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2025 Shetland/Orkney Islands tentative travel planning suggestions

Hello Everyone,

I am new to the forum (posting for the first time) and recently retired. I know 2025 is a ways off but I wanted to start building a framework. I am pretty flexible on time and when to travel (season) unless my children decide to come.

I am considering spending about six weeks (7 to 8 days per Orkney's and Shetlands) in Scotland with beginning travel in late May or waiting to late August/September. I would most likely fly into Edinburgh or Glasgow from Chicago. So this is where I need help.

Should I rent a vehicle on the mainland then use the ferries or rent a vehicle on each island? I could fly between each or use a ferry. What would make the most sense. Also, is it better to go to Orkney first and then on to the Shetlands or vice versa?

For the rest of my time in Scotland, I would like to visit Skye, the Highlands etc. before traveling to England for a week or so to visit the RAF base where my father was stationed during WW2. The fly out of London.

This is very tentative at the moment and I am thankful for any suggestions as where to begin especially the logistics of traveling to and from the Shetlands/Orkneys.
Thank you

Posted by
8359 posts

Bobby, welcome to the forum and congratulations on your retirement! I've been thinking of these destinations as well and look forward to the responses to your questions. You did a great job of asking specific questions.

Posted by
5720 posts

The most sensible option would be to hire a car locally on Orkney, then turn it in, ferry or fly to Shetland, then local car hire on Shetland.

If flying in to Glasgow or Edinburgh both airports have direct flights to both Kirkwall (Orkney) and Sumburgh (Shetland). If taking the ferry it is train to Aberdeen then ferry at 5pm or 7pm (5pm if it is a day of the week it is diverting via Orkney arrives 11pm, or 7pm if Shetland direct- arrives 7am next day on both routes.

The easiest option is fly Loganair to Orkney, Then when you move to Shetland fly Loganair Kirkwall to Sumburgh. On the way back you could arrange.to drop the car off at Lerwick port and ferry back to Aberdeen.

If you did Shetland first and then ferry Shetland to Orkney that leaves Shetland at 5pm, arrives Orkney 11pm. A bit late to pick up a car.

Late May would be by far the better time, to me, as the days are very long then. By late August they are starting to draw in.

It is a very long train journey or drive to Scrabster- the port for the short sea crossing to Orkney.

If you did Shetland first then Orkney you can board the early morning ferry at Stromness at 9pm, have bed and breakfast on board. Then train or bus (the bus meets the ferry at Scrabster port) to Inverness. You can connect to Skye by train or bus the same day via Inverness.

There isn't a 'right' way to pair them. It is all choices. But don't rent a car at GLA/EDI then pay to ship it on the ferry.

Be aware that for the 35 minute hop Orkney to Shetland the lowest flight I can find is £92 and that is rare- usually over £100.

Posted by
13925 posts

I 100% agree with all of Stuart/isn31C's recommendations, especially about renting vehicles separately on Orkney and Shetland.

In August I spent a week on Orkney and a week on Shetland and it was wonderful. Really, I had no expectations but they were fabulous. I think I might even be able to drive on either island as they were not crowded. I was on a small group tour but these islands would be easy to do on your own if you are willing to drive.

I found August to be a wonderful time to visit. The weather was spectacular from my standpoint. I don't tolerate heat and it was about a max of 65F daily with lows in the low 50's. It was kind of weird to have that small a temperature swing from low to high. We had lots of rain and some days were really windy (gale force winds one day) BUT that did not stop us AT ALL and would not stop you either. Perfect way to get away from the August heat of the Inland NW.

