Roddy and I have often caught public transport to/from Islay; it is the cheapest and most picturesque way of getting to Islay from Glasgow. The bus route wends its way alongside Loch Lomond and Loch Fyne, some of the most beautiful parts of the West Highlands, which is why it is our favourite travel route in the whole wide world (in addition to taking us home to Islay).
To get public transport to Islay, take the 926 Campbeltown Bus from Glasgow Buchanan Bus Station and hop off at the Kennacraig Ferry Terminal (3 to 3.5 hours). From Kennacraig, catch the Calmac Islay Ferry (2 hours), which will dock on Islay at either Port Ellen or Port Askaig. The total trip time from Glasgow to Islay on public transport is 5 to 5.5 hours.
Once you are on the bus, the journey to Islay is reasonably straightforward; however, the following is a list of things we think you should know before you go:
Catching The Bus From Glasgow to Islay
Most people catch the bus from Glasgow Buchanan Bus station. There are several other stops on the way out of Glasgow though, and if you're staying out in the West End / around Byres Road (as I have done), the Hillhead Great Western Road / Kersland St stop is rather handy as it saves you from having to go into town.
Once a day, the 926 bus also goes via Glasgow Airport, which might be helpful if you're flying in.
Carefully check that your bus coincides with a ferry departure as the bus schedules a stop at Kennacraig even if there is no ferry for several hours (or the next day). There is nothing at Kennacraig, and there is nowhere nearby to wait in comfort - the closest place to wait (or find ready accommodation) is 5 miles back down the road, at Tarbert. The easiest way to coordinate the bus and ferry times is to use the Calmac Journey Planner, which will tell you the best bus to catch and meet with the Islay ferry. The 'arrive before' option doesn't seem to work very well, so set it to 'leave after', or you might get errors.
Bus tickets can be purchased directly from Buchanan Bus Station, though I've always found it easy to book online. Plus, if you book your return ticket at the same time, you can save up to 50% off the total (in winter a one-way ticket costs £21.10, whereas a return ticket, if booked at the same time, is £22.40) as long as your return date is no more than 28 days after your initial journey. The other reason to pre-book your bus tickets is that during the peak summer tourist period (or during significant events, such as Feis Islay), it can book out, and you don't want to miss out on a seat.
The 926 Bus will stop at Inveraray for 10 minutes - Inveraray is roughly the halfway point and is your only chance to stretch your legs or quickly grab a hot beverage or ice cream. There is a public bathroom in Inveraray.
CityLink branded coaches have a toilet on board the bus, but sometimes route 926 is operated by West Coast Motors and their buses don't always have bathrooms.
Let the bus driver know you're catching the ferry; if the bus runs late (boat crossings at Ardrishaig can cause delays, as do road works and accidents), the bus driver will inform the ferry terminal.
Sit up the front so you can see the fantastic view out the front window. It doesn't matter which side of the bus you sit on as you will have views of either Loch Lomond or Loch Fyne (they're on opposite sites).
Ferry from Kennacraig to Islay
The Calmac Islay Ferry departs the Kennacraig Ferry Terminal (not far from Tarbert if you need to stay the night somewhere and catch an early morning ferry) and docks on Islay at either Port Askaig or Port Ellen. The ferries run throughout the year, and will run in most weather conditions, but sometimes there are issues which may cause delays or cancellation of the ferry - the ferry service status is available on the Calmac website, and it pays to check before you leave Glasgow (or return from Islay)
The cost of the Islay ferry for an adult one way is £7.25 and £14.50 return.
You generally do not need to book your ferry ticket in advance as a pedestrian; however, I find it less stressful if I know I've already got my tickets ready to board before I get there. If the bus is running late, you might feel the pressure if you have to queue up then to buy a ticket (tickets are purchased from the Kennacraig ticket office, not on board).
Purchasing your ferry ticket in advance also gives you a clear overview of the ferry times (the schedule changes throughout the year) and which port you should be docking at on Islay.
Pack Drinks and Snacks
It is a long bus ride (3.5 hours), and the bus will only stop for 10 minutes at Inveraray, which is just enough time to pee or grab a coffee but generally not do both.
