Travel in Greece
Here are a few thoughts and bits and pieces of advice on how to get around in Greece. It might be useful to read if you are not an experienced Greece traveller.
Renting a car
Throughout Greece, you can find car rental companies – the well-known ‘brand’ names, as well as smaller local ones. If you arrive by plane and your plan is to travel around the mainland, the easiest thing to do is to rent a car at the airport. (Don’t rent one of the smallest and cheapest cars available, which are not comfortable for longer trips.) In July and August, you’d better make your booking in advance; the rest of the year, you could also play it by ear and compare prices and offers of the various car rental companies when you arrive. Some companies offer ‘one-way’ fares allowing you to drop the car off at different locations in Greece. It costs a bit more but it is not a bad idea if you want to minimise your driving, and take a flight back to Athens at the end of your tour.
If you going to spend a few days in Athens first, then I suggest you wait until you leave the city before you rent a car. You won’t need a car in Athens (it is very easy to go around on foot, by metro and by taxi), so you might as well avoid the stress of driving in a city you don’t know, and having to find parking spots. Of course there are plenty of car rental companies with offices in the centre of Athens, but you might want to consider taking a taxi or metro/train back to the airport and rent from there, so you won’t have to drive in town at all.
If after a driving trip on the mainland you go to an island, you might be tempted to keep the same rental car for use on the island. Bear in mind though that ferry transfers for cars are not cheap, and, especially on weekends and in the high season, need to be booked well in advance. Unless the company you are renting from is represented on the island(s) you will be travelling to, it is best to rent a car on the spot. Otherwise, if the car has a problem while you’re on an island with it, getting assistance or a replacement car may take some time. With the exception of the smallest islands (where you won’t need a car anyway!), every island has one or more car rental companies.
Driving in Greece
If the idea of driving in Greece makes you nervous, I understand. There no reason to worry though. As long as you observe the ground rules, you’ll be okay. The roads are generally fine, and there are some good motorways.
As you will probably start your trip by taking the motorway north (direction Lamia and Thessaloniki) or south (direction Korinthos and Tripoli or Patras), I will start with those. One thing you should be aware of is that some basic rules of motorway driving are not fully understood by all drivers on the Greek roads. For instance, ‘slow drivers’ (including vintage drivers in vintage cars doing 50-60 km per hour!) do not always stick to the right but often stay on the middle or left lane, while ‘fast drivers’ (usually male, young and possibly suicidal) do not hesitate to overtake on the right. Not everybody indicates when changing lanes, and they can do so quite suddenly, especially when they are about to take an exit. I’ve even seen cars back up on the emergency lane because they missed an exit. So you should always allow for the foolishness of others: keep a very safe distance from the car in front of you, see what’s happening behind you and to your left and right, and check extra carefully when changing lanes.
There also is the concept of the ‘quasi motorway’ in Greece, with just one lane and an emergency lane in each direction. You will find these for instance on the national road between Korinthos and Patras, and a stretch of motorway northbound, around Lamia. Here, you will see cars go on the emergency lane to allow others to overtake. You should (carefully) do the same if someone wants to overtake you, and of course generally drive with caution. There are a lot of speed controls on these stretches, and you should keep in mind that the car in front of you may suddenly step on the brakes when the driver spots a police car. Speed limits, by the way, are 120 km per hour on the motorway and 80 km on the ‘quasi-motorways’, unless signalled otherwise. You will notice, however, that a lot of drivers don’t quite observe the speed limits, which indeed in many places are set unrealistically low.
Secondary roads are generally okay. There are just a few oddities. For example, stop signs are usually placed about 20 metres before the actual spot where you should stop in order to have a good view – I guess this has something to do with the fact that not everybody is keen to follow rules to the letter. They see a STOP sign but read something along the lines of “start slowing down a little”. Similarly, a traffic light that turns orange is usually interpreted as “step on it”. Not quite what I learned when I took my driving lessons. What else? Don’t be surprised if in the countryside, you suddenly have to stop for a herd of sheep crossing the road. You’ll just have to wait for a minute or two until they’re done. Secondary roads are not always very well lit at night, but that is nothing unique to Greece. Generally, I’ll just repeat the advice I already gave for motorway driving: be a little more careful than you normally would, to allow for the sloppy driving of others.
Finding your way
I suggest that when you arrive at the airport, you buy maps for the areas you will be driving to. There is a newsstand/bookstore in the arrivals hall (opposite to Exit 4) selling maps. The maps of Terrain are probably the best, but they are not sold everywhere. So it is a good idea to get what you need right away. You can order the online through the e-shop of Terrain.
If you use GPS on your iPhone or iPad, don't follow the suggested routes blindly. Don't go on 'white' routes, which can be dirt roads. And when I say dirt, I mean that anything is possible: mud, water, snow, rocks, goats, you name it! Stick to the real roads.
If you want to get onto the motorway to travel north or south, you should follow the signs for Athens and Elefsina from the airport, via the Attiki Odos (there is a €2,80 toll). If you go to the Peloponnese, you should follow the signs for Elefsina until the end of the Attiki Odos, and from there follow signs for Korinthos. If you will be travelling north, you also follow the signs for Elefsina, but take Exit 8 for Lamia, about 20-30 minutes from the airport.
