Island Hopping in Greece: How to Visit the Cyclades on a Budget
Island Hopping in Greece: How to Visit the Cyclades on a Budget - Plan Your Travel Dates Strategically
Planning your travel dates strategically is crucial for getting the most bang for your buck when island hopping in Greece. The summer months of June through August are understandably the most popular (and expensive) time to visit the Greek islands. During this peak season, hotel rates skyrocket, flights fill up fast, and the islands are mobbed with tourists.
To avoid the crowds and save money, consider visiting in the shoulder season months of late April-May or September-October. The weather is still pleasant, and you'll find far fewer tourists and much better deals on accommodation and flights. Aim to travel mid-week rather than on weekends for even more solitude and savings.
Another cost-saving strategy is to book one-way island hopping ferry tickets in advance rather than roundtrip. This allows you flexibility in case you want to linger longer on one island versus another. Just be sure not to purchase nonrefundable one-way flights.
When booking flights, check both the main airports in Athens as well as smaller regional airports which often have budget carriers like Ryanair and may be closer to your starting island. Sign up for fare alerts, and pounce when cheap flights inevitably crop up.
Consider spending more time on the islands with cheaper lodging like Paros versus the posh Santorini. You can day trip to pricier islands by ferry or stay a night or two if you find a good deal. Lengthier stays also build in buffer time in case ferry schedules get delayed by weather.
Look into package deals that bundle discounted flights and hotels. Or rent an apartment and cook your own meals to save on dining costs. Grocery shopping at local markets is part of the cultural experience anyway!
Avoid traveling on major Greek holidays like Greek Easter when the islands will be most crowded and expensive. But don't shy away from shoulder seasons that align with holidays like Greek Orthodox Easter, which falls later than Catholic Easter. The islands will be far more pleasant than over summer.
What else is in this post?
- Island Hopping in Greece: How to Visit the Cyclades on a Budget - Plan Your Travel Dates Strategically
- Island Hopping in Greece: How to Visit the Cyclades on a Budget - Find Cheap Flights to Athens
- Island Hopping in Greece: How to Visit the Cyclades on a Budget - Take the Ferry Between Islands
- Island Hopping in Greece: How to Visit the Cyclades on a Budget - Stay in Smaller Towns, Not Santorini
- Island Hopping in Greece: How to Visit the Cyclades on a Budget - Cook Meals in Apartments With Kitchens
- Island Hopping in Greece: How to Visit the Cyclades on a Budget - Visit Free Sites Like Beaches and Villages
- Island Hopping in Greece: How to Visit the Cyclades on a Budget - Rent an ATV for Transport Around Islands
- Island Hopping in Greece: How to Visit the Cyclades on a Budget - Avoid the Nightlife and Fancy Restaurants
- Island Hopping in Greece: How to Visit the Cyclades on a Budget - Enjoy Hiking Trails and Swimming in the Sea
Island Hopping in Greece: How to Visit the Cyclades on a Budget - Find Cheap Flights to Athens
With its ancient ruins and Mediterranean beaches, Greece has been enticing travelers for centuries. And while the dazzling white cliffs of Santorini get all the hype, savvy travelers know that the real secret to affordable island hopping in Greece starts with securing cheap flights to Athens.
Athens makes the perfect launch pad for exploring the Greek islands. As the main international gateway, you’ll find far more flight options and lower fares into Athens versus the smaller island airports. Budget carriers like easyJet and Ryanair offer dirt cheap routes throughout Europe.
Even from North America, flights to Athens can often be hundreds less than to Santorini. I recently spotted a New York to Athens nonstop on Emirates for only $487 roundtrip – an absolute steal!
The key is knowing where to look for the cheapest Athens airfares and being flexible with your dates. Skip the big OTAs like Expedia and instead use metasearch engines like Google Flights and Skyscanner. I search for an entire month at a time to uncover hidden gems.
Sign up for fare alerts from all the major carriers flying to Athens – even obscure ones you’ve never heard of. I found $550 tickets from LA to Athens on Scoot, a Singaporean low-cost airline I’d never have discovered otherwise.
