Thursday, June 28, 2012

Six tips for a great Greek vacation

Turquoise seas, soft sand beaches, dreamy sunsets, history, culture, deserted islands, mountain villages, fabulous food and wine… Greece continues to lure vacation dreamers.  Yes, there has been economic uncertainty in Greece lately, but I want to assure anyone thinking of visiting – it is safe, it is calm, the people are welcoming and it is still a wonderful choice for a vacation.

I am often asked to help plan Greek vacations for people, including for my own travel agent.  After 30 years of vacationing and living in Greece, I’ve explored a lot of different options depending on my economic situation at the time – from five-star hotels to modest studios, hotel rooms and hostels.

Here are some ways to get the most out of your dream vacation, without breaking the bank:

Plan your route carefully.  So many times I have to caution first time visitors that they cannot see and do it all in a two week vacation.  You simply cannot cram in 10 different islands in 10 days.  It would be like saying you are going to San Francisco from Boston, but stopping off in Iceland for the weekend and then dropping into New Zealand if you have time.  Learn your geography and set a modest travel plan that is as adaptable, as circumstances change quickly in Greece.  Inter-island hopping is fun, if you have time and money, but a more sensible and economic approach is to select two or three islands in the same geographic group and thoroughly explore them.  There is always a next trip…… look at me!  Of the 2000-some Greek islands, I figure I have visited about 50 so far.  (It’s a heck of a to-do list!)

Travel in the off season.  I know a lot of people are stuck traveling in summer when the kids are out of school. But, in my opinion, this is the absolute worst time to visit Greece – too damn hot, too crowded and the prices are higher.  April to June and September to October are the optimum months for travel as far as I am concerned.  The weather is more reasonable, the crowds manageable and the prices, including air fares, drop substantially.

Be creative with your air travel.  Diligent research can pay off with cheap air fares.  Learn when and where the charter flights go. For example, if you can get yourself to London or some other European capital, you can get charter flights to Greece for under a hundred bucks.  Flying from the east coast of Canada, I’ve taken some pretty convoluted routes to save money – including going through Iceland or flying west to Toronto to catch a cheap charter east.  Doesn’t make sense – but hey that’s the airline business today.
TIP:  travel agents will not book the ultra cheap charters for you – you’re on your own there.  And, if chartering, make sure you know the airline’s baggage limitations, as the surcharges will add up.

Consider a studio rental.  Although meals in restaurants are still very reasonable in Greece, a studio apartment has the advantage of a small kitchenette so you could make at least one or two meals a day.  With so many fascinating markets stuffed with inexpensive fresh foods, it’s kind of fun to assemble your own fixings for breakfast or a picnic anyway. 

Greek cheeses - YUM!
For families, consider a villa rental.  This is especially thrifty if you rent in the off-season and is super economic if two families share the costs.  You get the luxury of a well-equipped villa (usually with a pool and barbecue) and a dependable home base to make day trips from.  Compared to per night costs in a hotel, this is a great savings.


Cruises and tours.  I’m not a huge fan of cruises and group tours, as I don’t like to travel in herds.  However, sometimes this is the cheapest way to cover a lot of ground fast. It’s also a good way to see a place for the first time so you know what you want to REALLY see when you come back on your own and what you can give a miss to.

For example, I had always wanted to cross the Theban plains and visit the amazing site of Meteora.  Negotiating the Greek national highway was too frightening – besides, I wanted to spend my time drinking in the astonishing views, not navigating the road signs and sucking in truck fumes.  A reasonably priced three-day tour was the answer.  It was just long enough so I didn't have the urge to  kill my fellow bus mates, yet long enough to get a good grasp of the area.

For a really cool holiday, consider chartering your own sail boat with some friends – with about eight of you, it’s actually cheaper than a hotel and the ship comes with its own captain and crew and will take you where you want to go.

Yes, yes, as I write this, Greece is a political and economical basket case.  However, life goes on there.  It is still a must-see on your vacation list and the economy and the lovely people of Greece can certainly use your tourist dollars. 

And please – trust me on this one – the stuff you see on the nightly news is wildly overblown and exaggerated.  No one is getting mugged, arrested, or otherwise inconvenienced except the few masked anarchists lobbing rocks at the parliament buildings.  Outside of the few blocks around the Parliament in Athens, the vacation destinations are calm and welcoming and still a great bargain. 

Bon voyage or as we say in Greek, Kalo Taxidi!!!

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