When you travel to a destination that is located near bodies of water that you have to cross to get to your next destination, then you will most likely travel by ferry.
Destinations like Thailand, Spain, and Greece are some of the first ones that come to mind when thinking about ferry travel, but the largest ferry system in the world can actually be found in Washington State, USA so ferry travel is more commonplace than you think and it’s good to know what to expect so that you’re prepared the next time you have to take one.
On this page, I will tell you everything you need to know about traveling by ferry so that you will be well-prepared for when you have to book your ticket.
I will focus on ferries that travel for larger distances and between main destinations and not the ones that simply cross a river/small channel or that are part of a city’s local transit system. Those types of ferries can usually be treated like local buses with frequent departures and tickets bought on board or just before you board.
These are the top 7 things you need to know about traveling by long-distance ferry:
1. Your experience will vary depending on the operator and country
Ferries come in all shapes and sizes, some will only transport people while others will also transport vehicles. Some might come with a pre-assigned seat, but most of the time you just take whichever seat you want once you’re on board.
Regardless, you won’t be restricted to your seat in most ferries and they often also have an outer deck for you to check out if you wish. You can expect a toilet on board for ferries that travel longer distances and some of them might even have a shop where you can buy food, snacks, or drinks.
In more developed countries, you can expect higher quality vessels with more amenities, but there are always differences between different operators. It’s worth it to do a quick check for any online reviews to see what other travelers have said about a specific ferry operator or route.
When it comes to changes or cancellations, it also depends on the operator, although most of the time your ticket will probably be non-refundable.
2. The larger the ferry, the smoother the ride, and vice versa
Ferries are not great if you get seasick easily, but on some of the larger ferries, the ride is so smooth that you won’t even notice you’re on a boat until you look outside. But this goes the other way too. If your ferry is a small one, be prepared for a potentially nausea-inducing ride.
I have been on some ferries (like the one between Ibiza & Formentera in Spain) that were so bumpy that pretty much everyone on the boat was seasick. But I’ve also been on other small ferries that were completely fine so it really just depends on the sea conditions at the time.
Sometimes you won’t get a choice in the size of the boat and you will have to deal with what you got if you want to get to your next destination.
If that’s the case, the best tip I have is to get fresh air if possible and to keep your eyes on the horizon in front of the boat to help your body understand why it keeps rocking back and forth which is what causes seasickness in the first place.
3. There is no Google Ferries
Unlike Google Flights, there is no one website that exists that will let you see the schedules and book ferries for every country in the world. Depending on the country and region, you will either have to go to the ferry operator’s website for that country to get that information or go to the local ferry port/terminal in person.
That being said, a good way to see what ferry operators there are for any route you’re looking for is to check Rome2Rio. The best thing to do is to note down the ferry operators it finds for your route and then check out their specific websites to see schedules and pricing.
In addition, there is an online travel agency (OTA) that I recommend for ferries and it’s called Direct Ferries. It has the largest number of ferry partnerships amongst all OTAs and it’s worth searching for connections on their site too, although be aware that any booking you make will come with a service charge of around $5 so if you want to save that money, just go to the ferry operator’s website to book your ferry!
And if you can’t find any information about ferries on either of those two websites and there is no website for the local ferry operator, then you will have to ask at the local ferry port/terminal to get information about scheduling and prices.
4. Consider also checking for flights
While traveling by boat is the instinctive way to cross smaller bodies of water, sometimes flying actually makes more sense if the destination you’re going to also has an airport. If you’re not traveling with a vehicle, then oftentimes, a flight can be cheaper and quicker than a ferry.
For example, to get between Valencia and Ibiza in Spain, a ferry would take around 5 hours and cost around $50 whereas a flight with Ryanair can be as cheap as $15 and take less than an hour.
However, if the island or destination you’re going to doesn’t have a nearby airport, then the ferry will be your only option.
5. Booking in advance isn't always necessary, but it is recommended
Most of the time, you can just buy your ticket for the ferry on the same day. Ferry operators have fixed prices and don’t generally increase prices leading up to departure dates like airlines do so there’s no risk in waiting until the same day to buy your ticket.
However, if it’s a popular route or it’s high season and there are a lot of other travelers, the ferry might sell out by the time you try to buy your ticket.
In general, it is good practice to be prepared and make your bookings in advance whenever you can to avoid any potential issues.
6. Check-in should be done at least 30 minutes before departure
There is no universal check-in time for ferries as they can vary by operator and service. Sometimes your booking confirmation will give you a check-in time, but if you aren’t given one, I recommend showing up no later than 30 minutes before your ferry is scheduled to depart.
Trains and buses can depart their respective stations in seconds, but ferries require more time than that to depart the terminal so you need to be on board at least 10 minutes before the scheduled departure.
If you plan to travel with a vehicle, then you might need to do your check-in even sooner as it takes time to load up the ferry with all the vehicles. In this case, I recommend arriving no later than an hour early.
7. There is a way you can take some ferries for free
If you’re a budget traveler or you simply want to save money on ferry tickets, one way you can do it is by finding the lineup for the vehicles that are about to board the ferry and start asking drivers if you can hitch a ride in their car as it boards.
If you’re not traveling with a big group, chances are that you will be able to find at least one driver nice enough to let you do this. It does help to have a grasp of the local language as not everyone will be able to speak English in foreign countries.
However, this only works if the ferry charges people per vehicle and not per passenger if traveling by vehicle. So by adding you to their car, the driver would not incur any extra cost and you would get to take the ferry for free!
Some drivers may ask you to pay a small amount like $5 as a courtesy to them or maybe you buy them a treat from the ferry’s shop to say thank you, but that’s nothing compared to the cost of some ferry tickets!
That being said, if the ferry charges per passenger in a vehicle, then you’re better off buying your own passenger ticket. Make sure to do your research beforehand and check how the ferry company you plan to travel with charges its passengers. Give this a try the next time you have to take a ferry.
And that’s all you need to know about ferry travel!
Ferry travel is often an overlooked method of transportation, but it’s important to be prepared because in some cases, it may be the only method of transportation available to get you to where you want to go. I hope this guide gave you a better understanding of what to expect. If I missed anything, let me know in the comments below!
And if you’d like to learn more about a new, unique method of transportation that’s taking Europe and now North America by storm, check out my Guide to Ridesharing.