The standard overland public transport in Greece is the bus. Train networks are limited, even more so with recent cutbacks. Buses cover most primary routes on the mainland and provide basic connections on the islands. The best way to supplement buses is to rent a scooter, motorbike or car, especially on the islands where – in any substantial town or resort – you will find at least one rental outlet. Inter-island travel means taking ferries, catamarans or hydrofoils, which will eventually get you to any of the sixty-plus inhabited isles. Internal flights are relatively expensive, but can save literally days of travel: Athens–Rhodes is just two hours return, versus 28 hours by boat.
Bus services on major routes are efficient and frequent, departing promptly at scheduled departure times. On secondary roads they’re less regular, with long gaps, but even the remotest villages will be connected a couple of days weekly to the provincial capital. On islands there are usually buses to connect the port and main town (if different) for ferry arrivals or departures. The national network is run by a syndicate of private operators based in each county, known as the KTEL (Kratikó Tamío Ellinikón Leoforíon; t14505 premium call charge and no national online timetable). In medium-sized or large towns there may be several scattered terminals for services in different directions, so make sure you have the right station for your departure.
From major departure points ticketing is computerized, with assigned seating, and on intercity lines such as Athens–Pátra such buses often get fully booked at the ekdhotíria (ticket-issuing office). On secondary rural/island routes, it’s first-come, first-served, with some standing allowed, and tickets dispensed on the spot by a conductor (ispráktoras). Prices are fixed according to distance and there are no cheap advance booking fares; Athens–Pátra costs €27.
The Greek mainland’s railway network is run by OSE (Organismós Sidherodhrómon Elládhos; t1110, wose.gr); with a few exceptions, trains are slower than equivalent buses. However, they can be much cheaper – fifty percent less on non-express services (but much the same on express), even more if you buy a return ticket – and some lines are intrinsically enjoyable, none more than the rack-and-pinion service between Dhiakoftó and Kalávryta in the Peloponnese.
Timetables are available annually as small, Greek-only booklets, but with continual austerity measure reductions in services, it’s better to check online or at station schedule boards or information counters. If you’re starting a journey at a station with computerized facilities you can (at no extra cost) reserve a seat; a carriage and seat number will be printed on your ticket.
There are two basic classes: first and second, the latter about 25 percent cheaper. An express category of train, Intercity (IC on timetables), exists for departures between Alexandhroúpoli, Thessaloníki, Vólos, Kalambáka and Athens; also, when the line upgrade is completed, Pátra and Kalamáta, although at the time of writing all trains on that Peloponnesian route were terminating at Kiáto, from where bus transfers complete the journey.
A second-class ticket on the IC service between Athens and Thessaloníki costs €45 in person, €35 online, with occasional super deals as low as €9. The slower overnight train costs €25 (€19 online) for a seat, €49 (€39 online) for a sleeper.
Tickets issued on board carry a fifty-percent penalty charge; by contrast, under-26s and over-60s get 25 percent discounts at off-peak seasons for non-express trains. InterRail and Eurail pass holders must secure reservations, and pay express supplements, like everyone else.
There are several varieties of sea-going vessels: ordinary ferries, which never exceed 17 knots in velocity; the new generation of “high-speed” boats (tahyplóö) and catamarans, which usually carry cars, and are capable of attaining 27 knots; roll-on-roll-off short-haul barges, nicknamed pandófles (“slippers”), hydrofoils, similarly quick but which carry only passengers; and local kaïkia, small boats which do short hops and excursions in season.
Ferry connections are indicated both on the route map and in the “Arrival and Departure” sections throughout the guide. Schedules are notoriously erratic, however, and must be verified seasonally; details given are for departures between late June and early September. When sailing in season from Pireás to the Cyclades or Dodecanese, you should have a choice of at least two, sometimes three, daily departures. Out-of-season departure frequencies drop sharply, with less populated islands connected only two or three times weekly.
