Driving in Greece and the Greek islands

Driving in Greece is a bit tricky and Greek drivers they are the not the best drivers in Europe. However, forewarned is forearmed, Greece is a beautiful country and a wonderful driving holidays in Greece can be had if you know what to expect and that joining in with their bad driving will lead to a very stressful journey.

Greek driving

The reason why Greek driving is so bad is, I think, twofold. Firstly, it results from poor roads and the lack of good fast motorways and parking facilities in town centers – especially Athens. Secondly, it would appear that the natural anarchic personality of the typical Greek seems to extend to their driving skills resulting in an apparent total lack of concern regarding what constitutes good, safe and considerate driving.

Roads in Greece

The situation of roads all over Greece is slowly improving but the country still has a long way to go before it reaches the excellent driving conditions which you can find in, for example, France or Germany. Currently, Greece has 4 big national highways: the E65.which goes from Patras to Athens, via Corinth, the E75 which goes from Athens to Thessaloniki via Larissa, the Egnatia odos highway which goes from Igoumenitsa (connection port with most ports of Italy like Bari ,Brindisi ,Ancona) to Thessaloniki and further until the borders with Turkey in Evros and the new E65 which takes you from Corinth to Tripolis.

The highways Patras to Athens consists of 2 lanes and a hard shoulder in each direction, with no barrier in the middle of the road to separate the oncoming traffic except some kilometers from Patras to Rio ,outside Aegion and Akrata.

This is the situation for more than 100 kilometers after leaving Patras. It isn’t until you get to Corinth that the road develops into a super modern highway of 3-4 lanes which will then take you to the tolls at Elefsis about 20 km before Athens.

Similarly, the motorway from Athens to Thessaloniki, although a very good road of 500 km has a central barrier for only 200km of it – which is less than half. However, due to the Olympic Games, an excellent ring road was built around Athens and is also the route to the airport.

This is a fast, smooth, uncongested road of 3-4 lanes in each direction and a central reservation at all times. Equally, the highway from Corinth to Tripolis has two lanes and a hard shoulder all the way which extends to three lanes in parts for slow moving lorries. This excellent road has reduced the journey time from Athens to Tripolis to 1 1/2 hours. The distance on this new road being only 60 kms as opposed to 150km from the old road ,the most important development though is the Egnatia odos with more 505 ks ready and 165 under construction.

Because of the lack of lanes for large sections of some highways, Greek drivers tend to use the hard shoulder as a second lane for ‘slower’ driving, which means that there is no emergency lane. Experienced lorry and bus drivers are aware of this and on blind corners will always avoid being in this lane in case someone has stopped there ,thus, caution must be taken.

When it comes to the Greek’s proficiency and skill in driving it is very hard to find anything positive to say. They do not appear to recognise that they are behind the wheel of a potentially lethal machine. Bad driving to look out for is that, generally, there is very little consideration for other road users, be they cyclists, other drivers or pedestrians.

If the Greek driver wants to stop, then they will do just that, often in the middle of the road and having made no signal to alert others that this is their intention ,a common sight in the provinces and islands. Likewise, turning left or right is carried out without signalling and overtaking is from any side which suits them best – if it was possible to go under you or over you they probably would!

Speed limits

Speed limits exist but are rarely adhered to if they can get away with it and the middle of the road is favoured by all!

The speed limit on minor roads is 70km, in built up areas it is 50km and on highways it is between 100-120km. Stick to these and don’t be hassled to join others who exceed it. Seat belts are compulsory, although not often used by the Greeks, but for extra safety make sure you always use them. 

Driving holiday in Greece

Having given you an idea of the typical Greek driver and roads it is still possible to enjoy a driving holiday in Greece. The smaller roads are often empty of lorries and commuter drivers and I would certainly recommend taking these roads if you can.

Your journey will be longer but certainly safer. For example going via the old road from Corinth to Tripolis will take you through the historical cities of Argos, Mycenae and Nafplion. Taking the old road from Patras to Athens will take you all along the coast and through many charming seaside towns and villages as well the old road from Corinth to Athens. 

If you do use the motorway it is probably a good idea to use the hard shoulder as a slow lane . In this way you will avoid the stress of having a car tailing you and flashing their lights to encourage you to join them in dangerously exceeding the speed limit. If you get stuck behind a lorry or bus, better to stay there rather than risk overtaking on highways with no central reservation and drivers with a preference for staying in the middle of the road! 

Staying alert

However, even on the small roads you must probably stay more alert than you would driving in other European countries. Keep a sharp eye on oncoming traffic and cars in front or behind you with the idea that they are probably not aware of your presence.

Always maintain a safe distance between you and the car in front and be vigilant about using your mirrors, bearing in mind that overtaking is not always carried out from the outside lane.

Renting a car

Car hire outfits can be found on all the larger Greek islands. Most firms are clustered around the airport or, if there is no airport, around or near the main port which is usually the main town.

For those on a single island holiday the main question is whether to book online before you go or find a car rental firm after your arrival. There are pros and cons either way.

For those on island hopping tours or who have no particular base then booking as you go along is probably the best option. Ferries are never that reliable for getting you to an island on time as weather conditions can delay sailings. You can waste money by booking car hire ahead and end up with a rental car booked on one island and you stuck on another.

The main advantages of booking online is that you can get the cheaper deals, especially out of season. Also, if things go wrong you can sort any problems out after you arrive home. Dealing with an overseas company can be difficult and time-consuming. Rental cars can also be waiting for you at the airport or delivered to your door so you don’t waste any holiday time trudging around and comparing prices.

