Using a travel agent is probably the easiest way to make sense of the complexities of connecting flights and ticket restrictions. Travel agents can save a traveler money on airline tickets because they can route a trip through the lowest cost flights. Large travel agencies can also offer special prices through special deals they strike with air carriers and ferries. Some also offer their own charter flights for substantial savings.
Contacting airlines directly is also an option, although they might be more inclined to accommodate your needs strictly through their own flights or affiliates. Airlines provide incentives to travel agents in the form of discounts, which might not be available directly through the airline.
Buying through an internet company is also a great way to save money and to put together a custom travel schedule. Some travel agents offer discounts for cash payments, but paying with a Credit Card for airline tickets provides some security in case something goes wrong. Purchasing insurance for the flight is also a good idea.
Full time students and young people under 26 can get better fares by showing proof of age or student status.
If you live in the Americas, the only way to get there is by airplane. There are few airlines that offer non-stop flights to Athens from New York (usually JFK airport), most via a connection from another european city.
Few airlines like Delta, KLM, and Alitalia offer non-stop service from JFK to Eleftherions Venizelos airport in Athens Greece. A traveler can find indirect flights to Athens with many major and minor airlines, an option that is usually preferred by budget conscious travelers because they are cheaper.
Air France, Alitalia, Lufthansa, British Airways, KLM, and many other major European carriers offer connection flights to Athens via their respective countries. If you choose Lufthansa for instance, you will fly from New York JFK to Germany where you will board antother airplane to Athens.
From Europe a traveler can either fly, sail, or drive to Greece. All major European airlines fly to Athens on a daily basis and large ferry boats connect Italy with the west coast ports of Greece.
Greece borders to the North with Albania, FYROM, and Bulgaria, and to the east with Turkey.
Many western European visitors who decide to drive to greece travel through Italy to take advantage of the highways, and then board a ferry to either Igoumenitsa in northern Greece, or Patra in the western Peloponnese. These ferries carry passengers, cars and trucks, and take anywhere from 12 hours (ferries departing from Bari or Brindisi), to over 24 hours (those departing from Angona and Venice). There are seveal ferries departing daily in the summer. - also see: Greek Ferries and Getting to Greece from Italy by Ferry below.
The easiest and fastest way to get to Greece is by airplane, and you can reach an arport close to your Greek destination either by direct flight from Europe, or via a connection in Athens.
There are many airports in Greece designated as "International" but very few receive international flights on a regular basis.
Many other international airports in Greece accommodate mainly charter flights from western Europe and the Americas. Such airports are found in --or near-- major tourist hubs like Mykonos, Santorini, Aktio (near Lefkada), Corfu, Hania, Kos, Karpathos, Kefalonia, Zakynthos, Samos, and Skiathos.
Before you book your flight to Greece, research airline and travel agent offerings to see if you can land directly in, or close to, your final destination.
The new Eleftherios Venizelos, Athens International Airport in Athens receives the bulk of inbound international flights. Airports at Thessaloniki and Heraklion also serve international airlines less frequently. Athens airport is a small affair compared with other European capital airports, with only one terminal, but it's pleasant and eficient.
Athens airport offers free wifi for 60 minutes and charging stations for cellphones of every kind. On the second floor there is a small open museum with artifacts, photos, and narrative that explains what was found on site while building the airport. It is a quiet corner and many travelers with long layovers find it a convenient spot to sit around (and I have seen several travlerers laying in their sleeping bags) on the floor while waiting for their flights.
There are plenty of shops in Athens airport. First, just before you enter the building you will find an open air cafe and several benches where you can grab a quick coffee. The area is shaded and being in open air, it's a popular spot for smockers. Once inside, the check-in area, you will find few shops and restaurants, but beyond passport control you will find even more of the same alongside duty free shops, news stands (international press included), electronic and apparel shops and much more. Once you pass security and enter the gate where you will wait for your flight, you can still get a bite to eat and an a newspaper in the few kiosks there. That's a good place to buy bottled water and anything else you need for your flight.
If you travel with a pet, especially dogs, you will find the Athens airport pet-friendly. It's quick to get out into open air, and on the ground floor (if you are in departures upstairs, exit the building and walk across the road, and then down the stairs) there is a long stretch of shrubs. We left Greece for NY with a small dog in 2011 and found the affair relatively easy, and all the staff at the airport very accommodating. Our flight carrier, Air France, justified in our eyes their pet-friendly reputation by being friendly and easy going about our pet (the connection in Paris was a completely painless affair as far as the dog was concerned - if we don't count the objetive dificulty in finding a grassy area for the puppy to do its business).
