Greece: island hopping at the birthplace of democracy

When you speak of the West or Western culture, keep in mind that Greece was where that culture was born. While archaeological ruins permeate this nation on the southern tip of the Balkan Peninsula and encompassing islands throughout the surrounding seas, the evidence of antiquity isn’t the only reason why Greece is one of the most favored travel destinations throughout the world. Sandy beaches interspersed with rocky coasts, a mountainous inland, the quintessential Mediterranean climate (think southern California, if you’ve never been abroad), and a laid back, friendly population make Greece a fabulous locale for adventure, relaxation, or a contemplation of a glorious past.

 

Getting in, out, and about Greece

 

Like most of the rest of Europe, Greece is a member of the Schengen Agreement. For US travelers, this means that with a mere passport that has at least three months continued validity on it, you can travel anywhere in the Schengen area, including Greece, for up to 90 days within a 180 day period.

 

If you are a US citizen who was born in Macedonia, however, you may face additional requirements for getting out, and you should consult the US State Department’s website for additional information: http://travel.state.gov/content/passports/english/country/greece.html. One possible consequence is that if you are male, you may be pressed into the country’s mandatory military service, so check with the State Department and plan accordingly.

 

Like most of the rest of Europe, you do not need any special vaccinations for your travel, although some travelers will get vaccinated for Hepatitis A and B, and for rabies. In the case of the latter, it is uncommon for dogs to be carriers, and this is largely a precaution against exposure to bats. Check with your local physician about your travel plans to see if any of these vaccinations would be appropriate for you.

 

While there are no currency requirements, you may be asked to furnish proof of a return ticket or an onward travel destination, as well as enough money to get by in the country. In addition to this, you should be aware that unlike in the US, it is illegal to carry mace or pepper spray. Drug laws are rigidly enforced in Greece, and the society is sufficiently anti-drug oriented that you may risk being reported to the police by an average citizen if caught. Penalties for possession of even the smallest amounts can lead to long term incarceration, so don’t take any chances.

 

Another practice that US travelers should remain wary of is the purchase of black market goods, which are illegal. Even though in some places in the larger cities, knockoffs and pirated goods are sold along the street, possession of these is against both Greek and US laws and potentially subject to prosecution.

 

Greece is a relatively safe country with very few instances of violent crime. However, since it is one of the southernmost entries into Europe, it has been prone to occasional terroristic attacks. What is more common are public demonstrations and marches, which happen frequently, particularly around the universities. While these are mostly peaceful, they can sometimes get out of hand, and you are advised to steer clear of them.

 

Another possible circumstance of violent crime perpetrated towards tourists stems from concerns over illegal immigration. Travelers of African, Asian, Hispanic, or Middle Eastern descent have been targeted in the past. These instances are relatively rare, however. Greece is a safe place to travel generally, and the biggest instances of crime against tourists tend to be characteristic of tourism everywhere: pickpockets and petty theft. Always be aware of your surroundings and avoid attracting undue attention by wearing expensive jewelry or flashing large amounts of money.

 

The traveler’s tongue

 

Greek is the official language in Greece, and it’s a beautiful one at that. While learning even the smallest amount of Greek is not necessary for US travelers, since English is widely spoken throughout, except in the most rural and off the beaten path of islands and locales, it is a pleasant sounding tongue and worth learning a few words and phrases (with which you can later impress your friends).

 

Perhaps the biggest difficulty with Greek is the fact that it uses a different alphabet. Granted it is the alphabet from which our own, Latin-based alphabet derives (as well as the Cyrillic alphabet of Russian and other Slavic languages) it can be confusing because some letters that look the same as ours have a different Greek equivalent. For example the letter P in English looks just like the Greek equivalent of the letter R. Most signs include a Latin alphabet version beneath the Greek words, but again this is less common in the more rural areas.

 

Money matters in Greece

 

Although Greece was once a fairly inexpensive place to travel to, since it joined the European Union in 2002, that has not remained the case. While costs may at times be less than what you find around the rest of Europe, you should be aware that you often get what you pay for. Hotels for instance tend to be on the small side, with limited closet space, barely working televisions, and rustic shower and bath accommodations. To enjoy a reasonable stay at a hotel, expect to spend around $100-200 a night for a room.

 

You may find better options than conventional hotels, however. While hostels may be a viable option for the budget traveler, keep in mind that these tend to be rather Spartan (no pun intended). One alternative to both the rough living provided by a hostel and the somewhat cramped and underserving nature of even midrange hotels is family-run pensions. With these you get all the personalized hospitality of Greeks who have set themselves up to host travelers, and at comparatively low prices.

 

Another option is a self-catering accommodation. Most hotels have these attached to them. Rather than providing meals and a daily room cleaning service, self-catering rooms and suites provide a refrigerator and stove (usually a two-burner hot plate), as well as cleaning service that may show up a couple of times a week. You can even budget on your food expenses by shopping at grocery stores and preparing your own meals rather than eating out at expensive restaurants.

 

If you have the money to spend, renting a villa is another option. Villas for rent are often available near popular beaches. While this arrangement works great for both comfort and privacy, it tends to be pricey.

 

Perhaps the most expensive aspect of travel in Greece is the price of getting around from island to island. While renting a car can provide you with freedom to explore an individual island on your own terms, it does limit you to ferries that will transport automobiles. Furthermore, the ferry schedules are notoriously inconsistent. This is not a result of incompetence so much as changing weather conditions, which dictate the availability of ferries, usually not at the behest of a ferry company so much as the government authority that regulates the ferries. This problem comes up more often when you travel to Greece outside of the high tourist season, which runs from late June through August.

 

Conversely, during the heavy tourist months, ferry travel should be booked in advance since they fill up rapidly. The most important thing is not to put yourself in a position where you have to catch a plane on another island or the mainland, and you may not be able to get a ferry to your destination for a few days or a week. A relative degree of planning is important to avoid making your vacation to Greece a disastrous experience.

 

Tipping in Greece follows along with most of Europe. Tipping the excess change to taxi drivers and restaurant servers is common and appreciated. For exceptional service, a US-style tip is not inappropriate. Hotel porters, ferry stewards, and the cleaning crew at hotels are commonly tipped about €1-3.

 

While haggling is a common feature of travelers seeking bargains elsewhere, in Greece it’s actually considered highly insulting. Like elsewhere in Europe, much of what you buy in Greece has a value added tax attached to it. US shoppers can get this refunded by filling out appropriate forms at the point of purchase and heading to a designated office in the airport after you have gone through customs. Look for shops that advertise “tax-free” because these will be more set up to cater to your tax refund needs.

 

The Greek island of Mykonos, while an extremely popular tourist destination, also bears the distinction of being an expensive tourist trap, with drinks coming in at over $10 USD and $40 USD meals being the norm. Single male travelers should also watch out for a scam that works with a local person approaching you with a suggestion about a good bar in town. After you arrive, women will surround you and purchase drinks on your tab. Afterwards, when you are handed a bill that approaches the astronomical, tough looking men will keep you from leaving until you settle up a bill that probably includes vastly inflated prices.

 

If you see nothing else …

 

While the highlights of a Greek vacation are too numerous and varied to enumerate here, and are island specific as well, one must-see experience is the annual Hellenic Festival in Athens, which is held in the summer. Productions of ancient Greek dramas and tragedies are performed. When you consider that the entire nature of Western storytelling is derived from Greek theater, from novels to movies, it’s easy to understand why this should be on your bucket-list for a Greek vacation. Greece also abounds in adventure travel, water sports, and explorations of its rich history. Plan your vacation now and you will have no dearth of experiences to enjoy.