There are more than 600 goals on my bucket list. Santorini was high up on it — right up there with Eiffel Tower, Taj Mahal, and all the other modern wonders of the world.
But I never really gave it much thought, because I always assumed that it was a destination for the uber-rich. I figured I’d have to save it for my retirement years. Surely, everyone has a things-to-do-after-retirement list. Well, this was one of them for me…until one day, when I was mindless browsing the net and discovered that Singapore had this budget airline called Scoot, and it was offering round-trip tickets from Kuala Lumpur to Athens for only MYR1,600 (approx. USD400).
Getting to Santorini
So, I began my journey from Kuala Lumpur to Singapore on a 50-minute flight, transited for a few hours in Changi Airport, and spent another 11 hours on the flight from Singapore to Athens. I then spent two nights there, because when you’re in Greece, you might as well go and see the Acropolis, even if your uncultured self thinks that it’s just a bunch of rocks and pillars.
From Athens, there are two options to get to Santorini:
Flying is the fastest and easiest — there are daily flights all year round, and it only takes 40 minutes. Understandably, it is the most expensive option. Ryan Air usually has some pretty good deals, but do note that the flights often arrive in Santorini very early in the morning (around 3 a.m.), so keep that in mind when you’re planning your trip.
Additionally, during the peak season, there are also direct flights to Santorini from major European cities as well as from outside of Europe. Once you get to Santorini Airport, it is only about 5 kilometers away from the capital Fira, which you can reach by bus or taxi.
The ferries depart from Piraeus Port in Athens. There are several ferry companies to choose from, namely Seajets, Fast Ferries, Superfast Ferries, Blue Star, and a few others — Blue Star being the cheapest and the slowest. Basically, the faster the ferry, the more expensive it is. Of course I took the slowest.
The fare fluctuates according to season, and I assume the earlier you book, the cheaper it is. At the time of my booking, they offered a promo fare of 20 euros one-way. Because I booked pretty late, the return ticket was 40 euros.
You can choose between economy seats and ‘air-seat lounge’. As the name suggests, the more expensive air-seat lounge allows you to access a private lounge. But I think the economy ticket is much better. It’s free seating, which means you get to walk around the entire ferry and sit outside to enjoy the view of the Aegean sea and its islands.
The ferry stopped at three different islands before reaching Santorini.
Finally, after 7 hours, they announced our arrival at Athinios, the main port of Santorini. That was the ferry’s last stop before heading back to Athens. From the sea, Santorini didn’t look half as nice as the other few islands we passed by earlier. There were not as many of those white houses that you’d often see on postcards and travel magazines.
Best Time to Visit Santorini
The peak season in Santorini (and almost all of Europe, basically) is during the summer holidays, i.e. from late June to early September. The plus side? Hot, sunny weather. The sea is at its warmest and perfect for swimming. Ferries and flights are very frequent. The nightlife scene thrives. And if you like to be surrounded by lots of people, there’s no better time to go.
The downside? Lots of people — which means less personal space, longer waiting time to get into restaurants, longer queues to take pictures at scenic spots, and higher prices for pretty much everything.
March – June and September – November are the shoulder seasons in Santorini. I went in May, which I think was perfect timing. The loads of summer vacationers hadn’t arrived yet, so I got to explore at a much more relaxed pace, but there were still enough people around to not make the place seem so desolate.
In addition, hotels were very cheap (even by my standards), and the weather was great — sunny, but not too hot, sometimes chilly. Having spent my whole life in a tropical country, I really don’t have a pressing need to experience more summer. In fact, we travel abroad expressly to escape the heat.
The low season is around December to February. But winter travel in Santorini has become more popular of late. The winter is moderate, compared to countries in Northern Europe. There can be some rain and overcast skies, but all in all, it’s still great for sightseeing, photographing, and food hunting.
However, be reminded that ferries and flights are not as frequent during this time, so make sure you plan carefully. Don’t forget to pack some warmer clothes.