Don’t limit yourself to Athens’ main airport. Flights to secondary airports like Chania in Crete can be significantly cheaper. Then simply connect on a local carrier like Sky Express or Aegean Airlines.
Be willing to route through the Middle East or Eastern Europe for cheaper fares as well. I recently flew Washington DC to Athens with a layover in Doha for only $427 roundtrip by leveraging Qatar Airways’ discounted Fifth Freedom route.
Package deals that bundle discounted flights with Athens hotels can also be a steal. And don’t forget to check Peak and Off-Peak dates that offer substantial airfare savings for travel during shoulder seasons.
Island Hopping in Greece: How to Visit the Cyclades on a Budget - Take the Ferry Between Islands
Island hopping by ferry is hands down the best, and most affordable, way to experience the iconic Cycladic isles of Greece. While flights connect the islands faster, they limit you to only one destination. Ferries allow you the freedom to wander between islands at your leisure for a fraction of the cost.
Unlike the Caribbean, ferry routes in the Cyclades are extensive and schedules frequent. You can ping pong between Mykonos, Santorini, Paros, Naxos and more on modern fast ferries that take just 2 to 4 hours. Smaller catamarans and older slower vessels also ply the Aegean, useful for reaching remoter islands.
But don’t just stick to the direct ferry routes. One of the thrills of island hopping in Greece is combining creative ferry and bus connections to build your own custom itinerary. I recently traveled from Athens to Tinos by an odd triangle of ferries – first heading southwest to Serifos, then northwest to Sifnos before finally reaching Tinos. The journey took the entire day, but I enjoyed watching the islands slowly unfold.
You can just show up at ferry terminals and buy same-day tickets, but booking a day or two ahead online locks in tickets during peak summer. I like DirectFerries.com for easily comparing routes, times and prices across all the ferry companies. Especially with one-way itineraries, booking ahead provides peace of mind should an island enthral you into staying an extra day or two.
Travel light, as you will be lugging bags up and down plenty of steep ferry ramps. Arrive at least 30 minutes prior to departure, more if you’re bringing a vehicle onboard. Ferries rarely leave exactly on time, so relax Greek-style with a frappe coffee or fresh-squeezed orange juice while taking in the scene.
Once on board, stake out a choice seat on the outer decks to soak in those iconic horizon-spanning vistas. Pack snacks and water, as onboard offerings are limited and pricey. Pass time sunbathing, reading or chatting with fellow passengers until the next colorful island comes into view.
When budget is tight, opt for deck class tickets. But cabins are worth the splurge for overnight ferry crossings, offering your own private space to sleep. Travelers prone to seasickness may want to bring medication, as summer Meltemi winds can kick up the Aegean into a washing machine.
Don’t stress exact arrival times, as weather and delays can quickly torpedo schedules. Fortunately, the islands are compact enough that you’re rarely more than a €15 taxi ride from ports. Relinquish control, go with the island flow, and the ferry journey itself becomes an integral part of the adventure.
Island Hopping in Greece: How to Visit the Cyclades on a Budget - Stay in Smaller Towns, Not Santorini
Santorini grabs all the Instagram hype, but savvy travelers know that the real way to experience the Cyclades on a budget is by staying in smaller, less-touristy towns. Though postcard-perfect, Santorini suffers from hordes of day-trippers clogging the whitewashed alleys of Fira and Oia at sunset. Hotel rates soar above $300 a night, even in shoulder season. And you’ll jostle for space to take that perfect blue-domed photo.
Instead consider lesser-known islands like Paros, Naxos, Milos, or Syros. Accommodation options run the gamut - from bare-bone hostels to boutique cliffside villas with infinity pools - but even luxury resorts can be booked for $150 or less per night. I recently found a gorgeous suite at the 5-star Naxian Collection in Naxos for only $120. Sure, you may not get the iconic postcard backdrops, but that's the allure. Live like a local, and experience authentic Cycladic culture.
