A common question asked by travellers in Greece is whether they should rent a car. The main advantage of a car is that you can cover much more distance per day if you are travelling to rural areas or the larger islands: You can travel almost anywhere in Greece by bus, but some remote villages only have one or two buses a day, and having your own car means you don’t have to wait for the bus in the heat of summer. Almost all archaeological sites can be reached by bus, but for some of the more remote and lesser-known sites, the bus can drop you off up to a kilometre from the site, whereas with a car you can almost always drive directly to the site by taking at least one difficult road.
On the other hand, driving without a car in Greece is not only possible but also offers significant advantages, while driving has a number of disadvantages. While many people find driving in Greece easy and even enjoyable, others are concerned about the high accident rate (one of the highest in Europe), the nationwide reputation for risky driving and the presence of many winding mountain roads that sometimes skirt cliffs. Petrol is as expensive as anywhere else. (See below for more information on driving conditions in Greece). Driving in Athens and other major cities can be a frustrating and sometimes frightening experience, and finding a parking space can be very difficult. In addition, a car severely limits your freedom of action when exploring the islands, as only the largest and usually slowest ferries offer a car service, which must be paid for in addition to your passenger ticket. Bus transport is not only cheaper, but also offers more opportunities to engage in conversation with locals and other travellers than the car. Language is generally not a problem for English speakers using public transport: Wherever there is a lot of tourism in Greece, bus timetables are posted in English and bus and taxi drivers understand at least enough English to answer your questions.
Public transport can be supplemented by taxis (see below), which in many places, especially on the islands, offer fixed fares to various beaches that can be affordable, especially if the fare is split between several people. And on many islands it is possible to walk to the beach, which can be a pleasant experience in itself.
By bus and train
Intercity buses are a very popular option for domestic travel. KTEL is a national network of independent, state-subsidised companies that work together to form a dense route network that serves almost the entire country. The system is efficient, reliable and relatively inexpensive. It serves both long and short routes, including connections between major cities and islands near the mainland, such as Corfu and Kefalonia (in these cases, the ferry crossing is included in the price of the bus ticket).
The train is the better mode of transport, but the national rail network (OSE) is extremely limited. This is due to neglect following the advent of large-scale use of private vehicles and air travel, but also to earlier technological difficulties in overcoming the country’s difficult terrain. The importance of rail transport is now being rediscovered and the national rail network is undergoing a major renovation. The completion of the project is still a long way off. The Athens-Thessaloniki corridor has been significantly (and continuously) modernised, resulting in shorter journey times.
Exploring the country by car can be an extremely rewarding experience, allowing you to explore the incredibly picturesque and varied landscape of the coasts, interior and islands at your own leisure. Roads are generally well signposted and maintained, and billions are being invested in the expansion of the multi-lane motorway network. Due to the rapid expansion and improvement of the national road network, it is advisable to have the most up-to-date road map(s). Most new motorways are subject to tolls and charges can be high. Road signs in Greek are usually repeated with a transliterated version in Latin alphabet.
Car rental offices can be found all over Greece, especially in the big cities and in very touristy areas. Most of the cars on offer have a manual transmission; automatic transmissions are available, but it is advisable to book one in advance. The price of petrol is high, but relatively cheap compared to many other EU countries. Some car rental companies and insurance companies do not allow you to take your car out of Greece.
Drivers who do not hold an EU driving licence must have an international driving licence obtained in their country of origin. This licence is not required for car rental, but it is certainly needed if the driver is involved in an accident or is stopped by the police for a traffic ticket. Insurance policies can be cancelled if the driver is a third-country national without an international driving licence.
For those used to driving in North America, driving in Greece can be a challenge. To them, Greek (and European) drivers may seem aggressive. The topographical features of the country also pose a problem, with many narrow roads in mountainous regions requiring multiple turns. Roads in towns and villages can also be surprisingly narrow. When cars meet on a narrow road, it is common for one driver to look for a place to park and let the other driver pass. Sometimes one driver has to back up for the other. This practice must be respected and any failure to do so will cause annoyance to other drivers. Drive slowly in villages and small towns as there are often pedestrians on the road. Another big difference between driving in North America and Greece is the range of speeds at which vehicles travel, especially on highways. While speed limits can be as high as 120 km/h, some vehicles travel at speeds as low as 60 km/h. Other vehicles travel at speeds well above the prescribed limits and can come up from behind very quickly.
With the ferry
The frequency, reliability and availability of Greek ferries largely depends on the season. For example, in the winter season (January to March), the weather in the Aegean can be extremely rough and boats often stay in port for several days. This type of delay is extremely unpredictable (it is not a decision of the ferry companies, but of the port authority) and it is practically impossible to determine when a ship will actually leave port. For this reason, travellers in the low season should be flexible in their schedule and not plan to leave an island in the morning and take a return flight in the afternoon. On the other hand, ferries are full in August due to the bank holidays (15 August), so travellers are advised to plan ahead.
