A visit to the land of Homer, Aristotle, and Sophocles is a journey to the dawn of classical civilization, with archaeological splendors from Athens to Crete. The towering monasteries of Meteora and soaring Mt. Olympus inspire awe, while relaxing islands like Corfu and Santorini invite simple pleasures and a taste of the good life on the Aegean Sea. The Greek countryside presents the perfect coda with idyllic landscapes of cypress groves, vineyards, and olive trees, as well as dramatic coves with sparkling white sand and rugged mountains that plunge into the sea.
Flying time to Athens is 3½ hours from London, 10½ hours from New York, 12 hours from Chicago, 16½ hours from Los Angeles, and 19 hours from Sydney.
There are only two nonstop flights from the United States to Athens, on Delta (from New York–JFK) and US Airways (from Philadelphia). Therefore, most U.S. travelers will need to connect in an airport in Europe; further, most travelers originating in the United States will need to transfer in Athens to reach any other destination in Greece. There are a large number of charter flights, especially from northern Europe, that fly directly to resort destinations in Greece during the high season, but since most of these must be booked through travel agents in Europe, they will be irrelevant to the vast number of U.S. travelers. Nevertheless, many discount carriers fly from (mostly) secondary airports in Europe nonstop to Greece, and these flights may be relevant, particularly for those travelers who plan to visit another country in addition to Greece.
Strikes, either for several hours or days, can be a sporadic problem in Greece, so it’s always a good idea to keep your eyes on the local headlines while traveling. Athens International Airport (Eleftherios Venizelos) posts real-time flight information on its website. You can contact the Hellenic Civil Aviation Authority at the main Athens airport if you have complaints or concerns about flight cancellations, flight delays, or denied boarding.
Athens International Airport at Spata, 20 miles southeast of the city center, opened in 2001 as the country’s main airport. Officially named Eleftherios Venizelos, after Greece’s first prime minister, the airport is modern and quite user-friendly (there’s also a very nice Sofitel if you need to stay over). The main terminal building has two levels: upper for departures, ground level for arrivals. Unless you are flying directly to one of the islands, you’ll likely pass through the Athens airport during your trip to Greece. It’s quite easy to switch from international to domestic flights or get to Greece’s main harbor, Piraeus, about a one-hour train ride south of the airport. Greece’s second-largest city has another busy international airport: Thessaloniki Makedonia airport, which handles both international and domestic flights. So does the airport on Rhodes (in the Dodecanese islands). Two other airports, in Heraklion and Corfu, also have a large number of international flights. Airports on many smaller islands (Santorini, Syros, Mykonos, Karpathos, Kos, and Paros among them) receive international charter flights during the busier summer months.
While both Athens and Thessaloniki have public transportation, other places in Greece, especially the islands, do not.
In addition to Delta and US Airways, many carriers offer one-stop connections to major destinations in Greece (but particularly Athens) from the United States. And most of the larger airlines, including Air France, British Airways, KLM, and Lufthansa, also offer codeshare flights with their U.S. partners. Some European budget carriers, including EasyJet and Ryanair offer flights to a wide range of destinations throughout Greece.
Flights Within Greece
In Greece, when faced with a boat journey of six hours or more, consider flying since domestic flights have good prices for many destinations. The frequency of flights varies according to the time of year (with an increase between Greek Easter and November), and it is essential to book well in advance for summer or for festivals and holidays, especially on three-day weekends. There is usually a fee to check bags; only hand luggage (with strictly enforced limits) is free.
Scheduled domestic air travel in Greece is provided by Aegean Airlines and its subsidiary Olympic Air (both of which operate out of Athens International Airport in Spata), Astra Airlines (which flies from Thessaloniki), and Sky Express (which has a more diffuse network of flights around Greece). Aegean Airlines and Olympic Air have the largest route network around Greece, with flights to virtually every destination you might need, with the best connections through Athens. If you fly into Athens, you’ll be able to transfer quite easily to a domestic flight.
BOAT AND FERRY TRAVEL
Ferries, catamarans, and hydrofoils make up an essential part of the national transport system of Greece, reaching every inhabited island. There are fast and slow boats and ferries that are more modern than others. When choosing a ferry, take into account the number of stops and the estimated arrival time. Sometimes a ferry that leaves an hour later gets you there faster.
With so many private companies operating, so many islands to choose from, and complicated timetables—and with departures changing not just by season but also by day of the week—the most sensible way to arrange island-hopping is to select the islands you would like to visit, then consult a travel agent to ask how your journey can be put together. Dolphin Hellas, a full-service tour and travel company based in Athens, has a unique online portal to view various schedules and purchase ferry tickets.
If the boat journey will be more than a couple of hours, it’s a good idea to take along water and snacks. Greek fast-food franchises operate on most ferries, charging high prices. On longer trips ferries have both cafeteria-style and full-service restaurants.
Ferries may be delayed by weather conditions, especially when the northern winds called meltemi hit in August, so stay flexible—one advantage of not buying a ticket in advance. If your ship’s departure is delayed for any reason (with the exception of force majeure), you have the right to stay on board in the class indicated on your ticket or, in case of prolonged delay, to cancel your ticket for a full refund. If you miss your ship, you forfeit your ticket; if you cancel in advance, you receive a partial or full refund, depending on how far in advance you cancel.
Major Ferry Ports
Of the major ferry ports in Greece, Piraeus, Rafina, and Lavrion are fairly well connected to Athens by bus, and the latter two are close enough to the Athens airport in Spata to be reached by taxi. For the Cycladic, Dodecanese, and Ionian islands, small ferry companies operate local routes that are not published nationally; passage can be booked through travel agents on the islands served.
Greece’s largest and busiest port is Piraeus, which lies 6 miles south of Central Athens, at the end of Metro Line 1, which is close to gates E5 and E6. The train ride from Central Athens takes about 25 minutes, and you can board at Thisseion, Monastiraki, or Omonia; change at Monastiraki if you get on or want to go to Syntagma.
A taxi can take longer than the metro and will cost around €25, plus baggage and port surcharges. Often, drivers wait until they fill their taxi with debarking passengers headed in roughly the same direction, which leads to a longer, more circuitous route to accommodate everyone’s destination. It’s often faster to walk to the main street and hail a passing cab.
From Piraeus you can reach the Saronic islands (Aegina, Hydra, Poros, Angistri, and Spetses); Peloponnesian ports (Hermioni and Porto Heli); the Cyclades (Amorgos, Folegandros, Anafi Ios, Milos, Mykonos, Naxos, Paros, Santorini, Serifos, Sifnos, Syros, and Tinos); and the northern Aegean islands (Samos, Ikaria, Mytileni, and Chios).
Be aware that Piraeus port is so vast that you may need to walk some distance to your gate (quay) of departure once you arrive, so be sure to arrive with plenty of time to spare. Changes may occur at the last moment. Just confirm at an information kiosk.
From Greece’s second-busiest port, which is 22 miles northeast of Athens, you can reach Evia (Euboea) daily, as well as some of the Cyclades (Mykonos, Paros, Tinos, and Andros). Ferry timetables change in winter and summer, and special sailings are often added around holiday weekends in summer when demand is high.
To get to Attica’s second port, Rafina, take a KTEL bus, which leaves approximately every half-hour (or every 15 minutes during rush hour; inquire about their schedule before your departure). Usually, KTEL buses run from 5:30 am to 9:30 pm from Aigyptou Square near Pedion Areos Park, which is within walking distance from the Viktoria (green line) station. The KTEL bus takes about an hour to get to Rafina; the port is slightly downhill from the bus station.
It’s also possible to take a taxi (a 40-minute trip), but it is fairly expensive.
