How to Take the Ferry from Santorini to Crete

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Spending time in Greece just wouldn’t be complete without visiting many of the islands that make up nearly 17% of the country’s territory.  If you are limited for time and find yourself having to select just a few of the thousands of islands to visit, two overwhelming and obvious choices that should top that short list are Santorini and Crete.  Each of these islands offer you an interesting and unique take on Greek life you won’t find on any other island or even on the mainland.  Indeed, visiting either of these two fantastic locations is like visiting another world, and what vacation wouldn’t benefit from visiting as many new worlds as possible?  Taking the ferry from Santorini to Crete will transport you between two exceptional islands, exclusive in style but linked together in their status as essential visits during your travels through Greece.

Taking the Ferry From Santorini to Crete – About The Islands

Santorini is the island of lovers and paradise.  Sun bleached white walls of buildings adorned with striking cobalt blue domes, staircases leading up the cliffs among the maze of civilization built up on the caldera cliffs.  The quiet side of the island offers vineyards and orchards, hiking trails and sleepy villages to discover.  The sunsets on fire over the Aegean Sea and the friendly atmosphere of local hospitality blended with international tourist delight create such a climate of enchantment, once you set foot on Santorini you may never want to leave.  But leave we must, and our next destination is no less beguiling.

The island of Crete is so large that it very well could qualify to be its own country.  You will find Grecian culture varies here from one end of the island to the other but you will always be able to identify the underlying theme of their Greek roots.  Popular among northern Europeans as a prime location for winter homes and retirement spots to get away from the harsh weather back home, Crete has a bit more of an international flair than many of the other Greek islands.  While all the islands receive international travelers, Crete is home to many who choose to remain.  If Greece has a Florida, where people of all types, from all over, come to get away from the weather and retire; it would be Crete.

With a line of sight distance of only 84 miles, it doesn’t seem that far away.  Santorini is one of the southernmost of the Cyclades islands and Crete is closer to Santorini than Cuba is to Florida.  So why the fuss over a simple short trip that many of you may already take daily as a work commute?  The trip from Santorini to Crete may seem short, but there is a world of difference between 84 miles by car and an 84 mile sea voyage.  The isolation of the open water, the slower pace, and the limited routes make for an extended journey that you can either see as an obstacle to be overcome or embrace this necessity as another facet of the adventure.

Flights are available out of Santorini’s Thira airport and you can fly into one of Crete’s three airports much faster than a conventional ferry can bring you, often with less than half an hour spent in the air.  But the time you spend at the airport checking in, boarding the flight, landing, deplane… you could spend the same amount of time catching the ferry.  And with transportation between the two islands at a premium, the ferry tickets sell out fast but the available flights sell out like lighting.  All things considered, if you’re going between the islands you’re likely to be taking the ferry.

As mentioned, the ferry tickets are going to sell out, you’re not going to be able to take this trip on a moment’s whim.  The locals and tour guides will advise you to purchase your tickets three months in advance for the best fares and dates.  You especially need to book early if you have any additional requests beyond a simple seat on the boat.  If you want a specific time and date, or a particular boat, be sure to book early.  And you most certainly need to book early if you are bringing your rental vehicle with you between Santorini and Crete.  Large ferries can accommodate more than a thousand people but only a few hundred cars.  Upon arrival at the ports, everyone will be scrambling for ground transportation.  The busses and taxis will be crowded and lines will form, bringing your vehicle with you does make sense, just remember there is limited space and you will need to plan in advance.

There are a handful of large ferry companies that run regular routes between the two islands.  The larger companies announce their ferry schedule for the upcoming summer season by the end of December.  Smaller companies will seek to find the gaps in the larger companies’ service schedule looking to distribute their boats on opposing dates and won’t post their schedules until January or even February.  Between the larger and smaller companies, you can find regular ferry routes between Santorini and Crete several times a day in the peak of the season of mid-April through late-October.  However don’t always count on regular ferry service if you’re approaching the beginning or ending of the summer dates.  Ferry schedules and routes are often adjusted according to capacity so if it is a profitable and busy tourist summer you may find boats picking up additional routes later in the season than posted, and if it’s a particularly slow season, you may encounter canceled routes.

Winter tourism is expanding and the availability of ferries between October and March is only now beginning to come around.  However, rather than the multiple routes per day, you may find a single run each week and these routes may have little advertisement or notice and will be subjected to wildly flexible time schedules.  These infrequent jaunts will almost always be on the slower conventional ferry and almost never on the high speed boats.  In addition to the slower speed of the older boats, the trip will take longer as the ferry will stop at additional ports along the way.  As much as this may seem as an inconvenience to us, this is actually an improvement over just a few short years ago.  Until very recently there simply was no option to ferry between Santorini and Crete during the off season.  If you needed to get between these two islands in January, you took a flight.  So the expansion of the tourism market is responsible for the addition of the nominal winter routes and will only see it grow as the season grows.

