Driving in Greece: The Essential Travelers Guide

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Greece’s rich history and stunning landscapes span the breadth of its borders, so renting a car may be the most convenient and cost-efficient mode of transportation during your travels there. However, driving in Greece can be a very different experience from driving in many other countries—especially the U.S.—so it’s important to know what to expect before you arrive. Keep reading for critical information that will help you safely navigate the highways, city streets and rural roads when driving in Greece.

Requirements for Driving in Greece

Greek law requires all motor vehicle operators to be at least 18 years old.

Before you can rent a car in Greece, you will need to obtain an International Driving Permit (IDP), which includes your name, photo and driver information, which it also translates into 10 languages. An IDP cannot be issued more than six months in advance of your travel dates, but try to allow at least six weeks for processing if possible. The easiest way to get your IDP is through AAA, which is one of only two private entities authorized by the U.S. Department of State to issue an IDP.

Once your car rental is complete, your basic driver’s license with photo is typically acceptable to Greek police officers should you be asked to provide it. However, if you plan to remain in-country for more than six months, you will be required to convert your U.S. license to a Greek license to continue to drive legally, and failure to do so can result in steep fines and other penalties.

Renting a Car

When selecting your vehicle, it can be tempting to reserve the cheapest model available, but keep in mind that lower-priced rentals may not be as safe as costlier cars. Compared to its European neighbors, Greece has one of the highest rates of vehicle-related fatalities, putting you at some risk even during a short visit. While most accidents are not serious, driving a sturdy vehicle can increase your chances of walking away from an accident without major injuries. If your travels are confined to the smaller islands, a small car may suffice, but when traveling on the mainland or more popular island destinations, upgrade to a larger vehicle for peace of mind.

When picking up your rental, check it carefully to ensure that all safety features, including seat belts and airbags, are present and functioning properly. Make sure the spare tire is inflated and that you have the tools you’ll need to put it on if necessary. Give the vehicle a thorough inspection and document any dents, scratches or other damage as well as defective components like air conditioning or power windows before you leave the rental agency. Failure to report these issues may result in you being held liable for them when you return the car.

If your itinerary has you island-hopping, it’s typically easier and cheaper to rent a car on the island than to take a rental car from the mainland on the ferry.

Rules of the Road

While Greek drivers follow most of the same driving laws as drivers in the U.S. and the rest of Europe, there are a few nuances specific to Greece that you should be aware of before you get behind the wheel. Also bear in mind that breaking those laws can have harsh consequences that may include hundreds of euros in fines and potentially losing your driving privileges for 10 days to as long as six months.

  • Keep right: As in the U.S., traffic in Greece uses the right side of the road. Keep right when driving in Greece.
  • Seat belts: If you’re riding in the front seat, you are required to wear a seat belt—no exceptions. Seat belts are optional for back seat passengers, but given the frequency of vehicle crashes in Greece, all passengers would be wise to buckle up. Failing to wear a seat belt will earn you a 350-euro fine.
  • Child passengers: Passengers under age 10 must sit in the back seat, and children under three years old must be in a car seat.
  • Horn use: While it’s unlikely you’ll be cited for it, using your horn is not permitted on city streets unless it’s an emergency. In remote areas, it’s a good idea to quickly sound your horn when approaching hills, blind curves or other limited-visibility situations to let other drivers know you’re there.
  • Parking: In Athens and other large cities, public parking can be very challenging to find. Parking within nine feet of a fire hydrant, 15 feet of an intersection or 45 feet from a bus stop is illegal and may result in your car being ticketed, booted or towed. In some places, you’ll need to pay for parking at a nearby booth, so look for signs in both Greek and English indicating paid parking. That said, Greek drivers are known to flout parking regulations and it’s not uncommon to see double-parked cars on the streets. You should also keep an eye out for opening doors on parked cars to avoid a collision.
  • Speed limits: While you should always obey the posted speed limit when driving in Greece, if you don’t see a sign, it’s safe to assume that the limits will be 50 km/hour (roughly 30 mph) in urban areas, 110 km/hour (68 mph) on non-urban roadways and 120 km/hour (75 mph) on freeways.
  • Toll roads: Greece has a number of toll roads, including Attiki Odos, which crosses the Attica peninsula where Athens is located; Egnatia Odos (also called the A2) in Northern Greece; Corinth-Patras on the northern Peloponnese peninsula; and Athens-Thessaloniki (referred to as Motorway 1, the A1, the E75, or the PAThE for Patras, Athens, Thessaoniki and Egnatia). Tolls generally range from .7 to 2 euros per segment, so be prepared with a stash of one- and two-euro coins.
  • Distracted driving: Use of a mobile device while driving in Greece is illegal, and violators can be stopped and fined 100 euros. Using hands-free accessories is permitted, however.
  • Roadside assistance: If you’re a member of AAA or CAA, the Automobile and Touring Club of Greece (ELPA) provides reciprocal coverage, although any driver can contact ELPA by dialing 104 or 154. Make sure to keep a direct line to your rental car company on hand should you have car trouble or an emergency.
  • Emergencies: Dialing 112 will connect you to emergency assistance in multiple languages, including English. Other emergency numbers include 100 (police), 166 (fire) and 199 (ambulance).

