NEW YORK ( MainStreet) -- Greece, with its sunny, whitewashed villages and rich history, is a fascinating place to visit, yet the potential Grexit has heightened anxiety for people planning a trip to the country.
Still, there's good news for bargain-hunters: even before its current financial crisis this country has always been one of Europe’s best budget destinations by far. Today, it’s practically on a fire sale.
So whether you’re a broke college kid looking to soak in some sun or a couple planning a glorious honeymoon, look no further. This is one place that can offer it all for an inexpensive vacation, though travelers need to heed a few caveats amid the nation's upheaval.
Getting to Greece isn’t cheap. Keep costs down on your flight to Athens by playing the usual airfare games. Fly Tuesday through Thursday, be flexible about travel dates and, if at all possible, bounce the flight through London or Istanbul. These two hubs can often have better fares than flying direct.
Life gets a lot easier in-country. True budget travelers to the islands should start with the ferries.
"Ferries are economical ways to move around Greece, especially the larger, slower ferries," says Doug Stallings, senior editor of cruises and resorts at Fodor's Travel. "And even on the lower end, accommodations are clean and well-run."
Expect to pay around $40-$50 for a trip from Athens to the Cyclades and considerably less going from island to island. Fair warning though: they’re slow. The big boats can take upwards of six hours to get to an island, and a trip down to Crete can literally take all night. Bring a windbreaker; it gets cold on the Mediterranean after dark.
Flying is faster. Check out the two local airlines Aegean and Olympic air. Although they don’t make island-bound trips every day, they can turn that all-day boat ride into a 45 minute hop. They cost more but are still generally quite a bargain especially considering the time saved out of a ten-day vacation.
"If you're tight on time consider flying to some of the islands rather than ferrying for a long haul. If you're trying to get far it will short circuit a lot of the time spent on a boat," Alexis Averbuck, an author of Lonely Planet guides to Greece. "To me its worth springing the extra just to get you where you want to go if time is tight."
Finally, inland travel means trains and, mostly, buses. Prices range widely depending on where you’re headed, whether it’s an overnight trip to Delphi or a long road to the Peloponnese. Choose trains wherever possible, as the buses tend to serve local routes and stop frequently.
Greece is one of the world’s great budget-food countries. From bayside tavernas to souvlakis and ouzerias, it's a frequently overlooked gem. On tourist islands, you can really shell out for a great dinner if you want, but at a normal taverna a good meal (with wine) will run around $20.
Budget travelers should look for three signs: souvlaki, bakery and ouzeria. Souvlakis and gyro stands are the street cafes of Greek culture. They sell tasty grilled meat for no more than a couple of euros per meal. Similarly, small bakeries selling sandwiches and cheese pies (or spanakopita) for a couple of euros are a staple of village life.
"If you eat like a Greek, choosing dishes with locally grown ingredients over imported items, you can get a simple meal relatively cheaply, and Greece has plenty of cheap tavernas and gyro stands," Stallings says.
Also, don't miss ouzerias, which are, for all intents and purposes, tapas bars in the Greek style. You can buy as many or as few small plates as you like, and linger over them with an ouzo or cold beer. There are few easier ways to feel at home than by slowly eating finger foods in a dense, island town, watching the people go by at a table no one seems to be waiting for.
Beware the seafood joints, though.
"Budget travelers have to watch out in fish tavernas," Stallings writes, "where seafood is generally priced by the kilo and can be astronomically expensive even in a modest-looking place."
Still, don't entirely miss the fish. You are in the islands after all. "Great Mediterranean fish to look for," Stallings writes, "include fagri (red porgy), sargos (sea bream), and lavraki (sea bass, or branzino, which are often farmed but still local and delicious)."
In Greece you often might be better off without a reservation. Even in the high season hoteliers will throng each ferry as it pulls in looking to rent out their last rooms to newly arrived tourists. Unless you have the entire family in tow, it’s rare to not find a room for the night, and you get the benefit of actually seeing the place before booking. (Warning: This does not work for Athens. Book ahead.)
Otherwise, budget travelers should seek out guesthouses and hostels such as the outstanding Francesco’s on Ios or Hotel Christina on Paros. Start your research on Hostel World and Hostelbookers. These sites will pull up not only bunk beds but also local guesthouses with clean and comfortable, if often Spartan, rooms. Prices range widely depending on your island, but expect to pay around $40 per night for a private room at a guesthouse, or $12 - $15 per night for a dorm.
Also expect those prices to double in July and August.
Crashing Cheap in Paros – Always Remember to Bargain!
