Navigating Airports in Greece: 7 Tips and Tricks

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International travel is a wonderful treat for those of us that want to explore, experience and see more of the world than our small patch of ground. They tell you that “if you want to know, you’ve got to go”, reading a book will only carry you so far. Flying into a foreign airport and being immersed in the language and culture is truly the only way to pick up the “feel” of the land.

That said, international flights can be a bit worrisome for many travelers. When you fly on domestic flights, you have enough to concern yourself with. Flying into another country always multiplies these troubles, and you don’t want to allow these minor worries to pile up and ruin your trip. This goes double for the airports in Greece.

Part of the trick is to relax and realize it’s never as bad as you imagine. Every flight and travel experience is prone to both good and bad stories, it’s only a matter of the telling. A supremely smooth Atlantic crossing is a wonderful flight that gets lost in the recounting of tales where other flights caught some turbulence, or the galley was out of those really good cookies… Most of your anxiety about navigating foreign airports comes from the hype built up around stories of a few negative encounters.

Navigating the Airports in Greece

The airports in Greece are no exception. They process nearly 60 million passengers annually and for the vast majority of these travelers, there was no trial or ordeal. Flying in to Athens, Greece should be the same as flying in to Chicago, Illinois with only a few minor deviations. Our plan is to give you a few tips and tricks that will help you navigate your way through the airports in Greece with little to no trouble whatsoever.

Know which airport is which, and why

When you book your flights you will see the airport’s IATA code, a three number designation for that airfield. For those wondering, three letter codes from a 26 letter alphabet allows for 17,576 codes. With more than 46,000 airfields in the world, the IATA is concerned only with passenger and cargo logistics, so unless you are a pilot, you won’t see the longer ICAO code that accounts for every field out there. The three letter combination on your luggage tags are there to identify the location where you and your bags will be traveling and only around 2500 of these identifier codes have been assigned.

Many of these codes are easily recognizable such as SLC for Salt Lake City, Utah or even JAX for Jacksonville, Florida. But some of these codes can be misleading. When you fly into Orlando, Florida, you will most likely be landing at MCO. The name comes from the airstrip’s original name “McCoy Army Air Field”. There is an ORL airport, but it’s the smaller regional strip.

I mention this quirk of passenger aviation because it is easy enough to make incorrect assumptions in your own language. If I were flying into Orlando, I may see “ORL” in the area and assume it was the right field rather than “MCO”. Now add in the complication of a foreign language with a foreign alphabet, and all bets are off. Even though worldwide aviation is coordinated in English with the modern Latin alphabet, Greek city names won’t adhere to such arbitrary rules and you may find yourself flying into JTR which is Santorini, or SKG at Thessaloniki.

Get to know the IATA codes of the airports you’ll be using, booking tickets and retrieving luggage will be easier it you are familiar with its three letter designation.

Consider the Greek commercial airlines

Typing into a quick online search for flights to Greece will return you the best possible fares and schedules for a handful of airlines but somewhere on the list should be Greece’s own “Aegean Airlines” and its subsidiary, “Olympic Air”.

There are fifteen large international airports throughout Greece and most of them are served by the large international carriers that will transport you across Europe, Asia, and across the oceans to the Americas. You may find exceptional fares with the large carriers but give a closer look at the Greek flag carriers, the smaller name may give you better fares and a more flexible schedule.

If you’re flying in from LAX, you won’t have much choice as Aegean isn’t crossing the continents. But once you land in Europe or the Mid-East, you will suddenly find yourself with more options and the smaller commercial airlines sometimes go out of their way to offer more than the larger international carriers.

Vacationing across Europe and flying in to one country after another will give you the freedom to pick and choose smaller airlines such as Aegean and Olympic. You won’t have to wait for the larger company’s schedules or pay their higher fees. When a home airline flies into one of its own hubs they often offer special deals and lower rates. So if you find yourself flying in to Athens (ATH), Macedonia (SKG) or Cyprus’ Larnaca (LCA) airports, check the rates on Aegean and Olympic for better options.

Don’t get ruffled by delays

The lovely Mediterranean culture in Greece seems idyllic for those looking to vacation and take a break from their busy hectic life. When you’re on the run with dozens of tasks all needing your immediate attention, an escape to a lazy seaside village may seem like just the thing to restore your sanity.

But if you’re not used to the Greek culture, you may be in or some more hair-pulling and gritted teeth. The ubiquitous island ferries are notorious for running behind schedule, and can almost be counted on for being a little late. That is, until you plan according to that lazy schedule, then they will be running fast.

The Greek airports run “mostly” on time, but you will undoubtedly run into some delay of one kind or another. With the country still doing its best to come back from the economic crisis from the late 2000’s, the government is struggling to keep the airports operating as one would expect from a developed nation. Knowing that nearly 23% of the country’s economy comes from tourism, they are scrambling to keep these international gateways open and welcoming the growing tourism industry.