Reliable departure information is available from the local port police (limenarhío) at all island and mainland harbours of any size; around Athens there are offices at Pireás (t210 45 50 000), Rafína (t22940 28888) and Lávrio (t22920 25249). Busier port police have automated phone-answering services with an English option for schedule information. Many companies produce annual schedule booklets, which may not be adhered to as the season wears on – check their websites (if any) for current information, or refer to wgtp.gr or, even better, wopenseas.gr.
Except for some subsidized peripheral routes where older rust-buckets are still used, the Greek ferry fleet is fairly contemporary. Routes and speed can vary enormously, however; a journey from Pireás to Santoríni, for instance, can take anything from five to ten hours.
Tickets are best bought a day before departure, unless you need to reserve a cabin berth or space for a car. During holiday periods – Christmas/New Year, the week before and after Easter, late July to early September – and around the dates of elections, ferries need to be booked at least ten days in advance. Ticketing for most major routes is computerized and you cannot buy your ticket on board. Many companies allow you to reserve places and pay online, but tickets must still be picked up at the port at least fifteen minutes before departure.
The cheapest fare class, which you’ll automatically be sold unless you specify otherwise, is ikonomikí thési, which gives you the run of most boats except for the upper-class restaurant and bar. Most newer boats seem expressly designed to frustrate summertime travellers attempting to sleep on deck. For long overnight journeys, it’s worth considering the few extra euros for a cabin bunk; second-class cabins are typically quadruple, while first-class double cabins with en-suite bathrooms can cost as much as a flight.
Motorbikes and cars get issued separate tickets; the latter have risen in price dramatically of late to as much as five times the passenger fare, depending on size. For example, Sámos–Ikaría costs around €12 per person/€40 per car, while Sámos–Pireás is about €28/€100. It’s really only worth taking a car to the larger islands like Crete, Rhodes, Híos, Lésvos, Sámos, Corfu or Kefaloniá, and only if staying a week or more. Otherwise, it is cheaper to leave your car on the mainland and rent another on arrival.
Hydrofoils, catamarans and high-speed boats
Hydrofoils – commonly known as dhelfínia or “Flying Dolphins” – are at least twice as expensive as ordinary ferries, but their network neatly fills gaps in ferry scheduling, often with more convenient departure times. Their main drawback is that they are the first vessels to get cancelled in bad weather and even in moderate seas are not for the seasick-prone. Many don’t operate – or are heavily reduced in frequency – from October to June. Hydrofoils aren’t allowed to carry scooters or bicycles.
Catamarans and high-speed boats (tahýplia) are ruthlessly air-conditioned, usually without deck seating and with Greek TV blaring at you from multiple screens – paying extra for dhiakikriméni thési (upper class) merely gets you a better view. Car fares are normal, though passenger tickets are at least double a comparable ferry journey, ie similar to hydrofoil rates. Similarly, many don’t run between October and April.
In season, small boats known as kaïkia and small ferries sail between adjacent islands and to a few of the more obscure satellite islets. These are extremely useful and often very pleasant, but seldom cheaper than mainline services. The more consistent kaïki links are noted in the text, though the only firm information is to be had on the quayside. Swarms of taxi boats are a feature of many islands; these shuttle clients on set routes to remote beaches or ports which can only be reached arduously, if at all, overland. Costs on these can be pretty stiff, usually per person but occasionally per boat.
Scheduled Greek domestic flights are operated by national carrier Olympic Airlines (including its subsidiary Olympic Aviation; t801 11 44 444, wwww.olympicairlines.com), Aegean Airlines (t801 11 20 000, wwww.aegeanair.com) and Sky Express (t281 02 23 500, wwww.skyexpress.gr). They cover a broad network of island and mainland destinations, though most routes are to and from Athens or Thessaloníki. Aegean often undercuts Olympic fare-wise, and surpasses it service-wise, though services are less frequent; Sky Express, established 2007, is pricey and restricted to various routes between Iráklio (Crete) and nearby islands. All three airlines are geared to web and call-centre e-ticket sales, there being few walk-in town offices. Tickets bought through travel agencies attract a minimum €10 commission charge.