I spent a LOT of time worrying about Loganair flights. I'd gotten onto a FB page called Delays and Cancellations of Loganair to Orkney and Shetland. They do seem to have a lot of interrupted service and not just related to the weather. I do recommend that you not schedule anything tightly around your travel days to/from the islands. I flew from my home airport in Spokane WA to Aberdeen via Seattle and Amsterdam. I gave myself 2 nights in Aberdeen mostly to allow for delays on the international flight and arrived the day before my tour started in case of Loganair delays. Coming back, I only allowed one night in Aberdeen from Sumburgh before my flight to Amsterdam and then home. The tour group organized the inbetween flight from Orkney to Shetland. ALL 3 of my flights went without problems. I think it's prudent not to book the first flights out as that is when there seem to be fog delays. The next time I go (probably 2025 as well, lol), I am going to go thru Aberdeen again and time it so I can have a back up sailing on the ferry from Aberdeen to Kirkwall and back from Lerwick. At the time I went last summer they were not sailing that route every day. Your plans may work out better to sail from one of the other ports to the islands.

Here is a link to my TR if that can in any way be helpful to your planning.

https://community.ricksteves.com/travel-forum/trip-reports/seymour-travels-scottish-island-tour-orkney-and-shetland

In case you are interested in looking at the structure and daily activities for the tour company I used, here is a link to the Seymour Travels site. He is doing the 2-week tour again next year but in 2025 he is splitting to 8 nights in Orkney and 8 on Shetland as separate tours.

https://www.seymourtravels.co.uk/tour-calendar

I think the only sights you'd need to book in advance are Maeshowe chambered cairn and Skara Brae, both on Orkney. I'd recommend looking at the cruise ships docking schedules when you are closer to your departure time and try NOT to go to Skara Brae on a day there are cruise ships in port. It was the ONLY time in 2 weeks that we encountered a crowd.

Posted by
1829 posts

Orkney and Shetland are wonderful and very different to each other, as well as the rest of Scotland. We visited Orkney after Shetland and did rather wish we’d done it the other way round. Orkney felt a lot busier than Shetland.

There are websites where you can check days cruise ships call in at both Lerwick and kirkwall and these also give the numbert of passengers . Avoid major sites if there is a large cruise ship in port! They all tend to head to Skara Brae first and the Italian Chapel. This is often a good day to catch one of the inter island ferries.

May is a great time to visit as you will get the spring flowers and also the puffins will have arrived. You will also get long light evenings - the ’Simmer Din’ and it hardly gets dark. It may also be less busy with fewer visitors?

The puffins will have left by Late August to September and there may be fewer wild flowers around. There are slightly less daylight hours and sunset is around 8pm at the start of September.

Posted by
90 posts

Hi Bobby,
Below are links I found helpful in planning our Spring '24 trip to Scotland.

Orkney Harbors cruise ship information. We discovered there are 2 huge ships coming into Kirkwall during our visit at the end of April. This information will allow us to avoid the crowds as best we can.
https://www.orkneyharbours.com/sectors/cruise-ships

Pentland Ferry site. We are booked on this ferry. It does mean a longish drive up & down the coast but we don't mind too much as we'll be stopping along the way.
https://pentlandferries.co.uk/

Northlink Ferry site. At this time we are planning to visit Shetland for a week early May 2025, thinking to fly into Aberdeen and take this overnight ferry. This ferry, over the deep North Sea, is a personal challenge, out of my comfort zone, and I'd like to think I'm up for it.
https://www.northlinkferries.co.uk/

Have fun planning!

Posted by
5720 posts

These are the Orkney Islands inter island ferries mentioned by Wasleys- https://www.orkneyferries.co.uk/

and the Orkney inter islands flights- https://www.loganair.co.uk/fares/orkney-inter-island/

Each of the out isles has their own characte

And the Shetland inter island ferries- https://www.shetland.gov.uk/ferries

and inter island flights (which run from Tingwall airport, NOT Sumburgh)- https://www.airtask.com/passenger-transport

and Lerwick cruise timetable (when it is published)- https://www.lerwick-harbour.co.uk/sectors/cruise/2024

At Lerwick almost all cruise ships anchor in the bay and tender ashore.

Please note that there are loads of places on Shetland to visit apart from where the cruise ship excursions go to. The locals overwhelmingly see the cruise ships as being a huge benefit to the local economy.

Visit Shetland- https://www.shetland.org/visit

Visit Orkney- https://www.orkney.com/

Posted by
1829 posts

As well as links already given, there is also Undiscovered Scotland which is a wonderful source of ideas and covers many places not mentioned in the guide books. Check out current opening times as they may have altered.

