Here at Photos of Crete .com one of the questions we get asked often by visitors to our Facebook page and site is… Which is the best airport to land in Crete??
Well we like to help out where we can so we’ve decided to create a simple guide to answer this question and help you make the right choice for your trip to the island of Crete, Greece.
Crete is the largest of the Greek islands and is the 5th largest island in the Mediterranean sea. At 160 miles or 260 km in length east to west Crete is a relatively long and thin stretch of land and the airports that service the island are along the northern coast. As Crete is only 37 miles or 60 km in width (at it’s widest point) heading south from the airports is no more than an hour coast to coast, but as Crete is so long touching down in the wrong part of the island could lead to a long and tiring drive after what can quite often be a lengthy flight to Crete from Northern Europe.
The island of Crete is serviced by two international airports:
Nikos Kazantzakis International Airport in Heraklion the island’s capital and relatively central on the island’s east / west axis
Ioannis Daskalogiannis International Airport in Chania at a more westerly position on the northern coast.
The 2 international airports offer flights beyond Greek shores during the summer season (April to October) and beyond this scale back to offering domestic flights only to the major Greek hub airports of Athens or Thessaloniki, and if you want to get to Crete during the winter then you’ll need to book a connecting flight to one of the Cretan airports via either.
There has been much debate / conjecture and consternation around the desire and need of a year-round tourist season in Crete. There is no doubt that the weather can be warm and sunny at times throughout the winter and it never gets what we northern Europeans would ever call cold. Other Mediterranean destinations of similar climate (such a Cyprus) operate all year round but Crete never has. It would take a collaborative effort between the large package holiday companies and the airlines to make it happen and for one reason or another despite previous attempts it’s never quite got there yet. Maybe recent events with the global pandemic will encourage everyone with a part to play that 2021 could be the winter to finally make this happen? We’ll see.
Nikos Kazantzakis Heraklion International Airport HER Prefix
Heraklion is the busier of the two international airports and services a large proportion of the Crete’s tourist traffic during the summer season. From Heraklion the popular and busy resorts of Malia, Hersonissos, Agios Nikolaos, Elounda, Stalida and Gouves can be reached with the shortest onward journey from the airport. In addition if you are heading to Rethymno then it’s a fairly even split driving time wise between Heraklion and Chania so check on the cheapest prices and best times as either airport will suit. If you are going further East than Agios Nikolaos maybe onto Sitia or beyond then Heraklion and a drive is your option. Sitia is the town with the quietest tourist season far to the East of Crete and does have it's own airport but this is almost exclusively a domestic flight destination so if you are heading for Sitia from beyond Greece’s shores it’s Heraklion at least for the time being.
There are many that are not big fans of Heraklion Airport. First opened in 1939 the runway was extended in the late 1960’s to take the big commercial jets as package family holidays abroad grew in popularity. Since then the airports only terminal for both domestic and international flights has been updated, expanded and tweaked with the most recent innovations in 2017 adding a new enlarged duty free shop and new departure gates.
In short Heraklion Airport is old, quite tired and in the height of the season overcrowded to the point of trying to check in during peak times means a battle with queues of hot and bothered holidaymakers to find your desk. The new gates the other side of security are an improvement and just recently security screening itself seems to have improved as far as waiting times are concerned however Heraklion Airport remains one of the only negatives to visiting Crete.
Either side of the season (April and September) Heraklion airport is a far more relaxed and pleasant experience as the larger crowds have not yet descended. You could say that the airport is a victim of the islands allure and there is some truth in that. The fantastic news for everyone who travels to and through Heraklion Airport is that a new airport has not only been agreed to be built but the contract awarded too and building works are imminent.
The new airport that will serve central and Eastern Crete will be located just outside the village of Kasteli on the site of a former air force base and has a full size runway already in place.
Kasteli lies some 39km southeast of Heraklion and nestles up in the hills behind the main tourist resorts that inhabit the coast to the east of the island’s capital. Not only will this mean that the busy airport hub is taken out of the city of Heraklion (that has grown right up to and around it) but also this will give everyone a new and better facility capable of coping with the large tourist numbers and geographically will be better if you are travelling further East. The new Kasteli airport will add another 30 minutes to travelling to Rethymno and make Chania the airport of choice if your heading to the stunning Venetian town once the new airport opens which is currently scheduled to be in 2025.
