Catching the Athens to Santorini Ferry
The sun was rising, the air was fresh and the water was calm. It was mid-May in the Greek capital of Athens and under any other circumstances, the scene would've been beautiful. Except my boyfriend and I had barely slept five hours and we were never meant to be in Athens. Let me rewind.
We were nearing the end of five blissful weeks in Europe. We'd spent months planning our itinerary, taking in everything from a wedding in London, to cycling through French vineyards and hiking Italy's Cinque Terre. The trip was meant to end with four luxurious nights on the Greek island Santorini. While there hadn't been an obvious way to get there from Cinque Terre, we eventually worked out a route that had minimal transfers and maximum sightseeing. We were extremely proud of ourselves (read more in How to Get from Cinque Terre to Santorini).
arriving in athens
Just 24 hours before seeing Athens at sunrise, we'd woken up in Florence, Italy and caught a train to Rome Airport to then fly to Santorini. Everything was going to plan! Except the moment we began descending towards the Greek island, the pilot announced it was too windy to land. Our hearts sank. The plane was diverted to Athens, touching down around 3pm. We frustratingly sat on the tarmac for hours, being told various messages from "We're flying back to Rome," to "You can disembark in Athens but your bags will be sent to Rome" before eventually "You can get off the plane in Athens with your bags, but find your own way to Santorini." It was nearly 6pm and we'd been in transit for 12 hours, so my boyfriend and I got off the plane and began making alternate plans.
There were no more ferries to Santorini that night so our first priority was finding accomodation. Secondly, we wanted to get to Santorini and resume our holiday as soon as possible - mindful that a few hundred people were seeking the exact same thing. I felt like a competitor on the Amazing Race, making phone calls, checking websites, and evaluating our options while waiting by the baggage carousel.
Our bags finally turned up and we made a last minute booking for the 4 star Herodion Hotel in Plaka (€180). Our taxi driver got lost but we checked-in around 9pm, hit the mini-bar, showered and had dinner at the hotel's rooftop restaurant Point A. It had a view of the Acropolis, which was a slight consolation given we should've had sunset in Santorini. We set an alarm for 5am (the second day in a row) and collapsed around midnight.
choosing a ferry
There are several ferry companies operating between Athens and Santorini. The vessels differ in size, speed and frequency of service. We chose the Blue Star ferry as it runs daily, departing Athen's Piraeus Port at 7.25am and arriving in Santorini at 3.10pm. The journey takes eight hours but it's reportedly the most sturdy of the ferries so it can handle rough weather and offer a fairly smooth journey. Given our flight was diverted because of strong winds, we also wanted the most reliable vessel. The Blue Star ferry stops at multiple ports (Paros - Noxos - Ios) before terminating at Santorini. There's also a high-speed ferry which takes five hours, but it's apparently more susceptible to poor weather.
How to Book
I tried calling Blue Star Ferries while we were at Athens Airport but their English was limited (and my Greek is non-existent). We instead bought tickets online for the following morning using the airport wi-fi. There were seats available in every class, despite approaching the high season (June - August). Unfortunately, there's no option for e-tickets so you'll still need to collect your paper ticket at least 60 minutes before departure. Note that you can't buy tickets onboard.
Blue Star Ferries: Ph: +30-210-8919800 | Website
The Blue Star ferry can cost as little as €20 for a super economy ticket, but it can't be booked online. An unassigned economy seat is €40 or for €45 you can have a reserved "aircraft style" numbered seat. I recommended choosing that during high season to be guaranteed a seat, as our ferry had a lot of passengers in mid-May.
My boyfriend and I opted for business class seats at €56 each, as theoretically we should've been sunbaking poolside at our Santorini resort by now. These tickets gave us access to a large lounge area, which was quieter and more comfortable than economy (see more under 'facilities' below). Cabin options are also available. Click here for all Blue Star ferry ticket prices.
Getting to the port
From a hotel in central Athens, it takes about 25 minutes by taxi to reach Piraeus Port. We took a cab (€18) as we weren't familiar or confident in Athens' pre-dawn public transport. We left our hotel at 5.30am and arrived at 5.50am. It's important to know which gate your ferry leaves from so your taxi driver can take you there directly (see "port" below). Alternatively, it's 45 to 60 minutes from central Athens to Piraeus by bus or train/metro (both €1.40).
