If you’re planning to get off the beaten track in Scotland, or even just visiting some of the well loved islands, then it’s likely that you’ll find yourself on a ferry at some point. With all the Scottish islands it’s normally the only way to get to them!
With so many options out there this post will answer some of the questions you might have about using Scottish ferries as a tourist.
A note from the writer: Hey! I’m Kirsty and I’m a UK travel expert – while I grew up in Scotland, as an adult I now return to visit almost every year – there’s so much to see! Shout (or comment below) if you have any questions about your next trip and I’ll get back to you ASAP.
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Table of Contents
Top tips for using Scottish ferries as a tourist
While I go into these in a bit more detail in this article, here’s a good overview for using ferries in Scotland as a tourist:
- Always check the latest sailing times on the websites for the ferry company – services can change at last minute and this is the best way to keep on top of it.
- Buy tickets in advance wherever possible and if your plans allow
- Ferry tickets won’t increase nearer to the time but they might sell out so don’t leave it too late to book
- Leave plenty of time for public transport connections
- If driving to the port, allow for traffic and the slow and winding roads. You don’t want to be needing to push your speed to get there in time!
- Be flexible if traveling off season – ferries can be cancelled or reduced if the weather is bad.
Who runs the ferries in Scotland?
The main company that you’ll hear about for ferries in Scotland is CalMac or Caledonian MacBryde, but they aren’t the only company who runs ferries.
CalMac generally run ferries on the west coast of Scotland to all of the islands there – so you can use them to get to the Isle of Mull, the Isle of Skye, the Outer Hebrides and many more including some remote islands.
On the west coast you might also find council run ferries like the Corran ferry near Fort Wiliam or independently owned ones like the one at Arisaig which runs a ferry to the Small Isles. Some islands, like the Isle of Staffa, are only reached by independent boat trips.
Once you start to think about the islands to the North of Scotland like Shetland and Orkney, you’ll be looking at different operators.
- Northlink goes to both Shetland and Orkney from the city of Aberdeen and also between the islands.
- Pentland ferries goes to Orkney from John o’Groats
- The John o’Groats ferry does day trips to Orkney in the summer months
- Orkney Ferries goes between the islands in the archipelago
How do you get tickets?
Most of the Scottish Ferries are able to be booked online and your ticket will be emailed to you. This is the best way we found and what we did when on our last trip. There is no need for a printer as you just show your email with a booking reference or QR code to scan.
Tip – if you’re worried about mobile phone reception then screenshot your email as soon as you get it and it will be saved as a photo
Some of the bigger ferry crossings such as Oban or Mallaig will have an office where you can buy your tickets in person. This is perfect if you want to speak to a real person about any issues you might have.
You can always call their booking line as well – feels a bit old fashioned these days but can be useful if you have unique needs.
Do you need to book in advance or can you buy on the day?
It really depends on the actual ferry crossing you’re doing but a general rule is that if you’re travelling in the summer months then it’s always recommended to book your tickets in advance.
If you’re a foot passenger you might find that it’s fine to just turn up and pay – almost all the options will be ok for that but if you’re at all worried it’s best to check.
If you’re travelling with a motorhome, caravan or even just by car on the popular routes then it’s a really good idea to book as soon as you know your dates. We got caught out by this when coming back from Mull in our campervan as they only had a few late ferries available to book by the time I looked!
Some ferries request that you book in advance but you don’t actually book a specific sailing – again one of our trips to Mull was like this. You just turn up when you want during the day and get on the next crossing.
How do you check in for the ferry?
If you’ve booked in advance you just need to turn up the ferry port at the time that it states on your ticket. This might be as much as an hour in advance or as little as 5/10 minutes if you’re a foot passenger.
Normally, if you’re taking a vehicle, there will be lanes for you to queue in before boarding, although it may depend on the size of the port. If there are a number of departures and you arrive too early you might be asked to come back later.
Your tickets will be scanned by the staff at the port, either before you board or sometimes when you’re on board.
Do the trains match up with the ferries?
Yes! Many trains will match up with corresponding ferries that will take you onwards and it’s a great way to get around Scotland without a car.
Trains from Glasgow and Fort William go to Mallaig where you can go onwards to Skye or the Small Isles. Trains also go from Glasgow to Oban where you can then go onwards to a lot of the Western Isles.
You can also use the overnight train from London, the Caledonian Sleeper, to connect you to Aberdeen and then the Northlink ferries to Shetland and Orkney.
Of course delays can happen so always be aware of your next ferry or train options if you miss any connections.
How much are the ferries? Is it cheaper in advance?
All of the ferries have different costs and it can range from under £2 (as it was when we sailed as foot passengers to the Isle of Iona from Mull) to a lot more if you’re doing a sailing from Aberdeen to Shetland!
Cars, campervans and caravans are charged extra of course but generally I’ve found that they are quite reasonable in cost.
The ferries have set fares so they don’t have any cheaper options for buying in advance.
Where do the ferries sail to?
These Scottish ferries really do sail everywhere! There are so many routes that I’m not even going to try and list them all but you’ll find that the ferries can take you:
- from the mainland to the islands
- between the islands
- across to other parts of the mainland saving you driving time!
It doesn’t matter where you want to get to in Scotland, there will likely be a ferry that will take you there. Many of them are subsidised by the Scottish government as they are a lifeline for the communities there – they run year round for this reason!
Can you take cars on all ferries?