As we depart Santorini, we leave from Athinios as it is currently the only passenger ferry port on Santorini.  To get down to the boarding areas you will descend the caldera cliffs on a road with a series of seven switchbacks that will gradually lower you to the port at sea level.  From there you will join your fellow travelers in finding which ferry is at which dock and headed to which destination.  The process can be busy and hectic especially in Athenios as it is the only port available.

You will travel by ferry from Santorini to Crete and land in one of two ports; most likely Heraklion, possibly Rethymnon.  There is a third port, Chaina, but it is currently not serving ferries though it has in the past.  Chaina is an active port but operates tour boats and daytrips, you can catch a Crete-Santorini boat from here but it will be part of a larger package and substantially more expensive.

Rethymnon is an excellent secondary port because it significantly less busy that the primary port at Heraklion.  Located 50 miles to the west, if your itinerary takes you into western Crete, sailing into Rethymnon will get you closer with less of a hassle.

The main port Heraklion is impressive.  Handling ships and ferries from all over Greece and processing passengers incoming and outbound all day long.  Busy like Athinios was at Santorini, but larger scale on the larger island.  Your arrival at Heraklion will see passengers running to catch busses, hollering out for cabs, and revving engines trying to cut through the traffic.  It will be a jolting contrast against the placid surroundings of the sea you have acclimated yourself to during the ferry ride over.

When booking your ferry journey you’ll have the opportunity to choose not only the date and time of your trip, but also the type of craft you wish to cruise on.  The conventional ferry ship is a smaller version of the ocean-going cruise ships on which you can take entire vacations.  More suited to smaller journeys, the conventional ferry seats between 1000 and 1500 passengers and can carry 300 or more vehicles in its belly.

The seating arraignment varies from general admission where you waltz about the ship sitting anywhere you can find a seat, to an airline style assigned seating plan where you have a guaranteed comfortable seat and access to an exclusive bar or lounge, to the more elite cabin class where you can rest and relax in privacy for the duration of the trip.

Even among the cabin class there are more strata to navigate.  The standard cabin has a bed, a chair and a small bathroom like in a small hotel.  The deluxe cabins have roomier accommodations, larger bathrooms complete with toiletries.  From there you can even select if you wish to get the “inside” cabin which is less expensive or the VIP “outside” cabins with views looking out upon the Sea of Crete.

The ferry from Santorini to Crete by way of conventional ferry takes more than six hours, so the luxury of having a room to decompress and get some rest may be well worth the cost.  The travel agencies suggest you arrive at the port at least 90 minutes before departure.  When you arrive to check in at the port, if the ferry has already arrived and the previous passengers have disembarked, you can retreat to your cabin early while the remaining passengers board the ship giving you an extra hour and a half to enjoy your lodgings.

If you didn’t spring for the cabin, the conventional ferries have plenty for you to do while on board.  You won’t be strapped into a chair for six hours as if you were on an airplane, the ferry cruises about on the open sea and gives you a lovely view of the islands as you depart and arrive, and even some that pass by in the distance.  Below deck there is a restaurant, several bars and cafes, some shopping for trinkets and souvenirs, and many ferries have a nightclub or dance hall to entertain passengers.

The high speed catamaran ferries are popular options for their speed.  The double hull design eliminates much of the boat’s belly allowing it to cut through the water much more efficiently and smoothly than the conventional, but with that shrinking space, you can take fewer passengers and no vehicles.  Increasing the speed from a conventional ferry’s 20 knots, a high speed catamaran ferry can cruise along at 35 knots, getting you from Santorini to Crete in just over three hours, nearly half the time when compared to the conventional ferry.  These boats operate much like an aircraft would when it comes to seating.  You have economy and business class, and of course, the VIP section as well.  There is still food and shopping available as you are free to move about the ship during travel.

Hydrofoils are making quite a splash in the Aegean Sea.  There is no permanent hydrofoil ferry route established between Santorini and Crete, but you will see the on the waters as you approach either island and hopefully soon the shipping companies will begin to service these main tourist attractions with these wondrous boats.  Lifting their entire mass up and out of the water, they can achieve speeds of more than 45 knots and would make the trip from Santorini to Crete less of a journey and more of a tram ride from one location to the next.

Whichever ferry you take, be sure to enjoy the trip for what it is, another fascinating element of your Greek vacation.  Here are a few reminders to make your ferry journey from Santorini to Crete as smooth as possible.

  • Book early to receive the choicest dates, cheapest fares, and to avoid the disappointment of a fully booked schedule.
  • Keep up to date with your booking. Cancellations of routes are not uncommon at the edges of the seasons.  Change in boats serving the routes may change, and inclement weather can cause significant delays.
  • Arrive and check in early to receive early boarding and to avoid confusion with booking and arraignments. If it doesn’t have a barcode, your online ticket is just a voucher and you will need to check in at the port.
  • Board early to snag premium luggage storage space. The racks fill up fast and you could be left holding your bags for the ride.
  • Expect delays. It’s just how the system works.  Greek ferries are notorious for running at their own pace.  Heavy wind or bad seas can change a scheduled departure time or delay an arrival.

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