Compared to the cheaper fare classes on ships and ferries, air travel within Greece can be expensive, but we recommend it for those pressed for time and/or heading for more distant destinations (even if the planes don't always hold strictly to their schedules). Until the late 1990s, Olympic Air maintained a monopoly on domestic air travel and had little incentive to improve service. Eventually it declared bankruptcy, and it was not until 2009 that it was purchased by the Greek-based Marfin Investment Group, which is proceeding with a major overhaul and improvement of services -- better computerized booking, reducing delays, and more hospitable flight attendants. It should be said that Olympic has had one of the best safety records of any major airline.
Book as far ahead of time as possible (especially in summer), reconfirm your booking before leaving for the airport, and arrive at the airport at least an hour before departure; the scene at a check-in counter can be quite hectic.
Olympic Air has offices in Athens, though most travel agents sell tickets. (For online booking, www.olympicair.com) It offers mainland service to Aktaion Preveza, Alexandroupolis, Ioannina, Kalamata, Kavala, Kastoria, Kozani, and Thessaloniki. As for islands, Olympic services Astipalea; Corfu (aka Kerkira); Iraklion, Chania, and Sitia, Crete; Hios (aka Chios); Ikaria; Karpathos; Kassos; Kastellorizo; Kefalonia; Kos; Kithira; Leros; Limnos; Milos; Mykonos; Mitilini (aka Lesvos); Naxos; Paros; Rhodes; Samos; Santorini (aka Thira); Skiathos; Skyros; Siros; and Zakinthos.
Olympic's domestic flights leave from the new international airport at Spata. Most flights are to or from Athens, although during the summer there may be some interisland service. The baggage allowance is 15 kilos (33 lb.) per passenger, except with a connecting international flight; even the domestic flights generally ignore the weight limit unless you are way over. Smoking is prohibited on all domestic flights.
A round-trip ticket costs double the one-way fare. To most destinations within Greece from Athens, round-trip fares (including taxes) at this writing have been about 180€. From Athens to the nearer destinations, fares drop to about 130€. As you can see, such fares are not especially cheap, but there's no denying that for those with limited time, air travel is the best way to go. Ask, too, if Olympic still offers reduced fares for trips Monday through Thursday and trips that include a Saturday-night stay.
Only one other airline provides a real alternative to Olympic: Aegean Airlines. Check www.aegeanair.com, which allows you to order e-tickets. Its prices now pretty much match those of Olympic but are sometimes significantly cheaper. Their service is limited, but includes Alexandroupolis, Chania, Chios, Corfu, Ioannina, Iraklion, Kavala, Kos Mitilini, Mykonos, Patras, Rhodes, Samos, Santorini, and Thessaloniki. They also offer direct flights to London, Paris, Rome, Brussels, Barcelona, Madrid, Milan, Moscow, Bologna, Cyprus, and several major German cities. Foreign travel agents and travel booking websites may not be aware of Aegean Airlines, so visit the airline's actual website. People who have been flying Aegean for several years now find the airline reliable, safe, and hospitable.
In recent years, two other airlines have started up: Athens Airways (www.athensairways.com) and Sky Express (www.skyexpress.gr). Both offer limited service between Athens and various major cites and islands. Sky Express actually seems to be more like a charter airline. You are invited to look into their respective websites, but we must state that we cannot yet recommend these airlines based on either our own or friends' personal experience.
Note: Most Greek domestic tickets are nonrefundable, and changing your flight can cost you up to 30% within 24 hours of departure and 50% within 12 hours.
Driving in Greece is a bit of an adventure, but there's no denying that it's the best way to see the country at your own pace. By and large, the public transportation system outside of the main cities simply doesn't arrange its schedules for the convenience of tourists. Note: Greece has one of the highest accident rates in Europe, probably due somewhat to treacherous roads, mountain terrain, and poor maintenance of older cars as much as to reckless driving -- although Greeks are certainly aggressive drivers. Athens is a particularly intimidating place in which to drive at first, and parking spaces are practically nonexistent in the center of town. (Main routes in and out of cities are sometimes signed by white arrows on blue markers.) A few of the major cities are linked to Athens by modern expressways with tolls; as these highways are currently being upgraded -- and sections are to be privatized -- it is difficult to tell the exact toll charges, but the toll for Athens to Thessaloniki, for instance, has been about 5€ and may well go up. Accidents must be reported to the police for insurance claims.
