from season to season, so but less so from year to year. So, if you want to travel in June , July 2014, review schedules now. But it is unlikely that you will be able to see an off-season schedule for later this year. They are ready to schedule likely 6-8 weeks in advance nothing more. Similarly, Marmaris Ferries will do the same for travel to Turkey from Greece.
Another great resource for Greece in particular is The Greek Island Hopping travel guide. It’s a very comprehensive guide showing such things as “routes by port”, “frequency by season”, and the characteristics (a bit subjective) of each island.
And if you want to blow your mind about watching in real time what is happening with Greek ferries click on this link. Marinetraffic. Thanks to Anna, who knows everything about Greece at Maria’s Place in Santorini.
Using Port Offices
What information you can’t glean from the contacts I have provided so far you can do in real time by visiting the port office where you with travel from. They are somewhat like the air traffic controllers of the waterways and they can give you status updates when you do not have wi-fi to check yourself.
Using Travel Agencies and Credit Cards
In North America travel agencies have gone the way of the DoDo bird and are almost extinct. Many people now consult the various airlines or ferry lines online, book and pay for their tickets and either print their boarding passes or receive a E-boarding pass to their smartphone.
Not so in Europe. First, back in ’06 when we were planning a month trip to Croatia we knew the date we should be crossing from Bari, Italy to Dubrovnik, Croatia, so I had emailed Jadrolinija Lines to determine ferry sailing times, and costs. I exchanged mail with an agent who offered to hold a reservation for us and our bike, without a deposit or payment for 2 months, and for me to come into the port office a couple of hours before sailing to claim them and pay. For one thing, to pay I would have had to send a Bank wire transfer to their account, something the agent was aware that Canadians don’t have ready access to. everything worked out perfectly.
Now, what we have found in Greece is that many of the travel agent offices that are independent but under licence to the ferry lines, do not have Bank backed, or ferry line backed lines of credit, so you can not pay by credit card at many of them. Here in Kissamos two agencies lost the sale of our tickets from Greece to Venice because they couldn't accept a credit card, and I would have had to return another day since banks on Greece have defined small withdrawal limits. Balos Travel however, because they wanted the sale, asked us to wait 10 mins while they re-opened their line of credit with the bank, and then could handle the financial transaction. Hey as long as I have valid tickets, backed by my credit card companies purchase protection program I’m covered and that’s what you need to be concerned about. Similarly, in Morocco the major ferry line ticket office in the port only took cash, which the fellow promptly placed in his own pocket. We had to make a withdrawal from an ATM in the terminal building.
When we were in Santorini, the port office of Sea Jet couldn't issue a ticket but the travel agent in Thira could. We were sent to Nomikos Travel. Fortunately we got a very hard working agent there, 2 other agencies we had spoken with didn't really care if we connected to Crete, and she called the boat coordinator for the specific ferry we were wanting to travel on to see if we’d get on. She called them back at least 4 times on our behalf and called me after 7:00 pm. One night to say, yes I can issue tickets for you. Our hats are off to Nomikos Travel in Thira!!
Arriving at the Port, Day of Travel
Our recommendation is to arrive at the port the day of travel with tickets in hand already, though we have bought tickets for slower runs when we knew they’d be slow, for instance the ferry across to Morocco from Spain.
Ferry terminals are not like in Canada. They are nothing more than a concrete dock structure that the Port agents manage for the next ferry to arrive and depart. It is the Ferry operator of that specific boat, that will decide who will load and in what order, so moto’s do not necessarily go on first, or last, but at the direction of the loading foreman. So you need to be ready to move when asked. Since we are Canadian, so many of the operators take an interest in us, and talk with us and I think give us a bit of special treatment, but we've been in situations, again leaving Morocco, that it was one big mix-master of activity.
In Piraeus the major port just outside Athens, you should do advance research (using Greek Island Hopping and even Google) to pre-determine which Dock Network to arrive at. There are 8, and they are divided first by Island grouping, (Dodecanese, west Cyclades, east Cyclades, Ionian, Sporades, Aegean, Saronic.) and then by Ferry Line… just like the airlines.
Fortunately I used Google Earth, street view and ferry line info to determine the gate we needed to be at, since it’s not like driving up to a ticket wicket at BC ferries. They do not exist. I set that as a waypoint in Garmin, then drove directly to it, found the ticket office, bought tickets, and left for our hotel only to return the next morning and drive right onto our ferry handing off tickets as we drove up the ramp. It’s nice when it works.
Expect the Unexpected
We have had hit and miss experience with departure schedules and timing. For instance in Morocco we stood for 4 hours after the original departure time in 30+C heat, before we even loaded to leave Tangiers. In Piraeus this trip with Blue Star, and with Minoan in 2011 the ferries left exactly from the major port right on time.
If the ferry you are catching is making a milk run and you are in the middle of it, expect to be delayed. Stuff happens. Another thing we have learned, try to avoid at all costs late night ferry arrivals or departures due to delays. Our alternative to the fast ferry in Santorini was one that left at 0340 hrs in the morning. So who thinks people travelling for leisure are prepared to do this? A regularly scheduled ferry to Chios arrives at 0330 hrs from Pireaus. And one from Crete to Rhodes arrives nominally at 0030 hrs. but it is a milk run, so that is likely 0200 hrs. Hotel operators all do have night managers. If you have a booking you will get your room, but if you didn't then you take your chances, however if the ferry fails to arrive during the night and arrives at 0900 the next morning you just forfeited your reservation payment as a no-show. Just one additional point. Greece is famous for ferry strikes, so you can show up at the port to find the boat isn't there and who knows when it will be, so, again check the cancellation policy with your booking or you may be out the cost of a night. We have been caught by a strike, but hadn't booked anything because it was an early arrival which gave us flexibility. Later day arrivals don't provide that.
We saw a couple (they weren't very bright in many regards) show up at our hotel (0100) from our late arrival from Santorini, without a reservation hoping to find a room. It seems they had scheduled to get off the ferry at 8:10 pm and catch the 9:00 pm bus to Chania, and they had a hotel reservation there, which obviously they couldn't use, and would get charged for.Don't know where they stayed that night since our hotel was full.
So when we found out that we could avoid all the regular hassles and schedule ourselves on a Kissamos to Githio, 0730 – 1425 ferry (7 hours) for 71E, versus a 2130-0600 ferry ( 9 ½ hrs) ( requiring a berth @ 200E) from Heraklion to Pireaus we jumped at it. This has been caught in the ferry strike, so even the best laid plans......
The final piece of advice is this. When the ferry you will be travelling on will be in rough seas, make your best effort to get seats in the middle of the ferry. The range of up-down, side to side motion, is dramatically reduced and you will be less prone to motion sickness. Also, where possible, try to keep your eyes on the horizon, or go to sleep, to reduce any tendency you may have.