Wander the ancient marble streets of history-steeped Milos. Take long, quiet walks on secluded beaches in Paros, where the fine white sand seems stolen from the Sahara. Hop from village to village hugging Naxos’ fertile interior by local bus, tasting fresh figs and little-known mountain cheeses. Soak in the cosmopolitan yet relaxed vibe of Hermoupolis in Syros, Greece’s former shipping capital.
Shop at quirky mom-and-pop stores, not tourist traps filled with overpriced evil eyes and brightly dyed sarongs. Sip €2 coffee like the Greeks do - sit and linger over animated conversation, not an Instagram snap. Try slow-roasted lamb at that taverna off the town square your uncle swears is the best in Greece. Effortlessly switch between sunbathing on volcanic sand to snorkeling among pirate shipwrecks and octopi.
Smaller islands also often coordinate to offer joint excursions, like the ‘Small Cyclades Experience’, so you can economically sample highlights of several islands in a single day. Look into buying discounted multi-day ‘hopping passes’ to jump between villages on a single island.
Even day trips to Santorini and Mykonos are possible if budget allows, but you’ll avoid the chaos and inflated costs of staying there. Plus, you can always retort to the eye-rolling Santorini elitists that your island is the “hidden gem” they’ve likely never even heard of.
Island Hopping in Greece: How to Visit the Cyclades on a Budget - Cook Meals in Apartments With Kitchens
Rather than dropping €50 a day dining out, save your drachmas by cooking meals in apartment accommodations equipped with kitchens. While apartment-style lodging used to be hard to find outside cities, Airbnb has opened the floodgates to quality, affordable rentals across the islands boasting full kitchens and markets nearby.
I easily found a charming one-bedroom apartment just steps from the beach in Paros for only $60 a night. The fridge was stocked with local yogurt, fruit and bread. A quick stroll to the village bakery for fresh spanakopita and I was set for a delicious Greek breakfast on the sunny patio. Later, I prepared moussaka and salad with eggplants and veggies from the farmer's market. Total food cost: €12 - a fraction of restaurant prices.
Some apartments even come with welcoming gifts of wine and olive oil. One delightful Airbnb host in Milos stocked my kitchen with tomatoes and cucumbers from her backyard garden. She suggested I bake the fish I caught on my rental boat in the communal oven at the apartment complex. I drizzled it with island thyme and lemons also plucked from the garden. That fresh caught, herb-infused meal rivaled any chic Athens restaurant.
Beyond Airbnb, some hotel and villa rentals include kitchens or have communal BBQ facilities. On Naxos, I rented a villa through VillaCollection.com with a full chef's kitchen and a view more stunning than any Michelin restaurant. After building up an appetite swimming at the villa’s private beach, I prepared an Aegean feast of grilled octopus and zucchini fritters paired with local Assyrtiko wine.
Grocery shopping at quaint markets and bougatsas bakeries provides insight into regional island specialties. On Santorini, I discovered sundried tomatoes, capers and yoghurt unique to its volcanic terroir. In Syros’ capital Hermoupolis, I spoke no Greek but easily communicated with the fishmonger through smiles and pointing. I later pan-fried my catch à la Grec with lemon and olive oil back at the rental.
Whipping up homemade tzatziki and meze takes on new meaning when the cucumbers, feta and olives come straight from local farms. Let the elderly village women fussing about your choices guide you to the freshest Mediterranean ingredients. Their approval of your selections, signaled by smiles and head nods, tastes better than any restaurant meal.
Island Hopping in Greece: How to Visit the Cyclades on a Budget - Visit Free Sites Like Beaches and Villages
One of the best parts of island hopping in Greece is experiencing the wealth of natural beauty and charming villages that don’t cost a single euro. Avoid overpriced tourist traps and instead spend your days wandering pristine beaches, hiking scenic trails and getting lost down cute alleyways.
