Greece is an easy place to travel around thanks to a comprehensive public transport system.
Buses are the mainstay of land transport, with a network that reaches out to the smallest villages. Trains are a good alternative, where available. To most visitors, though, travelling in Greece means island-hopping on the multitude of ferries that crisscross the Adriatic and the Aegean. If you’re in a hurry, Greece also has an extensive domestic air network.
You’ll find lots of travel information on the internet. The website www.ellada.com is a useful site with lots of links, including airline timetables.
Greece has a vast and complex ferry network covering every inhabited island. Services are more frequent from May to October and drop back to often quite limited services in between. The fleet is changing and travel is now quite comfortable.
High-speed catamarans have become an important part of the island travel scene. They are just as fast as hydrofoils – if not faster – and more comfortable. They are also less prone to cancellation in rough weather. Fares are the same as for hydrofoils.
Hellenic Seaways is the major player. It operates giant, vehicle-carrying cats from Piraeus and Rafina to the Cyclades, and smaller Flying Cats from Rafina to the central and northern Cyclades and on many routes around the Saronic Gulf.
Most services are very popular; book as far in advance as possible, especially if you want to travel on weekends.
These supermodern leviathans can slash travel times on some of the longer routes. NEL Lines (22510 26299; www.ferries.gr/nel) leads the way with its futuristic-looking F/B Panagia Thalassini and Aeolos Kenteris II, which operate from Piraeus to Syros, Tinos, Mykonos, Paros, Naxos, Lavrio, Kythnos and Amorgos. In addition, there is a high-speed service with the F/B Aeolos Kenteris I to Rethymno on Crete. These services cost roughly twice as much as standard ferries.
Blue Star Ferries (210 891 9800; www.bluestarferries.com) is almost in the same league as NEL Lines, and its fleet of modern boats serves many destinations in the Cycladic and Dodecanese islands, cutting down travelling time considerably. It charges about 20% more than the regular ferries.
Hydrofoils used to be popular on the Greek transport scene but have seen their heyday come and go. They have been replaced in the main by more comfortable and just as fast catamarans and jet boats. They now just exist in isolation in some of the remoter parts of the Aegean archipelago.
Aegean Flying Dolphins (210 422 1766), based on Samos, links that island with Kos in the Dodecanese and islands in between. Other hydrofoil routes operate between Kavala and Thasos in the Northeastern Aegean, and from Alexandroupoli to Samothraki and Limnos. Hellenic Seaways operate hydrofoils on some of its Sporades services.
Tickets cannot be bought on board hydrofoils – you must buy them in advance from an agent.
Most islands have water taxis (taxi boats) – small speedboats that operate like taxis, transporting people to places that are difficult to get to by land. Some owners charge a set price for each person, others charge a flat rate for the boat, and this cost is divided by the number of passengers. Either way, prices are usually quite reasonable.
Hitching is never entirely safe in any country in the world, and we don’t recommend it. Travellers who decide to hitch should understand that they are taking a small but potentially serious risk. People who do choose to hitch will be safer if they travel in pairs and should let someone know where they are planning to go. Greece has a reputation for being a relatively safe place for women to hitch, but it is still unwise to do it alone. It’s better for a woman to hitch with a companion, preferably a male one.
Some parts of Greece are much better for hitching than others. Getting out of major cities tends to be hard work and Athens is notoriously difficult. Hitching is much easier in remote areas and on islands with poor public transport. On country roads it is not unknown for someone to stop and ask if you want a lift, even if you haven’t stuck a thumb out.
All long-distance buses, on the mainland and the islands, are operated by regional collectives known as KTEL (Koino Tamio Eispraxeon Leoforion). Every prefecture on the mainland has a KTEL, which operates local services within the prefecture and to the main towns of other prefectures. Most can be found on the internet at www.ktel.org. Fares are fixed by the government.
The network is comprehensive. With the exception of towns in Thrace, which are serviced by Thessaloniki, all the major towns on the mainland have frequent connections to Athens. The islands of Corfu, Kefallonia and Zakynthos can also be reached directly from Athens by bus – the fares include the price of the ferry ticket.
