Crossing the Black Sea by cargo ship was one of the highlights of our long overland journey to Indonesia. My boyfriend and I first considered making the trip from Eastern Europe to the Caucasus through Turkey, but then we read about a ferry route between Bulgaria and Georgia. We were immediately sold. If you are reading this blog post, you probably have the same plan. Crossing the Black Sea by ship is a wonderful adventure. In this blog post, I will tell you everything you need to know to buy a ferry ticket and to prepare for life on a cargo ship.
What is the schedule?
The Black Sea ferry from Bulgaria to Georgia is operated by Navbul. It departs in Varna (BG) and arrives in Poti (GE). The opposite direction is also possible. This ferry line is focused on freight. Travelers are an extra side hustle for the company. I have read stories that the boat used to leave 3 to 4 times a month, but during our trip (2019) it was more like 1 or 2 times a month. Moreover, the ferry schedule is super flexible. Dates often change or get canceled. In our case, we wanted to take the boat on June 27, but all of a sudden the boat was set to leave 5 days early. So, check, check, and double-check the schedule to avoid nasty surprises!
- Check the schedule here: http://www.navbul.com/en/main-activities/ferry/index.php
How do you buy a ticket?
Buying a ticket for this ferry is a stressful job, at least that is how I experienced it. You buy the ticket on the day of departure in the harbor. It is impossible to reserve a ticket in advance. In other words, you only know at the very last minute if you can go. Cargo has priority, bringing backpackers along as passengers is extra (and not necessary).
So it’s up to you to get yourself on board. Here are the steps that you need to take to start the process of getting a ticket:
- Arrive in Varna 3 to 4 days before departure date and start contacting Navbul. Send an email to email@example.com with the request that you want to buy x number of tickets for the Varna – Poti ferry on x date. Let them know if you are bringing a bicycle, motorcycle, or car (because that means that you take up extra space).
- No response? Call Navbul, or better, have someone at your hostel call. The English level at Navbul is so-so. It is better to let someone call that speaks Bulgarian. The number is +359 52 683 693. We received no response after our first email, so we asked the hostel owner to call them. By the way, I highly recommend Nomado Hostel to all Black Sea travelers. They have free breakfast, friendly staff and we also met other ferry travelers here.
- Still no message? Send another email. It is important that you receive a confirmation that you are invited to come to the harbor to buy a ticket + the agreed price.
The ferry ride costs 130 EUR per person (price 2019). They only accept cash payment, in EUR or Bulgarian Lev. Are you bringing a bicycle? It will cost 15 EUR extra per bicycle. Bringing a dog or cat along? That is another 40 EUR extra.
Day of departure: a lot of waiting
Important to know: the boat does not actually leave in Varna, but in Beloslav port (28 km from Varna). Quite confusing, I know. According to our invitation, we had to report in the harbor at 9.00 am, even though the boat wasn’t going to leave until the evening. But we wanted that ticket, so we did as we were told. Depart from Varna by taxi no later than 8.30 to give yourself enough time.
At the harbor
When you arrive at the harbor, you will see a parking lot full of trucks. The truck drivers are your fellow passengers for the ferry. Walk towards the guard post and tell them you are here to buy a ticket. They will let you through. Walk straight ahead and cross a big asphalt terrain. Look for the most depressing building on site, because that is the office of Navbul. They hold office in an – what seemed to be – abandoned building.
There were five men, crammed into a small office located on the first floor. One guy collected the money. He almost overcharged us because he assumed we had bicycles. Luckily my boyfriend noticed it and firmly said: no bikes. We then continued to the second guy who wrote down our passport numbers. To our surprise, this gentleman spoke some Dutch, because he had lived in Katwijk aan Zee. We talked about the Netherlands for a bit, received our tickets and left.
On to customs
After buying the tickets, we made our way to the boat. We passed customs where our passports were checked. The customs officers were in a jolly mood and oddly left it up to us if we wanted an exit stamp or not. Then we walked onto the boat, ‘checked in’, and were brought to our room. Good to know: you need to leave your passport when checking in. The rest of the day was spent just waiting to leave. We eventually left at 9.00 pm, 12 hours (!) after we bought the tickets.
Life on the ship
According to the website of Navbul, the crossing takes 54 hours. In our case, it was 3 days (3 nights). Day 1 was mostly spent in the harbor of Varna, days 2 and 3 were full days at sea, and on day 4 we arrived in Georgia.
All travelers were put together on one floor. Most of them were cyclists. One group of four guys was cycling from Sweden to Azerbaijan, and next to our room there was a couple cycling from Switzerland to Kyrgyzstan. Truck drivers had their rooms on a different floor. We got a private room with two beds and shared the bathroom with the Swiss. The bathroom was okay. The floor seemed to be always wet and we had to bring toilet paper ourselves, but the toilet flushed so that’s good. We received a fresh set of bed sheets. It wasn’t high quality, but it was clean.
Food was served three times a day, in a separate dining room. All passengers were divided into two groups. At check-in we were told which group we were in. The food was not exciting, but fine. I am a vegan and it was okay for me. Tip: tell the kitchen staff ‘vegetarian / no meat’ and you will get a different plate with more veggies.
I recommend bringing a few snacks with you. We also brought oatmeal and bananas. Breakfast consisted of cheese, jam, cookies, and meat, so I was glad I had my own breakfast. In the dining room, there was also a large water bottle with purified water to refill a bottle. Bringing alcohol is prohibited, a rule that was ignored by most truck drivers.
Sailing along on a cargo ship sounds adventurous, but the reality is there is not much to do. The best activity on the boat is dolphin watching. These animals love to swim along with the ship. There was also a mini swimming pool on deck, but it was always filled with truck drivers, dressed in charming speedos. Instead, we relaxed in the sun, watched dolphins, and discovered almost every corner of the boat.
Arrival day: more waiting
After three days on the boat, we saw land. Georgia! We thought we would set foot on land within a few hours, but that was wishful thinking. Georgian customs came on board to check and stamp all passports. They confiscated the dining room for this purpose and took three hours to check all passports. Everyone was invited to step into the room one by one. First the crew, then the truck drivers, then the travelers. When we finally were stamped in, we made our way off the boat. Because our transportation was our feet, we were the first to get off the boat.
Out of the harbor, into Georgia
We left the boat, showed our passport for the second time at Georgian customs, and boarded a free shuttle bus that took us to the harbor exit. Not far from the harbor you will find a TBC bank to withdraw your first GELs. Plus, they have free WIFI inside the bank (convenient when looking for a hotel). There is also WIFI at cafe Aragvi. Marshrutkas to Batumi depart from Tsotne Dadiani Square, a 30-minute walk from the harbor.
And that was our Black Sea adventure. I still look back on it with a big smile!
Have you recently crossed the Black Sea by ferry and did you notice that some information in this article is outdated, please let me know.