Trip report: island hopping in the Aegean Sea

September 22nd 2017, 04:39 | Written by Konstantin Koll

When you browse Instagram these days, you get the impression that every blogger and influencer with more than ten followers heads to Santoríni for a photoshoot. I decided to spend a few days there to see what the buzz is all about.

DUS-SKG-ATH-JTR

Oh, the joys of non-rev air travel! I was on a very tight schedule for this trip, and the only direct flights from DUS to JTR were charter flights on Tuesdays with Air Berlin and Wednesdays with Condor—not at all what I was looking for. Instead, I've opted for non-rev travel on Aegean Airlnes—a carrier I've never flown before. You'll always have to connect at ATH for flights to JTR, but unfortunately I was also blocked from any DUS-ATH flight, which meant connecting twice both outbound and inbound.

It was quite a busy morning at DUS with long queues, as Air Berlin cancelled numerous flights in the wake of bankruptcy. My flight would leave around noon, so I had lots of time after dropping my bag (checked through to JTR) to shop for some magazines and make my way through security and to the gate. Unfortunately the gate in concourse B offered only very obstructed views, but after a short time my ride to SKG (the first stop of today's journey) pulled to the gate with some 20 minutes delay.

Shortly after boarding, we were on our way to Greece—with a rather spectacular takeoff and left turn over Düsseldorf towards Southeast Europe. The flight itself was very smooth, and I enjoyed the hot pasta as lunch. It's good to know that Aegean Airlines at least somewhat steps back from the downward spiral in inflight service.

After less than three hours, our flight was approaching SKG. I must say that I am not impressed at all with that dump! SKG has no jet bridges and only a couple of hardstands, so passengers are bussed to the small terminal building and delivered directly to the baggage claim. Now, this may be fine for passengers whose final destination is Thessaloníki—but that place just sucks for connections! I had to walk up to the departure level, finding my way through a tiny and very crowded checkin hall, and then through security all over again. Of course, there were hardly any signs leading the way. Luckily, I've had some three hours for this ordeal. The sterile area behind security was much too small for that Monday afternoon, and had only one food kiosk with mediocre pizzas, sandwiches and warm Coke. Oh, did I mention that there was no air conditioning? SKG felt more like a third-world airport than anything else. If you can, go out of your way to avoid connecting there!

Not too soon, boarding for my next flight to ATH commenced. All passengers were again bussed some 100m out onto the ramp. I had the opportunnity to snatch a few pictures and hopped onto my next ride. The reward for my time at SKG was another specatcular takeoff over the Thermaic Gulf and into the setting sun. After about an hour, our flight descended over the endless buildings of Athens, and with a turn over the sea we touched down at ATH.

ATH is a very modern airport that is on par with any other international gateway—what a difference! Unfortunately I had little time to spare, so I quickly went to the departure gate for my final flight to JTR. I stumbled apon a nice food outlet, and made a mental note to have breakfast there on my return flight. It was already dark when boarding began, so there was very little to see on the way to JTR. After about 30 minutes in the air, the lights of Santoríni appeared on thr right side, and a short turn we landed on that small island airport (more on that later). As one would expect, all passengers were bussed to the tiny terminal building and into the arrivals hall with a single baggage belt. I was very relieved to finally see my bag (good job, Aegean), grabbed a taxi and was happy to have a long, cool shower at my hotel in Firá.

Santoríni

While Santoríni is indeed a beautiful island and a great holiday destination, I must report that I was a bit disappointed at first. Disappointment roots in unmet expectations, and after browing through numerous photos and videos, my expectation of Santoríni was to be second only to paradise. Clearly, this is not the case.

Let's start with the island: I assumed Santoríni was a lush tropical paradise similar to Madeira. On the contrary, Santoríni is of volcanic origin, so outside of well-maintained parks and hotel resorts there is very little vegetation to begin with. I visited Santoríni in September, and after a long and hot summer the entire island was barren and withered—safe for the occasional cactus that was lucky to grow in the shade. My travel guide claims that wine and tomatoes are grown on Santoríni; I had a rental car, explored the island off the beaten paths, and cannot imagine where! Also keep in mind that Santoríni only has three very small pebble beaches—if you're looking for a beach vacation, choose another Greek island (I did know that before).