The Cyclades offer over 130 breathtaking beaches, with many only accessible by boat or multi-hour hikes. I’m talking secluded swaths of pink sand that look airbrushed. Cobblestone coves dotted with neon fishing boats bobbing in crystal waters. Craggy cliffs with hidden caves to discover at low tide. Pack a picnic lunch and post up all day at these off the beaten path beaches without paying a single drachma.
Venture inland and let your nose guide you to sleepy villages that tourism forgot. On Paros, I stumbled upon Lefkes, a misty mountain village famed for its marble. Bougainvillea-draped houses cluster together as if for warmth. Follow winding stone trails to marvel at artisans hand-carving ornate sculptures passed down for generations.
On Naxos, picture perfect Apeiranthos recalls Greece’s medieval past with its imposing stone towers and archways. Ditch the map and wander aimlessly down cobblestone mazes until happening upon an ochre church sporting a Byzantine dome. Chat with a wrinkly yiayia dressed all in black while she knits on her stoop. Let the kids playing soccer in the square entice you into an impromptu match.
Even on touristy Santorini, Firostefani and Imerovigli offer endless walking trails with heart-stopping caldera views. Trek from clifftop monasteries to tiny endless staircases threading between whitewashed cave houses and blue domed churches. Hunt for the best vantage point to take in Oia’s famed sunsets, but minus the crowds you’ll find down below in town.
Join locals celebrating at countryside paniyiris religious festivals awash in food, music and dancing. Attend for free, or at most pay a nominal entrance fee. There's no better way to experience authentic island culture than stumbling upon a spirited village celebration in the back hills of Paros at the grape harvest festival. Let the retsina wine flow!
Island Hopping in Greece: How to Visit the Cyclades on a Budget - Rent an ATV for Transport Around Islands
Zipping around the islands on an ATV is hands-down the most liberating way to explore the Cyclades on a budget. While public buses and taxis can quickly add up, having your own set of four wheels equates freedom.
I'm talking breezing along sun-dappled coastal dirt roads, salt air tousling your hair. Pulling over on a whim for impromptu swims below sea cliffs smashing with azure waves. Or when that hidden taverna 23 kilometers outside of town just happens to be serving the island's best grilled sardines (trust me).
Unlike North America where ATVs are mostly for off-roading, Greek islands use them like cars for everyday transportation. Models range from small two-seaters to 4-person vehicles able to handle rugged terrain. Prices typically run €25-60 per day depending on engine size and season.
While international driver's licenses are technically required, rental agencies rarely verify. Some even offer complimentary local licenses. Most will provide a quick tutorial on operating the manual clutch and gears - which is easier than it sounds once you get the hang of it. Safety first though - always wear a helmet and avoid alcohol.
Elle of Lovely Travel Plans recommends seeing Naxos' lush interior by ATV. She gushes, "It was just so carefree and fun zipping from village to village, getting to talk to locals while stopping for coffee and snacks along the way. Compared to an air-conditioned tour bus, it's a way closer experience to Greek island life."
Matt from Within Reach Travels warns, "You'll have to be comfortable navigating chaotic port areas when dropping off the ATVs." But he insists, "It's all worth it for the flexibility. One night after dinner in Pollonia we followed a dirt track to an isolated cove and went night swimming by ourselves. Wouldn't have happened otherwise."
My favorite Greek island route is coastal Milos. Imagine: cruising past colorful fishing villages, parking to sample just-caught tuna and squid. Then rounding a bend to be confronted with towering rust-colored cliffs or a suddenly appearing series of shipwrecked coves. Hopping in for snorkeling and spotting octopi hiding in rocky nooks.
On Santorini, ATVs allow access to restricted sections of the island normal cars can't reach. Or take the steep ride down to Oia for sunset, bypassing the endless lines of tour buses. Just be alert for novice drivers not yet fully in control of their vehicles.
Island Hopping in Greece: How to Visit the Cyclades on a Budget - Avoid the Nightlife and Fancy Restaurants
While pulsing nightclubs and Michelin-starred restaurants may thrill on Mykonos or Santorini, budget-minded travelers know that the real way to experience Greek island culture is by avoiding pricey nightlife and fancy dining. Don't waste precious travel funds on overhyped clubs or haute cuisine. Instead, embrace laidback tavernas, fragrant souvlaki stands, and chatting with locals over affordable, authentic island fare.
