Occlusive arterial disease is a leading cause of morbidity and mortality worldwide. Aside from balloon angioplasty, bypass graft surgery is the most commonly performed revascularization technique for occlusive arterial disease. Coronary artery bypass graft surgery is performed in patients with left main coronary artery disease and three-vessel coronary disease, whereas peripheral artery bypass graft surgery is used to treat patients with late-stage peripheral artery occlusive disease. The great saphenous veins are commonly used conduits for surgical revascularization; however, they are associated with a high failure rate. Therefore, preservation of vein graft patency is essential for long-term surgical success. With the exception of 'no-touch' techniques and lipid-lowering and antiplatelet (aspirin) therapy, no intervention has hitherto unequivocally proven to be clinically effective in preventing vein graft failure. In this Review, we describe both preclinical and clinical studies evaluating the pathophysiology underlying vein graft failure, and the latest therapeutic options to improve patency for both coronary and peripheral grafts.