For Orkney start with the map page here and follow the links to text pages with information and lots of photos.

Shetland here.

There is also Orkneyjar website which is written by a local and covers the history and folk lore of the islands along with language. It is a wonderful treasure trove of information.

As well as the antiquities, Orkney and Shetland are also good for walking. The Walk Highlands website is the Walker's bible. Check out Orkney Walks here or these from Orkney.com website.
Shetland have a look here and here...

I've always used the overnight ferry from Aberdeen to get to both Orkney and Shetland. Orkney is well geared up for people arrivin g late at night off the ferry so don't worry about that. Also book tickets and cabin well before your trip as cabins do book up quickly. It's a lovely way tyo arrive at Shetland first thing in the morning...

There isn't a lot of choice of accommodation on Orkney and Shetland as there is elsewhere in Scotland so it is advisable to get accomodation booked well in advance of your trip.

Posted by
601 posts

We always stick the island visits and the beginning and end of our trips. For example, we did SEA/EDI/Stornoway, rent car locally, then STO/SUMburgh, rent car locally, then SUM/GLA and tour mainland by rental car, then EDI/Orkney, rent locally, then Orkney/EDI for a couple on nights in Edinburgh, then back to Seattle. That way we never have more than one car at a time, and don't have one in Edinburgh.

This May we will be doing SEA/GLA, train to Aberdeen, rent car as we leave Aberdeen, do mainland stuff then return car to Aberdeen and hop over to Shetland/Unst with local rental, then fly to EDI and on to SEA. Loganair has connections that work for arrivals and departures from North America, although the daily schedule varies and there is at least a chance of messing up your whole itinerary if your longhaul flight is late.

I also find the one-way car rental dropoff fees high enough to try to avoid through careful planning. GLA/EDI pickup/returns generally don't charge a fee.

Posted by
3 posts

First I just want to say thank you to everyone for all of the information, web links, your insights and experience. It will take a bit of time to read and start to organize (maps are going back up on the wall today). I am impressed by everyone responses. I did find Seymour tours very interesting. Everyone has made me think about a couple things like the cruise ships' schedules and rental vehicles. Adding Aberdeen as a possible place to fly into as well.

I do have a couple more questions:

  1. How far in advance should I plan for renting a vehicle? Did you use the same rental company for ease or does it really matter? By the way, I was really hoping someone would say not rent a vehicle until I was on the islands. I have taken rentals before on North Atlantic ferries and was never comfortable. A big thank you!

  2. Is the length of stay of 8 days per island about right? I would like to stay flexible for weather and really not feel rushed. Besides seeing the historic sites, I would hope to have some time built in to hike/walk.

I know I will have more questions in the coming days to several months.

Posted by
6288 posts

Should I rent a vehicle on the mainland then use the ferries or rent a vehicle on each island? I could fly between each or use a ferry. What would make the most sense.

Bobby, you can do either. Renting a car on the mainland does give you more flexibility over car choices and agencies. I was in Scotland last year for 3 weeks, and rented a car through Arnold Clark/Celtic Legend outside Glasgow, then took it to four different islands (Arran, Mull, Skye and Harris/Lewis) using the Calmac ferries, and had no problems at all. At the end of my trip after 7 ferry transfers with my car, I felt like a pro. 😊 It was really an easy process. And Arnold Clark and Celtic Legend were a pleasure to deal with. I can honestly say it was probably my best experience renting a car in Europe.

That said, renting on the mainland does limit your options of transportation to get to Orkney and Shetland. So if you would rather fly there, you will have to rent your car once you get to the islands. Kirkwall would certainly have options as well as Lerick. I do not think that Arnold Clark has locations there, but that doesn't mean the other agencies aren't good.

I happen to REALLY like boats and ferries, so I will always choose a ferry over flying. But that's me. Figure out what you like and plan accordingly.