If you intend to do a fair amount of driving, acquire a good, up-to-date map before you set off. The best source is a British shop that allows for online ordering, www.themapstore.com.
The Greek Automobile Touring Club (ELPA), 395 Mesoyion, 11343 Athens (tel. 210/606-8800), with offices in most cities, can help you with all matters relating to your car, issue International Driver's Licenses, and provide maps and information (tel. 174, 24 hr. daily). ELPA's emergency road service number is tel. 104. Though the service provided by the able ELPA mechanics is free for light repairs, definitely give a generous tip.
The price of gasoline fluctuates considerably from week to week and from service station to service station, but as of the time this guide went to press it was about 1.75€ per liter -- which works out to about US$9.75 for an American gallon. There is no shortage of gasoline stations in all cities, good-size towns, and major tourist centers, but if you are setting off for an excursion into one of the more remote mountain areas or to an isolated beach, fill up on gas before setting out.
Car Rentals -- You will find no end of car-rental agencies throughout Greece, both the familiar international ones and many Greek firms. There is considerable variation in prices, although rates in high season are shockingly high. But we'd be wary of renting from some local agency just because it seems a bit cheaper: if anything goes wrong with your car while out in the countryside, they will probably not be able to do much to help you.
Many cars have a standard shift; if you must have an automatic, make sure in advance that one is available (and be prepared to pay extra). In high season you are strongly advised to make your reservation before leaving home and well in advance. Always ask if the quoted price includes insurance; many credit cards make the collision-damage waiver unnecessary, but you will find that most rental agencies automatically include this in their rates. You can sometimes save by booking at home before you leave; this is especially advisable in summer. If you are shopping around, let the agents see the number of competitors' brochures you're carrying.
Most companies require that the renter be at least 21 years old (25 for some car models). There are occasional reports that some car-rental agencies will not rent to drivers 75 or over -- or even 70 -- but this does not seem to be an issue in Greece. If in doubt, inquire beforehand of the rental company. Technically you should possess an International Driver's License, but many car-rental agencies do accept a valid Australian, Canadian, E.U. nation, or U.S. driver's license. You must also have a major credit card (or be prepared to leave a very large cash deposit).
The major car-rental companies in Athens are Avis (tel. 210/322-4951), Budget (tel. 210/349-8700), Hertz (tel. 210/922-0102), National (tel. 210/349-3400), and AutoEurope (tel. 00800/11574-0300); all have offices in major cities, at most airports, and on most islands. Smaller local companies usually have lower rates, but their vehicles are often older and not as well maintained. If you prefer to combine your car rental with your other travel arrangements, we recommend Galaxy Travel, 35 Voulis, near Syntagma Square (tel. 210/322-2091; www.galaxytravel.gr). It's open Monday through Saturday during the tourist season.
Rental rates vary widely -- definitely ask around. In high season, daily rates with unlimited mileage will be about 65€ for a compact and 135€ for a full-size car; weekly rates with unlimited mileage might run 240€ for a compact and 300€ for a full size. In low season, rates are often negotiable in Greece when you show up in person. The prices quoted should include the various taxes (although there may be a surcharge for pickup and drop-off at airports in high season.)
Note: If you intend to take your car on a ferry or into a foreign country, you must have written permission from the car-rental agency.
Warning on Car Rentals & Licenses -- Legally, all non-E.U. drivers in Greece are required to carry an International Driver's License. In practice, most car-rental agencies will rent to Americans and other non-E.U. drivers with their national driver's licenses, although they usually have to have been licensed for at least 1 year. (One major exception is on the island of Hios, where the International Driver's License is usually required.) This is fine as long as you don't get involved in an accident -- especially one involving personal injury. Then you could discover that your insurance is voided on a technicality. Meanwhile, you run the risk of an individual policeman insisting that you must have the international license. Best, then, is to obtain one before leaving home (from your national automobile association) or from the Greek Automobile Touring Club (EPLA).
