Transport / Summer ferry cabin availability growing limited – especially around Tall Ships

The message from NorthLink remains to book in advance, but more than half of northbound sailings in July already have no cabins left

NorthLink passenger ferry Hjaltland arriving at Lerwick Harbour. Photo: Shetland News

MORE than half of all overnight ferry sailings from Aberdeen to Lerwick in July already have no cabin availability – including many days either side of the Tall Ships Races, which is expected to attract visitors north.

Prior to the four-day event starting on Wednesday 26 July there are 13 days in a row where there is no cabin availability between Aberdeen to Lerwick.

The earliest date showing cabin availability on the northbound route prior to the start of the Tall Ships is Wednesday 12 July.

There are no cabins either on the Lerwick-Aberdeen route directly after the Tall Ships, which has its last day on Saturday 29 July. This includes the period between Sunday 30 July to 4 August.

Some of the dates have even run out of pod accommodation – leaving just reclining seats left.

The message from operator Serco NorthLink remains to book “as soon as possible”.

Capacity constraints on the Northern Isles ferry service, which is contracted to Serco NorthLink by government agency Transport Scotland, is nothing new.


This has affected both passenger capacity in peak periods, such as the school holiday periods for Shetland folk looking to get away, as well as freight. It can also affect people needing to go south for business, especially if they have a vehicle.

But with the Tall Ships Races event – which will draw visitors for the maritime spectacle as well as the music line-up – plus increased attention on Shetland following its appearance in new Attenborough series Wild Isles, this summer stands to be a busy one.

At 9.30am on Thursday (27 April) there were a total of 30 days in June, July and August where no cabins were available to book online for Aberdeen-Lerwick. This includes 11 in June, 18 in July and one in August.

That figure for the southbound route is 27, which is broken down to ten in June, 13 in July and four in August.

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NorthLink bosses were previously questioned about the idea of additional daytime sailings during the Tall Ships period but the practicalities of doing so previously ruled it out.

This week councillor Robbie McGregor said he was happy to reiterate his previous call for daytime sailings – because the Tall Ships is a “tremendous opportunity to boost tourism”.

If there are no cabins there is the option to sleep in reclining chairs or ‘pods’ on board the NorthLink passenger vessels, but with at least 12 hours at sea on what can be a rough crossing a horizontal bed in a cabin is preferred by most, if finances allow.

The ability to book shared cabins has also not returned after being withdrawn by Serco NorthLink during the Covid pandemic. However, a Facebook group has been set up to allow people to organise shared cabins themselves.


VisitScotland’s Shetland development manager Stevie Mathieson said the tourism organisation hopes for shorter and longer term fixes.

One solution touted by transport officials is including cabins in new replacement freight vessels, but these are only due some years away.

“We are aware that cabin availability has been raised as a potential issue during the Shetland Tall Ships Races in July and are hopeful that both short and long-term solutions will be forthcoming as part of the ongoing discussions around capacity on our ferry service,” Mathieson said.

“Issues with travel are felt more acutely in island communities and we will continue to share relevant feedback and insight from industry and consumers with our partners in order for solutions to be found that will enable our tourism industry in Shetland to thrive.”

Lerwick harbour is set to welcome the Tall Ships Races in summer of 2023. Photo: Ryan Leith

When asked about the capacity in late July, Transport Scotland provided a statement from newly appointed transport minister Kevin Stewart.

“In relation to the Tall Ships event, Transport Scotland have held discussions with NorthLink on this matter,” he said.

“NorthLink Ferries advise that they are in regular contact with the Tall Ships Project team to discuss various elements of the event.

“As a result of these discussions, NorthLink have plans in place to ensure those travelling for the event are able to travel alongside the usual numbers during the summer period.”

Shetland News contacted the ferry operator about these apparent plans, and Serco’s commercial director at NorthLink Ferries Jim Dow said: “NorthLink maintain regular liaison with the Organisers of the Tall Ships event.


“We are pleased to have been able to facilitate all required freight, crew transfer and support staff arrangements for the 2023 event in Lerwick.

“As expected, we have already seen a surge in demand for travel around this event, and availability on certain days may now be restricted.”

He added that “with such high demand, we encourage passengers to book as soon as possible”.

Tall Ships project manager Emma Miller said NorthLink has been very supportive of the event, including helping to transport folk working over the four days.

“We are indeed in regular contact with NorthLink and they are being very helpful in assisting us to book travel for event staff, performers and ships’ crew requiring transfers,” she said.

“Their sponsorship support is also very welcome with such a large event and the travel requirements we have.”

Shetland’s other external transport link, of course, is by air.


Whilst the cabins on the ferry are all but booked out, a spokesperson for Loganair said the company currently has plenty of availability for travel to Shetland during the Tall Ships event.

However availability on Sunday 30 July from Shetland to Edinburgh and Aberdeen is limited.

The spokesperson said Loganair may upgrade some flights to a larger aircraft or add an additional trip to the schedule if bookings continue to be strong.

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