There are several options to getting out of the airport. You can take the "periferiakos" train into the city of Athens (all the way to Syntagma or Monastiraki) or by taxi. The train connects with the city metro system so you can get near to your final destination painlessly, and from there there is usually a line of taxis waiting outside. The train ride will cost 7 Euro (2010 price), and a taxi ride to the center of Athens will cost up to 50 Euro. For any other destination in Athens outside the city center you should budget about 35 euro if you go by taxi. In the airport you will also find car rental places as well as long and short term parking.
If our plan to get your VAT refund for purcases you made in Europe as a non-European citizen, you need to head for the Customs office (also labeled VAT Refund). To find it, go past the check-in counters and turn to your right. Move straight ahead and soon you will reach the passport control check point. On your right hand side you will see the VAT Refund sign on the door (it might be obscured by the passengers lined up to go through to their gates). The office is before the passport control so don't go through the checkpoint. Note that it is not an actual "refund" place, but simply a place where you can stamp your receipt for your purchases. You present the items you bought (must be over 150 euro worth and it must not be used while in Europe), your receipt, and your boarding pass. The customs agent will stamp your receipt and then you can mail it in for your refund either by check or straight to your credit card. Ask the shop when you buy your items for instructions on where to mail your stamped receipt. If you fly out of Greece but you make another flight connection before you fly out of Europe, your receipt must be stamped at that final airport before you exit the continent.
Several Greek shipping companies maintain daily connections between Italy and Greece. You can board a ferry in several Italian ports (Venice, Ancona, Bari, Brindisi) and get off at either Corfu, Igoumenitsa, Kefalonia, or Patra in Western Greece. The trip lasts anywhere from 25 hours (Venice to Igoumenitsa) to 14 hours (Brindisi to Patra), and the ferries available range from semi luxurious, to ones that seem to cater mostly to the trucking industry.
Minoan, ANEK, Superfast Ferries, Endevor, Blue Star, Agourodimos, Ventouris, and European lines are some of the companies that operate ferry lines between Italy and Greece.
We have sailed with Endevor (Ionian Queen) and Minoan (Olympia Palace and Europa Palace) in 2010 and 2011, and the experience was a positive one.
The ferries are very large and handle even rough seas with grace, while they can pack hundreds of cars and trucks in their bellies. If you travel with a car, or if you desire a cabin (recommended) you must book your ticket ahead of time, otherwise you might find yourself crowded on a deck corner for a day or so.
You can buy a "deck" ticket and camp out on the deck in a sleeping bag, a cabin ticket (with private bathroom - interior cabins cost less), or an airline seat. Airline seats are large and comfortable, similar to what you will find in an airplane business class, with ample leg space, but you still have to share a space with fifty to a hundred other passengers and their spread-out belongings.
If you buy 'deck' tickets, you should be prepared to rough it out. While the name "deck" indicates that ticket holders will be camped on the outdoor deck, in reality, all ferry companies turn a blind eye to the multitude of campers who cram the ship's hallways (with the exception of the bars and lounges) and stair wells. Get on board early and find a comfortable spot, thinking how the boat will turn on it's way to it's destination, and how the space around will be used once under sail. A shady spot might end up sun-torched once the boat turns, and a quiet spot in the morning outside the ship's disco might turn out to be the most noisy one all night long. If you are traveling with "deck" tickets, you will have to rely on the ship's communal bathrooms. Their condition deteriorates as the trip goes on, but not usually to a condition where they are unusable.
The ferries depart exactly on time from port (so don't be late) and you may board three hours before departure if the ferry is there. In indermediate stops the ferries only stop for half hour at the most, so if you are not ready to board, you might miss your boat. Consider the time it would take for you to get from the terminal to the boat as you are waiting for the ferry. If you travel on the deck, getting on board as early as possible would help you get a good spot for your sleeping bag. This is especially important in high season (July and August) when every possible corner of the deck and hallways is taken by sleeping bodies, sleeping bags, small tents, towels, inflatable mattresses, and anything that can accommodate sleeping passengers and entire families for a whole trip.
There is no passport control since both Italy and Greece are "Schengen" countries, but we've witnessed random passport checks en route to and out of the boat by border agents, so keep your passport handy.
If you are driving your own camper you might want to look into Minoan lines (more will undoubtedly offer similar services by the time you read this) that allow campers to pay for "camping ticket" in 2011, where you can park on a special deck and stay in your camper, hooked up to the ships water lines.
Getting on board from Italy to Greece and vice versa is a simple affair. You check in at the company's office at the port, and then head for the ship where an officer will take your ticket stub as soon as you get on board. You can then take the escalator up to the reception where you can get your cabin key (assuming you have a cabin) and a steward will carry your bag and lead you to your cabin (gratuities are not expected but welcomed - one euro should be enough).
The cabins are small, but comfortable and clean with private bathrooms, showers, and clean towels. The walls are paper thin, and noise from those who camp on the hallways outside the cabins can keep you up until late (one area the crews should do a better job keeping clear of campers, but they don't).