Driving Rules -- In Greece, you drive on the right, pass on the left, and yield right of way to vehicles approaching from the right except where otherwise posted. Greece has adopted international road signs, although many Greeks apparently haven't learned what they mean yet. The maximum speed limit is 100kmph (62 mph) on open roads, and 50kmph (30 mph) in town, unless otherwise posted. Seat belts are required. The police have become stricter in recent years, especially with foreigners in rental cars; alcohol tests can be given and fines imposed on the spot. (If you feel you have been stopped or treated unfairly, get the officer's name and report him at the nearest tourist police station.) Honking is illegal in Athens, but you can hear that law broken at any odd moment.
Parking -- Parking a car has become a serious challenge in the cities and towns of Greece. The better hotels provide parking, either on their premises or by arrangement with a nearby lot (our hotel reviews include information on where to park). Greece has few public parking garages or lots; follow the blue signs with the white P and you may be lucky enough to find a space. Most city streets have restricted parking of one kind or another. In some cities, signs -- usually yellow, and with the directions in English as well as in Greek -- will indicate that you can park along the street but must purchase a ticket from the nearest kiosk. Otherwise, be prepared to park fairly far from your base or destination. If you lock the car and remove valuables from sight, you should not have to worry about a break-in.
Taxi Tips: Fares, Zones & Surcharges
Certainly in Athens and several other large cities, travelers may prefer a taxi to driving themselves. Here are some tips that will help you understand and navigate the taxi system as you travel in Greece:
- Taxi rates are in constant (upward) flux, so the rates you see here are the ones in effect as we go to press. First, (if it's before midnight), check to see that the number next to the Euro display on the meter is "1" and not "2" -- the latter is the setting for rates for midnight to 5am or outside the city limits (about double the regular rate). If that's not the case, indicate that you notice.
- All fares are subject to change (by law, that is), but at the time this guide went to press, the meter is allowed to start at the basic 1.20€ as you set off -- check to see if this is the case. Drivers have been known to start with a higher number already registered; or they leave the meter off, then try to extort a larger fare from you. Even if you don't speak a word of Greek besides "taxi," point at the meter and say "meter." The basic rate is higher between midnight and 5am.
- The fare from and to the airport in Athens has been fixed at 35€ except between midnight and 5am when it is 50€. (The fare depends on the arrival time at the destination.) The minimum fare for any trip in and around Athens and Piraeus is 3.10€ and 4€ for the rest of the country. But you shouldn't pay much more than 15€ for a trip within Athens itself.
- At least in the major cities you should be able to ask for receipt from the meter -- if not printed, you can ask the driver to write one out. By the way, the taxi should also have the A/C on when the weather calls for it -- and do not let the driver charge you extra for it.
- For a group, a driver may insist that each person pay the full metered fare. Pay only your proportion of the fare if all of you have the same destination. Pairs or groups of tourists should have a designated arguer; the others can write down names and numbers, stick with the luggage, or look for help -- from a policeman, maitre d', or desk clerk.
- Late at night, especially at airports, ferry stops, and bus and railroad stations, a driver may refuse to use his meter and demand an exorbitant fare. Smile, shake your head, and look for another cab; if none are available, start writing down the driver's license number and he will probably relent.
- Again, these may change, but at press time, legal surcharges include: 2.80€ for the Thessaloniki airport, and 2.30€ for other major airports; .95€ pickup at ports, bus terminals, or train terminals; .35€ per piece of luggage over 10 kilos (22 lb.). (Road tolls are charged to the passengers -- for example, you will pay 2€ for the new road from the airport to Athens.) Radio taxis (called from hotels, for instance) get a 2.50€ surcharge, 5€ for a fixed appointment.
- A driver may say that your hotel is full, but that he knows a better and cheaper one. Laugh, and insist you'll take your chances at your hotel.
- A driver may want to let you off where it's most convenient for him. Be cooperative if it's easier and quicker for you to cross a busy avenue than for him to get you to the other side, but you don't have to get out until you're ready.