Posted by
6288 posts

How far in advance should I plan for renting a vehicle? Did you use the same rental company for ease or does it really matter? By the way, I was really hoping someone would say not rent a vehicle until I was on the islands. I have taken rentals before on North Atlantic ferries and was never comfor

I just saw this after posting my previous thoughts. I think I booked my car with Celtic Legend (they use Arnold Clark for rentals) about 6 months ahead of time. The nice thing about CL is that you don't pay ahead of time. They sent you a firm quote and you accept and that's it. No money or credit card info changes hands until you pick up the car. But again, if you want to wait till you get to the islands to rent, then I would definitely book pretty far ahead, as their selection will be more limited. And especially if you want an automatic transmission as opposed to manual.

And with regards to the choice of renting on the mainland vs. the islands, see my post above.

Posted by
5720 posts

I must admit that I would not have thought of you using national/international car rental agencies on the islands. Especially on Shetland I would have kind of assumed you would have been using a local island company on each island group.

I suspect I will be shot down in flames, but every time I have been through Kirkwall or Lerwick ferry terminals I haven't seen car rental desks there (but nor have I been looking). However the local companies I'm sure will bend over backwards to meet you.

If you did pick up on arrival off the ferry at Kirkwall at 11pm I suspect they would probably just park the car up before they finished for the night, and leave the keys with the terminal staff, or maybe even in the ignition. It's that kind of relaxed place. But you might want to just go to the hotel, then pick the car up next morning.
On Northlink, if you are foot pax, there is no rush to be off the ship when she docks at Lerwick. The restaurant is open until 8am. I believe it is 9am last disembarkation. With a car you have to drive off on arrival, but can then park up at the terminal and come back on board for breakfast! I can't vouch for the 9am as I make a swift connection on Zetrans (the co-ordinated bus system on Shetland) or Stagecoach (on Orkney), and last time was almost 7 hours late due to a storm in Aberdeen the previous evening closing the harbour so preventing us leaving. But everyone got a free lunch next day as we scorched north at top speed. Then the ship had a very swift turn round back south- not all day as normal.

Posted by
6288 posts

Stuart, I believe that the car rental agencies will be at the airport terminals, and not the ferries. At least, that’s been my experience in Scotland. I have not seen any at ferry terminals.

Posted by
2711 posts

My first trip to Orkney was about 15 years ago. We took a ferry from Scrabster to Stromness and took our rental car with us. It was very easy and worked out well since we were driving up from Skye. We spent four days on the mainland, which gave us time to see everything we wanted to see, but not enough time to visit the other islands. Well, we could have squeezed in a day trip to one of them, but we had torrential rain on one of our full days there.

This past July we spent about a week in Orkney and a week in Shetland, which gave us time to visit several other islands. It was pretty close to ideal, but I would have enjoyed another day or two for each. I think eight days on each would be wonderful.

On our most recent trip, we rented one car in Kirkwall and another in Sumburgh. We mostly flew to, from, and between the islands, but we also took the rental by ferry to a couple of the islands. We traveled independently, but the arrangements were made by McKinlay Kidd. They are a travel agency that offers small group tours and independent tours with and without a car rental. You might want to google them and take a look at the tours they offer. You could get ideas on planning your itinerary even if you don't book with them. We did the Complete Orkney and Shetland tour, which we thought was fabulous. They booked all the flights, ferries, hotels, and car, as well as some full and half day guided tours (both group and private). They also offered suggestions on what to do during our free time which was plentiful. We loved using them, especially since planning the flights and ferries can be a real pain in the butt when there are not that many options and coordination is critical. Please note that you can tweak their tours or have them plan custom trips. I thought they were fantastic to work with, and the cost was very reasonable.

As for flight vs ferry, I think either is fine, but flights are faster, which is a plus. We took seven flights and all seven were on time or close to it. You may not be as lucky, so follow Pam's advice to build some slack in your schedule to allow for delays.

We started on Orkney and then went to Shetland, which I thought was ideal. Orkney is a little less populated and remote, and I prefer to transition from city to remote countryside gradually. I don't think it makes that much difference though, so I would go with whatever fits best with your overall itinerary.

It sounds like you have a fabulous trip in the making. I can tell you our Orkney and Shetland trip was one of our all-time favorites. It was magical! I love all of Scotland, including Skye and Edinburgh.

