Greece. It’s been one of the top travel destinations in the world for thousands of years. But a visit to this iconic country hasn’t always been easy for the international traveler.
After World War II and up to the turn of the century, a trip to Greece by non-Greek speakers would reveal limitations on their ability to communicate. Airports, roads and, public transportation modes were in desperate need of attention. Improvements were incremental up to the turn of the Century.
Visit Greece today and, you'll face an entirely different experience. You'll stand in the new Greece designed for mass tourism. Easier access, easier communication, and easier financial services countrywide are three top reasons why travel to this country is easier than ever before.
To show you how easy it is to get around Greece, we highlight some great places to visit and trendy hotels worth your while in Northern Greece. Our recommendations stem from our Fall 2018 trip to Macedonia.
New and Updated International Airports
Athens boasts the new Eleftherios Venizelos International Airport (ATH) as of March 2001. It replaces the old Ellenikon Airport that ran for 60 years not far from downtown Athens.
The new ATH is far enough outside the city so you can avoid the congestion downtown. But if the Athens area is your destination, you’ll find it easy to catch a bus, train, private car, or a taxi to your destination. It’s about a 45-minute trip by taxi from ATH to downtown. Local buses and a citywide train also run from the airport. KTEL runs a luxury coach (high-end tour type buses) service throughout the country.
Connecting flights from ATH to the islands or interior are usually no more than an hour in duration. You can rent-a-car, access the new national road system from ATH and, get to anywhere in the country in one day. Cruise ship customers will be happy to learn suburban rail runs from the airport to central Athens and to the Port of Piraeus.
Want to keep up with what is going on at ATH? You can download the ATH app for your cell phone from the Apple or Google stores. Fast public Wi-Fi runs throughout the airport.
Where To Stay: The Holiday Inn Near ATH
International Hotels Group (IHG) fans will be happy to learn the Holiday Inn Attica Avenue, Airport West is about a 10-minute drive from ATH. Yes, IHG members can use their points here.
We mention this hotel because many western travelers, especially those from the America’s, prefer their chain hotel experience. Let’s face it. Many like the predictability of the international brand name hotels. And there aren’t many chain brand hotels from the America’s in Greece. But this one is here and, it is near the airport.
Thessaloniki is the largest city in Greece second only to Athens. When you fly into the Thessaloniki International Airport in Macedonia(SKG), you’ll have quick access to all countries that border Greece to the North and the East.
SKG has been a historic international port of entry for flights stemming from Europe for decades. But upgrades over the last 20 years now make this the airport of choice for travelers en route to destinations in Northern Greece. Renovations are continuous through 2021 with a contractor investing more than 400 Million Euros to improve SKG and 14 other regional airports throughout the country.
We’re not aware of an app for SKG airport. But you’ll find links for several apps about Thessaloniki in the links section at the end of this article.
Where To Stay: The Hotel Nikopolis
Fly into SKG and you’ll find the stunning Hotel Nikopolis is only minutes away by taxi. Why would you stay here instead of a place downtown?
Thessaloniki is one of the niftiest cities in all of Greece. Many think it as the in-country hub for much of the creative activity involving the University scene and entrepreneurs in their twenties and thirties. It’s jam-packed with great restaurants, sights to see, and things to do. But it’s dense. You’ll find legacy lodging downtown with the usual congestion and little or no parking for a rental car.
The Hotel Nikopolis offers you optimal choices for a visit to the area. It’s a boutique city resort set up on a 25,000 square meter compound only 3 km from SKG and a 20-minute trip from downtown. It’s a great place for honeymooners, business executives, or those out to meet friends for lunch or dinner.
The Nikopolis offers multiple world class restaurants and the largest hotel swimming pool in Europe. American law firms hold annual conferences here that feature staff getaways to climb Mount Olympus, itself only a one hour drive south of Thessaloniki. All of the major football teams in Europe stay at this hotel when they visit Greece.
But for you the traveler, the Nikopolis offers much more. You have quick and easy access to all major points in the region. The blue flag beach resort areas on the first finger or Kassandra peninsula of Halkidiki are about 50 minutes away.
Kavala and the wine growing region near Drama are due East toward Turkey about two hours away. The historic and famous Veria City near Ancient Aegai, home to the royal tombs of Alexander the Great and his father King Phillip II, are about a 45-minute drive.
A New National Airline
Gone is the old state-run Olympic Airways — operations ended on December 31, 2009. In is the new Aegean Airlines.
Aegean operations are dense in Europe. But they are expanding into Northern Africa, the Middle East, with outlying stops in Russia, the Far East, and Canada. Aegean Air is the only cost-effective game in town for getting around Greece by air. Service is prompt, cheerful, and professional.
