By Odysseas Papadimitriou
Growing up in Athens, I suppose it was inevitable that I’d take the city’s natural beauty and historic significance for granted. But now — years after moving to the U.S. for college and starting my own business — my biannual trips back to Greece to visit friends and family have allowed me to see the country for what it is: a veritable wonderland for the senses. But, being an expert in personal finance, I can also see the costs and logistical challenges travelers face when they’re thinking about visiting.
So, let me save you some time and frustration by providing some insider tips on what to see in Greece, what to skip — and how to save a ton of money while you’re at it. And don’t worry, I’m not on Greek Tourism’s payroll (I don’t think they could afford me these days), so I’ll give it to you straight.
Let’s start by addressing the elephant in the room: anxiety about Greece’s economic struggles. It’s easy to assume from snippets on the news that Greece is awash in protests and debilitating strikes. The truth is that the demonstrations are really only limited to ten square blocks in Athens’ center (around Syntagma Square), and if you’re anywhere else, you’ll have no idea that anything is going on. Even with the recent turmoil, there is far less violent crime in Greece than in Canada or the U.S. — at least that’s what the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime tells us.
If you need more convincing, consider the fact that Greece’s main draws – history and natural beauty – haven’t been affected by the unrest, and that the downturn has made hotels, restaurants, and inter-country travel much, much cheaper. In other words, it’s actually a great time to visit. You just have to keep a few things in mind as you plan your itinerary. Like:
1. Look for a package deal. Often, you’ll be able to get a better deal by booking flights, hotels, and certain activities in a bundle rather than individually. Just make sure to check online reviews before you sign on the dotted line.
2. Don’t cruise. While the Greek islands are popular cruise destinations, cruise line operators are much less affected by the struggles of the Greek economy than hotels and restaurants, which means you won’t be likely to score the best deal. Besides, in my opinion, docking at a bunch of different islands for a few hours won’t give you enough time to get a real taste for each one’s unique flavor.
3. Don’t be afraid to negotiate. The trick is to shop around for the lowest possible rates and then call the respective hotel or package-deal provider and tell them that you’ll make a reservation then and there if they give you a 10-15% markdown. I’ll tell you from past experience that this works more than you might think. But keep in mind that the odds of success decrease in July and August.
4. Skip cosmopolitan islands. Like cruises, notoriously popular islands such as Mykonos and Santorini have a worldwide appeal that insulates them from the financial troubles that have befallen the Greek mainland. But don’t worry, there are still plenty of beautiful, fun, and most importantly, reasonably priced island destinations to visit — including Paros, Skopelos, Tinos, and Zakynthos.
5. Forget the Acropolis and the Parthenon. Don’t plan your whole trip around visiting these historic attractions because any protests or strikes will make them inaccessible. If you are dead-set on seeing some archeological sights, check out Delphi, Phaistos, Olympia, and Vergina instead. If you really want to hit the main attractions, schedule a couple of days in Athens at the bookends of your trip because odds are that you’ll be able to get there at some point.
6. Avoid flying within Greece. Airline personnel have a history of going on strike, so try to rent a car and drive if you can, or at least take a mode of transportation that offers back-up options (e.g. travel by boat to an island that gets served by more than one port in Athens). In that vein, traveling to the Peloponnese could be an excellent alternative to the islands because you can rent a car and visit a number of beautiful seaside towns as well as important archeological sites.
7. Save money. Use a no-foreign-transaction credit card to save on purchases made through foreign merchants. Just make sure to notify your credit-card company of your travel plans and only sign receipts in terms of Euros. If you have excellent credit, apply for a card that offers a lucrative initial rewards bonus. For example, the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card currently gives you up to $500 toward travel expenses if you spend $3,000 during the first three months.
There you have it, a Greek personal finance professional’s guide to experiencing all that Greece has to offer while saving money in the process.
All that’s left to say is Kalo Taxidi (have a good trip)!
Odysseas Papadimitriou is a native of Greece who founded the credit card comparison website Card Hub in 2008 after serving as a senior director at Capital One for eight years.