If things are obviously not going well for you, conspicuously write down the driver's name and number and report him to the tourist police (tel. 171) if he has the nerve to call your bluff. One of the best countertactics is to simply open the door slightly; he won't want to risk damaging it. (Two passengers can each open a door.)
Our final advice: Don't sweat the small change. So the driver is charging you 12€ for a ride you have been told should be about 10€; are you prepared to go to court for 2€? Any difference above 5€ probably should be questioned -- but it may have to do with traffic delays when the meter ticks at the rate of 9.60€ per hour. Most cabbies are honest -- just be aware of the possibilities. And be sure to reward good service with a tip.
Ferries are the most common, cheapest, and generally most "authentic" way to visit the islands, though the slow roll of a ferry can be stomach-churning. A wide variety of vessels sail Greek waters -- some huge, sleek, and new, with TV lounges, discos, and good restaurants; some old and ill kept, but pleasant enough if you stay on deck.
Ferry service (often accommodating vehicles) is available between Athens (Piraeus) and several other Greek ports. There's regular service from Piraeus to Aegina and to Poros in the Saronic Gulf; most of the Cyclades; Chania and Iraklion on Crete; Hios; Kos; Lesvos; Rhodes; and Samos. For the Cyclades, crossing is shorter and less expensive from Rafina, an hour east of Athens. From Patras, there's daily service to Corfu, Ithaka, and Kefalonia. The Sporades have service from Ayios Konstandinos, Kimi, and Volos (and then among the several islands). There's also service between many of the islands, even between Crete and Rhodes, as well as car-crossing to and from Turkey between Hios and Çesme; Lesvos and Dikeli; and Samos and Kusadasi.
There is also frequent ferry service (often also for cars) between several Italian ports (Ancona, Bari, Brindisi, Venice) and Patras (with stops at several major islands en route) But if you intend to continue on with your vehicle into Turkey or Italy or plan to enter Greece from Turkey, or Italy, you should inquire long before setting off for either country, and make sure that you have all the necessary paperwork.)
So-called "Flying Catamarans" and hydrofoils dubbed "Flying Dolphins" also serve many of the major islands. Undoubtedly faster, they cost almost twice as much as regular ferries, and their schedules are often interrupted by weather conditions. (Never rely on a tight connection between a hydrofoil and, say, an airplane flight.) Ferries, too, often don't hold exactly to their schedules, but they can be fun if you enjoy opportunities to meet people. Drinks and snacks are almost always sold, but the prices and selection are not that good, so you may want to bring along your own.
The map of Greece offered by the Greek National Tourism Organization (EOT), which indicates the common boat routes, is useful in planning your sea travels. Once you've learned what is possible, you can turn your attention to what is available. Remember that the summer schedule is the fullest, spring and fall bring reduced service, and winter schedules are skeletal.
There are dozens of shipping companies, each with its own schedule -- which, by the way, are regulated by the government. Your travel agent might have a copy of the monthly schedule Greek Travel Pages, or you can search online at www.gtp.gr or www.ferries.gr. When in Greece, it's best to go straight to an official information office, a travel agency, or the port authority as soon as you arrive at the place that you intend to leave via ferry.
Photos can give you some idea of the ships, but remember that any photo displayed was probably taken when the ship was new, and it is unlikely that anyone will be able (or willing) to tell you its actual age. The bigger ferries offer greater stability during rough weather. Except in summer, you can usually depend on getting aboard a ferry by showing up about an hour before scheduled departure -- interisland boats sometimes depart before their scheduled times -- and purchasing a ticket from a dockside agent or aboard the ship itself, though this is often more expensive.
Your best bet is to buy a ticket from an agent ahead of time. In Athens, we recommend Galaxy Travel, 35 Voulis, near Syntagma Square (tel. 210/322-2091; www.galaxytravel.gr); and Alkyon Travel, 97 Akademias, near Kanigos Square (tel. 210/383-2545). During the high season, both agencies keep long hours Monday through Saturday.
Note: Different travel agencies sell tickets to different lines -- this is usually the policy of the line itself -- and one agent might not know or bother to find out what else is offered. However, if you press reputable agencies, they will at least tell you the options. The port authority is the most reliable source of information, and the shipping company itself or its agents usually offer better prices and may have tickets when other agents have exhausted their allotment. It often pays to compare vessels and prices.