You will see that everywhere in Greece road signs are both in the Greek alphabet as well as in Roman/English letters. The English spelling of place names can vary from one sign to the next, and also from one map to another. Do not worry too much about it – even Athens you may see written as Athina, but they are still talking about the capital of Greece. Sometimes the names of towns are just literally transcribed from the Greek to the Roman alphabet; sometimes the name is more or less translated into English (Athina-Athens, Korinthos-Korinth, etc). Perhaps it sounds a bit confusing, but you’ll get used to it.
Trains and busses
If you want to explore the Greek mainland but you’re not too keen on the idea of driving, you could also consider using trains and/or buses. Intercity trains are fast, cheap and comfortable, but of course you can only go where the tracks take you. There are lines to the Peloponnese going as far as Kalamata, and to the north to destinations including Thessaloniki, Volos, Florina and Alexandroupoli. You can find train schedules at the website of the Hellenic Railways Organisation. It is partly translated into English, but the list of destinations is in Greek.
Buses can pretty much take you anywhere. The website of the intercity coach service KTEL is not very helpful at the moment. It used to have all bus schedules in English, but I can no longer find them. You can call +30-210-5124910 for information.
Taking a plane is obviously the fastest way to get from A to B in Greece (as long as there’s an airport near your B of course!). Aegean Air is my preferred airline for domestic flights. It is very reliable – delays are rare – and it offers excellent service. They have daily flights connecting Athens with Thessaloniki, Heraklion, Hania, Rhodes, Corfu, Kefalonia, Alexandroupolis, Kavala, Ioannina, Mitilini, Santorini, Mykonos, Hios, Samos, Limnos and Kos. You can buy your (e-)ticket online and if you do it early on it is really not all that pricey. Alternatively, you can book on-line with Olympic Airways, who serve more airports (for instance Paros, Syros, Kastelorizo, Leros and Kythera), but are not as punctual and service-oriented. There is also a small company, Sky Express which offers some connections between Crete and other islands.
And then of course there is the most commonly used means of (holiday) transport in Greece, the good old ferry boat. If you haven’t been in the country for the past, let’s say, ten years or so, you’ll probably wonder what “good old” ferryboat I am talking about. Indeed, the ferry boats doing the Greek islands used to be old, and not so good at all. But fortunately, things have considerably improved. You can now get to most islands with a high-speed ferry; these are modern and fast boats that will cut the time you spent at sea roughly in half. They are more expensive than the conventional ferries, but it is a comfortable way to travel. Meanwhile, the oldest ferryboats have been taken out of circulation, and those that remain have cleaned up their act, and are also subject to increasingly strict security regulations.
You can check out the ferry schedules at the website of the “Greek Travel Pages”. (The code for Piraeus/Athens is TZE). Don’t be surprised if your search doesn’t give any results if you make your plans a long time in advance: unfortunately the shipping companies have the habit of announcing their schedules only for a few months at a time. Do check regularly if schedules are out yet, because if you travel in high season (Greek Easter, July, August, as well as any departure from Piraeus on Friday, or return on Sunday) it is necessary to book your ticket in advance. There are several agencies selling ferry tickets on-line, I find this one easy to use.
Transfers from the airport to the centre of Athens or to the port
To get from the airport to the port of Piraeus, you can take a direct bus. The drive takes 45 to 90 minutes, depending on traffic. The bus leaves at the arrivals level. The terminal and the ticket issuing office are right outside exit number 5. It is bus number 96; the ticket costs about €3.
In Piraeus, the bus terminal is not far from the port. Tell the bus driver when you arrive which island you are going to and ask him which direction you should walk. If he or she doesn't know, then walk to the nearest pier and ask there.
Of course you could also take a taxi. There are always plenty waiting at the airport. Taxis in Greece are not expensive, though there are some extras when you take a taxi from the airport on top of the normal fare (special airport and toll charges) and you are also charged for each piece of luggage. The total price should not exceed €50.
There are several ways to get from the airport to the centre of Athens. The easiest way, of course, is to take a taxi, but you can also take the train/metro or the airport bus. You should take bus 95 which goes right to the city centre (Syntagma), normally in less than an hour. Buses leave every 10 - 30 minutes depending on the time of day. The fare is about €3 per person. You can buy tickets from the bus driver, all metro stations or (blue-coloured) public transport ticket booths.
The train/metro is also fast and easy (just slightly more expensive). Line 3 goes straight from the airport to Syntagma square or Monastiraki (Plaka). Trains go every half hour and the trip takes about 45 minutes.
Should you rent a moped?
Perhaps I am not the right person to give advice on this one. Anything that goes on two wheels and that has an engine makes me nervous. But I can’t deny that on the islands a moped or a bike is a great way to get around. It is okay to do so if you are an experienced moped/bike rider and if you are on one of the quieter islands. I have to warn you though that a lot of accidents happen every year, involving tourists on rented mopeds. Some are pretty bad. No matter how careful you are, one crazy car driver is all it takes, and often a lot less than that. Okay, if on the small, almost car-free island of Spetses you rent a moped to go to the beach, there’s not much to worry about. But if, for instance, on Santorini you want to take the road between Fira and Oia, I’d say get yourself a bus ticket instead.
Four-wheel mopeds are getting increasingly popular. I can’t stand them. Besides the fact that on narrow roads they hold up the traffic and often make car drivers engage in some dangerous manoeuvring to overtake, they also give a false sense of security while in fact their stability is not great at all. I personally would not be caught dead riding one of those; I find that tourists going around on them look totally ridiculous.