Roadway Conditions

Multi-lane roadways and expressways are relatively rare in Greece, with most roads consisting of one lane in each direction divided by double white lines. Some roads include a paved shoulder on the right, which is separated by one white line. However, local drivers often have no qualms about using paved shoulders as travel lanes, so be alert to motorists passing you on the outside.

Speaking of passing, drivers on busy roads engage in frequent passing, even in spots like blind curves and hills where visibility is reduced and passing may not be entirely safe. If traffic is heavy, a driver wishing to pass may tailgate you until an opportunity opens up. Your best bet is to drive cautiously and avoid responding with similar aggression.

It’s also not unusual to see drivers straddling the center white lines, especially on rural or narrow roads where you’re likely to encounter grazing sheep or goats, falling rocks, parked cars or other roadside hazards.

Traffic Circles and Roundabouts

Roundabouts—sometimes called traffic circles—are a common feature on European roads, and Greece is no exception. While American drivers may not have much experience with these traffic-calming devices, they’re actually a very safe and efficient method of keeping vehicles flowing seamlessly through an intersection without the need for a traffic signal. However, one significant difference with roundabouts in Greece is that traffic already within the circle is expected to yield to vehicles waiting to enter it. Always slow down and make an effort to merge safely into the roundabout, but remember that you have the right of way and vehicles behind you will be expecting you to move forward.

Restricted Areas

Because of severe traffic congestion in specific areas of Athens and other large cities, car access may be restricted at times based on vehicles’ license plate numbers. Rental cars are not subject to these restrictions, but drive with extra caution in these areas and watch closely for pedestrians.

Other Tips and Tricks for Driving in Greece

The following bits of advice and guidance have been gleaned from both experienced travelers and locals. While they aren’t technically codified into law, they’re helpful rules of thumb to keep in mind when you get behind the wheel on Greek soil.

  • Yellow lights: Many Greek drivers are accustomed to speeding up—not slowing down—when a traffic signal turns yellow, and they may not expect you to stop if they are driving behind you. This is not a suggestion to regularly blow through yellow lights, but it’s best to slow down gradually instead of slamming on your brakes, and whatever you do, don’t change your mind and stop at the last minute or you’re likely to be rear-ended.
  • Motorbikes: Motorbikes are everywhere on Greek roads, and a decent percentage of them use their sleek profile and quick acceleration to flout traffic laws. Always expect a motorbike to appear out of nowhere, especially on the islands, where they are popular with tourists who aren’t familiar with the area (and who have often been drinking).
  • Rural/mountain roads: Outside the major cities, mountainous topography, narrow roadways and dramatic curves can make driving particularly dangerous. In some areas, a moment of inattention behind the wheel could send you hurtling over an unprotected embankment to the sea or the earth hundreds of feet below. Additionally, be on the lookout for cars stopped randomly on the side of the road taking a photo opportunity or a bathroom break.
  • Road signs: Most road signs are printed in both Greek and English, but they’re not always easy to see, especially on the chaotic streets of Athens. If you have a passenger, ask him or her to keep an eye out for relevant warning or speed limit signs.
  • Traffic: Be prepared to battle heavy traffic in Athens and other major cities, especially during peak hours. On weekends and holidays, you’re likely to encounter increased congestion from local residents leaving the city on Friday and returning on Sunday or Monday. If you are able to adjust your itinerary to travel opposite local traffic, you’ll spend a lot less of your holiday idling on the road.
  • Fuel: Gas stations are abundant throughout most of the country, but some don’t accept credit cards, so always keep some cash on you in case you run low on fuel. Pumps are often full-service, so don’t be surprised to see an attendant approaching your vehicle when driving in Greece.
  • Infractions: If you do end up running afoul of local traffic laws and get a ticket while driving in Greece, stay calm and be polite. The police may not speak your language, and arguing with them will do far more harm than good. If you believe you have received the ticket in error, take it to the local police station and try to find an officer (or ideally, a chief) who speaks English. Your rental car agency may also be able to assist you in resolving the matter. If you decide to pay the ticket, doing so within five days of receiving it will cut your fine in half.

Final Thoughts

For travelers who want to take in as much of Greece as possible, renting a car will give you the most flexibility for your money. Driving in Greece (or any foreign country) can be intimidating, but knowing the laws and customs ahead of time can help you safely and successfully navigate the Greek highways and byways. Follow the universal guidelines for good driving—stay alert, slow down and keep distractions to a minimum—and you’ll do just fine.

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