There are vast numbers of tourist beds in Greece, and most of the year you can rely on simply turning up and finding something. At Easter and in July and August, however, you can run into problems unless you’ve booked in advance. The economic crisis and subsequent loss of domestic tourism has tended to depress prices, and what you pay may depend on how far you are willing to bargain.
In cities and mainland towns you’ll probably stay in hotels, but in the resorts and islands the big hotels and self-catering complexes are mostly pre-booked by package-holiday companies for the whole season. Although they may have vacancies if you just turn up, non-package visitors are far more likely to find themselves staying in smaller, simpler places which usually describe themselves simply as “rooms”, or as apartments or studios. Standards here can vary from spartan (though invariably clean) to luxurious, but the vast majority are purpose-built blocks where every room is en suite, and where the minimal furnishings are well adapted to the local climate – at least in summer.
There are typically three seasons which affect prices: October to April (low), May, June and September (mid) and July and August (high) – though Easter and the first two weeks of August may be in a higher category still. Urban hotels with a predominantly business clientele tend to charge the same rates all year. Elsewhere, places that have significant domestic tourism, such as Náfplio, the Pelion or the Argo-Saronic islands, frequently charge significantly more at weekends.
Many of the smaller places offering rooms close from October to April. In winter, then, you may have to stay in hotels in the main towns or ports. On smaller islands, there may be just one hotel and a single taverna that stays open year-round. Be warned also that resort or harbour hotels which do operate through the winter are likely to have a certain number of prostitutes as long-term guests; licensed prostitution is legal in Greece, and the management may consider this the most painless way to keep the bills paid.
The tourist police set official categories for hotels, starting with L (Luxury) and then from A down to the rarely encountered E class; all except the top category have to keep within set price limits. The letter system is being slowly replaced with a star grading system; L is five-star, E is no-star, etc. Ratings correspond to the facilities available (lifts, dining room, pool etc), a box-ticking exercise which doesn’t always reflect the actual quality of the hotel; there are plenty of D-class hotels which are in practice smarter and more comfortable than nearby C-class outfits.
C-class hotels and below have only to provide the most rudimentary of continental breakfasts – sometimes optional for an extra charge – while B-class and above will usually offer a buffet breakfast including cheese, cold meats, eggs and cereals.
Single rooms are rare, and generally poor value – you’ll often have to pay the full double-room price or haggle for around a third off; on the other hand, larger groups and families can almost always find triple and quadruple rooms, and fancier hotels may have family suites (two rooms sharing one bathroom), all of which can be very good value.
Private rooms and apartments
Many places categorized as apartments or rooms are every bit as comfortable as hotels, and in the lower price ranges are usually more congenial and better value. At their most basic, rooms (dhomátia – but usually spotted by a “Rooms for Rent” or Zimmer Frei sign) might be literally a room in someone’s house, a bare space with a bed and a hook on the back of the door, and washing facilities outside; the sparse facilities offset by the disarming hospitality you’ll be offered as part of the family. However, these days almost all are purpose-built, with comfortable en-suite accommodation and balconies – at the fancier end of the scale you’ll find studio and apartment complexes with marble floors, pools, bars and children’s playgrounds. Many have a variety of rooms at different prices, so if possible always ask to see the room first. Places described as studios usually have a small kitchenette – a fridge, sink and a couple of hotplates in the room itself – while apartments generally have at least one bedroom and separate kitchen/living room.
Areas to look for rooms, along with recommendations of the best places, are included in the guide. The rooms may also find you, as owners descend on ferry or bus arrivals to fill any space they have, sometimes with photos of their premises. This can be great, but you can also be in for a nasty surprise – usually because the rooms are much further than you had been led to believe, or bear no relation to the pictures. In some places the practice has been outlawed. In the more developed island resorts, where package holiday-makers predominate, room owners may insist on a minimum stay of a few days, or even a week.
Rooms proprietors usually ask to keep your passport: ostensibly “for the tourist police”, but in reality to prevent you leaving with an unpaid bill. Some may be satisfied with just taking down the details, and they’ll almost always return the documents once you get to know them, or if you need them for changing money.
