Have you ever watched one of those movies about ancient Rome where chained slaves man oared sailing galleys? That’s a fairly accurate portrayal of how folks around the Mediterranean used to get from one port to another – in row ships. A few sturdy guys can still manage to row a boat from Athens to Alexandria or Sicily to Tunis. I’m certainly not advising you to cut your cruising budget by packing a dingy and a couple of oars before you head off to Greece.
But while the Mediterranean might seem like a never ending expanse of water, it is home to hundreds of islands, many of them inhabited.
Dozens of port cities grace the shores of what the ancients used to call 'The Roman Lake.' The distance from one port to another can be the equivalent of a long ferry ride, and that’s all you really need to know to save a buck on a Mediterranean cruise ferry.
Don’t let the ‘ferry’ label mislead you. These luxury ships are every bit as fancy as what you’d expect from a cruise liner. You can actually book a cabin from Piraeus to Rhodes for under $100. If you don’t want to spring for a cabin – there are comfortable lounge chairs for half the price. The overnight journey allows you to save on a hotel room and you wake up in Rhodes just in time for breakfast at some enchanting café within the walls of the ancient fortress city.
The home port of one of the largest fleet of ferries in the world is Piraeus, a city on the outskirts of Athens. You can take a municipal bus to the port and find dozens of offices where you can book a ferry for a mini-Mediterranean cruise. The Blue Star Ferries are highly recommended.
After a tour around Rhodes on one of the municipal buses, you’ll still have time to hop another ferry to Marmaris in Turkey for the equivalent of $40 http://www.turkeytravelplanner.com/trans/Ship/GreekIslandFerries.html. From there, you can catch an overnight first class bus to Istanbul for a pittance. The rest stops on the highway to Istanbul are incredible and serve some of the finest food you’ll ever eat. And if you’re looking for a city with a municipal ferry system – welcome to Istanbul. I haven’t taken the ferry boat from Istanbul to Athens but I understand it's a fabulous cruising experience.
On any given day, there are literally hundreds of ferries with regular schedules transporting people from island to island, port to port and country to country. Allow me to recommend a list of long ferry rides that I highly recommend as substitutes for a full Mediterranean cruise. You can hop ferries from Valencia to Majorca – from Marseilles to Algiers or Corsica. For around $50, you can take a ferry from Palermo to Tunis http://www.viamare.com/grimaldi-palermo-tunis.html.
Another advantage of cruising the Mediterranean by ferry is that you get a chance to mix it up with the locals. If you feel the urge to stay in a particular port city for a few extra days – you won’t miss the boat. It gives you the luxury of setting your own schedule. You can always hop the next ferry.
The reasons Mediterranean ferries are so affordable is that they are considered domestic transportation. Like other forms of mass transit around the world, they are often subsidized. While you might be riding the ferry as a tourist, the guy next to you might be a local commuter going to his job in Athens or a Tunisian immigrant worker making his way home from France or Italy.
Ferries are not only a good way to experience the Mediterranean on the cheap. I’ve taken The Cook Strait Ferry from Wellington to the South Island of New Zealand. I’ve sailed the South China Sea (for a little over an hour) on a ferry from Hong Kong to Macao. British Columbia also offers some excellent values on ferry rides from the mainland to the Gulf Islands and Victoria. http://www.bcferries.com. And they serve excellent full course buffet dinners on white linen tables at very reasonable prices.
A word of caution is in order. Make sure you search online for ferry schedules. Many of them run once or twice a week and cut back services at the end of the summer season. Some of the larger ferry systems, like the British Columbia ships and the Blue Star ferries out of Athens, allow you to book online and that can be very convenient, especially if you want to reserve a cabin.
So you really don’t have to row across the Mediterranean to save a buck – just educate yourself about the ferry schedules before you take off for your next cruise vacation.
The Frugal Nomad has travelled to over 40 countries and lived, studied and worked for extended periods of time in London, Paris, New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Miami, Wellington, New Zealand and Alexandria, Egypt. He calls Seattle home - for now.
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