The Greek Islands are on any traveler's list who envisions a Santorini sunset or a gorgeous Milos beach.
Although prices have increased dramatically since Greece joined the European Union, there's still something magical about islands like Santorini and Milos. How much you spend on airfare to get here depends on time of year as well as where the flight originates.
The cheapest flights are from the U.S. to Western Europe; from there you can take a budget flight to Greece. Once you arrive in Athens, travel to the islands via the ferries is cheap and relaxing, with snack bars, restaurants and beautiful scenery.
Ferries to the islands
The main port in Athens, Piraeus is easily accessed by metro or train from almost anywhere in the city. The metro is efficient, and trains run from 6 a.m. to midnight. At Piraeus, book your ticket to the Greek island of your choice. Most travelers recommend the Blue Star, Anek or Megajet ferries. Online schedules are available on Greekferries.gr and openseas.gr; book online two weeks in advance or just show up at the ticket office.
And make sure you have ample time to return to Athens before your scheduled airport departure – it’s better to stay an extra day in Athens than miss your flight.
Patience is a virtue when it comes to the Greek ferry system. Ferry travel is not recommended on Sundays when Greeks return to the mainland after the weekend. If you have limited time – such as a week or 10 days – going to two islands will give you plenty of time to explore without feeling rushed.
As far as accommodations go, some recommend that you book reservations online, while others say you get better prices once you arrive on the island, as price is often negotiable. On Santorini and Milos you can find dorm-style rooms or hostels for around $15+, depending on the time of year.
When you arrive at the island ferry port, you might hear hawkers calling out “room! room!” who rent out places for the night for less than online prices. You’ll be amazed at the number of hotel owners and apartments waiting for those disembarking the ferries.
Santorini is the destination of choice for first-time visitors to the Islands. Scenery here will set the mood for the duration of your trip, so spend at least two days here to soak it in. Many travelers recommend the Katefiani Villas bed and breakfast located in the quiet, pretty black-sand beach town of Perissa. Everything is within a 10-minute walk of the hotel and prices are great with free transfers from the ferry.
Arriving at Santorini's New Port, it's a 15-minute drive along the cliffs to the center of the city. For the adventurous, donkeys (left), cable car rides and walking are options to get to the Old Port.
If you have time, visit Santorini’s neighbor, Amorgos, with its gorgeous whitewashed monastery perched on a cliff that descends into the green and blue sea.
The volcanic island of Milos with its lunar landscape of multihued rocks has about 70 colorful red, white, gold and grey beaches with rugged mountain settlements and whitewashed fishing villages. Niki Savvas Rooms & Studios in the quiet Pollonia neighborhood on Milos are highly recommended, with a five-minute walk to shops, the bus stop, taverns and bakeries. The port of Ademas has a good selection of eateries, and there are excavations going on all over the island. Be sure to visit the site where the Venus de Milo statue was found.
Car rental shops and scooters are available on most islands. Scooters are the preferred mode of transportation, as they're cheap and easy to park. There's often a good chance your hotel or hostel will offer discounts on a car or scooter rental company. Public buses are a cheap transportation option too, although they tend to be slow.
Get acquainted with local shop owners and you might get recommendations on where to save money. Free hiking trails abound on most islands. Each of the 28 Greek islands is completely different from the other, so do research to get the most out of your trip and save money.
Save $ on dining
The islands can be pricey if you plan to shop and eat out, so make sure your accommodations include a stove top or kitchen – you'll save money by shopping at the local grocery store and packing leftovers for the beach. The cheapest menu options are sandwiches/gyros. You might get tired of them after a couple of days, but they are great budget extenders. Fruit, vegetables and yogurt are very cheap on the islands too.
Additionally, most hotel rooms provide refrigerators, and alcohol bought in supermarkets is much cheaper than in restaurants and bars.
Accommodation prices in the Greek Islands can always be negotiated (especially if you go after September). And if you stay in Athens afterwards, the public transport system is great and there’s plenty to see for a day or two.
The best month to visit is the month of October, the end of the “summer” season in the islands and when prices drop significantly. Nights may be somewhat crisp, but the daytime's typically great for swimming and other activities. July and August are the two months to avoid European vacationers who come to the islands in droves.