If you are stranded, or arrive very late in a remote mountain or island village, you may well find someone with an unlicensed room prepared to earn extra money by putting you up. This should not be counted on, but things work out more often than not.
Villas and longer-term rentals
Although one of the great dreams of Greek travel is finding an idyllic coastal villa and renting it for virtually nothing for a whole month, there’s no chance at all of your dream coming true in modern Greece. All the best villas are contracted out to agents and let through foreign operators. Even if you do find one empty for a week or two, renting it locally usually costs far more than it would have done to arrange from home. There, specialist operators represent some superb places, from simple to luxurious, and costs can be very reasonable, especially if shared between a few people. Several of the companies listed will arrange stays on two islands over two weeks.
Having said the above, if you do arrive and decide you want to drop roots for a while, you can still strike lucky if you don’t mind avoiding the obvious coastal tourist spots, and are happy with relatively modest accommodation. Pick an untouristed village, get yourself known and ask about; you might still pick up a wonderful deal. Out of season your chances are much better – even in touristy areas, between October and March (sometimes as late as April and May) you can bargain a very good rate, especially for stays of a month or more. Travel agents are another good source of information on what’s available locally, and many rooms places have an apartment on the side or know someone with one to rent.
Hostels and backpackers
Over the years most traditional youth hostels in Greece have closed down; competition from inexpensive rooms meant that in general they were simply not as cost-effective as elsewhere in Europe. However, those that survive are generally very good, and there’s a new generation of youth-oriented backpackers, in the cities and more popular islands, where social life and a party atmosphere may take precedence over a good night’s sleep. Few of them are members of any official organization – though an IYHF card or student ID may save you a few euros – and virtually none will have a curfew or any restrictive regulations. Prices for a dorm bed vary from as little as €12 in a simple, traditional hostel to as much as €25 in the fancier Athenian or island backpackers.
If you’re planning to spend a few nights in hostels, IYHF membership is probably a worthwhile investment. By no means all Greek hostels offer discounts, but there are other membership benefits and the card may be accepted as student ID, for example. At official hostels you may be able to buy membership on the spot; otherwise visit hihostels.com from where you can apply via your local youth hostel association. For booking youth hostels online try either hihostels.com or hostelworld.com.
Greek monasteries and convents have a tradition of putting up travellers (of the appropriate sex). On the mainland, this is still a customary – if steadily decreasing – practice, used mostly by villagers on pilgrimage; on the islands, monastic hospitality is less common, so check locally before heading out to a monastery for the night. Also, dress modestly – no shorts or short skirts – and try to arrive early in the evening, not later than 8pm or sunset (whichever is earlier). For men, the most exciting monastic experience is a visit to the “Monks’ Republic” of Mount Áthos (see Athos etiquette), on the Halkidhikí peninsula, near Thessaloníki. This is, however, a far from casual travel option, involving a fair amount of advance planning and the securing of a permit.
Officially recognized campsites range from ramshackle compounds on the islands to highly organized and rather soulless complexes, often dominated by camper vans. Most places cost in the region of €5–7 a night per person, plus €5–6 per tent or €6–8 per camper van, though at the fanciest sites rates for two people plus a tent can almost equal the price of a basic room. You will need at least a light sleeping bag, since even summer nights can get cool and damp. The website of the official Greek camping organization (panhellenic-camping-union.gr) lists all authorized campsites, with booking for many of them.
Camping outside an official campsite (with or without a tent) is against the law – enforced in most tourist areas and on beaches. If you do camp rough, exercise sensitivity and discretion. Police will crack down on people camping (and especially littering) if a large community of campers develops. Off the beaten track nobody is very bothered, though it is always best to ask permission in the local taverna or café, and to be aware of rising crime, even in rural areas. If you want to camp near a beach, the best strategy is to find a sympathetic taverna, which in exchange for regular patronage will probably be willing to guard small valuables and let you use their facilities.