Simple Six – Travel by Overnight Ferry

Thinking about taking an overnight ferry during your travels? We’ve boarded two recently – one an eight-hour party cruise in the height of tourist season from Ancona, Italy to Zadar, Croatia, and another 20 (yep, t-w-e-n-t-y)-hour float in off-season from Durres, Albania back to Italia.

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View from a windy seat on deck, Durres to Ancona.

*Here are a few tricks we’ve learned along the way:

  1. Seasons change, as do schedules
    Rumors run rampant when it comes to transportation schedules throughout the Mediterranean and Adriatic. Finding reliable info can be tricky, but don’t let that stop you from researching like mad. For instance, we heard from various sources, including local tourism officials, that ferries run year round from Bar, Montenegro to Bari, Italy. Not until days before we hoped to make the trip did we learn the one ferry company making that journey closes “for maintenance” the entire month of November. We quickly realized we would need to push on to Durres (where the normally daily ferry to Bari was cut to twice-weekly in November,) or backtrack up the coast to Zadar.
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Settling in for a long sea haul.

Hey, it gave us an excuse to visit Albania, so no one’s complaining, but knowing your options is always a good idea. And, if you come across a few safety records or reviews to eyeball in the process, well… that’s time well spent.

2. When it comes to tickets, less may be more.
Only plunk down big bucks for a cabin if you have trouble sleeping or have a raging dislike of other people (and surely the latter isn’t the case since you are out in the world traveling, right?)

Also remember, these are not luxury liners. Maybe some boats plying the hottest routes are newer, but mostly these are workhorse water buses, so a private cabin isn’t as swank as it sounds.

The next level is a reserved seat. Think airplane seat, maybe just a tad larger. For us, this is the sweet spot during busy season. You have a guaranteed home base, but can also roam the lounge and deck without feeling guilty about leaving your pricey cabin.

Bottom tier is referred to as “deck seating,” and it’s a great choice in off-season when you likely will be lucky enough to get a whole row of seats or big couch to yourself. In prime season, it can be a crush. If you have a mat and don’t mind sleeping in any open space, go for it! Basically it’s open seating in the lounge and on deck, but there’s no guarantee of finding a perch. Which leads us to the next tip…

3. Be an early boarding-bird.
In most cases, boarding begins two-hours prior to departure. Keep in mind, in the height of tourist season, queues may form outside the gate even earlier. If you have a cabin, stroll in an hour prior just to be safe. If yours is a reserved seat, check to see if you have a numbered spot or just a cabin name. If the latter, you want to get there early to choose your exact seat.

Those with deck seating should be the first in line, especially during summer. It’s like general admission at a concert, groups send a pioneer up front to claim entire couch areas and everyone is positioning for position. If it’s off-season, you could score an entire lounge area where you’ll have plenty of space to celebrate not paying $100-150 extra for a private closet room.

4. Deck spot matters.
Here’s where all logic goes out the window. First you think, “Ah yeah, I’m going to nab a lounger outside on the top deck.” Then you realize when the boat starts moving, it’s cold and windy up there. Rookie mistake, right? Here’s another: unless you like the smell of second hand smoke and sound of slamming doors, do not grab what seems like a prime seat near the deck door. All night long, every single man, woman, and child on the boat will go just outside your door at least a dozen times to smoke. The happiest spot may be in the back of the lounge.

5. Cruise prep makes for easy time.
Unless you are that rare beast who can nod off anywhere and/or don’t mind eating the stalest panini in life, you should board prepared. (Since you are traveling you probably already have the gear, so have it handy to avoid digging through bags once on the boat.) Your cruising kit should include ear plugs, eye mask, some sort of pillow (rolled up tshirt will do,) sarong or jacket for warmth or to place over a disgusting dirty seat cover (did I mention these are old boats?,) book and/or podcast, big bottle of water, pre-made sandwiches, salad, or pasta would be killer, and a few snacks. We always ferry with a bottle of vino (don’t forget plastic cups and an opener.) Is that against the rules? Who knows, who cares.

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Yes, I realize this image is sideways, but I find it fitting considering how disorienting an overnight ferry ride can truly be.

6. See it as a vacation from your vacation.
For us, ferries – especially a 20-hour excursion – are almost like a refueling station. We literally do not sit still that long in…well, ever. Reading, sleeping, people-watching, staring into space, and watching the water, it’s pretty grand. No wifi, no 3G, no distractions. And, anyway you look at it, going by boat sure beats an overnight flight or bus ride any ‘ole day, so enjoy.

*Some of the ticketing info above may apply specifically to ferries running Mediterranean and Adriatic routes, but most of the tips are transferable to overnight boat journeys the world round.

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