Where to Stay in Santorini
If you want to stay near the beach, you should choose a hotel on the eastern coast of the island. However, if you want to get the best views of the sunset, volcano, and caldera, you should stay on the western coast — in one of the four towns that are located on the Santorini caldera: Fira, Oia, Imerovigli, and Firostefani.
Most of Santorini’s best hotels are located in these four towns. The caldera towns are generally trendier and offer more sophisticated hotels and restaurants. That doesn’t mean they are all expensive though. The key to staying in Santorini on a budget is to stay a little further from the caldera edge.
My suggestion? If you only have a few days, stay in Fira. That’s the capital and largest city in Santorini, with the most restaurants, hotels, and shops. It can be a little busy, but you can find some quiet places if you go just a little off the main street.
On top of that, it’s also where the bus hub is. All bus services throughout the island start and end in Fira, so staying there will help you save a lot of time and money. That is, if you’re planning to take buses. If you’re renting a car, you can stay anywhere you like. Likewise, if you’re staying for a longer period, it makes sense to find a cheaper hotel elsewhere.
I stayed in Villa Ilios in Fira. It was only 70 euros for 2 nights. It was not the cheapest hotel on the island and certainly not the kind of price tag I was used to. But considering that this was Santorini, where I expected hotels to be at least 100 euros per night, it was a steal.
The room was decent and there was even a swimming pool. The only downside was that it didn’t face the sea, so I wasn’t able to see the volcano or the sunset from my room. However, this was not a problem, as the hotel was only about 10 – 15 minutes’ walk to the viewpoint.
How to Get Around in Santorini
If you want more flexibility, you can rent a car, a motorbike, or a quad. There are a lot of car rental offices around the island and you can even take it directly from the airport or ferry terminal upon arrival.
But because I didn’t trust myself with any form of vehicle, and because I didn’t see the point of paying a lot for a car when I could pay less to get someone to drive for me, I was happy with the local bus. Besides, all of the local attractions that I wanted to go to were reachable by bus.
The bus proved to be very efficient and affordable (costing onle between 2.00 to 2.50 euros). From Fira, there are seven different routes to take you to Oia, Kamari, Perissa, Akrotiri, Pyrgos, the ferry terminal, and the airport.
Fira is the main hub, where all of the bus lines start and end. So, if you’re from any other part of the island trying to get to another, you’ll have to transit in Fira. Click here to see the latest bus timetable.
Budget Itinerary in Santorini for 3d2n
When my ferry reached Santorini, it was close to 3 p.m. Buses were already waiting next to the ferry terminal, ready to take the ferry passengers to Fira. The fare was 2.30 euros. Get the front seat if you can, so that you get the best view of the road leading up the hill. The driver had mad skills maneuvering around the hairpin turns.
After getting some well-deserved rest, I went out to explore the area. On the same street as my hotel were several cafes and restaurants. Close to the bus terminal was Fira Square, which was a street lined with more restaurants, bars, and a supermarket.
I walked further ahead till I reached a chapel and turned left. There, I saw the sea and the cliff with the white houses. Just like in the postcards! And there was another maze of shops and restaurants to explore.
I picked one of the restaurants and had a drink there while waiting for sunset. Before going back to the hotel, I went to the supermarket to buy some fruits and snacks.
On the second day, I slept in because my only plan for the day was to have a late lunch at Amoudi Bay and watch sunset at Oia. But by 11 a.m., I was getting restless, so I Googled for more things to do on Santorini. Finally, I decided to pay a quick visit to Kamari, one of the black beaches on the island.
It was about noon when I arrived and the weather was very hot. The black sand made it even more so (in case you forgot your fourth-grade science lesson, black absorbs heat), but this didn’t seem to deter the sunbathers. I only stayed long enough to take some pictures before heading back to Fira to take a bus to Oia.
Next stop: Oia.
Oia (also pronounced ‘Ia’) is the second biggest town on Santorini and apparently has the best sunset view. That’s also where the prettiest white buildings and blue domes are, making it one of the best places to stay on Santorini, albeit far more expensive than Fira.
Since the heat at the black beach had drained my energy, my first mission was to refuel. So, I went to look for the steps to get to Amoudi Bay. Like Fira, Oia is also a maze of shops, hotels, and restaurants.