As for routes, there are many connections from Athens in the high season and a number of intermediate islands to “jump off”. Even in winter, some of these ferries run once or even twice a week.
Visitors to Greece planning to travel by ferry should be aware of some possible complications. Firstly, it cannot be assumed that it is possible to travel from one island to another every day of the week. The Greek ferry system is essentially a star system, with beams radiating out from Piraeus to the various island groups. As a result, boats are quite common within groups, but less so between groups. Sometimes islands that are geographically close to each other are in different groups: e.g. the Western Cyclades (Serifos, Sifnos, Milos) are very close to the Central Cyclades (Naxos, Paros, Mykonos,) on a map, but these groups are on different radii, which means that in summer you can usually travel from one island to another in the same group on any given day, but boats between groups, e.g. from Naxos to Sifnos, can be much rarer. Secondly, it can be frustrating trying to find information about ferry timetables in advance: Unfortunately, there is no single comprehensive official source of Greek ferry timetables, either in print or online, although there are a number of private websites run by travel agents or other companies that claim to provide full timetables, and many ferry companies have websites that include their timetables and, in some cases, allow you to book and pay for tickets online. (Ferry timetables are also always posted at the ship counters in the ports of departure). Secondly, although it is generally not a problem to get a ticket, some ships to the most popular destinations, especially those departing at the cheapest times, are fully booked in high season or on holiday weekends. Although today’s ferries usually run on schedule, weather conditions, strikes and mechanical breakdowns can occasionally cause delays. None of these problems are insurmountable, but they do mean that you shouldn’t try to plan your ferry route too strictly in advance: be flexible and always have a plan for emergencies. And it’s always a good idea not to rely on taking a ferry from the islands to return to Athens on the same day as your plane leaves, even if the ships’ schedules should theoretically allow you to do so: It will probably work, but there are enough chances that it is not wise to plan your return to Athens at least a day before your flight.
There are three ports in Athens: the main port of Piraeus and the peripheral ports of Rafina and Lavrio. These serve all the islands, but for the islands of the central Cyclades, such as Tinos and Mykonos, it is often better to start from Rafina.
In Greece, the ferries are the only things that leave on time, so be quick. The new “fast ferries” halve the journey distances, but the prices are a bit higher. Sometimes it’s more convenient to fly, especially to Crete or Rhodes. However, flights are usually more expensive. Santorini is 8 hours by slow boat from Athens, but the view from the entrance of the boat is spectacular.
Among the main ferry companies operating in Greece are
- Aegean Sea Speed Lines (Cyclades)
- Agoudimos lines (international and Greek islands)
- ANEK Lines (Crete and international)
- Blue Star Ferries (Italy-Greece and Aegean Islands)
- Euroseas (Saronic Gulf)
- Minoan lines (Italy-Greece and Crete)
- SAOS Ferries (Aegean Islands and North of the Island)
- Superfast ferries (Italy-Greece)
- VentourisFerries (Italy-Greece)
The timetables and websites of some very local ferry services can be found on the destination pages of the islands or ports concerned. You can also choose to hire a sailboat, motorboat, catamaran or schooner and explore Greece from the deep blue sea.
Although this guide does not usually list transport websites unless they are run by a government or major transport provider (such as the shipping companies listed above). Due to the high level of interest in Greek ferry timetables and the fact that there is no single official source for them, readers are referred in this case to the full Greek ferry timetable pages on Greek Travel Pages and OpenSeas.
The country’s domestic airline industry is dominated by Olympic Air and its growing competitor Aegean Airlines. Both airlines offer an extensive network of routes within the country, including flights connecting several islands with the mainland. Both Aegean Airlines and Olympic Air offer electronic tickets, which exist only as an email or website with booking confirmation. It must be presented in printed form at the airport check-in counter (going to the airline office is not necessary).
There are many taxis in Greece. More than ten years ago it could be quite a challenge to get one, but not anymore. You greet the taxis on the street like in any big city.
Transport from the airport to the centre of Athens costs a flat rate of 35€.
If you need a taxi from the ferry in Piraeus at night, it won’t be easy. The drivers waiting outside sometimes try to pick up at least three different people going in the same direction so they can charge three fares! If there are two or three of you, only one of you has to hail the taxi and, if he agrees to pick you up, get the other(s) on board. In Greece you don’t pay “per head”, unless of course the other passengers are strangers to you and you happen to hail the same taxi. In that case, you pay separately – e.g. you and your wife pay one fare, and the others also pay one fare (one fare for each “group”, regardless of the number of people in the same company). If you are 4 friends, you pay one fare. The taxi situation has improved since the debt crisis in Greece, but as a tourist you may be vulnerable to “extra” charges (see also section on cost of living).
Many large cruise ships visit the islands and it is also possible to hire your own boat in one of the main ports such as Athens, Kos and Lefkas.
For experienced sailors, the Greek islands offer an idyllic sailing experience with moderate winds and calm waters. It is an exceptional opportunity to sail and visit many places at once.