No – some ferries are foot passengers only. Also, some islands don’t allow visitors to bring cars.
Some of the Small Isles are like this and also Iona – they allow cars for residents only. I’m sure there are quite a few more but these are ones I’ve personally seen.
When you’re planning your trip to some of the off the beaten track islands, always check if you can bring your car and if not, what the car parking options are. Often there is a ferry car park by the terminal.
Are the Scottish ferries accessible for disabilities?
The big companies are well used to taking passengers who need assistance while on board so definitely don’t worry there. All the ferries are slightly different so there may be some that are less suitable for you, but they’ll know that if you contact them and ask.
Some of the smaller ferries and individual companies may have less resources and depending on what’s needed might not suit if you have a disability – I’d always encourage you to reach out to the companies in advance as they should be happy to chat to you and see how they can help.
Can you take dogs on a ferry in Scotland?
Yes – mostly! The caveat is to just check on each individual route you’re planning to take as some might have restrictions.
Most ferries are absolutely dog friendly and you can take them into the passenger area on board or stay on deck with them. Annie, our Bedlington Terrier, found that just a little bit cold when we took her recently! Even in summer it can be cold on deck.
Some ferries will need you to leave your dog in your vehicle for the journey, again, you’ll need to check individually.
Pets generally travel for free but still need a ticket so when you book always mention your pets to make sure you get the ticket for them.
Can you take hire cars on a ferry in Scotland?
If you’re hiring a car for your trip to Scotland then one question you might have is whether you can take them to the islands – the answer is yes, but you might want to check your rental conditions to make sure! Mostly you won’t have an issue though.
Some roads on the islands can be narrow, single track and a bit of a challenge to drive on so do bear that in mind if you are hiring a car. Always take your time when driving in Scotland!
As I mentioned before, some islands don’t allow tourist vehicles so always check that too.
Can you take caravans and motorhomes on ferries in Scotland?
If the island allows cars then you should be fine to take motorhomes and caravans on the ferry – assuming it’s big enough and can take you! The websites of each route will let you know but since most routes will take small trucks they are generally set up for larger vehicles.
You’ll pay more depending on the length of the vehicle you’re taking. It’s a good idea to be very familiar with your dimensions!
Wild camping is generally tolerated around Scotland but some of the islands do ask that you make sure you have a campsite booked before travelling there. We were expecting to be asked before we took our campervan to Mull but we weren’t – they could though!
What happens in bad weather? Are ferries cancelled regularly?
Scotland has bad weather fairly frequently and most of the ferries can handle what Mother Nature throws at us. However there is always a good chance that ferries can be cancelled in extremely bad weather.
Storm swells can make landing at certain islands challenging – when we would go on the Small Isles ferry it would often be unable to land at the Isle of Muck because of the way that harbour was built.
Strong winds are often the main cause of ferry cancellations and this can happen much more frequently in the off season months. Because of this it’s always a good idea to keep well abreast of the upcoming weather forecasts, the ferry websites or social media channels for news.
You can find yourself stuck on islands if you’re unlucky – be aware of this and make sure you have means to fund any extra time you have there! It could also have a knock on effect for ongoing travel plans and flights so always be aware and don’t leave any travel right to the last minute!
Mostly ferries run on time and the companies try really hard to make sure they get people where they need to be.
Stormy weather can, of course, make the boats unpleasant to be on as well if they do run. Try and get a seat in the centre so you have less movement!
Summer / winter timetables
If the ferry that you are using runs all year round then the chances are that it will run a reduced timetable in the winter months.
Even ferries to the more popular islands run differently in the winter so it’s really important to check if you’re visiting Scotland in autumn, winter or early spring.
If you’re visiting on the cusp of the timetable changes then it’s extra important to check your times! Always check on the ferry operators website for the most up to date and accurate times.
I hope that this post has answered your questions about using Scottish ferries as a tourist – let me know in the comments if you are still unsure about anything!
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🏴 Scotland Travel FAQ 🏴
Do I need insurance for traveling to Scotland?
YES! I always recommend people take travel insurance when exploring the world!
Check Travel Insurance Master for quote comparisons from different providers.
Do I need a car for visiting Scotland?
YES – If you’re wanting to explore Scotland fully then a car is worthwhile. It will get you to all the best sights and on your own timetable
I recommend DiscoverCars to compare car rental prices in Scotland
How to book accommodation in Scotland?
For hotels I recommend Booking.com
For apartments and cottages check out VRBO
Will my phone work in Scotland?
Perhaps – it depends if you have roaming enabled and beware this can be an expensive way to use your phone.
What to pack for Scotland
Keep yourself dry be prepared for any weather is my motto for Scotland! A rain jacket and comfy shoes are a must.
See my post about what to pack for Scotland
Do I need midge spray for Scotland?
YES – if you’re traveling in the summer months to any of the west coast, highlands, islands or lochs it’s recommended.
Locals swear by Avon’s Skin So Soft!
If you’re sticking to the cities or traveling in winter, early spring or late fall then you likely won’t need it.
What’s the best guidebook for Scotland?
I really like the Lonely Planet Guidebooks
Where to get flights for Scotland
Skyscanner is my first port of call for finding cheap flights to Scotland.
Do I need a visa for Scotland?
Many countries don’t need a visa for visiting Scotland as tourists (USA, Canada, Aus, NZ and Europe) – it’s always best to check first though.