The KTEL buses are safe and modern, and these days most are air-conditioned – at least on the major routes. Some buses are double-deckers. In more-remote rural areas they tend to be older and less comfortable.
Most villages have a daily bus service of some sort, although remote areas may have only one or two buses a week. They operate for the benefit of people going to town to shop, rather than for tourists. They normally leave the villages very early in the morning and return early in the afternoon.
On islands where the capital is inland rather than a port, buses normally meet boats. Some of the more remote islands have not yet acquired a bus, but most have some sort of motorised transport – even if it is only a bone-shaking, three-wheeled truck.
Larger towns usually have a central, covered bus station with seating, waiting rooms, toilets, and a snack bar selling pies, cakes and coffee. It is important to note that big cities like Athens, Iraklio, Patra and Thessaloniki may have more than one bus station, each serving different regions. Make sure you find the correct station for your destination.
In small towns and villages the ‘bus station’ may be no more than a bus stop outside a kafeneio (coffee house) or taverna that doubles as a booking office. In remote areas, the timetable may be in Greek only, but most booking offices have timetables in both Greek and Roman script. The timetables give both the departure and return times – useful if you are making a day trip. Times are listed using the 24-hour clock system.
When you buy a ticket you will be allotted a seat number, which is noted on the ticket. The seat number is indicated on the back of each seat of the bus, not on the back of the seat in front; this causes confusion among Greeks and tourists alike. You can board a bus without a ticket and pay on board, but on a popular route, or during high season, this may mean that you have to stand. Keep your ticket handy for checking.
It’s best to turn up at least 20 minutes before departure to make sure you get a seat, and buses have been known to leave a few minutes before their scheduled departure. Buses on less-frequented routes do not usually have toilets on board and they don’t have refreshments available, so make sure you are prepared on both counts. Buses stop about every three hours on long journeys. Smoking is prohibited on all buses in Greece.
Bus travel is very reasonably priced, with a journey costing approximately €4 per 100km. Some major routes include Athens–Thessaloniki (€31, 7½ hours), Athens–Patra (€16, three hours), Athens–Volos (€20, five hours) and Athens–Corfu (€44 including ferry, 8½ hours).
No-one who has travelled on Greece’s roads will be surprised to hear that the country’s road fatality rate is the highest in Europe. More than 2000 people die on the roads every year, with overtaking listed as the greatest cause of accidents. Ever-stricter traffic laws have had little impact on the toll; Greek roads remain a good place to practise your defensive-driving techniques.
Heart-stopping moments aside, your own car is a great way to explore off the beaten track. The road network has improved enormously in recent years; many roads marked as dirt tracks on older maps have now been asphalted – particularly in more remote parts of Epiros and the Peloponnese. It’s important to get a good road map.
Almost all islands are served by car ferries, but they are expensive. Sample prices for vehicles up to 4.25m include Piraeus–Mykonos, €76; Piraeus–Crete (Hania and Iraklio), €79; and Piraeus–Samos, €81. The charge for a large motorcycle is about the same as the price for a deck-class passenger ticket.
Insurance is always included in any vehicle hire agreements, but you are advised to check whether it is fully comprehensive or third party only. Otherwise you may be up for hefty costs in the event of any damage caused to your vehicle if you are at fault.
Trains are operated by Greek Railways Organisation (Organismos Sidirodromon Ellados; www.ose.gr), always referred to as the OSE. You’ll find information on fares and schedules on the website. Information on domestic departures from Athens or Thessaloniki can be sought by calling 1440.
The biggest problem with the Greek railway network is that it is so limited. There are essentially only two main lines: the standard gauge service from Athens to Alexandroupoli via Thessaloniki, and the Peloponnese network, which uses a narrow-gauge track. That said, the train is a useful way to get from Patra to Athens if arriving by ferry from Italy, and the round Peloponnese rail ride is an attraction in itself. Trains also run to Kalambaka (Meteora) and the Pelion port of Volos for onward links to the Sporades islands.
The services that do exist are of a good standard, and are improving all the time. In fact, the network underwent a major overhaul prior to the Olympic Games. The biggest longer-term changes will be in and around Athens, which is slowly building a new station in the northern suburb of Aharnes to handle all intercity trains.