Back to my personal experience. While a vacation on Santoríni can be very expensive (I've seen hotel rooms for over 20000€ per night online), I was lucky to find a great hotel in Firá for 105€ per night—a bargain in high season! The only problem was that the hotel is located in Firá, Santoríni's main town. I was not at all impressed: it's hectic, busy, with lots of traffic, lots of other tourists from cruise ships, and smelly garbage bins (which, in all fairness, cannot be completely avoided in a warm climate). Yes: the white buildings on the caldera's cliff do exist. Yes: they are indeed beautiful. But did anyone tell you that there are donkey droppings all over (a donkey ride from the old port to Firá is a tourist attraction)? In the morning, the shop and restaurant owners poured water down the alleys to clean them—which turned dry donkey shit into wet donkey shit, which the rising sun turned into smelly donkey shit. I felt really sorry for the other tourists that wore sandals or flip-flops. I had brunch on Firá's busy main square, caught up with my social networks and was very afraid that this vacation might feel a lot longer than expected…

After my brunch and some rounds in my hotel's pool, I decided to take the bus to Oía, Santoríni's second largest town. The ride costs 1.80€ one way, and takes about half an hour. Oía really offers everything you'd expect from thousand beautiful photos of Santoríni! So if you take a single thing away from this read, fork out the extra cash and get a hotel in Oía instead of somewhere else—or mentally prepare to take the bus to Oía each day. Other than that, I'll let my pictures and a bonus video speak for themselves:

JTR-ATH-HER-DUS

All vacations have come to an end, and this trip is no exception. My first flight of the day would depart at 6:40am for ATH, so I had a very short night. After a shower to wake me up, my pre-ordered taxi took me to JTR.

I've read many horror stories about Santoríni's airport. The terminal building is indeed tiny (making SKG look like a major hub), and seems to have been built in the 1950s or 1960s. For starters, after checkin you have to take your bag and put it on an x-ray machine beside the checkin counters yorself. The building is simply not big enough for baggage belt behind the counters like in any other airport!

My actual experience was very pleasant, though: there was a very short queue at the security checkpoint, and JTR features an outdoor viewing terrace which is great for spotting. After relaxing for some time, the inbound flight from ATH approached, but had to go-around for reasons unknown to me (it was a very calm morning with no wind gusts or anything). After the second approach, the Aegean Airbus A321 landed and pulled to a stand. Boarding via bus was a breeze.

So why do people complain so much about JTR? Well, I was extremely lucky that I had the first flight of the day at 6:40am. The next flight would be a Vueling flight to FCO at 8:00am, so when I was there the airport had to serve a single flight. This is an entirely different story throughout the day: JTR can accomodate 8 aircraft at a time, and I can only imagine the chaos that ensues when all those people try to checkin, put their bags on the x-ray belt, pass through security, and then wait at the gates which must have been designed at a time when only the wealthy people could afford to fly! The airport has even made arrangements for queues that span out of the entrance and onto the car park. So my advice here: arrive at least 3 hours before your flight (that's about the time they drop you off at JTR if you book a package holiday).

The short hop to ATH was during sunrise, and what an amazing sunrise it was! I had about two hours in ATH before my flight to HER was about to depart, so I bought some breakfast at the food stand I've seen the last time. The rice pudding, a favorite dish of mine, was great! With a small delay, boarding for my second flight started. The flight to Crete was pleasant and uneventful.

HER, unfortunately, has a lot in common with SKG: the airport is definately not designed for connecting passengers! HER has hardstands only, so busses drop passengers off at the arrivals hall. Signs for connecting passengers… lead to the outside of the airport! Again, I had to make my way through a crowded checkin area and a long queue at the security checkpoint back into the sterile area. At least, the gates are much more spacious in HER than in SKG. On the upside, HER offers some great views for spotting. Time went by rather quickly, keeping up with my friends at home and taking lots of aircraft pictures for future instagram posts. Boarding was slow this time, as the busses to the aircraft didn't arrive on time. My flight to DUS left on time, though, and was very pleasant too. I've enjoyed a late lunch and caught up on my sleep most of the time—something I cannot usually do on a plane. And in case you're wondering: yes, my bag also made all the connections!

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