The best ways to get from London to the Greek Islands
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If you’ve been eyeing the calendar and thinking that you still haven’t gotten away for the summer, despair not. There’s still time left to soak up the sun in the Greek Islands — and there are more ways to get to loads of Greek Islands from London than from many other European gateways.
But where do you start looking and how do you get there?
Low-Cost or Legacy Carrier?
When you’re planning your Greek Island getaway with London as your starting point, there’s a basic rule of thumb. While legacy carriers like British Airways and Star Alliance member Aegean will get you to Athens and — in the case of BA — to top island spots like Santorini and Corfu with the most frequency, it’s the low-cost carriers like Thomas Cook and EasyJet that you must turn to get to island hotspots like Zakynthos and Kos without having to stop in Athens first. The tradeoff for low fares and more island destination options may be having to get yourself to secondary airports like Luton (LTN) or Southend (SEN). Note that with some notable exceptions (see below), Heathrow is generally going to work best for travel to Athens, but not the smaller Greek islands.
EasyJet flies to Mykonos (JMK) from London Gatwick and London Luton, and from Gatwick to Santorini (JTR). The low-cost carrier also operates flights from Luton and Gatwick to Heraklion in Crete, and from Gatwick to Chania in Crete. There’s also service from Luton and Gatwick to Corfu, from Stansted and Gatwick to Zakynthos, Luton and Gatwick to Rhodes and Gatwick to Kos.
Ryanair flies from London Stansted to Athens as well as to Chania in Crete, Corfu, Kefalonia and Rhodes. Ryanair also flies from London Southend to Corfu and from London Luton to Athens.
Jet2 flies from London Stansted to Corfu, Chania, Kefalonia, Kos, Rhodes and Zakynthos.
Thomas Cook Airlines has service between Gatwick and Rhodes, Skiathos, Zakynthos, Santorini, Mytilene (in Lesbos), Kefalonia, Kos, Heraklion in Crete, Corfu and between London Stansted and Corfu, Rhodes, Skiathos and Zakynthos.
TUI Airways has several flights from London airports to island destinations in Greece with a variable schedule and including, interestingly, a nonstop from Gatwick to Samos. In summer, Norwegian flies from London Gatwick to Santorini and Corfu.
British Airways flies from London Heathrow nonstop to Santorini, but it’s generally pretty expensive. In summer, BA also has a flight from London City (LCY) to Mykonos using an Embraer 190, as well as a Heathrow to Mykonos flight. Heathrow and London City of course win for convenience, but these BA routes may only truly be worth your while if you’re using Avios. BA also flies from Heathrow to Corfu, Gatwick to Heraklion and surprisingly, from Heathrow to Chania (Chania is the smaller of Crete’s two main international airports).
Flight or Ferry?
Given the choice, should you fly direct to your Greek Island destination or fly first to Athens and then transfer for an onward journey by ferry? Sometimes geography conspires to make it an easy decision: If you’re traveling to the Ionian islands like Corfu or Zakynthos, for example, those nonstop flights work best because there actually are no ferries from Piraeus (the port of Athens) to those distant islands. For the Cycladic islands like Mykonos and Santorini, and to a lesser extent the Dodecanese (Rhodes, Kos), ultimately, which option you go for could depend less on price or points and more on your own travel preferences.
By way of example, take Santorini. On the one hand, there are plenty of nonstop flights from London airports to the popular island. And if Santorini is the only island you’re planning to visit on your trip, that’s mighty convenient and maybe even worth paying more to get there faster than flying to Athens, hauling yourself to the port of Piraeus and taking the ferry. But if you find a cheaper fare to Athens and you have a bit of extra time, the ferry option could have some appeal.
Greek Island airports tend to be small and, in high season especially, overcrowded and downright unpleasant. Athens International Airport, by contrast, is big, modern and a passenger favorite. A transfer from Athens Airport to the port of Piraeus takes some time — count on about 70 minutes via metro with one change of line — but there’s something to said for arriving in Santorini by sea. The slower approach reveals the unique geography and that itself becomes part of your trip.
Other Travel Hacks
The other advantage of flying to Athens first is you give yourself the option of a stopover. Even a single overnight in the Greek capital will give you some time to check out some of the sights. Lower than expected hotel occupancy rates in Athens this summer mean it’s not hard to find deals even at some of the cooler boutique hotels. Once you’re already in downtown Athens, getting to Piraeus by metro or taxi is a snap.
When it comes to choosing a ferry, compare routes and times by using the excellent Ferryhopper site. You can make bookings via that site or with the ferry companies directly. The main companies with most frequent departures to the islands from Piraeus are Hellenic Seaways, Blue Star Ferries and Seajets.
Remember that in the summer, it is always going to be helpful to reserve your ferry tickets ahead of time — if you wait until the last minute to buy a ticket to Mykonos or Santorini you will find that some boats are full, and you’ll be stuck in hot and sticky Piraeus port. If you can’t print your tickets, try to collect them in advance so as to avoid queuing on the day of departure — few things are as stressful as seeing your ship in front of you preparing to set sail while you’re standing in line at the ticket window waiting to pick up the ticket you already paid for online.
There is one exception to the “maybe I’ll take a ferry” tack, and that’s Crete. Yes, there are ferries from Piraeus to Heraklion and Chania in Crete, but it takes a long time to get there (count on up to nine hours) on a big ship. And even if you book a cabin, the journey is neither fun nor interesting, but it will for sure be crowded in summer. Sometimes you are indeed better off flying.
Featured photo courtesy of Shutterstock.
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