From the port of Lavrion, 61 km (38 miles) southeast of Athens and close to Sounion, you can reach Kea (Tzia) and Kythnos, and (less regularly) Syros, Mykonos, Paros, Naxos, Anafi Ios, Sikinos, Folegandros, Kimolos, Milos, Tinos, Andros, Ag. Efstratios, Limnos, and Alexandroupolis. There are hourly buses from the Athens airport directly to Lavrion, or it’s about 35 to 40 minutes by taxi.
From Patras, on the western coast of the Peloponnese, 130 miles west of Athens, you can reach Italy (Ancona, Bari, Brindisi, Ravenna, Trieste, and Venice) as well as the Ionian islands (Corfu, Ithaki, and Kefalonia). The drive from Athens takes about 3 hours.
From Killini, 45 miles south of Patras, you can reach the Ionian islands of Kefalonia and Zakynthos.
From Igoumenitsa, on Greece’s northwest coast 300 miles, you can reach Italy (Ancona, Bari, Brindisi, Ravenna, Trieste, and Venice) and Corfu (several ferries daily). Given its distance from Athens, it is generally more realistic to fly.
From northern mainland towns of Kavala and Alexandroupolis you can reach the Dodecanese islands of Limnos, Samothrace (Samothraki), and Thassos.
From Agios Konstantinos, Volos, or Thessaloniki you can reach the Sporades islands of Alonissos, Skiathos, and Skopelos.
From Kimi, on the east coast of Evia, you can reach Skyros.
From Heraklion you can reach the Cyclades islands of Mykonos, Paros, and Santorini (summer only).
Buying Ferry Tickets
It’s best to buy your ticket at least two or three days ahead if you are traveling between July 15 and August 30, when most Greeks vacation, if you need a cabin (good for long trips), or if you are taking a car. If possible, don’t travel by boat around August 15, when most ferries are very crowded. The ferry schedule systems are not organized well in advance, so booking tickets more than a month ahead of time is usually not possible.
You can buy tickets from a travel agency or praktoreio at the port, online through travel websites (popular sites include www.directferries.gr www.greekferries.grand www.ferries.gr). Although you can also buy tickets directly from the ferry company offices and websites, it’s usually easier to use a travel agent. Last-minute tickets can always be purchased from a ferry company kiosk at every port. Always book your return upon arrival if you are pressed for time.
Generally, you can pay by either credit card or cash, though the latter is often preferred if you don’t use a travel agent. On islands the local office of each shipping line posts a board with departure times.
Greek ferries can be both slow and fast. On longer trips, the experience is a bit like a mini cruise. You can relax onboard, enjoy the sea views, snap photos from the deck at ports of call (there may be multiple calls on some routes), and as you approach your destination. Slow ferries from Piraeus to Lesvos, Rhodes, Crete, and Santorini can last eight hours or more, so there’s also the option to rent a cabin for the journey that may run overnight.
If boat rides equal boredom for you, high-speed ferries, catamarans, and hydrofoils—or in Greek iptamena delphinia (flying dolphins)—are a pricier option that cuts travel time in half. Catamarans are the larger of these fast ferries, with more space to move around, although passengers are not allowed outside when the boat is not docked. If the sea is choppy, these boats often cannot travel. Although they are faster, they lack the flavor of the older ferries with the open decks.
Schedules vary between both the slower and faster boats. It’s best to check what fits your time frame and budget.
From Greece, you can opt to travel to neighboring Italy and Turkey. Travel time to Turkey from most destinations in Greece is relatively short, usually less than 90 minutes. Travel to various stops in Italy can take from 9 to 21 hours.
Travel to Turkey
You can cross to Turkey from the northeastern Aegean islands. The journey takes anywhere from one hour to 90 minutes, depending on the destination. Ferries sail between the Greek islands of Rhodes, Kos, Samos, Simi, Chios, and Lesvos to the Turkish destinations of Bodrum, Marmaris, Kusadasi, and Cesmi.
Note that British, Australian, and American passport holders must have $20 or €14 with them (in cash) to purchase a visa on landing in Turkey. New Zealanders don’t need a visa. Canadian citizens need $60 or €42.
Ferry lines that sail between Greece and Turkey include the following: Erturk, Marmaris Ferries, Meander Ferries, NEL Lines, SeaDreams, and Yesil Marmaris Lines.
Travel to Italy
There are also frequent ferries between Greece and Italy. From Igoumenitsa, Patras, and Corfu you can find ferries that head to Ancona, Bari, Brindisi, and Venice.
The most respected and competitively priced is Minoan Lines. Its modern, well-maintained vessels are outfitted with bars, a self-service restaurant, a pool, a spa, a gym, an Internet café, a casino, shops, and even a conference center.
Prices depend on the season and your class of service (deck, seat, or cabin). High season runs from late July to late August; prices drop considerably in the low and middle season. Some companies offer special family or group discounts, while others charge extra for pets or offer deep discounts on return tickets, so comparing rates does pay. When booking, also consider when you will be traveling; an overnight trip can be offset against hotel costs, and you will spend more on incidentals like food and drink when traveling during the day.
Ferry lines that sail between Greece and Italy include the following: Anek, Blue Star Ferries, Endeavor, European Sealines, Minoan Lines, Superfast Ferries, and Ventouris.
Greece’s nationwide bus network is extensive, with routes to even the most far-flung villages. It’s divided into a fairly reliable regional bus system (KTEL) made up of local operators. Buses from Athens travel throughout the country and other Greek cities have connections to towns and villages in their own regions. Routes are listed on KTEL’s website, but unless you speak Greek or know someone who does, it won’t make sense. If you plan to visit Thessaloniki, you can visit the Greek tourist agency site www.viva.gr , which has an English-language version that will enable you to plan your bus trip and purchase the tickets online. If you prefer to buy your ticket in person, you can always head to the main KTEL terminal in any Greek city to inquire about schedules and rates.
There is no central website in English to buy KTEL tickets in advance, though there is an information website that could be helpful. It’s easiest to purchase your bus tickets in person at the KTEL station or on the bus. Reservations are unnecessary on most routes, especially those with several round-trips a day. If you are traveling on holiday weekends, it’s best to go to the station and buy your ticket a couple of days in advance. To give you a sense of costs and schedules, the bus from Athens to Corinth costs €10 and takes about 1 hour; to Nafplion, €15, 2½ hours; to Patras, €25, 2½–3 hours; and to Thessaloniki, €50, 6½ hours.
Catch Your Bus
Athens has three bus stations. In Athens, KTEL’s Terminal A is the arrival and departure point for bus lines to northern Greece, including Thessaloniki, and to the Peloponnese destinations of Epidauros, Mycenae, Nafplion, and Corinth. Terminal B serves Evia, most of Thrace, and central Greece, including Delphi. Most KTEL buses to the east Attica coast—including those for Sounion, Marathon, and the ports of Lavrion and Rafina—leave from the downtown KTEL terminal near Pedion Areos park.
The buses, which are punctual, span the range from slightly dilapidated to luxurious and air-conditioned with upholstered seats. There is just one class of ticket. Board early, because Greeks have a loose attitude about assigned seating, and ownership counts here. Although smoking is forbidden on KTEL buses, the driver will stop every two hours or so at a roadside establishment; smokers can light up then.
Public Transportation Buses
In large cities, you can buy individual tickets for urban buses at terminal booths, convenience stores, or at selected periptera (street kiosks).