All cabins have one electrical outlet (usually 220V) in the cabin, and one (usually 110V) outlet in the bathroom. If you have multiple devices to charge, you might want to bring along a power strip. Speaking of electrical outlets, the hallways are full of them (all 220V) so if you have deck tickets, you can always find a free one to charge your phone.
Most boats have a small swimming pool on the top deck, and most fill them with sea water once the ship leaves port and the sea is calm. The pool is usually small, so don't plan on swimming laps, and fill quickly with children. Some ferries have a baby pool as well. They do have a life guard (a crew member, fully dressed watching over the pool), but always use caution anyway. Around the pool, there is plenty of open deck where crowds enjoy the sun and a drink from the pool bar. In essence, you can treat the sailing time from Italy to Greece and back as a low quality cruise.
Prices On The Ferry (2011 prices)
A plate of dinner at the ferry's serf-service restaurant will set you back anywhere from 13 to 17 Euro, a peach costs 2.50, and a soda 3 Euro.
At the bar ham/cheese or turkey/cheese sandwich costs 3.30 to 3.70. A large bottle of water costs 1.80, a milk shake or a beer cost 4 euro, and a small bottle of wine costs 8 euro.
Tip: if you buy the bar sandwiches, ask for them to be toated. Not all bars have a toaster, so find the one that has it.
The ferries we have boarded (the identical Olympia Palace, and Europa Palace by Minoan, and the Ionian Queen by Endevor Lines) have two restaurants that open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. One is a "self-service" restaurant, and the other one is full service. Before you enter, read the menu posted at the entrance carefuly and note the prices, because you can get sticker shock once you reach the cash register with your tray full. The prices we paid in 2011 were comparable with prices you would pay in a Venetian restaurant, sitting by the passing gondolas.
The food at the restaurants is of good quality and if money is not an issue, you will probably enjoy the meals, but if you are not careful, you can blow a considerable part of your budget on three to four meals on board. The only alternatives to the restaurant include some sad looking cheese pies and pizza slices at the various bars. By Greek law (designed to provide alternative nutrition to passengers who don't want to be goughed by the ferry restaurants) all Greek ferries are required to provide at minimum ham and cheese sandwiches which you can find at the ship's bars.
If you plan ahead and bring your own food on board, you can save a considerable amount of money on your way to Greece or back home. Most seasoned travelers, especially those on deck know this and travel with enough food for the duration of the ferry trip.
The water on board is potable, but my family and I always err on the side of caution with water wherever we travel and always dring bottled water. It's a small investment for peace of mind.
Internet on board the Italy to Greece ferries is available. Some (like the Minoan Lines Olympia Palace and Europa Palace have a small communal area where you can use your pre-purchaced internet card, while others (Endevor's Ionian Queen) offer pre-paid WiFi on board. Call your ferry to find out the specifics. Internet access is usually pricy, and the speed is usually slow, but if you are desperate to check your email or to update your facebook status, it's more than adequate. On the Ionian Queen, internet access via WiFi or through the communal computers cost 10 euro for 4 hours in 2011(smaller packages also available) and it was very fast in an exterior cabin. In both of the Minoan Lines we traveled with, internet was available on a little communal "internet corner" donning a sign warning of slow speeds.
From the port to the rest of Greece
If you do take a ferry from Italy to Greece, you will disembark at one of the western ports of Greece. If your final destination is the island of Corfu, then you are set and a short ride by taxi or bus would take you to your hotel, but chances are that neither Igoumenitsa, nor Patra will be your final destination in Greece. If you plan to visit central or northern Greece, then Igoumenitsa should be your final port, but if you want to visit the Peloponnese, Delphi, Athens, or any of the Aegean islands, or Crete, Patra will be your port of disembarkation.
Either port would leave you with the slight problem of getting from there to Athens and beyond. From Igoumenitsa or Patra, you could rent a car, but most likely, you would have to return the car to the same location after you are done with your vacation. Alternatevly, you may use the Interstate Bus system site (KTEL) that's inexpensive, clean, and efficient, but there might not be busses departing for Athens close to the time of your arrival. Minoan operates it's own bus from Patra to Athens. It leaves soon after the ferry arrives and it costs 19 euro. You pay for the bus tickent on the ferry. Other ferry companies might have similar services so contact them before you purchace your tickets.
Greece is surrounded by sea. To the west the Ionian Sea is the southern extention of the Adriatic sea and home to major ports like Igoumenitsa, Corfu, Kefallonia, and Patra. Igoumenitsa and Patra are destinations for ferries coming from the Italian ports of Brindisi, Ancona, Bari, Trieste, and Venice.
To the east, the Aegean Sea connects Greece with Turkey. There are several regular ferries sailing between the Turkish coast and the Greek islands.
Yachting is a great way to get to Greece. Sailing the Ionian and Aegean islands can take a traveler to places inaccessible by regular transportation.