Heraklion Airport: Onward Travel
Once you’ve landed collected your bags and have ventured out into the warm Cretan scented air what now?!
Well if you are on a package holiday once you're the other side of baggage reclaim you’ll find a selection of travel guides / reps holding up boards and outside of the airport a long line of little booths or kiosks that each tour operator uses to direct their holidaymaker hoards to the relevant coach connection. At photos of Crete .com we are not huge fans of this organised chaos. The package holiday herding and long coach tour of 10255523 hotels before you reach your lodgings is just not for us. So what are the other options?
Well if you are not on a package holiday and have booked your flights and accommodation separately then you can hire a car. Car hire in Crete is very competitive and reasonable if booked well in advance. Crete is Greece’s largest island and if you’re planning on getting about to see some history and sights then a car is a lot more competitive that booking excursions in our experience and offers you the freedom to come and go as you please and at your own pace too. Our advice is to use the online car rental comparison engines you’ll find via google and at the same time google local car hire companies and email them directly for a quotation. Three of four local independents along with the same in comparison sites should bring up the best price you can find. We’ve had car hire for a Corsa / Clio hatchback car for a little as 9 euro per day during the season so it’s well worth it and collection is either via the offices at arrivals in the terminal or a person waiting for you at arrivals with a sign with your name on. Sometimes a walk over the road to the other car hire agencies at the airport is required but it's never far from the main terminal building. It’s generally quick, simple and offers completely freedom from the hoards, and not to mention a liberty to explore the stunning island of Crete during your stay.
A taxi is another option from Heraklion airport with a queue of cabs sitting on the rank waiting for passengers to take them to their onward destination. Our tip is to either book your taxi online first prior to arrival or if not to agree a set fee with the taxi driver before getting into his car. Just jumping in telling them your destination and watching the meter tick up will almost always be much more expensive and when we have used taxis from the airport we have always pre booked online prior to arrival and pre-paid too.
Public buses also run from the airport to various destinations. They are either blue for the local Heraklon city buses or green and look more like a tourist coach than a bus for the longer island routes. They are cheap but at the same time if you are tired after a long flight a public bus might not be the most relaxing final leg of your journey and for complex destinations you might have to get a bus into Heraklion City bus station before getting on another bus! Some places in Crete only have 1 or 2 buses a day so be aware of timetables and study these prior to arrival to avoid spending time waiting for your onward connection.
Ioannis Daskalogiannis Chania International Airport
Located close to Souda Bay on the Akrotiri peninsula Chania airport is 14kms outside the town of Chania and shares it’s traffic with a large air force base populated by American and Greek military.
Chania airport is the smaller, newer and calmer of the 2 international airports that service Crete but is growing in popularity as more and more people flock to Crete’s western shores for a more relaxed and often more traditional break than the bustling resorts offer to the East.
The 6th busiest airport in Greece if you are heading to Chania, Rethymno, Georgioupoli, Kalyves, Almyrida, Agia Marina, Gerani, Maleme, Kissamos or have plans to take in the world famous beaches at Balos, Elafonisi or the Samaria Gorge then Chania is your airport of choice for the Western reaches of the island.
In 1967 the military air base in Souda got it’s first commercial terminal and space was made on the apron for passenger aircraft and by the early 1970’s the airport was receiving a large volume of commercial passengers to the point of needing much greater civilian capacity. It wasn’t until 1996 that the new terminal was finally completed and provides a modern, comfortable and friendly atmosphere for the growing number of passengers looking to head to the scenic, rustic and rural beauty that the western reaches of Crete afford.
Privatization of the airport in 2015 has lead to further enhancements to the terminal and facilities increasing the capacity and enhancing passenger experience along the way.
There are several budget airlines that use Chania as their base in Crete as opposed to Heraklion including Ryanair that offers services from several European countries to Chania.
In our experience Chania airport is a more laid back, less stressful and a more pleasant environment to travel through. If you are heading to destinations farther east than Rethymno you are in for quite a drive from Chania so think about this, the length of your stay, your own safety (tiredness) and your enjoyment of the trip before booking. Chania is the nicer of the island’s two international airports but a 3-hour drive on top of a 4 hour flight to avoid Heraklion Airport? I wouldn’t want to do that unless I had no choice.