Road conditions in Greece have improved in the last decade, yet driving in Greece still presents certain challenges. In Athens, traffic is mind-boggling most of the time and parking is scarce, so public transportation or taxis are much better options than a rental car. If you are traveling by ferry, taking along a car will increase your ticket costs substantially and limit your ease in hopping onto any ferry (fast ferries do not accommodate cars). On islands, you can always rent a taxi or a car for the day if you want to see something distant, and domestic flights are fairly cheap, especially if you book well in advance. The only real reason to drive is if it’s your passion, if you are a large party with many suitcases and many out-of-the-way places to see, or if you need the freedom to change routes and make unexpected stops not permitted on public transportation.
International driving permits (IDPs), required for drivers who are not citizens of an EU country, are available from the American, Australian, Canadian, and New Zealand automobile associations. These international permits, valid only in conjunction with your regular driver’s license, are universally recognized; having one may save you a problem with local authorities.
Regular registration papers and insurance contracted in any EU country or a green card are required, in addition to a driver’s license (EU or international). EU members can travel freely without paying any additional taxes.
Gas pumps and service stations are everywhere, and lead-free gas is widely available. Nevertheless, away from the main towns, especially at night, open gas stations can be very far apart. Don’t let your gas supply drop to less than a quarter tank when driving through rural areas. Gas costs about €1.80 a liter for unleaded (“ah-mo-lee-vdee”), €1.40 a liter for diesel (“dee-zel”). Prices may vary by as much as €0.50 per liter from one region to another, but a price ceiling has been imposed on gas prices during the busy summer months in popular tourist destinations. You aren’t usually allowed to pump your own gas, though you can do everything else yourself. If you ask the attendant to give you extra service (check oil, air, and water or clean the windows), leave a small tip. Gas stations are now required by law to issue receipts, so make sure you pick up yours from the attendant. The word is apodiksi. Credit cards are usually accepted at big gas stations (BP, Shell, Elinoil, EKO, Avin, Aegean, Revoil, etc.), less so at stations found in remote areas.
In general, auto insurance is not as expensive as in other countries. You must have third-party car insurance to drive in Greece. If possible, get an insurance “green card” valid for Greece from your insurance company before arriving. You can also buy a policy with local companies; keep the papers in a plastic pocket on the inside right front windshield. To get more information, or to locate a local representative for your insurance company, call the Hellenic Union of Insurance Firms/Motor Insurance Bureau.
The scarcity of parking spaces in Athens is one good reason not to drive in the city. Although a number of car parks operate in the city center and near suburban metro stations, these aren’t enough to accommodate demand. They can also be quite expensive, with prices starting at €10 for an hour. Pedestrians are often frustrated by cars parked on sidewalks, and police have become stricter about ticketing. “Controlled parking” zones in some downtown districts like Kolonaki have introduced some order to the chaotic system; a one-hour card costs €2, with a maximum of three hours permitted (for a total cost of €6). Buy a parking card from the kiosk or meter and display it inside your windshield. Be careful not to park in the spots reserved for residents, even if you have a parking card, as you may find your license plates mischievously gone when you return!
Outside Athens, the situation is slightly better. Many villages, towns, and islands have designated free parking areas just outside the center where you can leave your car.
Driving defensively is the key to safety in Greece, one of the most hazardous European countries for motorists. In the cities and on the highways, the streets can be riddled with potholes; motorcyclists seem to come out of nowhere, often passing on the right; and cars may even go the wrong way down a one-way street. In the countryside and on islands, you must watch for livestock crossing the road, as well as for tourists shakily learning to use rented motorcycles.
The many motorcycles and scooters weaving through traffic and the aggressive attitude of fellow motorists can make driving in Greece’s large cities unpleasant—and the life of a pedestrian dangerous. Greeks often run red lights or ignore stop signs on side streets, or round corners fast without stopping. It’s a good idea at night at city intersections and at any time on curvy country lanes to beep your horn to warn errant drivers.
In cities, you will find pedestrians have no qualms about standing in the middle of a busy boulevard, waiting to dart between cars. Make eye contact so you can both determine who’s going to slow. Rush hour in the cities runs from 7 to 10 am and 1:30 to 3:30 pm on weekdays, plus 8 to 10 pm on Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday. Saturday morning brings bumper-to-bumper traffic in shopping districts, and weekend nights guarantee crowding around nightlife hubs. In Athens, the only time you won’t find traffic is very early morning and most of Sunday (unless you’re foolish enough to stay at a local beach until evening in summer, which means heavy end-of-weekend traffic when you return). Finally, perhaps because they are untrained, drivers seldom pull over for wailing ambulances; the most they’ll do is slow down and slightly move over in different directions.
Highways are color-coded: green for the new, toll roads and blue for old, National Roads. Tolls are usually €2.50–€4. The older routes are slower and somewhat longer, but they follow more-scenic routes, so driving is more enjoyable. The National Roads can be very slick in places when wet—avoid driving in rain and on the days preceding or following major holidays when traffic is at its worst as urban dwellers leave for villages.
You must put out a triangular danger sign if you have a breakdown. Roving repair trucks, owned by the major road assistance companies, such as ELPA, patrol the major highways, except the Attiki Odos, which has its own contracted road assistance company. They assist tourists with breakdowns for free if they belong to an auto club, such as AAA or ELPA; otherwise, there is a charge. The Greek National Tourism Organization, in cooperation with ELPA, the tourist police, and Greek scouts, provides an emergency telephone line for those who spot a dead or wounded animal on the National Road.
Rules of the Road
Remember to always buckle your seat belt when driving in Greece, as fines are very costly if you don’t. Children 10 years old or younger are required to sit in the backseat. You have to be at least 18 to be able to drive in Greece. Motorcycle helmets are compulsory, though Greeks tend to ignore these rules or comply with them by “wearing” the helmet strapped to their arms.
International road signs are in use throughout Greece. You drive on the right, pass on the left, and yield right-of-way to all vehicles approaching from the right (except on posted main highways). Cars may not make a right turn on a red light. The speed limits are 74 mph on a National Road, 56 mph outside urban areas, and 31 mph in cities unless lower limits are posted. But limits are often not posted, and signs indicating a lower limit may not always be visible, so if you see Greek drivers slowing down, take the cue to avoid speed traps in rural areas.
In central Athens, there is an odd-even rule to avoid traffic congestion. This rule does not apply to rental cars, provided the renter has a foreign passport. If you are renting a car, ask the rental agency about any special parking or circulation regulations in force. Although sidewalk parking is illegal, it is common. And although it’s tempting as a visitor to ignore parking tickets, keep in mind that if you’ve surrendered your ID to the rental agency, you won’t get it back until you clear up the matter. You can pay your ticket at the rental agency or local police station. Under a driving code aimed at cracking down on violations, fines start at €50 (for illegal parking in places reserved for the disabled) and can go as high as €1,200, if you fail an alcohol test; fines for running a red light or speeding are now €700, plus you have your license revoked for 60 days and your plates revoked for 20 days. If fines are paid in cash within ten days, there is a 50% discount in the amount that you actually pay.
If you are involved in an accident, don’t drive away. Accidents must be reported (something Greek motorists often fail to do) before the insurance companies consider claims. Try to get the other driver’s details as soon as possible; hit-and-run is all too common in Greece. If the police take you in (they can hold you for 24 hours if there is a fatality, regardless of fault), you have the right to call your local embassy or consulate for help getting a lawyer.
Driving In and Out of Athens
Greece’s two main highways, Athens–Corinth, and Athens–Thessaloniki (Ethniki Odos and the Attiki Odos), circulate traffic around the metropolis. Avoid using them during periods of mass exodus, such as Friday afternoon or Sunday evening. These highways and the Egnatia Odos, which goes east to west across northern Greece, along with the secondary roads, cover most of the mainland, but on islands, some areas (beaches, for example) are accessible via dirt or gravel paths. With the exception of main highways and a few flat areas like the Thessalian plain, you will average about 60 km (37 miles) an hour: expect some badly paved or disintegrating roads; stray flocks of goats; slow farm vehicles; detours; curves; and, near Athens and Thessaloniki, traffic jams. At the Athens city limits, signs in English mark the way to Syntagma and Omonia squares in the center. When you exit Athens, signs are well marked for the National Road, usually naming Lamia and Thessaloniki for the north and Corinth or Patras for the southwest.