Posted by
13925 posts

I agree with Carroll, I think 8 nights on each would be great. TBH, there is enough to see on both islands for however much time you have allotted especially if you are going to do some cliff top walks.

You haven't asked about hotels as we are pretty far out from your travel dates.

I'll throw in that the tour stayed on Burray for Orkney and this was perfect. We were at The Sands Hotel which overlooks one of the Churchill Barriers and is waterfront. You'd have to have a car to stay here. The longest drive we had was maybe an hour to the Broch of Birsay. The restaurant was excellent, beds comfortable, staff very friendly and helpful. There are a couple of grocery stores (Tesco and Lidl) in Kirkwall that have "meal deals" for lunches (sandwich/crisps/dessert stuff) that are quick and easy.

For Shetland we stayed at Herrislea House which was north of Lerwick near the Tingwall airport. It was a good location as well. Restaurant was only open to us when we were there. New owner earlier this year.

I'm excited for you! You can tell I am still excited about my trip from the summer!

Posted by
5720 posts

Found out after thinking about it/scratching my head for memories- at Lerwick Bolts Car Hire are on North Road- 5 minutes walk from the Ferry Terminal BUT from their website- "As well as our main premises on North Road, Lerwick, your car can be delivered for arrivals at Lerwick Ferry Terminal. We meet all booked customers inside the ferry terminal at 08:00 prompt.". They also have a desk at the airport - "Our car hire office at Sumburgh Airport is open seven days a week for all scheduled and most charter flights. Please let us know your flight number and arrival time." Bolts are also the Avis local reps. A few minutes on (at the entrance to the Mareel Arts Centre) is Star Rent a Car (who are also the Europcar reps). They say they will also pick up at the Ferry Terminal, either Airport and at Grutness Ferry Terminal (for Fair Isle).

At Kirkwall there is Orkney Car Hire who have offices both at the airport and at Junction Street- in the town Centre, opposite the Inter Island ferry terminal, about 1 1/2 miles from the Northlink ferry terminal.

Also in the Town Centre at Castle Street is W R Tullock (who are also the local Avis and Europcar)- pick up in town or at the airport.

Posted by
1639 posts

I would agree with the others, hire a car in Orkney and Shetland separate to each and separate to any car in the rest of Scotland. The ferry costs to especially Shetland can be eye watering.

In terms of the two island groups 'Mainland' refers to the main island in each group, not to the island of Great Britain. Just as to a Channel Islander referring to the 'Mainland' will be met with a blank stare!

With the cruise ships, the visits are limited as neither island group has the room in the harbours for either. I was on Orkney when the cruises were in, it made little difference at Skara Brae and the Italian Chapel, but they were crowded compared to the previous visits. What staying on Orkney gives is the quiet and exclusivity when they leave! Walking through Kirkwall is pleasant at most times, but walking through Kirkwall with my mum and partner after the cruise passengers had left heading to a restaurant was a pleasure.

Posted by
3 posts

I am amazed at everyone's responses and suggestions. I have to admit I am getting a bit excited. So what I am trying to do with my questions is two things. The first is a time line when should I have made my reservations such as the flights and rental vehicles. I really appreciate the rental car suggestion of 6 months out using Celtic Legend.
The second one is the actual itinerary of where I will be staying (lodging). I have to say everyone you have been very helpful. Pam I do like your hotel suggestion.
I was thinking of just staying in a few places as a hub and use the vehicle for day trips. Then the ferry between islands for a day trip (that will need some work). I guess in the end I just do not want to feel rushed and stay flexible for weather etc. but also experience the local culture. I found the trip report (Pam) of meeting the local knitting group very interesting. It brought back memories of my granny carding wool and the spinning wheel.
This may be an odd question but did anyone bring their gaiters as additions to their rain pants? Also did anyone feel the need to bring their trekking poles? I am waiting on a pair of CK boots and should have ample break in time before going.
A side note somehow someway I hope to make it to Bobby's bus stop (Unst Bus Shelter). Can't help myself.
To reiterate, the responses have been more than I could have hope for. One day I hope to do the same.

