Ferries with Kids? What You Need to Know: Visiting Shetland

Beautiful Shetland

We’ve just spent a really chilled long weekend in Shetland. After a summer of flight cancellations, delays, being stranded abroad by Ryanair and driving miles to reach affordable airports, the ease of boarding a ferry in Aberdeen was akin to luxury. Ferry travel isn’t cheap compared to budget airlines but it’s reliable, and reaching Shetland by boat is part of the story, part of the excitement. The destination is stunning and full of Viking adventure. En route there’s lots to do onboard to entertain and engage kids, lots to eat, and the concept of sleeping in a cabin sends them giddy. Here’s how it goes…

Check In

Load your car with whatever detritus you fancy, then turn up at Aberdeen harbour 1-2 hours before departure for an easy, friendly check-in with Northlink Ferries. (Foot passengers can turn up up to 30 minutes before departure time.)

Setting sail from Aberdeen to Lerwick

Whilst waiting in our designated car lane, I realised I’d left the kids’ coats at home. You can’t go to Shetland without a coat!!! Ever!! In an airport we’d be scuppered, but Northlink let my husband board as a foot passenger, which meant he could wait for a taxi to deliver the coats to him. Meanwhile the kids and I waited in the car lane till it was time to drive onboard the ferry, the HV Hjaltland – huge excitement.

Timings

Timing is everything when travelling with children. The Aberdeen departure is spot on – a 5.00pm sailing. This means Aberdonian children can go to school and most people can do a full day’s work and just leave a little early to catch the boat. Those coming from further afield have a whole day to reach Aberdeen harbour.

Farewell Aberdeen…

The crossing takes all night, arriving at 7.00am in Lerwick the following morning. This works for several reasons. Because you travel as you sleep, you travel in dead time, no time is wasted, you arrive in Shetland with the whole day ahead of you. Travelling in the UK isn’t cheap but this route is relatively economical as your transport is also your accommodation for two nights of your holiday i.e. you can leave Friday evening, have all day Saturday and all day Sunday in Shetland, then head home on Monday, and only one night in a hotel/B&B is required, as the ferry covers the Friday and the Sunday night.

The return ferry leaves Lerwick at 7.00pm, arriving in Aberdeen at 7.00am. Again, good timing for little ones. On the return leg you don’t even wait in lane, the minute you check in (from 5.00pm) you drive straight onto the ferry, it’s seamless.

Our Cabin

One half of our cabin, with the lower bunk and hugely exciting top bunk.

You don’t have to book a cabin, but for an overnight crossing with children it’s a bit of a no-brainer. The cabins are compact, but when you compare it to an airline seat it’s completely luxurious, and there’s the rest of the boat to explore too. Our four-berth cabin came with four bunk beds, a tea/coffee/kettle station, and a small toilet and shower room. The shower is small but piping hot, with ‘Shetland Soap’ shower gel and hand wash provided. Again, it’s not a hotel, but it felt fresher than overnighting on a plane or a train.

As the cabin is snug, try to pack one small case for the ferry, and leave the rest of your holiday clothes in the car, below deck. We had a small toy bag for the boys, a food/drinks bag and an overnight bag. [Take a peak at the video below to get a sense of the space.]

Food & Drink

After dumping our luggage in the cabin, the ship departed and we watched Aberdeen disappear into the distance (it’s a great way to see the city from a new perspective). We then went for dinner at admittedly the busiest time of night – everyone waves goodbye to Aberdeen and then wants fed. The food is notably good for a transport operator – mammoth fish and chips, mushroom stroganoff, braised beef in a red wine sauce. The fudge cheesecake was also a highlight. It’s hearty food, and Northlink prides itself on serving local produce from Orkney, Shetland and Aberdeen. Children’s meals are served in the cutest paper Northlink ferry boat, which of of course the kids thought was the coolest thing, or they can request half portions of adult dishes. We then hit the bar for a pint of shandy and some pineapple juice for the kids.

Prices aren’t particularly cheap or expensive (around £8-£9 for an adult main course), but remember you can bring your own food or alcohol onboard to consume in your cabin to save some pennies. We did this on the return leg, having an ‘indoor picnic’ with the boys.

For a more exclusive experience visit the Magnus lounge.

Play Area

Viklings Play Area

A winner is the small but much loved play area onboard HV Hjaltland. Due to the potential movement and rocking of the boat, the toys are either very soft, or anchored to the floor securely. Books are popular, and a cartoon is usually being screened. Called ‘Viklings’ these dens are designed with mini Vikings in mind :-).

A cinema is also available, with prices here, and free wifi across the vessel is an added bonus, although it can be a little erratic.

Sleep

The million dollar question is … did we sleep? I’m quite skilled at sleeping, it’s not something I put on my CV but I am rather good at it. The kids were so excited we all conked out around 9.30pm. Yes, the boat moves, yes it makes occasional ‘boat’ noises, but nothing disruptive. I did wake briefly when the ferry docked in Orkney at 11.00pm – suddenly the boat had stopped moving so I woke up. And when we hit slightly stronger weather, around Force 5, I think my body woke me up to check what was going on, but I went straight back to sleep. The kids slept through the night.

On the return leg, with no stop in Orkney, we all slept through the night. All in all I’d say we slept well in unfamiliar surroundings.

Good Morning

Around 6.00am a man with most beautiful, calming accent gently announces over the tannoy the arrival of a new day, and essentially wakes up the sleepy passengers in the most delicate fashion. He has such a lovely voice, the kind of voice that makes you think he’s nice to his mum. The children slept through ALL the announcements!

