Road conditions in Greece have improved in the last decade, yet driving in Greece still presents certain challenges. In Athens, traffic is mind-boggling most of the time and parking is scarce, so public transportation or taxis are much better options than a rental car. If you are traveling by ferry, taking along a car will increase your ticket costs substantially and limit your ease in hopping onto any ferry (fast ferries do not accommodate cars). On islands, you can always rent a taxi or a car for the day if you want to see something distant, and domestic flights are fairly cheap, especially if you book well in advance. The only real reason to drive is if it's your passion, if you are a large party with many suitcases and many out-of-the-way places to see, or if you need the freedom to change routes and make unexpected stops not permitted on public transportation.
International driving permits (IDPs), required for drivers who are not citizens of an EU country, are available from the American, Australian, Canadian, and New Zealand automobile associations. These international permits, valid only in conjunction with your regular driver's license, are universally recognized; having one may save you a problem with local authorities.
Regular registration papers and insurance contracted in any EU country or a green card are required, in addition to a driver's license (EU or international). EU members can travel freely without paying any additional taxes.
Gas pumps and service stations are everywhere, and lead-free gas is widely available. Nevertheless, away from the main towns, especially at night, open gas stations can be very far apart . Don't let your gas supply drop to less than a quarter tank when driving through rural areas. Gas costs about €1.80 a liter for unleaded ("ah-mo-lee-vdee"), €1.40 a liter for diesel ("dee-zel"). Prices may vary by as much as €0.50 per liter from one region to another, but a price ceiling has been imposed on gas prices during the busy summer months in popular tourist destinations. You aren't usually allowed to pump your own gas, though you can do everything else yourself. If you ask the attendant to give you extra service (check oil, air, and water or clean the windows), leave a small tip. Gas stations are now required by law to issue receipts, so make sure you pick up yours from the attendant. The word is apodiksi. Credit cards are usually accepted at big gas stations (BP, Shell, Elinoil, EKO, Avin, Aegean, Revoil, etc.), less so at stations found in remote areas.
In general, auto insurance is not as expensive as in other countries. You must have third-party car insurance to drive in Greece. If possible, get an insurance "green card" valid for Greece from your insurance company before arriving. You can also buy a policy with local companies; keep the papers in a plastic pocket on the inside right front windshield. To get more information, or to locate a local representative for your insurance company, call the Hellenic Union of Insurance Firms/Motor Insurance Bureau.
Hellenic Union of Insurance Firms/Motor Insurance Bureau. Xenofontos 10, Athens, Attica, 10557. 210/333–41000; www.eaee.gr.
The scarcity of parking spaces in Athens is one good reason not to drive in the city. Although a number of car parks operate in the city center and near suburban metro stations, these aren't enough to accommodate demand. They can also be quite expensive, with prices starting at €10 for an hour. Pedestrians are often frustrated by cars parked on sidewalks, and police have become stricter about ticketing. "Controlled parking" zones in some downtown districts like Kolonaki have introduced some order to the chaotic system; a one-hour card costs €2, with a maximum of three hours permitted (for a total cost of €6). Buy a parking card from the kiosk or meter and display it inside your windshield. Be careful not to park in the spots reserved for residents, even if you have a parking card, as you may find your license plates mischievously gone when you return!
Outside Athens, the situation is slightly better. Many villages, towns, and islands have designated free parking areas just outside the center where you can leave your car.
Driving defensively is the key to safety in Greece, one of the most hazardous European countries for motorists. In the cities and on the highways, the streets can be riddled with potholes; motorcyclists seem to come out of nowhere, often passing on the right; and cars may even go the wrong way down a one-way street. In the countryside and on islands, you must watch for livestock crossing the road, as well as for tourists shakily learning to use rented motorcycles.
The many motorcycles and scooters weaving through traffic and the aggressive attitude of fellow motorists can make driving in Greece's large cities unpleasant—and the life of a pedestrian dangerous. Greeks often run red lights or ignore stop signs on side streets, or round corners fast without stopping. It's a good idea at night at city intersections and at any time on curvy country lanes to beep your horn to warn errant drivers.