Our only complaint is we can’t get their frequent flier department to credit one of our accounts with all the miles we have flown. We’ve been on all flights together side-by-side in first-class. Yet, our mileage balances differ. It’s a mystery.
Note: It pays to fly first-class on Aegean if you haul many bags around with you. In-country flights often feature the use of small turboprop twin-engine aircraft. Cabin space is tight. First-class tickets will get you priority seating and storage onboard.
A New National Road System
Years ago, a road trip to the interior meant a multi-day drive usually by bus, over 2-lane dirt or macadam roads, snaking around olive orchards and herds of goats and sheep, through remote valleys and steep narrow mountain passes, often behind run-down buses billowing black diesel exhaust. To be sure, these trips could invoke a sense of old-world Mediterranean charm. But they were an inefficient and tiresome way to get around the country.
Today you can rent-a-car and drive around the country via a new national road system. This network has been under construction throughout the 2000s with much of it complete by 2017. It stands as one of the biggest and most sophisticated national road networks in Europe.
Routes and Trips
North-South roads in the national road system are odd-numbered while even-numbered roads run east-west. But there are exceptions—the naming conventions are not consistent.
It's easy to access this network from either of the international airports at Athens or Thessaloniki. You can reach most areas of the country within a day from either airport. The A1 and A2 intersect about 30 minutes south of Thessaloniki.
On The Road North: To Olympus and Stay At The Cavo Olympus Hotel
Thessaloniki is about a 6-hour drive by car due north on the A1 national road from Athens. You can rent a car at ATH, drive north to the Cavo Olympo Hotel near Litochoro just off the national road for a two- or three-night stay.
You can climb Mount Olympus at daybreak on one day and return to the Cavo at nightfall to bask in the sunset overlooking the Aegean. You can eat at the hotel's 5-star restaurant or savor the specialty offerings at a local taverna like Aiolos.
The next day you can survey the ruins of the temple of Dion in the morning and gaze from the heights of Platamon Castle near Peiria, about a 25-minute drive from the hotel.
On The Road West: To Veria City and Stay at The Olganos Hotel VL
Hop on the A1 North from Litiochoro, meet the A2 West, and you’ll land in historic Veria City an hour later. Check in to the boutique Olganos Hotel VL, and you’ll find yourself smack-dab in the middle of the historic old city. The Olganos reflects an old city design and feel and lies just off the river Tripotamos and is caddy-corner to the world-renowned Jewish Synagogue in the traditional Jewish Quarter of Barbouta.
When you step in the old city, you literally stand at the crossroads of Macedonian, Roman and Byzantine history. Apostle Paul was here in 50 A.D. There is a monument to his presence and his contributions to Christianity. There’s the archaeological museum chock-full of Macedonian relics.
But there’s so much more to see and do here. There’s the 5-star 12-Grada restaurant, cultural festivals throughout the year, and a host of outdoor and sporting events that include mountaineering, biking, climbing, hiking, horse riding, and birdwatching.
Just 8.2 km outside of town you’ll find the royal tombs of Alexander the Great and his father King Phillip II only. It’s called Ancient Aegai. The discoveries at this site were on display in the Smithsonian a few decades ago, themselves the subject of wonder and astonishment worldwide.
On The Road Far West: To The Pindos Mountains and The Kipi Suites
East-West trips are even quicker. You can drive the 416-mile long A2 from the Eastern most area of the country on the border of Turkey to the west coast near Corfu (Kerkira). From Olympus, it’s a quick jaunt up the A1 to meet the A2.
You’ll pass through about 60 tunnels during this trip—a significant engineering feat. Our trip to the Ioannina-Kipoi-Metsovo area during the Fall of 2018 took nearly 3-hours by car from Thessaloniki.
From Veria City, you just hop on the A2 and head to Ioannina. From there it’s only a 50km to the small mountain village of Kipi, a small village of about 30 full-time inhabitants.
You can check into the KIPI Suites and make it your base of operations as you explore the treacherous gorges, steep mountains, and stone arch bridges found throughout the area. And from there, you can raft through whitewater, kayak, rappel, run an ATV, or drive a 4×4 Jeep around the area at Riverland near Konitsa, not far from the Albanian border.
As you might imagine, these new roads come with a hefty price tag. It costs a lot of money to tunnel through mountains. All users pay tolls to use the new National Road system.
You can pay tolls with cash or a credit card. But you should always carry about €100 cash. It's possible to stop at a tollbooth and find out the credit card reader is out of service.
If you try to pay by credit card and the attendant asks you a question you don’t understand, it’s likely they want to know if you use a PIN with your card. If you don’t use a PIN with your card, just say it’s OK—and most toll collectors will slide your card through a card reader. If they don’t speak your language and still don’t understand, just say THEN IPARCHI (it doesn’t exist) and, they’ll probably slide your card, and you’ll be off up the road soon.