I wish everyone a Happy New Year and may your wishes come true!
Safe travels,
Bobby B

Posted by
13925 posts

"This may be an odd question but did anyone bring their gaiters as additions to their rain pants? Also did anyone feel the need to bring their trekking poles? I am waiting on a pair of CK boots and should have ample break in time before going.
A side note somehow someway I hope to make it to Bobby's bus stop (Unst Bus Shelter). Can't help myself.
"

No to gaiters. I have them for winter here in N. Idaho but didn't even think about them for the islands. I DID need waterproof rain pants, waterproof rain jacket with hood. I could have used a waterproof ball cap. I am not a ball cap wearer but it was very handy to have to wear under my rain jacket hood. The cap I took was soaked almost immediately on one day. I then bought an inexpensive beanie at the Skara Brae gift shop to wear OVER the ball cap and under my hood. I also could have used waterproof mittens over my smartwool glove liners. I wasn't cold per se but the gloves got soaked as well. I don't know if you ever use a company called Outdoor Research based in Oregon or if that is just a Northwest thing. They have excellent gear and I'm looking at their waterproof ball cap for next time I go.

IF you don't have rain pants already, get the kind that zip up the side that you can pull on over your shoes/boots. Mine are several years old and I went cheap with them. They are the lower priced Columbia brand and just have velcro fasteners at the bottom of the legs. I could get my foot in if I was sitting on the tailgate but it was a PIA.

Trekking poles I did not have as I was going with carry on luggage. I could definitely have used them. Some of the cliff top walks were a bit boggy and uneven. On the Loganair flights you have to check your luggage anyway so it would have been good if I'd thought to pick up a pair in Aberdeen. There are also outdoor stores in Kirkwall and Lerwick.

And YES to Bobby's Bus Shelter. There were 3 women in there eating their lunch when we went by and they just glared at us when we tried to take a look inside. They were not Scots, not locals but European.

After Bobby's Bus Shelter, the northernmost bus shelter in UK, drive a bit further to the Victoria's Vintage Tea Room, the UK's northernmost tea room, for lunch. Make a reservation if you can. The food was very good, local ladies manning the kitchen and very friendly. Behind there is a neat small maritime boat museum called Unst Boat Haven. On the way to the tea room from Bobby's there is a re-creation of a Viking Long house and a Viking ship that are worth stopping at. Near Bobby's is what we'd call a General Store/or Convenience Store and gas station if you need fuel.

The ferry to Yell is easy, then drive directly to the ferry to Unst which is also short. We did not really stop for anything on Yell, not saying there isn't anything to stop for...just we did not have the time. But do Unst first, then work your way back to the Yell ferry slip.

Posted by
1018 posts

Bobby B - you got great information. I have been to Shetland twice and Orkney once. My 2nd great grandfather with his mom and sister came to the US in the late 1800’s. Shetland hosts Hamerfarin event about every 20-25 years. My grandfather went there in the ‘60s tracing our ancestors. My sister and cousin went in 2010 to Hamerfarin. We flew to Aberdeen and caught the ferry to Lerwick, rented car onsite at the ferry docks from Bolt. Then dropped it off same place. They have a keep drop off box in the ferry building. We booked a self catering cottage for about 1.5 week.
Took ferry back to Aberdeen and drove to the borders , then Edinburgh for departure back home.

Other posters gave you good ideas and some stuff to do.

Our second trip was in 2022 in June . ( oh both trips were in June). Hubs and I took Seymour tour to Orkney and Shetland. Pam gave you the link. We went to Iceland first, then flew to Glasgow for about 4 days, then flew from Glasgow to Kirkwall for the started of our trip. One week on Orkney, then group flew to sumburgh, we picked up our two vans for our week tour of Shetland. After the end of tour, we took overnight ferry back to Aberdeen. My husband wanted to go the ferry. We we walked the the train station, caught train to Edinburgh for a night . Headed back home.

Hopefully you had good flights or ferry , the weather can be unpredictable at times.

Have fun planning. You will have a great time

Kim