When you reserve a car, ask about cancellation penalties, taxes, drop-off charges (if you’re planning to pick up the car in one city and leave it in another), and surcharges (for being under or over a certain age, for additional drivers, or for driving across state or country borders or beyond a specific distance from your point of rental). Don’t forget to check if the rental price includes unlimited mileage. All these things can add substantially to your costs. Request car seats and extras such as GPS when you book.
Rates are sometimes—but not always—better if you book in advance or reserve through a rental agency’s or an airline’s website. There are other reasons to book ahead, though: for popular destinations, during busy times of the year, or to ensure that you get certain types of cars (vans, SUVs, exotic sports cars).
Make sure that a confirmed reservation guarantees you a car. Agencies sometimes overbook, particularly for busy weekends and holiday periods.
Because driving in Greece can be harrowing, car rental prices can be higher than in the United States, and transporting a car by ferry hikes up the fare substantially. The exception is on large islands where the distance between towns is greater and taxi fares are higher; you may want to rent a car or a moped for the day for concentrated bouts of sightseeing. Official rates in Greece during high season (July–September) are much cheaper if you rent through local agents rather than the large international companies.
In summer, renting a small car with standard transmission will cost you about €275 to €375 for a week’s rental (including tax, insurance, and unlimited mileage). Four-wheel-drives can cost anywhere from €100 to €180 a day, depending on availability and the season. Luxury cars are available at some agencies, such as Europcar, but renting a BMW or a Mercedes can fetch a hefty price—anywhere from €120 per day in low season to €550 a day in high season. This does not include the 23% V.A.T. Convertibles (“open” cars) and minibusses are also available. Probably the most difficult car to rent, unless you reserve from abroad, is an automatic. Note that car rental fees really follow laws of supply/demand so there can be huge fluctuations and, in low season, lots of room for bargaining. Off-season, rental agencies are often closed on islands and in less-populated areas.
If you’re considering moped or motorcycle rental, which is cheaper than a car, especially for getting around on the islands, try Motorent or Easy Moto Rent, both in Athens. On the islands, independent moped rentals are available through local agents.
You can usually reduce prices by reserving a car through a major rental agency before you leave. Or opt for a midsize Greek agency and bargain for a price; you should discuss when kilometers become free. These agencies provide good service, and prices are at the owner’s discretion. It helps if you have shopped around and can mention another agency’s offer. If you’re visiting several islands or destinations, larger agencies may be able to negotiate a better total package through their local offices or franchises. Some hotels or airlines may also have partner agencies that offer discounts to guests.
In Greece, your own driver’s license is not acceptable unless you are a citizen of the European Union. For non-EU citizens an international driver’s permit (IDP) is necessary . To rent, you must have had your driver’s license for one year and be at least 21 years old if you use a credit card (sometimes you must be 23 if you pay cash); for some car categories and for some agencies, you must be 25. You need the agency’s permission to ferry the car or cross the border (Europcar does not allow across-the-border rentals). A valid driver’s license is usually acceptable for renting a moped, but you will need a motorcycle driver’s license if you want to rent a larger bike.
Most major car-rental agencies have several offices in Athens and also at the Athens airport, in major cities like Thessaloniki, and often throughout the country.
In Greece, as everywhere, unscrupulous taxi drivers sometimes try to take advantage of out-of-towners. All taxis must display the rate card; it’s usually on the dashboard, though taxis outside the big cities don’t bother. Ask your hotel concierge or owner before engaging a taxi what the fare to your destination ought to be. It should cost between €35 and €50 from the airport (depending on whether you are traveling with Rate 1 or Rate 2 taxi charges) to the Athens city center (this includes tolls) and about €15 to €25 from Piraeus port to the center. It does not matter how many are in your party (the driver isn’t supposed to squeeze in more than four); the metered price remains the same. Taxis must give passengers a receipt (apodiksi) if requested.
Make sure that the driver turns on the meter to Rate (Tarifa) 1 (€0.68), unless it’s between midnight and 5 am when Rate (Tarifa) 2 (€1.19) applies. Remember that the meter starts at €1.19 and the minimum is €3.16 in Athens and Thessaloniki (€3.40 for the rest of the country). A surcharge applies when taking a taxi to and from the airport (€3.84) and from (but not to) ports, bus and train stations (€1.07). There is also a surcharge of €0.40 for each item of baggage that’s over 10 kilograms (22 pounds). If you suspect a driver is overcharging, demand to be taken to the police station; this usually brings them around. Complaints about service or overcharging should be directed to the tourist police; at the Athens airport, contact the Taxi Syndicate information desk. When calling to complain, be sure to report the driver’s license number.
Taxi rates are inexpensive compared to fares in most other European countries, mainly because they operate on the jitney system, indicating a willingness to pick up others by blinking their headlights or slowing down. Would-be passengers shout their destination as the driver cruises past. Don’t be alarmed if your driver picks up other passengers (although he should ask your permission first). Drivers rarely pick up additional passengers if you are a woman traveling alone at night. Each new party pays full fare for the distance he or she has traveled.
A taxi is available when a white-and-red sign (elefthero) is up or the light is on at night. Once the driver indicates he is free, he cannot refuse your destination, so get in the taxi before you give an address. He also must wait for you up to 15 minutes, if requested, although most drivers would be unhappy with such a demand. Drivers are familiar with the major hotels, but it’s good to know a landmark near your hotel and to have the address and phone number written in Greek.
You can download the TaxiBeat app from home, an app that lets you order a nearby taxi that is equipped with GPS (to easily find your destination), and choose your taxi driver based on languages spoken and customer rating. The driver will come right to your destination, recognizable by his license plates. The service is at no extra cost.
On islands and in the countryside, the meter may often be on Rate (Tarifa) 2 (outside city limits). Do not assume taxis will be waiting at smaller island airports when your flight lands; often, they have all been booked by arriving locals. If you get stuck, try to join a passenger going in your direction, or call your hotel to arrange transportation.
When you’re taking an early-morning flight, it’s a good idea to reserve a radio taxi the night before, for an additional charge of €3.39 to €5.65 (depending on whether it is daytime or night tariff). These taxis are usually quite reliable and punctual; if you’re not staying in a hotel, the local tourist police can give you some phone numbers for companies. Taxis charge €10.85 per hour of waiting.
Traveling by train is a convenient, cost-effective, and scenic way to reach certain destinations in Greece and to connect to other European countries. The Greek Railway Organization (TrainOSE) runs the national train network and the proastiakos light-rail line is part of the network (www.trainose.gr). In Athens, the main train station is Larissis Station, off Diliyianni street west of Omonia Square . In Thessaloniki, the station is located on Monastiriou avenue, which is a 15-minute drive from Aristotle Square. Besides Athens, there are also intercity light-rail and train networks in Thessaloniki and Patras.
About Travel in Greece
Trains are generally on time. At smaller stations, allow about 15–20 minutes for changing trains; on some routes, connecting routes are coordinated with the main line.
All trains have both first- and second-class seating. On any train, it is best during high season, around holidays, or for long distances to travel first-class, with a reserved seat, as the difference between the first- and second-class coaches can be significant: the cars are cleaner, the seats are wider and plusher, and, most important, the cars are emptier.