Fares to/between the islands cost at least double the cost of a deck-class ferry journey, but on inter-island routes poorly served by boat (Rhodes–Sámos, for example), consider this time well bought, and indeed some subsidized peripheral routes cost less than a hydrofoil/catamaran journey. The cheapest web fares on Aegean are non-changeable and non-refundable, but with Olympic you can change your flight date, space permitting, without penalty up to 24 hours before your original departure.
Island flights are often full in peak season; if they’re an essential part of your plans, make reservations at least a month in advance. Waiting lists exist and are worth signing on to, as there are almost always cancellations. Many Olympic flights use small prop planes which won’t fly in strong winds or (depending on the airport) after dark; Aegean and Sky Express use more robust jets. A 15kg baggage weight limit can be strictly enforced; if, however, you’ve just arrived from overseas or purchased your ticket outside Greece, you’re allowed the standard international limits (20–23kg).
By car, motorcycle and taxi
Greece is blessed with dramatic mountain and coastal scenery, which is undoubtedly a joy to drive through. You should, however, bear in mind that it has one of the highest fatal accident rates in Europe. Local driving habits can be atrocious; overtaking on bends, barging out from side roads and failing to signal manoeuvres are common practices. Drunk driving is also a major issue, especially on Sunday afternoons, public holidays or late at night.
Road conditions can be very poor, from bad surfaces and inadequate signposting to unmarked railway crossings. There is a limited but growing number of motorways on which tolls (€2–3) are levied, adding over €30, for example on the drive from Athens to Thessaloníki. Fuel, whether regular unleaded (amólyvdhi), super or diesel, is currently over €1.65 per litre across the country, often €1.80-plus in remoter areas. Be aware that many petrol stations close after 8pm and on Sundays, meaning quite a hunt in rural areas at those times.
Parking in almost every mainland town, plus the biggest island centres, is uniformly a nightmare owing to oversubscription. Pay-and-display systems, plus residents-only schemes, are common, and it’s rarely clear where you obtain tickets.
Rules of the road
As in all of continental Europe, you drive on the right in Greece. Uphill drivers demand their right of way, as do the first to approach a one-lane bridge; flashed headlights usually mean the opposite of what they do in the UK or North America, here signifying that the other driver insists on coming through or overtaking. However, this gesture rapidly repeated from someone approaching means they’re warning you of a police control-point ahead.
Seat-belt use (and helmet wearing on scooters and motorcycles) is compulsory and children under the age of 10 are not allowed to sit in the front seats of cars; infractions of these rules are punishable by fines. It’s illegal to drive away from any kind of accident – or to move the vehicles before the police appear – and where serious injury has resulted to the other party you can be held at a police station for up to 24 hours.
Car rental in Greece starts at around €300 a week in peak season for the smallest vehicle from a one-off outlet or local chain, including unlimited mileage, tax and insurance. At other times, at smaller local outfits, you can get terms of €30 per day, all inclusive, with even better rates for three days or more – or prebooked on the internet. Rates for open jeeps vary from €65 to €100 per day.
Rental prices in Greece almost never include collision damage waiver (CDW) and personal insurance. The CDW typically has a deductible charge of €400–600, which may be levied for even the tiniest scratch or missing mudguard. To avoid this, it is strongly recommended that you pay the €5–7 extra per day for full coverage. Frequent travellers should consider annual excess insurance through Insurance 4 Car Hire (wwww.insurance4carhire.com), which will cover all UK- and North America-based drivers.
All agencies will require a blank credit card slip as a deposit (destroyed when you return the vehicle safely); minimum age requirements vary from 21 to 23. Driving licences issued by any European Economic Area state are honoured, but an International Driving Permit is required by all other drivers (despite claims by unscrupulous agencies). You can be arrested and charged if caught by the traffic police without an IDP if you require one.
Avance, Antena, Auto Union, Payless, Kosmos, National/Alamo, Reliable, Tomaso and Eurodollar are dependable Greek, or smaller international, chains with branches in many towns; all are cheaper than Hertz, Sixt or Avis. Specific local recommendations are given in the guide.