Paros is one of my favorite of the Greek Islands. Its northern town of Naousa is bustling with life and has a gorgeous port with two beaches. A quick trip inland can take you to mountain villages and the old capital of one of Ancient Greece’s most important trading centers, a remnant of the day when this island was famed for its marble.
When my wife and I spent three weeks there once, we bargained with a local hotel to get a private room for a mere $30 per night. We arrived to find a queen sized bed, refrigerator and furnished private patio all just a minute’s walk from town. It was absolutely perfect, and someplace we never could have afforded if we hadn’t been willing to negotiate. Remember, the longer you stay, the more they may be willing to compromise.
North vs. South
Most people arrive in Greece and head straight south for the islands, and they’re not wrong. The islands in Greece deserve their reputation and then some. Just don’t forget that there’s a lot to see on the northern mainland, and it tends to come even cheaper than the islands.
Hundreds of years ago some Orthodox monks had a problem: they kept getting raided by looters seeking treasure. As a solution they found several massive sandstone pillars in central Greece and build new monasteries on top, accessible only by a basket pulled up with ropes. Today getting there is a little bit easier, and breathtaking. Expect to pay around $35 for a train ticket from Athens, along with another $30 to spend the night in town.
Need I even point it out? You’ll see it the minute you get to downtown Athens. It’s almost hard to believe that less than 150 years ago this fortress was almost entirely intact… Climb to the top for a view of all Athens, home to about a third of the Greek population. Admission runs roughly $15 and gets you into about a dozen archaeological sites in the downtown.
"For me, the history of Greece is the most amazing thing," said Stallings. "To be able to walk around archaeological sites that were important population centers 2,500 years ago is just mind boggling."
"You can take just one walk one afternoon and hit twelve magnificent western world sights," Averbuck agreed. "That's a must. People should just plan an afternoon walking around those different sights."
The Agora and The Acropolis Museum
Also in Athens, the vast outdoor marketplace that is the Agora is well worth an afternoon spent picking over the mostly tourist junk laid out for sale. Still, it’s fun to wander the streets and haggle with merchants over souvenirs for jealous friends back home. Then head to the Acropolis Museum for a truly impressive display of Greek archeological history at work, including the entrance built over an active excavation.
The ruins of a vast temple city? Check. An opportunity to visit the seat of the famous Oracle herself? Check. The only thing that could make this better would be jaw-dropping mountain views into fog-covered valleys. Oh, wait…
A long way to go, but Crete is well worth it. Given its size and distance from the mainland, Crete has developed a culture and food scene all its own. Boasting warm beaches, the Samaria Gorge and a shockingly lackluster recreation of the Palace at Knossos, Crete is a must-do. Stay in Xania or Rethymnon and enjoy the charm of an old Venetian city.
Ios is a party island. This small island in the Cyclades also features Byzantine ruins, beautiful fishing villages and Homer’s grave. Still, ultimately Ios is here to party. With more bars per square foot than anywhere else in Greece, this is the place to go for a wild night, and with its emphasis on 20-something backpackers, it’s the place to do so without going completely broke.
Remember all of those postcards you’ve seen of Greek island villages? Odds are they were all pictures of the same place: the village of Oia on Santorini. Largely considered to be the most spectacular in Greece, this volcanic island earns its reputation with wineries, camping, black sand beaches and one of the best used bookstores in the world. Those inclined toward the historical can also explore the island ruins, thought by many to be what inspired Plato's legend of Atlantis, as well as a small but beautiful nautical museum.
The island of Naxos is one of those places that will make you consider never going home again. One of the administrative centers of the Cyclades, Naxos is a picture of real island life. Wander around the dense inner market, climb to the top of the town’s castle and wonder, if only for a few minutes, what it would be like to join this little community.
Getting Around the Islands – Learn to Drive In the Open!
Plenty of people have cars on the Cyclades Islands, and you can almost always rent one unless you’ve really gotten away from it all. Still, you didn’t come all the way to Greece for its legendary air conditioning and paying European gas prices is the exact opposite of “budget.”
Instead on our last visit to Greece my wife and I leaned in and rented an ATV. For two people it was the perfect way to see Naxos. We took ourselves on a tour of this large island for just $25, plus a couple euros for the map. The best part was when we pulled off into a small turnaround on top of the island’s central mountain, taking in a view that encompassed everything from fishing villages to farms. We could see small sea creatures playing in the main harbor. In a car we probably would have blown right by it.
Money Saving Tips
Greece is a great budget destination if you do it right, but it’s plenty easy to do that wrong. No matter what you do you’ll have a great time, but pay attention to these tips and you’ll come back not only with great memories but also some spare money in your pocket.