The assigned seating of first-class (proti thesi) is a good idea in July and August, for example, when many trains are packed with tourists. Many travelers assume that rail passes guarantee them seats on the trains they wish to ride: Not so. You need to book seats ahead even if you are using a rail pass; seat reservations are required on some European trains, particularly high-speed trains, and are a good idea on trains that may be crowded—particularly in summer on popular routes. You also need a reservation if you purchase sleeping accommodations. On high-speed (IC) trains, you pay a surcharge.
You can pay for all train tickets purchased in Greece with cash (euros) or with credit cards (Visa and MasterCard only). Note that any ticket issued on the train costs 50% more. You can get train schedules from TrainOSE offices.
Popular Train Routes
The main line running north from Athens divides into three lines at Thessaloniki, continuing on to Skopje and Belgrade; the Turkish border and Istanbul; and Sofia, Bucharest, and Budapest.
Within Greece, some popular routes include Athens to Thessaloniki, Alexandroupoli (Dikaia), Florina Kalambaka, Volos, and Chalkida. There is also an InterCity Express service from Athens to Thessaloniki that takes four hours instead of six. At this writing, the IC train costs €39 for A class, versus €29 for B class. In Athens, the light-rail also runs regularly from the airport connecting to the Doukissis Plakentias station, where you can change trains and continue to the city center (Metro Line 3 to Egaleo), using the same ticket. The service can also take you to Kiato, east of Corinth.
A few historic train lines have been kept up and continue to be popular with travelers. The one- hour journey from Diakofto to Kalavryta in the northern Peloponnese travels up a pine-crested gorge in the Peloponnese mountains. It is one of the oldest rail lines in Greece, assigned by PM Harilaos Trikoupis in 1889. The 90-minute trip aboard the steam train of Pelion departs from Ano Lehonia, stops in Ano Gatzea, and arrives in Milies, crossing breathtaking landscapes in central and northern Greece. Finally, the 45-minute journey from Katakolo to Ancient Olympia passes through Pirgos.
You can head to the TrainOSE website to view train schedules in English as well as to book tickets online. You can also purchase tickets in person at any OSE station. Light-rail tickets are available at stations and cost €1.40 for a basic ticket and €8 one-way for the airport. Validating machines are on the platform, not on board.
Greece is one of 25 countries in which you can use Eurail passes, which provide unlimited first-class rail travel, in all of the participating countries, for the duration of the pass. Please note that the Greek National Organization has suspended circulation of international trains indefinitely (i.e., trains connecting Greece to Bulgaria, Fyrom, or Turkey), though you will still be able to use your pass within the country, or to travel from Italy to Greece. If you plan to rack up the miles in several countries, get a standard Eurail Global Pass. These are available for 15 days of travel ($798), 21 days ($1,031), one month ($1,269), two months ($1,793), and three months ($2,210).
In addition to standard Eurail passes, ask about special rail-pass plans. Among these are the Eurail Pass Youth (for those under age 26), the Eurail Saver Pass (which gives a discount for two or more people traveling together), and the Eurail Flexi Pass (which allows a certain number of travel days within a set period). Among those passes you might want to consider: the Greece Pass allows first-class rail travel throughout Greece; the standard three days’ unlimited travel in a month costs $158, and the rate rises per day of travel added. The Greece–Italy Pass gives you four days’ travel time over a span of two months; the cost is $395 for first-class, $314 for second-class. Youths (18–25 years of age) pay about 50% less, and there are special rates for groups and families.
Passes can be shipped to anywhere you are in Europe, as well as worldwide, but can’t be shipped to a particular train station. Shipping is by registered mail.
Major hotels have high-speed Internet connections in rooms, and most smaller ones have at least a terminal in the lounge for guests’ use. Telecom privatization has helped Greece close the Internet gap with other European countries and, especially on touristed islands, you’ll find most cafés offer Wi-Fi, often for free.
The City of Athens offers free Wi-Fi access in Syntagma Square, Thissio, Gazi-Karameikos, and Platia Kotzia (Kotzia Square), and a number of rural towns also have free Wi-Fi in public areas. If your cell phone works in Greece and you have a connection kit for your laptop, then you can buy a mobile connect card to get online. Head to the national electronic store chains Plaisio, Multirama, and Germanos to purchase mobile Internet access within Greece by the day, week, or month.
Computer parts, batteries, and adaptors of any brand are expensive in Greece and may not be in stock when you need them, so carry spares for your laptop. Also note that many upscale hotels will rent you a laptop.
City of Athens Wi-Fi Spots. This has a list of Wi-Fi hook-up spots and cafés in Athens. www.athenswifi.gr.
Cybercafes. The Web site lists more than 4,200 Internet cafés in 141 countries around the world. www.cybercafes.com.
Free Wi-Fi in Greece. This Web site lists free wi-fi internet hotspots in Greece, according to region. www.free-wifi.gr.
Greece’s phone system has improved markedly. You can direct dial in most better hotels, but there is usually a huge surcharge, so use your calling card or a card telephone in the lobby or on the street. You can make calls from most large establishments, kiosks, card phones (which are everywhere), and from the local office of Greece’s major telephone company, known as OTE (“oh-teh”).
Establishments may have several phone numbers rather than a central switchboard. Also, many now use mobile phones, indicated by an area code that begins with 69.
Doing business over the phone in Greece can be frustrating—the lines always seem to be busy, and English-speaking operators and clerks are few. You may also find people too busy to address your problem—the independent-minded Greeks are not service-conscious. It is far better to develop a relationship with someone, for example a travel agent, to get information about ferry schedules and the like, or to go in person and ask for information face-to-face. Though OTE has updated its phone system in recent years, it may still take you several attempts to get through when calling from an island or the countryside.
The country code for Greece is 30. When dialing Greece from the United States, Canada, or Australia, first dial 011, then 30, the country code, before punching in the area code and local number. From continental Europe, the United Kingdom, or New Zealand, start with 0030.
Calling Within Greece
For Greek directory information, dial 11888; many operators speak English. In most cases you must give the surname of the shop or restaurant proprietor to be able to get the phone number of the establishment; tourist police are more helpful for tracking down the numbers of such establishments.
Pronunciations for the numbers in Greek are: one (“eh-na”); two (“dthee-oh”); three (“tree-a”); four (“tess-ehr-a”); five (“pen-de”); six (“eh-ksee”); seven (“ef-ta”); eight (“och-toh”); nine (“eh-nay-ah”); ten (“dtheh-ka”).
All telephone numbers in Greece have 10 digits. Area codes now have to be dialed even when you are dialing locally. For cell phones, dial both the cell prefix (a four-digit number beginning with 69) and the telephone number from anywhere in Greece.
You can make local calls from the public OTE phones using phone cards, not coins.
Keep in mind since there are more cell phone users than ever, OTE hasn’t bothered to repair or replace broken phone booths. Some kiosks may also have metered telephones, which allow you to make local or international calls.
Calling Outside Greece
To place an international call from Greece, dial 00 to connect to an international network, then dial the country code (for the United States and Canada, it’s 1), and then the area code and number. If you need assistance, call 134 to be connected to an international operator. You can use AT&T, Sprint, and MCI services from public phones as well as from hotels.
MCI-Verizon. 800/888–8000; 800/444–3333.
AT&T Direct. 00/800–1311; 1–800/225–5288.
MCI-Verizon WorldPhone. 00/800–1211; 1-800/888–8000.
Sprint International Access. 00/800–1411; 800/877–4646.