The port is HUGE. Do not think you can simply get a cab to the first gate and walk around. That could take you 30 minutes or more, and time is precious when you're up at dawn. Find your gate by working out which vessel you're on (this should be on your email booking confirmation or ticket). We were catching Blue Star 2 which departs from Gate 1, while other Blue Star ferries for Santorini left from Gate 6. Click here for a map of Piraeus Port with gates and their corresponding vessels.
Our cab dropped us at Gate 1 and I waited with our bags while my boyfriend collected our tickets from the kiosk opposite. It's a large building so you can't miss it, and it only took a few minutes. The email booking confirmation states to collect tickets at least one hour before departure but I'm not sure how strictly this is enforced. Obviously, bring ID and have your email confirmation ready along with the credit card you used for the booking.
Having left our hotel at 5.30am, I was surprised to have travelled to the port, collected our tickets and be boarding at 6.05am. We put our luggage in metal racks in the hull, alongside vehicles that were also making the voyage. It seemed risky to be leaving our bags with no tags or receipt, but it worked out fine. Just remember where you put your luggage. We then followed the signs to business class and got seats by the window.
Boarding at 6am may sound early for a 7.25am departure, but by the time we'd stowed our bags, found our lounge and got comfortable, we didn't actually wait too long (maybe 30 minutes). I'd recommend getting to the port by 6.30am, especially if you have luggage or you're in unassigned seating. If you just have a carry-on bag, you could allow less time - but know which gate you're going to!
I've caught ferries in Australia, Mexico, New York and perhaps the most memorable - from Dar Es Salaam to Zanzibar in Tanzania. They ranged from standing room only to plastic chairs, with varying amounts of shelter. But the Blue Star ferry was surprisingly modern, huge and well equipped. It's 176 metres (577 feet) long and can take 1,800 passengers. The economy class area resembles a typical ferry, fairly noisy but comfortable enough and enclosed. You can access open deck areas if you want. Our business class area was like a floating airport lounge with waiters, carpet, comfortable seats, televisions and a full-service restaurant. Staff were wonderful and just as well - because we ordered quite a few coffees, snacks and drinks during our eight hour journey!
The Blue Star 2 is fully air-conditioned and has a reception, ATM, souvenir shop and food/drink outlets (see more below). Wi-fi was available for €5 from reception but it was incredibly slow. You could access a few emails, but forget Facebook or Instagram. My boyfriend found it faster to use data from his French sim card. You can connect to Blue Ferry's free in-house entertainment @sea from your smartphone or laptop, which offers some movies, games and travel information.
Economy class has a range of food options, including fast food (burgers, fries, etc) and a cafe. I didn't look at prices but all the venues were busy. In our business lounge, there was table service and a range of food and drinks available. The offerings were similar to what you'd expect at an airport. Consider bringing cash as the EFTPOS machine only worked intermittently - we just set up a tab and paid when we were closer to shore.
A surprising highlight was dining in the ferry's a la carte restaurant. It was quite an experience to have waiters, white tablecloths and a two-course lunch while sailing through the Greek islands. My boyfriend and I had a large salad each, fava dip and a bottle of wine for €32. It was a great way to spend an hour.
Each stop is clearly announced but be warned - the ferry will only stay in each location for a few minutes. People began moving as we got closer to Santorini so we followed the crowds and collected our luggage from the hull. Lots of people were impatient and there was a bit of pushing and shoving, but we retrieved bags in time and waited for the doors to open.
at the port
We finally arrived in Santorini, 24 hours later than expected and exhausted from two days in transit. We were met by a driver from our hotel and could finally begin our Santorini holiday! Subscribe to my e-newsletter to get my highlights from this stunning Greek island in the weeks ahead.
The Athens to Santorini ferry exceeded expectations and while eight hours is long, you'll be amply entertained if you bring a book or iPad and have a meal or two on board. The ship was much more comfortable than expected and while I usually feel nauseous if I read or write on a bus for too long, I was perfectly fine during the journey. As you'd expect, business class was much nicer than economy but the vessel had good, clean and comfortable facilities throughout. It was still disappointing we lost one of four nights in Santorini, but the ferry was far from the wild, windy ride I'd imagined. Six months on, our travel insurance claim is still being assessed but at least we made it to Santorini eventually!
QUESTION: What's your most memorable ferry ride?