The national road network poses the opportunity for high-speed travel. The Greeks sprinkle photo radar posts throughout the country along the network and at entry points to towns and villages.
You’ll notice two photo radar poles (if you can see them) as you drive. First, you’ll drive past one pole inbound along your route. Then, you’ll drive past the second pole at some point. It’s reasonable to assume this system records your speed as you pass by each pole and, calculates your elapsed time.
Fortunately, the government puts up signs that display an image of a camera. If you see one of these signs, slow down.
You’ll see some drivers blasting through speed zones at speeds way over the limit. We don’t know what the consequences are for foreigners speeding with rental cars in these zones. We presume the cost of fines will be billed to the credit card on file at the rental car agencies.
Unless you plan to spend all of your time in the middle of Athens or Thessaloniki where parking can be a challenge, it’s much easier to get around when you are in charge of your transport. You can rent a car at an airport.
Don’t let others intimidate you into not renting a car. Everywhere we go we’re told how dangerous it is to drive in a host country. Some may tell you Greek drivers are crazy or, it’s just too dangerous to drive in Greece.
The sources of these comments are usually those who are timid, lack competent driving skills or misinformed by others. We rent cars everywhere we go and have yet to experience a problem in any country.
It’s best if you have an International Driver’s License (IDL) in your possession. But in Greece, car rental agents will accept national licenses from some European countries, Canada and the United States. We always take an IDL. That way, if an official wants to seize our license for some reason (say, an accident), we’ll always have our stateside license in our possession. We’ve never had an incident of this nature — it’s just a precaution on our part.
Economy Car Rentals offers competitive rates and will allow rentals for longer than 30-days for those with long-term travel plans. If you’re from the U.S., you’ll find a U.S. based rental car company will not allow you to rent-a-car for more than 30-days.
It cost us $1,100 for our 6-week rental via Economy Car Rentals during our Fall 2018 trip. If you decide to rent with them at the ATH, make sure you have their local phone number in your possession. Their office is about a 10-minute drive from the airport. You’ll need to call them to get a lift to their storefront from the airport.
See our story How To Save Money On Rental Cars Abroad to learn how this car rental gateway can save you money.
The Ferry System
Getting to some of the Greek Islands can pose a challenge for travelers. In fact, Aegean Air may not fly to some islands. The Greek ferry boat system may be the only way to get to some islands throughout each year.
Check out our links at the end of this article if you need to book travel to the islands by ferry. You can buy tickets online. Some ferries will allow you to book your rental car for your trip. They’ll need the make, model, weight, and dimensions of the vehicle to calculate a fare. You’ll find this data on the car registration.
Once upon a time and not all that long ago, if you didn’t speak Greek, your lack of language skills would limit your ability to get around and get things done in Greece. To be sure, it’s still a lot easier to communicate if you can speak Greek. But if you can’t, several workarounds are now in your favor.
First, many younger Greeks now speak English and German with varying levels of fluency. They learn foreign languages in grade school. This is a wonderful development for the international traveler and a stark departure from earlier decades where only those Greeks from well-to-do families could afford to pay for foreign language training at a private training school known as a Frontisteria.
Second, many workers in service businesses like hotels, restaurants, banks, kiosks, and even taxi cab drivers speak foreign languages. For you the traveler, this means less time hunting around for someone who can translate for you, and more time getting answers to your questions about where to go and what to do.
If you’re driving around the country, you’ll see road signs are now in English and Greek. Many tollbooth operators on the national road speak English to some degree.
Internet and Cell Phones
The rapid expansion of Internet and cellular phone services over the past few years combined with an emphasis on foreign language training at the primary school level, present Greece as far more accessible and comprehensible for the international guest than ever before.
Cell phone service with Internet access is sufficient in most areas of the country. You can use your cell phone to find places, get directions, shop, and communicate via message or Email.
Online translators like translate.google.com and smartphone apps make it easier for you to communicate. Sure, you’ll find dead spots in coverage. This is a mountainous country. But along the national roads and around cities and towns, you’ll find coverage.
You may not have to buy a SIM card for your cell phone in Greece. Some providers like T-Mobile, offer plans that feature reciprocal coverage worldwide using the SIM card from your home country at no extra cost to you. The speed of service and connectivity will vary depending on the host country and conditions. Other providers offer international roving plans for a fee with data limits.
Unless you need in-country capable services, we suggest you stick with your home country provider (especially if it is T-Mobile) and just pay for the international access. It may take you 2-3 hours to set up a Greek cellular account at a store. We speak from experience on this point.