Phone cards worth €4 or €10 can be purchased at kiosks, convenience stores, or the local OTE office and are the easiest way to make calls from anywhere in Greece. These phone cards can be used for domestic and international calls (the Chronocarta phone card especially costs €6 and allows one to talk for up to 290 minutes to U.S. and Canadian land lines and mobile phones). Once you insert the phone card, the number of units on the card will appear; as you begin talking, the units will go down. Once all the units have been used, the card does not get recharged—you must purchase another.
If you have a multiband phone (some countries use different frequencies from what’s used in the United States) and your service provider uses the world-standard GSM network (as do T-Mobile, AT&T, and Verizon), you can probably use your phone abroad. Roaming fees can be steep, however: 99¢ a minute is considered reasonable. And overseas you normally pay the toll charges for incoming calls. It’s almost always cheaper to send a text message than to make a call, since text messages have a very low set fee (often less than 5¢). In Greek mobile phone contracts, only the caller and not the person receiving the call can be charged for local phone calls (both are charged for international calls, however).
If you just want to make local calls, consider buying a new SIM card (note that your provider may have to unlock your phone for you to use a different SIM card) and a prepaid service plan in the destination. You’ll then have a local number and can make local calls at local rates. If your trip is extensive, you could also simply buy a new cell phone in your destination, as the initial cost will be offset over time.
If you travel internationally frequently, save one of your old mobile phones or buy a cheap one on the Internet; ask your cell phone company to unlock it for you, and take it with you as a travel phone, buying a new SIM card with pay-as-you-go service in each destination.
If you take your cell phone with you, call your provider in advance and ask if it has a connection agreement with a Greek mobile carrier. If so, manually switch your phone to that network’s settings as soon as you arrive. To do this, go to the Settings menu, then look for the Network settings and follow the prompts.
If you’re traveling with a companion or group of friends and plan to use your cell phones to communicate with each other, buying a local prepaid connection kit is far cheaper for voice calls or sending text messages than using your regular provider. The most popular local prepaid connection kits are Cosmote’s What’s Up, Vodafone’s Unlimited and CU, or Wind’s F2G or Card To All—these carriers all have branded stores, but you can also buy cell phones and cell phone packages from the Germanos and Plaisio chain stores as well as large supermarkets like Carrefour.
CUSTOMS AND DUTIES
For non-EU citizens, foreign banknotes amounting to more than $2,500 must be declared for re-export.
Only one per person of such expensive portable items as cameras, camcorders, computers, and the like is permitted into Greece. You should register these with Greek Customs upon arrival to avoid any problems when taking them out of the country again. Sports equipment, such as bicycles and skis, is also limited to one (or one pair) per person. One windsurf board per person may be imported/exported duty-free.
To bring in a dog or a cat, they must have a pet passport and be identified by the electronic identification system (microchip) according to ISO standard 11794 or 11785. They must also have been vaccinated against rabies. Traveling pets must also be accompanied by a health certificate for non-commercial movement of pets (regulation EC No. 998/2003) endorsed by a USDA state veterinarian.
For more information on Greek Customs, check with your local Greek Consulate or the Greek Ministry of Finance in Athens, which has more detailed information on customs and import/export regulations.
Finally, there are also limits to the number of goods you can bring back to the United States duty-free. The U.S. Customs and Border Protection department maintains accurate information on those limits.
Meals and Mealtimes
Greeks don’t really sit down for breakfast, so with the exception of hotels, few places serve that meal. You can pick up a cheese pie, a baguette sandwich, and rolls at a bakery or a sesame-coated bread ring called a koulouri sold by city vendors; order a tost (“toast”), a sort of dry grilled sandwich, usually with cheese or paper-thin ham slices, at a café; or dig into a plate of yogurt with honey. Local bakeries may offer fresh doughnuts in the morning. On the islands in summer, cafés serve breakfast, from Continental to combinations that might include Spanish omelets and French coffee. Caffeine junkies can get a cup of coffee practically anywhere.
Greeks eat their main meal at either lunch or dinner, so the offerings are the same. For lunch, heavyweight meat-and-potato dishes can be had, but you might prefer a real Greek salad (no lettuce, a slice of feta with a pinch of oregano, and ripe tomatoes, cucumber, onions, and green peppers) or souvlaki or grilled chicken from a taverna. For a light bite you can also try one of the popular Greek chain eateries such as Everest or Grigori’s for grilled sandwiches or spanakopita and tiropita (cheese pie); or Goody’s, the local equivalent of McDonald’s, where you’ll find good-quality burgers, pasta dishes, and salads.
Coffee and pastries are eaten in the afternoon, usually at a café or zaharoplastio (pastry shop). The hour or so before restaurants open for dinner—around 7—is a pleasant time to have an ouzo or glass of wine and try Greek hors d’oeuvres, called mezedes, in a bar, ouzeri, or mezedopoleio (Greek tapas place). Dinner is often the main meal of the day, and there’s plenty of food. Starters include dips such as taramosalata (made from fish roe), melitzanosalata (made from smoked eggplant, lemon, oil, and garlic), and the well-known yogurt, cucumber, and garlic tzatziki. A typical dinner for a couple might be two to three appetizers, an entrée, a salad, and wine. Diners can order as little or as much as they like, except at very expensive establishments. If a Greek eats dessert at all, it will be fruit or a modest wedge of a syrup-drenched cake like ravani or semolina halvah, often shared between two or three diners. Only in fancier restaurants might diners order a tiramisu or crème brûleé with an espresso. One option for those who want a lighter, shared meal is the mezedopoleio.
In most places, the menu is broken down into appetizers (orektika) and entrées (kiria piata), with additional headings for salads (Greek salad or horta, boiled wild greens; this also includes dips like tzatziki) and vegetable side plates. But this doesn’t mean there is any sense of a first or second “course,” as in France. Often the food arrives all at the same time, or as it becomes ready.
Breakfast is usually available until 10:30 or 11 at many hotels and until early afternoon in beach cafés. Lunch is between 1:00 and 6 (especially during summer months), and dinner is served from about 8:00 to midnight, or even later in the big cities and resort islands. Most Greeks dine very late, around 10 or 11 pm. Unless otherwise noted, the restaurants listed are open daily for lunch and dinner.
Regardless of where you are, it’s a good idea to make a reservation if you can. In some places (especially the more upmarket restaurants), it’s expected. For popular restaurants, book as far ahead as you can and reconfirm on the day of your reservation. (Large parties should always call ahead to check the reservations policy.)
The electrical current in Greece is 220 volts, 50 cycles AC. Wall outlets take Continental-type plugs with two round oversize prongs. If your appliances are dual-voltage, you’ll need only an adapter; if not, you’ll also need a step-down converter/transformer (United States and Canada).
Consider making a small investment in a universal adapter, which has several types of plugs in one lightweight, compact unit. Most laptops and mobile phone chargers are dual voltage (i.e., they operate equally well on 110 and 220 volts) so require only an adapter. These days the same is true of small appliances such as hair dryers. Always check labels and manufacturer instructions to be sure. Don’t use 110-volt outlets marked “for shavers only” for high-wattage appliances such as hair dryers.
Regrettably, vacations are sometimes marred by emergencies, so it’s good to know where you should turn for help. In Athens and other cities, hospitals treat emergencies on a rotating basis; an ambulance driver will know where to take you. Or, since waving down a taxi can be faster than waiting for an ambulance, ask a cab driver to take you to the closest “e-phee-me-re-von” (duty) hospital. Large islands and rural towns have small medical centers (iatreio) that can treat minor illnesses or arrange for transport to another facility.
Medications are only sold at pharmacies, which are by law staffed by licensed pharmacists who can treat minor cuts, take blood pressure, and recommend cold medication. Pharmacies are marked with a green-and-white cross and there’s one every few city blocks. Outside standard trading hours, there are duty pharmacies offering 24-hour coverage. These are posted in the window of every pharmacy. The tourist police throughout Greece can provide general information and help in emergencies and can mediate in disputes.