Once you’ve found the path to Amoudi, you have to descend 200 steps. Beware though, some parts of the steps are steep and slippery, and there’s nothing to break your fall but piles of donkey dung.
I saw several donkeys standing under the hot sun along the stairway. They were so quiet and well-behaved, even without their handler guarding them.
You can rent those donkeys to take you down to Amoudi and back, but before you do so, please think twice, thrice, or many times as you can. There had been rumors going around that the donkeys get terrible cuts and sores on their backs because of ill-fitting harnesses and obese tourists.
Personally, I think if you need to use animals to carry you up and down the steps because you’re too lazy or too unfit to do so yourself, then you shouldn’t go to Amoudi at all. Stay in your hotel room and order room service. Better yet, hire a chauffeur to drive your lazy bum back to the airport.
When you have lunch at Amoudi, remember not to stuff yourself too much, because you’ll have to climb the 200 steps back to Oia.
I spent the rest of the day sightseeing and taking pictures. Oia is an absolutely spectacular place. Everywhere you look, you will see cute little shops and stunning restaurants. I went a little crazy with the camera. There was not one spot in Oia that wasn’t pretty enough for a photo.
Sunset was at 8.20 p.m. Around 7, I went to a restaurant that had a rooftop seating overlooking the sea, where I had some Greek snacks. This is the famous Oia sunset, as seen from the restaurant.
This was my last day on Santorini. My ferry back to Athens was going to be at 3.30 p.m.. In the morning, before checking out of the hotel, I went to Akrotiri to see the Red Beach. This required a bit of a hike to get to, and the path can be quite treacherous. I was glad I was wearing sneakers.
After spending about an hour at there, I took the bus back to my hotel and checked out. On the way to the bus station, I stopped at Fira Square again to buy some fruits, chocolates, and souvenirs.
I arrived early at the ferry terminal, so I killed time by having lunch at one of the restaurants nearby. The one I went to was a bit hidden, located behind the crowded ones on the main street. It was a family-owned business, and they didn’t speak much English. I was the only customer.
Seeing the lack of crowd, I didn’t put a very high expectation on the restaurant. It was only the cheap price that drew me in. I think their prices were the cheapest I had found on the island so far.
I ordered two dishes, thinking the portion would be small. And I couldn’t be more wrong. They were huge. Although the taste was superb, I still couldn’t finish the souvlaki, so I wrapped it up in tissue paper to bring with me on the ferry.
I continued sitting there until it was 30 minutes before boarding. Then, I went to join the rest of the passengers for the 7-hour journey back to Athens.
Is Santorini overrated?
I’m a little apprehensive when visiting highly-touted travel destinations. I tend to expect too much and end up feeling underwhelmed, like I did in Paris and the Maldives.
But I can happily say that Santorini didn’t disappoint. The food was great, and the people super friendly. Although small, the island has plenty to offer. If I had stayed longer, I would have hiked to the lighthouse in Akrotiri and maybe taken a boat to see the volcano.
Is it possible to travel to Santorini on a budget?
Absolutely. The most important thing is to choose the right time to go — that will have the biggest impact on your total expenses. Book your flight/ferry tickets early. Choose a cheaper hotel than the one I stayed at, if you like.
The prices at the restaurants were fairly reasonable. Not cheap by Southeast Asian standards, but not as expensive as one might expect Santorini restaurants to be. A main dish could cost somewhere between 5 to 15 euros. If you come from the US, or Western Europe, I imagine this must be very cheap for you.
To save even more, skip the fancy restaurants at the caldera edge. You can also limit your restaurant visits to once a day and buy food from the supermarket instead. But even if you allow a little splurge here and there, it’s still possible to keep your spending below $500 for a 3d2n trip.
Santorini is definitely the most magical place I have been, after New Zealand. The whitewashed cubical houses are the prettiest man-made structures I have seen (and I’ve been to Taj Mahal). It took me weeks to get over my post-Santorini blues.
Have you visited Santorini? Did it live up to your expectation? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.