First class usually means roomy air-conditioned cabins and its own lounge; on some routes it costs almost as much as flying. However, on longer overnight hauls, you're on a comfortable floating hotel and thus save the cost of lodging. Second class means smaller cabins (which you will probably have to share with strangers) and its own lounge. The tourist-class fare entitles you to a seat on the deck or in a lounge. (Tourists usually head for the deck, while Greeks stay inside and watch TV.) Hold onto your ticket; crews conduct ticket-control sweeps.
Note: Those taking a ferry to Turkey from one of the Dodecanese islands must submit passport (or E.U. citizens, an ID) and payment to an agent the day before departure.
To give you some sense of the fares, here are examples for standard accommodations from Piraeus at press time (compare with airfares during this same time): to Crete (Iraklion), 80€-110€; Kos, 60€; Mitilini (Lesvos), 68€; Mykonos, 60€; Rhodes, 100€; Santorini, 60€. And don't be surprised if small taxes get added at the very end.
Early & Late-Season Ferries -- In the early and late weeks of the tourist season -- from April to early May, and September to November -- boat service can be unpredictable. Boat schedules, at the best of times, are tentative -- but during this time, they are wish lists, little more. Our best advice is that you wait until you get to Greece, then go to a major travel agency and ask for help.
Hydrofoils (often referred to as Flying Dolphins, or by Greeks as to flying) are faster than ferries and their stops are much shorter. They have comfortable airline-style seats and are less likely to cause seasickness (but they are noisy) but at least smoking is prohibited. Although they cost somewhat more than ferries, are frequently fully booked in summer, can be quite bumpy during rough weather, and give little or no view of the passing scenery, they're the best choice if your time is limited. Everyone should ride one of these sleek little crafts at least once.
There is regular hydrofoil service to many of the major islands; new routes and new schedules appear often. Longer trips over open sea, such as between Santorini and Iraklion, Crete, may make them well worth the extra expense. (A one-way fare from Heraklion to Santorini in high season, for instance, is 40€-50€.) The forward compartment offers better views but is also bumpy.
The Flying Dolphins are operated by Hellenic Seaways, 6 Astiggos, Karaiskaki Square, 18531 Piraeus (tel. 210/419-9000; www.hellenicseaways.gr). The service from Zea Marina in Piraeus to the Saronic Gulf islands and throughout the Sporades is recommended for its speed and regularity. There is also service from Rafina, on the east coast of Attika, to several of the Cyclades islands.
By Sailboat & Yacht
Many more tourists are choosing to explore Greece by sailboat or yacht. There are numerous facilities and options for both. Experienced sailors interested in renting a boat in Greece can contact the Hellenic Professional and Bareboat Yacht Owners' Association, A8-A9 Zea Marina, 18536 Piraeus (tel. 210/452-6335). Less experienced sailors should consider signing up for one of the flotillas -- a group of 12 or more boats sailing as a group led by a boat crewed by experienced sailors; the largest of such organizations is Sunsail USA, 93 North Park Place Boulevard, Clearwater FL 33759 (tel. 888/350-3568; www.sunsail.com). However, travel agencies should be able to put you in touch with other such outfits.
At the other extreme, those who want to charter a yacht with anything from a basic skipper to a full crew should first contact the Hellenic Professional and Bareboat Yacht Owners' Association or Ghiolman Yachts, 8 Propileon, 11742 Athens (tel. 210/325-5000; www.ghiolman.com). If you feel competent enough to make your own arrangements, contact Valef Yachts Ltd. (tel. 800/223-3845 in the U.S.; www.valefyachts.com). In Greece, you can contact one of these organizations or try a private agency such as Alpha Yachting, 67 Leoforos Possidonos, 16674 Glyfada (tel. 210/968-0486; www.alphayachting.com).
Greek trains are generally slow but are inexpensive and fairly pleasant. The Hellenic State Railway (OSE) also offers bus service from stations adjacent to major train terminals. (Bus service is faster, but second-class train fare is nearly 50% cheaper, and trains offer more comfortable and scenic rides.) If you are interested in special arrangements involving rail passes for Greece (sometimes in combination with Olympic Air flights within Greece), check out www.raileurope.com or call tel. 800/622-8600 in the U.S. or 800/361-7245 in Canada.