HEALTH AND SAFETY
Greece’s strong summer sun and low humidity can lead to sunburn or sunstroke if you’re not careful. A hat, a light-color long-sleeve shirt, and long pants or a sarong are advised for spending a day at the beach or visiting archaeological sites. Sunglasses, a hat, and sunscreen are necessities and be sure to drink plenty of water. Most beaches present few dangers, but keep a lookout for the occasional jellyfish and, on rocky coves, sea urchins. Should you step on one, don’t break off the embedded spines, which may lead to infection, but instead remove them with heated olive oil and a needle. Food is seldom a problem, but the liberal amounts of olive oil used in Greek cooking may be indigestible for some. Tap water in Greece is fine in most urban areas, and bottled spring water is readily available. Avoid drinking tap water in many rural areas.
In greener, wetter areas, mosquitoes may be a problem. In addition to wearing insect repellent, you can burn coils (“spee-rahl”) or buy plug-in devices that burn medicated tabs (“pah-steel-ya”). Hotels usually provide these. Citronella candles are usually an effective and more natural way to keep insects away. The only poisonous snakes in Greece are the adder and the sand viper, which are brown or red, with dark zigzags. The adder has a V or X behind its head, and the sand viper sports a small horn on its nose. When hiking, wear high tops and hiking socks and don’t put your feet or hands in crevices without looking first. If bitten, try to slow the spread of the venom until a doctor comes. Lie still with the affected limb lower than the rest of your body. Apply a tourniquet, releasing it every few minutes, and cut the wound a bit in case the venom can bleed out. Do NOT suck on the bite. Whereas snakes like to lie in the sun, the scorpion (rare) likes cool, wet places, in woodpiles and under stones. Apply Benadryl or Phenergan to minor stings, but if you have nausea or fever, see a doctor at once.
For minor ailments, go to a local pharmacy first, where the licensed staff can make recommendations for over-the-counter drugs. Most pharmacies are closed in the evenings and on weekends, but each posts the name of the nearest pharmacy open off-hours. Most state hospitals and rural clinics won’t charge you for tending to minor ailments, even if you’re not an EU citizen; at most, you’ll pay a minimal fee. For a doctor or dentist, check with your hotel, embassy, or the tourist police.
Do not fly within 24 hours of scuba diving.
HOURS OF OPERATION
Most business and retail stores are open weekdays 6 am–9 pm, Saturday 6 am–8 pm, and are closed on Sunday (some more traditional shop owners close for a few hours on Monday, Wednesday, and Saturday afternoons). But each establishment is at the discretion of establishing its own particular timetable within those limits, and establishments in tourist resorts may remain open longer, even after midnight. In 2014, a controversial law was passed for retail businesses in certain areas of Greece, frequented by tourists, to remain open on Sunday. They include Athens, Rafina, Thessaloniki, Chalkidiki, and the islands of Rhodes, Kos, Syros, Mykonos, and Santorini.
For certain categories such as pharmacies, banks, and government offices, hours have always been standardized, but again there are some establishments in tourist resorts that follow extended hours.
Many small businesses and shops in main urban hubs close for at least a week around mid-August, and most tourist establishments, including hotels, shut down on the islands and northern Greece from November until mid-spring. Restaurants, especially tavernas, often stay open on holidays; some close in summer or move to cooler locations. Christmas, New Year’s, Orthodox Easter, and August 15 are the days everything shuts down, although, for example, bars work full force on Christmas Eve, since it’s a social occasion and not particularly family-oriented. Orthodox Easter changes dates every year, so check your calendar. On Orthodox Easter Week, most shops follow a different schedule while on Good Friday, shops open after church services, around 1 pm.
Banks are normally open Monday through Thursday 8–2:30, Friday 8–2, but a few branches of Alpha and Eurobank are open until 7 pm weekdays and on Saturday morning. Hotels also cash traveler’s checks on weekends, and the banks at the Athens airport have longer hours.
Government offices are open weekdays from 8 to 2. For commercial offices, the hours depend on the business, although most private companies have by now adopted the 9–5 schedule.
All gas stations are open daily 6–9 (some close Sunday). These hours are extended during the high season (usually from May 1 to September 30) from 6 am to 10:30 pm and some stations pump all night in the major cities and along the National road and Attica highway. They do not close for lunch.
Pharmacies are open Monday, Wednesday, and Friday from about 8 to 2:30 and Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday from 8 to 2 and 5:30 until 8:30 at night. The pharmacy at Athens International Airport operates 24 hours. According to a rotation system, there is always at least one pharmacy open in any area .
If it’s late in the evening and you need an aspirin, a soft drink, cigarettes, a newspaper, or a pen, look for the nearest open kiosk, called a periptero; these kiosks on street corners everywhere brim with all kinds of necessities. Owners stagger their hours, and many towns have at least one kiosk that stays open late, occasionally through the night. Neighborhood minimarkets also stay open late.
January 1 (New Year’s Day); January 6 (Epiphany); Clean Monday (first day of Lent); March 25 (Feast of the Annunciation and Independence Day); Good Friday; Greek Easter Sunday; Greek Easter Monday; May 1 (Labor Day); Pentecost; August 15 (Assumption of the Holy Virgin); October 28 (Ochi Day); December 25–26 (Christmas Day and Boxing Day).
Only on Orthodox Easter and August 15 do you find that just about everything shuts down. It’s harder getting a room at the last minute on these days (especially the latter), and traveling requires stamina if you want to survive on the ferries and the highways. On the other hand, the local rituals and rites associated with these two celebrations are interesting and occasionally moving (like the Epitaphios procession on Good Friday).
Although costs have risen astronomically since Greece switched to the euro currency in 2002, the country will seem reasonably priced to travelers from the United States and Great Britain. Popular tourist resorts (including some of the islands) and the larger cities are markedly more expensive than the countryside. Though the price of eating in a restaurant has increased, you can still get a bargain. Hotels are generally moderately priced outside the major cities, and the extra cost of accommodations in a luxury hotel, compared to in an average hotel, often seems unwarranted.
Other typical costs: soft drink (can) €1.50, in a café €2.5; spinach pie, €2.20; souvlaki, €2.50; local bus, €1.20; foreign newspaper, €3–€5.30.
Prices throughout are given for adults. Discounts are almost always available for children, students, and senior citizens.
ATMs and Banks
Your own bank will probably charge a fee for using ATMs abroad; the foreign bank you use may also charge a fee. Nevertheless, you’ll usually get a better rate of exchange at an ATM than you will at a currency-exchange office or even when changing money in a bank. And extracting funds as you need them is a safer option than carrying around a large amount of cash.
PIN numbers with more than four digits are not recognized at ATMs in Greece. If yours has five or more, remember to change it before you leave. Letters do not generally appear on Greek ATM keypads.
ATMs are widely available throughout the country. Virtually all banks, including the National Bank of Greece (known as Ethniki), have machines that dispense money to Cirrus or Plus cardholders. You may find bank-sponsored ATMs at harbors and in airports as well. Other systems accepted include Visa, MasterCard, American Express, Diners Club, and Eurocard, but exchange and withdrawal rates vary, so shop around and check fees with your bank before leaving home. The word for PIN is pronounced “peen,” and ATMs are called alpha taf mi, after the letters, or just to mihanima, “the machine.” Machines usually let you complete the transaction in English, French, or German and seldom create problems, except Sunday night, when they sometimes run out of cash. For most machines, the minimum amount dispensed is €20. Sometimes an ATM may refuse to “read” your card. Don’t panic; it’s probably the machine. Try another bank.