But booking on arrival has advantages too. Greeks are much more prepared to haggle over prices so it is possible to pick up some incredibly cheap deals, especially out of season. You can also hire a car for just a couple of days, then maybe a day or two later in the holiday, again cutting overall costs.

Rental cars these days tend to be new, although some Greek car hire firms may still hire out old ‘bangers’. Insist on a recent model and take a good look at the car before signing up. Check the hire car over before getting in and point out any dents or scratches to the car rental firm. Some holidaymakers will take photos of the car before getting in – no problem with a digital camera – so they can’t get accused of causing scratches and dents. Check you have decent insurance cover too or an accident will prove very expensive indeed.

Do not drink and drive. There are police spot checks of hire cars and fines can be very heavy. Also remember that seatbelts are compulsory and children under ten years old must sit in the back of your hire car.

Mopeds and motorbikes in Greece and the Greek islands

Motorbikes are available virtually everywhere and most rent-a-moto outfits like to have the latest models. If you do hire a moped take special care on the potholed roads.

If you head off for the hills take care; sharp bends are not always signposted, animals such as goats will often be found wandering the highway and large snakes basking on the hot tar are not uncommon. Loose grit on the road can also be a problem so you should know how to handle a hire bike in a skid. Your holiday can be ruined by a fall.

Motorbike hire is hugely popular with youngsters on Greek island holidays – but they should be aware of the dangers. Greece ranks worst of the European countries for motorbike road deaths. In the rest of the EU, fatal accidents involving motorbikes make up 17.7% of all road deaths, whereas in Greece the figure is close to 40%, making Greece the most dangerous country in Europe for motorcyclists.

In Greece fatalities stand at 39 motorcyclists for every million citizens. This number is much higher than for Italy, where the ratio is 23 per million, France 17.3 per million, Portugal 17 per million and Spain 14.7 per million .

Helmets are required by law. Locals appear to ignore this rule with impunity but police have a habit of pulling over tourists.

Driving a hire car in Greece and the Greek islands

Greek roads have improved greatly in recent years, mainly as a result of Greece joining the EU. But island highways still leave a lot to be desired.

Potholes and loose gravel are the most dangerous hazards, missing or misleading signposts are as irritating as they are commonplace. Cliff roads are rarely fenced despite the Greek weakness for throwing up wire fencing almost everywhere else. Fallen rocks from cliffs can litter mountain roads and it is not unusual to find herds of goats wandering about or the odd snake taking a siesta on the hot tarmac.

Greek drivers are generally considered maniacs and it’s wise to always give way or allow them to overtake. Greece has the highest accident rate in Europe after Portugal. It is partly the state of the roads but mainly the attitude of Greek drivers.

If you do have an accident and you are in the AA or RAC you can get free roadside help from ELPA – the Greek equivalent. Also note it is an offence to leave the scene of an accident and you can be held by police for questioning for up to 24 hours.

Whatever you do, don’t follow the example of the Greeks themselves. They are some of Europe’s worst drivers as the accident rate shows and they show an outlandish disregard for tourists. If you do decide that you want to drive like a Greek then see the panel right for some useful tips on keeping the wrong side of Greek law.

Taxi fares in Greece

Greek island taxis can be cheap in towns and drivers must use a meter. Fares are controlled nationally but not always observed. Generally taxi drivers are honest and friendly but in tourist hotspots like Faliraki or Laganas this may not be the case. Drivers in Athens for example are notorious for ripping off tourists and other visitors.

On popular islands like Rhodes and Skiathos out-of-town charges can double for no apparent, or legal, reason so take care if you want to go off the main road.

Fares are set by the government but it is always a good idea to agree the price (for the car not for each person) before you set off and if rates are reasonable there’s no reason not to give a generous tip as fares are generally lower than in the UK.

Greek taxi drivers will often pick up other passengers on the way, its normal in Greece and helps drivers make themselves a decent living. Other passengers are not stealing your ride – their pay too and your fare stays the same.

Getting a bus in Greece

Greek buses are cheap and punctual. Check local shops or post offices for timetables which may also be posted up at the odd bus stop.
Beware of travelling during the ‘tourist hours’ of 10am to noon and 4 to 6pm when everyone is heading for the beach or heading back to the hotel. Everyone wants to travel and buses are crammed full – and them some more. Buses can become sweaty pits of almost unbelievable mayhem.

Conductors and drivers are usually very helpful but be prepared for buses to take the odd detour to drop off one of driver’s relatives or to deliver a parcel at a hillside village. Don’t worry, they get you there in the end.

The main Greek bus operator is KTEL. Unfortunately the website pulled all schedules and information about its English language long-distance bus network in Greece after a media company started using KTEL’s free information to launch a paid-for call service. KTEL countered with its own paid-for call service and removed its English language schedules from the web.

Fortunately, some islands and independent web sites have put up schedules to fill the void, notably Crete.

English speakers can get schedules from GNTO offices, Greek speakers can dial local KTEL phone numbers in Greek.

Road maps

For many islands, especially the smaller ones, local maps are works of fiction, bearing little resemblance to the road network. If you do get a map get a Greek one. You may not be able to pronounce the village names but at least the map hieroglyphs may almost resemble the road signs and you might just get a inkling of where you are.

That said, many signs do now have a phonetic English equivalent though they may still point the wrong way or announce you are in a place that does not exist. You will do well to adopt the Greek motto – there is always tomorrow. If in doubt stop at the nearest taverna and order a coffee and ask the waiter for directions. You could just settle for enjoying where you are – at least you won’t feel lost any more.