Myocardial ischaemia resulting from obstructive coronary artery disease is a major cause of morbidity and mortality in the developed world. Coronary artery bypass graft (CABG) surgery is the gold-standard treatment in many patients with complex multivessel coronary artery disease or left main disease. Despite substantial improvements in the outcome of patients undergoing CABG surgery in the past decade, graft patency remains the 'Achilles' heel' of this procedure. Whereas the use of the left internal mammary artery as a conduit is associated with the highest 10-year patency rate (>90%), saphenous vein grafts - the most commonly used conduit in CABG surgery - fail in 40-50% of treated patients by 10 years after surgery. Vein graft disease (VGD) and failure result from complex pathophysiological processes that can lead to complete occlusion of the graft, affecting long-term clinical outcomes. Optimal harvesting techniques, intraoperative preservation strategies and intraoperative patency control have important roles in the prevention of VGD. In addition, several studies published in the past decade have reported similar mid-term patency rates between vein grafts and arterial grafts when veins are used as a composite graft based on the internal mammary artery. In this Review, we present the latest evidence on the utilization of saphenous vein grafts for CABG surgery and provide an overview of the current practices for the prevention of VGD and vein graft failure.