For information and tickets in Athens, visit the OSE office at 1-3 Karolou (tel. 210/522-4563), or at 6 Sina (tel. 210/362-4402), both near Omonia Square. From abroad, visit www.ose.gr.
Purchase your ticket and reserve a seat ahead of time, as a 50% surcharge is added to tickets purchased on the train, and some lines are packed, especially in summer. A first-class ticket may be worth the extra cost, as seats are more comfortable and less crowded. There is sleeper service on the Athens-Thessaloniki run. Though the costly sleepers are a good value, you must be prepared to share a compartment with three to five others. Express service (6 hr.) runs twice a day, at 7am and 1pm.
Trains to northern Greece (Alexandropolis, Florina, Kalambaka, Lamia, Larissa, Thessaloniki, Volos, and other towns) leave from the Larissa station (Stathmos Larissis). Trains to the Peloponnese (Argos, Corinth, Patras) leave from the Peloponnese station (Stathmos Peloponnisou). Take trolley no. 1 or 5 from Syntagma Square to either station.
The Peloponnese circuit from Corinth to Patras, Pirgos (near Olympia), Tripolis, and Argos is one way to experience this scenic region, though the Athens-Patras stretch is often crowded. The spectacular spur between Diakofto and Kalavrita is particularly recommended for train enthusiasts.
Public buses are inexpensive but often overcrowded. Local bus lines vary from place to place, but on most islands the bus stop is in a central location with a posted schedule. Destinations are usually displayed on the front of the bus, but you might have to ask. The conductor will collect your fare after departure.
Note that in Athens and other large cities, a bus ticket must be purchased before and validated after boarding. Kiosks usually offer bus tickets as well as schedules. The Athens metro ticket's cost is based on the destination, but usually costs about .70€
Note: Save your ticket in case an "inspector" comes aboard. If you don't have a ticket, the fine can be at least 30 times the price of the ticket!
Greece has an extensive long-distance bus service (KTEL), an association of regional operators with green-and-yellow buses that leave from convenient central stations. For information about the long-distance-bus offices, contact the KTEL office in Athens (tel. 210/512-4910).
In Athens, most buses heading to destinations within Attica leave from the Mavromate terminal, north of the National Archaeological Museum. Most buses to Central Greece leave from 260 Liossion, 5km (3 miles) north of Omonia Square (take local bus no. 024 from Leoforos Amalias in front of the entrance to the National Garden and tell the driver your destination). Most buses to the Peloponnese, and to western and northern Greece leave from the long-distance bus terminal at 100 Kifissou, 4km (2 1/2 miles) northeast of Omonia Square. To get to the long-distance bus terminal, take local bus no. 051 from the stop located 2 blocks west of Omonia, near the big church of Ayios Konstandinos, at Zinonos and Menandrou.
Express buses between major cities, usually air-conditioned, can be booked through travel agencies. Make sure that your destination is understood -- you wouldn't be the first to see a bit more of Greece than bargained for -- and determine the bus's schedule and comforts before purchasing your ticket. Many buses are not air-conditioned, take torturous routes, and make frequent stops. (NO SMOKING signs are generally disregarded by drivers and conductors, as well as by many older male passengers.)
Organized and guided bus tours are widely available. Some of them will pick you up at your hotel; ask the hotel staff or any travel agent in Athens. We especially recommend CHAT Tours, the oldest and probably most experienced provider of a wide selection of bus tours led by highly articulate guides. Almost any travel agent can book a CHAT tour, but if you want to deal with the company directly, contact them through their website, www.chatours.gr; in Athens, the CHAT office is at 9 Xenofontos, 10557 Athens (tel. 210/323-0827). Then there is the longtime favorite, American Express, with offices all over North America and Europe; the Athens office (tel. 210/325-4690) is located at 31 Panepistimiou, right on the corner of Syntagma Square.
Note: Readers have complained that some bus groups are so large they feel removed from the leader; inquire about group size if this concerns you.