5 Things to Know Before Traveling to Greece Right Now
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While Greece is experiencing a banner year for tourism, with 32 million tourists projected to visit the country by year’s end, a crippling two-day ferry strike this month is just the latest visible dent in what is — statistically speaking — a success story.
The country recently exited a three-year international bailout program for its debt-ridden finances, but besides that apparent success story, there are multiple signs of strain on the vital tourism sector. The posh island of Hydra experienced a water and power outage last month that lasted nearly two days and sent flustered tourists packing; much of Athens had a blackout just days before. In Crete, environmentalists are warning that overtourism is causing irreparable damage to some of the island’s once-pristine beaches.
Of course, it’s not all bad — and there are plenty of reasons to get excited about visiting Greece now, including the new Grand Hyatt Athens. Even if there weren’t, travelers simply can’t resist the temptation of the nation’s whitewashed isles.
Undeterred Americans are visiting Athens and “bucket list” islands like Santorini in droves. Lindsay Lohan is even shooting a new reality TV show in the glamor pit of Mykonos (which has also been experiencing water shortages). But it can pay to look past the celebrity Instagram feeds to help ensure your travel surprises in Greece are all good.
Give yourself more time at the airport
This summer, the new Satellite Terminal Building at Athens International Airport (ATH) became fully operational. It’s connected to the more user-friendly main terminal by a rather exhausting 2,000-foot stretch of moving sidewalks. Despite some artsy touches (including a video projection of a dreamy Greek beach you’d rather be on), you will need plenty of time to clear security and make your flight if it departs from this section of the airport.
By the time I reached my gate for a recent EasyJet flight to London Gatwick Airport (LGW), people of all ages were huffing, puffing and complaining about the marathon they had just run to get there in time.
Also, if you’re planning to take the Athens Metro to or from the airport, remember that it generally shuts down between the hours of midnight and 5:00am. Instead of a taxi (there is no Uber in Greece, though you can try Beat) catch the trusty X95 bus, which runs 24 hours a day at regular intervals — every 15 to 20 minutes — between Syntagma Square and the main terminal.
Expect olive oil fees on your bill
In the salad days of traveling around Greece, an order of tangy Greek salad would come accompanied by an entire container of olive oil, either in a labeled bottle or in a glass flask. In either case, it would likely be already opened. No longer.
A law that went into effect Jan. 1 mandated that the olive oil on restaurant tables in Greece be served in a sealed, non-refillable or disposable, “properly labeled” bottle rather than glass vessels. If a restaurant is caught placing a refillable container of olive oil on the table, the owner could now be fined.
What’s up with that? Leaving an opened container of olive oil outside in the light reduces its flavor and nutritional value over time, and Greek olive producers don’t think that diminished quality does much to enhance the reputation of what is essentially the Greek national condiment. So if you request a bottle of olive oil to go with your meal it must come in a sealed container (theoretically, at least).
As a result, you can expect better olive oil — but an extra €2 euros or more to be tacked onto your meal bill for the privilege.
You may want to avoid Filopappou Hill
Despite indications of a stabilizing economy, crime in Athens appears to be on the rise. The area around the Acropolis is the most touristy in town and, sadly, thieves are well aware. Reports of crime in Santorini and Mykonos are increasingly common in the Greek media, too.
While pickpocketing is not uncommon in other major destinations (and is likelier to happen on the crowded Athens metro than outside in broad daylight), there seems to be an uptick of more serious burglaries, including one that transpired on the iconic Filopappou Hill, or Hill of the Muses. On this forested slope in the heart of the city, a young man attempting to resist a robbery at knifepoint plunged 30 feet to his death.
Reportedly, police are now boosting patrols on foot and by motorcycle, but I don’t advise hanging out there after dark. By contrast, the Areopagus Hill, a popular spot for selfies with the Acropolis in the background, is perfectly safe. View of the Acropolis from Areopagus Hill in Athens.
Pack bug spray
West Nile is back, and more than 130 cases of the virus and over a dozen deaths stemming from it have been recorded so far this year in Greece. In August, the mosquito-borne malady spread to the municipality of Athens itself. Regional authorities in the Attica region, which surrounds Athens, have been criticized for failing to spray for mosquitoes adequately before the summer heat and humidity.
Be proactive during your trip to Greece, and pack your favorite mosquito repellent, or opt for local products (such as Crilen wipes). Not a big fan of dousing yourself in bug spray? The Greek word for mosquito net is kounoupiera.
Get an International Driving Permit
If you’re planning to rent a car anywhere in Greece, keep in mind that you should have an International Driving Permit (IDP) to accompany your valid US driver’s license — and it’s something you need to get before you leave the United States.
In theory, drivers from the US, and certain other non-EU countries like Canada and Australia that do not participate in the Vienna Convention, have always needed an IDP to rent a car in Greece. Generally, however, rental companies either looked the other way or didn’t bother to ask for an IDP at all.
That changed in March when the fines went up for both car rental companies as well as customers found to make rental agreements without furnishing an IDP. It’s now quite possible a rental company may not provide a car without the proper documentation. (In June, I was personally denied a car rental on the island of Ios for not having an IDP, and was forced to take a local bus.)
“The new directive issued by the government reinforces [the] requirement by establishing increased fines for car rental companies and customers if a vehicle is hired without the IDP,” a Hertz representative said.
Because there’s nowhere to get a permit on the spot in Greece, an IDP application must be processed in the US, through a group like AAA, for a nominal fee. If your Greek travel plans are contingent upon getting a rental vehicle, don’t risk leaving home without an IDP.
As for driving in congested Athens, well, you should probably just take a ferry elsewhere.
All photos courtesy of the author.
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