The bulk of the Peloponnese will retain its own narrow-gauge system, for the time being. The big difference will be that the Peloponnese network will begin at Corinth, instead of Athens. The major change in the pipeline is the electrification of the line between Athens and Thessaloniki.
Ticket prices for intercity services are subject to a distance loading charged on top of the normal fares. Seat reservations should be made as far in advance as possible, especially during summer. Sample 1st-/2nd-class fares: Athens to Thessaloniki €49.50/35.30 (5¼ hours), and Thessaloniki to Alexandroupoli €22/16 (5½ hours). There is an additional nonstop Athens–Thessaloniki express service for €63/48 (four hours).
Tours are worth considering only if your time is very limited, in which case there are countless companies vying for your money. The major players are CHAT, GO Tours, Hop In Sightseeing, and Key Tours, all based in Athens and offering almost identical tours. They include day trips to Delphi (€79) and Mycenae and Epidavros (€130). They also offer longer trips such as a three-day tour to Delphi and Meteora (€299) and a four-day tour calling at Mycenae, Nafplio, Epidavros, Olympia and Delphi (€448). These prices include twin-share accommodation and half-board.
More adventurous tours include guided activities involving hiking, climbing, whitewater rafting, kayaking, canoeing or canyoning. Alpin Club (www.alpinclub.gr) in Athens operates out of Karitena in the Peloponnese, while outfits like Trekking Hellas (www.trekking.gr) or Robinson Expeditions (www.robinson.gr) run similar deals in the centre and north of Greece.
For most people, travel in Greece means island-hopping. Every island has a ferry service of some sort, although in winter services to some of the smaller islands are fairly skeletal. Services start to pick up again from April onwards, and by July and August there are countless services crisscrossing the Aegean. Ferries come in all shapes and sizes, from the giant ‘superferries’ that work the major routes to the small, ageing, open ferries that chug around the backwaters.
The main ferry companies in Greece:
ANEK (210 419 7420; www.anek.gr)
Blue Star Ferries (210 891 9800; www.bluestarferries.com)
GA Ferries (210 419 9100; www.ferries.gr/gaferries)
Hellenic Seaways (210 419 9000; www.hellenicseaways.gr)
LANE Lines (210 427 4011; www.lane.gr)
Minoan Lines (210 414 5700; www.minoan.gr)
NEL Lines (22510 26299; www.nel.gr)
Prices are fixed by the government, and are determined by the distance of the destination from the port of origin. The small differences in price you may find at ticket agencies are the results of some agencies sacrificing part of their designated commission to qualify as a ‘discount service’. The discount is seldom more than €0.50. Ticket prices include embarkation tax, a contribution to NAT (the seamen’s union) and 10% VAT.
The hub of Greece’s ferry network is Piraeus, the port of Athens. Ferries leave here for the Cyclades, the Dodecanese Islands, the Northeastern Aegean Islands, the Saronic Gulf Islands and Crete. Athens’ second port is Rafina, 70km east of the city and connected by an hourly bus service. It has ferries to the northern Cyclades, Evia, Lesvos and Limnos. The port of Lavrio, in southern Attica, is the main port for ferries to the Cycladic island of Kea. There are regular buses from Athens to Lavrio.
Ferries for the Ionian Islands leave from the Peloponnese ports of Patra (for Kefallonia, Ithaki, Paxi and Corfu) and Kyllini (for Kefallonia and Zakynthos); from Astakos (for Ithaki and Kefallonia) and Mytikas (for Lefkada and Meganisi), with both ports in Central Greece (Sterea Ellada); and from Igoumenitsa in Epiros (for Corfu and Paxi).
Some of the Northeastern Aegean Islands have connections with Thessaloniki and all have connections with Piraeus. The odd ones out are Thasos and Samothraki. Thasos is reached from Kavala, and occasionally from Samothraki; the latter can be reached from Alexandroupoli year-round and also from Kavala in summer.
Ferry timetables change from year to year and season to season, and ferries can be subject to delays and cancellations at short notice due to bad weather, strikes or the boats simply conking out. No timetable is infallible, but the comprehensive weekly list of departures from Piraeus put out by the EOT (Greek National Tourist Organisation) in Athens is as accurate as possible. The people to go to for the most up-to-date ferry information are the local limenarhio (port police), whose offices are usually on or near the quayside.