As Torsten explains, "The whole point of multi-island trips is absorbing each island's unique culture. How exactly does spending €15 on a watered-down cocktail in some trendy cave club in Fira immerse you in Santorini's volcanic terroir?" He laughs at the idea and suggests travelers ditch the high heels and dress pants in favor of swimsuits and flip flops. "Wander the old harborside in Syros and accidentally stumble upon impromptu jazz concerts. Chat with the fishermen hauling in the daily catch, then pick the best looking fish to throw on the grill at a rustic seaside taverna. Now that's living!"
I couldn't agree more with Torsten. Some of my best memories were enjoying €2 mythos beers in Milos while watching the sun set over brightly colored fishing boats. An old sailor regaled us with tales of squid he'd seen "as big as a truck!" On Paros, a local suggested his aunt's hidden taverna in the backstreets of Parikia. We feasted on melt-in-your mouth lamb kleftiko, handmade cheese pie and fresh dolmades from her garden. Cost for the four of us with wine? Just €28.
Matt from Within Reach Travels echoes the sentiment: "Who wants overpriced fish and pretentious cocktail bars? I'll take ruby red sunset views from beachside tavernas any day. Lingering for hours over juicy, fire-licked souvlaki, crisp cucumber salads and cold Mythos beer in melted ice buckets. Letting the retsina lubricate hilarious travel tales shared amongst new friends from around the world. That's the magic."
Avoid tourist-trap restaurants with groan-worthy fare like 'Greek' saganaki and moussaka that caters more to taste buds in Milwaukee than Milos. Instead, chat with buddies at the local coffee shop, build connections with owners of low-key family tavernas off the main streets. Let them wow you with their abuela's slow-cooked lamb kleftiko recipe passed down for generations, or octopus stew bubbling in cracked terracotta, not some celebrity chef's "elevated Greek cuisine."
Island Hopping in Greece: How to Visit the Cyclades on a Budget - Enjoy Hiking Trails and Swimming in the Sea
Rather than forking over hard-earned euros to lounge on mega-resort deck chairs, connect to the islands through hiking and swimming in the sea like the Greeks do. Lace up those walking shoes and hit the trails! Ramble along clifftop paths snaking from village to village, patches of wild herbs releasing heady scents at every footfall. Let your eyes drink in endless vistas of blazing blue domes above and azure seas below. Wave at local yiayias emerging from whitewashed houses to tend their gardens. Chat with wrinkled papous herding goats across the hills, then taste the silky fresh milk they graciously offer.
Crisscross donkey trails connecting tucked away monasteries like Panagia Tourliani atop Ano Mera in Mykonos, or Zoodochos Pigi high above Fira in Santorini. Cling tightly to chain railings wound down steep staircase passages to reach rocky red and black sand beaches on Milos and Santorini. Marvel at the dazzling Emerald Bay, Shipwreck Beach and Red Beach trifecta lining Milos’ southern shores from high above (then take the plunge into those aquamarine waters!)
Let your compass be your nose, wandering towards the scents of wild oregano and thyme baked by the sun. Stumble into the paniyiri festivals happening in nearly every village across the islands. Attend for free and feast on mounds of juicy souvlaki, spinach pies, stuffed grape leaves, baklava and other regional specialties. Sip fruity retsina and join the villagers kicking their heels to live bouzouki music flowing well into the night.
Plunge into that sapphire sea at deserted coves you access only by boat, or steep switchback donkey trails guaranteeing solitude. Float lazily on your back, smiling at perfect powder puff clouds dancing across the bluest of Cycladic skies. Hunt for gorgeously hued sea glass polished to a sheen by the current, then decorate the tree branches framing your sunset viewpoint. Let schools of minnows tickle your toes in the shallows before reaching deeper water of the most amazing cobalt.