In cities, you will find pedestrians have no qualms about standing in the middle of a busy boulevard, waiting to dart between cars. Make eye contact so you can both determine who's going to slow. Rush hour in the cities runs from 7 to 10 am and 1:30 to 3:30 pm on weekdays, plus 8 to 10 pm on Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday. Saturday morning brings bumper-to-bumper traffic in shopping districts, and weekend nights guarantee crowding around nightlife hubs. In Athens, the only time you won't find traffic is very early morning and most of Sunday (unless you're foolish enough to stay at a local beach until evening in summer, which means heavy end-of-weekend traffic when you return). Finally, perhaps because they are untrained, drivers seldom pull over for wailing ambulances; the most they'll do is slow down and slightly move over in different directions.
Highways are color-coded: green for the new, toll roads and blue for old, National Roads. Tolls are usually €2.50–€4. The older routes are slower and somewhat longer, but they follow more-scenic routes, so driving is more enjoyable. The National Roads can be very slick in places when wet—avoid driving in rain and on the days preceding or following major holidays, when traffic is at its worst as urban dwellers leave for villages.
You must put out a triangular danger sign if you have a breakdown. Roving repair trucks, owned by the major road assistance companies, such as ELPA, patrol the major highways, except the Attiki Odos, which has its own contracted road assistance company. They assist tourists with breakdowns for free if they belong to an auto club, such as AAA or ELPA; otherwise, there is a charge. The Greek National Tourism Organization, in cooperation with ELPA, the tourist police, and Greek scouts, provides an emergency telephone line for those who spot a dead or wounded animal on the National Road.
Automobile Touring Club of Greece - ELPA. 10400; 171; 210/606–8800.
Rules of the Road
Remember to always buckle your seat belt when driving in Greece, as fines are very costly if you don’t. Children 10 years old or younger are required to sit in the backseat. You have to be at least 18 to be able to drive in Greece. Motorcycle helmets are compulsory, though Greeks tend to ignore these rules, or comply with them by "wearing" the helmet strapped to their arms.
International road signs are in use throughout Greece. You drive on the right, pass on the left, and yield right-of-way to all vehicles approaching from the right (except on posted main highways). Cars may not make a right turn on a red light. The speed limits are 120 kph (74 mph) on a National Road, 90 kph (56 mph) outside urban areas, and 50 kph (31 mph) in cities, unless lower limits are posted. But limits are often not posted, and signs indicating a lower limit may not always be visible, so if you see Greek drivers slowing down, take the cue to avoid speed traps in rural areas.
In central Athens there is an odd-even rule to avoid traffic congestion. This rule does not apply to rental cars, provided the renter has a foreign passport. If you are renting a car, ask the rental agency about any special parking or circulation regulations in force. Although sidewalk parking is illegal, it is common. And although it's tempting as a visitor to ignore parking tickets, keep in mind that if you've surrendered your ID to the rental agency, you won't get it back until you clear up the matter. You can pay your ticket at the rental agency or local police station. Under a driving code aimed at cracking down on violations, fines start at €50 (for illegal parking in places reserved for the disabled) and can go as high as €1,200, if you fail an alcohol test; fines for running a red light or speeding are now €700, plus you have your license revoked for 60 days and your plates revoked for 20 days. If fines are paid in cash within ten days, there is a 50% discount in the amount that you actually pay.
If you are involved in an accident, don't drive away. Accidents must be reported (something Greek motorists often fail to do) before the insurance companies consider claims. Try to get the other driver's details as soon as possible; hit-and-run is all too common in Greece. If the police take you in (they can hold you for 24 hours if there is a fatality, regardless of fault), you have the right to call your local embassy or consulate for help getting a lawyer.