What’s very cool about Northlink is that despite the boat arriving in Lerwick/Aberdeen at 7.00am, you don’t have to disembark till 9.30am. Last orders for breakfast are taken as late as 9.00am. Car drivers do have to remove their vehicle for safety reasons, but there’s a designated ‘breakfast parking’ area, so Mr Husband nipped off to remove the car then returned to the boat. [Foot passengers could sleep in till 9.00am.]

Breakfast

Breakfast was a generous affair. Two kids eat free with one paying adult, which is a strong deal, and the coffee includes free top ups. I don’t eat a lot in the morning, so I just nabbed Mr Husband’s cereal as he and the tots tucked into the fry up. We shared one coffee, then refilled it. Essentially four of us ate for the price of one: we weren’t being cheeky, but I wasn’t prepared to pay through the nose for a bowl of cereal, and Northlink kinda get that.

In summary, the highlight of travelling by ferry was how relaxed an experience it was. Kids generally love planes, trains and ferries, but as parents I didn’t have to worry about the size of my bags, their weight, carrying liquids, carrying passports, or getting through security. And the kids got their coats! And the scenery is fantastic.

Farewell to Shetland…

We recently visited Orkney with Northlink, read about how that journey fares here. Overall I feel the timings for Shetland work better for wee ones. I’ll write up a list of family friendly Shetland activities asap, for an Orkney list click here.

Our Story

Such a simple story, drove from Aberdeen to Aberdeen Harbour. Boarded ferry. Ate. Fell asleep. Arrived in Lerwick. Job done. Aberdeen Harbour is within walking distance of Aberdeen Railway Station and its Bus Station, a cab/bus would be required to link you to the airport. To see the best of Shetland, if possible, bring a car or hire one in Lerwick.

For fares click here, and check out the timetables here.

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20 Comments

  1. Reply

    Five Little Doves

    August 26, 2018

    Oh wow the northlink looks great! We took the kids on a ferry for the first time last week and they were all sick!

    • Reply

      scots2travel

      August 27, 2018

      That is not a good start. Some folk get car sick, others get sea sick. We were grand, a 14 hour crossing up to force 5 but all good, maybe being asleep helped!

  2. Reply

    Sarah | Boo Roo and Tigger Too

    August 27, 2018

    Years ago I watched the reality show Castaway and ever since I’ve wanted to visit the Scottish Highlands

    • Reply

      scots2travel

      August 27, 2018

      I remember that programme too! Admittedly Lerwick is a bustling town, as is Scalloway, not massive but think boutique shops and museums, so not quite Castaway!!!

  3. Reply

    Kathi

    August 27, 2018

    I went to Shetland by ferry as well – best decision ever! It’s just much more reliable than the planes (especially in winter – we went in January), but it’s also an adventure in itself! I agree with booking a cabin – I was very well rested arriving in Shetland early in the morning and didn’t feel like I needed to catch up on sleep before heading out to explore!

    • Reply

      scots2travel

      August 27, 2018

      Add to that I didn’t have to entertain the kids for an entire journey as they were asleep! Bonus!

  4. Reply

    Migrating Miss

    August 27, 2018

    Great tips! I love taking the ferry to Shetland. Can’t wait to go again :D. I’ve done it with and without a cabin and a cabin is much better haha.

    • Reply

      scots2travel

      August 27, 2018

      I’ve done it once without a cabin, in my BBC days when they made me sleep on the floor! Unreal. A cabin is a whole different world. Much, MUCH preferred 🙂

  5. Reply

    ChelseaMamma

    August 28, 2018

    I would love to visit Shetland one day but didn’t realise the ferry journey was so long. The cabin looks fab

    • Reply

      scots2travel

      August 29, 2018

      It’s not long if you’re asleep! 🙂

  6. Reply

    MummyTravels

    August 28, 2018

    I was always so excited sleeping in a ferry as a kid and this sounds positively luxurious compared to being scrunched into a plane seat. Also, from your description, I want the man who does the announcements to record a wake up message as my alarm instead of my normal abrupt start to the day…

    • Reply

      scots2travel

      August 29, 2018

      I feel a tweet to Northlink coming on – Special Request from Mummytravels alert!! 🙂

  7. Reply

    Nickolai Kinny

    August 28, 2018

    Always been slightly skeptical about travelling by boat with kids, but you made it sound easy. Will give this a try!

    • Reply

      scots2travel

      August 29, 2018

      I do genuinely find it far easier than flying as there’s so much more to do, and space to walk about.

  8. Reply

    Nicola Holland

    August 29, 2018

    I really want to do this but I’m a bit terrified of leaving my dog in the kennels on the ferry 🙈 he is a big wimp. Sounds amazing though

    • Reply

      scots2travel

      August 30, 2018

      That’s an article itself – pets on the ferry!

  9. Reply

    Kate Hopper

    August 29, 2018

    I’m so nervous of boats but you make this sound so easy and tempting, now I just need to work out how not to get Force 5 weather on a crossing!

    • Reply

      scots2travel

      August 30, 2018

      It was nothing on a big boat like that. I’d just go for it, I used to be scared of driving, but the more I did it the easier it became. For a first sailing, aim for the summer, and speak to a local about weather patterns to get the lowdown. Although you’ll be safe whether you do this or not, it will put you at your ease.

  10. Reply

    Beth @ BethinaBox.com

    August 30, 2018

    This post is fab!

    I can very well believe the kids coat scenario (been there myself many a time). That’s great that your husband was allowed to board as a foot passenger.

    The experience just sounds brilliant. 😄 It’s a good way to travel.

    • Reply

      scots2travel

      August 31, 2018

      Certainly added a little colour and drama to the otherwise smooth crossing 🙂

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