Santorini is known as the most romantic island in Greece, and with good reason. Whitewashed buildings rise up from the sparkling blue sea, candlelit taverns overlook the ocean, and the golden sunsets in Oia are events worthy of an audience. Of course, Santorini’s beauty and popularity mean it's also one of the most expensive destinations in an otherwise budget-friendly country. But there are ways to save without sacrificing the experience.
When to Go
The cheapest time to go to Santorini is in winter, but with cloudy skies, cool weather, many shuttered restaurants, and limited ferry and flight schedules, it’s not a very appealing time for most visitors. On the other hand, late June to early September is when the weather is hot, the sea is warm, ferries run frequently—and prices are highest.
Going in shoulder season (May and early June, late September and October) requires a few compromises, but means big savings. The weather is usually warm, but not too hot; the sea will be a bit cold for swimming and you might get some rain, but the crowds are fewer, everything is open, there are lots of transport options, and prices are 20-30 percent lower than during peak months.
If you’re flying from the U.S., you’ll likely fly to Santorini via Athens. From there, you have two choices for reaching the island. You can take a 45-minute flight, which can cost as low as $40 each way, or you can take a 5-8 hour ferry for a little as $20.
If you’re short on time, opt for flying. Your best bet is to book the flight to Santorini separately from your international flight; this can easily save you a few hundred dollars. You’ll have to collect your luggage, recheck it, and go back through security, so allow at least three hours in between flights. Aegean Airlines and Olympic Air have several options per day.
If the romance of the seas calls to you, you can choose between the (often bumpier) Hellenic Seaways fast ferry that takes five hours, or the smoother eight-hour ferry operated by Blue Star. However, you’ll be giving up a half or full day of your trip.
Where to Stay
There are several small towns on both sides of the island of Santorini. On the western side, the most popular towns are Fira (the port and largest city on the island), Imerovigli (just north of Fira), and Oia (the northernmost town, renowned as the best spot on the island to see the sunset). Fira has the most nightlife and dining options, while Oia is a bit quieter—aside from sunset, when people come from all over the island to watch the sun sink into the ocean—and more romantic. Imerovigli, as it is geographically, somewhere in between Fira and Oia in terms of its crowds and options. In any of these, the better the view, the more expensive the hotel.
If you want to splash out, Santorini is the place to do it, and a hotel with jaw dropping views is worth the splurge—especially if you’re going to spend time on the property taking advantage of its perks. IKIES Traditional Houses, located on the quiet edge of Oai, is one option that entices guests to spend a little more time at the hotel. It offers a dozen rooms built into the cliffs with stunning views of the caldera. Most rooms have private outdoor terraces with temperature-controlled Jacuzzis—the perfect spot from which to stare at the Aegean for a few hours. Breakfast is also served on the terrace, and there’s an on-site pool.
If you want beaches, you’ll need to stay on the eastern side of the island. The two biggest beach areas are Kamari and Parissa. Though you’ll miss out on the beautiful caldera and sunset views, the trade off is easy access to the beach, and lower prices. If you’re looking for high style with a smaller price point, the resorts here deliver, and they’re only a 20-30 minute drive to the cliffside towns on the other side of the island.
Dining at Every Budget
Santorini’s status as a tourist hotspot means you can find just about every kind of food on the island, including budget-friendly meals like burgers and pizza. But one of the best low-cost dining options is also one of the most authentic: a Greek gyro—pork or chicken cooked on a vertical spit, shaved and served in a pita with tomato, onion, tzatziki sauce, and french fries—makes for a filling and cheap lunch at around $3. There are dozens of gyro shops to choose from, but Lucky’s in Fira is one of the locals’ favorites.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, the island has no shortage of romantic cliffside restaurants. But as with hotels, the better the view, the more expensive the eatery. One restaurant with a view that’s worth the price tag is Ammoudi Bay Fish Tavern, where the menu features dozens of varieties of fresh fish. For a romantic meal that won’t break the bank, check out the candlelight courtyard restaurant Vineyart in Oia. There’s no view, but the waiters are charming, the food is delicious, the wine list is long, and few dishes cost more than $10.
What to Do on a Budget
While activities like sunset cruises and private tours will eat up a large chunk of any budget, many of Santorini’s best pastimes are free. The three-hour hike from Oia to Thira offers some of the best views on the island. It costs only a few bucks to take a bus to one of the many beaches—and a few bucks more to rent beach chairs and an umbrella. And of course, taking in the beautiful sunsets costs nothing.
Santorini is home to several wineries, and wine tasting here is surprisingly affordable. At Domaine Sigalas, which is within walking distance of Oia, a tasting of twelve wines (they recommend two people share the tasting) costs less than a bottle of their crisp, refreshing Assyrtiko.
If you’re looking for a bit more action, consider renting a scooter or ATV, the vehicle of choice on the island. An ATV rental costs as little as $20 per day and many companies include pickup and drop-off. If you want more freedom than the bus allows but don’t want to bust your budget on taxi fares, an ATV is a fun, economical way to get around.