An American's survival guide to Greece
During our recent trip to Greece (in May 2005), we learned some lessons which were not addressed, or only addressed partially, in the guide books. So here we post what we learned. Any comments or suggestions about this site can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Is the water OK to drink?
Don't drink the tap water in Athens. There is mucho bottled water for sale instead. As in the States, much of the water outside of large cities is potable. Ask your host where you're staying whether or not its OK to drink the tap water. In a restaurant, the waitstaff will always bring and charge you for bottled water unless you ask for tap water or 'water in a glass.'
How to communicate?
Most Greeks speak enough English to sell you something, and many Greeks, especially in tourist areas and amongst younger people, speak very good English even if they don't want to sell you something. You ought to learn some basic Greek words, like "hello" (YAH-sas), "good morning" (kah-lee-MAY-rah), "please" (pah-rah-kah-LO), and "thank you" (ef-kar-ee-STO) to start with. Greek is a very guttural language, but try it, you might like it. To learn some other basics, click here, look in a Greek to/from English dictionary, look in a good guide book, or ask a Greek.
How to drive?
To legally drive a car in Greece, you need to get an International Drivers Permit (IDP). To legally drive a motorcycle or a scooter with a motor larger than 50cc in Greece, you need an IDP with a motorcycle endorsement. To get an IDP, show up at some AAA office in the States with a valid US drivers license, a passport photo (the office may be able to take the photo for you), and money to pay the nominal fee ($10). Be nice and maybe they'll give you a map of Greece to boot (maps are already free for AAA members). To get an IDP with a motorcycle endorcement, you need a valid US drivers license with motorcycle endorsement. The IDP is good for one year from whenever you request the IDP activated. The IDP's you can get off of the internet are worthless.
The first advice I received when I asked 'How to drive in Greece' was not to worry about getting an IDP, but to get a good life insurance policy. Although Greeks ostensibly drive on the right hand side of the road, many times they are on the left (to pass), inconsequential to sharp, blind turns and the deadly traffic that may be coming the other way. So drive defensively. Seatbelts in cars, and helmets on motorcycles and scooters, are required, even if the locals don't adhere to the law.
How to exchange dollars for euros?
Use a debit card, the same one which you use in the States. There are 'ATM' machines all over the place in Greece (look for a bank), touristy place or not. You will be charged a flat fee similar to that which you get hit with in when you use a debit card in the States, and perhaps plus some 'international fee'. Ask your bank what these fees are ahead of time. The fees are probably small, but they encourage that you get as much cash as you dare each visit to the machine.
The option which incurs the least amount in fees but requires a little more preliminary legwork while you're still State-side is to set up a savings account at the National Bank of Greece, which has local offices all over the Greek mainland and the islands. You can withdraw money at your leisure, for any amount, with no fees, from any office. The drawback is, of course, that you need to find an (open) office whenever you wish to get money.
You will not get an optimal exchange rate by exchanging your dollars at a money exchanger. Plus, you don't want to carry a bunch of dollars around before you get to the exchanger in the first place. However, money changers can be found in any major town in Greece.
Don't use Traveler's Cheques, a thing of the past, which incurs a cost when you exchange your cash (probably in a slightly worse exchange rate), a fee charged by the issuer, and a fee charged by the bank or exchanger in Greece who cashes the cheque. If you do have a cheque to cash, then cash as many cheques as you dare at the National Bank of Greece, which has a better flat rate than any exchanger can give you (usually 2% fee!!). A debit card is just as 'safe' as Traveler's Cheques, but way more convenient - you don't need to worry about carrying or cashing cheques!
How to find a hotel in Athens?
The hostel in Athens is decent. If you want to stay in a hotel in Athens, get reservations over the internet ahead of time. Get a list of respectable places from a travel agent or guide book. The advantage of staying in Athens is that you can walk to the major tourist attractions easily. The disadvantage of staying in Athens is that it can be expensive. Staying just outside of Athens (Glifada on the coast to the south or Metamorfossi to the north) for the same price yields a posh room. The disadvantage is that you need to rely on the metro, a bus, or taxi to go into Athens.
How to plug in electrical devices?
The electricy in Greece (and the rest of Europe) is at 240 volts, unlike the 120 volt system we use in the States. Electrical equipment like the charger for your digital camera, a laptop, or a shaver will probably have a transformer built in, in which case, somewhere on the device, it will say something like "INPUT: 100-240V". In this case, all you need is an adaptor for the plugs with blade connectors used in the States to the Europlugs with rounded pins used in Europe. These adaptors sell for only a few euro. Other electrical equipment which can not handle 240 volts will be stamped somewhere with something "INPUT: 120V". In this case, you'll need a transformer to convert the 240 to 120. If you plug in such a device without a transformer, you will get your own fireworks display with sparks and smoke, don't do it. Make sure you get a transformer which can handle the power that your electrical device requires. Unless you plan on plugging a hair drier into the transformer, get a low wattage transformer. A hair driers will need a transformer capable of handling at least 30W. This burlier transformer will be more expensive than the lower wattage ones.
No matter which transformer that you get, make sure that it is equipped with a Europlug (a plug with rounded pins).
These transformers are difficult to find in Greece, so buy one at a hardware store in the States. A possible problem that can occur is that the transformer may need 'an extender' to fit into the Greek electrical outlet. Any electrical shop (which sells watches, cameras, etc) in Greece has just such an extender.
How to rent a motor vehicle?
The rental agency will check to be sure that you have a valid International Drivers Permit (IDP) before renting you a car, motorcycle, or a scooter with a motor larger than 50cc, so get an IDP while you are still in the States (see "How to drive"). From Athens, get reservations for a rental car ahead of time. Find a respectable dealer from a travel agent or a guide book. It is not uncommon for someone from the rental car agency to meet you at the airport or at your hotel with the car (and perhaps for a fee). From smaller touristy locales, it is not too difficult to find a dealer easily on the spot who has decent rental rates. Some rental agencys advertise that you do not need to purchase comprehensive automobile insurance for the rental, while some prefer that you do. In the latter case, pay for the rental with a credit card (e.g. "Gold" or "Platinum" cards) which will cover this automobile insurance at no additional charge to you. You'll want to call the credit card company ahead of time to be sure that rental car insurance is covered for a rental in Greece.
How to tip for a meal?
The Lonely Planet Guide to Greece says don't tip for a meal. The Eye Withess guide to Greece says to tip 10-20% for a meal. The Greek people do not tip when they eat out, unless the service is extraordinary, in which case one leaves a couple of euro at most. Unlike in the States, where waitstaff are paid a dire hourly wage and rely on tips for a healthy income, waitstaff in Greece are paid by their employer a percentage of the bills. Contrary to the description of the service given in the Eyewitness guides, the Greek waitress will take your order, bring your food and drink, and then will not bother you again. Sit as long as you like! If you'd like more beer or food or wish to pay the bill, it's your responsibilty to get the waitress' attention.
How to use a pay phone?
The pay phones in Greece only accept phone cards, not hard cash or coin. You can get a phone card for a few euro from many stores including money exchangers. Calls within Greece use a different kind of phone card than international calls from Greece. International calls from Greece are notoriously expensive. To use the phone, lift up the receiver and listen for a beeping tone. After you hear the tone, insert the phone card into the slot and leave it in the slot. The amount of money left on the card is shown on the LCD display of the phone. Now dial the number. After you're done, hang up, and don't forget to retrieve the phone card!
What about medical care?
Ask your doctor (while you're still State-side) about possible vaccinations before you go: do you need a tetanus? Contact your medical insurance company and ask if your medical expenses while overseas are covered.
What to see in Greece?
Some of our pics.