Driving In and Out of Athens
Greece's two main highways, Athens–Corinth and Athens–Thessaloniki (Ethniki Odos and the Attiki Odos), circulate traffic around the metropolis. Avoid using them during periods of mass exodus, such as Friday afternoon or Sunday evening. These highways and the Egnatia Odos, which goes east to west across northern Greece, along with the secondary roads, cover most of the mainland, but on islands, some areas (beaches, for example) are accessible via dirt or gravel paths. With the exception of main highways and a few flat areas like the Thessalian plain, you will average about 60 km (37 miles) an hour: expect some badly paved or disintegrating roads; stray flocks of goats; slow farm vehicles; detours; curves; and, near Athens and Thessaloniki, traffic jams. At the Athens city limits, signs in English mark the way to Syntagma and Omonia squares in the center. When you exit Athens, signs are well marked for the National Road, usually naming Lamia and Thessaloniki for the north and Corinth or Patras for the southwest.
When you reserve a car, ask about cancellation penalties, taxes, drop-off charges (if you're planning to pick up the car in one city and leave it in another), and surcharges (for being under or over a certain age, for additional drivers, or for driving across state or country borders or beyond a specific distance from your point of rental). Don't forget to check if the rental price includes unlimited mileage. All these things can add substantially to your costs. Request car seats and extras such as GPS when you book.
Rates are sometimes—but not always—better if you book in advance or reserve through a rental agency's or an airline’s website. There are other reasons to book ahead, though: for popular destinations, during busy times of the year, or to ensure that you get certain types of cars (vans, SUVs, exotic sports cars).
Make sure that a confirmed reservation guarantees you a car. Agencies sometimes overbook, particularly for busy weekends and holiday periods.
Because driving in Greece can be harrowing, car rental prices can be higher than in the United States, and transporting a car by ferry hikes up the fare substantially. The exception is on large islands where the distance between towns is greater and taxi fares are higher; you may want to rent a car or a moped for the day for concentrated bouts of sightseeing. Official rates in Greece during high season (July–September) are much cheaper if you rent through local agents rather than the large international companies.
In summer, renting a small car with standard transmission will cost you about €275 to €375 for a week's rental (including tax, insurance, and unlimited mileage). Four-wheel-drives can cost anywhere from €100 to €180 a day, depending on availability and the season. Luxury cars are available at some agencies, such as Europcar, but renting a BMW or a Mercedes can fetch a hefty price—anywhere from €120 per day in low season to €550 a day in high season. This does not include the 23% V.A.T. Convertibles ("open" cars) and minibuses are also available. Probably the most difficult car to rent, unless you reserve from abroad, is an automatic. Note that car rental fees really follow laws of supply/demand so there can be huge fluctuations and, in low season, lots of room for bargaining. Off-season, rental agencies are often closed on islands and in less-populated areas.
If you're considering moped or motorcycle rental, which is cheaper than a car, especially for getting around on the islands, try Motorent or Easy Moto Rent, both in Athens. On the islands, independent moped rentals are available through local agents.
You can usually reduce prices by reserving a car through a major rental agency before you leave. Or opt for a midsize Greek agency and bargain for a price; you should discuss when kilometers become free. These agencies provide good service, and prices are at the owner's discretion. It helps if you have shopped around and can mention another agency's offer. If you're visiting several islands or destinations, larger agencies may be able to negotiate a better total package through their local offices or franchises. Some hotels or airlines may also have partner agencies that offer discounts to guests.
In Greece your own driver's license is not acceptable unless you are a citizen of the European Union. For non-EU citizens an international driver's permit (IDP) is necessary . To rent, you must have had your driver's license for one year and be at least 21 years old if you use a credit card (sometimes you must be 23 if you pay cash); for some car categories and for some agencies, you must be 25. You need the agency's permission to ferry the car or cross the border (Europcar does not allow across-the-border rentals). A valid driver's license is usually acceptable for renting a moped, but you will need a motorcycle driver's license if you want to rent a larger bike.
Most major car-rental agencies have several offices in Athens and also at the Athens airport, in major cities like Thessaloniki, and often throughout the country.
Avis. 210/322–4951; www.avis.gr.
Budget Rent a Car. 213/021–3120; www.budgetrentacar.gr.
Enterprise Rent a Car. 210/349–9030; www.enterpriserentacar.gr.
Europcar Car Rental. Syngrou Avenue 25, 117 42. 210/921 1444; www.europcar-greece.gr.
Hertz. 210/922–0102; www.hertz.gr.
Sixt Car Rental. 210/922–0171; www.sixt.gr.