Take the Three Dollar Challenge - When on a tight budget I always challenge myself to spend no more than three dollars per meal. It’s an effective cost control, and absolutely no problem in a place where that will get you a gyro and a Coke. Or…
Grocery Shop - The islands are full of little bakeries and small stores where you can pick up a couple days’ supplies. Even just a refrigerator is enough to store some bread, cheese and yogurt, plenty to keep breakfast and lunch healthy and cheap.
"I'm generally happy with a simple breakfast of Greek yogurt with a little honey and some bread with butter and jam and a little fruit," Stallings says.
Bargain - This won’t work everywhere, but in the marketplace or at a local guesthouse, the rule of thumb is that if you’re talking to the owner, you can probably cut a deal.
But don't, Averbuck cautions, take advantage. "Yes, it's fine to bargain," she said, "but my personal opinion is the right thing to do is know what something should cost and bargain to that... People are in trouble right now. There are some very avid tourists who come in and they try to hold shop owners as low as possible, but because it's economic hard times it's not like they can just let it go and say, 'I'll wait for the next one.'"
Shop for activities - Tours and excursions can be awesome, but don’t take the first one that comes along. Usually if you look a little further in from the main strip, you’ll find someone offering the same thing for a fraction of the price.
Avoid Mykonos - Although accompanied by a huge reputation, the reality is Mykonos offers much the same experience as some of its sister islands for a 50% upcharge.
Visit obscure islands - The ones listed here are outstanding, but they’re also very popular. Islands like Sifnos and Milos, on the other hand, tend to get far fewer visitors. They're just as pretty for much less money.
"All the different islands have really different characters," Averbuck said, "and that's something I think a lot of people slip over. They think an island is an island is an island, but each one has something for different personalities."
A long time resident of the Cyclades herself, Averbuck likes to spend her time among some of the island's lesser known destinations such as Syros and Milos. They've got the same beautiful beaches, gorgeous villages and a chance to experience a side of Greece that many people overlook in their rush to read the headlines at Mykonos and Santorini.
Operate on island time - All of Greece works on island time, which may help explain some of its current woes. Just remember that the entire country moves slowly; don’t plan any tight connections, and when your ferry runs late, open up an old paperback and a new beer.
Getting Arrested In Athens – Buy the Airport Ticket!
Many cities charge a different price for a train ticket out to the airport versus a ride around the local metro. Unfortunately in Athens, this ticket isn’t well advertised, and buying the wrong one comes with a hefty fine.
When my wife and I visited the country on our honeymoon last year, we somehow forgot altogether about the airport fare and bought ourselves a normal, 2-euro metro ticket. Arguing with the plainclothes policeman about paying the fine nearly ended up getting me arrested on the second day of our honeymoon. Lesson learned: always check for an airport transfer at the ticket kiosk.
Concerns and Warnings
Sadly, Greece is in some trouble right now having officially missed its June payment to the International Monetary Fund. No one is certain what’s going to happen to the country’s economy aside from a rough times ahead. It’s entirely possible that by the end of this summer, if not the end of this month, the country will be scheduled for a brutal return to the drachma. With that in mind, here are a few trouble spots to watch out for and how to plan around them.
Greece has recently issued incredibly tight controls over its banks in order to avoid a run by citizens desperate to protect their euros. As a result, cash is hard to get even for supposedly exempt tourists. Plan ahead by pre-paying for as much as possible online and bringing an extra supply of euro notes with you. Many ATMs are simply out of cash or have a $67 cap for customers of American banks. Whenever someplace will accept plastic, increasingly scarce, use that instead of potentially scarce notes transaction fees notwithstanding. Finally, ask both your hotel and credit card company if there’s anything they’ll be able to do for you in case access to cash becomes a real problem.
Poverty in Greece has soared, and it’s heartbreaking to see the sheer amount of suffering in places like Athens’s Syntagma Square. Fortunately crime remains quite low in tourist areas. Despite concerns about protests and violence, the reality is that the Greeks aren’t mad at the tourists. Violence isn’t a major concern.
Familiarize yourself in advance with what a place name looks like as well as sounds like. Knowing the name “Paros” won’t do much good when it turns out the first symbol looks nothing like the letter “P.”
Many first time tourists to Greece try to book their ferries on the day they want to travel and wind up stranded on the islands (sometimes even missing flights home). These boats may be huge, but in the high season, they fill up fast. Book your ferry at least three days in advance, preferably as soon as you know when you’ll need it, or you will miss the boat.