For some people, going to Greece is all about going to the islands. For others, it's the 2,500 years of history in Athens, on the Peloponnese Peninsula and beyond. But for most travelers, it's a combination -- islands and inland, city and countryside, culture and playground.
How you get from place to place is as varied as the destinations themselves. Whether you're traveling for a week or a month, chances are you'll find yourself using planes, boats, buses, trains, cars and maybe even mopeds. Here's what you need to know.
Most people fly to Athens and spend time there before continuing on to the country's other destinations. Others connect in Athens en route to Santorini, Corfu, Thessaloniki or wherever else they're headed. The main airport in Athens is Eleftherios Venizelos (ATH). There are also smaller airports throughout the mainland and islands.
If you are connecting to another flight traveling elsewhere in Greece, allow abundant time to make connections -- two hours is generally sufficient. You have to go through immigration upon arrival, then claim and recheck your bags; at the height of the tourist season (June - August), lines can be dangerously long.
There aren't many options to fly directly to Greece from the U.S. Delta offers nonstops from New York (JFK), and American/US Airways flies from Philadelphia, but beyond that, chances are you'll be making a connection elsewhere in Europe. Because the direct flights can sell out, you'll want to book early (think February or March for a summer vacation).
If Greece is just one stop on your vacation, you'll find lots of options for flying there from other European countries -- including low-cost carriers such as Ryanair, EasyJet, Vueling and Norwegian Air. One thing to be aware of with all of these airlines is that the initial fare you see -- while sometimes unbelievably low -- is never what you actually pay. Budget for extras such as seat assignment, checked bags and meals. Also, be aware that you book these online, and mistakes -- and changes -- can be costly.
Aegean Airlines, Greece's largest airline, has flights to and from a number of European destinations as well as within the country. Another option for traveling around Greece is by seaplane. Hellenic Seaplanes is in the process of establishing routes between various island destinations and coastal ports, as well as charter flights and sightseeing tours.
Thanks to infrastructure overhauls for the 2004 Summer Olympics, there are efficient systems in place for getting where you want to go once you land in Athens. Subway and bus routes take you to central points in Athens, as well as to the ports of Piraeus, Rafina and Lavrio. Athens itself is about 20 miles away.
Considering that Greece has nearly 3,000 islands (227 inhabited) and more than 8,500 miles of coastline, it should come as no surprise that boats are one of the most common ways to get around. Indeed, Greece has an expansive network of ferries between the various islands and archipelagos, as well as ferry services to Italy and Turkey.
Within easy reach of the Athens International Airport is Piraeus, which is the main port for ferries plying the Aegean Sea. From there, there are regular routes to the major islands in the Cyclades, Crete, the Saronic Gulf Islands, the Dodecanese chain and the Northeast Aegean Islands. A smaller port in Athens is Rafina, which has ferry service to Evia, some of the northernmost Cycladic Islands and many of the Northeast Aegean Islands.
If you're traveling to the Ionian Islands off the west coast of Greece, most ferries leaves from Patras or Kyllini on the Peloponnese or Igoumenitsa in Epirus.
You can also travel to Italy (including ports in Ancona, Bari, Venice and more) from Patras or Igoumenitsa. If you're combining a visit to Turkey with Greece, you'll find ferry service between six Greek islands and various ports in Turkey.
There are a number of ferry companies, with sea-going vessels that range from traditional large ferries carrying both passengers and vehicles to faster-moving catamarans and hydrofoils. You can see the various options as well as schedules and prices at Ferries.gr.
Some pointers for boat travel:
- Get tickets in advance, especially if you are taking a hydrofoil or catamaran. They fill up quickly.
- Always check the schedule online prior to heading to the dock. These can change from one day to the next, and sometimes the smaller boats cancel because of rough seas.
- Never assume the boat schedules are consistent. While they are in full tilt during the summer tourist season, service can be very limited other months of the year.
- Get to the dock at least an hour before departure. Travelers tend to line up for popular routes, claiming the best seats first.
- Leave some wiggle room for connecting to flights. For example, if you are flying out of Athens on August 15, don't plan to take the boat from Santorini to Athens on the 14th. Instead, head up on the 12th or 13th and spend a night or two in Athens. This will protect you if the trip gets canceled due to weather.
For getting around mainland Greece and Athens, you'll find an extensive and efficient network of buses. All are operated by a government organization, Ktel. In general, they are clean, comfortable and reasonably priced. Information on schedules and routes is available at local tourist information centers everywhere you go.
If you've taken trains throughout Western Europe, you'll be very disappointed with the Greek rail system. Greek trains are slow and generally not very clean, and they don't cover the whole country. That said, they are cheap and connect Athens to the major Greek cities including Thessaloniki, Patras and Volos.
You can purchase a Eurail Greece Pass for three to 10 days of unlimited first-class travel over a one-month period, as well as discounts on several ferry lines. Get it through Rail Europe or your travel agent.
Driving the mountainous roads of the mainland and the busy streets of some of the more popular islands is not for everyone. If you're up to the challenge, over 21 years old and comfortable with a standard transmission, renting a car is definitely a great way to explore remote villages that are not reachable via public transportation.
You will need an International Driving Permit accompanied by a valid driver's license from your home country. In the U.S., these are available through AAA (American Automobile Association) and NAC (National Automobile Club).
Your best bet is to reserve your vehicle prior to flying to Greece, especially if you want to have a Jeep or some other 4WD (which are the most fun for exploring the islands). Rental cars sell out fast, especially on the most popular islands such as Santorini and Crete.
In destinations all over Greece, you'll find small local agencies that rent cars (as well as mopeds and ATVs). Larger, better-known companies include Europcar, Budget and Kemwel.
On many of the Greek Islands, you can rent motorbikes and ATVs. Not only are they the most affordable way to get around, but they're also a great way to explore small roads and discover off-the-beaten track villages. The negatives? They are no fun in the rain and can be very uncomfortable for long stretches of bumpy roads. They're dangerous as well, especially when sharing winding roads with cars and trucks. Always wear a helmet.
You need an International Driving Permit -- while many of the rental companies won't ask for one, you'll regret not having it should you get in an accident. According to Greek law, you will have been driving illegally and insurance will be invalidated. A word about insurance: Read the fine print and make sure you get full coverage.
--written by Susan Farewell