On the internet you’ll find lots of information about ferry services. Try www.greekferries.gr, which has a useful search programme and links, or www.gtp.gr. Many of the larger ferry companies have their own sites.
Throughout the year there is at least one ferry a day from a mainland port to the major island in each group, and during high season (June to mid-September) there are considerably more. Ferries sailing from one island group to another are not so frequent, and if you’re going to travel in this way you’ll need to plan carefully, otherwise you may end up having to backtrack to Piraeus.
Travelling time can vary considerably from one ferry to another, depending on how many islands you decide to visit on the way to your destination. For example, the Piraeus–Rhodes trip can take between 15 and 18 hours depending on the route. Before buying your ticket, check how many stops the boat is going to make and its estimated arrival time. It can make a big difference.
Given that ferries are prone to delays and cancellations, it’s best not to purchase a ticket until it has been confirmed that the ferry is leaving. If you need to reserve a car space, though, you will inevitably need to book and pay in advance – well in advance in high season. If the service is then cancelled you can transfer your ticket to the next available service with that company.
Agencies selling tickets line the waterfront of most ports, but rarely is there one that sells tickets for every boat, and often an agency is reluctant to give you information about a boat they do not sell tickets for. This means you have to check the timetables displayed outside each agency to find out which ferry is next to depart – or you can ask the port police.
The vast majority of domestic flights are handled by the country’s national carrier, Olympic Airlines (801 114 4444; www.olympicairlines.com), together with its offshoot, Olympic Aviation. Olympic has offices wherever there are flights, as well as in other major towns.
Olympic also offers cheaper options between Athens and some of the more popular destinations such as Corfu, Iraklio, Lesvos, Rhodes and Thessaloniki. There are discounts for return tickets for travel between Monday and Thursday, and bigger discounts for trips that include a Saturday night away. You’ll find full details on its website, as well as information on timetables.
The baggage allowance on domestic flights is 15kg, or 20kg if the domestic flight is part of an international journey. Olympic offers a 25% student discount on domestic flights, but only if the flight is part of an international journey.
Crete-based Aegean Airlines (801 112 0000, 210 626 1000; www.aegeanair.com) offers flights from Athens to Alexandroupoli, Corfu, Hania, Ioannina, Iraklio, Kavala, Lesvos, Mykonos, Rhodes, Santorini and Thessaloniki; from Thessaloniki to Iraklio, Lesvos, Mykonos, Rhodes and Santorini; and from Iraklio to Rhodes.
Full-fare economy fares cost much the same as those of Olympic, but Aegean often has special deals. It offers a 20% youth discount for travellers under 26, and a similar discount for the over 60s.
AirSea Lines (26610 49800; www.airsealines.com) is a seaplane service that runs flights between Corfu and Paxi, Lefkada, Ithaki and Patra. It also runs a service between Lavrio in Attica and Kos in the Dodecanese via Mykonos and Kalymnos.
Cycling has not caught on yet in Greece, which isn’t surprising considering the hilly terrain. Tourists are beginning to cycle in Greece, but you’ll need strong leg muscles. There is no inherent danger in cycling here – even in Athens, if you are an experienced pedal pusher – but bike lanes are rare to nonexistent (and helmets apparently are not compulsory). Drivers of vehicles are generally as courteous to cyclists as anywhere else. The island of Kos is about the most bicycle-friendly place in Greece, as is anywhere flat like the plains of Thessaly or Thrace.
Greece-based outfits such as Cycle Greece (210 921 8160; fax 210 921 8285, www.cyclegreece.gr; Falirou 15, Athens) run driver-accompanied cycling tours of Greece such as Sacred Sites & Spas (€2016, eight days) or Cycle Cyclades (€3925, 12 days).
You can hire bicycles in most tourist places, but they are not as widely available as cars and motorcycles. Prices range from €5 to €12 per day, depending on the type and age of the bike.
Bicycles are carried free on ferries. You can buy decent mountain or touring bikes in Greece’s major towns, though you may have a problem finding a ready buyer if you wish to on-sell it. Bike prices are much the same as across the rest of Europe, anywhere from €300 to €2000.