At some ATMs in Greece you may not have a choice of drawing from a specific account. If you have linked savings and checking accounts, make sure there’s money in both before you depart.
It’s a good idea to inform your credit-card company before you travel, especially if you don’t travel internationally very often. Otherwise, the credit-card company might put a hold on your card owing to unusual activity—not a good thing halfway through your trip. Record all your credit-card numbers—as well as the phone numbers to call if your cards are lost or stolen—in a safe place, so you’re prepared should something go wrong. Both MasterCard and Visa have general numbers you can call (collect if you’re abroad) if your card is lost, but you’re better off calling the number of your issuing bank, since MasterCard and Visa usually just transfer you to your bank; your bank’s number is usually printed on your card.
If you plan to use your credit card for cash advances, you’ll need to apply for a PIN at least two weeks before your trip. Although it’s usually cheaper (and safer) to use a credit card abroad for large purchases (so you can cancel payments or be reimbursed if there’s a problem), note that some credit-card companies and the banks that issue them add substantial percentages to all foreign transactions, whether they’re in a foreign currency or not. Check on these fees before leaving home, so there won’t be any surprises when you get the bill.
Before you charge something, ask the merchant whether or not he or she plans to do a dynamic currency conversion (DCC). In such a transaction the credit-card processor (shop, restaurant, or hotel, not Visa or MasterCard) converts the currency and charges you in dollars. In most cases you’ll pay the merchant a 3% fee for this service in addition to any credit-card company and issuing-bank foreign-transaction surcharges.
Dynamic currency conversion programs are becoming increasingly widespread. Merchants who participate in them are supposed to ask whether you want to be charged in dollars or the local currency, but they don’t always do so. And even if they do offer you a choice, they may well avoid mentioning the additional surcharges. The good news is that you do have a choice. And if this practice really gets your goat, you can avoid it entirely thanks to American Express; with its cards, DCC simply isn’t an option.
Should you use a credit card or a debit card when traveling? Both have benefits. A credit card allows you to delay payment and gives you certain rights as a consumer. A debit card, also known as a check card, deducts funds directly from your checking account and helps you stay within your budget. When you want to rent a car, though, you may still need an old-fashioned credit card.
Both types of plastic get you cash advances at ATMs worldwide if your card is properly programmed with your personal identification number (PIN). Both offer excellent, wholesale exchange rates. And both protect you against unauthorized use if the card is lost or stolen. Your liability is limited to $50, as long as you report the card missing. But shop owners often give you a lower price if you pay with cash rather than credit, because they want to avoid the credit-card bank fees. Note that the Discover card is not widely accepted in Greece.
Currency and Exchange
Greece uses the euro. Under the euro system, there are eight coins: 1 and 2 euros, plus 1, 2, 5, 10, 20, and 50 euro cents. Euros are pronounced “evros” in Greek; cents are known as “lepta.” All coins have the euro value on one side; the other side has each country’s unique national symbol. Greece’s images range from triremes to a depiction of the mythological Europa being abducted by Zeus transformed as a bull. Bills (banknotes) come in seven denominations: 5, 10, 20, 50, 100, 200, and 500 euros. Bills are the same for all EU countries.
Off Syntagma Square in Athens, the National Bank of Greece, Alpha Bank, and Pireos Bank have automated machines that change your foreign currency into euros. When you shop, remember that it’s always easier to bargain on prices when paying in cash instead of by credit card.
If you do use an exchange service, good options are American Express and Eurochange. Watch daily fluctuations and shop around. Daily exchange rates are prominently displayed in banks and listed in the International New York Times. In Athens, around Syntagma Square is the best place to look. In some tourist resorts you might be able to change money at the post office, where commissions may be lower than at banks. To avoid lines at airport exchange booths, get a bit of local currency before you leave home.
Even if a currency-exchange booth has a sign promising no commission, rest assured that there’s some kind of substantial, hidden fee. (Oh . . . that’s right. The sign didn’t say no fee.) And as for rates, you’re almost always better off getting foreign currency at an ATM or exchanging money at a bank.
PASSPORTS AND VISAS
All citizens (even infants) of the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand need only a valid passport to enter Greece for stays of up to 90 days. Your passport should be valid for at least three months beyond the period of your stay. If you leave after 90 days and don’t have a visa extension, you will be fined anywhere from €600 to €1,300 (depending on how long you overstay) by Greek airport officials, who are not flexible on this issue. Even worse perhaps, you must provide hartosima (revenue stamps) for the documents, which you don’t want to have to run around and find as your flight is boarding. If you want to extend your stay beyond 90 days, there is heavy bureaucracy involved but eventually you will be able to do it for a cost of about €150. Inquire at your local police station for details.
If you are going to visit Greece, you can enroll to the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program of the U.S. Embassy in Greece. Then, you can be kept up-to-date with important safety and security announcements. Enrolling also will help your friends and family get in touch with you in an emergency.
Before your trip, make two copies of your passport’s data page (one for someone at home and another for you to carry separately). Or scan the page and email it to someone at home and/or yourself.
U.S. citizens traveling to Greece do not need visas. Greece is a party to the Schengen Agreement. As such, U.S. citizens may enter Greece for up to 90 days for tourist or business purposes without a visa. Your passport should be valid for at least three months beyond the period of your stay. You may also need to demonstrate at the port of entry that you have sufficient funds for your trip and that you have a return airline ticket.
Taxes are typically included in all quoted prices.
Value-Added Tax, 6.5% for books and 23% (V.A.T. is 15% on some remote Aegean islands) for almost everything else, called FPA (pronounced “fee-pee-ah”) by Greeks, is included in the cost of most consumer goods and services, including most groceries. If you are a citizen of a non-EU country, you may get a V.A.T. refund on products (except alcohol, cigarettes, or toiletries) worth €120 or more bought in Greece in one shopping spree from licensed stores that usually display a Tax-Free Shopping sticker in their window. Ask the shop to complete a refund form called a Tax-Free Check receipt for you, which you show at Greek customs.
Have the form stamped like any customs form by customs officials when you leave the country or, if you’re visiting several European Union countries, when you leave the EU. Be ready to show customs officials what you’ve bought (pack purchases together, in your carry-on luggage); budget extra time for this. After you’re through passport control, take the form to a refund-service counter for an on-the-spot refund, or mail it back in the pre-addressed envelope given to you at the store. You receive the total refund stated on the form, but the processing time can be long, especially if you request a credit-card adjustment. Note that there are no cash refunds issued in the United States anymore.
If you are leaving from the Eleftherios Venizelos airport for a country outside the EU, after your Tax-Free Check form has been stamped, you can go directly to the Eurochange bureau de change (extra-Schengen area, Gates 1–4) and get your refund cash.
A refund service can save you some hassle, for a fee. Global Blue is a Europe-wide service with 300,000 affiliated stores and more than 200 international tax refund offices at major airports and border crossings. The service issues refunds in the form of cash, check, or credit-card adjustment, minus a processing fee. If you don’t have time to wait at the refund counter, you can mail in the form instead.
How much to tip in Greece, especially at restaurants, is confusing and is usually up to the discretion of the individual.
Comprehensive trip insurance is recommended for all vacations purchased through Vacays4U. Comprehensive policies typically cover trip cancellation and interruption, letting you cancel or cut your trip short because of illness, or, in some cases, acts of terrorism. Ask about insurance policies that cover evacuation and medical care. Some also cover you for trip delays because of bad weather or mechanical problems as well as for lost or delayed luggage.
Always read the fine print of your policy to make sure you’re covered for the risks that most concern you. Compare several policies to be sure you’re getting the best price and range of coverage available.