Bringing your own car
If you intend to drive your own car to and within Greece, remember that insurance contracted in any EU state is valid in any other, but in many cases this is only third-party cover. Competition in the industry is intense, however, so many UK insurers will throw in full, pan-European cover for free or for a nominal sum, for up to sixty days. Those with proof of AA/RAC/AAA membership are given free road assistance from ELPA, the Greek equivalent, which runs breakdown services on several of the larger islands; in an emergency ring t10400.
EU citizens bringing their own cars are free to circulate in the country for six months, or until their home-based road tax or insurance expires, whichever happens first; keeping a car in Greece for longer entails more paperwork. Non-EU nationals will get a car entered in their passport; the carnet normally allows you to keep a vehicle in Greece for up to six months, exempt from road tax.
Scooter and motorcycle rental
Small motor scooters with automatic transmission, known in Greek as mihanákia or papákia (little ducks), are good transport for all but the steepest terrain. They’re available for rent on many islands and in a few of the popular mainland resorts for €12–18 per day. Prices can be bargained down out of peak season, or for a longer rental period. Only models of 80cc and above are powerful enough for two riders in mountainous areas, which includes most islands.
True motorbikes (mihanés) with manual transmissions and safer tyres are less common than they ought to be. With the proper licence, bikes of 125cc and up are available in many resorts for around €20 per day. Quads are also increasingly offered – without doubt the most stupid-looking and impractical conveyance yet devised, and very unstable on turns – make sure helmets are supplied.
Reputable establishments demand a full motorcycle driving licence (Class B) for any engine over 80cc (Greek law actually stipulates “over 50cc”). You will usually have to leave your passport as a deposit. Failure to carry the correct licence on your person also attracts a stiff fine, though some agencies still demand this rather than a passport as security.
Many rental outfits will offer you (an often ill-fitting) crash helmet (krános), and some will make you sign a waiver of liability if you refuse it. Helmet-wearing is required by law, with a €185 fine levied for failure to do so; on some smaller islands the rule is laxly enforced, on others random police roadblocks do a brisk commerce in citations, to foreigners and locals alike.
Before riding off, always check the brakes and electrics; dealers often keep the front brakes far too loose, with the commendable intention of preventing you going over the handlebars. Make sure also that there’s a kick-start as backup to the battery, since ignition switches commonly fail. If you break down on a scooter or motorcycle you’re often responsible for returning the machine, although the better outlets offer a free retrieval service.
Greek taxis are among the cheapest in the Mediterranean – so long as you get an honest driver who switches the meter on and doesn’t use high-tech devices to doctor the reading. Use of the meter is mandatory within city or town limits, where Tariff 1 applies, while in rural areas or between midnight and 5am Tariff 2 is in effect. On certain islands, set rates apply on specific fixed routes – these might only depart when full. Otherwise, throughout Greece the meter starts at €0.85, though the minimum fare is €1.75; baggage in the boot is charged at €0.35 per piece. Additionally, there are surcharges of €2 for leaving or entering an airport (€3 for Athens), and €0.80 for leaving a harbour area. If you summon a taxi by phone on spec, there’s a €1.50 charge; the meter starts running from the moment the driver begins heading towards you. All categories of supplemental charges must be set out on a card affixed to the dashboard. For a week or so before and after Orthodox Easter, and Christmas, a filodhórima or gratuity of about ten percent is levied.
Cycling in Greece is not such hard going as you might imagine (except in summer), especially on one of the mountain bikes that are now the rule at rental outfits; they rarely cost more than €8 a day. You do, however, need steady nerves, as roads are generally narrow with no verges or bike lanes and Greek drivers are notoriously inconsiderate to cyclists.
If you have your own bike, consider taking it along by train or plane (it’s free if within your 20–23kg international air allowance, but arrange it in writing with the airline beforehand to avoid huge charges at check-in). Once in Greece you can take a bike for free on most ferries, in the guard’s van on most trains (for a small fee), and in the luggage bays of buses. Bring any small spare parts since specialist shops are rare.
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Planning your trip to Greece
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