Easier Financial Services
Payments With Credit Cards
Today, the businesses you are likely to deal with in Greece—restaurants, pharmacies, grocery stores, rental car companies, street kiosks, gas stations, mass transit services—accept credit cards. It’s possible to buy something without speaking a word of English or Greek to anyone. This is a drastic and for some travelers, a welcome departure from the past.
Years ago, consumer transactions with service providers were in cash. This meant travelers had to carry both cash and traveler's checks to pay for goods and services. The system was fraught with errors and fraud with the consumer usually ending up on the short end of the transaction.
A current threat to travelers is the credit card machine is not working scam. Some sellers engage in this practice to get their hands on cash. Tight financial controls imposed by the EU that limit how much cash Greeks may withdraw from banks weekly drives this practice by some vendors.
Our experience is small businesses—family-run hotels and grocery stores— are most likely to engage in this practice. You can read more about it here. You won’t find this issue with major hotels, brand-name stores or most restaurants in major cities.
Travelers Alert-Cash Transactions
Pay attention when you pay with cash in Greece especially when dealing with small business store owners. When you withdraw money from an ATM, it’s likely you’ll get 50 Euro notes. If you try to pay with Euro bills, especially 50 Euro notes, always put the notes down on the counter in front of you and leave your hand on top of it or hold it in your hand until the service provider reaches for your change and hands it to you. If they balk at you holding the bill, tell them ta psila mou proto sas parakalo. This means, please give me my change first.
A scammer will grab your bill quickly, put it in the cash drawer, and slam the door shut and look to the next customer in line and act as if no change is due to you. Or, they will give you less change than is due and go through similar actions pretending their transaction with you is complete. Men are the usual offenders in our experience.
On three occasions in the Fall of 2018, we handed a business owner a €50 bill for an €8 purchase and got back incorrect or no change. We had to stand there and “prove” to the operator we had given them a €50 bill. This happened to us on Skopelos, in Ioannina, and Veria City.
We attribute this behavior to the strict financial controls imposed on the country by the European Union that limits how many Euros a citizen may withdraw from a bank weekly. Yes, Greece is a cash-starved environment for the Greeks. Our experience is most business operators play it straight and by the rules. But you must watch out for the shady operator.
Small business operator’s aside, you’ll find the well-known Greek hospitality remains a core value throughout the country. On countless occasions, we were the recipients of Greek generosity. This includes vendors who went out of their way to make sure they gave us the correct change for a transaction.
Traveler Health Information
Greece does not pose consistent contagious disease threats to travelers. There is a resurgence of Measles in several countries as of February 2019.
The U.S. Center for Disease Control (CDC) reports there is a current outbreak of Measles in Greece. They recommend all travelers get the MMR vaccination or a booster before travel.
Some among us shrug off this disease as a minor childhood malady. This recent story in Wired Magazine, How Measles Hacks The Body—And Harms Its Victims For Years, presents Measles as the most contagious disease in the world and describes how it destroys the auto-immune system of the victim.
If you get sick while on travel in Greece consult a pharmacist. Often, they can provide over-the-counter solutions for various maladies that might require a visit to a doctor in other countries. Pharmacies present a bright green cross sign in neon lights in front of their buildings. You’ll find them throughout Greece.
There you have it: three great reasons why it is easier than ever to visit Greece. Are you ready to go?
- Aegean Air
- Aegean Air Mobile App (Google-Android)
- Aegean Air Mobile App (Apple)
- Athens International Airport
- Athens International Airport App (Apple)
- Athens International Airport App (Google)
- Economy Car Rentals
- Greek Blue Flag Beaches
- Hellenic Ferry system
- Thessaloniki International Airport
- Thessaloniki Map & Walk Tours App
- Athens: The Holiday Inn
- Thessaloniki: The Hotel Nikopolis
- Litochoro-Mount Olympus: The Cavo Olympo Hotel
- Veria City: The Olganos Hotel VL
- Kipi:The Kipi Suites
- Doucas Tours & Travel
- Halkidiki Tourism Organization
- The Municipality of Veria
- Pass Partout Tourism Marketing, DMC
Other RoverTreks Stories On Greece
- Escape to Greece: Hidden Beach Getaways Await You On Skopelos
- Greece — Paying By Cash Or Credit Card — How To Decide What To Do
- Glimpses of Greece
- The Monte Vardia Hotel, Chania, Crete
- Isle Iza: A New Destination Wedding Site On Skopelos Island, Greece!
- Saint Fanourios to the Rescue
- Visitors Flock To The Ammon-Zeus Hotel
To Relax In Halkidiki, Greece
The author is the source of all photos in this article. All Rights as specified.
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