If airports form part of you holiday destination decision making process and a quieter more rustic / authentic Cretan holiday is your desire then Chania and it’s western villages and smaller seaside resorts might be the choice for you.
Chania Airport: Onward Travel
Once you’ve landed & collected your bags the last part of your journey to your accommodation begins.
The options for your onward travel are much as Heraklion and once out of the terminal building itself you will find options of taxi and bus along with car hire.
There is a taxi station just outside the terminal and car hire is either via a person waiting for you with a sign with your name on as you arrive (who will then walk you to your car outside) or locally to the airport there are car rental agencies that will put you in a mini bus and take you to their compound to collect your car.
At the end of the car park outside the terminal is a bus ticket office and if you are grabbing the public bus then head there for further information.
Everyone has their own preference for their onward journey however once again the photos of crete .com team would recommend car hire as it's cheap, offers you complete holiday freedom and once the paperwork is done and the bags are in the car it's at your pace.
We'd always advise using comparison sites and contacting some local car rental agencies to obtain the best price and book before you travel. Remember Crete is a large island packed with history, stunning scenery and beautiful towns and villages to explore so if you are heading to Crete and want to explore a car will almost always be cheaper than booking numerous excursions.
Don’t fancy flying at all or looking for alternative options?
Well as far as getting to Crete internationally by air Heraklion and Chania airports are your choices in the summer season for direct flights and off season as a domestic connection via Athens or Thessaloniki. There is one other airport on the island that accepts passenger flights and that’s the airport of Sitia.
Sitia Public Airport was first constructed in the 1980’s to try and entice tourists to the quieter eastern reaches of Crete. With a new larger terminal in 2016 consistent efforts have been made by local authorities to grow tourist traffic to this tranquil part of the island but it’s never quite ‘taken off’ (pardon the pun) and as such Sitia airport has never got far beyond servicing internal domestic Greek flights connecting the local population to Athens etc. The new terminal is impressive modern and capable of servicing international transport so it remains to be seen if one of the budget airlines in attracted by cheaper tarmac fees to using the facility.
Air travel apart your only other option for reaching Crete from beyond her shores is by boat.
Because of Greece’s geography and maritime pedigree ferries are a frequent and of a good quality. You can book a ferry to or from the port of Piraeus (Athens major maritime hub) to Chania or Heraklion daily by foot or in a car whilst ferries head into port in Rethymno, Agios Nikolaos and Sitia on a timetable basis.
There was a time once when you could jump on a ferry at Ierapetra on the south coast of Crete for Alexandria on the northern coast of Egypt. But despite that being a highly lucrative trade route since Minoan times the service ended in the 1990’s.
Minoan Lines, Anek Lines, Blue Star Ferries and Superfast are the 4 main companies operating ferries to and from Crete and they all have web sites where you can check timetables and book. Athens to Crete is a mostly overnight crossing so a cabin is an option along with reclining chair. The ferries are of good quality and standard and afford a relaxing way to reach Crete. If you're in Athens and need to get to Cretan shores an internal flight takes between 30 to 50 minutes and the ferry around 9 hours so bare this in mind when making your decision.
Of course Crete’s major ports are frequented by cruise ships throughout the summer season and whilst not a means of transport from A to B if you are looking to visit Crete as part of a wider exploration of the Mediterranean or Greece then you will find cruises that mostly take to port at Heraklion for you chance to explore the city or take a coach trip to the Minoan Palace of Knossos and its famous Minotaur stories.
However you reach Crete once you get there the photos of crete team is certain that you’ll adore your time on the island. The airports can be busy in high season (especially Heraklion) but for us this is a short inconvenience in order to spend time in one of the most wonderful and friendly places in Europe.
Photos of Crete bring you our unbiased and honest guides to the island of Crete, Greece. We've had a connection to the island for over 30 years and we have called on our own personal experiences to bring you what we think is important and our opinions on how to get the best from your stay as we write guides about each and every aspect of visiting the largest of the Greek islands... Crete. We have a SHOP and we also offer PROPERTY CONSULTANCY & MANAGEMENT within Crete so don't forget to take a look and have a wander about the entire PHOTOS OF CRETE SITE. Thanks for reading.
© Simon Mcilvenna 2020 Photos of Crete