The recent boom in Greek tourism is only growing stronger. From 2000 to 2013, the airports processed an average of 36 million passengers annually. By 2017 that number jumped to 58 million. In the first half of 2019, the Hellenic Civil Aviation Authority recorded a record 11% increase of the number of passengers coming through Greek airports and they soon expect to accommodate more passengers than ever before.

This is great news for the economy, troubling news for the stagnant infrastructure of the airports, and downright threatening news for the recent push to privatize the Greek airline industry. All of this adds up to complications and delays. Bring a magazine and try to remember you’re here to relax.

Fly direct to your destination

A large portion of that passenger traffic comes through Athens International Airport Eleftherios Venizelos, the largest and busiest international airport in Greece. It is a modern and beautiful structure that was built in 2001 to replace the old and crumbling Hellinikon airport built in 1938. Originally opening to 11 million passengers and increasing every year thereafter, the airport suffered during the financial crisis where attendance dipped and didn’t begin to recover until 2015. In 2018, the number was 24 million and steadily climbing with 2019 on track to keep up with the growing trend.

However, as magnificent as this structure is, flying in to a busy airport can be a burden that you may want to avoid. Many flights into Greece can land at any of the 15 international airports, and charter flights can be booked direct to nearly any island you may be visiting. Avoiding the Athens Eleftherios Venizelos can be a time saving tip if you aren’t specifically visiting Athens itself, knowing that you don’t have to route through the busy airport is a relief.

If you are island hopping, this comes as an easy and simple alternative, but even if you are staying on the mainland, consider Greece’s second busiest airport, Thessaloniki “Makedonia” Airport where the older facility’s numbers are only approaching seven million passengers. Visiting northern Greece by way of Thessaloniki and then making your way south through the capital is a great way to save yourself the headache of flying through the busiest airport in a heavily trafficked area.

Out of Athens, not into Athens

If you do find yourself in need of using Athens’ Eleftherios Venizelos airport, take a look at the cost of flights out of the city rather than into the city. Due to the number of tourists that arrive in the capital and then go about island hopping, the bulk of the passengers traveling through Athens is more inbound than outbound.

Ferries, trains, busses, and smaller charter flights chisel away at Athens’ numbers and the result is a large number of visitors that arrive in the capital to begin their Greek adventures and then disperse by other means. Flights into Athens are full, flights out of Athens often are not. The cost of getting a jet airborne is nearly the same full or empty, so the economic law of supply vs demand goes into effect.

As the planes land, full of passengers, those tickets are sold at a premium. But as the planes take back off to depart, when they are half full, the airlines offer deep discounts to fill those seats. They’d rather make some money to put a passenger in the seat than make no money flying an empty fuselage. Fly into Greece somewhere other than Athens and then make your way back to Athens to depart on a much less expensive flight.

Winter season narrows your options

Visiting Greece in the “off season” is a grand idea that will save you money on everything from airfares to hotels, to food at the corner street vendor. Attractions and museums will be devoid of the summer crowds and you’ll have the historic sites very nearly to yourself. But with these bountiful gains, you will be losing one important element when it comes to navigating the airports; choice.

The busiest of the airports operate as usual year round. But many of the islands go into virtual hibernation during the winter and won’t begin operation until the tourists begin to return in the late spring. The smaller airports curtail many of their routes and you’ll almost certainly have to route nearly everywhere by way of Athens because it is the only centrally located airport open year round.

International carriers also cut their flight schedule down during the off season as well. The Greek airports are only now beginning to recover from the economic crisis when several carriers stopped flying into Greece completely. As the tourism industry has been brewing strongly in the country, many of these airlines are only now beginning to dip their toes back into Greece’s airports and among them, many are choosing to keep their routes seasonal until Greece proves to be economically viable all year long. Without an abundance of regularly scheduled flights, you may have little choice of flights or fares and could find yourself in a “take it or leave it” situation.

Smaller planes, bigger options

When you begin island hopping the Greek islands, keep the smaller charters and “puddle jumper” airplanes in mind for good deals for last minute fares, or even last minute seat availability.

If you are popping in and around the Greek islands, enjoying your time on a more or less unscheduled itinerary, you will see that the ferries book up fast and early. If you’re not three months out, your odds of finding a seat on the boats is nearly nil. But the small island hopping charter flights won’t be so locked up.

Some of the small local charters won’t show up in your on-line search or travel agent aggregator. Some only advertise locally and some only fly when engaged locally. This makes for a good opportunity to catch a deal, or even to negotiate your way to a better fare. Independent pilots set their own rates and can agree to sell you that final seat cheap as the departure time approaches.

Another benefit of these smaller planes is that last minute seating can suddenly open up due to lack of cargo or light luggage. Small aircraft closely monitor their weight due to fuel and flight ratios. If they find that they will not be carrying as much weight on the flight as expected, they can open up some additional seating for sale. So even if a small flight is sold out, you may find last minute seats for sale.

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