European Ferry Travel
(written 11/05; last revised 4/09)
Bikes on the Boats
Ferry travel is common between the the UK and the continent, the Greek Islands and its mainland, Croatia and the eastern coast of Italy, and the various Mediterranean islands, plus ferries are a great way to travel with bikes. If it is a car ferry, you just roll your bike on with the cars, usually at no extra charge, and park them where the staff indicates. If it is a passenger-only ferry, bikes may or may not be allowed and they may incur an extra fee. It sure beats flying, which requires partially disassembling the bikes and boxing them and the gear and perhaps paying excess weight charges.
They often look better on the outside than on the inside.
Boat travel is generally very affordable. In November 2005 an hour and a half ride cost about $6 per person and an almost 10 hour trip was about $40. We opted for an inside cabin on our overnight trip between Greece and Ancona, Italy and paid about $130 each for the 15 hour trip. Curiously, our hour and a half trip between Greece and Albania was about triple the cost of the similar length trip within Greece.
In 2008/2009 the cost for 2 in an outside window cabin with toilet on the 22 hour ferry from Rijeka to Dubrovnik, Croatia was only about 10% more than the cost of bus tickets for the journey. The ferry trip was a whole lot more comfortable than the bus and eliminated negotiating with several bus drivers about getting the bikes on the bus. In fact, after the extra charges for the bikes, the ferry might even have been cheaper.
The large inter-island Greek ferries are luxurious floating hotels. Whether you buy the cheap-seats or a cabin, you can roam the nicely appointed public areas and lounges. In the off season it is easy to find a quiet, no-smoking area window seat to enjoy the view. And it's nice on the long trips to be able to stretch your legs or step outside for a change. Usually we expect to get a lot of leisurely reading and writing done while on board.
In 2008 we took long-haul ferries from Palermo on Sicily to Genoa, Italy and then from Genoa onto Barcelona, Spain. Unlike the Greek ferries, the public spaces were limited and we spent most of our time in our cabin. The ferries were new and our cabin was nice enough, but we missed the luxurious reading nooks of the Greek ferries.
And the comfort-factor tends to be much lower on ferry trips of a few hours rather than the over-nighters. Like on the ferries we took in 2008 between Sicily and the Aeolian Islands, you take a seat and are expected to stay in it.
You often don't have much control over the air temperature even in a cabin, so layer clothing to be comfortable for a range of temperatures. We and most people leave most of their luggage down on the locked car decks and only bring an overnight bag of toiletries, food, and books with us.
In Croatia in the off-season, buy your tickets the day of sailing in case the sailing is cancelled due to bad weather. And do press for a cabin on the upper levels to get away from the sickening engine fumes and deafening engine noise that are hazards on the older ships. The off-season ferreis are often small and decidedly unglamorous.
We treasure our sleep, so we always get a cabin for overnight trips. With a cabin you get comfortable twin beds and a small private bathroom. Linens are provided, just like a hotel. We usually pay the small extra fee for an outside window as despite what the sales people tell you, those cabins also tend to be a bit larger, which is welcome on a long trip. And even if the voyage doesn't include many daylight hours, it's still reassuring to peek outside to determine if it's daylight or if the boat is really moving or not. Bring a small flashlight to find your way to the toilet at night as the cabins are often pitch dark. (We keep the tiny flashlights in our fanny packs easily accessible at night in case of emergency.)
Even a cabin with an outside window can be cramped in Croatia.
Usually the staff kicks everyone out of the cabins as much as
2 hours before docking so as to have the rooms ready for the next wave of
passengers, so plan accordingly. It's good to ask at the reception desk when
you'll have to vacate your cabin so you don't
get caught in the middle of a shower.
On large boats if you don't pay for a cabin you'll often be assigned an airplane seat: a slightly reclining seat in a sea of other seats. Usually we instead find a pair of the unassigned, lounge-styled window seats for the journey. Larger boats often have free, semi-private shower stalls but bring your own soap and towel.
You can often pay for your ticket in several different currencies but once on board all transactions may be in a single currency. We always pack enough food and water for the journey and rarely buy anything on board, so it doesn't matter to us, but it's a crisis for some. We were under way on an overnight trip when one couple was hearing for the first time that the only currency they had in their pockets wasn't accepted on board and they wouldn't be able to buy any meals as planned. The currency used on board is usually that of the registry of the boat, so for example on a Croatian boat going from Italy to Croatia you might need Croatian money. The folks selling you your ticket will usually know the currency used on board if you are traveling outside the EU.
We always bring our own drinking water on board for the entire journey and also use it for brushing our teeth. There is just no way to know what the water quality is in the boat's tanks and bringing your own water is an easy way to avoid a nasty GI illness.
After trying Scopolomine patches and antihistamines to prevent motion sickness, now our favorite remedy is ginger root. It works almost as well as the traditional drugs but has no side effects. The traditional medications are long acting and always made me feel crummy long after the voyage was over.
The motion sickness drugs need to be started before you board, so you have to gamble before you are underway: do you want to feel bad from the side effects or from the motion sickness. The ginger root should also be started before the boat gets underway, but since there are no side effects with the ginger root, there is no penalty for taking it. We've even taken the herbal remedy at the first signs of motion sickness instead of before getting underway and have still gotten relief in about 20 minutes.
None of the remedies, including ginger root, make us invincible. If the seas are very rough, we still can't read without triggering symptoms.
With or without medication, lying down is a huge help in countering motion sickness. If I don't have any medication available, I can prevent vomiting by lying down and staying down. It of course is limiting for a long trip, so it's nice to have the ginger root handy. If there is room, you can often lie on a couch if you don't have a cabin. I've seen some people lie down on the floor, tucked in behind the last row of seats, from the beginning of a voyage so that they could be completely flat and out of the way.
I've been unable to buy ginger root capsules overseas when we needed them, so I always bring a stash from home. We take 500mg an hour before traveling (when we remember) and take another dose every 2 to 4 hours as needed. Drink plenty of water as the capsules are large.
One friend reported vomiting despite taking the ginger root and the flavor was so wicked that he hasn't been willing to take it again. With that story in mind, I'm always careful to stay reclining or close to it if I've taken a dose when feeling bad to give in time to be absorbed.
Be on Your Toes
Unlike air travel, much more responsibility is left to the passenger to be at the right place at the right time for boarding ferries. On our trip from Igoumenitsa, Greece to Ancona, Italy we were amazed at the lack of assistance passengers were given in the reassuringly new terminal building. Some of the clocks hadn't been switched to standard time which should have been done 3 weeks prior. The boat we planned to take was running an hour and a half late and some of the ticket agents hadn't a clue about the delay. The departure board was never updated to indicate the changed boarding time. There were no auditory or visual announcements of when a boat had docked or was boarding. Once we understood that we were totally on our own, we took turns darting out in the cold, windy night to trot down to the gate to see if the boat was in. Especially in Greece, where the very efficient ferry captains don't mess around, so you need to be there and ready to board when it arrives.
We had a similarly disturbing experience in 2008 when leaving the Aeolian Islands for Messina, Italy. When it was 5 minutes before our departure, I inquired in rough Italian if our boat had arrived. "Si, Si" was the answer as he pointed to the competing ferry line's boat. Indeed, that was the boat we were supposed to board. We were all the more startled as many of the ferries in the Aeolians run late so we had been prepared to wait longer. We suspect several other tourists literally missed the boat that day.