There is no food at Kennacraig, only a ticket office, drinks machine and toilets. Food and beverages are available on the ferry (there is a cafe and bar on board).
My favourite travel foods are generally high-protein or high-fat items that survive well in the bottom of a backpack: jerky/biltong, dark chocolate (Hasslachers ended up as my Islay - Glasgow bus chocolate of choice as it makes an excellent hot chocolate, doesn't break up easily or melt in my bag, and is superb to nibble on), and nut-based bars.
Download Your Preferred Entertainment
You are unlikely to get a phone signal on the bus nor at Kennacraig, and while there is WiFi on the ferry, don't count on it, so make sure you download anything you want to listen to or watch. Noise-cancelling headphones are also highly recommended. I like to spend my time on the bus looking out the window as the view is stunning, but I'm almost always listening to a podcast or audiobook.
Another option is to go analogue - our recommended reading materials are:
Islay Voices by our friends Jenni Minto and Les Wilson - if you want a great historical overview of Islay and her people, this is a thoroughly well-researched read (with lots of pictures) compiling the work of earlier authors and local 'Islay' voices.
Whisky Island (formerly Peat Smoke and Spirit) by Andrew Jefford will provide you with insight into seven of Islay's distilleries (missing newer entries Kilchoman and Ardnahoe) and give a good history of the island. Also available on Kindle (download before you go).
Islay Maps and Photographic Prints
Whisky Gifts, Wall Art and Man Cave Decor. Made By Whisky Lovers For Whisky Lovers
Know Your Next Mode of Transport
How are you getting to your accommodation once you're on the island? If you're hoping a taxi will magically appear once the ferry docks, you're in for bad news. If there are taxis, then they've already been pre-booked. See our Guide to Visiting Islay Without a Car for a list of services to pre-book (call them at least the day before you're due to arrive).
The bus timetable generally corresponds with the ferry arrival time but make sure you don't dawdle too much as there will be a long wait if you miss it (if this happens, go to the pub - they'll be able to help call someone for you, and you'll be in need of a drink by this point).
The ferry docks at either Port Askaig or Port Ellen, and sometimes this will not be as per the schedule if the weather is bad or for other reasons you'll never know. If you've booked a taxi, they will probably already know that the ferry is going to the other port. If you're looking to catch the bus, hope for the best, or, worst case, head to the pub and wait (this is generally a good strategy in all situations, though it can lead to other problems!).
Are you staying at a Bed and Breakfast/Hotel or Self Catering House / Hostel? i.e. do you need food supplies before you get to your accommodation? The two supermarkets are in Port Ellen and Bowmore. Depending on what time the ferry arrives, you may / may not have time to shop for food before going to your destination if you're reliant on the bus. If you're at the Youth Hostel in Port Charlotte, you will be restricted on your options (the Spar closes around 5 pm). If you're not sure you'll be able to buy food on the way, bring a few items from Glasgow to hold you over until the next day. Just remember that the buses don't run on Sundays. See our Guide to Visiting Islay Without a Car for more information on transport options while you're on the island.
Bring Motion Sickness Tablets
I get mild motion sickness from the bus and moderate motion sickness on the ferry. Not enough to be sick, but I generally don't feel fabulous on the crossing over, even in calm weather. If you're prone to motion sickness, especially if you get it badly, bring whatever works for you. Between the 3-hour bus ride through hills and dales and a 2-hour ferry, you might feel a touch under the weather. And also, keep in mind that there can be some pretty epic storms on the west coast of Scotland - the ferry runs in most conditions, but it isn't always a pleasant trip!
Don't Bring Large, Heavy Pieces of Luggage
The pedestrian footbridge on and off the ferry is fairly narrow, and you will need to be able to get yourself and your luggage up the ramp and over the lip of the ferry hatch/door. There is a lift for wheelchair access, but I would not recommend bringing large, unwieldy pieces of luggage as you will find them challenging to manage on the buses and the ferry. Also note that on the CityLink bus, your ticket permits each passenger to store only one piece of luggage in the hold - if you require additional storage space, there may be an additional cost.